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Language trees support the express-train sequence of Austronesian expansion

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 08 February 2001


Languages, like molecules, document evolutionary history. Darwin1 observed that evolutionary change in languages greatly resembled the processes of biological evolution: inheritance from a common ancestor and convergent evolution operate in both. Despite many suggestions2,3,4, few attempts have been made to apply the phylogenetic methods used in biology to linguistic data. Here we report a parsimony analysis of a large language data set. We use this analysis to test competing hypotheses—the “express-train”5 and the “entangled-bank”6,7 models—for the colonization of the Pacific by Austronesian-speaking peoples. The parsimony analysis of a matrix of 77 Austronesian languages with 5,185 lexical items produced a single most-parsimonious tree. The express-train model was converted into an ordered geographical character and mapped onto the language tree. We found that the topology of the language tree was highly compatible with the express-train model.

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Figure 1: The express train to Polynesia model of the Austronesian colonization of the Pacific (adapted from refs 5 and 22).
Figure 2: A phylogenetic approach to testing a colonization sequence.
Figure 3: Phylogenetic tree of 77 Austronesian languages.

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We are grateful to R. Blust for making the Austronesian Comparative Dictionary available to us. We thank M. Corballis, R. Green and A. Rodrigo for comments on the manuscript; R. Clark for advice; and H. Tse for programming assistance.

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Correspondence to Russell D. Gray.

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Gray, R., Jordan, F. Language trees support the express-train sequence of Austronesian expansion . Nature 405, 1052–1055 (2000).

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