15th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences (ICPhS-15)

Barcelona, Spain
August 3-9, 2003


When Ruhlen's 'Mother Tongue' Theory Meets the Null Hypothesis

Louis-Jean Boë (1), Pierre Bessière (2), Nathalie Vallée (1)

(1) ICP-CNRS, France
(2) GRAVIR-CNRS, France

The demonstration of a relationship between languages can depend on finding words of similar phonological shape and roughly equivalent meaning. But it must be shown that the similarities observed could not have arisen by chance. That is to say, the null hypothesis can be rejected. We demonstrate, by a simple application of probability theory, that the world roots proposed for a Proto-Sapiens language by Merritt Ruhlen in The origin of Languages are the result of random chance. The null hypothesis cannot be rejected. The author used too few roots, too many equivalent meanings, too many languages per family, and too many phonological equivalences for a too small number of different phonological shapes. Our calculating the factor of chance in multilateral language comparisons is a general procedure than can be used to test the limits of the methodology of Greenbergian mass comparisons.

Full Paper

Bibliographic reference.  Boë, Louis-Jean / Bessière, Pierre / Vallée, Nathalie (2003): "When Ruhlen's 'mother tongue' theory meets the null hypothesis", In ICPhS-15, 2705-2708.