Formal Syntax and Deep History

Andrea Ceolin, Cristina Guardiano, Monica-Alexandrina Irimia, Giuseppe Longobardi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We show that, contrary to long-standing assumptions, syntactic traits, modeled here within the generative biolinguistic framework, provide insights into deep-time language history. To support this claim, we have encoded the diversity of nominal structures using 94 universally definable binary parameters, set in 69 languages spanning across up to 13 traditionally irreducible Eurasian families. We found a phylogenetic signal that distinguishes all such families and matches the family-internal tree topologies that are safely established through classical etymological methods and datasets. We have retrieved “near-perfect” phylogenies, which are essentially immune to homoplastic disruption and only moderately influenced by horizontal convergence, two factors that instead severely affect more externalized linguistic features, like sound inventories. This result allows us to draw some preliminary inferences about plausible/implausible cross-family classifications; it also provides a new source of evidence for testing the representation of diversity in syntactic theories.
Original languageEnglish
Article number488871
Number of pages21
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 18 Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

© 2020 Ceolin, Guardiano, Irimia and Longobardi.


  • phylogenetics, formal syntax, parameters, language reconstruction, biolinguistics

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