Rebecca Grollemund (University of Missouri)
Starting from the 21st century, new methods called phylogenetic methods, borrowed from the field of genetic biology have been employed in order to classify languages. Indeed, the numerous analogies established between biological evolution and language evolution have allowed demonstrating that the phylogenetic tools (allowing the reconstruction of the evolutionary history of species) can also be applied to languages.
The presentation will introduce these phylogenetic methods and will discuss the results obtained for Bantu and Niger-Congo languages spoken in Africa. The method used (‘relaxed clock dating method’) for the Bantu languages has allowed us to obtain the first dated phylogenetic classification of the Bantu languages (Grollemund et al. 2015). The analysis of the phylogeny has shown that the Bantu expansion was triggered by climatic changes that occurred in the Bantu area during these past 5,000 years. The presentation will also present first phylogenetic tree for the Niger-Congo family, which was developed using a different technique. Niger-Congo constitutes the largest African language family in terms of geographical area (the Niger-Congo languages cover the greater part of Sub-Saharan Africa), the number of speakers (more than 300 million speakers) and the number of distinct languages (approximately 1,400 languages spoken). The first results indicate that the Niger-Congo family forms a genetic unity.