“On the accuracy of language trees”
S. Pompei, V. Loreto and F. Tria
Historical linguistics aims at inferring the most likely language phylogenetic tree starting from information concerning the evolutionary relatedness of languages. The available information are typically lists of homologous (lexical, phonological, syntactic) features or characters for many different languages: a set of parallel corpora whose compilation represents a paramount achievement in linguistics.
From this perspective the reconstruction of language trees is an example of inverse problems: starting from present, incomplete and often noisy, information, one aims at inferring the most likely past evo- lutionary history. A fundamental issue in inverse problems is the evaluation of the inference made. A standard way of dealing with this question is to generate data with artificial models in order to have full access to the evolutionary process one is going to infer. This procedure presents an intrinsic limitation: when dealing with real data sets, one typically does not know which model of evolution is the most suit- able for them. A possible way out is to compare algorithmic inference with expert classifications. This is the point of view we take here by conducting a thorough survey of the accuracy of reconstruction meth- ods as compared with the Ethnologue expert classifications. We focus in particular on state-of-the-art distance-based methods for phylogeny reconstruction using worldwide linguistic databases.
In order to assess the accuracy of the inferred trees we introduce and characterize two generalizations of standard definitions of distances between trees. Based on these scores we quantify the relative per- formances of the distance-based algorithms considered. Further we quantify how the completeness and the coverage of the available databases affect the accuracy of the reconstruction. Finally we draw some conclusions about where the accuracy of the reconstructions in historical linguistics stands and about the leading directions to improve it.
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