Towards a Formal Genealogical Classification of the Lezgian Languages (North Caucasus): Testing Various Phylogenetic Methods on Lexical Data

2015-02-26T02:58:12Z (GMT) by Alexei Kassian

A lexicostatistical classification is proposed for 20 languages and dialects of the Lezgian group of the North Caucasian family, based on meticulously compiled 110-item wordlists, published as part of the Global Lexicostatistical Database project. The lexical data have been subsequently analyzed with the aid of the principal phylogenetic methods, both distance-based and character-based: Starling neighbor joining (StarlingNJ), Neighbor joining (NJ), Unweighted pair group method with arithmetic mean (UPGMA), Bayesian Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC), Unweighted maximum parsimony (UMP). Cognation indexes within the input matrix were marked by two different algorithms: traditional etymological approach and phonetic similarity, i.e., the automatic method of consonant classes (Levenshtein distances). Due to certain reasons (first of all, high lexicographic quality of the wordlists and a consensus about the Lezgian phylogeny among Caucasologists), the Lezgian database is a perfect testing area for appraisal of phylogenetic methods. For the etymology-based input matrix, all the phylogenetic methods, with the possible exception of UMP, have yielded trees that are sufficiently compatible with each other to generate a consensus phylogenetic tree of the Lezgian lects. The obtained consensus tree agrees with the traditional expert classification as well as some of the previously proposed formal classifications of this linguistic group. Contrary to theoretical expectations, the UMP method has suggested the least plausible tree of all. In the case of the phonetic similarity-based input matrix, the distance-based methods (StarlingNJ, NJ, UPGMA) have produced the trees that are rather close to the consensus etymology-based tree and the traditional expert classification, whereas the character-based methods (Bayesian MCMC, UMP) have yielded less likely topologies.