Major new funding from the European Research Council to the Institute for Mediterranean Studies of FORTH

Elena Anagnostopoulou, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Crete and Collaborating Faculty Member of the Institute for Mediterranean Studies (IMS) of the Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas (FORTH), has been selected for funding from the competitive European funding program ERC Advanced Grant 2022. These European Research Council grants are awarded to established researchers of any nationality who have demonstrated significant scientific achievements over the last decade.

The project of Elena Anagnostopoulou, entitled “Phylogenies probing Grammar. Exploring morphosyntax at different scales of language change” (PhylProGramm) is an interdisciplinary project aiming to break new ground in linguistics by pioneering a new way to evaluate morphosyntax in terms of the historical information it contains, using computational methods inspired by evolutionary biology as a tool.

Morphosyntactic properties (i.e. case, agreement, gender, word-order) have long been considered a great challenge for the reconstruction of language history. On the one hand, they reflect deep genealogical relationships because they remain stable for millennia, serving as markers for families. On the other hand, they often emerge abruptly as a result of transfer/borrowing from one language to the other or restructuring of linguistic systems in situations of contact between languages. In addition, grammars develop common properties independently of history and geography, often reflecting universal patterns and trends. In early ground-breaking work, Nichols (1992, 1995) appealed to the diachronic, areal and typological profile of morphosyntactic features in order to argue that the global distribution of shared patterns in a west-to-east cline allows us to deeply explore prehistory with respect to ancient human migrations. Recent findings have shown that morphosyntactic data variability significantly correlates with genetic data variability, supporting its potential to unravel both genetic evolutionary history (for example, to trace ancient human migrations) and cultural evolutionary history, unlike lexical data which can only go as far as the Proto-language of a family. Yet the first attempts to reconstruct phylogenetic trees based on morphosyntax have been limited in terms of precision and resolution, and there are major disagreements on the genealogical stability and diffusibility of morphosyntactic features.

The design of the project is ground-breaking both in terms of the novelty of its concept and in terms of the innovativeness of the methodologies it will develop. It will address the major challenges associated with morphosyntactic data through the evaluation of the same set of features with the use of the same set of methods exploring linguistic diversity via an integrative approach. The key innovation of the project is that it will use phylogenies as a tool to analyze and evaluate the morphosyntactic data. While with words with the same etymology (cognates) a consensus has been reached on the kinds of words that reflect genealogical relationships (the basic vocabulary of languages, i.e. kinship terms, body-parts, basic numbers and colors, pronouns, among others), morphosyntactic data have not been scrutinized in analogous ways. As a result, language trees based on cognate data match received wisdom about language history, while trees based on morphosyntactic data reflect a mixture of genealogical, areal and typological signal.

The project will bring together an interdisciplinary team of linguists, evolutionary and computational biologists and computer scientists who will analyse such deviations from the gold standard of comparison in order to identify the morphosyntactic features that reflect geneological relationships, as opposed to areal and typological ones. It will employ established and novel biology inspired/ quantitative methods to track the role of features in trees. The results will be evaluated and interpreted via an in depth linguistic investigation, at three different scales of variation and change: Meso-variation, at the level of different genera and languages of the same family (e.g. the properties that characterize Romance, as opposed to Greek, Albanian, Armenian), micro-variation, at the level of genealogically related dialects (e.g. Greek dialects spoken in Asia Minor, Italo-Greek, Tsakonian Greek) and languages belonging to the same genera (e.g. Romance, Germanic, Slavic), and macro-variation, at the level of different families in different areas of the world. The results will be synthesized in a novel open access data repository drawing on the whole spectrum of morphosyntax, applicable to as many language families, areas and types as possible, and appropriate to express distinctions between dialects of the same language, languages of the same sub-genera and genera, as well as relationships between families. The in-depth characterization of each feature separately (through a detailed description and analysis of its distribution at different scales of variation across languages) and in interaction (in order to identify properties that systematically co-evolve or covary in similar socio-linguistic settings or as reflexes of meso- and macro- parameters) will provide a unique window into the nature of language variation and change.

ERC Advanced Grants are among the most competitive in Europe. Researchers receive competitive funding to help them explore their most innovative and ambitious ideas, conducting cutting-edge research across all scientific disciplines. These grants are awarded under Horizon Europe, the EU's research and innovation program. The Foundation for Research and Technology - Hellas has the largest number of ERC-funded projects in Greece. The Institute for Mediterranean Studies of the Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas is the only Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences in Greece with 7 ERC funded projects.