Using lexical language models to detect borrowings in monolingual wordlists

Colloquium by Dr. John Miller & Dr. Tiago Tresoldi

Time: Tuesday, 11th May 2021, 4pm sharp (please note the change in time, since on of the speakers is currently in Peru)

Speaker: Dr. John Miller & Dr. Tiago Tresoldi   

Title: Using lexical language models to detect borrowings in monolingual wordlists


Lexical borrowing, the transfer of words from one language to another, is one of the most frequent processes in language evolution. In order to detect borrowings, linguists make use of various strategies, combining evidence from various sources. Despite the increasing popularity of computational approaches in comparative linguistics, automated approaches to lexical borrowing detection are still in their infancy, disregarding many aspects of the evidence that is routinely considered by human experts. One example for this kind of evidence are phonological and phonotactic clues that are especially useful for the detection of recent borrowings that have not yet been adapted to the structure of their recipient languages. In this study, we test how these clues can be exploited in automated frameworks for borrowing detection. By modeling phonology and phonotactics with the support of Support Vector Machines, Markov models, and recurrent neural networks, we propose a framework for the supervised detection of borrowings in mono-lingual wordlists. Based on a substantially revised dataset in which lexical borrowings have been thoroughly annotated for 41 different languages from different families, featuring a large typological diversity, we use these models to conduct a series of experiments to investigate their performance in mono-lingual borrowing detection. While the general results appear largely unsatisfying at a first glance, further tests show that the performance of our models improves with increasing amounts of attested borrowings and in those cases where most borrowings were introduced by one donor language alone. Our results show that phonological and phonotactic clues derived from monolingual language data alone are often not sufficient to detect borrowings when using them in isolation. Based on our detailed findings, however, we express hope that they could prove to be useful in integrated approaches that take multi-lingual information into account.

Link to the full paper:


We welcome you all to join us via Zoom and we will send around the specific link on the day before the talk.