Author Archives: Johann-Mattis List

About Johann-Mattis List

Seit Anfang 2017 bin ich leitender Wissenschaftler am Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte in Jena, in der Abteilung für sprachliche und kulturelle Evolution. In meiner Forschung nehme ich generell einen datenbasierten, empirischen und quantitativen Standpunkt in Bezug auf Sprachwandel und Sprachgeschichte ein, mit einem speziellen Fokus auf südostasiatischen Sprachen. Im Gegensatz zu rein computerbasierten Ansätzen versuche ich jedoch, meine Forschung nah an der traditionellen historischen Linguistik und der linguistischen Theorie auszurichten, weshalb ich einen computer-gestützten Ansatz im Gegensatz zu einem rein computer-basierten Ansatz verfolge.

A Primer on Automatic Inference of Sound Correspondence Patterns (1): Introduction

After about three years of work on the matter, I have managed (with help of many colleagues who helped in testing) to develop a first approach for the automatic inference of sound correspondence patterns, which will soon be published with Computational Linguistics (List 2019). The key task which this algorithm solves is to take aligned data as input and to compute explicit sound correspondence patterns from the alignments.

Continue reading

Merging datasets with LingPy and the CLDF curation framework

Imagine you have two different datasets, both containing approximately the same concepts, but slightly different numbers of columns and — more importantly — potentially identical identifiers in the first column. A bad idea for merging these datasets would be to paste them in Excel or some other kind of spreadsheet software, and then trying to manually adjust all problems that might occur during this process.

A better idea is to just use LingPy and our CLDF curation framework Continue reading

Inferring consonant clusters from CLICS data with LingPy

LingPy (List et al. 2017) offers a great deal of functions for string manipulation. Although most of those functions are readily documented (see for details), and the basic ideas have also been described in my dissertation (List 2014), it seems that not many users are aware of these additional possibilities, which the library offers.

In the following, I want to illustrate how we can use LingPy to learn something about consonant clusters occurring in the data underlying the CLICS database (List et al. 2018, I have illustrated in an earlier post how one can use the CLICS software API to cook one’s own CLICS application. I will thus assume that you know how to install CLICS (following the instructions on our GitHub page) and the data underlying it.

Continue reading

A fast implementation of the Consonant Class Matching method for automatic cognate detection in LingPy

LingPy’s LexStat class for cognate detection confuses those who want to apply it, since the name of the Python class is the same as the name of one of the methods the class provides, but the class can be used for other types of cognate detection as well. I recommend all users of LingPy that they give a read to our most recent tutorial on LingPy’s cognate detection method (List et al. 2018), since the three most important methods are discussed there in detail, namely the edit distance method for cognate detection, which makes use of the simple, normalized edit distance, the SCA method, based on the Sound-Class-Based Alignment algorithm (List 2014), and the LexStat method (ibid.). Applying these methods in LingPy is fairly simple and described in detail in our aforementioned tutorial. But LingPy offers an additional method for cognate detection that has the advantage of being extremely fast and thus especially suitable for exploratory data analysis of very large datasets. This method is called turchin in LingPy, named after the first author of a paper presenting the method (Turchin et al. 2010), but the method itself, which Turchin et al. name “Consonant Class Matching” method, goes originally back to Dolgopolsky (1964)), and has long since been implemented as a part of the STARLING software package ( Continue reading

Representing Structural Data in CLDF

The Cross-Linguistic Data Formats initiative (CLDF,, Forkel et al. 2018) has helped a lot in preparing the CLICS² database of cross-linguistic colexifications (, List et al. 2018), since linking our data to Concepticon (, List et al. 2016) and Glottolog (, Hammarström et al. 2018) has provided incredible help in merging the different datasets into a big comparative dataset.

CLDF, however, is not restricted to lexical data, but can also be successfully used to store structural data, although — due to the nature of structural data — it is much more difficult to compare different datasets.

Continue reading

Cooking with CLICS

Robert Forkel just published a very nice cookbook example for our CLICS database (List et al. 2018f,, where you can find out how to manipulate the data further, apart from just installing it and running it to replicate our analyses.

This cookbook tells you how the underlying SQLITE database is structured and how you can, after installing CLICS and the respective packages, access the data to conduct studies of your own.

As a little example of what you can do with the new CLICS API, let me illustrate in this post, how we can use the old CLICS data (underlying the version 1.0 by List et al. 2014,, available from here, in the new application, specifically the standalone that we provide.

Continue reading

Exporting Sublists from a Wordlist with LingPy and Concepticon

When dealing with linguistic datasets, we may often want to export only a small part of our data, for example, only vocabulary in a certain range, such as the Swadesh list of 200 items or the list of 35 items by Yakhontov (originally published in Starostin 1991. Thanks to the pyconcepticon API and LingPy’s built-in export functions for wordlists, this task can be done just in a few lines of code, as we will see below. If you prefer to see the raw code instead of the step-by-step explanation below, you can find a GitHub Gist here.

Continue reading

Let the Games Begin!

By comparing the languages of the world, we gain invaluable insights into human prehistory, predating the appearance of written records by thousands of years. The traditional methods for language comparison are based on manual data inspection. With more and more data available, they reach their practical limits. Computer applications, however, are not capable of replacing experts’ experience and intuition. In a situation where computers cannot replace experts and experts do not have enough time to analyse the massive amounts of data, a new framework, neither completely computer-driven, nor ignorant of the help computers provide, becomes urgent. Such frameworks are well-established in biology and translation, where computational tools cannot provide the accuracy needed to arrive at convincing results, but do assist humans to digest large data sets.

After one month of preparation, during which our team was busy teaching each other, members of our seminar at Friedrich Schiller University Jena, and colleagues in our department, how to code, we are ready to launch the first posts during the next weeks.

I will refrain from promising too much at this stage, but I recommend those interested in learning more about different topics as diverse as coding (in Python and R), data curation and analysis, theory of diversity linguistics, and methodology of historical language comparison to keep an eye on this blog. Our core team of four to five authors will try to publish at least one new blogpost per month, and we will try to constantly increase our range of authors by inviting colleagues from our Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution and from other institutions to present their questions, ideas, or approaches to questions related to computer-based and computer-assisted approaches in historical language comparison and beyond.

Our team is currently preparing the first blogposts for this month. I won’t tell you too much about the concrete content yet, but if you are interested in computer-assisted language comparison and empirical approaches to diversity linguistics, I recommend you to keep an eye on our weblog.

Cite this article as: Johann-Mattis List, "Let the Games Begin!," in Computer-Assisted Language Comparison in Practice, 06/06/2018,