First they came for our linguistics, then they came for our philology. The latest crimes against humanities have come in the form of a press release from the University of Reading where “Homer’s great masterpieces, The Iliad and The Odyssey, have been dated to around 762 BCE by new research based on the statistical modelling of language evolution.”
Wait a second…
Scientists from the University of Reading used evolutionary-linguistic statistical methods to compare the language in Homer’s Iliad with Modern Greek and Hittite (an extinct language in Anatolian branch of Indo European languages, 1200-1600 BCE) and have confirmed what many historians and classicists have long believed; that these literary classics date from the 8th century BCE.
I’m still not following…
Professor Mark Pagel’s research team analysed the differences in a common set of vocabulary items between Homeric Greek, Modern Greek and ancient Hittite and assessed the probable times in years separating these languages, given the percentage of words they shared combined with the knowledge of the rates at which different words change. The research dated the Homerian epics with a 95% certainty within a date range of 376 BCE and 1157 BCE, with a mean estimate of 762 BCE.
Professor Pagel said: “Our analysis of The Iliad has not been informed by historical, archaeological or cultural information but by a statistical analysis of shared vocabulary between three languages and the rates of lexical replacement in Indo European languages. Yet, our estimated dates fall in the middle of classicists’ and historians’ preferred date for Homer. The outcome of this research on The Iliad demonstrates the way in which language can be used, like genes, to unravel questions in history, archaeology and anthropology.”*
Right, I understand now. So, you’ve cooked up some lexicostatistical glottochronology based on Bayesian Phylogenetics in order to date a linguistically non-homogenous corpus broadly within a time period from the beginning of the Greek Dark Ages down past the end of the High Classical Period, before which the epics can be demonstrably shown to have existed for centuries already.
I really don’t know what to say. Bayesian phylogenetics applied to raw lexical data gives tenuous results at its good, bizarre BBC headlines like ‘English Language originated in Turkey‘ at its bad, and now, can be used as a terrible, terrible replacement for traditional textual criticism and philology at a bar-lowering new ugly for the mindless glottogonic speculation that is increasingly being made in this area by researchers in genetics with little to no actual historical linguistics training.
We should, however, not end this on a completely disparaging note. One University Lecturer with whom I discussed this article today noted that it was very reassuring that the scientists had a 95% certainty that the day of Homer lie somewhere betwen 1157 BCE and 376 BCE. More worrying is the 5% margin of error.
The article itself can be found on the Wiley Online Library, in the journal Bioessays, for those interested in reading further.
*bold emphasis mine.