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Social sciences and humanities

Subject: LINGUISTIC VARIATION (A.A. 2022/2023)


Course year 1
Teaching units Unit Unico
Social Studies, Information technology and Languages (lesson)
  • TAF: Compulsory subjects, characteristic of the class SSD: L-LIN/01 CFU: 6
Teachers: Cristina GUARDIANO
Moodle portal
Exam type written
Evaluation final vote
Teaching language Italiano
Contents download pdf download




The goal of this course is to provide the students with the opportunity to access an innovative line of research in linguistics, where the scientific study of linguistic diversity is conceived as a crucial tool to provide novel hints to contemporary historical sciences and to offer a new perspective on the study of human history and evolution. Students will become able to:
1) Understand how to perform historical research in linguistics;
2) Understand the main contents, objectives and results of historical-comparative methods;
3) Become familiar with the theoretical premises and the methodological basis of the parametric comparison method;
4) Collect linguistic data for a parametric analysis of specific languages;
5) Learn and apply the basic algorithms for phylogenetic reconstruction in linguistics.

For a more complete understanding of the training objectives, please refer to the expected learning outcomes.

Admission requirements

Students are assumed to be familiar with the major contents usually discussed in general linguistics courses, and to master the theoretical and methodological bases of the discipline, as required by the course access requirements.
Students who do not meet these requirements are invited to get in touch with the instructor.

Course contents

The course will focus on the Parametric Comparison Method (PCM,, a method that aims to analyze the world’s linguistic diversity in order to understand whether it encodes information about human history. The course will present the theoretical premises, the comparative tools, the objectives and the results of the method.

The course will be structured as follows:
Week 1. Presentation of the course, organization of lessons, methods, and contents of the exam. Introduction to the problems of historical research in linguistics and to the general framework of the parametric comparison method (0.5 CFU)
Week 2. Traditional methods in historical linguistics: premises, procedures, and results (0.5 CFU)
Week 3. Theory and procedures of parametric comparison: theoretical premises. The basic idea of the PCM: to use the the cognitive biological structures of human language to extract information about the history and evolution of human languages and populations (1 CFU)
Week 4 and 5. Fundamentals of parametric comparison: preliminary tools. The list of parameters and their properties: implications, manifestations, values. How are parameters set? Tools and procedures (2 CFU)
Week 6. Theory and procedures of parametric comparison: comparative tools. How to calculate distances and build matrices for phylogenetic analysis. Main phylogenetic algorithms and their implementations (1CFU)
Week 7. The historical results of the PCM: Indo-European languages, long-distance comparison, micro-comparison (1CFU)
Week 8. Exercises and summary.

During classes, each week, specific exercises will be discussed, with the aim to make students familiarize with the topics introduced in class.

The syllabus of the course, the timetable, a list of all the topics that will be addressed in class, the references, and the detailed description of the exam, will be made available on the Moodle page of the course.

Teaching methods

The course will be held in person. Attendance is not compulsory, but attending classes is highly recommended. The contents of the course will be discussed during lectures, in-depth seminars, exercises. The course is delivered in Italian, although some reference texts are in English. By choice of the Department of Communication and Economics, all lectures will be recorded and made available on the ONELab departmental platform (

Assessment methods

The final exam will be a written exam, with the following structure: FIRST PART: 9 multiple choice questions, on all the topics of the course, which verify that the students master the basics of the topics presented in class. The score will be determined as follows, for each question: Correct answer: 2 points; Wrong answer: -1 point; Answer not given: 0 points. The second and third part of the assignment will be marked only if a student obtains a minimum score of 6 points in the first part. SECOND PART: The second part will be based on the contents presented in weeks 4 and 5 and verifies that students have understood how to collect linguistic data: students will have to provide specific linguistic data (taking them from their native language), based on 6 selected questions / instructions that will be given in the assignment. The score will be determined as follows, for each question: Correct and complete answer: 2 points; Incomplete but correct answer: 1 point; Incorrect or not given answer: 0 points. THIRD PART: The third part verifies that students master the contents presented in weeks 6 and 7. It will consist of an exercise: given a taxonomic graph (for example a phylogenetic tree or a network) or a PCoA, the students, guided by specific questions that will be provided in the exercise itself ,will have to describe its characteristics and structure. The score will be determined as follows, for the entire exercise: Correct and complete answer: from 4 to 5 points; Incomplete but correct answer: 1 to 3 points; Incorrect or not given answer: 0 points. Students will have 120 minutes to complete the assignment.

Learning outcomes

1) Knowledge and understanding. At the end of this course, students should be able to re-elaborate and critically expose the contents they will learn by studying the bibliographic material: (a) the notion of historical research and the role of linguistics in historical research; (b) premises and objectives of the parametric comparison; (c) tools and procedures of parametric comparison; (d) main results obtained so far by the parametric comparison.
2) Applied knowledge and understanding. At the end of this course, students should be able to: (a) be able to identify linguistic data relevant to each of the manifestations of the parameters used for comparison; (b) knowing how to fix the values of a set of parameters, also taking into account their mutual implications; (c) starting from a matrix of distances, being able to reconstruct a linguistic phylogeny using a phylogenetic algorithm.
3) Autonomy of judgment. By following this course, students will have to learn how to apply some parametric comparison tools by working on languages and contexts they have never seen before.
4) Communication skills. By following this course, students will acquire the analytical tools and technical language of historical linguistics and will learn to identify and describe historical problems using these tools.
5) Ability to learn. Students will study introductory texts to the parametric comparison method, starting with works of wide-ranging nature, and progressing gradually towards more specialized texts in terms of content and structure, thus coming into contact with the specialized varieties of scientific communication in linguistics.


Settimana 1: (a) Cristina Guardiano et al. (2022) A ritroso nel tempo per capire le relazioni fra le lingue. L’Essenziale 36: 22. [una copia in pdf sarà resa disponibile sulla pagina Moodle del corso]; (b) Cristina Guardiano et al. (2022) Lingue e storia umana. Ms. Università di Modena e Reggio Emilia. [una copia in pdf sarà resa disponibile sulla pagina Moodle del corso]

Settimana 2: (a) Romano Lazzeroni (1999) Ricostruzione di lingue e di culture. Le Scienze Quaderni, 108: 43.45. [una copia in pdf sarà resa disponibile sulla pagina Moodle del corso] (b) eventuali altre letture che saranno distribuite a lezione.

Settimana 3: (a) Giuseppe Longobardi e Cristina Guardiano (2009) La sintassi come segnale di relazione storica. In: Lingue, ethnos e popolazioni: evidenze linguistiche, biologiche e culturali. Atti del Convegno della Società Italiana di Glottologia. A cura di P. Cotticelli Kurras e G. Graffi. Roma, il Calamo, pp. 83-122. [una copia in pdf sarà resa disponibile sulla pagina Moodle del corso]. (b) eventuali altre letture che saranno distribuite a lezione

Settimane 4 e 5: (a) Paola Crisma, Cristina Guardiano e Giuseppe Longobardi (2020) Syntactic diversity and language learnability. Studi e Saggi Linguistici LVIII: 99-132. [una copia in pdf sarà resa disponibile sulla pagina Moodle del corso]. (b) eventuali altre letture che saranno distribuite a lezione

Settimana 6: materiali che saranno distribuiti a lezione.

Settimana 7: (a) Giuseppe Longobardi et al (2013) Toward a syntactic phylogeny of modern Indo-European languages. Journal of Historical Linguistics 3:1, 122–152. [una copia in pdf sarà resa disponibile sulla pagina Moodle del corso] (b) eventuali altre letture che saranno distribuite a lezione.

Lettura consigliata: Cristina Guardiano et al (2021) Formal Syntax as a Phylogenetic Method. In Handbook of historical linguistics vol. II, pp. 145-182.