Johann-Mattis List How Well Do Automatic Methods for Language Comparison Work?

Johann-Mattis List is Senior Scientist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. Previous to this appointment, he was Research Fellow at the Centre de Recherches Linguistiques sur l’Asie Orientale in Paris. In his research, he pursues a data-driven, empirical and quantitative perspective on language change and history, with a special focus on South-East Asian languages. He reviews for a variety of journals, such as Biology & Philosophy, Current Anthropology or the Journal of Historical Linguistics. For his Ph.D. he won the ‘Best Dissertation of the Philosophical Faculty’ prize awarded by the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf in 2013.

Area of Research

Historical Linguistics

since 2017

Senior Scientist and Group Leader 'Computer-assistend Language Comparison'

Max Planck Society (more details)

Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History


Research Fellow

School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales)

Centre de Recherches Linguistiques sur l'Asie Orientale


Research Assistant

Philipp University of Marburg (Philipps-Universität Marburg)


Research Assistant

Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf (Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf)



Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf (Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf)


Magister Artium

Free University of Berlin (Freie Universität Berlin)

- Biology & Philosophy

- BioEssays

- BMC Bioinformatics

- BMC Evolutionary Biology

- Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

- Current Anthropology

- Diachronica

- Language Dynamics and Change

- Historiographica Linguistica

- International Journal of Diachronic Linguistics and Linguistic Reconstruction

- et al.


- Best Dissertation of the Philosophical Faculty in 2013, Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf


- Young Scholars Symposium, University of Washington, Seattle

© Maximilian Dörrbecker

Max Planck Society

"The Max Planck Society is Germany's most successful research organization. Since its establishment in 1948, no fewer than 18 Nobel laureates have emerged from the ranks of its scientists, putting it on a par with the best and most prestigious research institutions worldwide. The more than 15,000 publications each year in internationally renowned scientific journals are proof of the outstanding research work conducted at Max Planck Institutes – and many of those articles are among the most-cited publications in the relevant field." (Source)


Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History conducts basic research using modern analytical methods with the aim of a multidisciplinary and integrated science of human history. It seeks to bridge the gap between historical disciplines and the natural sciences. Scientists from a range of fields, such as biology, linguistics, archaeology, anthropology and history jointly work on innovative methods, in particular in the fields of cutting-edge genetic and proteomic sequencing, bioinformatics, archaeological science, computational modeling, language databases, and phylogeography. This thoroughly integrated, interdisciplinary approach will address long-standing questions about human history – including some previously deemed difficult, or even completely intractable – as well as novel questions inspired by the new horizons that cutting edge methods open up. (Source)


There are more than 7,000 languages spoken worldwide. Many languages have evolved from a common ancestry line but we do not yet know where all the languages have come from and why there is such a great diversity. To find out how languages are related and form a family, linguists compare them by sifting through dictionaries, grammars or word lists. Recently, scholars have proposed automatic methods to compare languages more efficiently. However, many classical linguists do not trust these methods. JOHANN-MATTIS LIST wants to know how well these automatic methods for language comparison really perform. As he describes in this video, his research team compared the algorithms’ output directly with the judgment of experts using a data set covering more than five language families. They found that some algorithms perform remarkably well. This means that automatic methods of language comparison have reached a level of performance that allows linguists to use them as a pre-viewing tool.

LT Video Publication DOI:

The Potential of Automatic Word Comparison for Historical Linguistics

  • Johann-Mattis List, Simon J. Greenhill and Russell D. Gray
  • PloS one
  • Published in 2017
Johann-Mattis List, Simon J. Greenhill and Russell D. Gray. "The Potential of Automatic Word Comparison for Historical Linguistics." PloS one 12 (2017): e0170046.