People in ROOTS: Søren Wichmann


The ‘People in ROOTS’ series continues with an interview of Søren Wichmann, one of the postdoctoral fellows of the Cluster of Excellence ROOTS.

Last September, you began to work in the framework of the Cluster of Excellence ROOTS. Can you tell us something about your research here?
As a linguist, I look forward to contributing to ROOTS research, focusing on how languages serve as a window to prehistoric communities. A lot of my work deals with the development of methods to date stages in developments of language families and to trace their geographical origins. Through looking at the words and grammars of languages in geographical proximity, I trace contacts between populations in the past. When genetic data is additionally considered, there are very exciting opportunities to see new patterns in interactions among human societies throughout the past several thousand years. I mostly take a global, comparative perspective, but also deal with the languages of particular regions, for instance New Guinea, Madagascar or the US Southwest. The Cluster of Excellence ROOTS therefore offers a great framework to look at languages “closer to home”, and I plan to apply some of my research ideas, hypotheses and methods to study Russian dialects and languages of India.
More broadly, what are your main lines of research?
On the one hand, I work on computational methods to address questions of historical linguistics and, on the other hand, I contribute to the development of the datasets needed to run/complete large-scale investigations of linguistic prehistory. For more than a decade, I have built up a database of word lists, called ASJP, now covering 75% of the world’s languages, which is very useful for all sorts of comparative work. I hope to bring this closer to a near full coverage. Over the past few years, I also participated in a project aiming at the automated extraction of grammatical information from grammars, called DReaM, and I want to continue this work. Yet another database that I plan to develop includes testing mutual intelligibility among languages worldwide, an effort that requires a large, collaborative project. Finally, I play a part in the GeLaTo project, which aims to facilitate a comparison of languages and genes. At the moment, I am about to finish a study on the rate of spread of languages worldwide, and with some more data it will be possible, for instance, to make some generalisations about how often people have shifted to other languages in the past.

Career life before ROOTS: What were the main stations and milestones of your career path so far?
My career started out at the University of Copenhagen. My first steps as a linguist involved fieldwork to study little-known languages in Mexico. My MA thesis was a comparative study of the Mixe-Zoquean languages of Mexico, followed by my Ph.D. dissertation on the Tlapanec language spoken in Guerrero, Mexico. For a few years, I taught at the University of Copenhagen and developed a specialisation in Maya hieroglyphic writing. This was around the turn of the millennium, which was a fascinating period in the field, with numerous discoveries on how the writing system functioned and on the grammar of the inscriptional language. My next main station was located at the Department of Linguistics of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. There, I developed an interest in language structures on a more global scale and started to work on historical linguistics using computational methods. Computational historical linguistics is a very rapidly developing field with exciting opportunities to participate in new developments. My last major station before coming to Kiel was Leiden University, where I was Co-PI in an ERC project about relations among languages of the Americas.

Life beyond ROOTS: What do you like to do beyond your research?   
As I was looking for a photo of “the real me” for this page, I could not find a single picture without another family member in it, usually one of my three children. Family life is what I do a lot. Moreover, I like to play different musical instruments and I do various things on a hobby-basis, usually failing epically, but I have fun meanwhile, such as learning Chinese, playing chess or making wooden constructions at my summerhouse at Roskilde Fjord in Denmark.

Søren Wichmann is a postdoctoral fellow within the ROOTS subcluster ‘Conflicts and conciliation’ (link).

You can contact him at:


Fieldwork + Activities


Participating Institutions