This paper is a commentary on Atkinson’s 2011 Science article on the serial founder model (see also this interview with ScienceNews, in which parts of our comment in Linguistic Typology and follow-up work are summarized). In the commentary, we provide an introduction to linear mixed effect models for typological research. We discuss how to fit and to evaluate these models, using Atkinson’s data as an example.We illustrate the use of crossed random effects to control for genetic and areal relations between languages. We also introduce a (novel?) way to model areal dependencies based on an exponential decay function over migration distances between languages.
Finally, we discuss limits to the statistical analysis due to data sparseness. In particular, we show that the data available to Atkinson did not contain enough language families with sufficiently many languages to test whether the observed effect holds once random by-family slopes (for the effect) are included in the model. We also present simulations that show that the Type I error rate (false rejections) of the approach taken in Atkinson is many times higher than conventionally accepted (i.e. above .2 when .05 is the conventionally accepted rate of Type errors).
The scripts presented below are not intended to allow full replication of our analyses (they lack annotation and we are not allowed to share the WALS data employed by Atkinson on this site anyway). However, there are many plots and tests in the paper that might be useful for typologists or other users of mixed models. For that reason, I am for now posting the raw code. Please comment below if you have questions and we will try to provide additional annotation for the scripts as needed and as time permits. If you find (parts of the) script(s) useful, please consider citing our article in Linguistic Typology.