LINGUIST List 3.859

Thu 05 Nov 1992

Disc: Probabilistic Reasoning in Linguistics

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  1. , Probability in linguistic comparison
  2. "Sam Wang, 3.853 Probabilistic Reasoning in Linguistics
  3. John S. Coleman, 3.853 Probabilistic Reasoning in Linguistics

Message 1: Probability in linguistic comparison

Date: 2 Nov 92 10:22:00 GMT+0950Probability in linguistic comparison
From: <P_MCCONVELLBLIGH.NTU.EDU.AU>
Subject: Probability in linguistic comparison

I have not seen the Ruhlen/Greenberg paper referred to by Alexis
Manaster Ramer (we get Scientific American in this part of Australia
at least 2 months late). However I am interested in the general point
he raises.

Back in 1985 I was working on the origin of subsections (a type of
social category) in Australia using linguistic evidence and had an
article published in Aboriginal History criticising a book by von
Brandenstein on the same question published by U. Chicago Press. One
of the favourite phrases was "it can be no coincidence that..." going
on to relate two similar words with two (often vaguely) similar
meanings. I wrote a section showing that with about 300 Australian
Aboriginal languages to play with, and apparently no constraint such
as having to show independently motivated sound changes, geographical
contiguity or other connection, you could just about "prove"
anything with this method.

As it was not a linguistic journal I had to cut the argument down. It
was not mathematically very sophisticated anyway. It struck me at the
time that there must be a very simple statistical formula involved
here, but I had no reference to any linguistic work that gives a
plain account of how to evaluate such arguments.

No doubt the examples in this book are several steps beyond what
Ruhlen and Greenberg are doing, but it should be possible to place
both at positions on a continuum of plausibility just from basic
features of the method used. Any reference that I could get that that
does this kind of exercise would be very useful.

Patrick McConvell, Anthropology, Northern Territory University,
PO Box 40146, Casuarina, NT 0811, Australia
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Message 2: 3.853 Probabilistic Reasoning in Linguistics

Date: Mon, 2 Nov 92 10:22:47 MST3.853 Probabilistic Reasoning in Linguistics
From: "Sam Wang <SWANGvm.ucs.UAlberta.CA>
Subject: 3.853 Probabilistic Reasoning in Linguistics

If we can attribute common origin to two languages by just one pair
of comparison, we can certainly say English and Chinese are of common
origin, for in Chinese the bird "swallow" is [yan] (fourth tone) and
the verb "to swallow" is also [yan] (fourth tone). Its rather hard
to say this is merely a coincidence, eh?

 Regards,
 Sam Wang (Wang Hsu)
 swangualtavm.bitnet
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Message 3: 3.853 Probabilistic Reasoning in Linguistics

Date: Tue, 3 Nov 92 12:23:16 EST3.853 Probabilistic Reasoning in Linguistics
From: John S. Coleman <jscmbeya.research.att.com>
Subject: 3.853 Probabilistic Reasoning in Linguistics

Alexis Manaster-Ramer misrepresents Greenberg and Ruhlen when
he writes (Linguist List: Vol-3-853. Sat 31 Oct 1992):

> [Greenberg and Ruhlen] show that two languages, Halkomelem
> and Tfalkit (or something like that) have similar words with
> a similar meaning (just one word per language), calculate the
> probability of a pair like occurring in a random pair of languages,
> and say, My God, it's got to be common origin. This utter nonsense,

Greenberg and Ruhlen estimate the probability of similar words with
with a similar meaning occurring in SIX languages (not two), chosen
from a longer list of similar words with a slightly wider range of
meanings. And G&R claim to have done likewise for over a hundred
other "basic vocabulary" words. Which makes their argument
much stronger than Alexis characterizes it as being.

P.S. this is not a personal vendetta.

--- John Coleman
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