LINGUIST List 3.87

Fri 31 Jan 1992

Disc: Proto-World

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Herb Stahlke, Proto-World
  2. , Proto-World
  3. "Grover.Hudson", Proto-world
  4. David Bedell, Mother Tongue

Message 1: Proto-World

Date: Mon, 27 Jan 1992 11:07 ESTProto-World
Subject: Proto-World

I too found Cavalli-Sforza's attempt to match linguistic with
genetic trees a bit loose, but I'm not sure the Scientific American
article is the best target for the criticism the ideas deserve. I
suggest looking back at the Richard Bateman article "Speaking of
forked tongues: the feasibility of reconciling human phylogeny and
the history of language...." in Current Anthropology, Feb 1990, v31,
n1, for a fuller treatment and a broad range of critical response from
linguists, anthropologists, and geneticists.

Herb Stahlke
Ball State University
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Message 2: Proto-World

Date: Tue, 28 Jan 92 11:35:20 ESProto-World
From: <acarnieAthena.MIT.EDU>
Subject: Proto-World

It is with some interest that I've been reading the debate over the "popular"
science press' presentation of highly contraversial theories as fact. But
it strikes me that the discussion has taken an unfortunate turn. I don't
think we should be concerned about the the fact that Scientific American
has adopted the "proto-world" theory (no matter how reprehensible it is).
It concerns me that they should be presenting it at all. The popular press
seems to be under the mistaken opinion that Historical Linguistics is the
mainstream in linguistic thought; that proto-world is a "HOT" topic that
has everybody bouncing. This really bothers me. I feel that Theoreticians,
Psycholinguists, and Sociolinguists are not receiving the attention that they
deserve. (Not that I'm of the opinion that historical linguists isn't
interesting. Its just that for the past 80 or 90 years it hasn't been
the central focus of linguists). I think its about time that Scientific
American and its ilk start publishing articles about issues that are of
interest to the majority of linguists. For example, I think a great article
could be published over the innateness debate, or perhaps about Crain's or
Wexler's acquisition experiments, or about recent advancements in
computational linguistics. Does anyone else have strong opinions in this
direction? If so I think we should make the popular science press aware of
our discontent with their treatment of our discipline.

Andrew Carnie
20D 219, MIT
77 Mass Ave
Cambridge MA 0219
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Message 3: Proto-world

Date: Tue, 28 Jan 92 11:52 EST
From: "Grover.Hudson" <>
Subject: Proto-world

Jacques Guy in Vol-3-81 on 27 Jan. 1992 offers a criticism of a Scientific
American article by Cavalli-Sforza. Among his words were "Sforza's
methodology, which I consider worthless: in breach of the scientific method,
and mathematically incorrect". Richard Sproat in Vol-3-82 also on 27 Jan.
1992 says of the article: "it would be definitely worthwhile resurrecting
those debunkings of that article... I felt that this was a classic example of
how to lie with graphics". Eric Schiller also in 3-82 says that he "was
outraged by the Scientific American article", and that "It is shameful that
Austro-Tai is taken as default truth by so many authorities".

I'll try to be brief, even with some loss of appropriate clarity.

The choice of such emotional words as seen in the quotes detracts from the
effectiveness of the criticisms, since readers know that persons are
somewhat unreliable in the emotional states for which the words are

Second, and more important, by such words their users are attempting to
invoke the method of authority to strengthen their criticisms, since only of
authorities would we be interested in their emotional states.

Finally, it seems to me inappropriate for linguists to be so emotionally
negative about the "proto-world" hypotheses. Who is to say what a good
hypothesis is? Perhaps as teachers limited time and our obligation to
students requires us occasionally to give a simple, even somewhat emotional,
evaluation of a hypothesis rather than counterarguments. But is it
appropriate for linguists to try so to discourage this or that line of research
of other linguists or (certainly) anthropologists? "Upon this first, and in thi
sense sole, rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and
in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think, there
follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall
of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry" (C.S. Peirce,
Collected Papers I (1931-35), 56-58).

Grover Hudson
Linguistics, MSU, East Lansing 48824
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Message 4: Mother Tongue

Date: Wed, 29 Jan 92 23:24:14 CSMother Tongue
From: David Bedell <DBEDELL3UA1VM.UA.EDU>
Subject: Mother Tongue

>From David Bedell, Univ. of Alabama

This is in response to Jacques Guy's critique of the Scientific American
article by Cavalli-Sforza.
 I too was puzzled by some of the populations included, as well as some
excluded, in the classification chart. Apparently the Sardinians have some
genetic features that set them apart from other Mediterranean (European and
North African) people, yet I've never heard of any distinctive culture or
language that existed there before they were Roman or Italian. Did they,
for example, speak a language related to Basque or Etruscan before the Romans
arrived? Where do the Basques fit on the chart, genetically or linguist-
ically? From the Rh-blood factor gene map included in the article, one would
think that the Basques should hold a rather special genetic position.
 Also on the Rh-factor map, did you notice that the Icelandic population
has a very low incidence of Rh-negative individuals, unlike the rest of
Scandinavia? Why is this? The only explanation I could think of (assuming
the map is accurate) is that Iceland was settled by a relatively small group
of Norsemen, all of whom--or most of whom--happened to be Rh-positive.
 Jacques Guy pointed out the great genetic distance between Tibetans and
South Chinese, even though they speak related languages. The absence of
North Chinese from the chart is very confusing. I can only guess that the
N. Chinese would be genetically close to the Tibetans (and Koreans, Japanese,
Mongols, etc.). As I understand it, the Chinese language originated in North
China and spread to the south during the Han Dynasty. The South Chinese, who
even today are a different physical type from the northerners, originally
spoke some Daic languages, of which the Zhuang minority language is a modern
 To be fair, Cavalli-Sforza does point out this phenomenon of language
replacement. He explains cites the Lapps and the Ethiopians as examples of
mismatches between genetic affinity and linguistic affinity. But there must
have been an awful lot of language replacement or gene replacement for the
present state of genetic/linguistic non-correlation to have arisen.
 --David Bedell, U. of Alabama (
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