LINGUIST List 5.1450

Wed 14 Dec 1994

Disc: Comparative Method

Editor for this issue: <>


Directory

  1. benji wald, Re: 5.1433 Comparative method

Message 1: Re: 5.1433 Comparative method

Date: Tue, 13 Dec 94 20:39 PST
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 5.1433 Comparative method

I re-read Newmeyer's original posting (date 30 Nov 94) and noticed that it has
an implicit attack on the notion of "basic word order" for comparative
purposes . This flows from his earlier question on how basic
word order is variously defined by various analysts, implying
that it lacks precision. To the extent that I have understood
the responses so far, no one has responded to this particular
point, so here goes -- basically in agreement with Newmeyer, but with some
 criticism of the assumed larger implications for comparative
reconstruction of syntax. I'll stick to what I know about
linguistic events in Europe since I expect the events to be
more familiar to most readers than events in other language
families, so that my examples may speak to readers' previous ideas about
particular linguistic events referred to below, and, under the
best circumstances, provoke further discussion.

To anticipate, the notion of basic word order is too simple-minded
(simplistic?) for diachronic purposes.

FN: "Could anything resembling Latin syntax be reconstructed through
comparison of the syntax of the modern Romance languages?"

BW: Should it? The immediate ancestor of the Romance languages is not Latin
 but Proto-Romance. SVO? What about the exceptions, e.g.,
French j'ai rien fait etc. Aren't they hints to certain
historical complications. Also AUX inversion in standard
French, e.g., sont-ils venus? Standard French AUX inversion is
probably of Germanic origin, not found elsewhere in Romance. As for
 reconstruction of case (cf. Latin/English), with possible
implications for earlier word order possibilities, case
inflections remain on (third person) object clitics in
 ALL Romance languages.

When we consider deviations from SVO word order in Romance languages, we may
suspect that the notion of "basic" word order is a villain to
the extent that it invites the analyst to disregard less
frequent or syntactically restricted word orders. This is not
safe in INTERNAL reconstruction of syntax, while the most
 revealing procedure may be to do INTERNAL reconstruction of syntax within
a language BEFORE using the COMPARATIVE method to reconstruct
within groups of languages genetically related by OTHER
criteria. In fact, the last point above is what is usually
done, and is probably the ONLY proper way to proceed, given the
intent of the comparative method. ALWAYS reconstruct a basic vocabulary
first, on the basis of sound correspondences -- to justify
genetic relationship among the languages. THEN consider
syntactic comparison. Problems with this necessary procedure will
 emerge in following discussion, but it remains necessary unless
you want to reconstruct the syntactic evolution of a
geographical area rather than of a genetic family. The latter
may be a useful complement to assumed genetic reconstruction, but
 I think it is too digressive an idea for me to pursue below.

Now, what about preverbal object clitics in Romance? Another hint of
complications to the SVO concept of Romance. Preverbal object
clitic means OV -- but I suppose "basic" means when O has a noun
not a pronoun as the head. And what aout the fixing of
multiple object clitic order in Romance? e.g., case order
versus person (inherent topicality) order. That can't be
reconstructed for Latin because the clitics did not arise as
distinct entities until Proto-Romance at the earliest. Can a
single or preferred clitic order be reconstructed for Proto-Romance,
e.g., DAT-ACC (invariant in Spanish and, I think, Rumanian, but
ACC-DAT seems to be older in French, now remaining only for
third persons, i.e., no inherent topicality difference
therefore earlier case ordering remains--French ACC-DAT may
reflect Germanic influence as well?)? Or did fixed clitic orders
originally arise independently in various areas of Romance? In any case, HOW
 can we avoid the comparative method in addressing the problem of the origin
of object clitic order in Romance? In sum, I think that the
origin/s and evolution of fixed multiple object clitic orders
in Romance is a legitimate issue, and that it cannot be solved
without recourse to the comparative method (among others, of
course). Therefore, the comparative method cannot be dismissed in
syntactic reconstruction.

FN: "Should we therefore reconstruct Proto-Germanic (almost surely
incorrectly) as SVO?"

BW: Newmeyer's reference to Proto-Germanic reveals even more than Romance
that "basic" word order is a villainous concept for
reconstruction in this case, as if "basic" word orders can be
compared across related languages to reconstruct "proto-basic"
word orders, such that "minor" word orders can be ignored or
reconstructed as "proto-minor" word orders. One principle which
emerges from our knowledge of the historical record is that
word order change doesn't work that way, i.e., word orders
cannot be compartmentalized as "basic" and "minor" for diachronic
purposes.

PRINCIPLE: If we want to develop tools and principles for syntactic
reconstruction, we will really have to consider the functions
served by the various word orders at different times, and detect
changes in their functions diachronically. In other words,
word order change in a language must be studied in the context
of the totality of functions of all its word orders at any given time.
The difference between such a study and the study of change in
"basic" word order, if the latter means anything at all, is
analogous to the study of phonetic change and phonemic change.
If analysts argue about the notion of "basic" word order, this
is analogous to arguing about different concepts of the phoneme,
and NOT about agreed upon linguistic facts.

The fallacy of reconstructing "basic" word order for Proto-Germanic
on the basis of the "basic" word order in current Germanic
becomes obvious according to the above principle because of the
SOV word order in subordinate clauses in continental Germanic.
And even this is not as invariant a property of the oldest texts
as it is of the later standardised languages, e.g., before Middle
German and Dutch. English also clues us in to INVERSION by its
many remnants, even without historical texts which reveal more
similarities to continental Germanic, e. g., V-first following a
subordinate clause or adverb, still common in the AV Bible.

Including English but excluding Gothic which mirrors to the
extent POSSIBLE the New Testament Greek syntax from which it was
translated, the earliest texts in Germanic show, as far as I
know, a tendency relatively favorable to verb-final in
subordinate clauses, but much variation, later eliminated in
the continental standards. This leads to arguments about
whether or not the SOV tendency was the break-up of an earlier
more general Indo-European SOV tendency (or earlier fixation?)
which died in English and Scandinavian (including the still HIGHLY
 INFLECTED Icelandic -- creating problems even for simplistic
functional arguments for the evolution of SVO in Germanic, so
that the argument would have to be: it STARTED as a reaction to
the increasing unreliability of case distinction but SPREAD for
social reasons to languages that didn't need it. Such an argument
does not strike me as at all unreasonable!).

[Although I excluded Gothic above, because of its malleable accommodation
to Greek syntax, its deviations from NT Greek are quite
revealing. Most salient is the absence of a definite article,
despite its occurrence in NT Greek as well as in all other
Germanic languages. If Gothic translation was totally serious about
imitating NT Greek syntax in all cases it could have adopted an unstressed
 demonstrative to imitate the Greek article, as later Germanic
did (in a sense). The most important question about Gothic
syntax is: is the malleability of its syntax innovative from
Proto-Germanic? -- if so, we will probably never know in what
ways the Gothic translations of NT Greek stretched the limits of that
malleability, and distorted the colloquial functions of word order
in spoken Gothic or more generally in the Germanic of the third century.

If SOV was invariant in some ancestor, then why did it deteriorate in
Germanic? At least as puzzling, how/why/when did Germanic get
AUX inversion, even in yes/no questions. ALL Indo-European
languages show WH fronting for WH questions, so is there any
reason to believe the Proto-language did not. Would I be
 buying what Newmeyer is questioning with the preceding argument, cf.

FN: "I have the impression that with increasing frequency, one
comes across statements such as the following in the literature :

"Most of the attested languages in language family X have some
syntactic property. Therefore we can assume that Proto-X had
this property.""

BW: [why with "increasing frequency"? Is the implication that copy-cat
historical linguists are becoming less responsible than they
used to be (cf. the discussion of the spread of rumors about
the number of Eskimo words for snow), or that syntax is driving
historical linguistics to pot?]

To be safe, I guess ancillary arguments come in, like: considering how
areally widespread the IE languages are, is it likely that the
unanimity of WH first questions across IE is NOT reflective of
the proto-language?

OK, so maybe WH fronting is Proto-IE (got a better explanation for the
facts? Or reason to ignore them?), but why AUX inversion in
Germanic questions. And does the application of inversion to
yes/no questions mean that there was a question marker in
initial position (WH question position) with yes/no questions,
as in "WHAT/HULLO, are you kidding me?" (Such a marker "ibai" is found
in Gothic whenever the New Testament Greek original has "me:").
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that an initial yes/no
question-marker was a necessary condition for the inversion
innovation in Germanic. I'm only observing that there was the
option of such a marker, and anticipating (if indeed it has not
already been suggested) that some analysts who are overly formal
in their approaches to syntax might suppose the necessity of
such a marker to motivate a mechanical generalisation of
inversion from WH to yes/no questions. Again, because such in-
version occurs in ALL Germanic should we NOT reconstruct it for
Proto-Germanic.
 .Qualification on ALL: it's variable in Gothic where it's variable in
NT Greek: pronoun subjects usually do not invert with the verb,
noun subjects usually do.] A practical point is that, as far
as I know, there is an issue about the differentiation of
Germanic into anything like the modern descendents before
the 4-5th century. Thus, if AUX inversion goes back that far,
does it matter if it SPREAD from one Germanic area to another
or if it was part of Proto-(West?) Germanic? ALL innovations
must spread before we recognise them as innovations in THE
language (or dialect). Historical linguistics does not study the
evolution of the idiolect (if such a concept as "evolution of
the idiolect" is even coherent).

Finally, about typological arguments. When morphology-as-fossilized
syntax and universal-typology of word order congealed in the
early 1970s, some suggested that even before IE was SOV it was
VSO. Why? Because subject marking inflection FOLLOWS the
verb: V-S, get it? Inevitably, then, some suggested that Celtic
 maintains the most archaic "basic" word order among the IE languages.
 This is another excess in diachronic application of (whatever)
the notion of basic word order. The principal objection raised
was that it is not obvious (and even unlikely) that ONLY BASIC
word orders morphologise. (In fact, they may be least likely to
morphologise.) Considering that S represents an unstressed anaphor
in V-S, S might be in a MINOR word order position. [and note that
if BASIC word order means when the arguments are nominal, NOT
pronominal, then discourse frequency is not criterial of basic,
since at least most subject arguments are pronominal, if not
merely inflectional. Furthermore, if "basic" only counts the
relative frequency of subject NOMINALS, it is based on something
 which is quite rare in discourse: subject nominals]. In any
case, subject inflection following the verb stem is a widespread
Eurasian areal feature, extending into Africa in Semitic and
various other branches of Afro-Asiatic. To some this might be
taken as a clue to the correctness of Nostratic and other super-family
 notions, to others an indication of an extremely old innovation
having spread (over millenia?) across families regardless of
genetic relationship (cf. the famous Balkan area). Still
others might opt for coincidence. Various other languages
also have this feature, e.g., Kanuri in West Africa and various
New World languages. (Welcome to Nostratic?)

Questions about the functions of position after the verb in so-called
SOV languages are raised by V-S inflectional order. The
typological implications of this go beyond my current
knowledge, although I dimly remember that various Eurasian SOV
languages are different according to whether or what function post-verb-
al position has in such languages. This is obvious, for
example, in the contrast between Eurasian SOV languages (with
differences amongst themselves) and the so-called SOVX West
African languages, where X is an adpositional phrase (with
 complications about the origin of adpositional phrases in such
languages which I will refrain from discussing here). Since so
many Eurasian SOV languages are also V-S inflectional
languages, I do not know if there are SOV languages which have
a "minor" postverbal position for an anaphoric subject (such that it
 turns up in other positions in certain constructions, so that we can
demonstrate that it is not an inflection). Maybe typology of relevant
Amerind languages will help solve this problem. But maybe we
may also anticipate the reappearance of the party-spoiling
question about the representativeness of curent language types
to POSSIBLE (and FORMER) language types. No doubt an unwelcome
(and unhelpful?) thought to many.

In this context it seems worth mentioning that mathematical
probability arguments for various word orders, as I have seen
them practiced, are not impressive, because of faults in their
initial assumptions. For example, as far as I know , they
invariably assume the validity of counting NUMBER of languages,
regardless of the genetic relationship or areal contiguity of
the languages counted. This seems unsound to me, particularly
ignoring areal contiguity. For example, we find (I think) that
the Eurasian area, consisting of umpteen and umpred languages,
has S...O word order (ignoring the position of the verb as an
independent variable). Then in the New World we find large
areas of contiguous S...O order, and separate areas of O...S
order. Maybe we should be calculating mathematical probability
on the basis of contiguous area rather than number of languages.
The surprising result might be that O...S is more probable than S...O
(where area is an independent variable, not individual language, of
course.) I'm not sure what the implications of this might be,
but one might be that O...S might have once been a more likely
ordering strategy than it is now, and that the predominance of
S...O across languages counted individually is largely the
result of areal spread. [If the spread of S...O is old enough,
its predominance might even be the result of an absolute
increase in the number of "languages" in the world all together.
However, this isn't really relevant to my criticim of the way
probability arguments have been applied to syntactic typology,
only to the historical implications of adequate assumptions
about language typology. In fact, I'll leave this discussion
with the already widely accepted suggestion that strategies for
information distribution in the clause, esp. in terms
of old/new, are more relevant to typology than such problematic
notions for cross-linguistic comparison as Subject and Object.
Similarly, for example, I think that in Eurasia,
Agent...Patient/Theme order largely cuts across ergative and
 accusative languages, even though ergative languages would have
Patient/ Theme, or whatever term you want, as Subject. To this
extent, S...O cannot be universal even in Eurasia, without
confusing "accusative" definitions of subject and object, where
subject status is consistent with case-marking, and "ergative"
 definitions, where case-marking is more closely tied to transitivity
role than to the mushy cross-linguistic concept of subject.]

FN: "And furthermore, syntactic change can be fairly catyclysmic,
restructuring grammars wholesale in one generation -- unlikely
or impossible with phonological systems."

BW: I think the thrust of FN's suggestion here is largely right,
though probably vastly overstated (on the basis of older ideas
about creoles?). However, questions remain in my mind about
conditions under which these things happen. Within monolingual
areas (or among closely related, mutually intelligible languages,
(certain types of?) syntactic strategies seem to have the
potential to spead quite quickly, perhaps almost as quickly
as new words and expressions, while comparable speed is not
generally observed for phonological change (and is probably
"unlikely or impossible", as Newmeyer puts it, for both internal
linguistic and social reasons -- in fact, I think "unlikely" is
more accurate than "impossible" depending on the nature of the
particular type of phonological change, and I have an example
of possible single-generation phonological change in the
current English of the African Americans in New York City area,
but I do not have sufficient data to make this possibility or
its implications worth discussing here -- until I get to the
section in Labov's new book where he discusses recent
innovations in the Chicago vowel system I will not be sure if he
has other examples) . However, to the extent that
language-contact propels "cataclysmic" syntactic change (in the
historical record) FN's suggestion is not so clear . For
example, English in East LA (a Mexican American community) is more
immediately strikingingly different from adjacent English
dialects on the phonological than on the syntactic level .and
that applies to monolingual speakers of East LA English as well
as Spanish-English bilinguals, and to various phonological
 segments as well as intonational contours]. In understanding
historical syntactic evolution, it is most often difficult to
distinguish internal evolution from language contact (hence the
sour regard for substratal theories during the late 19th-to-mid
20th c celebration of Neogrammarian achievements) -- and then
there is also Jakobson's caution that language contact might not
permit evoluton that is not internally possible anyway, rather
that it can only promote one possible direction of change as
opposed to other possible directions which might flourish under
other external circumstances. This too I consider problematic
 as a blanket statement, but a major consideration to keep in mind
as a possible constraint on change in most reconstructive
expeditions into the unknown past.

Enough. These are my thoughts about the problems of using the
comparative method alone to reconstruct syntax. But nobody
would suggest something so foolish as not enlisting all possible
tools of reconstruction, including internal and typological in
addition to comparative. Conversely, it would be equally foolish
 to shun the comparative method as a reconstructive tool. In any
case, the notion of basic word order is not helpful to
syntactic reconstruction, if not of doubtful value as an
autonomous observation about the synchronic state of any language
as well. I mean it's OK to observe that English and French are
both synchronically SVO (spoken French even more than English --
not least because of the former's preferred question formation
strategies), but without further discussion that does not mean
that their syntaxes are "basically" the same, in any insightful
or interesting (to coin an adjective) sense.

I would like readers to react to any of the points I have made
above, not least of all the accuracy of the facts I have
suggested for various languages, since I am not an expert in the
areas of most of the facts I have presented, e.g., current
typological theory, Indo-European linguistics, Eurasian and New
World areal syntactic characteristics. Benji
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue