LINGUIST List 5.1482

Mon 19 Dec 1994

Disc: Comparative Method

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method
  2. , Comparative Method and Geoff Pullum
  3. , Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method
  4. Karl Teeter, Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method
  5. Logical Language Group, Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method

Message 1: Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method

Date: Sat, 17 Dec 94 14:13:34 ESRe: 5.1462 Comparative Method
Subject: Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method

A couple of remarks on recent exchange on comparative method:
1) As far as importance of morphology is concerned I believe that
Alexis is right (sorry, Karl!). It is important, but I think that it would
be impossible to insist that only morphological prallels like Latin est, sunt
and German ist, sind cited by Karl Teeter can prove relationship. Old Church
Slavic has the parallel forms iest# and so~t#, perfectly agreeing with Karl
Teeter's Latin and German. However, in modern Russian the present of copula
dissapeared (we can still recognize forms like iest' and sut', but they sound
bitterly archaic): on student (he [is] student), oni studenty (they [are] stu-
dents). Let us imagine the situation when the only surviving Slavic language
is Russian and we just do not have OLd Church Slavonic materials. Does the
lack of the paradigm make Russian less "indoeuropean" than Latin or German,
or does it make impossible the proof of its IE nature? I think that the answer
is in the negative. Second, Alexis is certainly right when he says that a
refusal to admit lexical evidence will make impossible to prove that Mandarin
is related to Cantonese or that Vietnamese is related to Khasi. Even worse,
we won't be able to state that Beijing Mandarin is related to Xi'an Mandarin,
or that Hanoi Vietnamese is related to Saigon Vietnamese, as nothing resembling
est,sunt/ist,sind can be found in these closely related dialects. Moreover,
we would have to dismantle the families of North and North East Asia as well,
since their agglutinative morphology also does not exhibit anything of the
kind IE does. Therefore, continuing this claim logically to its end, we will
have to state that there are around 50 unrelated languages in Japan alone,
because we have no possibility to prove the genetic relationship of various
Japanese dialects and subdialects, since they do not have a grammar like IE.
There are cases when proof of genetic relationship is based mostly on grammar,
but there are cases when it rests solely on lexical items, as well as there
are lucky cases like IE when one can demonstrate the relatedness on the basis
of both grammar and lexicon. Absolutization of any of this cases may lead us
to dismissal of pretty well established language families. The cases like
"Proto_English-French" can actually be easily controlled by using basic voca-
bulary in lexical comparisons: no matter how many Romance words were borrowed b
yEnglish,its basic vocabulary is still Germanic, which can be easily demon-
strated, contrary to those who try to label the very idea of basic vocabulary
as "semantic primitive".
2) Geoffrey Pullum writes:
) I wonder if it would not be a good idea to hear something -- from the
defenders of wide-ranging and large-time-depth comparison, prefererably --
concerning what would count as evidence AGAINST a genetic relationship?

 The same things as in case of lower-level comparisons: either lack of
regular phonetic correspondences, or lack of enough number of cognates,
representing basic vocabulary items and/or basic morphological markers,
established on the basis of these REGULAR correspondences.

 This is why I, not being Amerindianist myself, cannot believe in Amerind:
Greenberg did not present any correspondences at all, and his whole method
of "mass comparisons" is in direct violation of traditional and conservative
comparative methodology. Therefore, I would side with Greenberg opponents on
this matter. But I believe that it is absolutely UNFAIR to put Illich-Svitych
in one company with Greenberg and Ruhlen, as Geoffrey Pullum does in his
posting. Illich-Svitych work starts with charts of phonetic correspondences,
which DO WORK REGULARLY throughout his 3-volume work, and is, therefore, in
sharp contrast with Greenberg's "mass comparisons". The whole work, at least
in the areas I can judge of (Altaic and Uralic) is done with painstaiking
care and accuracy, reflecting the state of the art, contemporary to the time
when his work was done (sixties). May be the opponents of long-range compa-
rison should at last familiarize themselves with works of Illich-Svitych,
Dolgopol'skii and others, which as I believe represent a successful long-range
comparative work (though it does not necessarily mean that I agree with
all Illich-Svitych's proposals: many things remain to be done), rather then
to repeat the groundless allegations in Illich-Svitych address,and come forward
with some CONCRETE arguments against his work, rather than general statements
that Illich-Svitych's work is like Greenberg's or that there is a ceiling to
the comparative method.


Sasha Vovin
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Message 2: Comparative Method and Geoff Pullum

Date: Sun, 18 Dec 94 14:00:23 ESComparative Method and Geoff Pullum
From: <>
Subject: Comparative Method and Geoff Pullum

I have a problem: Geoff's posting sounds like it assumes
(a) that there are only two sides to the issues under discussion
and (b) that one of them is "orthodox" and the other one
(the I am on, apparently) little short of crazy, the suggestion
being that those who defend the idea that there are linguistic
relationships to be discovered beyond the ones which were known
in 1840 or some such cut-off date (the so-called "remote" or
"distant" connections) might go so far as to accept that all
of Greenberg's Muskogean data are wrong and yet to maintain that
Muskogean is Amerind (without citing any new data!).

I think the reality is quite different. For example, Victor Golla,
Karl Teeter, and I (although we have been debating some methodological
issues relevant to Nostratic) are actually very close on most issues
(except the ones under discussion, apparently) and in particular
on most issues concerning the proposed Amerind grouping.

There are lots of historical linguists with different (and
crossclassifying!!) views on these matters (for example, Eric
Hamp has been widely quoted on his views against Nostratic, yet
he has been a staunch defender of Altaic and of a connection between
Luoravetlan and Eskimo-Aleutian; many of those who like Nostratic
do not like Amerind; and so on.

I think each case deserves to be examined on its merits, the whole
idea of contrasting "orthodox" (or "mainstream") with "remote"
or "distant" comparisons is without foundation and can lead to
further needless polarization, and finally I feel that methodological
issues and substantive ones should be discussed separately (and that
the latter are the more important, even if the former are often the
more seductive).

And to close on a positive note (consonant with the spirit of
the season), if Karl Teeter and I can reach the point where our
major remaining disagreements are (a) whether in principle one could
or could not write a comparative grammar of Anglo-French, and (b)
whether in fact the work done to date on Nostratic is sufficient
to taking it as a working hypothesis that at least Indo-European,
Uralic, Altaic, Kartvelian, and Afro-Asiatic are related and going
further, then I think we HAVE achieved considerable progress (and
I am not even sure we even disagree about THESE points any more,
for as the discussion goes on, more and more mutual misunderstandings
seem to disappear). There will, of course, remain a lot of hard
work to be done, on these and even more on other language families,
but I do not see why the inevitable disagreements should be considered
any more of a problem than the disagreements WITHIN the Indo-Europeanist
community about the different versions of the laryngeal theory or
about the glottalic theory, etc.
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Message 3: Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method

Date: Mon, 19 Dec 1994 11:42:01 Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method
From: <MATTHEWSHKUCC.bitnet>
Subject: Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method

Geoff Pullum has raised the question of the null hypothesis
with respect to Proto-World and long-distance relatedness.
I would suggest that the lack of progress in the dispute may be
due in part to the conflict between two ways of setting the
null hypothesis. A priori, in terms of evoutionary considerations,
long range relationships going back to a single ancestor are to be
expected: this point has been made by numerous linguists in
discussion, if not so often in print. However, methodological
considerations force us to set the null hypothesis the other way,
since we clearly cannot DISPROVE long-distance relatedness.
The problem is analogous to medical disputes: there are plenty
of researchers who would like to show once and for all that
homeopathy, acupuncture etc. are of no benefit in the treatment
of the illnesses for which such effects are claimed.
But all that can be said is that we have no scientifically
respectable evidence that homeopathy works (please note that
this is a purely methodological point - I don't want to see LINGUIST
cluttered with replies disputing the homeopathic FACTS!)
The GReenbergian dispute is even less likely to be resolved by
disproving long-distance relatedness hypotheses than the
homeopathic one, since in the latter case one can at least do controlled trials:
While there have been proposals on controlling for chance
similarities , there will always be too many variables involved
for the GReenbergian null hypothesis to be refuted.
Steve Matthews
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Message 4: Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method

Date: Mon, 19 Dec 1994 09:55:23 Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method
From: Karl Teeter <>
Subject: Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method

Two quick off-the-cuff responses to messages herein: to Geoff Pullum,
asking what would count as evidence AGAINST Amerind (and, presumably,
Nostratic). I can't imagine; that is just the advantage those folks
have. Suppose somebody claims, "there is a God". Similarly I know no way to
disprove the Tower of Babel story. Genetic relationship is a positive fact;
and you gotta accentuate the positive; languages are or they are not
genetically related; don't mess with mister in-between. Note to
Alexis, who keeps talking about "morphological evidence" where I use
the term "grammar". Alexis's usage comes from his quoting Meillet --
for Meillet the word "morphologie" means essentially what
we now call grammar, which includes syntax and phonology, and we
know more about it than he did (thanks to Chomsky). Among other things,
we know that if Proto-Nostratic is a language, it has a grammar.
Merry Xmas, Karl
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Message 5: Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method

Date: Mon, 19 Dec 1994 10:49:43 Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method
From: Logical Language Group <>
Subject: Re: 5.1462 Comparative Method

Geoffrey Pullum writes:

) I wonder if it would not be a good idea to hear something --
) from the defenders of wide-ranging and large-time-depth comparison,
) preferably -- concerning what would count as evidence AGAINST a genetic
) relationship?

Well, what is known about how various hypotheses of relationship were
rejected in the past? At one time, it was believed that Tai was part of
Sino-Tibetan; nobody believes this now. On what basis did those learned
in the art shift their paradigms (to mix a few metaphors)?

I know very little about either language family, but the resemblances between
them (tones, monosyllabicity, the Great Tone Split) are seductive. I think
it would be instructive to hear, from someone who knows the history, just
how these faux amis came to be disregarded.

John Cowan sharing account ( for now
 e'osai ko sarji la lojban.
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