LINGUIST List 5.832

Thu 21 Jul 1994

Misc: Relativity, Fricative voicing asymmetries, Endangered lgs

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  1. "Gilbert Harman", Theory of Relativity and Philosophical Relativism
  2. , Re: 5.813 Sum: Ape Language, Fricative voicing asymmetries
  3. , Endangered languages

Message 1: Theory of Relativity and Philosophical Relativism

Date: Thu, 7 Jul 94 09:19:57 EDTTheory of Relativity and Philosophical Relativism
From: "Gilbert Harman" <ghhPrinceton.EDU>
Subject: Theory of Relativity and Philosophical Relativism

An almost irrelevant comment on the interesting posting on
Whorf and Physics.

>> The theory of relativity does not at all state that there
>> are no absolutes, but only that the absolutes are
>> different from those we previously supposed. It is
>> really a badly named theory, and is not at all in line
>> with the philosophical attitude of relativism.

Different philosophers mean different things by
"relativism," but some use the term for the doctrine that
certain predicates have to be understood as relational (or
as more relational than they may at first look) if they are
to have application. Here there is a reasonable analogy
with the theory of relativity. Whether two events are
simultaneous is relative to a frame of reference, according
to the theory of relativity. Whether one should tell the
truth to strangers is relative to a moral framework,
according to (one version of) moral relativism.

Gilbert Harman Voicemail: 609-258-4301
Department of Philosophy Fax: 609-258-1502
Princeton University email:
Princeton, NJ 08544-1006
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Message 2: Re: 5.813 Sum: Ape Language, Fricative voicing asymmetries

Date: Wed, 20 Jul 1994 00:12:56 Re: 5.813 Sum: Ape Language, Fricative voicing asymmetries
From: <>
Subject: Re: 5.813 Sum: Ape Language, Fricative voicing asymmetries

In a recent summary of "fricative voicing assymetries" (Jane H. Stuart-Smith) recently cited
Terence Stampe's reply:

>From: stampeuhunix.uhcc.Hawaii.Edu
>Old English voiced f th s but not sh or x (leaf/leave, mouth/mouthe,
>house(n)./house(v.) -- the verbs normally had vocalic inflections --
>but not bishop (OE biscop) or laugh(e) (OE hleahhan). Medieval
>northern German, Dutch, and the Kentish dialect of English had voicing
>BEFORE voiced segments of f th s but not sh or x (Vater, now devoiced
>again, Kentish vat; das < *dhat < *that; See (Du. Zee); but not in
>mischen, machen), and so on. Icelandic voiced intervocalic fricatives

To which she added:

>[We think Stampe is referring to rhotacism here. Assuming that
>rhotacism typically involves the development s->z->r, it is an example
>of s (but not necessarily other fricatives) becoming voiced.]

He is, of course, but since rhotacism was a diachronic process in
pre-OE, his synchronic analysis of the OE fricatives is not terribly
helpful. The pre-OE [z] was the result of Verner's Law, which also
affected the fricatives /f th h/ deriving from /p t k/ by Grimm's Law.
(<th> is thorn; /h/ had allophones [h] and [x].) All of these became
voiced in non-initial voiced environments when the closest preceding
vowel did not bear the PIE accent, merging with PGmc /b d g/ < PIE /bh
dh gh/. This set did not develop symmetrically in OE (PGmc /d/ yielded
only [d], /g/ mainly voiced velar or palatal fricatives, while /b/
managed to merge with PGmc. /f/ in noninitial positions), but that's
another matter entirely.

The remaining simple fricatives /f th s h/ all became voiced
intervocallically, which in the case of [h] led to quick annihilation
(cf. OE _se:on_ 'see' beside OHG _sehan_, with [h] still preserved in
some modern Bavarian and Austrian dialects). But *geminate* fricatives
were not voiced, which is why intervocalic /hh/ [xx] was preserved
(there had long been no intervocalic simple [x]). I believe /hh/ was
still analyzable as a geminate in OE, and the spelling of _hliehhan_
'laugh' supports this view. [s^] was also not subject to voicing,
since it derived from a cluster /sk/, may still have been
synchronically a cluster (perhaps even phonetically; the <sc>
orthography is not very revealing); does someone here know enough about
OE metrics to say whether it functioned as a cluster in verse? No
matter; the main thing is that we can't call it a simple fricative.

The upshot is: simple (lenis) medial fricatives were subject to voicing
at two different times under quite different conditions. Each time the
whole series /f th s h/ was voiced. So Old English is *not* an example
of assymetrical voicing of fricatives.

Leo Connolly University of Memphis (would you
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Message 3: Endangered languages

Date: Wed, 20 Jul 1994 14:32:47 Endangered languages
From: <>
Subject: Endangered languages

I haven't heard the BBC Science program referred to by James
M.Scobbie, but how to present the situation of Endangered
Languages and what to recommend to politicians and the general
public is certainly an issue being discussed quite intensively
by many linguists. This was evident in a number of sessions at
the recent Australian Linguistic Institute in Melbourne,
particularly at the workshop on Language Shift and Maintenance
in the Asia Pacific Region.

My guess about the identity of the unnamed Australian
professor interviewed on the program is Peter Muehlhaeusler of
Adelaide University. He certainly pushes the ecology analogy
quite strongly, and during ALI we were also told by Joe Lo
Bianco, head of the National Languages and Literacy Institute
of Australia, that this is the line that politicians respond
to, presumably (as Scobbie discusses) because their minds have
been prepared by ecological ideas promulgated successfully by
environmentalists particularly over the last 20 years.

We are probably all aware of the points at which the
ecological analogy breaks down. However, it does have
advantages, not only politically but also because it can call
into play the sociolinguistic ideas of "language ecology" of
Haugen, which can be useful when we are talking about
realistic strategies of language maintenance. Some care is
needed, though, when it comes to making the point about
"linguistic diversity" linked to maintenance of diverse
cultures/knowledges/forms of consciousness. Muehlhauesler
tends to use quite implausible ultra-Whorfian arguments (e.g.
that the grasping of the arm in handshaking in West Africa is
related to the lack of distinction between the words for hand
and arm, in a *UNESCO Courier* article). This kind of thing
addresses the complaint of Scobbie that little was heard on
the BBC program about the actual forms of linguistic
diversity. It also provides much more exciting examples with a
far wider appeal than even the most imaginative GB person
could find to interest the average lay person in the loss of
crucial evidence for universals or parameters when languages
are lost. However if ultra-Whorfianism strains credibility
with a linguist audience, it may not hold up so well in the
long term with a wider audience either. Real Whorfian effects
(such as those discussed in John Lucy's recent books) are more
subtle and may not translate well into the popular media or
political discourse.

There is a middle way which can use arguments about the
relationship between language and culture and link this to the
ecology analogy without making implausible claims. I am
thinking particularly of a good article by Tony Woodbury I saw
recently (unpublished - please post publication details if you
know them) arguing explicitly that cultural elements are lost
when languages are lost. Don Kulick's keynote address at the
ALI Language shift/maintenance workshop mentioned above was a
good critique of uses of terms like culture in the current
endangered languages debate from the standpoint of
contemporary anthropology. "Middle ways" can be boring and
sound like academic dithering, but work like this is not and
could I believe add a new dimension to our arguments for
language maintenance, if properly synthesised.

The linking of language and culture can have negative effects
if not sensitively handled by linguists. A number of
Aboriginal people in Australia who speak English are offended
by suggestions that they have "lost their culture" because
they no longer speak their ancestral language. It is important
for any endangered languages/language maintenance network to
have close links to speakers of indigenous languages and their
organisations, and discuss these issues with them. Following
the ALI workshop the PALM (Pacific-Australia Language
Maintenance) Network was set which aims to bring together
language speakers, linguists and language maintenance
activists. At the moment it is using the NAT-LANG list
(Languages of Aboriginal Peoples) for discussion, with people
putting PALM in the subject header. You can subscribe to NAT-
LANG by sending the following message to

subscribe nat-lang [your name]

Patrick McConvell, Northern Territory University, Darwin,

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