LINGUIST List 5.939

Wed 31 Aug 1994

Disc: Binary Comparison?

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  1. Scott C DeLancey, Binary Comparison (ref. 5.935 Altaic)

Message 1: Binary Comparison (ref. 5.935 Altaic)

Date: Wed, 31 Aug 1994 12:16:58 Binary Comparison (ref. 5.935 Altaic)
From: Scott C DeLancey <>
Subject: Binary Comparison (ref. 5.935 Altaic)

In a very interesting post on Altaic, Alexis Manaster-Ramer
<> writes:

> Prof. Vovin is quite right is pointing out that some of the
> traditional anti-Altaicists, so called, have adopted the
> surprising position that only binary comparison (2 languages
> at a time) is permitted. This point should perhaps be
> pursued because it seems to be rearing its head
> in some critiques of Amerind and Nostratic as well.

I have to wonder what specific suggestions are being referred
to here. There may sometimes be a practical argument made to
the effect that comparison of fewer languages is a more manageable
task than comparison of many. This is obviously true, although
it is also certainly true that comparison of all languages or
subgroups in a hypothetical genetic grouping, if it can be done
properly, will be ultimately more productive than comparison
limited to arbitrary pairings of languages. (The caveat about
being done properly is crucial; Greenberg's _Language In the
Americas_ is notoriously full of examples of what can happen when
an investigator attempts to compare more data than (s)he can
adequately control). But is anyone seriously suggesting as
a methodological principle that comparative linguistics must
proceed by a succession of binary comparisons? If so, who,
and on what grounds?

Scott DeLancey
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403, USA
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