LINGUIST List 6.121

Sat 28 Jan 1995

Disc: Comparative: n-ary vs. binary comparison

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  1. Ecological Linguistics,Anderson,PAS, n-ary comparison

Message 1: n-ary comparison

Date: 24 Jan 95 14:51 GMT
From: Ecological Linguistics,Anderson,PAS <ECOLINGAppleLink.Apple.COM>
Subject: n-ary comparison

(1) Very strongly support Alexis MR's message on n-ary comparison being
stronger than binary comparison. As real minds work, it is the pragmatics of
not going down false trails which is at issue.

I am puzzled only by what he mentions as an exceptional case, that is, how
ternary comparison could ***ever*** be worse than binary.

Even if a third language is included which is more divergent, has more loan
vocabulary, or whatever, and therefore poses extra problems or barriers. That
is not a consequence of the ternary status in the comparison, because if the
same language were included as one member of a binary comparison, the same
problems would presumably be there.

(2) I did not respond earlier only because of lack of time. The preference for
n-ary comparison, the claim that n-ary is only a multiple of binary, is
obviously false, just as the notion that one should not be engaging in
comparison if one needs to use a dictionary is obviously false (Alice Faber
answered that one, that if that restriction had been enforced, our knowledge
would be far less than it now securely is).

Both of these supposed restrictions are for the convenience of the linguist
analyst, artificially restricting the data available so as to make it seem as
if the analyst's knowledge is more complete for the task than it is, and give a
greater (but artificial) sense of psychological security. It goes along with
the statement by some historical linguists that they "never want to make a
mistake". Of course none of us do, but some are willing to in order to advance
knowledge, and even those who do not want to cannot make themselves immune.
The very act of disregarding data which is "too far afield" can sometimes lead
to mistakes. Always possible when trying to *discover* answers when we do not
know the answers in advance.

Rather, we are all human, and gigantic problems will be beyond any of us to
completely solve (attempts at partial solutions do not imply guilt or
wrongdoing). This in no way implies we should not attempt to solve those
problems. We should be tolerant of others' efforts and use the best part of
them, always.

(3) J"org Knappen's suggestion of "families, classes, and orders" a la the
biologists does seem useful. Can we have suggestions as to clues when we
should use one or the other of such terms? Presumably some more sophisticated
measure of degree of shared genetic material would be most analogous to the
biological usages, rather than a simple lexicostatistical measure?

Lloyd Anderson
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