LINGUIST List 6.374

Wed 15 Mar 1995

Disc: Focus Systems, Comparative Syntax

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  1. benji wald, Re: 6.305 Focus systems and Middle Egyptian
  2. , Compar Syntax, Biological Trees

Message 1: Re: 6.305 Focus systems and Middle Egyptian

Date: Tue, 28 Feb 95 22:37 PST
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.305 Focus systems and Middle Egyptian

Short correction on the focus thing. For Yoruba first schematic
 who FOC s/he see him I meant to type in 'who saw him?" not "who did
s/he see?" With regard to "focus" as the the function of 'iw in Egyptian,
Vincent replied to me with another possibility. I'm still
thinking about it, and I'll leave it to him to discuss it on the list
if he wants. In any case, I've found out a little more about
Egyptian since then, and the main thing is I'll have to learn a LOT
more about it before I can relate my response specifically to the
the Egyptian situation. As it stands it should just be taken as one
 way, in response to Vince's question, that a language can have the
characteristics that he described for Middle Egyptian. My interest
remains in both the solution to the Egyptian problem and the general
cross-linguistic spread of the kinds of focus systems I described. Benji
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Message 2: Compar Syntax, Biological Trees

Date: Thu, 2 Mar 1995 10:34:05 -Compar Syntax, Biological Trees
From: <>
Subject: Compar Syntax, Biological Trees

Comparative Syntax and Biological trees

A number of the discussions on these topics sort of amaze me.

(1) Why should one doubt that a comparative syntax is possible? As long as
there are four or five or more different syntactic typologies in the world,
and as long as we have any moderate knowledge about which of these
typological forms can change into which others by simple single steps and
crucially which cannot, we can begin to reason about which languages might be

That is, if we know A) B > C > D > A with only five language types possible,
then we can at a minimum start with immediate neighbors geographically and
start to make inferences. The more we know of external social history, the
farther we can go (as always combining various kinds of information).
 Sometimes wrong of course, but *more often than chance* right. That is all
one can ask as a minimum capability of any technique. Of course we can do
much better than that, and we have enormous knowledge about many particular
grammatical constructions that normally give rise to particular others or
which normally arise from particular others.

So it is wonderful that we should accumulate more knowledge of this kind, and
look for particular traps we are likely to fall into in this process.

But why ask whether comparative syntax is even possible? What is going on in
our field? Does it have much of anything to do with facts?

(2) On the use of a biological "reduced-mutation algorithm" applied to
linguistic data, discussed by J. Guy recently.

As has been pointed out by better historical-comparative linguists, when we
make a historical reconstruction or a comparative claim, we are in effect
positing set of historical chains of development by which a languge or
languages with given starting points can develop step by step into
descendents leaving the evidence along the way and the results today which we
have as our evidence.

This "step by step" is like a minimal series of mutations, with the added
information that it is our business in linguistics to learn which changes
(mutation steps) are more natural, and of course most of these go only in one

I would guess that the "reduced-mutation algorithm" studied by J. Guy did not
have such particular favored steps of change built in, so of course it will
not do as well as a set of techniques which do have such knowledge built in
(the human comparative linguist, or rather a community of them, is our tool).

If I have not understood correctly, I would much appreciate further
clarification from Guy concerning just in which respects the particular
"reduced mutation algorithm" fell down. (I am not trying to argue in favor
or using it, just as always to be concrete and factual about what results of
various techniques are.)

(3) Binary and N-ary comparison.

On Guy's last point about binary vs. N-ary comparison, I fear people are
simply talking past each other. I do not know of anyone who believes that
when one does N-ary comparison, one does not do any binary comparisons.
 Those who have supported the superiority of N-ary comparisons over binary
comparisons (important! other things equal, not N-ary comparisons as a
substitute for other comparative-historical techniques) are making a more
subtle claim, namely that the net effect is better with the N-ary. That is
sort of like saying that having a community of comparative-historical
linguists is better than having only one (I don't want to push the analogy
too far, it's not a complete analogy).

Lloyd Anderson
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