LINGUIST List 9.313

Tue Mar 3 1998

Disc: State of comparative linguistics

Editor for this issue: Brett Churchill <>


  1. manaster, The state of comparative linguistics

Message 1: The state of comparative linguistics

Date: Sun, 1 Mar 1998 11:18:38 -0500 (EST)
From: manaster <>
Subject: The state of comparative linguistics

Over the last year or so, I have observed discussions
MENDELE, etc., which seem to point to the need for a broader
linguistic audience to address some issues having to do
with the status and future prospects of comparative
linguistics (including but not restricted to classificatory
linguistics), and I think LINGUIST is surely the best place
for this.

One of my concerns is that comparative linguistics appears
to be taught less and less in certain countries, esp. the
United States, where numerous leading comparativists have
died or retired and their positions have been abolished
or dedicated to theoretical or other noncomparative linguists.
It is especially language families other than IE that seem
to be suffering, but the same applies to the fate of IE
studies at at least one of the (if not the) best place
there once was for IE linguistics in the U.S.

Another is that a number of myths are circulating
especially among philologists and others who use linguistics
but also among general linguists regarding comparative 
linguistics--while at the same important true information 
is not widely disseminated at all. For example, there is now 
apparently almost a consensus among Semitic scholars who are
not linguists but who of course do a lot of language work
that reconstruction of protolanguages is fiction, and worse
there are now textbooks of Semitic "linguistics" and other
sources which question or deny the validity of the relation-
ship between Semitic and the other Afro-Asiatic languages
(Egyptian, Berber, Cushitic, and Chadic). Likewise, many
general linguists and others "know" from sources such as
Johanna Nichols' book from a few years ago that the Altaic
theory has been conclusively refuted and is now dead, but
almost no one outside the circle of scholars who actually
work on these languages knows that there are actually
many more proponents of Altaic now than there were in
the 1960's, when the great Altaic debate raged, or that
one of the two or three leading opponents of Altaic,
Janhunen, has just recently announced what appears to
be an endorsement of the relationship between Mongolic
and Tungusic, which is a part of the Altaic theory. Particularly
distressing are the reports that some linguists working on
entirely different language families have been questioning
the validity of Niger-Kordofanian and in particular
claiming that the N-K relationship was never based on
anything other than typological similarities (which
if true would make it completely invalid, of course, 
but which is completely UNtrue). And so on.

A third concern I have is that recent textbooks
of historical linguistics, written typically by
people who (while excellent at other things) have
done little or no work on language classification
have been spreading all kinds of misinformation
about this, the most difficult in some ways,
area of comparative linguistics. Misinformation
in textbooks of course is the hardest kind to
combat, because introductory level students
will not read technical articles where the real
information is to be found.

Finally, there seems to be a growing number of
linguists (again, almost all of them people
whose excellent research records do not 
include work in linguistic classification) who
have been claiming that we have already reached
the limits of how far the methods of linguistic
classification can reach, and so that any ongoing
work on linguistic classification is in principle
futile and should be discouraged. And I keep
hearing, perhaps through confusion, voices saying
that similar limits have been reached in the
area of reconstruction, so that we cannot hope
to reconstruct any protolanguages older than Proto-
IE and that even in the case of Proto-IE the problems
not yet solved can in principle never be solved with

I hope SOMETHING can be done, and obviously it is
up to linguists to do it, but WHAT?
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