LINGUIST List 9.331

Fri Mar 6 1998

Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Robert R. Ratcliffe, Re: 9.313, Disc: State of comparative linguistics
  2. Patrick C. Ryan, Re: 9.313, Disc: State of comparative linguistics
  3. Henry M. Hoenigswald, Historical-comparative work

Message 1: Re: 9.313, Disc: State of comparative linguistics

Date: Wed, 04 Mar 1998 18:10:45 +0000
From: Robert R. Ratcliffe <>
Subject: Re: 9.313, Disc: State of comparative linguistics

> 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 placethere
> once was for IE linguistics in the U.S.

 I strongly share Manaster's concern for the current state of
historical linguistic studies in the U.S. and elsewhere, and for the
lack of attention paid to non-IE families. But having read several of
his postings here and on other lists, I feel that his apparent
obsession with GENETIC classification is both bizarre and
 The goal of historical linguistics is to answer two questions:
What can langauge change tell us about language and what can langauge
data tell us about historical movements and contacts among different
populations. The classic genetic tree model of the nineteenth century
reflects only ONE type of historical situation-- that where a
population speaking a more or less homogeneous language splits into
two or more groups which then separate to the point that they
completely and permanently lose contact with each other. But based on
more modern research on sociolinguistic variation, dialectology,
creoles and pidgins, and language contact, we have to conclude that
the situation envisaged by the classic genetic model is by no means
the most common or typical situation. That is why many historical
linguists feel that rather than try to force the data into an
inadequate model-- that is to force all langauges into bigger and
bigger langauge families-- it might be more worthwile to try to
develop relationship models which deal realistically with contact and

 As a specialist in Semitic (and one of the few Semiticists to have
published on Afroasiatic issues) , I let me first comment on the

> 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).

This is at best a gross exaggeration. Semitics is an admittedly
unusual field within historical linguistics. Although Semitic was the
first language family recognized (pre-dating Jones's discovery of IE,
by about 900 years), Neo-grammarian principles were never fully
embraced by Semitists.Hence one does see, particularly in the older
literature, or particularly in the Italian school, references to
"Common Semitic" rather than "Proto-semitic," indicating some sort of
agnosticism about the notion of proto-languages. But I don't think
this is a consensus view by any means. The consensus among
linguistically oriented Semitists, certainly among those working in or
trained in North America is in favor of the hypothesis of
proto-Semitic and proto-Afroasiatic. But there is something of a
division between philologically-oriented and linguistically-oriented
Semitists. Ideally this is a cooperative and necessary division of
labor. But sometimes it may become an unproductive rivalry. Certainly
we linguistics recognize that we depend upon the philogists, but some
philogists perhaps don't realize the value of theoretical explicitness
and methodological rigor in comparative work.
 There are however two sides to this problem. Yes, Semitists have
been slow to adapt the rigorous methods of IE research. But, on the
other hand, the standard models of language relationship and language
change are much too IE-centric. Some aspects of these models--
including models of subclassification and models of morphological
change-- really don't work well for Semitic. So while Semiticists do
have a responsibility to try to apply these models, general historical
linguists do have a responsibility to take into account data from
Semitic which doesn't fit these models and to try to modify the models

> 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.

I assume that Manaster is referring here to the book "linguistic
diversity in space, and time," in which case he is seriously
misrepresenting what Nichols says about Altaic. As I read her, Nichols
nowhere says that the hypothesis of an Altaic family has been refuted.
Rather she says that many scholars are now considering the possiblitiy
that the similarities among so-called Altaic languages may be due to
something other than a classic genetic relationship-- i.e. they may be
due to shared typological properties or to areal contact. If this
what she means, she is perfectly right. I can attest to this,
although I am no specialist, because I have had the privilege over the
last year to participate in a series of workshops on "Altaic"
languages organized at our university under the chairmanship of the
Turkologist Lars Johanson, involving specialists in Turkic, Tungusic,
Mongolian, as well as languages or families in contact with "Altaic"
languages such as Uralic, Slavic, and Semitic (the last represented by
me). The stated position of the chairman was that the "Altaic" family
remains an open question. And none of the members seemed particulary
interested in arguing for or against the genetic grouping. Rather,
what everyone was interested in, and the official theme of the panel
was "Contact induced changes in peripheral 'Altaic' languages." In
short language contact and typological universals are interesting
areas of research right now, and until we know more about these things
arguing for or against an Altaic family is utterly pointless.

Finally it seems to me that Manaster has falsely presented himself as
a representative of the historical linguistics community-- first
addressing issues which are of legitmate interest to most members of
that community-- then launching into an obscure attack on members of
that community who don't share his interests or opinions. Historical
linguists must indeed try to interact with specialists in other
sub-fields of linguistics. But I don't see how we can do it if we
commit ourselves monomaniacally to an outdated pseudo-Darwinian model
of language relationships, and ignore the work of sociolinguists,
dialectologists, pidgin/creole specialists, typologists, and theorists
of all stripes interested in language universals.

Robert R. Ratcliffe
Senior Lecturer, Arabic and Linguistics,
Dept. of Linguistics and Information Science
Tokyo University of Foreign Studies
Nishigahara 4-51-21, Kita-ku
Tokyo 114 Japan
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Message 2: Re: 9.313, Disc: State of comparative linguistics

Date: Wed, 4 Mar 1998 08:59:28 -0600
From: Patrick C. Ryan <>
Subject: Re: 9.313, Disc: State of comparative linguistics


I could not agree more wholeheartedly with Manaster-Ramer on these
remarks. The a priora assumptions of many linguists are interfering
with their practice of real science!


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Message 3: Historical-comparative work

Date: Thu, 5 Mar 1998 11:07:06 -0500
From: Henry M. Hoenigswald <>
Subject: Historical-comparative work

This is a comment on Manaster's message. Historical-comparative
linguistics has been a superbly practiced, internally consistent,
testable, progressing (e.g. Indoeuropean, Algonquian, Uralian.. ) but
chronically misstated endeavor: see Anna M. Davies, La linguistica
dell'ottocento (now also in English), not to mention Saussure's
complaint a century ago to the effect that he had to spend time and
pain telling his colleagues "what it is they do".
Comparative-historical linguists have been their own worst enemies for
a long time. Proposing superfamilies on impressionistic grounds is no
substitute for constructing them on better grounds.

Henry M. Hoenigswald
908 Westdale Avenue
Swarthmore PA 19081-1804 USA
Telephone: (610) 543-8086
e-mail: <>
 [ (office:) 618 Williams Hall
 University of Pennsylvania
 Philadelphia PA 19104-6305 USA
 Telephone: (215) 898-7473
 Fax: (215) 573-2091 ]
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