LINGUIST List 9.343

Sat Mar 7 1998

Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Peter T. Daniels, Re: 9.338, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics
  2. Patrick C. Ryan, Re: 9.338, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Message 1: Re: 9.338, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Sat, 07 Mar 1998 08:20:44 -0500
From: Peter T. Daniels <>
Subject: Re: 9.338, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

My friend Alexis Manaster Ramer has seriously misinformed himself
regarding the state of comparative Semitic linguistics, likely because
of the source of his information.

> As for me, my impression about the state of Semitic studies (namely,
> that there are very few active Semitic LINGUISTS, that the field is
> dominated by philolo- gists, and that the philologists
> overwhelmingly doubt the reality of protolanguages (even
> Proto-Semitic) and increasingly voice doubts about the Afro-Asiatic
> language family) is based on extended discussions on the ANE list

Not one of the leading scholars of Semitic linguistics is a subscriber
to the ANE list. At the risk of offending those whom I do not name
here, the following do not take the list (or, at least, have never
posted a posting to it that I recall): Alice Faber, Gene Gragg,
Benjamin Hary, the late Robert Hetzron, Grover Hudson, John
Huehnergard, Stephen Kaufman, Alan Kaye, Wolf Leslau, Joe Malone,
Dennis Pardee, Gene Schramm, Rainer Voigt [American scholars come to
mind more easily than European!], etc. The list is intended for
archeologists, historians, and biblical scholars and rarely carries
any discussion of linguistics.

> as
> well as discussions I have had with current or recent graduate
> students or faculty at some leading American departments, and the
> reading of some recent introductory texts. 

Surely not introductory texts in Semitic linguistics? None has been
published recently. At least one is in press that uses Semitic data
exclusively to teach and illustrate the strictest comparative method.

> I dont of course mean to say that Semitic linguistics is dead, but I
> think the general linguistics audience does need to alerted to the
> fact that there are books entitled 'Introduzione alle lingue
> semitiche' or the like which preach that the Semitic languages are
> NOT related to Afro-Asiatic.

I am not aware of any Semitic linguists who subscribe to the position
of the principal author of this work (Giovanni Garbini), who over some
50 years developed an idiosyncratic position regarding the history and
development of the Semitic languages involving waves of
"amorreizzazione" (or something like that). I have never seen this
book, but it is scheduled for review by a number of senior scholars in
various journals which probably reach a wider audience than the book
will do.

[deletion of discussion of Altaic]

> In saying this, I am not appointing myself a "spokesman" for
> comparative linguistics. I agree with professor Hoenigswald that
> comparative linguists have done themselves more harm than good in
> some ways, though we probably disagree about the specifics. I think
> the main problems are that (a) comp. linguists never articulated a
> coherent intellectual response to the view of many linguists who
> subscribe to Noam Chomsky's views that, since ling. is all about the
> learning of lg by a child, comp. ling. has no relevance to lx (a
> view I am not at all sure Noam actually shares), (b) comp.
> linguists have continued to publish their findings in (increasingly)
> specialized (and hence obscure) places w/o any attention to the need
> to keep the rest of us informed,

Some of the most fascinating work of Alexis's own self appears in such
a journal: it is of the highest quality, yet its circulation is
undeservedly small--although its subscription price is so low that
there seems no excuse for anyone at all interested in these issues not
to take it (viz. Anthropological Linguistics).

>(c) comp. linguists do not seem to have staged any kind of a fight
>when for example Language, which used to publish tons of comparative
>work, stopped doing so,

As Bill Bright insisted for 22 years, Sally Thomason for 7, and Mark
Aronoff has for the duration of his tenure so far, they cannot publish
manuscripts that are not submitted to them. Examination of the annual
statistics of articles submitted vs. articles published will show that
*Language* has not discriminated against comparative linguistics. Does
Alexis have a collection of rejection letters from *Language*?

> (d) comp. linguists have not
> produced quality textbooks of historical linguistics, 

I haven't seen Alexis's reviews of the texts by Crowley, Fox, Hock,
McMahon, and perhaps others (as well as the reissuing of the classics
by Anttila and Lehmann) showing that they are not "quality". Not to
mention the eminently readable manifestos (1997) by Roger Lass and
R. M. W. Dixon--one earthily written and filled with detailed
examples, the other brief, impressionistic, and passionate--designed
to stir up interest in the field and combat the attitudes described,
legitimately, in (a) above.

> (e) comp. linguists have allowed internal debates (e.g., over Altaic
> or Amerind) take priority over the fate of the field, and have been
> more concered about trying to "shout down" others in the field than
> about having the field survive,

Remarks by W. B. Yeats and Barry Goldwater come to mind. Of what value
is a "field" if extreme positions are publicized uncontested?

> and (f) comp linguists have been almost uniformly silent when the
> kinds of misinformation I alluded to above have been getting the
> attention of the broader linguistic public--probably feeling about
> these the way that all linguists feel about the misinformation
> regarding language in nonlinguistic publications (that it is too
> difficult and too hopeless a fight given the size and resources of
> the problem).

The comparative linguists cannot be blamed for the superficiality and
incomprehension of the science reporters who are sent to cover their
debates with no background or preparation--and who when presented with
the requisite information ignore it anyway. In 1991 Eric Hamp told me
he had spent eight hours on the telephone with the reporter from
Scientific American who produced one of the two most irresponsible
articles in the crop that appeared around April of that year (the
other being in the Atlantic)--and anyone who knows Eric Hamp will
recognize that the time estimate is probably conservative. As has been
addressed in panels at LSA meetings in at least the last two years, it
is more a question of achieving some recognition of the existence, let
alone the achievements, of the science of linguistics as a whole than
a matter of journalistic neglect or celebration of this or that
legitimate breakthrough or sensational claim.

What seems most missing from this contribution to the discussion is
the observation that as linguistics departments become defunded,
faculty positions are reduced: more likely than
historical/comparativists being replaced by syntactic or phonological
theorists (which I believe was mentioned previously), they are simply
being retired without any sort of replacement.

- Peter T. Daniels
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Message 2: Re: 9.338, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Sat, 7 Mar 1998 11:44:58 -0600
From: Patrick C. Ryan <>
Subject: Re: 9.338, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Dear Professor Wald and LINGUISTLIST:

A few comments below.

>Date: Fri, 6 Mar 1998 20:27:48 -0800 (PST)
>From: bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU (bwald)
>Subject: Re: 9.331, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics


>Robert writes:
>> I feel that his apparent obsession with GENETIC classification is
>>both bizarre and anachronistic.
>This could be said about a lot of scholars. Honeigswald, in an
>acompanying message, undoubtedly had Greenberg and Merritt in mind
>(Alexis dissociates himself from them, but this message is not about
>Alexis). In any case, the word "anachronistic" struck me as
>particularly appropriate to "genetic" classification, not only
>because of the large role played by language contact in the evolution
>of languages,

To take an example from animal husbandry, if the offspring of German
Shepherds was paired with a Dalmatian, it would still be of interest
regarding the offspring of *that* union to know what the
classification of the grandparents was --- even though the offspring
might resemble them not at all.

>but because of the original motivation for genetic
>classification in *romantic nationalism* from the beginning of the
>19th c. (until who-knows-when).

If this were true, to what should we ascribe the efforts of Linnaeus?

While any scholar may have a "hidden agenda", that fact by itself is
not sufficient to discount his "findings". Either the scholar is
dealing scientifically with evidence or he is not.

>The tree model of linguistic evolution, compellingly simple and
>simply a part of the entire story, served the political identity
>purposes of romantic nationalism in providing the basis for origin
>myths for sociopolitical entities seeking recognition of some sort.

Social Darwinism served the same sort of purposes. Is there anyone on
this list who would say that we should excise Darwin's theory of
evolution from science because it has been put into political
expressions that are repugnant to many of us?


>Germany etc became somewhat unified, and since then the rules of the
>political game have been changed both politically and scientifically
>in power states, often to the displeasure of remaining romantic
>nationalists in various "minority" cultures. Yet, the preoccupation
>with singling out some UNITARY origin for a language, as for a
>culture, persists, now as an "obsession" (or acquired predisposition)
>without a clear purpose.

To connect Social Darwinism and fixation on Aryan identity with the
need for rallying points in a weak Germany is undoubtedly correct.

However, what does this have to do with theories proposing larger
linguistic families? Actually, it is hard to see the political
application of a hypothesis like Nostratic in its original minimum
form (Semitic + Indo-European). A political movement espousing a
common cause between Semites and Europeans against the "others" has
yet to make an appearance.

To characterize proponents of this and other unifying theories as
victims of an "anachronistic" "obsession" and working "without a clear
purpose" is a purely ad hominem argument. And, we all know that ad
hominem arguments and other logical improprietes are employed when
facts by themselves cannot be bent to suit the purpose. While motive
certainly needs to be taken into consideration in testimony
unsupported otherwise, that is certainly not the case here. Either the
facts suggest a hypothesis of genetic relationships among languages or
they do not.

For example, although the idea of Nostratic has not been supported by
either a majority of IEists or AAists, where is the book that has
demolished it? Who has showed that the premises are flawed? When was
iffectively debunked for all time so that its proponents can be
*legitimately* characterized as unscientific?

> A vaguer purpose of chronologically layering the contacts which have
>led to current cultures remains the underlying purpose. Somehow, for
>many historical linguists, the notion of a "single" origin still has
>primacy, and the problems involved in coordinating into some single
>ancient period of time the various things that can be reconstructed
>is short-changed by scholars who impatiently dismiss contact
>phenomena as "noise", but argue incessantly about which phenomena are
>contact and which are "original" (indicating no consensus on the
>principles for establishing such things, a glaring weakness in
>historical linguistic methodology at present).

Once does not have to focus on the occasional static on an old AM
station to appreciate the music!

>Robert continues:

>> 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.

I am afraid this is the classic "straw man" argument. Every situation
will be different but no Nostraticist of which I am aware doubts
Semitic loanwords into Indo-European and vice versa. It is not a
necessary precondition for new language family formation to
"completely and permanently lose contact" with sibling languages. It
is only necessary that there be a separation of some kind, political
or spatial, that is sufficient (and, I admit, the parameters of
sufficiency are difficult to precisely define) to occasion the slight
bending of the branch that results in observable diversity later in

>We know that it is not a necessary condition that groups lose contact
>with each other for their languages (more accurately, speech
>varieties) to diverge. Loss of contact is tangential to the point of
>the basic tree model, and ultimately clouds the issue of what is
>wrong with it.

"Loss of contact" is an idea adapted from biological theories of
divergence. The "basic tree model" can survive whether or not the
exact mechanism of language divergence can be specified.

>>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.

It is hard to understand what is really being argued here. If
linguists have legitimate concerns about the effects of interlanguage
contacts on linguistic change, so what? Whether language B, which all
acknowledge developed from language A, became different from language
C, also an offspring of language A, through any of the above mentioned
processes or through purely internal processes, the genetic model
simply asks us to acknowledge the ultimate parenthood of language A.

>I think the modern research that R alludes to here has not yet
>resolved the problem of what form of linguistic change is
>(statistically?) most common or typical (esp internally spontaneous
>vs. contact-induced vs. multiply-caused), and even raises not yet
>resolved questions about the extent to which the classic genetic
>model can be maintained at all, or at least how to (re)interpret it.

This is another classic argument: to imply that the situation is so
complex or full of variables that we cannot have any theories until
more data is collected.

The basic genetic model suggests that a language develops out of
another language; i.e. is not a lingua ex machina. Stated in that
form, it is hard to see how any linguist could disagree.


>The distinction is worthwhile if it is made more explicit. "Common
>Semitic" refers to what attested Semitic languages have in common,
>with the inference that they inherited it from an earlier time when
>whatever they had in common existed as a SINGLE entity. The
>"Proto-Semitic" notion usually goes further to boldly and less
>justifiably claim that they descended directly from a SINGLE
>"language" (except for the "noise" mentioned above).

I think this is a serious misunderstanding of what a proto-language is
conceptualized to be by those who espouse such ideas. All of us know
that even in the smallest language groupings there are recognizable
differences (class, age) in vocabulary and grammar so that even in one
human family, different "languages" (if minimal differences are taken
into consideration) are spoken.

To contrast Common Semitic and Proto-Semitic is therefore empty unless
one simply wants to attach opprobium to associations with "Proto-".

Of course, I admit that I may not have understood what is meant by
"whatever they had in common existed as a SINGLE entity". What kind
of an entity could this be except a language that occupied a time and
place with many dialectal variations, i.e. a proto-language?

>But a "language" is more than a set of words. We are still learning
>how much more it is.

This is inspiring but minimally informational. If linguistics has a
problem, it is that many of its practitioners entered the field
through the medium of literature rather than from a "hard
science". Language, as the focus of linguistics, can be narrowed to
whatever we all agree it to be. It is not necessary to involve ASL in
a taxonomic classification of world languages, for example, although
ASL has valuable things totell us about the earliest forms of

 (Undeniably, Semitic languages also share some very striking
>grammatical processes, distinct from most of their historically
>attested neighbours, but it is a very tricky proposition to assign
>them to the same time period as the common lexicon, not to mention
the >problem of establishing what is indeed in the *earliest*
>reconstructable lexical stratum.)

Another set of seemingly insoluble problems! Should we just belay the


>>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.

I suppose that there must be a few proponents of genetic
classification of langauges and existence of proto-languages who are
"monomaniacally" asserting their claims but characterizations like
this are, of course, more ad hominem --- also "outdated" and
"pseudo-Darwinian" fall in the same category.

Secondly, no proponent of proto-languages of whom I am aware "ignore"s
the work mentioned above though many will feel, as I do, that it is
almost entirely beside the point. Whether we have good knowledge or
not of how and why English diverged from its Anglo-Saxon parent does
not affect our linking of AS and English. Altaic or Nostratic is
*exactly* the same idea but made more difficult because of the greater
time spans and lack of detailed stadial forms.


> After Darwin, the pseudo-scientific "genetic" terminology was
>grafted onto the linguistic tree notion, and, of course, all kinds of
>racist implications were then attached to it, some of which still
>remain as an "empty" racism without the added notion of "natural
>superiority". I sometimes wonder how current US (and wider) white
>supremacists like the "Aryan Brothers" would take it if they realized
>they were calling themselves "Iranians". Would they give up
>swastikas (< Sanskrit) and start wearing black turbans like Khomeini
>et al?

Here we have the real bottom line --- evolutionary processes in
language *must* be rejected because of potential misapplication of the
findings in racist ideology. IF it were scientifically true that IE as
the language of Kulturtrdger had the importance which was once
ascribed to it by Nazi theorists, its employment in vicious racist
propaganda would be unfortunate but would have no bearing on its
scientific validity. I can use a rifle to hunt game for my family's
food or stage a raid on the local 7-11.

I am not sure of Professor Wald's area of expertise but those who have
some IE background will be surprised to learn that "arya-" refers only
to Iranians. And unless we believe that the speakers of Sanskrit were
the only legitimate descendants of Neolithic cave-artists, it is
probably questionable to ascribe the origin of this *universal* symbol
to speakers of any one ancient language.

Frankly, I think it may be impossible in this day of politicized
science to fairly evaluate the genetic model of language

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