LINGUIST List 9.381

Sat Mar 14 1998

Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. manaster, Re: 9.343, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Message 1: Re: 9.343, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Sun, 8 Mar 1998 10:21:46 -0500 (EST)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Re: 9.343, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Perhaps it would help to have some concrete examples. In recent
discussions in other lists, a prominent linguist who is not an expert
on African languages cites a recent book by another prominent linguist
who is not an expert on African languages as claiming that one of the
widely accepted African language families (Niger-Kordo- fanian) is
based on nothing more than TYPOLOGICAL parallels. Now, as we all know
(and as Castren first taught c. 1830), typology has little to do with
relationship, and so if this charge were true, the case for
Niger-Kord. would be hopelessly flawed. As it happens, the charge is
not true, there are numerous cognate morphemes (including the system
of nominal class markers) which form the basis for the recognition of
Niger-Kord as a family. Now, I only know this because I took the
trouble of checking in the compendium Die Sprachen Afrikas and in
Greenberg's almost half-century-old book on the classification of
African languages.

BUT, and this seems crucial, the number of non-Africanists who will
have read the claims in the Internet discussion and in the original
book surely is much greater than the number who will go and check.
Hence, there must be any number of linguists who have it on "good
authority" that Niger-Kord. is yet another phony language family
proposed and accepted only by quacks.

It is this kind of misinformation that we need to do something about,
because Niger-Kord is not an isolated instance. In my experience,
general linguists (and esp. the students now being trained) know
almost nothing positive about linguistic classification work but are
constantly barraged with misinformation of a negative kind, leading
many linguists to the (under the circumstances) reasonable conclusion
that there is nothing more to be done in the area of linguistic
classification and that those who try are a priori wrong and indeed
probably quacks.

This is only a part of the problem, but surely an important one for
how can we expect departments to teach linguistic classification if
most of the members of these departments have no information about the
subject other than this kind of misinformation.

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