LINGUIST List 9.397

Wed Mar 18 1998

Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Peter T. Daniels, Re: 9.381, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics
  2. manaster, Re: 9.381, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Message 1: Re: 9.381, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Sun, 15 Mar 1998 08:14:36 -0500
From: Peter T. Daniels <>
Subject: Re: 9.381, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Alexis Manaster Ramer writes:

> 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.

I am admittedly no expert in African languages, but I have read much
of the survey volume *The Niger-Congo Languages*, ed. John
Bendor-Samuel (SIL/Univ. Pr. Am., 1989), especially its chapters on
overall classification, and the experts agree that it was a mistake to
elevate the Kordofanian group to siblinghood with all the rest of the
families in the phylum; they assign it a relationship in a more
typical chart of binary branchings that subdivide into the large
number of attested groups, rathern than showing single languages
hiving off from the main body of the phylum.

Lyle Campbell, certainly the most vocal of the anti-lumpers (he has
even claimed credit for inventing the terms "lumper" and "splitter"),
in *American Indian Languages* (Oxford, 1997: 255-57) gathers a
variety of criticism of Greenberg's African classification to support
his criticism of Greenberg's American classification. Notably, Lionel
Bender, a very rigorous comparativist specializing in the Nilo-Saharan
phylum, repeatedly expresses doubts about the unity of this
"catch-all" and continually revises his picture of the whole. 

- Peter T. Daniels
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Message 2: Re: 9.381, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Mon, 16 Mar 1998 17:56:44 -0500 (EST)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Re: 9.381, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

My learned friend(and occasional collaborator) Peter Daniels' comments
on the state of Semitic and Afro-Asiatic linguistics, while phrased to
disagree with some of what I said, state things I completely agree
with (namely, that there is a (small and I think shrinking) number of
excellent Semitic comparative LINGUISTS who recognize the value of
linguistic reconstruction as well as the validity of the Afro- Asiatic
language family, of which Semitic is a small part). If one confines
oneself to talking to or reading the works of these distinguished
scholars, then indeed there is no need for alarm.

However, what does alarm me is that many (maybe even most) departments
that teach Semitic comparative linguistics (and this usually means
depts. of Near Eastern Studies or the like, not of linguistics) are
very largely hostile to both reconstruction and classification of
languages, and that students of the subject are discouraged from
pursuing such topics or acepting the validity of such obvious
constructs as Proto-Semitic or the Afro-Asiatic language family. Or
even if these concepts are technically accepted, they are paid no more
than lip service.

Even within linguistics itself, we have the spectacle of Gerhard
Doerfer, a distinguished student of Turkic and Mongolic languages and
the leading critic of the Altaic theory, repeatedly dismissing the
Afro_Asiatic language family--without the linguistic community at
large rising up in arms at this. Yet Doerfer's explicit position is a
major threat to classificatory linguistics and perhaps to comparative
linguistics as a whole: namely, he claims that related languages must
have cognate numerals between 2 and 5 and a set of cognate basic body
part terms. Since he realizes that the different branches of
Afro-Asiatic do not in fact meet this criterion of relatedness
(invented as a quick and painless way to dispose of Altaic), he then
has to reject Afro-Asiatic (and also incidentally Uralic), because
otherwise he would lose what has become his favorite argument against

Not only do I not see the outraged reaction one would expect if
similar absurdities were published by a leading scholar in any other
area of linguistics, but in addition we find that Doerfer is cited as
an authority for why we must reject Altaic by, e.g., Johanna Nichols
(who to be sure cites Unger citing a unpublished paper by Clark
summarizing teh views of Doerfer, rather than Doerfer himself), whose
work has certainly reached a wide audience of linguists who have no
independent information about these topics to fall back on.

And as if we did not have enough here to tear our hair about, we also
find that recently it has become virtually textbook dogma in
historical linguistics that it is impossible in principle to trace
linguistic relationships older than 6ooo years (or some such figure,
the details differ), with many of the authors apparently not realizing
that (even if dating protolanguages is not an exact science),
Afro-Asiatic must certainly be far older than this and hence
presumably cannot be a valid language family! Moreover, most works
which make such claims do not even bother to say where this comes
from, because it is taken as such an obvious article of faith. (I
myself suspect that the authors do not actually KNOW where the claims
about the 'cut-off point' come from, and that they'd be somewhat
embarrassed if they knew, but that is a subject better left for
anotehr time.

It is thus not to the narrow inner circle of Semitic linguists that I
am referring, except that I think they should be in the forefront of
the outraged reaction to all this (yes, Peter, this does include you).

Alexis MR
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