LINGUIST List 9.412

Thu Mar 19 1998

Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Peter T. Daniels, Re: 9.397, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics
  2. manaster, Re: 9.397, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Message 1: Re: 9.397, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Wed, 18 Mar 1998 23:56:14 -0500
From: Peter T. Daniels <>
Subject: Re: 9.397, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Alexis Manaster Ramer wrote:

[snip of agreement]

> 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.

I should like to know what the evidence for this assertion is!

> 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 Altaic.

I have never heard of this Mr. Doerfer, or his claims concerning
Afro-Asiatic; perhaps I am remiss in not having regularly perused the
general Orientalist journals of Europe (even when I had easy access to
them, before this year: JRAS, ZDMG, JA, ArOr), where he may have
published such statements, but they have certainly not appeared in the
Journal of the American Oriental Society. If they are published in
Altaicist or Uralicist journals, of course Semitists and
Afro-Asiaticists would need to be specifically directed to them (and
Alexis now has the opportunity to provide references). However, this
seems to be a claim that is beneath notice, that is self-evidently
absurd (even more so for Uralic than for AA, of course), on which we
need not waste our time (just as distinguished paleontologists do not,
in general, debate creationists).

> 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).

Bring 'im on!
Peter T. Daniels
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Message 2: Re: 9.397, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Thu, 19 Mar 1998 07:47:47 -0500 (EST)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Re: 9.397, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

What Peter Daniels says may be correct but please please note that it
does NOT in any contradict the thesis that the Niger-Kordofanian
language family IS a valid (and I think uncotroversially valid)
language family. The question of branching he alludes to has to do
with the interal structure of this family, much as Indo-Europeanists
keep debating teh branching of IE without ANYONE taking this to mean
that Indo-European itself is invalid. As for Peter's second comment,
I must object to the rhetoric here: I myself pointed out that parts of
Greenberg's African langauge work are not acceptable, even though
Niger-Kordofanian (and other parts) ARE. This of course serves to
make yet again the point I have made so often in recent years, that
the dichotomy that some people have sought to erect between "lumpers"
and ""splitters" is a false one. Greenberg himself was responsible
for splitting as well as lumping in the African work, for example.
Hamp is a lumper when it comes to Altaic and what I call Eskichatkan
and his own Indo-Hattic etc. but so far at least a moderate splitter
when it comes to Nostratic. I myself am a splitter on parts of
Amerind, but a lumper on Altaic. Even at the level of detail, I have
argued for splitting Tonkawa away from Coahuiltecan but for keeping
most of the rest of Coahuiltecan together (the latter point inspiring
considerable ire on Campbell's part, as the readers of Anthro
Ling. well know).

The only dichotomy in the field of classification is between those who
believe in this ridiculous and dangerous dichotomy (and who act on
this belief, trying to "shout down" or read out their colleagues out
of the field) and those who have a more accurate perception of the
state of the field and its history.

What I gather from Peter Daniels' comment is that he simply cannot
accept that I can defend parts of what Greenberg has done and reject
others--even though I have repeatedly said so in print as well as on
this and other lists. This is part of the danger involved in
accepting the lumper/splitter dichotomy. It makes people imagine
things which are the opposite of what is there in black and white.

Consider other examples of this problem: Why is it that over and over
again people identify support for NOstartic with support for
Proto-World? Again, because they assume that aNostraticist is ipso
facto a lumper, that a lumper once is a lumper always, and hence a
Nostraticist must accept ALL lumping theories. Another example: why
is it impossible for people to distinguish between work which assumes
the correctness of Nostratic to be an established fact (e.g., that of
Dolgopolsky or Bomhard) and work which seeks to explore whether it is
really a fact but without hysteria (e..g, that of Michalove, Vine, or
myself--a distinction which for example eludes Don Ringe (see his
paper in Diachronica)? Again, because one you buy into Campbell's
false dichotomy, you cannot accomodate in your typology of linguists
someone who looks at Nostratic without either dogmatic acceptance or
hysterical rejection.

I really must insist on this point. Once and for all, I do not
endorse much that Greenberg has done (and have published several
critiques of some of his work), but I endorse large parts of in
particular his African classification (as do all working Africanists,
I believe). I reject Ruhlen and Bengtson's and Shevoroshkin's and
other people's claims about Proto-World and global etymology, and in
fact I do not even accept the idea of monogenesis of language. I do
not take Nostartic as an established fact. And at teh same time I
decry the way in which Campbell and others have tried to split the
field and the fact that there has been almost no intellectucally
respectable discussion of such issues as Ameridn, Nostratic, etc., not
to mention the way in which irresponsible statements about the African
or Altaic issues.
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