LINGUIST List 9.424

Fri Mar 20 1998

Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Peter T. Daniels, Re: 9.412, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics
  2. manaster, Re: 9.412, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Message 1: Re: 9.412, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Fri, 20 Mar 1998 07:39:14 -0500
From: Peter T. Daniels <>
Subject: Re: 9.412, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Alexis Manaster Ramer's most recent contribution is unclear to me:
since one of Greenberg's aims is the proper *sub*grouping of languages
within a phylum, the following position doesn't seem reasonable:

> 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.

The question of branching -- the internal structure -- is *exactly*
the point of Greenberg's classification, and that is what has been
challenged and reworked by the specialists; and it is especially
perverse to continue to use the name "Niger-Kordofanian" for a phylum,
Niger-Congo, in which the Kordofanian group is simply another
constituent among many, branching off at a level coordinate with

Campbell 1997, chap. 7, collates the criticisms of Greenberg's African
and American classifications and presents them especially clearly,
with a decent attempt at avoiding invective. (The chapter also makes
extensive reference to the mysterious Denver Conference of 1991 --
though it is supposedly to be published by Stanford University Press,
this may be the only source for its content for years to come.) --
Peter T. Daniels
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Message 2: Re: 9.412, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Fri, 20 Mar 1998 08:40:40 -0500 (EST)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Re: 9.412, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Peter Daniels says inter alia:

"I have never heard of this Mr. Doerfer, or his claims concerning

"Mr." Doerfer is Professor Gerhard Doerfer, only the senior
Turkologist and Mongolist around, and THE critic of Altaic. His
rejection of Uralic AND Afro-Asiatic first appeared, I believe, in:

Doerfer, Gerhard. 1974. "Ist das Japanische mit den altaischen
Sprachen verwandt?" Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenlandischen
Gesellschaft 124: 103-142.

In a later publication, viz.:

	Doerfer, Gerhard. 1993. "Nostratismus, Illic-Svityc und die
Folgen. Ural- altaische Jahrbu"cher, N. F. 12: 17-3

he seems to take it back, but I have just received a prepublication
copy of something to appear in the Central Asiatic Journal, where he
strongly reiterates this position.

It might be of interest to Peter and others to note that "Mr." Doerfer
does not deny that the Altaic languages are "verwandt"
(lit. "related"), he merely denies that they are "urverwandt"
(lit. "originally related"), that is, that is he takes to be a family
but denies that they (or indeed many other families) have a single
common origin. Rather he adopts the (one would have thought long
exploded) Trubetzkoy/Kotwicz theory of convergence of originally
UNrelated languages. He thus holds that Semitic and Cushitic in
particular were originally unrelated, and likewise Finno-Ugric and
Samoyedic (the two branches of Uralic). And of course he asserts the
same of three of the five branches of Altaic (Turkic, Mongolic, and
Tungusic). As for the other two branches, Japanese and Korean, he
seems to be saying that they are not even "verwandt", but I am not
clear on this, esp. since he usually says little if anything about
Korean at all.

It is of more general interest to observe that when J. Nichols in her
book of a few years ago says that the "received opinion" is that
Altaic is invalid, she is citing an account by Unger of an unpublished
paper by Clark which was supposed to summarize the views of Doerfer
(whose position would I think be rendered unacceptable to any modern
comparative linguist by the facts I have just described and who indeed
twenty years or so was the subject of merciless criticism at the hands
of at least one spokesman for modern comparative linguistics, namely,
Eric Hamp) and those of Rona-Tas (another leading Turcologist, who
however nowhere denies the validity of Altaic!!).

I warmly recommend to Peter--as well as Professor Nichols and to all
those who think they "know" that Altaic is a long exploded myth--that
they read the works of Professor Doerfer and Professor Rona-Tas, and
other works in the Altaic field (pro and con) for themselves.

I think they will find that, while the debate over Altaic is not over,
there are more and more competent linguists working on these languages
who accept Altaic and fewer and fewer who do not. In fact, if it is
correct (as I have just heard) than Janhunen has now accepted the
relationship of Mongolic and Tungusic at least, then the ranks of
active published critics of all of Altaic will have been reduced to
just Doerfer and Krippes (I hope I am not missing anyone)--plus such
outsiders to the field as Nichols and some other general linguists who
have for some reason seen fit to attack Altaic while accepting other
comparable language families. And it seems to me that the Doerfer
view (which is unquestionable the indirect source of most of this
anti-Altaic feeling) is not one which anyone should be able to accept
if the price of its acceptance is that we must also reject Uralic and
Afro-Asiatic (which of course are universally accepted by competent
specialists in the relevant fields).

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