LINGUIST List 9.434

Sun Mar 22 1998

Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Peter T. Daniels, Re: 9.431, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics
  2. Koontz John E, Re: 9.381, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics (fwd)

Message 1: Re: 9.431, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Sat, 21 Mar 1998 20:00:40 -0500
From: Peter T. Daniels <>
Subject: Re: 9.431, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Herb Stahlke and Benji Wald both question my statement that one of
Greenberg's aims is the proper *sub*grouping of languages within a
phylum, and they cite his 1963 African book (the one I have is the
1970 Third! edition), mostly as not making such a claim.

I believe my understanding comes from later writings, such as his 1994
*Word* article, perhaps the interview by Alan Kaye in *Current
Anthropology*, and from various statements by Ruhlen that he allowed
his name to be signed to.

There's no question that Greenberg has been re-remembering his early
work in recent years!

Regarding Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi's objection to the name
"Afro-Asiatic," he will surely agree that it's a vast improvement over
"Hamito-Semitic"; no specialist in the field--no linguist at all, I
should think--is misled by the name into thinking that the phylum
originated in Asia and moved to Africa, whereas those who think it did
won't be dissuaded by changing its name, such as Colin (now Lord)
Renfrew, who indicated this in his *Scientific American* article, but
he seems unaware of the existence of Cushitic, Berber, Chadic, and
Omotic. Greenberg revived the term simply because it was a convenient
label for the only phylum found on the two continents of Africa and
Asia. Dissatisfaction with the term led to the proposals "Erythraic"
(referring to the two sides of the Red Sea) and "Lisramic" (from roots
for 'tongue'), but they have not caught on (and the second is
objectionable in Slavic). -- Peter T. Daniels
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Message 2: Re: 9.381, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics (fwd)

Date: Sat, 21 Mar 1998 21:04:18 -0700 (MST)
From: Koontz John E <John.KoontzColorado.EDU>
Subject: Re: 9.381, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics (fwd)

Alexis Manaster-Ramer said:

> 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-Kordofanian) 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.

It seems to me that there is something in this statement of the

In terms of terms of combating general misinformation, on the front of
traditional publication what could be done perhaps is to publish a
critical survey of genetic hypotheses and maybe assertions to the
contrary, indicating on what evidence they rest, and what
well-informed adherents of the comparative method think about them.
As views are apt to change over time as evidence accumulates and
analysis proceeds, perhaps this survey should be republished at
intervals, or consist of fascicles published as they are available or
require revision. It could either be the work of an individual or a
committee, though the latter approach suggests itself as a way of
making it manageable. It ought also to be assembled in such a way as
to make it clear that some difference of opinion is both natural and
admissible, without detracting from the essential rigor of the
proceedings. Of course, such a reference would by its nature be aimed
at non-linguists or new linguists. Linguists should be able to make
due with the original literature.

Although I have assigned this task to the front of traditional
publication, I don't mean to suggest that it couldn't be handled as a
network or CD publication.

On the electronic front, a discussion of this nature is the logical
first step, but perhaps some sort of summary FAQ, a poorman's version
of the foregoing, could be set up. (I'm not volunteering.)

Finally, I think that scholars need to accustom themselves and, if
they are teachers, their students, to recognize Web sources for what
they are, a mixture of useful information and creditable opinions with
unsupported citations from memory, vaguely recalled rumors, and the
babbling of the insane. Some sort of process of evaluation has to be
applied to all reference materials, and one problem with the Internet
is that it provides a mass of reference material to people who are not
accustomed to conducting such a process.

I've always felt that linguists as a profession were rather weak at
training themselves in the use of reference materials and research
methodology. They're not alone in this, and that, with a generous
dollop of laziness, accounts for the prevalence on the Internet of
questions that amount to "If I understood what a library was for, what
would I find on the subject of ...?"

I differentiate such questions from questions that call upon the
respondant to exercise some judgement in recommending sources, or that
ask for help in finding unpublished or unindexed references, or
references that might contain commentary not entirely obvious from the
title or other bibliographic detail. It is, of course, difficult
sometimes to draw a line between the two extremes of the continuum,
and, admittedly, the more innocent questions tend to come from less
experienced individuals. Furthermore, a certain amount of collegial
shortcutting and backscratching seems entirely appropriate. Still, I
think such questions reflect a problem.

As linguists we tend to emphasize application of sanctioned theories
to new data, with the goal of extending or destroying them, without
considering much the data themselves, or how they are to be acquired
(except de novo), assessed and attributed.

John Koontz
Center for the Study of the Languages of the Plains and Southwest
University of Colorado
Boulder, CO

Speaking for myself.
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