LINGUIST List 9.467

Fri Mar 27 1998

Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. manaster, Re: 9.453, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics
  2. bwald, Re: 9.453, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Message 1: Re: 9.453, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Tue, 24 Mar 1998 16:23:20 -0500 (EST)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Re: 9.453, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Karl Teeter is of course right to emphasize that we do have, and have
all along had, fairly good criteria for when a proposed linguistic
relationship is to be accepted and when not, although some issues
remain (as in any science). He is also right that structured sets of
cognates (esp. inflectional and derivational ones) are other things
being equal better evidence than lists of random lexical comparisons.
Nor do I think anyone would disagree with this. If I am not mistaken
Krauss accepted the relatedness of Tlingit to Athabaskan-Eyak largely
on the basis of (his discovery of) striking parallels in derivational
morphology, for example. However, things are not always equal, and
some language families just do not have enough morphology left, and
even Meillet (who was perhaps the stricted critic of purely lexical
comparisosn) at length admitted that sometimes you accept
relationships based on lexical comparisons alone. But there is still
some room for discussion here. On the other hand, it is also true, as
Catherine Callaghan showed, there are (rarely but not never!) cases
where totally unrelated morphological systems by chance evolve to look
very much alike, so you have to be careful. Finally, we have known
since the beginning of the cetury that there are (again rarely) truly
mixed languages, such as East Armenian Romany (known for a century) or
Mitchif (only known more recently). But their lesson is the opposite
of what the self-appointed critics of comparative linguistics (such as
Thomason and Kaufman and so on) seem to think. It is IMMEDIATELY
obvious that Mitchif is a mix of French and Cree, for example, and
every morpheme can be assigned to one source or the other. So such
examples do not show that comparative linguists are helpless in the
face of mixed languages. On teh contrary, we very easily deal with
them in teh same way that we have all along dealt with teh question of
distinguishing inherited from borrowed elements in ANY language. It
is no harder to separate the French and the Cree in Mitchif than it is
to determine that woman is native to English but blitzkrieg is not.

The existence of mixed languages also does not mean that we can with
impunity assume (as e.g. Nichols does) that the grammatical systems of
the Altaic (or Nostratic) languages are related via borrowing/mixture
rather than inheritance. For the point is that, knowing of the
POSSIBILITY of mixed languages or borrowing, we are nevertheless
obliged to demonstarte the FACT of mixture/borrowing if we wish to
assert it. We may NOT assume that Altaic or Nostratic involve merely
mixture/ borrowing merely because Mithcif or E Armenian Romany are
mixed languages! We have to demonstrate this, and this has not been

Which brings up an all-important point I have been avoiding making but
can no longer avoid. It used to be until quite recently that
discussions/debates of both methodological and substantive issues in
comparative linguistics were mainly if not exclusively indulged in by
people who knew the subject at issue at first hand and the form of teh
discussion was to specify just what one was saying and who one was
disagreeing with. The great Altaic debate until very very recently
was a perfect example of this: the main combatants knew the subject
and the literature and addressed specifics. Moreover, it was
typically the case that everybody, no matter the side they took, was
reasonably civil, and certainly wished the field of comp. ling. well
(and did not pretend to 'shout down' others or prevent the discussion
of their views).

This has changed radically. We now have a growing number of people
who openly or not so openly wish to replace comp. ling. with
something else, who (often, not always!) do NOT appear to know the
literature or the subject AT ALL and spread second, third or fourth
hand gossip (as in Nichols' and others' statements about Altaic and
almost everything that I have heard about Nostratic), who do try to
silence others and conspire to misrepresent and often to suppress the
public discussion of the views they disagree with and so on. Even
standard reference works such as encyclopedias (esp. in the US) have
articles on major topics in comp. ling. authored by people who have
no record at all in the field and omit other major topics entirely,
and many if not most journals studiously avoid even now even such
elementary matters as reviewing the major published work on Nostratic.

All this should be entirely intolerable, and yet there has been almost
no reaction to this (R.A. Miller's recent book "Languages and History"
does mention some of these problems).

Of course, the problem of misinformation and spreading of what amounts
to gossip is endemic to ALL branches of ling. "Classic" examples are
often laughably wrong on simple points of fact in subareas from
typology to generative syntax and phonology to phonetics, and
textbooks abound in them. Moreover, the hopelessly misunderstood
point Chomsky once made about the relative importance of theory
vs. data is sometimes used (as I know from personal experience) to
discourage or prevent the publication of corrections of such

But I think that only in the case of comparative ling (and
esp. classification) that these problems have reached the point where
they threaten the very survival of the field.

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Message 2: Re: 9.453, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Thu, 26 Mar 1998 19:31:02 -0800 (PST)
From: bwald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 9.453, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Karl Teeter recently wrote:

> Concerning the state of comparative linguistics, a rather
>diffuse debate I have been following, it is not true that there are
>no criteria for genetic relationship, for goodness sake, as suggested
>by Benji when he writes, "Over time any language can change and/or
>borrow anything (or everything?) from other languages under
>conditions of contact." In part it seems to me that this notion
>comes from the mistaken assumption that genetic relationship is a
>matter of statistics with words, an American fallacy I have written
>about previously.

I do not dispute any of the above. The intent of my remarks was not
to deny that each individual practitioner has some methodological
criteria for genetic classification, but to invite comments toward a
*consensus* view of what genetic relationship means and, especially,
how it can be demonstrated.

 I am grateful to Karl for offering some comments in this direction,
and I would welcome further discussion of his referred to "American
fallacy" involving statistics with words -- I assume lexicostatistics.
Naturally, I think of such languages as creoles for types for which
lexicostatistics would be misleading for genetic assumptions about
these languages as *wholes*. Similarly, the fallacy, as I guess it,
would misrepresent the origin of "mixed" languages, such as Mbugu
(Ma'a) and some of the Romani languages, e.g., those which have an
English grammar and largely Romani vocabulary -- among various others.
With regard to the latter languages in particular, I wonder if there
is consensus about whether genetic relationship to one rather than
more than one ancestral language applies, and, if so, what the
consensus is, e.g., is it that grammar, rather than lexicon, is
criterial, and therefore "Anglo-Romani" is a variety of English with a
heavily Romani superstratum? Frankly, I do not see that the
methodology of genetic classification anticipated such problems, or
that its interests in tracing origin to a *single* ancestor have
adjusted to them.

Karl's posting continues:

>Historical/comparative linguistics is the construciton of grammars
>for protolanguages.

I agree to that wholeheartedly, as long as "grammar" means *all
features* of the proto-language, but not to some further assumptions
embedded in Karl's elaboration of this statement.

> Meillet knew, there is a difference between borrowing lexical
>items and borrowing grammatical structure. You can hear words, but
>nobody has ever heard a grammar, which is a system constructed anew
>by every speaker, and this is the crucial difference which allows us
>to do the history of a language and distinguish borwoings from

I don't think the distinction between words and grammatical
structure*s* is as clear-cut as Karl, or Meillet, suggests. We *hear*
both instances of words realised in/as particular pronunciations and
grammatical patterns realised in/as arrangements of morphemes, words,
etc. And, in either case, we deduce some intended "meaning" conveyed
by the morpheme, word or larger pattern.

Karl continues:

>Words can be borrowed but not structure -- where it looks as if there
>has been structural borrowing, it must be seen as a case of partial
>language learning.

This seems to me a matter of arbitrary definition, rather than a
principled consensus view. I do not reject the suggestion out of
hand, but I do not see that when we associate such English words as
"phenomenon" and "alumnus" with plurals like "phenomena" and "alumni",
it is any more a case of partial language learning from Greek and
Latin (respectively) than when we associate "child" and "man" with the
plurals "children" and "men", as far as the learner of (standard
varieties of) English is concerned. Since I can appreciate that Karl
intends his claim, in this example, to apply to the (erudite)
bilingualism through which Latinate and Greek-ate plurals came into
English, it seems to me that if his claim is accepted, then it is no
different for lexical items such as English "beef", "pork", etc.,
which are lexical items which were introduced into English through
bilingualism with (Anglo-Norman) French./FN In sum, I do not see the
basis for distinguishing lexical items and grammatical structures
according to the criterion of "partial language learning".

(FN: I use such examples as "beef" and "pork" to emphasize that in the
case of these words, they became restricted in English to the edible
meat produced by the animals designated by the French names. Is that
"partial language learning" of vocabulary? The general problem may
be, then, that words are associated with meanings, just as grammatical
structures are, and that they may be reanalysed, or not, in the
process of integration into another language, just as grammatical
structures may.)

I assume that Karl meant something like: genetic classification is
(or, should be) based on (statistical?) grammatical
(morpho-syntactic?) reconstruction, rather than statistical lexical
reconstruction. In the case of English, perhaps "most" of the
syntactic structures of English can be traced back to Proto-Germanic,
aligning it with the other Germanic languages, and more distantly,
with Indo-E. That may be fine for English, and many other languages,
genetically classified together. But it does not work for all
languages, as creoles and mixed languages show. And it becomes quite
difficult to maintain for the currently controversial language
families for two reasons. 1) grammatical reconstruction is more
complex and its principles are less well understood or agreed to than
phonological reconstruction (of vocabulary), 2) areal studies show
that grammatical features diffuse across languages differentiated and
classified on the basis of lexical origin. It remains unclear, at
best, and is probably false, at worst, that bundling of grammatical
isoglosses necessarily circumscribes sets of languages which descend
from a single common ancestor but have since been differentially
injected with lexical material from other languages.

The problem remains to specify what it means to say that a given
language has a single "principal" ancestor, and to continue to improve
methodology to distinguish grammatical convergence (even in
morphology) from "original" inheritance in trying to determine a
chronological order of events leading to any and all attested

- Benji
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