LINGUIST List 9.485

Sun Mar 29 1998

Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Robert R. Ratcliffe, Re: 9.453, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics
  2. manaster, Re: 9.381, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

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

Date: Sat, 28 Mar 1998 14:13:16 +0000
From: Robert R. Ratcliffe <>
Subject: Re: 9.453, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

If it is in fact the case that comparative/historical linguistics has
come to be unappreciated or misunderstood, this may be because
historical linguists have not made adequately clear the nature of the
discipline and its limitations.

Neo-grammarian rhetoric tends to obscure the fact that language
classification and reconstruction are always, necessarily, neither
more nor less than the drawing of INFERENCES about the unattested past
on the basis of attested langauge data. Hist. Linguistics is based on
the assumption that particular patterns in language data (a set of
sound correspondences between languages, a pattern of morphomenic
alternation within a language, etc.) necessarily, or plausibly, or
possibly imply a certain historical process or a certain
pre-attestation state of affairs.

 What basis, indeed what right, do we have to draw such inferences?
The best answer, the correct answer, is or should be that we base our
inferences on a body of case studies of actually observed changes, or
on more general principles of change derived from this body of
evidence. That is, given a particular pattern in the data (a sound
correspondence, for example), we conclude that it must have come about
as a result of one particular process, or could only have come about
as a result of one of two or three possible processes, because in all
cases in which this pattern is found in languages whose history is
known, this is the process, or these are the processes by which it has
developed. The classic fallacy in historical linguistics is the
assumption that a particular pattern in the data (VSO word order in
Celtic and Berber, for example) necessarily or plausibly implies
something (that the languages are related, for example) which it
perhaps only possibly implies or doesn't imply at all. Unfortunately
historical linguistics generally fail to follow this procedure, and
too often draw inferences on the basis of criteria which are not

For these reasons, I have to say that I disagree most strongly with
Professor Teeter's comments:

> In fact, it seems to me that the linguist seeking to study
> genetic relationship does very much what the linguist approaching a
> new language does. One gathers data and writes a grammar to account
> for it. In descriptive studies this results in a grammar of the
> language, in comparative studies a grammar of a
> protolanguage. Historical/comparative linguistics is the
> construciton of grammars for protolanguages.

It is I think a grave methodological error to treat historical
linguistics as an extension of descriptive linguistics. There is a big
difference between describing a body of data and drawing inferences on
the basis of the probabilistic implications of that data. In practical
terms, the procedure outlined by Professor Teeter would lead us to
treat any features shared by the majority of a set of related
languages as retentions from the proto-language-- whereas actual
language history shows that there are two other posssible explanations
for such features-- namely drift and areal diffusion.

Was it Meillet who said that Proto-IE could not have been
reconstructed on the basis of modern French and Russian and perhaps
the relationship between the languages could not even have been
recognized? I don't know if this is true. But essentially this is
the kind of problem we deal with in Afroasiatic (and other big
language families with shallow attestation). Hausa, Tamazight, Oromo,
and Egyptian Arabic are about as different from each other
(impressionistically) as French, Russian, Albanian, and Bengali, but
in the former case we don't have historical documentation except for
Arabic. I suspect that there are a number of widely attested features
in AfAs langauges which do not go back to the proto-language, and some
weakly attested features which probably do. Finding explicit criteria
for making a judgement is the challenge. I would be very interested to
see some Indo-Europeanist make the effort to try to reconstruct IE on
the basis of only the modern languages-- just to see what couldn't be
recovered and where one would go astray. It would I think be very
useful to have a clearer sense of what the limitations of the method

 As far as classification is concerned, there is a simple systematic
procedure for demonstrating a genetic relationship among languages
that will be universally accepted.
 1) Given that there are some points of similarity between two (or
more) languages, it has to be shown that these are not due to chance.
Proving that something is not due to chance is a mathematical problem
and it has to be formulated in explicitly mathematical terms.
 2) If a similarity is not due to chance, it is either due to
historical circumstance, or to universal properties of language
systems. In order to make a decision at this point we need to know
more about language universals. I believe that one reason Altaic
became a question again is because of the work by Greenberg and others
on implicational universals. So what were thought of as, say, five
separate word-order features shared by these languages:-- SOV, AdjN,
Postpositions, RelN, GN--are now reduced to a single shared feature.
 3) If the similarites are not due to chance or to universals, then
they must be due to historical circumstance, but here too there are
various types of historical relationships that might obtain between or
among speech communities, so the would-be geneticist has to show that
the similarties are not due to contact of some kind.

 / \
chance non-chance
 / \
 universal historical
 / \
 contact genetic

Anyone who follows this procedure should be able to establish genetic
relationships which are uncontroversial. But of course it is
impossible to follow this procedure entirely, because we don't know
enough about language universals, we don't know enough about contact,
and we haven't advanced far enough in establishing the mathematical
foundations of historical linguistics. And that finally may be another
reason why classification has perhaps diminished as a research
field. For some linguists, at least, these three areas of research--
universals, contact phenomena, and the mathematicization of
probability claims-- are all more interesting than the ostensible
'goal' of classification.

Robert R. Ratcliffe
Senior Lecturer, Arabic and Linguistics,
Dept. of Linguistics and Information Science
Tokyo University of Foreign Studies
Nishigahara 4-51-21, Kita-ku
Tokyo 114 Japan
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Message 2: Re: 9.381, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Sat, 28 Mar 1998 20:15:50 -0500 (EST)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Re: 9.381, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

I cannot agree with Benji Wald's suggestion (if I am reading him
correctly) that classification of languages is in some kind of
methodological crisis. To be sure, there are occasional discussions
of methodological issues, but by and large, these are tangential to
the real work (much as in theoretical linguistics!). And I submit
that the record is one of slowly but steady progress, of which it is a
characteristic feature that early classificatory proposals are poorly
supported and yet presented with excessive faith, that they elicit
essentially valid but often hugely overblown and overly pessemistic
criticism, and that after anywhere from a few years to a few decades
or even a century, the dust settles and the correct classifications
are acepte (these being the minority of those ever proposed) and the
others definitely cast out. The recognition that Analolian lgs like
Hittie and Lycian are IE took a quarter of a century or more. The
acceptance of the Algic family took about the same or more. The
acceptance of the connetion of Tlingit to Athabaskan took a
half-century. And so on.

There is of course methodological progress, but only as part and
parcel of the real work (again just as in theoretical ling!!). It
took a LONG time for people to see how tonal and nontonal languages
could be related and until then the classifiction of teh languages of
East and SE Asia was a mess. It took even longer to separate "race"
and typology from comparative linguistics, and only when Greenberg did
this could African lgs be classified correctly. And so on.

The real "problem" is not that comparative linguists do not "agree" on
how to classify languages, but that the real story of this (to my
mind) not wholly uninteresting part of ling is not taught. I bet no
student of lx reading these lines will tell us that they have in fact
been taught how the classifications I mentioned above were arrived at
and how they came at lenght to be accepted. Moreover, whereas once
upon a time the whole subject was more or less ignored or touched on
only briefly in courses which focused on other aspects of historical
ling, nowadays we e are deluged with disinformation.

AND--although I emphatically do NOT mean this to apply to Benji, much
of the recent talk about methodology in this area has been nothing but
a smokescreen hiding either an effort to discredit work in this area
or (when we are lucky) inability or unwillingness to address the
substantive issues. This is striking in the public discussions of
Nostratic, Amerind, and (among non-Altaicists) of Altaic, but it
extends further. Some time ago I had occasion to debate on another
list a number of Semitic scholars who could not bring themselves to
accept the validity of such concepts as Proto-Semitic and found the
same combination of long on methodology but short on linguistics.

Of course, other areas of linguistics have experienced similar
problems. Much of the resistance, now finally essentially broken, to
the laryngeal theory of IE phonology was couched in methodological
terms. Much of the resistance to generative grammar in general and to
such particular points as rule ordering in phonology or
transformations in syntax in particular was for decades couched in
methodological terms. In both cases the methodological issues were
spurious and utlimately did not matter a whit (and I say this even
though I continue to oppose much of what generative grammar has
wrought--for SUBSTANTIVE reasons!).

Of course, methodology is all-important but it has usually been the
case in all sciences I think that methodological progress goes hand in
hand with substantive progress. This has clearly been the case with
language classification. For example, the correct classification of
the Eskimoan languages was achieved by the same person who invented
the method whereby this was done (Swadesh), and there any other number
of such examples.

In any case, the "methodological" attacks on for example Sapir,
Greenberg, Illich-Svitych, and so on, have produced nothing of lasting
value and indeed time and again have been simply laughable (I wonder
how many linguists know that there is an electronic forum of
probabilists where they post and sometimes discuss outrageous abuses
of probability theory in various sciences, and that recently a
widely-hailed work of a criic of Nostratic has earned the honor of
being included in this roll of dishonor).

Alexis MR
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