LINGUIST List 9.499

Tue Mar 31 1998

Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. jirsa, Re: 9.485, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics
  2. MARK HUBEY, Re: 9.487, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics
  3. Karl V.(van Duyn) Teeter, State of Comparative Linguistics, 9.467 and 9.487

Message 1: Re: 9.485, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Mon, 30 Mar 1998 14:17:25 -0600 (CST)
From: jirsa <>
Subject: Re: 9.485, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

I have some simple observations addressed to the original prompt for
the discussion concerning the state of comparative linguistics.

While I do not wish to push the beleaguerd analogy between language
change and the evolution of biological species, there are some
striking similarities between the methodologies of biologists and
comparative linguists. What is more striking to me, given these
similarities, is the contrasts between the public reception of the
field of evolutionary biology versus that of historical/comparative
linguistics and how each is perceived even within their larger fields
respectively. This contrast fundamentally reflects how linguistic
knowledge is accepted and thus the position of the entire discipline
of comaprative linguistics.

My point is this: Despite the fact that linguistics has preceded
biology in several important discoveries, natural historians have been
far more successful in dissemin ating their findings. This is the
real issue with the state of comparative linguistics as I see it: how
do we improve relations with other disciplines and the world at large?

I don't feel bashful about bragging about our discipline in this
forum, so I'd like first to point out that linguistics, in at least
two places that I know of, has preceded biology in making significant
and virtually identical methodological and theoretical claims .
First, as Roger Lass points out, the idea that phylogeny is the
product of "descent with modification," (Darwin's phrase) has a
predecessor in the work of early Indo-Europeanists. Thus, Lass
writes, "the idea of 'evolution' or 'mutability of species' was part
of the linguist's conceptual armory long before biologists accepted
it" (Lass. "Historical Linguistics and Language Change. 1997:109).
The potent irony here is that even Lass uses the analogy of biological
evolution to introduce the concept of linguistic change in his book.
The biologist have greater notoriety and public interest, so quite
naturally it's the best way to open the subject of comparative
linguistics to novices.

The second development in which linguistics preceded biology is
methodological. There has been a great deal of excitement in the
realm of Natural History over the relatively recent comparative method
called cladistics or phylogenetic systematics. It has been used to
establish, among other highly celebrated findings, the evolutionary
link between birds and dinosaurs (Padian and Chiappe 1998; Gaffney,
Dingus, and Smith 1995).

Cladistics looks for common features, or "shared derived traits" among
species to infer a common ancestor; the authors of a recent Scientific
American article describe it this way: "two groups of animals sharing
a set of such new, or 'derived', traits are more closely related to
each other than they are to groups that display only the original
traits but not the derived ones. By identifying the shared derived
traits, practitioners of cladistics can determine the relations among
the organisms they study" (Padain and Chiappe 1998:42 ). "For
example," write the authors of a column in Natural History, "the group
designated 'dinosaurs' is contained within the larger group
'vertebrates,' because dinosaurs, along with all other vertebrates,
have a backbone. The backbone is a known shared derived character for
the group called vertebrates. Each group, or clade, is defined by a
set of such shared derived characters inherited from a common
ancestor" (Gaffney, Dingus, and Smith 1995:33).

I'm certainly not an expert in the natural sciences, but I cannot
differentiate in a broader methodological sense what a practitioner of
cladistics does from what a comparative linguist does. What I see are
essentially the same methods. (for a discussion of cladistics in
context of linguistics, see Lass 1997:113-118.)

	The remarkable thing about these similarities to me is that
while biologists have also recognized certain problems with
cladistics (chance similarities, or "convergence" in biology,
hybridization, etc.), as a whole, I have the impression that the field
has generated tremendous general interest with its findings.

Moreover, the entire field of historical linguistic inquiry is largely
absent from public discourse, at least in the sort of way that
evolution occupies public attention. When was the last time you heard
undergraduates passionately disputing the biblical account of Babel
versus African Monogenesis? In contrast, on any single campus this
very morning there are probably dozens of term papers in progress that
address creation versus evolution.

Granted, Indo-European correspondence tables certainly don't generate
the fervor in eight year olds that a T. rex skeleton can, and
Proto-Nostratic doesn't seem to threaten people's religious faith as
directly as theories of human evolution, but I still must ask why?
Why, for example, don't the recent claims about Amarind or Nostratic
generate the kind of hubbub that recent claims about birds' descent
from theropods do? Certainly Greenberg and Cavali- Sforza also got
their article in Scientific American, but the larger question for this
discussion is this: Why are we even having a discussion about the
state of comparative linguistics, when in the natural sciences people
are heralding scores of important new claims based on what amounts to
the very same methodologies that linguists have employed since Bopp
and Grimm?

Thus, I think the questions that initiated this discussion are
directed more at the relationship of the discipline of comparative
linguistics to other disciplines and to the outside world. How can we
make others understand the importance of our findings? Many biologists
think that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Isn't it at least as
significant that some linguists consider the languages of North
America to belong to three families that reflect migration onto the

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Message 2: Re: 9.487, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Mon, 30 Mar 1998 17:10:24 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Re: 9.487, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

On Sun, 29 Mar 1998, The LINGUIST List wrote:

> Date: Sun, 29 Mar 1998 19:42:03 -0400 (EDT) From: MARK HUBEY
> <> Subject: Re: 9.485, Disc: State of
> Comparative Linguistics

> probability that 3 such sound changes are due to chance is p^3 (p
> cubed) so that if p is something like 0.01 then p^3 is 0.001.

This is obviously a typo. IT should be p=0.1 which cubed is 0.001.

> boiling of water. But can we stick that glass tube into a blue flame
> of a blow torch and measure its temperature? No obviously. Does this
> mean that (1) the blow torch has not temperature or (2) that it is

This typo i.e. "not" should be "no".

> impossible to measure the temperature of the blow torch?

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Message 3: State of Comparative Linguistics, 9.467 and 9.487

Date: Tue, 31 Mar 1998 10:46:00 -0500
From: Karl V.(van Duyn) Teeter <>
Subject: State of Comparative Linguistics, 9.467 and 9.487

	I thank my colleagues for responding to various remarks I have
made during this discussion. First, I need to apologize to Benji Wald
for being unclear about what I referred to as the American fallacy of
thinking that comparative linguistics was nothing but statistics with
word lists. Here I was only trying not to repeat what I had already
given, complete with references, in 9.338 of this series. way back on
March 7, when I traced this attitude back to Powell in 1891, and most
influentially, to an aberration of Kroeber's in 1913.
Lexicostatistics, Benji, is another sad story, not this one.
	I want to mention in this connection the brand new book by
R.M.W. Dixon, published by Cambridge University Press, "The Rise and
Fall of Languages". More an essay than a book , to be honest, Dixon
tries to preserve what we know to work with family tree theory,
without throwing out areal linguistics. He does so by an analogy to
Stephen Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium. Thus areal influence
is the normal situation, but it can be interrupted, and in these
periods languages seem to separate the way family tree theory
	I have tried to point out the difference as lying in the way
languages are transmitted. The grammars children learn are based on
the data they hear, which includes the performance output of their
parent's grammars PLUS all of the accretions resulting from the
parent's speech exposure, but the grammar the kids arrive at in heir
heads accounts for all of this, hence the main way in which grammars
	In situations of contact, borrowing can be 100%, we call this
language learning. Where interim inferences about diffused vocabulary
extend into grammatical similarities we have partial language
learning,as I have suggested. In the strictest sense, we borrow what
we hear, and you can't hear grammars any more than you can see
	This covers several of the comments colleagues have been good
enough to make on what I said, but not yet one R. Ratcliffe. I
allowed myself to be conversational enough in my approach to make
analogies between what I do in writing descriptive grammars and what I
do in writing comparative grammars, having worked in both fields, and
passed on my casual observations that I do much the same thing in each
case: elicit data and invent a system to account for it (a grammar).
For thus daring to chat about what I do I draw the response "It is I
think a grave methodological error to treat historical linguistics as
an extension of descriptive linguistics" Yes, it certainly is; I would
never dream of doing so!
	Having thus built up his straw man, Ratcliffe proceeds to
pontificate. He would build a mathematical model of language
change. Great idea, I would encourage him. He goes on to say that
what we have to do is to show that similarities between languages are
not due to chance. I commend him for this, it brings him all the way
up to date with comparative linguistics of about a hundred years ago.
Now the question is how do we do this? Apparently he has in mind
statistics, which is a good idea, but everybody who has tried to apply
this for the past hundred years to language classification has fallen
much short of the goal -- take Morris Swadesh and more recently
Isidore Dyen, not to speak of Greenberg et al. The best argument
anybody can cite that I know of is still Meillet's in which he shows
that Latin 'duo' and Armenian 'erku' are related piece by piece, in
that both fit into a complex system of rules of change. It is, in
fact, still fitting into a system that tells us whether languages are
genetically related or, as I have otherwise put it, writing a grammar
of the protolanguage. As for this business about how far back we can
go, which has also come up, we don't know that except by trying: it
will certainly be true that we do not have enough data after a cetain
point to consturct a grammar, but we can't know that until we go to
work at it.
	So I would just say, let's get to work and try to construct
grammars of protolanguages as much as we can, and stop worrying about
unattainable methodologies. This does not mean that I do not eagerly
anticipate Mr. Ratcliffe's new pioneer mathematical model of language
change, more power to him! Best to you all, kvt
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