LINGUIST List 9.545

Wed Apr 8 1998

Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. manaster, Re: 9.529, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Message 1: Re: 9.529, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Mon, 6 Apr 1998 00:38:06 -0400 (EDT)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Re: 9.529, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

I don't know what Dr. Ratcliffe means to imply with this apparent
suggestion of a lack of rigor in historical linguistics:

"Methodological rigor in historical linguistics is not required in
imitation of other sciences or for any a priori reason. Greater rigor
is simply the direction toward which any mature field of inquiry
naturally tends, for reasons which the debate on long-distance
classification in recent decades and the current list discussion make
abundantly clear. How can reasonable people draw radically different
conclusions from the same body of evidence? One possiblity-- each may
be basing his conclusions on assumptions which are not clear to, or
not accepted by, the other. Solution-- make the assumptions explicit
and try to turn them in testable hypotheses which can be demonstrated
as valid or invalid to everyone's satisfaction."

As far as I can tell comparative linguistics is at least as rigorous
as any other branch of linguistics, and certainly the fact is that
results in this field are far more robust than in most others. Except
for a few fanatics (and often without any exception whatever), the
results we have have stood up far better to the test of time than in,
say, syntactic or phonological theory or mathematical linguistics (the
three areas I know something about).

To be sure, there are open problems and hence disagreements, but (with
one or two exceptions, such as perhaps Altaic or the glottalic theory
of Indo-European), the competent experts disagree about central issues
far less than one might suppose. The bulk of the alleged debates in
comparative (esp. classificatory) linguistics involve disagreements
between experts and NON-experts.

Alexis Manaster Ramer

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue