LINGUIST List 9.740

Mon May 18 1998

Disc: Limits on Knowledge in Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Brett Churchill <>


  1. manaster, Disc.: Limits on Knowledge in Linguistics

Message 1: Disc.: Limits on Knowledge in Linguistics

Date: Thu, 14 May 1998 20:34:51 -0400 (EDT)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Disc.: Limits on Knowledge in Linguistics

In our earlier discussion of the problems faced by
comparative linguistics (esp. that part of it that
deals with classification of languages), one point that
came up is the frequently-heard claims to the effect that
there exists an absolute limit on how far back into
the past we can reach with our methods (and of course
people who say this usually conveniently place the limit
at or near where we are now in terms of universally
accepted results in this field, so that no new
or even old but controversial proposals need be
taken seriously because they are A PRIORI subject to
dismissal on precisely the grounds that they violate
the supposed limit). 

I have some questions related to this.
First, am I alone in being perplexed by the fact
that this myth is allowed to be published in
reputable places without the author(s) ever being
required to show how (s)he arrived at the computation
yielding the purported limit or at least to cite
another earlier publication where this could be found?

Second, am I alone in noticing that different authors
give different numbers (ranging from 5 to 10 thousand
years) as the supposed limit and no one bothers to
explain the discrepancy (and some authors, such
as Johanna Nichols, seem to give different numbers
in different places)?

Third, am I alone in realizing that this is an urban
myth in that the real calculations which were done
in 1960 dealt with the limits of glottochronology,
no one ever did any calculations concering any other
method of comparing languages, and yet somehow the
number from the glottochronological calculations
(themselves bowdlerized, for after all what is
a couple of millennia among friends?) have now been
attached to the totality of methods avilable to
comparative linguistics?

Fourth, am I right that this myth is being generally
taught to students in linguistics departments in the
US and other countries?

Fifth, does anybody know of any published critique
of this myth?

Sixth, is there any other branch of linguistics or
any other science whose progress or indeed existence
has been challenged by the invocation of a similar myth,
that is, is there any other branch or science which
people say should no longer be done because it has
reached an absolute limit on what it can do?

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