LINGUIST List 9.812

Mon Jun 1 1998

Disc: Time Depth

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. manaster, Re: 9.769, Disc: Time Depth

Message 1: Re: 9.769, Disc: Time Depth

Date: Sat, 23 May 1998 13:04:00 -0400 (EDT)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Re: 9.769, Disc: Time Depth

Larry Trask says:

"Now, what I *suspect* most of the people who are throwing out figures
like "6000 BP" are trying to say is this: in the most highly favorable
case, we can just about make it back to 6000 BP or so. But other
cases are not so favorable, and most of the cases (or potential cases)
are *very* much less favorable. Hence it is unreasonable to suppose
that the unfavorable cases can be substantially reconstructed -- or
even perhaps securely identified as families -- significantly further
back in time than this.
Of course, that's not what most of them *do* say, but I always assume
that's what they mean."

Two points. First, Bender and Bynon explicitly use the glotto-
chronology argument--forgetting that Swadesh had already done that
work. Second, if the argument is that we cannot reconstruct anything
older than IE merely because we have not done so, then this is a
rather curious sort of methodological stance. We should then
immediately stop doing any reseach in any science because by the same
token any result beyond those already achieved is impossible. There
were some thinkers in medieval Europe who came close to holding this
view, but in 1998??

There are sciences in which limits have been established. Relativity
tehory, quantum mechanics, and logic/theory of computation all have
results which say that some things cannot be known in principle, and
chaos theory adds some which cannot be known in practice. Swadesh's
result (rediscovered by Bender) was like this, too, saying that
glottochronology is in principle limited. If we grant the assumptions
(which I dont think we should!), it is just like Godel's or Turing's
results in logic and the theory of computation (although
mathematically not nearly as nontrivial!).

But what Larry describes is no more than someone saying that whatever
is not in Aristotle cannot possibly be true. Or someone in 1939
saying that we will never travel faster than sound. I do not deny
that Larry may be rightthat this is what SOME people think, but I am
saddened that he seems to endorse this view.

Alexis MR
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