LINGUIST List 9.879

Sun Jun 14 1998

Disc: Limits on Knowledge in Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. manaster, Disc: Limits on Comparative Linguistics

Message 1: Disc: Limits on Comparative Linguistics

Date: Sun, 7 Jun 1998 18:15:15 -0400 (EDT)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Disc: Limits on Comparative Linguistics

Some weeks ago, Larry Trask challenged my reference to Don Ringe as
someone who appears to be claiming that linguistic classification has
already reached limits beyond which it cannot go. The following
quotation seems to me bear that out very well, however:

"Investigation of real-language examples shows that resemblances
between the basic vocabularies of languages commonly believed to be
related occur with greater-than-chance frequency, while resemblances
between the basic vocabularies of languages not commonly believed to
be demonstrably related do not occur with greater-than-chance
frequency" (Ringe 1992:80)

especially since he goes on to argue that the results are not
"significantly different" if one looks beyond basic vocabulary or
otherwise changes the method of comparison which he himself had

To be sure, this (to my mind, astounding and completely unjustified)
claim seems to be contradicted by other things Ringe says, but I
cannot see how this passage can be read to mean anything other than
what I said, namely, that any resemblances which may be found among
languages not ALREADY classified will be due to chance and hence will
not be usable as a basis for FURTHER classification. If Ringe had
said, as he should have, that his (as it happens, mathematically
incompetent, see the review by Baxter and myself in Diachronica)
investigation of a trivial number of unrepresentative examples shows
(once the mathematical blunders are corrected) that the situation he
claims is still at best an enormous overgeneralization of what is true
in even those few cases, then that would be another matter. But in
the absence of a quantifier like "some" or "a few", I can only
understand his claim to be a universal one.

Perhaps this is because I am not a native speaker of English. Can
anybody who is one read his statement as anything else?

Alexis MR


	Ringe, Donald A., Jr. 1992. On calculating the factor of chance in
language comparison. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society.
[Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 82(1).]
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