LINGUIST List 9.964

Sun Jun 28 1998

Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Patrick C. Ryan, RE: 9.924, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics
  2. starhawaii, Re: 9.889, Disc: Limits on Knowledge in Linguistics

Message 1: RE: 9.924, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Date: Sat, 20 Jun 1998 19:05:45 -0500
From: Patrick C. Ryan <>
Subject: RE: 9.924, Disc: State of Comparative Linguistics

Dear Lionel and LINGUISTs:

> 	I am not a member of any networks, preferring to spend my
> retirement years in work on Nilo-Saharan and Omotic to chit-chat, but
> I occasionally see something which has appeared on the network(s).

First, let me say that I have read, reviewed, and immensely enjoyed
Lionel M. Bender's "The Nilo-Saharan Languages - AQ Comparative
Essay", published by LINCOM (1996), and admire his methodology there
and his careful approach. I would recommend its organization as a
model for anyone doing similar comparative work unqualifiedly.

> other such recordings are discovered. So, too, we can make
> speculations about the nature of prehistoric languages before the
> comparative method (a probability-based method!) allows us to
> reconstruct with even a low level of certainty. But these will be
> general and vague: not specific morphemes.

Here, I believe, is the key premise with which I must respectfully
disagree. Bender writes "before the comparative method". I have
attempted and am continuing attempts to recreate the Proto-Language
(equivalent to his "Proto-Human") by utilizing a combination of the
*comparative method*, and general typology in syntax and phonology.

I will give an example to illustrate my meaning.

On the basis of the few languages which seem to retain CV's or
relatively transparent CV+ combinations, I have isolated through
comparative analysis two CV roots for 'leg' and 'digit': p?fo and

Utilizing general phonological typology, I operated on the hypothesis
that the Proto-Language would have five major articulatory points of
contact: labial, apical, dorsal, laryngal, and pharyngal; that each of
these would be characterized by stops, spirants, affricates, and
nasals (but no laryngal or pharyngal affricates or nasals) + a trill;
and further, that most resulting phonemes would be realized as
aspirated or non-aspirated (glottalized).

Of course, theoretical constructs remain only matters of curiosity
unless they can be related to phenomena in real languages but, and of
course I cannot be entirely objective, this phonological system
relates well to those language families which seem to have retained
most of the original phonological repertoire.

What I find in the majority of language families is a gross
simplification of the earliest phonological system.

So, for example, I would speculate (since I have not done a full study
yet), that Bender's "Excellent Isogloss" #5, which he cites as *+bi,
*+bo, *+bI, and glosses as (among other meanings), "foot=leg[2]", is
possibly related to my PL p?fe and/or p?fo.

One other example, briefly, might be his #3, **bEr-, "hoe[4], dig[5]",
which I would relate to Egyptian b3, which depicts a 'hoe', and means
'hack up, hoe'; and to IE *3. bher-, 'mit einem scharfen Werkzeug
bearbeiten, ritzen, schneiden, spalten'.

These are not isolated examples!

Of course, if one denies a priori that possibility of the
reconstruction of the Proto-Language, or accepts the faulty premises
of Ringe, one would have to reject these examples and the many others
that excellent reconstruction like Bender's has revealed in the
Nilo-Saharan family.

> 	Unless some alien species contacts us with recordings they
> made in ancient contacts, it is hard to see how we can compensate for
> millenia of probabilistic change in a system whose basis includes a
> high degree of arbitrariness.

Yes, it is hard to see but there is little arbitrary in language
evolution and development; it only seems so because we do not have the
requisite information to show how it was rather mechanically

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Message 2: Re: 9.889, Disc: Limits on Knowledge in Linguistics

Date: Fri, 19 Jun 98 03:26:36 GMT
From: starhawaii <>
Subject: Re: 9.889, Disc: Limits on Knowledge in Linguistics

The discussion over probability is very interesting to me. One of my
professors, Dr. Roy Weatherford, wrote a book on it back in 1982
(Philosophical Foundations of Probability Theory, Routledge & Kegan
Paul). The four he picked to examine (out of many more) were:

1. The Classical Theory of Probability: defines probability in terms
of ratios of equipossible alternatives.

2. The A Priori Theory: defines probability as a measure of the
logical support for a proposition on given evidence.

3. The Relative Frequency Theory: defines probability as the (limit of
the) relative frequency of appearance of one infinite class in

4. The Subjectivistic Theory: defines probability as the degree of
belief of a given person in a given proposition at a specific time.

I would be curious to know people's interpretations of where Ringe's
theories fit in.

Kevin Johnson 
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