LINGUIST List 3.118

Thu 06 Feb 1992

Disc: Proto-World II

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  1. "Michael Kac", Re: 3.110 Proto-World and Popular Linguistics
  2. , Re: 3.110 Proto-World and Popular Linguistics
  3. , Front Page News

Message 1: Re: 3.110 Proto-World and Popular Linguistics

Date: Wed, 5 Feb 92 16:59:57 -06Re: 3.110 Proto-World and Popular Linguistics
From: "Michael Kac" <>
Subject: Re: 3.110 Proto-World and Popular Linguistics

The recent discussion, initiated by Manaster-Ramer, about Proto-World theories
and related issues prompts the following:

I think Mark Aronoff is right when he attributes the popular fascination with
historical linguistics (or at least with TALK about historical linguistics) to
the understandably high level of interest in human origins, prehistory and re-
mote history. It might also be worth pointing out that of the main branches
of linguistics, historical linguistics/philology is perhaps unique in being
addressed to questions that the lay person can immediately understand. (Whether
the typical layperson understands the ANSWERS is another matter entirely!)
There is also an obvious element of detective work involved in such things
as reconstruction; add that to the similar appeal of decipherment and we are
talking sexy here.

By the same token, I'm skeptical about the prospect of interesting a sub-
stantial segment of the lay public in the kinds of issues that dominate
the linguistic mainstream today. I say that in part on the basis of having
taught enough undergraduates to be able to say with confidence that the
mere mention of the word *language* (let alone *grammar*) is almost always
enough to produce terminal zoneout. But even among those to whom questions
having to do with language are of some interest, the tendency is not to want
to deal with dull, dry stuff like recursive rules and underspecification but
with exciting stuff, like how language and culture interact, how people are
seduced by propoganda, etc.

If it's any comfort to the folks out in LINGUISTland, our sister disciplines
of philosophy and psychology are in much the same boat we are. We want our
philosophers to teach us how to lead good and noble lives and they want to
explain referential opacity; we want our psychologists to give us insight
into our thoughts and feelings, and they want to study rats.

A parting thought. The one linguist with name recognition throughout the
educated lay public is Chomsky; but what the educated lay public is interes-
ted in, language-wise, isn't what Chomsky's interested in. You figure it.

Michael Kac
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Message 2: Re: 3.110 Proto-World and Popular Linguistics

Date: Thu, 06 Feb 92 00:34:25 ESRe: 3.110 Proto-World and Popular Linguistics
From: <>
Subject: Re: 3.110 Proto-World and Popular Linguistics

 I have an uncanny interest in overgeneralizations, and I think I can contribu
te something worthwhile here. All citations made in this submission will be fro
m Thelwall, Robin: "Linguistics and Prehistory in an African Perspective: Curre
nt Methods and Argumentation" from Bjarkman, P.,and Raskin, V.; The Real World
Linguist: Linguistic Applications in the 1980's (Norwood, NJ: Ablex 1986).
 Please forgive me if any info contained herein is old hat. Anthropologists don
't dig Proto-World theories, believing instead that there were twice as many la
nguages way-back-when as there are now, which is a valid theory considering the
 rate at which languages are disappearing now. However, I have bumbled across a
n idea from a grad student that there could have been no Proto-World because ho
mo sapiens had to have evolved in several different places at once. If this was
 indeed the case, then homo sapiens would be several different species. If I ma
y get lost in analogy-land for a moment, consider the virtual absence of marsup
ials on six continents.

 I believe it was the Soviets who developed the Nostrotic theory trying to link
 Indo-European with a hodgepodge of East Asian languages in a desperate attempt
 to place themselves at the center of the universe. According to Thelwall, "His
torical Linguistics, as we know it, is of course built on the exegesis of Indo-
European as THE paradigm." (p. 323) This study cites Ehret (1979), Bender (1975
), and Diakonoff (1965) as being in agreement regarding a theory that traces th
e "Proto-Afroasiatic" languages back to an area in present-day northeastern Sud
an, closer to the Nile Delta than Olduvai Gorge. The problem with historical li
nguistic attempts at this ambitious Proto-World scheme is that many researchers
 are barking up the wrong tree; they are looking too far North. Thelwall (344)
supports the theory that Berber, Chad, Egyptian, South Cushitic, Omotic, Cushit
ic, and Semitic languages originated from the Proto-Afroasiatic cradle.
 Thelwall expresses awareness of the shotgun methodology of diachronic linguist
ics and proposes criteria for creating and evaluating the empirical extrapolati
on of statistical cognate data to similarity matricies. Please feel free to arg
ue with me. I'm dying to say more but the computer keeps deleting the second ha
lf of my response.So when you think "Proto-World", think Proto-Afroasiatic. -or- -or-
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Message 3: Front Page News

Date: Wed, 05 Feb 92 20:38:43 CSFront Page News
From: <RYATESCMSUVMB.bitnet>
Subject: Front Page News

In the discussion about Proto-world, several comments addressed the issue of
how linguistic issues are reported in the popular press. On Friday,
January 31, 1992, on the FRONT page of the Kansas City Star was the following

 Accent is born early in baby's life, study says.
 (reporter: Boyce Rensberger credited to: Washington Post)

The article summarizes the findings of research reported in Science. It quotes
Kuhl of the University of Washington, who was the leader of the research team.
I have not yet consulted the article. As reported in the newspaper, the study
shows that six month year old babies are able to distinguish phonemic
differences. Notice that the headline suggests that production of an accent
it early.

I wonder how many times a year research in linguistics appears on the front
page of any newspaper. It must have been a slow news day. :)

Bob Yates
Central Missouri State University
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