LINGUIST List 3.346

Fri 17 Apr 1992

Disc: Greenberg and Mass Comparison; Endangered Langs

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  1. , 3.327 Greenberg and Mass Comparison
  2. , endangered languages

Message 1: 3.327 Greenberg and Mass Comparison

Date: Thu, 9 Apr 92 12:37:40 EDT3.327 Greenberg and Mass Comparison
From: <>
Subject: 3.327 Greenberg and Mass Comparison

The recent postings by Poser and Campbell, while I largely agree
with them, seem to me to err on the side opposite to Greenberg's.
Thus, (a) I do not really think that we should pay much attention
to the rejection of Greenberg's classification of the languages of
Papua and vicinity by people who do not themselves do comparative
linguistics. And even people that do typically work on just one
small family and so their judgement may not be relevant. For example,
until I did the work on Tonkawa and Zuni, my knowledge of American
Indian historical linguistics was restricted to Uto-Aztecan. And this
was I think typical of people in the field. That's NOT enough to have
an informed opinion of work such as Greenberg's.

(b) I do not think that Greenberg's method is nearly as bad as
Bill and Lyle say. In fact, if it should ever turn out that Tonkawa
really is related to Na-Dene, that will mean that the method is
certainly useful. It does appear that Greenberg is right in claiming
that historically much of the work on classifying the languages of
the world proceeded in much the way that he has used. This is why
I emphasize the importance of assuming the correctness of the method
and seeing if it was applied properly.

(c) I also think that various refinements to Greenberg's method
are possible. Dolgopolsky has proposed a method of this sort
years ago which has never really been used to my knowledge but
which is much better defined (in particular, it defines precisely
the notion of superficial formal resemblence).

(d) Finally, I think that works such as Campbell's demonstration
that Finnish could be Amerind by Greenberg's criteria, while
useful, are crucially less valuable in testing the method that
such proposals as mine regarding Tonkawa and Zuni. The reason
is that Greenberg can easily argue that Finnish is CLOSER
related to Uralic, Altaic, Indo-European, etc., than to Amerind.
The trick is to take a proposed Amerind language and show that
it is apparently closer or equally close to something outside
that proposed family, rather than to take a non-Amerind language
and show that it could be related to that family. (There is
another reason, too, which is that Greenberg believes in monogenesis,
so that it is OK for Finnish to be related to Amerind anyway.)

(e) But, in conclusion, it would be good to hear from the opposition.
I have just received a long rebuttal of my Tonkawa study from Merritt
Ruhlen, but I don't think he uses email. Anyway, let's hear from
someone we do not agree with (or vice versa).
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Message 2: endangered languages

Date: 13 Apr 92 11:39
From: <>
Subject: endangered languages

On the subject of endangered languages, Patrick McConvell writes (Linguist
3-305) that language shift can be reversed, that restricting ourselves to
the documentation of endangered languages is too pessimistic. I have two
comments on this:
 (1) The situation is different in different places in the world. It may well
be that language maintenance efforts could be effective in the New World and
in Australia, i.e. in places where assimilation to the majority culture is
not generally an attractive option. However, in other parts of the world such
as Asia or Europe, it may be much better for speakers of minority languages
to give up their linguistic and cultural distinctness, because this is the
only way for them to be socially successful.
 (2) When I said that "we can probably do nothing to stop the extinction of
languages, but we can do a lot to document the languages" I meant the more
restricted "we" of the linguistic community. Language maintenance efforts
may be promising in many areas, but linguists alone can achieve only little.
With respect to documentation, I think, our possibilities are much greater.
If the linguistic community became aware of the alarming situation of massive
language death all around us, perhaps the prestige of linguistic field work
would grow, attracting more linguists to the study of little-known

Martin Haspelmath, Free University of Berlin
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