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Review of  Language Classification

Reviewer: David Erschler
Book Title: Language Classification
Book Author: Lyle Campbell William J. Poser
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Genetic Classification
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 20.1935

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AUTHORS: Campbell, Lyle; Poser, William J.
TITLE: Language Classification
SUBTITLE: History and Method
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2008

David Erschler, Independent University of Moscow, Russia

The book under review is decidedly polemical in character. It largely draws on
earlier works by Campbell (Campbell 1997, Campbell 2003, Campbell 2004, and

The book can be divided into three somewhat overlapping parts. The first one
(chapters 2-6 and 8) deals with the history of language classification. The
second part (chapters 7, 9, and 12) discusses currently used methods of proving
genetic relationship and provides assessment of some proposed genetic groupings.
The third part (chapters 10 and 11) addresses issues not immediately related to
language classification per se, namely, certain theories of language spread and
diversification. Chapters 1 and 13 are an introduction and a conclusion.

The book has an almost 11-page appendix listing some hypothesized distant
genetic relationships followed by a 92-page bibliography and a detailed index.

After Chapter 1, an introduction setting the aims and the goals of the book,
there follow Chapters 2 and 3, ''The Beginning of comparative linguistics'' and
'''Asiatic Jones, Oriental Jones': Sir William Jones' role in the raise of
comparative linguistics''. C&P review the early work in comparative linguistics
and quite convincingly show that, despite the widely held belief, neither was
Sir William Jones the first to propose the existence of Indo-European, nor were
his views on this matter completely correct (for instance, he did not recognize
modern Indo-Aryan languages as Indo-European, due to their typological
differences from Sanskrit.) His methods, insofar as he used systematic methods,
were also not particularly clearly formulated in his writings. On the contrary,
the methods of some of Jones' contemporaries and predecessors were actually more
precise. In particular, C&P stress the role of Johannis Sajnovics, an 18th
century Hungarian scholar, who worked on comparison of Saami (Lapp) and
Hungarian, in explicit formulation of criteria used for establishing genetic

Chapter 4 ''Consolidation of comparative linguistics'' starts with a number of
encyclopedic entries on the work of some late 18th-19th century comparative
linguists (Kraus, Gyarmathi, Hervas y Panduro, Adelung, Vater, Schlegel, Rask,
Grimm, Humboldt, Bopp, Schleicher). The section on Neogrammarians deals with
refuting Greenberg's (2005:158) dictum that ''as to how one actually classifies
languages, both Neogrammarians and their opponents say almost nothing.'' The
historical excursus ends in the early 20th century by presenting the
methodological views of Meillet.

Chapter 5 ''How some languages were shown to belong to Indo-European'' describes
how Hittite and Venetic were recognized as Indo-European (by Hrozny and Beeler,
respectively), and how Armenian was determined by Huebschmann to constitute a
separate branch of this family. Much of the chapter is devoted to refuting
Greenberg's statements about the methods used in this research. The chapter
concludes with a family tree of Indo-European on pP. 84-85 [identical to the one
given in (Campbell 2004:190-191)].

Here I must admit that the choice of terminal nodes in this tree strikes me as
somewhat arbitrary: on the one hand, some very close idioms, like Persian and
Tajiki, are shown as separate leaves, on the other hand, whole branches (Dardic
and Nuristani) are altogether omitted. The latter may be for lack of space, but
nevertheless one could wish for some consistency here.

The lengthy chapter 6, ''Comparative linguistics of other language families and
regions'' describes the history of classification of several language families of
the Old and New World and stresses that in most of these cases, vocabulary,
sound correspondences, and morphological evidence were simultaneously taken into
account. The Eurasian language families discussed include Finno-Ugric and
Uralic, Semitic, Austronesian, Dravidian, and Sino-Tibetan. A rather detailed
tree of Uralic is presented on p. 89.

However, the level of detail in the Uralic tree is, again, somewhat uneven: on
the one hand, Lude and Olonetsian are listed as separate languages, while on the
other hand, the division of Mari (Cheremis) into Western and Eastern, as well as
the rather widely divergent dialects of Mansi (Vogul) and Khanty (Ostyak) are
not shown.

C&P proceed to the discussion of several American Indian language families
(Eskimo-Aleut, Algonquian, Athabaskan, Uto-Aztecan, and Mayan). Discussing the
classification of African languages, C&P quote numerous sources casting doubt on
the validity of Greenberg's classification of African languages into four phyla:
Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, Khoisan, and Afroasiatic. The next section of the
chapter deals with the classification of Australian languages. The authors
describe existing approaches to the problem, and express their conviction that
the comparative method should be applicable to Australian languages as well. On
the basis of the material presented, the authors conclude that in the
establishing of all non-contested linguistic relationships, more or less uniform
criteria were used.

In Chapter 7 ''How to show languages are related: the method'', the authors
discuss what are valid and invalid procedures for proving linguistic
relationship. The chapter is rather similar in its structure (and largely in
content) to chapter 7 of (Campbell 1997). Examples illustrating discussed
methods are drawn from actual research.

Chapter 8 ''The philosophical-psychological-typological-evolutionary approach to
language relationships'' is the last of the chapters dealing with the history of
the discipline. It briefly reviews the 17th-19th century language theories that
related the typological profile of a language with the level of culture or race
of the speakers. They conclude that such approaches have virtually disappeared
from linguistics since the work of Sapir (1921), Bloomfield (1933), and Pedersen
(1962 [1931]).

Chapter 9 ''Assessment of proposed distant genetic relationships'' discusses
several proposed groupings, beginning with Altaic, with or without Korean and/or
Japanese, and (apparently long defunct) Ural-Altaic.

Conspicuously absent are any mentions of the fact that there exist
reconstructions of both noun and verb morphology at least on the Micro-Altaic
level (that is, for Turkic, Mongolian and Tungussic), (Georg et al. 1998:84).
The authors quote many works of opponents of the Altaic hypothesis, some
published as early as in the 1930s, but, as the arguments of the proponents of
the conjecture naturally become more refined in the course of time, I am not
sure that ''the general recognition of the shakiness of the Altaic hypothesis'',
p. 242, is convincingly demonstrated here.

C&P proceed to discuss various brands of Nostratic. They indicate the lack of
agreement among the proponents of the Nostratic theory as to which language
families should be included in this macro-group, as well as the numerous
problems with cognate sets proposed by (Illich-Svitych 1971-1984) and (Kaiser &
Shevoroshkin 1988). When discussing Illich-Svitych's etymologies (p. 246-250),
C&P indicate that out of 378 Nostratic forms proposed by him, 26 are labeled by
himself ''descriptive'' (onomatopoetic, affective, sound-symbolic etc), 57 are
labeled dubious, 57 are very short (not longer than biphonemic), 55 are
semantically non-equivalent, and some are probably results of borrowing (no
exact number is given in this case). However, they do not tell to which extent
these groups of doubtful cognates overlap. The 650 cognate sets of a competing
Nostratic reconstruction, that of Bomhard (Bomhard & Kerns 1994), are not
discussed. Their conclusion about Nostratic is: ''[W]e seriously doubt that
further research will result in any significant support for this hypothesized
macro-family.'', p. 264. After that C&P proceed to Greenberg's Eurasiatic and
Amerind. Here their assessment of the proposals is also unequivocally negative,
one of the numerous arguments being that ''As the arrangement of languages in
these (Greenberg's, DE) reveals, they were ordered to reflect a preconceived
classification, and multilateral comparison was not used to arrive at that
arrangement'', p. 267. They present an amusing demonstration that Greenberg's
methods allow one to show that Japanese belongs to Amerind. Then P&C discuss
Sapir's Na-Dene hypothesis, external connections of Dravidian languages, and
then provide a detailed critique of another Greenberg's proposal, the
Indo-Pacific group. The conclusion is ''[W]e declare that the broader
Indo-Pacific hypothesis itself is a closed case that should now be abandoned,'',
p. 296.

Chapter 10 ''Beyond the comparative method?'' deals with two approaches to
treating the development of languages at great time depths, when the common
features usually treated by historical linguistics disappear. These approaches
are Nichols' theory (or rather research program) of diversity and stability
(see, for instance, Nichols 2003) and Dixon's concept of 'punctuated
equilibrium' (Dixon 1997). C&P's assessment of both approaches is quite
negative: ''[I]t is valuable to take stock in order to eliminate sirens such as
these in which appear to promise much, but which divert efforts from more
productive lines of investigation.'', p. 329.

It is not always clear to me that what the authors criticize is the state of the
art of the corresponding theories.

Chapter 11 ''Why and how do languages diversify and spread?'' is devoted to a
critique of several theories advanced so far to answer the question in the title
of the chapter. Those include in particular the ecological risk hypothesis of
(Nettle 1999), the farming/language dispersal model of Renfrew, and various
works linking the complexity of languages with societal factors.

Chapter 12 ''What can we learn about the earliest human language by comparing
languages known today?'' describes attempts at reconstructing the 'Proto-World'
language and argues that extremely little that is definite can be said or
hypothesized about such a language.

Chapter 13 ''Conclusions: anticipating the future'' in particular gives a list of
some once contested genetic relationships, which by now have become universally
accepted. Notably, out of the 14 language groupings in the list, 8 are Amerindian.

C&P provide very interesting and relatively little known data on the early
development of historical linguistics. A wealth of detailed references allows
readers to make their own judgments about the issues discussed by the authors.
The downside is that the book is very much not self-contained, and it is rather
hard to tell who exactly its target audience is and what the prerequisites for
reading it are. On the one hand, the authors reiterate facts that are quite
standard for introductory courses of historical linguistics (e.g., that
similarity between the modern word-forms in two languages can be spurious); on
the other hand, they sometimes assume a rather detailed background knowledge
(for instance, the discussion of Na-Dene on p. 280-282 seems to presuppose that
the reader is aware of the Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit family).

Criticizing the use of short (CVC) words in multilateral comparison (p. 171),
they quote a passage from Ringe (1999:219) giving probabilities of fortuitous
coincidences between such words. However, these figures require an explanation
how they are calculated. Such explanation is present in the paper, but the
relevant part is not quoted, and it is impossible to make sense of them without
consulting the original paper.

Given the position of the Indo-European family and Proto-Indo-European as ''the''
standard of language classification and linguistic reconstruction, it would have
been quite instructive to have at least a brief sketch of the modern situation
in the field. Also, it is sobering to realize the extent of controversies raging
even in this well-established field. These controversies are largely glossed
over by C&P, for instance, the differences between glottalic and non-glottalic
reconstructions are only obliquely mentioned on p. 244 as being an obstacle to
the Nostratic reconstruction.

The book is not free from inaccuracies and inconsistencies. For instance, on p.
342, the authors cite South and North Caucasian as the two examples of ''not
undemonstrated, disputed proposals' proposals'' (sic, DE. I interpret this as
'not' taking scope over 'undemonstrated, disputed') . While it is indeed true
for South Caucasian, for North Caucasian it is quite far from being the case,
see for instance Schulze (1997). Thus North Caucasian is deprived of what I
would suppose is its rightful place in the list of hypothesized distant genetic
relationships at the end of the book.

Having rejected glottochronology on p. 167, C&P nevertheless use
lexicostatistical data to argue against Renfrew's views on p. 342.

To support their case against the Altaic theory on p. 236, they quote Greenberg,
whose opinions otherwise they usually reject.

Criticizing Greenberg (p. 171) and Illich-Svitych (p. 249) for extensive use of
short roots in their comparisons, C&P do not mention that a large number of
reconstructed proto-Sino-Tibetan roots (in Matisof 2003, which the authors
apparently accept as definitive, p. 114) are also no longer than triphonemic.
(Of course I am not implying that Matisoff's work might be invalid, rather I am
suggesting that use of short roots cannot be taboo.)

p. 359: ''Eastern Armenian and Ossetic has (sic DE) added a series of glottalized
stops (under influence from Caucasian languages) so that now it (sic DE) has an
inventory of twenty-nine consonants (...)'' Actually both languages have a number
of phonologically divergent dialects, and while indeed the number of consonants
in each of them is about 30 (precise figures are difficult to calculate because
of the unclear phonemic status of some of the consonants), I do not understand
how the number 29 was obtained.

There are some inaccuracies in the index too: for instance, the same language
family is referred to as East Caucasian on p. 219 and as Nakh-Daghestanian on p.
322, but no cross-reference is given. South Caucasian is called by this name on
p. 342, and Kartvelian elsewhere, no cross-reference is given in this case
either. Moreover, contrary to what is indicated in the index, Kartvelian is not
mentioned on p. 243no5, p. 246, p. 252, and p. 254, (4 out 10 occurrences in the
index); Allan Bomhard's name does not appear on pp. 203, 246, and 249, (3 out of
6 occurrences in the index).

To sum up, the book is extremely interesting and instructive as far as the
history of the subject is concerned. However, I am less enthusiastic about the
rest of the book: whatever be the actual validity of theories and specific
genetic groupings criticized by C&P, I am afraid that I cannot always find their
arguments compelling. Nevertheless, due to the wealth of information presented
in the book, it is certainly of great interest for linguists dealing with
language classification issues in their work. It will certainly become one of
the standard references on the subject.

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. _Language_. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Bomhard, Alan R. and John C. Kerns. 1994. _The Nostratic macrofamily: a study in
distant linguistic relationship_. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Campbell, Lyle. 1997. _American Indian languages_. Oxford et al.: Oxford
University Press.

Campbell, Lyle. 2003. How to show languages are related: methods for distant
genetic relationship. In Brian Joseph, Richard Janda (eds). _The Handbook of
Historical Linguistics_. Oxford: Blackwell. 262-282.

Campbell, Lyle. 2004. _Historical linguistics: an introduction_. 2nd edition.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Dixon, R.M.W. 1997. _The rise and fall of languages_. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Georg, Stefan, Peter A. Michalove, Alexis Manaster Ramer, Paul J. Sidwell. 1998.
Telling general linguists about Altaic. _J. Linguistics_. 35, 65-98.

Greenberg, Joseph. 2005. Indo-Europeanist practice and American Indianist theory
in linguistic classification. In _Genetic linguistics: essays on theory and
method by Joseph H. Greenberg_, ed. William Croft, 153-189. Oxford. Oxford
University Press.

Illich-Svitych, Vladislav. 1971,1976, 1984. _Opyt sravnenija nostraticheskix
jazykov (semitoxamitskij, kartvel'skij, indoevropejskij, ural'skij,
dravidijskij, altajskij_). [An essay of comparison of Nostratic languages
(Semito-Chamitic, Kartvelian, Indo-European, Uralic, Dravidian, Altaic).] 3
vols. Moscow: Nauka.

Kaiser, Mark and Vitaly Shevoroshkin. 1988. Nostratic. _Annual Review of
Anthropology_. 17.309-30.

Matisoff, James A. 2003. _Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman: System and Philosophy
of Sino-Tibetan Reconstruction_. Berkeley, California. University of California

Nettle, Daniel. 1999. _Linguistic Diversity_. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nichols, Johanna. 2003. Diversity and stability in language. In Brian Joseph,
Richard Janda (eds). _The Handbook of Historical Linguistics_. Oxford:
Blackwell. 283-310.

Pedersen, Holger. 1962[1931]. _The discovery of language: linguistic science in
the nineteenth century_. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Ringe, Donald. 1999. How hard is it to match CVC-roots? _Transactions of
Philological Society_. 97:2. 213-244.

Sapir, Edward. 1921. _Language: an introduction to the study of speech_. New
York: Harcourt, Brace.

Schulze, Wolfgang. 1997. Review of Sergej L. Nikolaev & Sergej A. Starostin, A
North Caucasian Etymological Dictionary. _Diachronica_. 14:1, 149-162.

For helpful criticism of earlier drafts of this review I am indebted to Barbara
H. Partee and Pavel Iosad.

David Erschler has a PhD in Mathematics from Tel Aviv University, Israel. He is
a lecturer at the Independent University of Moscow, Russia. His main interests
include Ossetic syntax, areal influences on Ossetic grammar, Uralic languages,
and syntactic typology.

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