Linguistics Gothic.

This post at All Things Linguistic made me laugh:

• This is a wug. Now there is another one. Now there is another one. Now there is another one. Now there is another one. Now there is another one. Now there is another one. There is a vast army of wugs and they are coming for you.
• A hooded figure approaches you. “So you’re a linguist…how many languages do you know?” You know there is no point in explaining. No one understands. No one will ever understand.

Of course, it helps if you know about linguistic memes like wugs and colorless green ideas. Remember, Google is your friend!

Comments

  1. The idea that linguists are ‘language scientists’ is a relatively new concept. The original meaning was ‘speaker of foreign languages’. I quote from Gerard Clauson, the prominent scholar of Turkic and Mongolic languages, who once wrote an indignant piece called An Old-Fashioned Look at the Linguists. I believe it was written in the 1950s. The tone is a bit stuffy but it does give a window into a world where ‘philology’, not ‘linguistics’, was the term used for the academic study of linguistic texts:

    When I was an undergraduate at Oxford before the First War, the science concerned with language was called “philology” and its practitioners “philologists.” “Linguists” were chaps who were rather good at talking two or three foreign languages, often because they were of mixed racial origin, useful to have about the place on a continental tour, but somehow faintly non-U. I think that this mild disdain for the linguists was largely due to the fact that they were so insensitive to the finer points of etymology as to describe themselves by a Latin word with a Greek suffix…

    We were of course intolerant and a little unfair; however dubious its etymological ancestry, la linguistique was a recognized science on the Continent, even if the word “linguistics” had not established itself in this country, and some of the finest work ever done in the field was being done here.

    Clauson then left the field for a while, and when he returned to it, he found that

    the linguists had succeeded in stealing nearly all the philologists’ clothes, and were busily occupied in getting the rest. … My own, perhaps unduly old-fashioned, view is that in recent years the linguists have been getting altogether too uppity. It is bad enough in this country, but in the United States, that home of brinkmanship, they have recently been on, or even over, the brink of declaring that the philologists are a bunch of out-of-date, no-good old fogies struggling in vain against the healthy gusts of fresh air that are blowing the dust and cobwebs out of the halls of learning.

    Clauson suggested that

    the proper study of the philologist is the written word, and his particular concern the structure and history of languages, while the proper study of the linguist is speech, and his particular concern the use of sound to convey meaning. Admittedly languages were spoken for thousands of years before anyone thought of writing them down, so to that extent the raw material of the linguist came into existence first, but language study did not begin until languages had been written down, and the raw material which was used when it did begin, perhaps not far short of four thousand years ago in Mesopotamia, was the written word. In other words, philology started many centuries ago; linguistics, in my sense of the term, did not really start much before the nineteenth century.

    Whether you agree with his proposal or not, it’s useful to keep in mind that when linguists become indignant that they are NOT a person can speak a number of foreign languages, it’s THEIR meaning that is the innovation. The fact that the new meaning hasn’t penetrated the consciousness of the masses shouldn’t be taken as signifying that the masses are ignorant and linguists are “correct”.

  2. @Bathrobe, this explains much. I’ve always been a bit non-plussed by this confusion about the English term, since in the German sphere we used to use calques of Sprachwissenschaftler — sprogvidenskabsmand in Danish, and lingvistik for the academic discipline is a recent loan from English. And I don’t think non-English language scientists get the number-of-languages question ‘all the time,’ though I suppose it happens.

    The term polyglot (in Danish) will serve for people who speak several languages, but it’s a bit obscure.

  3. My own, perhaps unduly old-fashioned, view

    Self-awareness is a good thing!

  4. Self-awareness is a good thing!

    True. I quoted him for the perspective he provides.

    Incidentally, I feel his proposal for dividing the two fields makes a certain type of sense. Having absorbed philology, linguistics seems to be inexorably drawn back to the written word. Perhaps his distinction is a useful one. If your linguistics starts getting too involved in looking at Standard Written English at the expense of ordinary speech, you should perhaps start calling it ‘philology’ instead.

  5. It’s not a matter of spoken vs. written, it’s a matter of approach. To me, philology involves analyzing literary usage (which is ipso facto not scientific); linguistics is the scientific study of language, whether spoken or written, taking account only of usage and leaving aside the considerations of tradition, esthetics, and the like that sometimes preoccupy philologists. They are both valuable in their own ways, but they are different magisteria (to borrow Stephen Jay Gould’s useful word).

  6. And of course when we analyze literary usage these days we call it “criticism,” which is why “philology” has a musty feel to it.

  7. Are you sure that philology is just the study of ‘literary usage’? And why would the study of literary texts be ‘unscientific’? Philology is surely based on textual analysis, which requires a disciplined, scholarly approach.

  8. “Philology” as the 19C knew it was a research program to find out about peoples and their literatures and histories through their languages and the histories of those languages. It has since fragmented massively. As a yoot, I told a linguist I was interested in linguistics: he quizzed me, and said “That’s not linguistics, it’s philology!” (with the distinct undertone, I now see, of “That’s just stamp collecting!”) So when I met another expert and dutifully told him I was interested in philology, he started talking to me about document analysis with special reference to Middle English. Fortunately, I survived both these conversations due to my unfragmented interest in everything. (Such it is to be a very intelligent child: adults either massively underestimate or massively overestimate you.)

  9. Are you sure that philology is just the study of ‘literary usage’?

    No, that’s why I said “to me.”

    And why would the study of literary texts be ‘unscientific’? Philology is surely based on textual analysis, which requires a disciplined, scholarly approach.

    It’s scholarship, but it’s not science. Science requires falsifiability (cf. the recent thread in which a misguided fellow offers his completely unsubstantiated theories of a connection between IE and Iroquoian, and ignores my question about what might make him doubt his own theory).

  10. “Philology’ is a word so obscure today that I understand the American Philological Association is in the process of renaming itself the Society for Classical Studies so that people will know what it is.

  11. If falsifiability is the criterion for promotion to “science”, I think said thread is actually a good example of how careful philology is very much falsifiable. Surely it tends not to be as readily so as the natural sciences– things don’t blow up to debunk our bad assumptions, etc.– but that’s quite a different kind of distinction, is it not?

  12. Hat: Textual criticism certainly is a scientific activity: like all other historical sciences, its data is limited to existing records, but the same objection applies to historical linguistics or evolutionary biology, which we agree are scientific activities. If new witnesses to a text are discovered, existing hypotheses (and the critical editions that instantiate them) may well be falsified, leading to revisions, just like in physics.

    Ken: I hope the American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743 and dealing with the full breadth of Wissenschaft, will resist the temptation to do the same.

  13. This is very interesting. From a totally practical angle: Back in high school, the people who taught us (ancient and modern) Greek grammar, syntax, essay writing, literature, etc. were called φιλόλογοι (philologists) and had studied φιλολογία (philology). These are still every day words for us, they are not in any sense archaic or obsolete. Nobody ever talked about linguists, and although their fields reasonably overlap, I tend to think of “linguist” as a modern and more “elevated” term defining language experts who study language(s) on a more theoretical or comparative way. In other words: I feel not every philologist is necessarily a linguist, but at the same time I cannot imagine a linguist who hasn’t studied the philology of their own language. perhaps I’m wrong.

  14. Well, Greek usage is (obviously) very different from English, it being a different language and all.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Philology and linguistics overlap, and there is no reason why individuals should not practice both, but there is a difference in attitude as well as methods.

    For philologists the study of a language is a means toward understanding an author, a culture, a history, etc, based on written documents, especially those of literary interest. Therefore philology deals with the recorded linguistic past, primary evidence of which varies considerably from one language to another and almost always excludes oral data.

    For linguists (in the modern sense) the study of a particular language or language group is a way to understand how the language(s) in question are structured, often in relation to a much wider context which may extend to a theory of language; how the constituents of a language group are related to each other through resemblances and differences which may result from descent from a common language (a hypothesis which can be tested and supported by specific methods), from sharing a territory, from historical events, from social structure, etc; and to formulate and test general principles and methods applicable to as many languages as possible, whatever their age or sociocultural status. Language is involved in so many human activities that the discipline of linguistics includes not only generalists and but specialists such as sociolinguists, psycholinguists, historical linguists, and several other types.

    This is why philology and linguistics cannot be equated although individual scholars might make use of the same primary data or use a blend of both approaches for specific purposes (eg for analyzing and translating ancient texts).

  16. ‘Philology’ was discussed at Language Log last year.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    Ariadne: I think that grammar, syntax, essay writing (composition), etc would be called in English either “language arts” (a term used in the early grades) or simply “English”. As I mention just above, “philology” (like French “philologie) does not refer to what is taught to children and adolescents about the formal aspects of their own language but to the study of historical texts, in an earlier version of that same language (if very different, like Old English vs Modern English) or in another.

    This is one of many words that other languages borrowed from Greek (or formed on Greek models) without preserving their meaning!

  18. “the proper study of the philologist is the written word, and his particular concern the structure and history of languages, while the proper study of the linguist is speech, and his particular concern the use of sound to convey meaning. ”

    M-L is disagreeing in a very gentle and agreeable way.

    The distinction being asserted here appears to be based on an erroneous definition of language. it is almost as if the writer thinks that written language is real language and speech is something else.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you, Jim!

    It looks like the author of your quote has met a phonetician (speech sound specialist) rather than a more generally-oriented linguist. Or perhaps took an introductory course or started an introductory textbook and did not get past phonetics and phonology which are usually covered first (a mistake, in my opinion).

    Y, thank you for mentioning the Language Log articles dealing with “philology”, which indeed has gone through so many definitions that it is almost useless. A comment by Sally Thomason about her own work was an excellent example of a linguist blending her expertise with that of philology when the two can complement each other.

    Like many other Hatters I used to read Language Log regularly, but I almost stopped a year or so ago as too many posts involve statistics, diagrams, spectrograms, and other technical apparatus which does not particularly interest me.

  20. Gerard Clauson was born in 1891 and died in 1974. He did a great deal of work in Turkic languages as well as Tokharian, Khotanese, Tangut, etc.
    He is, of course, from a different age with a different mentality. I became interested in him because he argued (in detail) against the Altaic hypothesis for the Turkic and Mongolic languages.

    I found his comments quaint, quirky, and provocative, but I didn’t think that they merited the kind of visceral disdain that they are getting here.

    He elaborated on his ideas of linguistics and philology in that article, but it is too long to quote here. Essentially:

    The techniques which were invented by the earliest philologists, and they were clearly invented again and again quite independently in different places and at different times, were, to use the terms we now employ, (1) grammar with its two branches, (a) morphology, that is the study of the variations of the forms of words in their different contexts, and (b) syntax, that is the study of the mutual relationships of words in the sentence; (2) lexicography, that is the compilation of lists of words and their meanings; and (3) etymology, that is the study of the reasons why certain words have the meanings that they have. In its earliest stages philology was was what the linguists call “synchronic,” … and its function was mainly normative, that is to lay down, or try to lay down, correct forms, usages, and meanings. … But … before very long the philologists found that their work was becoming “diachronic”… From that time onwards philology, without ceasing to be normative, also became historical.

    I have an aging Websters here which gives the following as the second meaning of “philology”:

    a LINGUISTICS: esp : historical and comparative linguistics b : the study of human speech esp. as the vehicle of literature and as a field of study that sheds light on cultural history

    Of course it is an old-fashioned word and has gone through many changes of meaning. The point of my first comment was mainly to do with linguists’ frustration at the failure of the general public to accept their appropriation of the word “linguist” to describe practitioners of their field of study.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    One word I heard from a British professor was “linguistician”, as opposed to “linguist” = polyglot.

  22. I didn’t think that they merited the kind of visceral disdain that they are getting here.

    I’m not sure where you’re seeing “visceral disdain”; it seems to me that people are simply pointing out the inadequacy of his approach, which you yourself find “quaint.”

  23. it seems to me that people are simply pointing out the inadequacy of his approach

    I don’t think there is anything inadequate about his approach. The problem is how he wants to divide up the field, which you obviously disagree with.

    I stick by what I said before.

    The paper by Newman complains that linguists should be doing more fieldwork instead of sitting at home and doing theoretical analysis on their own language. He’s obviously talking about the post-Chomsky generation here.

    Similarly, an awful lot of present-day linguistics seems to have taken over where philology left off by concentrating on the “theoretical analysis” of Standard Written English. Methodology might be newer but the mind-set is similar. It wasn’t supposed to be like this because one basic tenet of linguistics is that speech has primacy.

    The concept of separating the study of the written language from the spoken as an object of study isn’t as bad, fuddy-duddy, quaint, or inadequate as it might seem, just as the idea that linguists should concentrate more on actually recording the many languages still existing on this earth isn’t as wacky as it sounds.

  24. To take it back a step, it seems uncommon in these parts for the descriptive fact of an idea’s being out of fashion to be taken seriously as any substantial argument against it.

    I can understand how wider recognition of linguistics for the science it is might seem the best way to get people, journalists, etc., to stop feeling like they have an authority to speak about it that they would never dare claim in the case of physical science. I hope that’s true, though I have my doubts. Either way, philology–the historical study of human culture through the science of textual analysis–seems to me completely misrecruited as linguistics’ foil.

  25. The paper by Newman complains that linguists should be doing more fieldwork instead of sitting at home and doing theoretical analysis on their own language. He’s obviously talking about the post-Chomsky generation here.

    Similarly, an awful lot of present-day linguistics seems to have taken over where philology left off by concentrating on the “theoretical analysis” of Standard Written English.

    Ah, well, you see, when I talk about “linguistics” I’m talking about what to me is “real” linguistics, what linguists were doing before Chomsky came along. That may be part of our disconnect; I have no intention of defending the navel-gazing that he introduced (and I certainly prefer honest philology to it).

    To take it back a step, it seems uncommon in these parts for the descriptive fact of an idea’s being out of fashion to be taken seriously as any substantial argument against it. […] Either way, philology–the historical study of human culture through the science of textual analysis–seems to me completely misrecruited as linguistics’ foil.

    Good heavens, I’m not arguing against philology, and I’m sorry if I came off that way—I love philology! I just think the idea that “the linguists had succeeded in stealing nearly all the philologists’ clothes” etc. is silly. The philologists should do their thing and let the linguists do theirs, with no pointless jealousy and recriminations.

  26. This discussion has been a bit confusing for me because I thought philology was a subset of linguistics. I may have been led astray (?) by a German woman prof who vehemently said, “The answer to everything is philology.” I have quoted this wisdom ever since.

  27. Thank you, M-L!

    So may I ask a favor in return? This is more Penutiana. My question is about the Chimakuan languages. I saw a suggestion somewhere a while ago that lumped them in with Penutian or Macro-Penutian or whatever term the author was using. is there any actual basis for that suggestion? If anyone would know it would be you.

    And if in fact there is a basis for it, that paints a very interesting pattern of very early settlement of the West Coast.

    ‘I just think the idea that “the linguists had succeeded in stealing nearly all the philologists’ clothes” etc. is silly. ”

    Well, okay- Bloomfield used the comparative method on unwritten languages to derive a proto-language. Is that the philologists’ whole wardrobe?

  28. “Textual criticism certainly is a scientific activity: like all other historical sciences, its data is limited to existing records, but the same objection applies to historical linguistics or evolutionary biology, which we agree are scientific activities.”

    At least in the context of the Greek and Latin classics, textual criticism has a substantial unscientific, subjective, “philological” component. In the end, textual critics rely on a subjective sense of style and other subjective factors in selecting between two or more textual variants. The “stemmatic” method–eliminating from consideration manuscripts which can be shown to have been copied from an extant ms. without borrowed readings from other mss. and therefore don’t add any new possible readings–has some scientific basis, but even with a single actual or reconstructed witness to a text there’s still subjective, philological work to be done in producing a readable text because no manuscript, actual or reconstructed, perfectly reproduces the original text. Even in the best manuscript tradition from antiquity–Vergil–there are variant readings that have to be sorted out. And no two editors ever agree on every single passage where there are variants. In that respect, textual criticism is different from linguistics and evolutionary biology, and it’s philology, not science.

    New witnesses are discovered all the time, but they don’t necessarily result in revisions of existing theories–they can be just as wrong as previously existing witnesses.

  29. Excellent points.

  30. J. W. Brewer says:

    Approximately a century ago, a fair number of scholars doing historical linguistics (primarily Indo-European) had job titles something like “Professor of Comparative Philology.” That’s still a thing at Oxford: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diebold_Professor_of_Comparative_Philology. A few institutions (Yale, someplace in France) even used the “mixed” title “Professor of Linguistics and Comparative Philology.” I expect that “comparative philology” was a fixed idiom, so it doesn’t tell you much about the difference between “philology” more generally and “linguistics,” other than perhaps as a reminder than disciplinary boundaries and labels have not been completely stable over time and are (synchronically) not necessarily completely consistent between different languages or different national traditions of scholarship and university administrative structure.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    Jim: … Chimakuan languages. I saw a suggestion somewhere a while ago that lumped them in with Penutian or Macro-Penutian or whatever term the author was using

    I am not aware of this alleged connection, but then I don’t necessarily know all the scholarship. These languages are not very well-known, as the family is so small (2 languages, one of them long extince) compared to the much larger Wakashan and Salishan families which are Chimakuan’s neighbours. Apparently Sapir had lumped all three groups into a single “Mosan” which was not generally accepted (apart from Greenberg and Ruhlen, apparently). I wonder if someone confused “Chimakuan” with “Chimmesyan”, one of the many variants for “Tsimshian” which is definitely Penutian (this group in turn is not generally accepted but I have found many reasons to consider it highly probable).

    In any case, from what I can gather from the relevant sections in Mithun 1999, the Chimakuan languages have a lot in common with Wakashan and Salishan but the common features are likely to be due to close contact rather than common ancestry. As far as history is concerned, it seems likely that Chimakuan used to occupy a larger territory but was squeezed out by Wakashan and Salishan which expanded their own territories (eg Wakashan speakers coming down from the tip of Vancouver Island over to the Olympic peninsula).

    Bloomfield used the comparative method on unwritten languages to derive a proto-language

    Specifically, he worked on reconstructing Proto-Algonkian after doing fieldwork on several Algonkian languages. This was at a time when most scholars thought that it would be impossible to use the comparative method with languages which did not have a long written tradition and were also supposed to be highly variable. His reconstructions showed that Amerindian (and other) unwritten languages were indeed amenable to the use of the method.

    On the other hand, some people think that Sapir used the method as a means of classifying those languages. This is a misunderstanding of the meaning of “comparative” in this context: the phrase “comparative method” is short for “comparative method of proto-language reconstruction“.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    Professor of Comparative Philology

    Today the field dealing with proto-language reconstruction is likely to be called “comparative-historical linguistics”, “historical linguistics” being more concerned with the history of a single language as evidenced (at least partially) in historical documents. But these is still some fluidity in the terminology.

    Recently I have run into several instances of the term “paleolinguistics” which seems to deal specifically with reconstruction of ancient language stages for which there is no direct, concrete evidence (like *PIE). If so I think this is a good way of avoiding the ambiguity of “(comparative) historical linguistics”.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    The philologists should do their thing and let the linguists do theirs, with no pointless jealousy and recriminations.

    I’m reminded of grant reviewers who say in essence: “Your project is no good; you should do my project instead (which I’m already doing myself).”

  34. Thankls, M-L.

    “These languages are not very well-known, as the family is so small (2 languages, one of them long extince) ”

    Indeed. Sainted Chief Siʔaɬ led what was basically a wag the dog operation to exterminate the Chimakum. Everybody knew exactly what he was doing but they went along because the Chimakum were hated slave raiders.

    “As far as history is concerned, it seems likely that Chimakuan used to occupy a larger territory but was squeezed out by Wakashan and Salishan which expanded their own territories”

    I recall seeing somewhere that most of the toponyms up there looked like they had Chimakuan etymologies. The Makah settled around Neah bay and southward and the S’klalam settled around Port Townsend and northward.

    The reason I ask is that that scenario suggests related people went down the coast settling and may have been pushed aside here and there. It was different for the Penutian-speakers that went up the Columbia river. They spread across the Plateau and on southward into California. That still implies some kind of coast hopping from Tsimshian territory down to the mouth of the Columbia at least.

    ” I wonder if someone confused “Chimakuan” with “Chimmesyan”, one of the many variants for “Tsimshian”

    I think this is pretty likely and it may explain the whole thing.

    “which is definitely Penutian (this group in turn is not generally accepted but I have found many reasons to consider it highly probable). ”

    What is it with Americanist linguisitics that seems to have this twitch that requires a conviction in a court of law before anything is accepted? Hyper splitters!

  35. Probably an overreaction to the “it’s all one giant supergroup” people.

  36. On philology – in the German tradition, Philologie comprises both linguistics and literary science; faculties are named e.g. Fakultät für Germanische (Slawische, Romanische etc.) Philologie and while, as a student, you can specialise more on the literature side (most people, in my experience) or on the linguistic side, you still get a basic knowledge of both sides.

  37. I like that idea, which fits with the way I approach languages.

  38. “Probably an overreaction to the “it’s all one giant supergroup” people.”

    Probably. Maybe it’s also just an acknowledgement that some of the proto-languages are just too deep in the past to be recoverable. linguists were among the first to support the pre-Clovis proposal.

    Odd how that impulse seems to be absent from Africanist linguistics. But even there I see that groups are being pealed off of Niger-Congo. The latest is the Ubangian languages.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    Jim: … the Penutian-speakers that went up the Columbia river. They spread across the Plateau and on southward into California. That still implies some kind of coast hopping from Tsimshian territory down to the mouth of the Columbia at least.

    A map of the “Penutian” languages (including most of those in Sapir’s 1929 classification) shows that the majority of them are located along rivers flowing into the Pacific Ocean. There is also a definite split between the languages of the group located North of California and those in California (although Wintun, the Northernmost California group, shows signs of having migrated from the North). This split corresponds to the mountainous barrier between Oregon and California, a territory which is home with very different language groups.

    Linguistically speaking, the Northern Penutian group (including Tsimshianic) shows a number of archaic features compared to the California group, among them a larger consonantal inventory including far back consonants and heavy clusters. Along the Columbia River, there are signs of long contact and perhaps language shifts involving Salishan languages, with mutual influences. East of the Columbia, “Plateau Penutian” is quite different in structure from the languages located closer to the Ocean, whether North or South, so that it is ironic that this group is the only one still officially called “Penutian” in major reference works, since the name was first coined for some languages in California. Its extension eastward along the Snake River (an Eastern affluent of the Columbia) is a geographical exception to the general North-South orientation of the language families linked by Sapir. It is not possible to envisage Plateau languages extending Southward into California, in contrast to Wintun which is just South of Oregon. Takelma in Southeastern Oregon is another case of (slight) overlap: it was classified among “Oregon Penutian” although a small part of its historical territory extended into Northern California, but linguistically it shows closest resemblances of (demonstrably archaic) morphology as well as (some) vocabulary with Tsimshianic (Northern BC), Alsea (North Oregon Coast), Miwok (Central California) and Yokuts (Southern California). At least this is my current opinion based on years of research, mostly concerned with the morphological aspects. Needless to say, this is far from being the received opinion, but I have long been working on providing supportive evidence.

    The dispersed geographical distribution of the “Penutian” languages could indicate several points of entry from the Ocean (or down the coast) into different rivers, perhaps at long intervals, rather than a single entry into the Columbia followed by extension where local circumstances permitted. Intermarriage and assimilation of local populations speaking very different languages would have resulted in changes to the original (Proto-)Penutian language(s), most evidently a simplification of the phonological systems.

    As to the isolated situation of Tsimshianic, hundreds of miles from the nearest Penutian language (Chinook, along the Columbia), I think it is unlikely to indicate either a remnant of the earliest immigrants by sea from the North or a migration by land or by sea from the South. Instead, it may be due to the disappearance of other possibly Penutian languages from the intervening coast, as a result of the encroachment of first Salishan and later Wakashan languages, resulting in either displacement or assimilation of the local populations. Again, this is my current hypothesis, but I admit it is not as well supported as the one regarding the majority of the group, which is based on linguistic evidence.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Jim: What is it with Americanist linguisitics that seems to have this twitch that requires a conviction in a court of law before anything is accepted? Hyper splitters!
    LH: “Probably an overreaction to the “it’s all one giant supergroup” people.”
    Jim: Probably. Maybe it’s also just an acknowledgement that some of the proto-languages are just too deep in the past to be recoverable

    IN my opinion, this is largely due to the fact that few Americanists have had more than elementary training in comparative-historical linguistics, so that while they might do all right with long-recognized families in which relatedness was already obvious to relatively untrained persons (eg just as it is obvious that Spanish, Italian and French must be related), they are out of their depth when dealing with even slightly more distant relationships. The search for regular phonological correspondences among words with identical meanings, efore any serious consideration of morphology, is fraught with pitfalls of many kinds, trapping the unwary, and warnings about them without providing the relevant “anchors” only scare away would-be comparativists. On the contrary, serious consideration of morphology, which means studying the formation of words (not just single dictionary forms but all the various forms that a word can take, the classes in which words may be divided, the derivational processes which lead to the formation of new words the meaning of which can be quite different from that of the base word, etc) leads directly to the discovery of the desired lexical-phonological correspondences, even in cases where the correspondences may look “weird” and therefore may not be recognizable as such among words which are indeed related. As Etienne mentioned not too long ago, the model of 100% regularity presented in introductory textbooks tends to give a false impression to the linguist who has never acquired a more advanced level of expertise. My personal impression is that the reconstruction of proto-languages on the continent has been (with a few exceptions) mostly superficial, standing comparison with Proto-Romance or Proto-Germanic rather than with PIE. Johanna Nichols estimated that IF the number of language families in the Americas were as large as the current estimate, and most or all of these families were descended from a common ancestor (perhaps Greenberg’s “Amerind” which only excludes Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene), the differentiation into all the known languages would have taken at least 50,000 years! I am sure that eventually the languages will be classified into number of still unacknowledged, larger family groups, and that a few proto-languages will be reconstructed which will stand comparison with the age of Proto-Indo-European.

  41. First off, M-L – thank you for taking the time to write so much. It is an honor frankly to have someone of your stature take the time to explain things in this kind of detail to a layman. Thank you again.

    I agree with all your other points. I think Americanists are too cautious. There are some obvious big questions in American languages that they have failed so far to address. Why are Siouan, Caddoan and Iroquoian languages structurally so similar when they are surrounded by very different languages? How do they explain the structural similarities between Salishan and Algonkian (few though they be)? And so on.

    Also I think very early Penutian/Penutioid settlement along the West Coast explains a lot of things and raises no additional questions.

  42. marie-lucie says:

    JiM; Algonkian and Salishan:

    I have no firsthand acquaintance with these groups, and since the vast majority of Algonkian languages are in Middle and Eastern North America, it seems strange to bring up Salishan as a possible relative. But Sapir was the first to hypothesize that the Yurok and Wiyot languages located in two small territories along the California coast must be somewhat distantly related to the Algonkian group. He first noticed resemblances in the pattern of pronominal affixes (not in a list of words), and the ruling Algonkianist of the time, Michelson, countered that individual resemblances in corresponding pronouns (eg”2nd singular”) could have arisen from independent causes, but Sapir stuck to his opinion: you had to take the whole system into account (the 3 “usual” persons, plus a “4th person”). Later research, notably by Mary Haas, found more resemblances, including “lexical-phonological” ones which satisfied the comparativists. Nowadays the “Algic” supergroup is no longer controversial. It comprises Algonkian (a very large group), and its two otherwise isolated California relatives (sometimes grouped together as “Ritwan”). Historically speaking, this distribution suggests that the supergroup originated on the Pacific Coast, from which some migrants left and went eastward. Hence some resemblances with Salishan are not improbable. (I am not competent to evaluate the probability).

    I know even less about Iroquoian, Caddoan etc, but related languages do not have to be spoken in adjacent locations: for instance, Hungarian is surrounded by Indo-European languages while several obvious relatives are spoken much farther East. The historical reasons for this fact are well-documented, but even if they were not, one would have to suspect either that Hungarian is a remnant of a larger indigenous group which was overwhelmed by IE conquests, or an indication that a large, dominant group coming from the East settled in the middle of an IE region (which happens to be the factual truth). The enigma of Tocharian is a problem of the same type, although more difficult to solve because more ancient. In the Americas, historical documentation is at best scanty, but linguistic resemblances beyond the most obvious ones can still be investigated and help put forward likely scenarios for locations and movements of people in both the recent and ancient past, which can be compared to evidence provided through non-linguistic means (eg archeology).

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