LINGUISTICS ON NOVA.

The transcript of the Nova program “In Search of the First Language” is well worth reading; the discussants are real linguists, unlike so many of the talking heads that wind up on TV (I went to grad school with one of them), and you can learn a lot from what they say. But as I wrote on the Wordorigins thread where this was posted, you should take this caveat very seriously:

This picture that Dolgopolsky paints of the Proto-Nostratic world is controversial and not widely accepted. In fact, most linguists argue that any attempt to come up with a language spoken fifteen thousand years ago is pure speculation.

Nostratic is wishful thinking. The rest is real linguistics.

Comments

  1. The NOVA production is indeed an enormous improvement on the program that they originally got from the BBC, but in addition to the Nostratic stuff, most of what Ruhlen and Greenberg say is nonsense. The Nostratic stuff at least has the form of real comparative linguistics; the issues with it are whether it is sufficiently well done, whether there is enough evidence, and so forth. Greenberg and Ruhlen, on the other hand, are completely over the edge.

  2. Sharif Khan says:

    As-Salamu-Alaikum( Oa Rahmatullahe Oa Barakatu),
    I would like to know what is the meaning of name “Fayyan” or “Fayan”.I wanna keep it for my new born boy but I dont know the correct meaning of it ..hope u can help me.Allah hafez.

  3. I am completely ignorant of this and have never done linguistics. We did Old High German instead. Today the 50-year-anniversary of the main German translators’ association came, with an article about the Tower of Babel. In passing, that said that Indo-European and most Asiatic languages ‘are said’ to go back to an original language, Noatratic, aka boreic (? Boreisch). I thought this must be dubious. Who or what is the source of this theory?

  4. OK, I have now read the transcript (but not the thread). Perhaps I have picked up some linguistics over the years. I must have done stuff about Indo-European in courses on history of the German language. I see the Sarah Thomason they quote is Sally Thomason of Language Log.

  5. joe tomei says:

    Over at Languagelog, John McWhorter has a post related to long range relationships. Though I certainly incline to the wishful thinking tag, Nostratic and the whole proto-world discussion are really interesting for thinking about what the nature of evidence is for historical linguistics. I think it is Meillet who tantalizingly suggests that the existence of a single cognate set (I think his example is good/better/best) absent any other cognate sets would be a sufficient proof of relationship.

  6. I certainly agree that it’s interesting to think about, but that Meillet suggestion makes me shake my head in sorrow. There’s two kinds of linguists (and people), romantics who long for deeper meanings and wider connections and grasp at the faintest hint of Man’s Original Language, and skeptics who don’t mind speculating but need pretty iron-clad evidence to call something a genuine relationship. I’m firmly in the latter camp.

  7. Over at Languagelog, John McWhorter has a post related to long range relationships.
    That was gripping stuff, particularly for the observation, about the persistence of pronouns. Obvious relevance to Indo-European relatives, where the popular accounts tend to focus on nouns in common.

  8. Tim May says:

    McWhorter’s post should not be read without also reading the immediately succeeding post by Bill Poser.
    On a tangential note – Japanese is rather an ironic language to give an example from when demonstrating the tendency of pronouns to resist replacement. Beyond Poser’s point about boku, none of the Japanese personal pronouns are very old.


    So-called first-person pronouns in modern Japanese, such as
    watakushi and boku, do not date back to Old Japanese. … In Japanese, since the beginning of history, new personal pronouns for the speaker, as well as for the hearer, have been created one after another in rapid succession. Each new term has replaced an earlier one. Furthermore, every new pronoun has been borrowed from another category where it had a concrete meaning.

    Takao Suzuki, Language and Culture (Available as Words in Context)

  9. Oops. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

  10. joe tomei says:

    I certainly agree that it’s interesting to think about, but that Meillet suggestion makes me shake my head in sorrow.
    Maybe I’m taking it the wrong way, but I thought Meillet was (and it’s been more than a decade since I read it, I can’t even remember where it was) asking us to consider exactly what constitutes evidence of family relationship. This is, of course, where many find a chance relationship and think they have solved the mysteries of the universe, but what exactly is the minimum proof for a relationship? The Meillet example (if I remembered it right) is not simply a phonetic relationship, but a structural relationship as well. The fact is that we don’t have a minimum that we can agree on. Which is probably why discussion of Nostratic and such always seems to really get harsh.
    I posted before Bill Poser posted his response to McWhorter on Languagelog, and he’s forgotten more linguistics than I will ever know. But to me, the discussion of whether pronouns are borrowed is like that Sat nite live skit about whether the stuff in the can was a desert topping or a floor wax. It seems clear to me that pronominal resemblance is an important metric. While Bill (and the Thomason/Everett paper) have counter examples, I don’t think we can now scratch pronouns off our list. I tend to think of this as a residue of Chomskyan thinking, that one counter-example is sufficient for disproving a theory. I can’t speak to all of the examples, but in Japanese, the usage of pronouns is so rare (unless you are a foreigner doing your jiko-shokai ;^) that it is easy to see how they could be borrowed (also note that Japanese pronouns aren’t really pronouns because they aren’t marked for case). Though I don’t know Thai as well, my impression is that the same sort of thing is going on.
    I realize that the citing of Meillet might sound like I was hoping for a silver morpheme that, once found, would instantly reveal historical relationships, but I was more struck by the notion of a minimum level of evidence to prove a relationship. while I would certainly acknowledge that Ruhlen and Greenburg depend far to heavily on the notion of pronoun persistence, I also think that a handful of various examples doesn’t mean that pronoun persistence is false and we can no longer consider it.

  11. I don’t quite follow you. The claim was that “pronouns are never borrowed.” This is an absolute claim for which one counterexample is sufficient disproof; the claim is disproved. This is not a matter of “Chomskyan thinking” but of simple logic. If you then fall back on “pronouns are a basic feature of vocabulary that, like family terms and numbers, are borrowed less often than other vocabulary items,” you’re making a true but far less sexy claim, and one that doesn’t allow for any silver bullets. The fact is that proving relationships involves painstakingly finding series of correspondences that, taken together, rule out coincidence; this depends on having a lot of good evidence. Where such evidence is lacking, people itch to find some simpler, sexier way of showing that Proto-World Exists! or whatever. But it ain’t so. To quote Ray: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

  12. joe tomei says:

    While I’m sure that some people have asserted that ‘pronouns are never borrowed’, I don’t see that having been asserted here. McWhorter writes:
    There are two things about pronouns. First, they tend to hone to their original state much longer… Second, languages do not exchange pronouns much. Usually, a language’s pronouns are original stock, not the result of later bartering.
    Bill cites the Thomason/Everett, and notice how they present their counterexamples:
    This paper presents evidence that, given appropriate social circumstances, pronouns and even whole pronominal paradigms are readily borrowed
    (emphasis mine)
    The Nichols/Peterson paper is interesting in this regard in that a statistical survey of Amerindian pronouns and it finds a statistically significant pattern. Thus, even if they are wrong that pronouns stem from a common historical source, they have uncovered a potentially important generalization, which is why Bill Poser says “There are some other things to say about resemblances in pronouns, which many linguists now suspect involve sound symbolism, but that’s another topic.” Well, it is, but if the meme gets reduced to ‘hey, pronouns get borrowed too’, we’ve really lost a chance to actually try and understand the circumstances that gave rise to language. Unfortunately, this polarization of views has been with linguistics from the beginning (think the Neo-Grammarian controversy)

  13. joe tomei says:

    Sorry, the italics tag didn’t close. The T/E quote ends with (emphasis mine)

  14. Tim May says:

    While Bill (and the Thomason/Everett paper) have counter examples, I don’t think we can now scratch pronouns off our list.
    Who is suggesting that we should?
    I can’t speak to all of the examples, but in Japanese, the usage of pronouns is so rare (unless you are a foreigner doing your jiko-shokai ;^) that it is easy to see how they could be borrowed (also note that Japanese pronouns aren’t really pronouns because they aren’t marked for case). Though I don’t know Thai as well, my impression is that the same sort of thing is going on.
    Certainly the likelihood of pronominal borrowing is affected by various properties of the language in question – Suzuki, in the passage I quoted above, is making a point about the differences between Japanese and Indo-European pronouns – but I don’t follow how this affects the argument.
    (Also, since when is being marked for case a necessary property of pronouns?)

  15. joe tomei says:

    I wrote
    While Bill (and the Thomason/Everett paper) have counter examples, I don’t think we can now scratch pronouns off our list.
    Tim replied
    Who is suggesting that we should?
    Well, if we turn it into a binary question of are they borrowed, I think it is tantamount to suggesting just that.
    (Also, since when is being marked for case a necessary property of pronouns?)
    If we assume that IE pronouns are the model, what distinguishes them is that they form a closed set that is marked for case. It is the fact that we have phonological correspondences for the set, not just one or two that makes the case for IE so powerful.
    Considering this, Japanese pronouns are not really pronouns, but titles, similar to ‘shacho’ or ‘sensei’. The only point that makes them pronoun-ish are that they are deictic, but even then, shacho or sensei can have that quality. Also, the fact that Japanese pronouns are not a closed set (anata, anatatachi, atashi, omae) suggests that Japanese is not a good example.
    On the other hand, we can always fall back on Calvin’s definition, which was that a pronoun was “a noun that’s lost its amateur status”
    ;^)

  16. Tim May says:

    I don’t think Poser intended any such reading, but merely to curtail McWhorter’s enthusiasm for Ruhlen.
    Surely the definition of “pronoun” is synchronic and has to do with the word’s reference? I know that the status of Japanese “personal pronouns” is open to debate – that’s what Suzuki’s talking about – but I’ve never heard that case marking has anything to do with it. It’s all about their being an open class, forming a relatively minor role in address and self-reference in Japanese, and not necessarily having exclusive reference to 1st or 2nd person. See this discussion at linguistlist, for example.
    If case marking is a defining property of pronouns, then there are a lot of languages without pronouns.

  17. joe tomei says:

    I don’t think Poser intended any such reading, but merely to curtail McWhorter’s enthusiasm for Ruhlen.
    As I said, I posted before Bill Poser made his post about Kusanda. I’m not attributing the reading to him, just to the whole ‘are pronouns borrowed or aren’t they’ debate.
    If case marking is a defining property of pronouns, then there are a lot of languages without pronouns.
    Sorry, I thought we were talking about the possiblity of pronouns being borrowed, not discussing the definition of the category “pronouns” and my comment was very sloppily worded. That’ll teach me to comment while discussing the intricacies of shirayukihime with my 5 year old
    As for what the definition of “pronoun” is, it can’t simply be about the word’s referent, because you would basically be assigning the categories of whatever language you were starting from to the language you were studying. See Croft’s _Radical Construction Grammar_ for a discussion of that problem, especially Ch. 2.

  18. Tim May says:

    I’m sorry, I hadn’t realised that the question of the borrowability of pronouns had become a topic in this discussion prior to Poser’s post.

  19. joe tomei says:

    This exchange seems to have gotten a bit snarky and I’ll end here by offering my apologies not only for not being very clear, but also if I insulted you.

  20. I’ve really been enjoying this discussion, by the way, and thank you Tim for that link to the linguistlist discussion of Japanese pronouns, fascinating stuff.

  21. Tim May says:

    Joe -
    I was a little concerned, at the time, that my last post might be taken as sarcastic – clearly I failed to eliminate that possibility. I apologise unreservedly. I absolutely did not intend any insult. Certainly I was not myself offended at any point. I have great respect for your knowledge in this area – you’re clearly much better informed than myself.

  22. joe tomei says:

    No worries, Tim. I guess I’ve just been reading too many politics blogs lately.

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