Origins of the Japanese Language.

Matt of No-sword sent me a link to Alexander Vovin’s Oxford Research Encyclopedias article Origins of the Japanese Language, saying:

It doesn’t present any new findings, but it’s a reasonable (I think) summary of current thinking among Anglophone linguists working on the history of Japanese specifically. The most interesting point of serious disagreement (it seems to me as an interested non-academic) is the nature of the relationship to Korean — genetic, sprachbund, regular old contact? Vovin does not accept a genetic relationship and I tend to agree with him, as hashed out previously in the LH comments section, but he gives plenty of space to those arguments here. On the other hand, he has little time for any attempt to establish a connection to Altaic; Austronesian is mentioned only in a list that also includes Basque; and the word “Ainu” doesn’t appear in the article at all.

I’ll be curious to know what those who know about these things think of the article, and of course I’ll be glad if people find it useful. Thanks, Matt!

Comments

  1. Given their lack of understanding of Japanese historical linguistics (see, e.g., Dybo & Starostin, 2007, pp. 218–219) it would seem that trying to make G. Starostin and A. Dybo understand the difference between pJ primary *e and *o and secondary /e/ and /o/ in Japanese would be as futile a task as explaining the same concept to kindergarten pupils.

    It seems their debates are more entertaining than Language Hat threads.

  2. For those who haven’t yet savoured the best of Moscow-Leningrad rivalry, и на английском языке, here they are: The end of the Altaic controversy, reply.

  3. Just as we talk, an interesting discussion (not an engagement on the Japonic front of the Altaic war) is going on at Academia.edu — with the participation of Alexander Vovin, by the way. Thomas Pellard has shared a draft of his chapter on “Ryukyuan an the reconstruction of proto-Japanese-Ryukyuan” (that would be Insular Japonic in Vovin’s terms) in the upcoming Handbook of Japanese historical linguistics (De Gruyter Mouton). I know too little about the topic to contribute anything the real experts would consider useful, but I’m watching the discussion with pleasure just to learn more.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Thomas Pellard has published a paper (in English, download link at the right) that convinces me, for what that’s worth, that the evidence for *e and *o from Ryukyuan lines up with the evidence for *e and *o from correspondences between Western Old Japanese, Eastern Old Japanese and a bunch of hitherto ignored (!!!) extant Japanese dialects and therefore necessitates reconstructing *e and *o for Proto-Japonic (in addition to the uncontroversial *a *i *u *ə). The Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages dismissed the hypothesis of Proto-Japonic *e & *o, saying the supposed evidence doesn’t line up – but it came out in 2003, and Pellard’s paper dates from 2008, so perhaps Vovin is a little too harsh here.

  5. given the fact that the oldest sources on the Ryūkyūan languages date back only to the 15th century as compared to the 17th century for Japanese, we still have much more gaps in our current knowledge about the Ryūkyūan language history than about the Japanese one.

    Presumably that is 7th century for Japanese.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Yes.

  7. For those who haven’t yet savoured the best of Moscow-Leningrad rivalry, и на английском языке, here they are: The end of the Altaic controversy, reply.

    Thanks very much for that! The “reply” is too long to read for now (140 pages!), but pp. 121-22 have a useful summary of Vovin’s (devastating) assault on the theory.

  8. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Unfortunately minus273 (0 kelvin?)’s link refuses to open on this computer (I just get a blank screen). Would it be a breach of copyright restrictions to post the text of pp. 121-122?

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    The text after what SFReader quoted is not a lot more polite:

    As for Robbeets, she still cannot come to grasp with notions of transitivity and intransitivity in the verbal word formation and its implications for the comparisons. Inventing new terms such as “manipulative” certainly does not help (2015, pp. 214ff). We do not see there anything but a religious zeal to prove the Japanese–Altaic hypothesis (a dogma?), one which should entertain serious scholars no more.

    It’s a pity that we don’t see this sort of invective any more in the literature of the natural sciences. In the past we did, as for example what Karl Pearson and R. A. Fisher had to say about one another in the early genetics literature.

    Incidentally, I’m changing to a different email with this post. In the future I won’t use my work address for messages that are not work-related.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Moscow-Leningrad rivalry

    *lightbulb moment* That’s what this is!

    Vovin’s (devastating) assault on the theory

    The reply, called “In defense of the Comparative Method, or the end of the Vovin controversy”, is devastating, too. Total destruction all around!

    I just get a blank screen

    The second link, if that’s the one you mean, leads directly to a large pdf that is better downloaded (right-click, Save As) than displayed in the browser.

  11. Vovin was discussed here several times before, e.g. here. I love the academic Punch and Judy act.

  12. Thanks, I thought he sounded familiar!

  13. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t know enough of Japanese and Altaic to make informed comments on the controversy, but a few years ago during a lunch break at a conference I was sitting at a large table where my closest neighbours (strangers to me) were engaged in a discussion about those languages and also Ainu, which I don’t know much about either but at least one of them had been writing about. As I recall, a lot of their conversation centered on how and how much they disagreed with Vovin’s work.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    Not sure who is in overall charge of this Oxford project but whoever it is sufficiently non-committal to let this piece by Vosin coexist with a piece on “Altaic” by Starostin: http://linguistics.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199384655.001.0001/acrefore-9780199384655-e-35?rskey=U1tzwW&result=2

  15. minus273 (0 kelvin?)

    No-no-no, -273C is 0.15K. There are loads of interesting things happening below 0.15K. Slightly more seriously, it is a thinly veiled way to say absolute zero, I guess.

  16. Greg Pandatshang says:

    I appreciate this article’s summary of the evidence for Japonic in the Korean peninsula. I hadn’t known how solid to think of this as being, partly because I associate it with Beckwith and Beckwith is so Beckwithy. I was aware of some sort of controversy around his Koguryŏ: The Language of Japan’s Continental Relatives, but Vovin explains that it’s a controversy over whether the language should be called Koguryŏ, not whether it was there and was Japonic. Per Vovin, the consensus seems to be that 2,000 years ago, the Korean peninsula was entirely Japonic-speaking, with the linguistic ancestors of the Koreans north of there in Manchuria, only later invading and completely replacing the language, just like the Magyars did in Hungary.

    Since apparently Beckwith’s Koguryŏ language is limited to the Hangang basin, maybe we should just call it Hangang rather than Koguryŏ or “pseudo-Koguryŏ”.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Not sure who is in overall charge of this Oxford project but whoever it is sufficiently non-committal to let this piece by Vosin coexist with a piece on “Altaic” by Starostin:

    That’s the younger Starostin, not the elder, and his last paragraph (in the suggestions for further reading) is:

    Since the early 1990s, a series of new important studies on the Altaic problem have been written by scholars belonging to the so-called Moscow school of comparative linguistics, most importantly, Sergei Starostin, Anna Dybo, and Oleg Mudrak. Many of these studies are in Russian, but their culminating effort—“Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages” (EDAL), written by all three authors—is easily available in English and may serve as a representative indicator of the current state of affairs in Altaic etymology. However, it should not be taken at face value, and is best consulted along with critical works written from both a “pro-Altaicist” perspective (e.g., Robbeets, 2005) and an “anti-Altaicist” one. Concerning the latter, a good summarizing example of contemporary thought on the Altaic problem is a comparison of Vovin (2005) (detailed, multi-faceted criticism of EDAL from all possible points of view) and Dybo and Starostin (2008) (an equally detailed reply to all of Vovin’s points).

    I also recommend this post and its long comment thread…

  18. marie-lucie says:

    David M: About your linked post:

    In my opinion, the writer (like many others) misses a crucial element, that of comparative morphology. The search for lexical-phonological correspondences can only be done safely with languages which stand a good chance of being related, not just through a vast amount of similar vocabulary, but first of all through similar morphological structures. For instance, over the centuries a number of European travellers to India had noticed the evident similarities between some Indian words (e.g. numbers, kin terms) and those of some European languages (especially Latin and its descendants), but the idea of a genetic relationship between all those languages eventually rested on the very similar verb structures of Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. Before much work was done on reconstructing a Proto-Indo-European vocabulary of hundreds of lexical items (something still going on), many linguists were busy contributing to comparative grammars of various language families (Germanic, Celtic, etc). It has long been observed that a study of Modern English focusing on vocabulary would place the language in the Romance family, while the structure of its oldest verbs (now called “irregular”) places it squarely among the Germanic languages. In Campbell’s work on American Indian languages, his chapter on “the methods” is mostly devoted to errors committed by others, which would easily have been avoided with careful attention to morphology. It is true that “anything can be borrowed”, but some things are a lot more likely to be borrowed by others, and morphological elements are much less borrowable than single lexical items. Considering English again, the language has borrowed (= adopted) large numbers of French and Latin words, along with many others from a variety of languages, without adopting the structures and alterations that those words were subject to in their original languages (the noun plurals maintained in words like “bacteria” or other specialized borrowed vocabulary have not been generalized to native English words, for instance).

    Some people think that “morphology” is another word for “typology”. It is not. Typology deals with generalizations, many of which can apply independently to vastly different languages (e.g. “has grammatical gender”, “uses prefixation more than suffixation”, and such) but morphology deals with what creates and modifies the words of a language. Morphological study is bound to consider actual words, which have both a form (or several forms) and a meaning, so that it unites the phonology and the lexicon. It is therefore an indispensable preliminary to the search for “lexical-phonological correspondences” which should precede any attempt at proto-language reconstruction.

    Sorry if I repeat myself, I have written very similar paragraphs before!

  19. I was aware of some sort of controversy around his Koguryŏ: The Language of Japan’s Continental Relatives, but Vovin explains that it’s a controversy over whether the language should be called Koguryŏ, not whether it was there and was Japonic.

    I’m not sure that’s the best way to summarize the situation. As I understand it, Vovin argues that the “Koguryŏ” toponyms regularly trotted out as evidence of the link to Japonic are actually Paekche in origin, inherited by Koguryŏ through conquest. That’s what he means by “pseudo-Koguryŏ” in this article. Last I heard, he felt that the actual Koguryŏ language was most likely to have been related to (or even a form of?) Old Korean. See: From Koguryǒ to T’amna (2013, so probably not too out of date.)

    But yes, status of Koguryŏ itself aside, the idea of a language family (1) spoken at one point across the lower half of the peninsula + Japan, but (2) replaced on the peninsula by other languages from the north, is pretty widely accepted.

  20. In my opinion, the writer (like many others) misses a crucial element, that of comparative morphology.

    That’s part of what I liked about “The end of the Altaic controversy” (linked by minus273 above) — he emphasized that strongly.

  21. To defend my post linked by David…

    the writer (like many others) misses a crucial element, that of comparative morphology. The search for lexical-phonological correspondences can only be done safely with languages which stand a good chance of being related, not just through a vast amount of similar vocabulary, but first of all through similar morphological structures.

    …I would not say that I “miss” this, as much as disagree with it.

    One point that may not be clear from the post is that I actually consider etymology to be primary over genetic relatedness. Lexical-phonological correspondences that are due to loaning are just as valuable results as correspondences that are due to common inheritance, and often enough their value is independent of knowing which subtype we are dealing with. Even if we never settle a question such as if Altaic (in any composition) is a family or a Sprachbund, we can still expect the Altaic comparative corpus to provide knowledge about its’ members’ history than cannot be reached by atomistic within-family comparison. (For a simple example, it allows us to be fairly certain that pre-Turkic once had a *p that later shifted to Proto-Turkic *h.)

    It has long been observed that a study of Modern English focusing on vocabulary would place the language in the Romance family

    No no no. A naive purely quantitative look at vocabulary alone could, maybe. Vocabulary plus historical phonology however sets this straight well enough. An analysis of the Germanic and Romance components will clearly demonstrate that most of the latter has entered the language only after numerous changes that have occurred in the former (for just two examples: palatalization of *k, *g in words like cheese, yard; i-umlaut of *u, *ō in words like king, geese), and that therefore only the latter can have a shot at being native.

    Same also goes for vocabulary examined with basic knowledge of historical lexicology in hand. Already the English Swadesh list firmly demonstrates its Germanic affinity. There are indeed a handful of Romance loans lurking in there, testifying for intense contacts (mountain, person, round; perhaps grease, if we don’t want to consider fat to be more basic), but they are still firmly outnumbered by native Germanic vocabulary.

    Morphology will of course also handily demonstrate that English is Germanic, but this fact can be established just as well even without any attempt to investigate comparative Germanic grammar.

    I do not mean to claim that the situation is always just as simple — but I do mean: to claim that English could be considered Romance on lexical grounds holds no water, and suggests near-total ignorance of either how comparative lexicology actually works, or what the etymological structure of the English, Germanic and Romance lexicons are. Or is this perhaps just a soundbite that people parrot without bothering to actually think about for five minutes?

    Whichever it is, though, I think just how prevalent this nonsense is demonstrates how most linguists, even historical linguists, sorely underappreciate what etymology and comparative lexicology can do if properly applied.

    It is true that “anything can be borrowed”, but some things are a lot more likely to be borrowed by others, and morphological elements are much less borrowable than single lexical items.

    Yes, probably. Easily so for “lexical items” without qualification, and quite plausibly even for core lexicon. But on the other hand, morphological elements are often much shorter than lexemes, commonly as little as a single phoneme, and are hence much more likely to show accidental similarity where none exists. Morphology is probably also more prone to internal changes than core vocabulary is.

    Since we are going off on critiques of Altaic: there’s one I’ve seen that demonstrates quite well the ways in how morphology is less reliable than lexicon, though I am failing to relocate it at the moment. The first point made is that Mari would be grammatically firmly identifiable as an “Altaic” language, even though it is universally considered Uralic; the second is that a case marker *-u (accusative, IIRC) could be established for Indo-European if we only looked relatively modern languages, while older stages of the languages show these to be unrelated parallel innovations. Therefore, most of the few alleged Proto-Altaic grammatical elements could be quite well mere accidental coincidences as well.

    Now, maybe there could be “core morphology” that is safe from distorting effects, much in the same way how core vocabulary resists superficial loanword influences. I do not know if any such category has ever been proposed, though. “Morphologically establishable” families such as Indo-European do not rely on a small core of exceptionally solid morphological parallels, they rely on the sheer extensiveness of their shared morphology, effectively functioning as a mini-lexicon of its own.

    Morphological study is bound to consider actual words, which have both a form (or several forms) and a meaning, so that it unites the phonology and the lexicon. It is therefore an indispensable preliminary to the search for “lexical-phonological correspondences” which should precede any attempt at proto-language reconstruction.

    No opposition to this as written, but what I would grant is an indispensible preliminary is understanding a language’s synchronic morphology, so that we can tell stems apart from affixes, derivatives from inflected forms, irregularities from productive formations, etc.

    I will also grant that synchronic morphological analysis requires some comparative work: it must rely on typological concepts and categories (“ablaut”, “accusative”, “aorist”…), which in turn can be only put on a firm footing by support from work done on other languages. True historical morphology is unnecessary at this stage, though (and prematurely injecting that can end up doing more harm than good, but that would another rant entirely).

  22. marie-lucie says:

    j: Thanks for your reply.

    About English as a Romance language, this has actually been proposed! but of course not seriously accepted.

    You are right to say that English can be shown to be Germanic simply from a Swadesh list-type compilation, and this is true also for French relative to other Romance languages, but in each case the families (Germanic, Romance) are quite obvious, not just in their basic vocabulary but also in their morphosyntactic structure (complex verb forms, noun genders and agreement, and more). Such families are obvious even to untrained observers, but Indo-European is not, and has needed much more work to get accepted by scholars (and some details of reconstruction are still hotly debated).

  23. Regarding French, I have some theoretical issues concerning it’s genetic descent from Latin.

    I gather there is no doubt that there was no displacement of native population of Gaul, so at some point the entire previously Gaulish speaking population must have switched to Vulgar Latin.

    And a situation of extreme bilingualism must have existed at some point before that.

    And at that point, the language people actually spoke would have been characterized today as a mixed language, contact language or maybe a pidgin.

    The end result was that the Gaulish underwent total lexical replacement and also borrowed Latin grammar almost entirely after which it was declared a Vulgar Latin and member of the new Romance family.

    Same point applies to all other Romance languages, those based in Italy not excepted (standard Italian is descended from Tuscan dialect which is highly suspect in this regard, being a result of the language shift by non-Indo-European people – the Etruscans).

    So, is it right to call this process a genetic descent from Latin and draw nice genealogical trees?

    Maybe instead of a tree, we should draw a cloud showing a group of post-contact languages unrelated genetically, but simply sharing same superstrate.

  24. @SFReader: Around 2000, I heard a talk by Martin Nowak, the first head of theoretical biology at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. (He joked that Oppenheimer had originated the idea for a theoretical biology program there when he was director, and it only took until 1998 to get it up and running.) He talked about his mathematical model for the evolution of language, and he specifically pointed out that language was learned from the surrounding population, not inherited, and models ought to reflect that. Then, however, he exhibited a model that was maddeningly crude in that regard; although he described the algorithm in atypical terms, it did not actually differ mathematically from the kinds of algorithm used to describe the passage of genetically inherited traits.

    What I learned from that was that it’s straightforward to see that language evolution does not proceed by the same mechanisms and probably should not be described with the same tools as organismal evolution; but actually implementing that difference in a meaningful way is surprisingly difficult.

  25. And at that point, the language people actually spoke would have been characterized today as a mixed language, contact language or maybe a pidgin.

    maybe and maybe not. spanish-speakers in nyc code switch between english and spanish due to intense bilingualism, but no pidgin or mixed language arises.

    The end result was that the Gaulish underwent total lexical replacement and also borrowed Latin grammar almost entirely after which it was declared a Vulgar Latin and member of the new Romance family.

    this is like saying that irish people continue to speak irish today, but with total lexical and grammatical replacement from english. surely it is more parsimonious to say that they switched from irish to english.

  26. Irish and English have very different word order, so we can’t say that. Clearly in Irish case, they learned foreign language and then stopped using native language without much mixing in the process.

    Case of Gaulish and Latin is different, they had same word order and pretty similar grammar. Gauls could continue speaking their language just supplanting Latin words for Gaulish ones and tweaking grammar here and there to adjust to Latin norms.

    There is that strange term “convergence”. Never understood what it really meant in language evolution context, but perhaps Gaulish and Latin did “converge” to form Vulgar Latin ancestor of French. Admittedly, Gaulish did most of the converging, being language of the conquered and all that, but Latin changed a lot too.

  27. language evolution does not proceed by the same mechanisms and probably should not be described with the same tools as organismal evolution; but actually implementing that difference in a meaningful way is surprisingly difficult.

    Language evolution based on uninterrupted transmission of language from parents to children is analogous to biological evolution. (eg, one could say that Swedish is descended from Old Norse in the same sense as saying that humans evolved from great apes)

    But language evolution following extreme language contact when people stop transmitting language inherited from parents to their children is not. (Irish English is not descended from Irish Gaelic, but is not descended from Great British English either. The process can’t be described in terms of descent)

    I realize that this definition negates existence of pretty much every language family in the world.

    Sorry.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    And at that point, the language people actually spoke would have been characterized today as a mixed language, contact language or maybe a pidgin.

    That’s not how language death happens today. Instead, all over the world, bilinguals keep their two languages almost perfectly apart and speak only one of them to their children. How closely related the languages (or dialects) are has very little bearing on that.

    Even Viennese mesolect is such a case. It formed a generation ago when parents half-consciously tried to create a colloquial register for a standard language that previously didn’t have one (anywhere in Austria), and then spoke that to their children.

    Organisms don’t “borrow” so much from each other (lateral = horizontal gene transfer) as languages do. But they converge a lot more than languages do (convergence in the biological sense: evolving the same features as adaptations to the same selection pressures, basically environments). The outcome is the same. The algorithms used for phylogenetics in biology don’t and can’t distinguish convergence from lateral gene transfer, and they don’t need to; I can’t see why they would need to do that in linguistics.

  29. Case of Gaulish and Latin is different, they had same word order and pretty similar grammar. Gauls could continue speaking their language just supplanting Latin words for Gaulish ones and tweaking grammar here and there to adjust to Latin norms.

    I don’t think this addresses John’s point, though. What’s the difference in this model between “switching from language A to language B” and “continuing to speak language A, but with the vocabulary and grammar of language B”? The type of traces language A leaves afterwards?

  30. David Marjanović says:

    On the importance of morphology…

    Sure, sometimes you’re in luck. Sometimes you come across whole systems of inflection where cognate-looking affixes (or ablaut grades) have cognate-looking functions. It is extremely unlikely that such systems – the affixes and the functions; not every language has a “masculine accusative singular” in the first place – would be borrowed wholesale. This is what makes Afroasiatic “just plain obvious” even though it’s got to be about twice as old as IE (whose age has often been proclaimed as some kind of absolute limit of the Comparative Method, for thoroughly illogical reasons) and even though the reconstruction of Proto-Afroasiatic hasn’t actually come very far (there are two etymological dictionaries, but they disagree a lot – see link in the link –, and in one of them you can see the way Arabic dictionaries are organized, i.e. the authors went through an Arabic dictionary word by word and looked for cognates for each entry).

    The reason PAA reconstruction hasn’t progressed more lies in the fact that many extant languages remain poorly known to science. Consequently, there’s no Proto-Chadic reconstruction yet, only a recently achieved Proto-Central-Chadic one, and it’s not even quite clear what belongs to Cushitic and what doesn’t.

    But how to compare different examples of such systems remains an open question. Fortescue’s Uralo-Siberian comes to mind. Without etymologies or clear attempts to establish regular sound laws, he compared Proto-Uralic and Proto-Eskimo morphology and found they match up pretty nicely if you shuffle the zeroes around, i.e. if you assume that (in one branch or another) certain suffixes were reinterpreted as marking previously zero-marked categories, leaving the ones they previously indicated now zero-marked. In the end, nobody knows how to evaluate the probabilities of such shifts.

    Likewise, the Athabaskan languages all have pretty much the same polysynthetic verb template, and the Yeniseian languages (as far as known) all have the same other such template. How do we compare the two? How do such systems change? Is there something that determines, or influences, the “word” order in je te ne le que other than externalization of inflection? Work on this complex of questions seems to be just beginning.

    And sometimes you’re out of luck altogether. There are lots of isolating languages in the world.

    Importantly, languages don’t need to be isolating to make morphological comparisons difficult. For example, the Moscow School thinks that Proto-Altaic was a Japanese-type language, where noun morphology consists of a bunch of free-floating clitics: they’re there, they’re sometimes cognate with clitics or content words elsewhere, but they don’t form a definable system, and different ones are grammaticalized to different extents. (Also, their shortness and irregular reductions make accidental matches more likely; this holds for definable systems as well, but in the absence of a system it’s harder to use meanings for cognacy judgments.) Now, perhaps this reconstruction is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the Moscow School simply hasn’t looked hard enough. But what if not?

    Sometimes, languages look like as if their last common ancestor had a neat system of inflectional morphology, but it didn’t. Hungarian and the Finnic languages have very large case systems, where moreover many of the cases have the same or similar functions. But these systems aren’t cognate: in 11th-century Hungarian, the ancestors of many of today’s case endings were free-standing postpositions (which didn’t, for example, participate in vowel harmony). Proto-Uralic is nowadays thought to have had just a few cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, IIRC), plus various postpositions and adverbs that have become case endings in various branches, creating cases that previously didn’t exist.

    Indo-European is more similar to the Uralic case than people used to think. Several cases are more or less trivial to reconstruct, but the system has a fuzzy fringe; reconstruction leads to case-like endings that attached to some nouns but not others, for example.

    In sum, if you have morphology available, use it; if you think you don’t, look again*; but in most cases morphology on its own isn’t as helpful as many people have proclaimed. As in biology, I recommend a total-evidence approach.

    * Sino-Tibetan appears to be such a case. Today this really large family contains languages of every morphological type. Some of the inflectional/polysynthetic morphology that some branches have is transparently recent, and it used to be widely thought that the family has a basal dichotomy into Sinitic (largely isolating) and Tibeto-Burman (which has, among others, isolating subbranches like Lolo-Burmese and branches with sparse morphology like Tibetan), so people used to think Proto-Sino-Tibetan was more or less isolating and pretty much gave up on morphological comparison. However, the position of Sinitic has become very shaky; and in the last few years Guillaume Jacques & team have been showing that some of the polysynthetic morphology of the Kiranti languages in Nepal looks cognate to some of the polysynthetic morphology of the Rgyalrong languages on the other side of the Tibetan plateau. Perhaps PST was polysynthetic, then, and we should expect traces of PST morphology in all ST branches.

  31. Another big difference between language evolution and biological evolution is that language change mostly takes place after the stage of “genetic transmission”. New vocabulary continues to be adopted throughout peoples’ lives, and grammatical and sound changes typically do not arise as “mutations” in early childhood either. Most can be better considered new fashions picked up from peers, or in the case of substrate features, inheritance from a parent who is an L2 speaker. If we take a hard-line view, this would mean that almost no linguistic innovations are ever genetic, and that trying to define language subfamilies in terms of common innovations is a folly.

    The issue goes away though if we were to not focus as much on L1 acquisition, and started viewing L2 acquisition as at least capable of being equally “genetic”. I don’t think e.g. my English should be considered “pidginized” or “creolized” (let alone genetically Finnic!) just because it has been acquired non-natively. And if so,
    post-childhood changes in one’s native language could also be considered a part of “genetic transmission”…

  32. David Marjanović says:

    Yeah, of course.

    (…This is not sarcasm.)

  33. Even in this enlightened time, when linguists are paying closer attention to more precise definitions of common term, there is no accepted common definition to what “genetic descent” means. I checked some common textbooks (Campbell, Hock, Anttila) a while ago and as I recall that definition was oddly missing.
    If we take the strict definition, of L1 transmission from parent to child, we’ll end up with much of Italian not genetically descended from Latin, and with the English of the Windsors (of partial German and Greek ancestry) detached from that of pure Anglo-Saxons. That won’t help anybody. In other words, I second j.’s call to ‘not focus as much on L1 acquisition, and start[…] viewing L2 acquisition as at least capable of being equally “genetic”’.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    If we take the strict definition, of L1 transmission from parent to child

    That’s the child’s L1, not necessarily the parent’s.

  35. I meant genetic transmission not just over one generation, but as a chain passing over many generations, from some ancestral language down to a more recent one.

  36. its about the community not the individual; people inherit their L1 from peer group not parents

  37. Both, to some degree. But OK, I’m referring to a chain of language acquisition passing from older L1 speakers to new ones.

  38. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Vovin mentions a Korean lexeme OK *YEri > MK :yey ‘Japanese’ (given as an example of lenition of /r/). Anyone know something about this? I guess it’s not shocking that Old Korean had a root for Japanese. One wonders if the same exonym was ever applied to Japonic speakers in the peninsula, or if there was an additional root with that meaning. Does :yey have any known etymological relationship to other Koreanic vocabulary? Does it have any reflexes in modern Korean? And what does the : signify?

  39. David Marjanović says:

    And what does the : signify?

    Actually written like that in Middle Korean. It means rising tone, together with vowel length, and was placed at the left of the syllable. It looks like /jə̀rí/ became /jə̀í/ and contracted first to /jə̌i̯/, then to [jěː].

    Vovin uses the abominable Yale transcription of Korean: e means /ə/, ey /əi̯/ is pronounced [e] at least nowadays. Just wait till you come across wu for /u/, u for /ɨ/ and wo for /ɔ/.

  40. I am pretty sure that YE in OK *YEri is Sino-Korean reading of 倭 “Wa” – old Chinese name for Japan (which supposedly meant “dwarf”)

  41. It’s certainly written 倭理, but I’m not sure that the “ye” actually is from that Chinese root. The capitalization on the “YE” in Vovin’s transcription indicates that the character (倭) is used for meaning, not sound. I’m not familiar enough with his conventions to say whether he would use the caps for a character used for meaning and sound, i.e. a loanword from Chinese written with the “correct” Chinese character, but I have my doubts.

  42. I always imagine Yale as having a Committee for Ungainly Romanizations.

  43. its about the community not the individual; people inherit their L1 from peer group not parents

    I would say that they inherit it collectively, as an age stratum, from their parents’ generation, but they acquire it individually mostly from their peer group (or whoever they communicate with most frequently).

  44. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Yale Cantonese romanisation is quite nice, if I’m recalling correctly.

  45. Vovin uses the abominable Yale transcription of Korean: e means /ə/, ey /əi̯/ is pronounced [e] at least nowadays. Just wait till you come across wu for /u/, u for /ɨ/ and wo for /ɔ/.

    I always imagine Yale as having a Committee for Ungainly Romanizations.

    David is generally so measured (and informed!) in everything he writes, and Rodger’s response is so entertaining, that I do hope Languagehat can confirm the existence of a corresponding committee!

  46. @Piotr Gąsiorowski: Whether kids learn language primarily from adults or peers is not by any means universal. It depends on who is around to talk to a child at a given point. With my eldest, there was a very clear point at which she went from learning mostly from her parents to learning from other kids. It was obvious, since she started learning new words with a different accent!

  47. David Marjanović says:

    Committee for Ungainly Romanizations

    Heh. It really does seem to be just the Korean one; the one for Cantonese strikes me as straightforward.

    David is generally so measured […] in everything he writes

    Sampling bias! I should dig up some of the discussions with creationists I’ve participated in… or the guy who first insisted that the bodies of saints don’t decompose and then proudly presented the “partially incorrupt skull” of one such saint. I flipped my shit, yo.

  48. I love it when he flips his shit!

  49. Yale romanization for Korean was developed by Samuel Elmo Martin.

    I’ve read some of his books – they are no doubt very learned and thorough works of scholarship – but they are messy.

    I hope that’s the right word.

    His romanization of Japanese in 1198 page long Reference Grammar of Japanese is particularly messy. I can’t even read a page of his acutized and apostrophized Japanese – gives me a headache.

  50. Mocked a monk, no less.

  51. His romanization of Japanese in 1198 page long Reference Grammar of Japanese is particularly messy. I can’t even read a page of his acutized and apostrophized Japanese – gives me a headache.

    That’s pretty harsh. It’s basically just Kunrei-shiki with doubled vowels for length and acute diacritics to indicate pitch accent. (And he had to do that somehow, since he wanted to include it in his grammar—and rightly so, it being an integral part of the language.)

    I actually agree that it’s quite hard to read, but I think this has more to do with the layout and design (that sans-serif font!) than Martin’s romanization.

    Compared to letting The Japanese Language Through Time fall out of print, though, the sins of the Reference Grammar’s publisher are quite minor in my view.

  52. January First-of-May says:

    …Wow. That argument. I feel lost in the sheer philosophy.

    One says do not trust any conclusion that you cannot reliably reproduce no matter who drew it first, and even if that criterion is fulfilled, do not trust but test, or look for ways of testing that haven’t been imagined yet.

    That way lies madness, though.

    I do not recall the specific details of that particular argument anymore (someone told it to me once, many years ago), but TL/DR – how would you know (or, indeed, test) that World War II actually happened (for reasonable values of “actually”), if you weren’t there to see it?
    (If you happen to be over 70 years old and were there to see it, consider the same question about World War I or the Napoleonic Wars.)

  53. David Marjanović says:

    Good to see the comments were actually saved when the blog moved. That must have duplicated the comments, though.

    “Measured” does have a point: I didn’t call the guy out on using “blog” when he meant – not even “post”, but “comment”!

    how would you know (or, indeed, test) that World War II actually happened (for reasonable values of “actually”), if you weren’t there to see it?

    Oh, there’s a lot of argument from parsimony hidden in that simple word. As it is in trusting your eyes or your memory.

  54. this is why the methods of history are scientific but the conclusions are not. the statement “england and germany were at war” is inherently a conclusion, not a fact, because it is not reducible to a collection of statements about individuals.

    supposedly incorrupt corpses of catholic saints. st. bernadette of lourdes (d. 1879) is a masterpiece of the embalmer’s art, unless indeed she is a wax model. the others are plainly either embalmed or (in earlier days) mummified. also many of the pictures are not closeups.

  55. David Marjanović says:

    Huh, I grew up Catholic and didn’t even know that. I only read about it as an Orthodox idea.

  56. Huh, I grew up Catholic and didn’t even know that.

    Perhaps you were also speaking in prose all your life without knowing it.

  57. Just want to call attention to Matt’s comment above, which has been languishing in moderation since last night — sorry, Matt, I forgot to do my usual first-thing-in-the-morning check of the queue!

  58. David Marjanović says:

    Perhaps you were also speaking in prose all your life without knowing it.

    I don’t see how that compares? I’m just saying there’s a lot of Catholic tradition (and dogma) that isn’t taught to everyone.

  59. I’m not sure if the belief in uncorrupted corpses was ever an official teaching of the western Catholic church; I think it was mostly tied to local veneration cults. In any case, it was among the anti-scientific medieval beliefs that, if not explicitly rejected, were supposed to be discouraged after Vatican II.

  60. I don’t see how that compares?

    If you reread your sentence you essentially said that you grew up a Catholic without knowing that you were a Catholic. 😉

  61. David Marjanović says:

    That makes sense.

    If you reread your sentence

    Oh, ambiguous that 🙂

  62. marie-lucie says:

    Back to the history of Japanese, there is supposed to be some admixture of Polynesian (or perhaps Taiwan aboriginal languages, which belong to the same large family). Does anyone have more to say (or recommend) about it?

  63. ambiguous only because unidiomatic: for sfr’s reading, david’s sentence would have to end in ‘it’.

  64. history of Japanese, there is supposed to be some admixture of Polynesian

    Wasn’t Austronesian substrate theory debunked long time ago?

    Recently I’ve encountered another version of it which goes like this:

    A claim was made in Chinese chronicles that people of Wa (old name for Japan) were descendants of immigrants from ancient Chinese state of Wu (located on lower Yangtze). The state of Wu was based on conquest of the indigenous Dong Yi peoples who were Austronesian according to some theories.

    So these partially sinicized Austronesians went to Japan and gave the Austronesian substrate to Japan.

    Sounds very far-fetched, I know. But certainly better than supposed colonization of Japan by Taiwanese aboriginals.

  65. There was a paper some years ago by Ann Kumar, about Javanese elements in Japanese.

  66. marie-lucie says:

    SFR: supposed colonization of Japan by Taiwanese aboriginals.

    I did not mean to suppose such a thing. Among all the islands and peninsulae in the Northwest Pacific there are many places that can be reached by boat, intentionally or not, so voyages between those lands probably occurred many times.

  67. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks Y, I will read the Kumar paper later.

  68. Sakiyama Osamu published a book this year called The Formation of the Japanese Language: Linguistic Genealogy and Language Mixture (日本語「形成」論:日本語史における系統と混合) in which he argues that Japanese is a mixture of Austronesian and Tungusic. I haven’t read the book yet, but Sakiyama isn’t a crank; he co-edited The Vanishing Languages of the Pacific Rim for OUP. I think the mainstream position on Austronesian admixture is that it’s an intriguing idea but the evidence adduced so far isn’t sufficient to convince.

    Kumar’s paper is unfortunately hampered by bad Japanese etymology. Skipping straight to her table:

    – I have never heard of an OJ word /nai/ meaning “court lady”; this would be quite an unusual OJ word because its second mora does not begin with a consonant (perhaps it might be something to do with Sino-Japanese 内 /nai/ “inside”? definitely not OJ in that case though)
    – /warawa/ (in OJ actually /warapa/) originally meant a young child; “court dancer” is a much later and very much secondary (metaphorical) development
    – /sapa/ does not mean “rice field,” it means “wetlands.”
    And so on.

  69. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks Matt. What is this book on languages of the Pacific Rim? Does it cross the Pacific to go as far as North America?

    I have a whole collection of books (mostly in English) published under Prof. Miyaoka, a number of which deal with Austronesian languages, but none of them appear to concern Japanese (unless they are in Japanese, but in that case I wouldn’t know!).

  70. marie-lucie says:

    Never mind, I found the reference and table of contents on the internet. The book does circle the Pacific.

  71. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    John Cowan: its about the community not the individual; people inherit their L1 from peer group not parents

    Piotr Gąsiorowski: I would say that they inherit it collectively, as an age stratum, from their parents’ generation, but they acquire it individually mostly from their peer group (or whoever they communicate with most frequently).

    Thinking about my three daughters, I would think that individual children differ a great deal from one another, and that a one-size-fits-all approach is not a good idea. The two older ones grew up in the same place (Birmingham, UK), have the same mother, and both now live in the USA (California and Colorado), but their language acquisition was quite different. The older one was very sensitive to the way her peers spoke, and acquired a very strong Birmingham accent the same day as the day she started playing with the girl across the street (stronger, indeed, than her friend’s accent). The younger one was indifferent to peer pressure. One summer they went with their mother to the USA, and I stayed at home, but spoke to them by telephone. Within a day the older one was speaking like an American, and the younger one’s speech after two months was indistinguishable from what it had been before they went. Now that they both live in the USA (as adults) the situation is reversed. The older one still sounds British after 20 years in the USA; the younger one sounds American to British ears (but probably British to American ears).

    My youngest daughter is quite a bit younger, as a different mother, and has lived most of her life in France, so she isn’t really comparable. She picked up her English from me, and it was noticeable when she was about ten that she spoke English more like an adult than like a child. She picked up her Spanish from her mother, and it was obvious from a very early age (about three) that she knew which was the appropriate model for which language. As neither of us spoke French very well we arrived she learned her French at the École maternelle from her peer group.

    I know a linguistician on another group (no one who posts here, or has done since I first followed this group), who asserts very dogmatically that the peer-group theory is the one size that fits all. He has never had any children, has never been married, and has never worked as a school teacher, but just knows that what he read in something written by someone as dogmatic as he is is correct.

  72. Heh. Mansplaining at its finest!

  73. It’s also interesting to observe how younger siblings pick up speech traits from their older brothers and sisters. My middle child (now ten) has said “mines” instead of “mine” since he first learned to speak. He didn’t learn it from anyone; it was just an idiosyncratic error that he has never grown out of. His younger brother (almost six) has actually picked up the “mines” affectation in the last year, even though before that, he used “mine” normally.

  74. I have learned from a brief reading of the article that I should not like to be on the opposing end of Vovin’s strong convictions, regardless of respective scholarly merits.

  75. David Marjanović says:

    I finally read the article.

    Finally, coming to an old (and odd) comparison of Japonic *pa to Koreanic *pa, I am afraid that we again run into a functionality problem: While Koreanic *pa, which appears exclusively after adnominal verbal forms, is essentially a nominalizer, having nothing to do with topicalization, Japonic *pa is indeed a topic marker that appears freely after nominal parts of speech (unlike Koreanic *pa) and nominalizations as well, while it has nothing to do with a nominalization per se.

    But… can’t topicalization and nominalization have something to do with each other?

    Consider the humble PIE *-n-. It made nouns with a specific reference out of adjectives ( ~ “the one who”) and other nouns ( ~ “the one with the”), as seen in Greek and Latin nicknames for example. In Germanic, on the one hand, this way of forming nicknames ran wild, losing all further meaning and operating on shortenings/simplifications of anything and everything; on the other hand, it gained a related function on adjectives, creating not nouns but definite adjectives even in the absence of a definite article (as seen in Gothic). Then, in North Germanic, it jumped back to the nouns and became the definite article. Seems to me that the only reason no grammaticalized topic marker has developed from it anywhere is that marking topics used to be typologically alien to Europe; it’s only been a thousand years that topic-and-comment sentences (marking the topic by word order as in Chinese) have caught on in such languages as French and German.

    (Heh. I just noticed “humble pie”.)

    Or consider the English -ing. Starting out as a way to make action nouns from verbs (like the apparently cognate German -ung, OHG -unga, though don’t ask me what happened to the vowel*), it became grammaticalized as a gerund (something German lacks completely), then merged phonologically with the present participle, and now reanalyses are happening (do you mind my doing with action noun, “do you mind this deed of mine” > do you mind me doing with present participle, “do you mind me while I’m doing this”). Isn’t that a greater distance than that between nominalization and topicalization?

    * That, too, happens a lot in Altaic.

  76. Trond Engen says:

    David M.: can’t topicalization and nominalization have something to do with each other?

    It would seem like an obvious possibilty for reanalysis. I can imagine it happening with fixing or unfixing of the word order. Or both may develop from an agent (“nominative”) marker. Or from a marker of definiteness.

    (He said, introspectively. It would be stronger if I could back it up with actual examples from somewhere in the world. Hm…)

    Then, in North Germanic, it jumped back to the nouns and became the definite article.

    Huh? I haven’t heard that before. The explanation I know is merger with the deictic pronoun in a, uh, topicalized sentence. Maðr, hinn … “Man, he …”

    This is actually the process that made me think of the possible paths for reanalysis above. The deictic could be called a marker for the topical noun. Topicality of a noun is pragmatically close to definiteness, when knowledge of the topical noun is taken for for granted, and the marker gets reanalyzed as a definite article. But I can easily imagine the function as a topic marker to be extended as well.

  77. marie-lucie says:

    David M: reanalyses are happening (do you mind my doing with action noun, “do you mind this deed of mine” > do you mind me doing with present participle, “do you mind me while I’m doing this”)

    A reanalysis, yes, but it seems to me that me doing X means exactly the same as (older) my doing X: “the fact that I am/will be … doing X”. What do native speakers think?

  78. Per the OED, -ing was initially an umlaut variant of -ung used with verbs in -ian such as causatives; later, -ung levelled to -ing for whatever reason.

  79. David Marjanović says:

    merger with the deictic pronoun in a, uh, topicalized sentence

    Better yet!

    it seems to me that me doing X means exactly the same as (older) my doing X: “the fact that I am/will be … doing X”

    Yes, of course; what I misleadingly put into quotation marks was the analysis – how I think native speakers understand how these constructions came to mean what they mean.

  80. While one can imagine a nominalizer becoming a topic marker, such very reasonable semantic leaps are at the heart of every single bad long-range hypothesis. Once you have a good handle on a language relationship, you can start exploring semantic changes. Until then, it’s surprisingly easy to connect a pair of unrelated etymons using perfectly innocent semantic laxity.

  81. Trond Engen says:

    No disagreement there. For morphology to be diagnostic, you need cognate systems, not a few look-alike morphemes. But look-alike morphemes can be very helpful in recognizing cognate systems.

  82. marie-lucie says:

    Y, Trond: I agree with both of you, but there are different kinds of grammatical morphemes. The ones that seem to have pragmatic meaning, especially if short and occurring at different places in the sentence, are easy to borrow and also easy to misunderstand, so that the occurrence of similar such morphemes in different languages is not necessarily an indication of those morphemes being cognate within the systems of the languages in question: one language may have borrowed it from the other, or both may have borrowed it from yet another language.

    In several Amerindian languages in Spanish-dominant countries there are a number of morphemes obviously borrowed from Spanish which indicate articulations in the sentence and also depend on the speaker’s intent, opinion judgment, etc, such as variants of porque ‘why, because’ which had no exact native equivalents (not that those languages had no way of expressing the same sentence meanings, but perhaps in less obvious ways). So the same Spanish words can occur in languages which are not related at all, and their meanings are not always exactly the original Spanish ones.

    On the other hand, similar grammatical morphemes that occur closer to the stem of a noun or verb and are less dependent on the speaker’s personal intent, judgment, such as plural indicators, etc are more likely to be cognate.

  83. marie-lucie says:

    Y: While one can imagine a nominalizer becoming a topic marker, such very reasonable semantic leaps are at the heart of every single bad long-range hypothesis. Once you have a good handle on a language relationship, you can start exploring semantic changes. Until then, it’s surprisingly easy to connect a pair of unrelated etymons using perfectly innocent semantic laxity.

    In order to “have a good handle on a language relationship”, you have to “have a good handle” on morphological structure as well as actual morphemes. “Unrelated etymons” often reveal themselves because they deviate from the morphological structure (including verb and noun inflexion if relevant) common to actually related words.

  84. It’s not that a nominalizer couldn’t possibly have evolved into a topic marker, it’s that there doesn’t appear to be any reason to believe it did other than the two extremely common phonemes it contains. “PIE *-n- evolved into a lot of different things, and who’s to say it mightn’t have become a topic marker if topic-comment had been a thing in PIE at the time?” just isn’t very persuasive.

    If you already believe that Japanese and Korean are related (or you don’t know but consider a relationship the null hypothesis because of geography or whatever), then sure, this example can be accommodated in your theory. But if you’re content to assume that the two languages are unrelated until someone convinces you otherwise, then the two *pa=s probably won’t impress you much as evidence in that direction.

  85. Greg Pandatshang says:

    To my (native speaker) ear, “my doing” seems a little more comfortable with past tense reference and “me doing” with a future tense reference.

  86. David Marjanović says:

    It’s not that a nominalizer couldn’t possibly have evolved into a topic marker

    That’s how Vovin’s article presents it, though. It reads as if the very idea is preposterous.

    convinces you otherwise […] probably won’t impress you much

    Who cares about my subjective emotions? This *pa is one piece of evidence out of dozens that may or may not add up to robust support for any particular hypothesis. In my dataset for phylogenetics of early limbed vertebrates, I can show you plenty of features that impress me personally and yet don’t add up to a strong signal.

    There is no threshold between “proven” and “unproven”, as Vovin’s article strongly implies. Count the assumptions requires by each hypothesis, apply Ockham’s razor, bootstrap or jackknife the result if you like, and then proportion the strength of your conviction to the strength of the evidence. 😐

    are related

    The null hypothesis should be that all known natural languages are related. The question is instead what the closest relative of Japonic is, and what the closest relative of Korean is. For that, you need to have at least four branches in your investigation – there’s only one mathematically possible unrooted tree that connects two (or even three) points.

    (It has been repeatedly pointed out that, as genetics shows, there have never been few enough people to constitute a single language community under hunter-gatherer conditions. But this only shows that the last common ancestor of all known languages can’t have been a modern-style language. Perhaps it was more like this?)

  87. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, I forgot yesterday – in a footnote, Vovin accuses de Boer (2010) of classifying Japanese dialects by their tone systems only. I happen to have read the book (because it’s on academia.edu here), and the labels for tone-system types aren’t meant to be a classification of the dialects, they’re meant to be a classification of their tone systems… no more.

  88. The null hypothesis should be that all known natural languages are related.

    Surely this is not the mainstream view among linguists.

    Reading their critique of Greenberg, for example, one gets a distinct impression that they believe America was colonized in 2000 separate waves of colonization with each wave speaking their own language completely unrelated to others.

  89. I gather the default view tends towards “likely to be ultimately related, but long enough ago for this relatedness to have left no traces of evidence at a level above chance resemblance”.

    Anthropologically speaking, there most likely was a “Proto-Amerind” in the sense of a language ancestral to a majority of native American languages, and no others… but contra Greenberg, discounting just the obvious newcomers (Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene) is not good enough for determining that all the rest must be a part of a single Amerind family. Southern Athabaskan speakers have trekked all the way to Mexico and Texas. If there had been a somewhat older intrusive linguistic group somewhere along the way… it could well have made its way e.g. into Mesoamerica or even somewhere along the coasts of South America.

  90. I gather the default view tends towards “likely to be ultimately related, but long enough ago for this relatedness to have left no traces of evidence at a level above chance resemblance”.

    That’s certainly my view. I can at one and the same time think “Yes, all languages may well go back to the same ancestor a hundred thousand years ago” and “No, it is not possible to determine linguistic relationships going back more than a few thousand years.”

  91. David Marjanović says:

    That should be restricted to “directly across a gap of a few thousand years”.

    And then the question is what exactly “a few” means. I’m sure it depends on the available evidence – Afro-Asiatic is still “just plain obvious” after some 12,000 years, twice the age of IE.

  92. America was settled 15 thousand years ago, so Amerind would not be much older than the supposedly “plain obvious” Afro-Asiatic.

    I sense double standards here.

  93. marie-lucie says:

    SFR: Reading their critique of Greenberg, for example, one gets a distinct impression that they believe America was colonized in 2000 separate waves of colonization with each wave speaking their own language completely unrelated to others.

    A gross exaggeration! The mainstream view of American languages (e.g. Lyle Campbell’s) is that there are about 120 language families in the Americas, more or less 60 in each hemisphere.

    But it depends on how you define a “language family”: in Eurasia there is a difference between, say, Germanic or Slavic, which are families obvious even to non-linguists, and IE which required digging much deeper (and still does). But there may be intermediate groups, on the order of Italo-Celtic (just to give an example), which would reduce the number of IE families. (I might be out of date, since I am not an Indo-Europeanist).

    I am pretty sure that at least some of the 60-odd North American families (which are on the order of Germanic or Romance, etc) can be regrouped into larger families comparable to IE. Sapir had divided the total into six “phyla”, two of which were Na-Dene and Eskimo, which even Greenberg admitted were separate. The other four phyla are still doubtful or have been dismissed. My impression is that Sapir had the right idea but did not spend enough time on the details.

  94. Proto-Indo-European is 5000-6000 years old. America was settled 15000 years ago.

    Dividing 15000 by 5000 means that in America there were three layers of language families comparable to Indo-European in age.

    After finding American analogues of proto-Indo-European (spoken 5,000 years ago), we need to reconstruct American analog of Nostratic (spoken 10,000 years ago) and then American analog of the ancestor of Nostratic (spoken 15,000 years ago).

    That’s ought to be enough to cover all Amerind languages no matter how divergent they are from each other now.

  95. . Sapir had divided the total into six “phyla”, two of which were Na-Dene and Eskimo, which even Greenberg admitted were separate.

    Are there any specific linguistic features which really distinguish them from other Amerind languages or was the decision to separate them made on historical or racial grounds?

    If it’s the later, then I just don’t see why Eskimo and Na-Dene couldn’t be descendants of proto-Amerind circa 15,000 BP which just happened to get stranded on the wrong side of Bering strait for several millennia before joining their American cousins later on.

  96. You’re talking as if the default assumption is that they are all related (more closely than all human languages are related) and it just remains to be proved (which you clearly think is possible). I would say the default assumption is exactly the reverse.

  97. But this only shows that the last common ancestor of all known languages can’t have been a modern-style language.

    Well, no, not really. The MCRA of humans was a modern-style human, indeed only a few thousand years ago if current ideas are right. But I take your point to be that we have always been in a (pre-)modern language condition.

  98. David Marjanović says:

    Are there any specific linguistic features which really distinguish them from other Amerind languages or was the decision to separate them made on historical or racial grounds?

    AFAIK, Sapir was good at the former and at avoiding the latter.

    The MCRA of humans was a modern-style human,

    Yes…

    indeed only a few thousand years ago if current ideas are right.

    No, a few tens of thousands, around 100,000, with a bit of admixture from earlier-diverging lineages.

    But I take your point to be that we have always been in a (pre-)modern language condition.

    I’m not sure what you mean.

  99. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    marie-lucie: Among all the islands and peninsulae in the Northwest Pacific there are many places that can be reached

    Brian Sykes in The Seven Daughters of Eve (a patchy book: good in some parts; awful in others) commented that the South Pacific contains a huge number of islands, and the Polynesians found all of them.

  100. Marja Erwin says:

    I haven’t done the math, but I think if we count all our ancestors, the most recent is only a few thousand or tens of thousands of years ago. If we *only* count the maternal-most ancestor in each past generation [so we only count 1 parent, 1 grandparent, 1 great-grandparent, etc.], we still reach Mitochondrial Eve in a few hundred thouand years. If we go back to the dispersal of Homo, we have to go back a few million years. I think H. erectus reached Java at least 1.8 million years ago.

    There’s evidence of human habitation in the western continents well before Clovis. Meadowcroft Rockshelter, Monte Verde, Pedra Furada, etc.

    But linguists don’t give up on classifying Eurasian languages, because of the time depths of 1.8 million years for settlement and 40 thousand years for the Upper Paleolithic. Major families spread in the last several thousand years. So why should they give up on classifying American languages?

  101. But linguists don’t give up on classifying Eurasian languages, because of the time depths of 1.8 million years for settlement and 40 thousand years for the Upper Paleolithic.

    I don’t know what you mean. What reputable linguist is trying to reconstruct a language 1.8 million years old, or even 40 thousand?

  102. Marja Erwin says:

    None that I’m aware of.

    SFReader seemed to imply that it doesn’t make sense to reconstruct language families in the Americas because they were colonized 15,000 years ago. (or 20,000)

    And that would probably be too far.

    But the language families in a region don’t have to be anywhere near as old as human colonization of that region. For example, Austronesian isn’t 1,800,000 years old. So if Amerind is a single family, it doesn’t have to be 20,000 years old, or 13,000 years old arriving with Clovis. It could use a good explanation for more recent spread, especially since different parts of the Americas have different agricultural systems.

  103. David Marjanović says:
  104. David M.:

    Has Rohde 2003 been discredited? Admittedly, it’s based on simulations, but the argument seems realistic to me. It’s essentially like the “Europeans all descend from Charlemagne” argument I’ve pushed on this blog, but makes rather minimal assumptions about migration leading to a MRCA (via all paths) of about 5kyBP and an identical ancestors point of about 8kyBP. It grants that there may be a small number of truly uncontacted peoples that aren’t within the MRCA. Note that the all-paths MRCA should be expected a priori to be much more recent than the mtMRCA or the yMRCA, which trace ancestry through only one possible path each, MoMoMoMo… and FaFaFaFa….

    In the same way that the human all-paths MRCA was part of a population, so the MRCA of current languages was probably part of a population of languages without surviving descendants. So there’s no reason to think there was anything unusual about it (what you might call the linguistic cosmological principle).

    Now if we go back from the language MRCA to the very first languages spoken, those had to be spoken by people whose ancestors did not speak, and as such, they might indeed be typologically very unusual, a sort of Ediacarian of languages. But even so, there would be enough of the speakers that they couldn’t all be speaking exactly the same thing.

  105. David Eddyshaw says:

    With all due respect to Lameen (who knows a lot more about it than I do, so ignore all that follows) I think the just-plain-obviousness of Afroasiatic is a bit more obvious in hindsight than it once was in prospect. Chadic was only really satisfactorily shown to be part of it quite lately; and it just so happens that Hausa looks quite Afroasiatic, but quite a lot of that is remarkably unrepresentative of Chadic in general, and some of it is actually secondary (like feminine nouns almost all ending in -a:). I don’t think anybody would say that that Margi (say) was obviously related to Arabic.

    The main thing that makes Afroasiatic plausible even to linguistic splitters, unlike practically every other proposal of similar depth, is that so many of the languages involved are so weird typologically, and in such vaguely similar ways, that relatedness begins to look a lot more plausible than multiple outbreaks of parallel typological delinquency. (The Semitic languages are of course typologically quite impossible.)

    With something like Altaic, you’re up against the fact that the languages all tend to the bog-standard Human SOV dependent-marking agglutinative type, and are phonologically fairly unremarkable too (broadly speaking.)

  106. Trond Engen says:

    My understanding is that even if Afro-Asiatic is accepted in broad terms, there’s still a lot to sort out about the criteria for membership.

  107. @John Cowan:. You mean the anthropic principle. The cosmological anthropic principle is just the anthropic principle applied (usually badly) to cosmology.

  108. I agree with Theil n.d. (but after 2006) that the evidence for Omotic < AA is unconvincing.

  109. The clearest reason why nobody would have said that a language such Margi is obviously Afroasiatic is probably something to the effect that for long, nobody had enough data on Margi to profitably compare it to further-off languages. (There are cases elsewhere too that run along these lines; e.g. the case of Chuvash being suspected of being Finno-Ugric instead of Turkic for a while around the 19th century, something that could be well suspected from a quick glance at typology and geography, but which falls to pieces at the slightest attempt at detailed comparison.)

    Aluckily though, relatedness is a transitive propery. If, based on some traveler’s wordlist from 1870 or the like, Margi is obviously related to a bunch of neighboring languages, and these are in turn obviously related to other languages further afield, and a few of these are obviously related to Hausa, which could be concluded to be obviously related to Semitic, then by this point we have all the evidence necessary to conclude that Margi, too, is a part of the Afrasian family.

  110. Brett: No, I don’t think so. The anthropic principle is that the universe is the way it is because if it weren’t so, we wouldn’t be here to observe it. What I am talking about is a kind of uniformitarianism, and says that now is a typical time (and so is language-MRCA time) and here is a typical place.

  111. David Eddyshaw says:

    @j:

    It’s not that Hausa is more closely related to Arabic than Margi is, though. The fact that it happens to look more like Arabic than Margi does is rather misleading: it’s actually much more closely related to Margi. The transitivity of which you speak is a sort of artefact.

    Hausa being vastly the biggest Chadic language (second-biggest Afroasiatic language, come to that) long confused the issues: it’s actually untypical enough that it was at one stage seriously questioned whether Hausa actually was Chadic. It’s perhaps because Hausa has expanded greatly in relatively recent times, in the process killing off a lot of its closest linguistic relations.

    Margi is actually comparatively well (and early) described for Chadic; there’s a perfectly decent grammar going back to 1958, for example.

    The transitivity thing is one of the traps of long-range comparison: looking for similarities among different branches of two possibly related families, rather than trying to compare protoforms. You thereby greatly multiply your chances of finding chance lookalikes. (I was just reading about this elsewhere but have unfortunately forgotten where: some eminent comparativist called it “reaching down for comparisons.”)

    [Trask, I think]

  112. David Eddyshaw says:

    The most egregious case of this in African linguistics that I’ve come across is the perfectly serious suggestion that because the neighbouring Songhay and Mande languages show a good many similarities (they do), this is good evidence that Niger-Congo (of which Mande is, at the most optimistic, the most divergent branch) is related to Nilo-Saharan (of which Songhay, if it belongs at all, is certainly no core member.) Where to begin?

  113. It’s perhaps because Hausa has expanded greatly in relatively recent times, in the process killing off a lot of its closest linguistic relations.

    The same may perhaps be said (for sufficiently large values of recent) of Egyptian.

  114. Nile valley is tiny, how many languages could be there to start with?

  115. That’s how Vovin’s article presents it, though. It reads as if the very idea is preposterous. … There is no threshold between “proven” and “unproven”, as Vovin’s article strongly implies.

    This is just a tone argument. I agree that Vovin can tend towards the polemic, but so what? It doesn’t invalidate his critique of the evidence. As a wise man once said, “Who cares about my subjective emotions?”

    The null hypothesis should be that all known natural languages are related.

    This is less a null hypothesis than the elucidation of an axiom: “Monogenesis, therefore no natural language can be entirely unrelated to any other.” (And I don’t really want to get into it here, but personally I have my doubts about that axiom.)

    I think a more useful null hypothesis in cases like this is “There is no discernible genetic relationship between Language A and Language B.” Whether that’s because they actually are unrelated, or because the relationship is so far back that no shared traces of the common ancestor remain, is irrelevant.

    The question is instead what the closest relative of Japonic is, and what the closest relative of Korean is.

    That’s a question, but it’s not the question in this case, which is “How good is the evidence that these words and morphemes are actually cognate?” That is, not just “How likely is it that Japanese and Korean related?” but “How likely is it that they are related in this way?”

  116. Yes, of course, transitive inferrence of relationship is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. And there are also the risks of failing to count a weak link as sufficiently weak somewhere along the way, or in thinking that the order of inference equals order of descent, or in ignoring key evidence that fails to be found in a “middle” link. Regardless it has been relied on quite a bit in putting together the world’s language families in the first place. No one approaches a potential family of 100 languages by running 4950 individual pairwise relatedness studies. Usually not even by picking one definitive member and running 99 studies comparing everything to that.

    Indo-Europeanists may be more familiar with this when it involves more recent language varieties: we can safely ignore Modern Swedish or Modern Sinhalese or Modern Sardinian in IE comparison, if we already have the lemmas in hand that they descend from Old Norse, Old Indian and Latin.

    On the topic of “the real question” re: if Korean and Japanese are related, the question of if they are closely related can be reduced to the issue of validity of cognates — if we assume that evidence of relatedness decreases in a stable fashion time. I’m not sure if that holds, though. It’s possible for common Korean-Japanese material to be actually e.g. earlier Altaic stock that has just gotten replaced by foreign influences in the steppe branches (and “Altaic” can be here read as either a family or as an earlier convergence zone, too).

  117. I think a more useful null hypothesis in cases like this is “There is no discernible genetic relationship between Language A and Language B.” Whether that’s because they actually are unrelated, or because the relationship is so far back that no shared traces of the common ancestor remain, is irrelevant.

    Exactly!

  118. “Monogenesis, therefore no natural language can be entirely unrelated to any other.”

    As a hypothetical statement that is obviously true: if all languages living and extinct have a single ancestor (monogenesis), then no language can be entirely unrelated to any other. However, all living languages can be related without monogenesis necessarily following: there may be extinct languages that are utterly unrelated to any extant language. So there are two different questions of common origin here, and it’s important to sort them out mentally rather than falling into the trap of “MRCA language = first language”:

    1) Some living languages are unrelated to the rest (not just not provably related, but actually unrelated).

    2) All living languages are related, but some extinct languages are not related to them.

    3) All languages living and dead have a common ancestor.

  119. Nile valley is tiny, how many languages could be there to start with?

    Narrow it may be, but from Aswan, the traditional upper end of Ancient Egypt, to the sea is more than 1200 km as the river flows. That is much too large to be a single language community.

  120. January First-of-May says:

    I think a more useful null hypothesis in cases like this is “There is no discernible genetic relationship between Language A and Language B.” Whether that’s because they actually are unrelated, or because the relationship is so far back that no shared traces of the common ancestor remain, is irrelevant.

    Seconded – and it really should always be the null hypothesis, excluding cases of (near) mutual comprehensibility (e.g. Russian and Ukrainian), and/or known common descent (e.g. Spanish and Italian).
    Fortunately, there is usually a large amount of remaining evidence if the languages actually are relatively closely related (which is how Hittite and Tocharian were found to be Indo-European).

    (On a complete tangent: I wonder if it would be possible to reconstruct a “Proto-German” or “Proto-Italian” language from modern dialects – and if so, then what would it look like?
    Bonus point: same thing for “Proto-English”. I wonder if there’s enough remaining internal evidence to reconstruct the Great Vowel Shift…)

    For what it’s worth, I’m also in the camp of “all modern* non-constructed** spoken*** human**** languages likely share a common ancestor within the last 100,000 years or so, but outright monogenesis is extremely unlikely”.
    (In particular, if there ever were any Neanderthal languages, it is almost certain than none of them left descendants today.)

    *) that is, the ones that were still extant at any time in the last four millennia or so
    **) come to think of it, it’s theoretically possible – though fairly unlikely – that some modern languages actually derive from a Damin-style constructed language, in which case they would not technically belong to the same universal lineage
    ***) the history of sign languages is confusing, and at least one of them is known to have developed by itself
    ****) i.e. Homo sapiens – that is, excluding both animal languages and the unlikely case that any members of other Homo species survived to the “modern” period

  121. Trond Engen says:

    The Norwegian coastline south of North Cape is 3000 km, measured without fjords and inlets, and has been one language community since Proto-Norse. Add a similar measure for Sweden. And Denmark.

  122. To distill further: what one is trying to show is that two languages are relatable.

    Showing that two languages are related is often impossible, for lack of evidence.

  123. (In particular, if there ever were any Neanderthal languages, it is almost certain than none of them left descendants today.)

    How do you know that what you wrote isn’t actually in descendant of Neanderthal language?

    That’s actually more likely in light of most recent scholarship on the Upper Paleolithic “revolution” (Briefly, all the tools traditionally associated with it turned out to be Neanderthal inventions which modern HomoSap borrowed. Might as well have borrowed the language too)

  124. On the other hand, since New Guinea has a particularly high Denisovan admixture, for all I know there’s some unrecognizable trace in some Papuan languages, of languages spoken a long time ago by Denisovans.

  125. Svetlana Burlak believes that syllable-based languages of South-East Asia are derived from language of Asian hominids and Denisovans:

    Teoreticheski ne isklyucheno, chto kommunikativnaya sistema, ispol’zovavshayasya aziatskimi arkhantropami, osnovyvalas’ na slogakh (poskol’ku arkhantropy, obladaya uzkim pozvonochnym kanalom, ne mogli proiznosit’ pomnogu slogov za odnu repliku). Prishedshiye zhe na vostok Azii «denisovtsy» chastichno smeshalis’ s mestnymi zhitelyami i perenyali u nikh etu chertu kommunikativnoy sistemy, a vposledstvii peredali yeyo smeshavshimsya s nimi sapiyensam.

  126. David Marjanović says:

    That’s how Vovin’s article presents it, though. It reads as if the very idea is preposterous. … There is no threshold between “proven” and “unproven”, as Vovin’s article strongly implies.

    This is just a tone argument. I agree that Vovin can tend towards the polemic, but so what? It doesn’t invalidate his critique of the evidence.

    That’s not a tone argument. I’m pointing out what looks like a basic misunderstanding of science theory. I don’t think Vovin sacrificed precision to polemic tone, seeing as he mistakes as a phylogenetic classification (later in the article) when de Boer occasionally writes “Gairin dialects” instead of “dialects with a Gairin-type tone system”.

    And yes, all of this is irrelevant to his critique of the evidence. That’s not what I was talking about in that paragraph. 😐

    This is less a null hypothesis than the elucidation of an axiom: “Monogenesis, therefore no natural language can be entirely unrelated to any other.”

    That’s not an axiom, it’s a hypothesis… 🙂

    I think a more useful null hypothesis in cases like this is

    Null hypotheses are usually boring, unsatisfactory, useless.

    That’s a question, but it’s not the question in this case, which is “How good is the evidence that these words and morphemes are actually cognate?” That is, not just “How likely is it that Japanese and Korean related?” but “How likely is it that they are related in this way?”

    That’s an easier question that should be answered first, sure; but it seems to me that the article jumps from the second to the first question, trying to use the second to answer the first.

    On a complete tangent: I wonder if it would be possible to reconstruct a “Proto-German” or “Proto-Italian” language from modern dialects – and if so, then what would it look like?
    Bonus point: same thing for “Proto-English”. I wonder if there’s enough remaining internal evidence to reconstruct the Great Vowel Shift…

    That would be interesting!

    poskol’ku arkhantropy, obladaya uzkim pozvonochnym kanalom, ne mogli proiznosit’ pomnogu slogov za odnu repliku

    Am I understanding this right? Because of a narrow vertebral canal they couldn’t pronounce many syllables in short order? What does the width of the spinal cord have to do with…?

  127. David Eddyshaw says:

    syllable-based languages of South-East Asia are derived from language of Asian hominids and Denisovans

    Surely (apart from all the other things wrong with this) the timescale is all wrong. Chinese wasn’t “syllable-based” (in the sense I presume is meant) even in Confucius’ time, and Haudricourt showed long since that Vietnamese wasn’t always “monosyllabic.”

  128. What does the width of the spinal cord have to do with…?

    Svetlana Burlak believes that due to narrow vertebral canal hominids couldn’t control their breathing to the extent needed for uttering several syllables in a row, so they had to manage with one syllable per word.

    I am not knowledgeable enough on hominid anatomy to judge how crazy it is.

    Chinese

    I am sure she would say that the Chinese acquired this feature from native peoples of central or southern China who in turn acquired it from Paleolithic inhabitants of the area who were probably descendants of Denisovans and Asian hominids (she doesn’t specify who they were exactly, but I take it to mean various sub-species of Homo Erectus who survived in East Asia for a long time after they went extinct elsewhere)

  129. David Marjanović says:

    I am not knowledgeable enough on hominid anatomy to judge how crazy it is.

    It’s not impossible, but it’s probably impossible to test.

  130. David Eddyshaw says:

    The idea that a narrow vertebral canal means you can’t control your breathing accurately strikes me as having no conceivable justification in the real world of biology. It’s utterly incoherent. (Well up there with the splendid deduction that women can’t be as clever as men because their brains are smaller.)

    What evidence is there that Denisovans had narrow vertebral canals, anyway? Seems rather a lot to deduce from a finger bone and some DNA.

  131. They must have had narrow vertebral canals because they spoke in monosyllables. 😉

  132. ə de vivre says:

    Svetlana Burlak believes that due to narrow vertebral canal hominids couldn’t control their breathing to the extent needed for uttering several syllables in a row, so they had to manage with one syllable per word.

    Even assuming the premises are correct, shouldn’t the metric be syllables per breath rather than syllables per word? I don’t mean to brag about how wide my vertebral canal is, but I can usually manage several words’ worth of syllables before I have to breathe in again.

  133. Svetlana Burlak believes that due to narrow vertebral canal hominids couldn’t control their breathing to the extent needed for uttering several syllables in a row, so they had to manage with one syllable per word.

    I am not knowledgeable enough on hominid anatomy to judge how crazy it is.

    I am not knowledgeable on hominid anatomy at all, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and assert it’s batshit crazy.

  134. David Marjanović says:

    What evidence is there that Denisovans had narrow vertebral canals, anyway?

    I let that one slide because on the whole they’re more closely related to the Neandertalers than to us, so if the latter had narrow vertebral canals (which I don’t know), it’s not improbable that the former did, too.

  135. Let me try again to present her idea. From her article in the Journal of Language Relationship, Issue 7 (2012). My translation:

    Fine control of breathing is equally important for the use of speech. As a matter of fact, in speech, unlike in an inarticulate cry, air must be fed to the vocal cords not immediately, but in small portions – syllables. This allows to produce long sentences, and within the framework of one sentence you can say a great number of different syllables. If air was immediately supplied to the vocal cords at once, options for varying the sounds during one exhalation would be extremely limited (this is easily seen by attempting to make articulate changes in the sound during, say, a scream of horror). As a consequence, such a language would have very few words: too few options for varying the sounds would not allow for a large number of differences. Moreover, since “every element entering into the syllable and the word has different loudnesses or, better to say, different acoustic power” [Zhinkin 1998: 83; see also: Barulin 2002: 132], “the task of speech breathing is to compress the syllabic dynamics into observable hearing frame, loosen large power (moschnost) and strengthen small. This … is done with the participation of paradoxical movements of the diaphragm “[Barulin 2002: 132], namely that “the breathing apparatus on exhalation produces inhalation movements, different in different cases “[Barulin 2002: 82]. Accordingly, all of this requires fairly well-developed control system for respiratory muscles, a system in which many neurons participate. This means that a fairly wide vertebral canal is needed that would hold the axons of all these neurons. According to available data, in the Heidelberg man this canal was about the same width as in Homo sapiens, whereas in the archanthropus and even in Homo antecessor (the immediate ancestor of Homo heidelbergensis) much narrower [Drobyshevsky 2004: 42; 161; 240].

    Ufff! Damn hard stuff to translate. Anyway, just didn’t want to make an impression that she is making things up or engaging in lingvo-freakery – there is some science behind her statements, but I can’t judge how solid it is.

  136. January First-of-May says:

    I’m now inevitably reminded of JBR’s Pleistocenese, which had briefly been mentioned before in this thread (December 23, 6:39 am).

    Looks like JBR and Svetlana Burlak, working from vaguely similar data about hominid anatomy, ended up with (vaguely) similar conclusions about what their theoretical language might have been like – even if they attributed it to different hominid species…

  137. Trond Engen says:

    According to available data, in the Heidelberg man this canal was about the same width as in Homo sapiens, whereas in the archanthropus and even in Homo antecessor (the immediate ancestor of Homo heidelbergensis) much narrower [Drobyshevsky 2004: 42; 161; 240].

    So she is proposing that a widening of the vertebral canal between Homo antecessor and Homo heidelbergensis is related to the development of language. That could be true, even without the specific mechanism she.suggests. I think she”s doing her own argument a disservice by extrapolating from there to modern languages.

  138. Archanthropus? What does she mean by that? Isn’t the “Archanthropus europaeus” skull from the Petralona Cave assigned to Homo heidelbergensis by current consensus?

    According to Meyer’s (2016) review of the fossil evidence to date (The spinal chord in hominin evolution), the vertebral canal and the thoracic spinal cord size in H. erectus were approximately the same as in modern humans. If so, all the speculation cited above is rendered invalid.

  139. David Marjanović says:

    This means that a fairly wide vertebral canal is needed that would hold the axons of all these neurons.

    So far, so good, but we don’t know in anywhere near sufficient detail what else was in the vertebral canal… the spinal cord doesn’t even automatically fill it.

    Archanthropus? What does she mean by that?

    Oh, I thought she was just trying to say “Urmenschen” or something like that – used as an almost technical term by some, with meanings that are not remotely obvious as long as they aren’t clearly stated. In school I once had a biology book that used “Urmensch – Frühmensch – Altmensch” from oldest to youngest and said “the Neandertal people were even considered Urmenschen once; that’s far off, they’re Altmenschen”… Anyway, there is no Archanthropus currently recognized, and the Petralona skull, once considered an important missing link, is no longer regarded as newsworthy.

    were approximately the same as in modern humans

    Somehow I’m not surprised.

    Looks like JBR and Svetlana Burlak, working from vaguely similar data about hominid anatomy, ended up with (vaguely) similar conclusions about what their theoretical language might have been like –

    No, JBR just speculated what a non-modern language could have been like, and projected it onto a convenient target, surrounded by appropriate disclaimers.

  140. I think she uses Russian term архантроп to mean Homo Erectus and its varieties.

  141. January First-of-May says:

    No, JBR just speculated what a non-modern language could have been like, and projected it onto a convenient target, surrounded by appropriate disclaimers.

    I do realize that. Still similar as ch*rp, though…

    Is the chronology right for Ms. Burlak to have read JBR’s story and taken it seriously?

  142. I think she uses Russian term архантроп to mean Homo Erectus and its varieties.

    Ah, I see. Apemen/Urmenschen. Anyway, all of them seem to have had human-size spinal cords even before they developed human-size brains.

  143. Marja Erwin says:

    “Archanthropus” is the Petralona skull of Homo erectus– perhaps not erectus heidelbergensis but its own subspecies petralonensis.

    There are a lot of hominin “genus” and “species” names which seem to belong within better-known species and chronospecies. (Besides Archanthropus, some others include Kenyanthropus platyops, Australopithecus prometheus, Plesianthropus, Zinjanthropus boisei [may be a valid species, but not a new genus], Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis, Sinanthropus, etc.)

  144. David Marjanović says:

    Some of the names in this list haven’t been used in decades, others are in use today.

    Fundamental issues:

    1) Few people explicitly use any particular species concept. Well, there are some 150 species concepts out there, and they often lead to different results (e.g., two different ones give you 101 or 249 endemic bird species in Mexico, and the area with the greatest number of endemic species is on opposite sides of the country). They don’t really have anything in common except the word “species”. Instead of asking “how should we name these kinds of entities”, taxonomists have been asking “which one of these kinds should be given the rank of species, so that all the other kinds remain forever unnameable”.

    2) Some species concepts are hard to apply. The good old Biological Species Concept – actually two concepts: populations belong to the same species if they can have fertile offspring with each other, or if they do so in the wild – requires a lot of data, which is hardly ever available for fossils. And when it becomes available, the surprises begin, e.g. Neandertal and Denisova ancestry in humans alive today.

    3) At least people have been trying to define “species”. For “genus”, even that hasn’t happened (well, it has, but nobody cares).

    In short, “seem to belong within better-known species” and “may be a valid species, but not a new genus” are only testable – are only scientific questions – once you specify a lot of things that Linnaeus thought were too obvious to mention.

    The Chronospecies Concept, BTW, divides a supposedly unbranching lineage into species at arbitrary dates in the past: once a species survives past such a date, it becomes the next species.

  145. Trond Engen says:

    Not too arbitrary, I hope. I’d prefer to have a warning in good time.

  146. once a species survives past such a date, it becomes the next species

    Well, Old English became Middle English became Modern English, and from Old Egyptian to Coptic is conventionally treated as six stages, with some overlap (“Old Coptic” is written in Demotic script but looks more like Coptic sans Greek loanwords).

  147. But languages are constantly changing, so it makes sense to use different names once the language diverges sufficiently from its previous self. It’s my (totally ignorant) understanding that there are species of insects or whatever that have remained essentially unchanged for millions of years, and in that case it seems counterintuitive to give them a different name just because they’ve crossed from one era into another. (Like streets that change names with every block.)

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