I’ve been awash in nostalgia reading Angelo’s reports on the LSA Institute at Sauvage Noble (1.1, 1.2, 1.3); ah for the days of splashing around in long-dead Anatolian languages and Tocharian transliteration! He reflects on “the basic nature of the divide between, e.g. Indo-Europeanists and ‘historical’ O[ptimality]T[heor]ists”:

Traditional historical linguistics is concerned with getting the description down, establishing the data, i.e. answering the question “what were the changes?”, and post-generative historical linguistics is concerned with accounting for “how and why were the changes?”. The former can be impressionistic regarding “how and why”, and the latter can play fast and loose with the “what”… (It’s striking to see how sparse the traditional classes are vs. the post-generative ones, that there’re more of us attending their classes than the other way around, at least based on my schedule and who I recognize.)

As I said in his comments, a thousand times better to have solid facts with insufficient theory than brilliant theory with undependable facts. (And I regret to say I’m not at all surprised at his parenthetical remark.)

He has this nice remark on the Hittites:

I forgot to mention my favorite item of Hittite coolness: the Hittites were inclusive, open to other religions. Their capital Hatti was known as “Land of a Thousand Gods”. Not only this, but they believed gods must be worshipped in their own language. So the non-Hittite gods accommodated into the Hittite pantheon were worshipped in their respective non-Hittite languages, as textual remains indicate. A sensible policy that optimized the coexistence of conquerors and conquered.


  1. Well hell, I’ve been going about it wrong for all of this time. I love theory, but hate all of that data. I guess that’s why I ultimately chose to study literature instead of linguistics – Woo hoo for theory!
    Language hat – you have such a wonderful blog here! Brava!

  2. Why, thank you! (But it would be “Bravo” in my case.)

  3. I guess a lot has to do with the lack of dialogue. The theoreticians don’t know the state of our data, and the historicists don’t know the theory/ies, which are quite well founded on modern empirical findings. E.g., theoretician asks historicist about iambic shortening in Latin and was surprised to find out how difficult it is to find examples beyond the usually quoted few forms.
    But it is too bad that this thing is being billed as “dialogues”, though it’s more like two simultaneous dialogues instead of one common one.

  4. bathrobe says

    It’s important to keep the facts around. Without them, how would theoreticians come up with the next ‘paradigm change’?

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