Reconstructing Prehistoric Languages.

The Transactions of the Royal Society have published a theme issue on Reconstructing prehistoric languages, compiled and edited by Antonio Benítez-Burraco and Ljiljana Progovac; some of the articles are free to download, others are behind a paywall. Here’s the description:

This theme issue brings together prominent experts in the field of human evolution to achieve a deeper, richer understanding of human prehistory and the nature of prehistoric languages. The contributions in the issue begin to outline a profile of the structures and uses of prehistoric languages, including the type of sounds; the nature of the earliest grammars (used e.g. for conversation, insult); the nature of the earliest vocabularies; and the role of some recently evolved brain circuits. By projecting some specific features of language and brain organization into prehistory, the contributions to this volume directly engage the genetic and the neuroscientific aspects of human evolution and cognition.

The sections are:

PART I: PREHISTORIC SOUNDS AND GESTURES
PART II: PREHISTORIC GRAMMAR AND THE LEXICON
PART III: PREHISTORIC BEHAVIOUR, COGNITION, AND THE BRAIN
PART IV: MODELLING PREHISTORIC LANGUAGES

Thanks, Hans!

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says

    But Scientists, who ought to know,
    Assure us that they must be so …
    Oh! let us never, never doubt
    What nobody is sure about!

  2. SFReader says

    Is Proto-Indo-European prehistoric language? Or are they talking about much greater time depth?

  3. Is Proto-Indo-European prehistoric language? Or are they talking about much greater time depth?

    Oh a much greater time depth, I’d say. (One of the papers is talking about Upper Palaeolithic.) With something as recent as PIE there’s a risk some of this rampant speculation could be falsifiable.

    Sheesh! And you can get paid money for this?

  4. SFReader says

    Proto-Afroasiatic is dated to Terminal Upper Paleolithic.

    I wonder if they had different brain organization and anatomy of speech organs.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Sheesh! And you can get paid money for this?

    Probably not, why?

    I wonder if they had different brain organization and anatomy of speech organs.

    Highly unlikely – how would the modern forms of these have spread all over the world since then?

  6. Trond Engen says

    The collection of articles is pretty diverse in both scope and theme. I’ve just opened a few abstracts so far, but I liked the general spirit of this:

    Inferring recent evolutionary changes in speech sounds
    Steven Moran, Nicholas A. Lester and Eitan Grossman
    Published:22 March 2021

    Abstract
    In this paper, we investigate evolutionarily recent changes in the distributions of speech sounds in the world’s languages. In particular, we explore the impact of language contact in the past two millennia on today’s distributions. Based on three extensive databases of phonological inventories, we analyse the discrepancies between the distribution of speech sounds of ancient and reconstructed languages, on the one hand, and those in present-day languages, on the other. Furthermore, we analyse the degree to which the diffusion of speech sounds via language contact played a role in these discrepancies. We find evidence for substantive differences between ancient and present-day distributions, as well as for the important role of language contact in shaping these distributions over time. Moreover, our findings suggest that the distributions of speech sounds across geographic macro-areas were homogenized to an observable extent in recent millennia. Our findings suggest that what we call the Implicit Uniformitarian Hypothesis, at least with respect to the composition of phonological inventories, cannot be held uncritically. Linguists who would like to draw inferences about human language based on present-day cross-linguistic distributions must consider their theories in light of even short-term language evolution.

    Based on the title I thought it might be more Post-Neolithic Fricatives, but it’s a study suggesting that pre-history may contain phonetic diversity that has been lost in all modern languages.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Unfortunately it does not look nearly interesting enough to shell out £20 for …

    Offhand, I can think of quite a few cases where protolanguages are reconstructed as substantially less complex phonologically than typical daughter languages* (Bantu, for a start.) I’m tolerably sure that with a bit of judicious selection of evidence I could come up with a nice paper “proving” the exact opposite to Moran et al.

    BTW, anybody making firm assertions about Proto-Afroasiatic (beyond the most general) is bluffing, basically. The evidence is in reality much more patchy and difficult to interpret than the Ehrets and the Bomhards would have you think.

    * Of course, this might be an artefact of the comparative method itself.

  8. Trond Engen says

    I’m not paying either. I just say that there’s nothing inherently suspicious about a conclusion that the phonetic diversity of languages may have been reduced with increased international contact. After all shared phonology is a common Sprachbund feature, and maybe the whole world has been a Sprachbund to some degree. Also, there’s pretty good evidence that morphological complexity tend to be reduced in large languages, because subtle distinctions are difficult to develop and maintain across the community. It’s no big leap to suggest that the same might be the case in phonology. Again, I’m not saying it’s correct, but it’s worth investigating.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    Also, there’s pretty good evidence that morphological complexity tend to be reduced in large languages, because subtle distinctions are difficult to develop and maintain across the community. It’s no big leap to suggest that the same might be the case in phonology.

    The French would disagree.

    I just now did the first couple of spelling tests Progressez en orthographe offered by Larousse. They sure don’t lay Dick and Jane stuff on you.

  10. Again, I’m not saying it’s correct, but it’s worth investigating.

    But how would you investigate it? As with so many of these suggestions, my reaction is “Sure, that’s possible, but many alternatives are possible too, and there’s no way of knowing which is correct, so what’s the point?”

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    It is (incidentally) by no means inevitable that diffusion would reduce the phonetic complexity of languages. It’s a familiar observation enough that languages can adopt whole phonemes by borrowing.

    For example, Kusaal /h/ is found exclusively in loanwords, which however include the exceedingly common everyday word hali “until, as far as, very”; English has acquired the alien contrast of /v/ versus /f/ word-initially; French rediscovered /h/ from Frankish, before carelessly losing it again; southern Bantu languages have acquired whole sets of clicks …

    I was recently reading somewhere an attempt to make out that labiovelar stops, which are most certainly an areal feature of West/Central Africa, are in all cases secondary; if the author was right (which seemed very dubious, but whatever) this would mean that this highly marked piece of phonological complexity had in fact spread as a Sprachbund effect.

    Tonogenesis in southeast Asia and in Athabaskan also comes to mind (though I suppose you could argue that that is only a phonological complication from a SAE bias: what could be simpler or more natural than word-level lexical tone contrasts?)

  12. Trond Engen says

    The authors state that they used “three extensive databases of phonological inventories” to “analyse the discrepancies between the distribution of speech sounds of ancient and reconstructed languages, on the one hand, and those in present-day languages, on the other”. Then they went on to “analyse the degree to which the diffusion of speech sounds via language contact played a role in these discrepancies”.

    This seems essentially doable. Caveats apply, surely, notably that reconstructed and attested languages both have problems when it comes to phonetic descriptions, but it’s still on a timescale of testability.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah, “extensive databases” … I fondly remember one maintained by a prestigious German* institution which informed me that Welsh has a number system based on base four.

    In my cynicism, it has sometimes seemed to me almost as if the words “extensive” and “accurate” might be (in some sense) antonyms.

    Ah: the labiovelars paper I was trying to remember was one flagged up here by Y:

    http://languagehat.com/south-eastern-bantu-languages-and-genetics/#comment-4151494

    The authors in fact invoke imaginary substrates rather than diffusion, but it’s all the same just-so-story-telling at the end of the day.

    * Possibly Swiss. I am trying to forget …

  14. Stu Clayton says

    reconstructed and attested languages both have problems when it comes to phonetic descriptions, but it’s still on a timescale of testability.

    I submit that it’s the reconstructors and attestors that have problems, not the languages. Against what does one “test” speculations ? Against each other, for mutual compatibility ? I guess every little bit counts, faute de mieux.

    the words “extensive” and “accurate” might be (in some sense) antonyms.

    Indeed. Accuracy belongs to the realm of intension. Extension is flaky. Actuality precedes potentiality in being, time and dignity. The chicken crossed the road in order to lay an egg.

  15. Trond Engen says

    Databases can be ridden with errors. That’s another caveat. But they don’t have to be, and even when they are, if handled correctly, and if you’re working on a macro level, the errors would essentially make it harder to get useful results, not skew them. Not to say that I know it was well handled here, just that it’s not a priori impossible.

    Phonological complexity isn’t the same as phonological variation. The former applies to a single language, and the latter across all languages. But I’ll surmise that they are likely to corelate.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Phonological complexity isn’t the same as phonological variation.

    Good point.

    I can now combine my two theories: modern languages show greater individual phonological complexity, on average, than their protolanguages, because diffusion/Sprachbund effects have led them all increasingly to converge on a similar, shared, maximalist phonological system, with more distinctions than can be explained by regular historical development in any individual language.

    This explains (among much else) the origin of Welsh j, long a mystery to comparative Celtic specialists. (There is no convincing Proto-Celtic etymology for jam, as Pokorny concedes.)

    [I concede that the Moran paper might be very good. But I’m not curious enough to pay to find out …]

  17. This looks like an extension of two of the authors’ earlier paper (Open Access for your pleasure.) The database is explained in Moran’s dissertation.
    I haven’t looked at this in detail, but I’m skeptical that you can extrapolate what happened over the last ~5,000 years of evolution to figure out what things were like 100,000 years ago or whatever. Nevertheless, I’d like to entertain this paper, because Grossman, at least, has done good work elsewhere. On the other hand, I approach anything by Dediu or by Caleb Everett with a skeptical bias.

    The paper on hand stencils sounds like beautiful and interesting speculation (as opposed to dreary speculation based on phoneme frequency statistics).

    Calude’s abstract begins with “For over 100 years, researchers from various disciplines have been enthralled and occupied by the study of number words.” Phew! Somebody fan me!

  18. Stu Clayton says

    diffusion/Sprachbund effects have led them all increasingly to converge on a similar, shared, maximalist phonological system, with more distinctions than can be explained by regular historical development in any individual language.

    Entropy strikes again. It’s the biggest attractor in town.

  19. I’m skeptical that you can extrapolate what happened over the last ~5,000 years of evolution to figure out what things were like 100,000 years ago or whatever.

    You and me both.

  20. Trond Engen says

    For the record: So am I. It’s actually a reason why I welcome the challenge to (a strict interpretation of) the uniformitarian principle.

  21. January First-of-May says

    though I suppose you could argue that that is only a phonological complication from a SAE bias: what could be simpler or more natural than word-level lexical tone contrasts?

    Even in SAE languages words distinguished by stress placement alone are not particularly exotic, and IIRC some Kavian* dialects have outright multi-tone systems.

    (I vaguely recall that in the infamous Kavian sentence Gore gore gore gore “uphill forests burn sadder”** in fact all four words have different tone contours.)

    Also, there’s pretty good evidence that morphological complexity tend to be reduced in large languages, because subtle distinctions are difficult to develop and maintain across the community. It’s no big leap to suggest that the same might be the case in phonology.

    How does phonological complexity develop, anyway? IIRC phonemic mergers are common and splits rare, which would normally have implied that languages would eventually have very few phonemes, but as far as I’m aware this is for the most part not in fact the case.

     
    *) better known as FYLOSC

    **) English word order; IIRC, Kavian tends to have fairly free word order, so it might not be possible to say which particular order the sentence is in, but it doesn’t have to be exactly the same as the English one

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks a lot, Y! Very interesting.

    using phylogenetic comparative methods and high-resolution language family trees, we investigate whether consonantal and vocalic systems differ in their rates of change over the last 10,000 years

    For their next trick, they will abrogate the laws of thermodynamics …
    I see the earlier paper reckons the time-depth of Proto-Bantu to be 2000 yrs before the present. This tells me a great deal (although not about Proto-Bantu …)

    Moran’s dissertation seems to be largely about how good PHOIBLE is:

    https://phoible.org/

    … in the process rubbishing the idea that speaker population size is of itself correlated with phonemic complexity (which is fair enough.) Idly clicking through the PHOIBLE database (which lacks Kusaal, naturally rendering it utterly worthless*) I can only find two Western Oti-Volta languages, the closely-related Mampruli and Dagbani, which happen to belong to a WOV branchlet which has radically simplified the inherited vowel system, unlike Kusaal, Farefare, Mooré … I must admit that this must be pure coincidence, however.

    * Oops. No it doesn’t. (Use the search function, Luke!) However, I am inexpressibly gratified to see that the list of Kusaal phonemes cannot by any stretch of the imagination be squared with the actual facts for either Toende or Agolle Kusaal. Valueless.
    They sometimes count tones as phonemes (Mampruli, Dagbani), sometimes not (Dagaare, Kusaal) …

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    The Semitic family is said in the first paper to date from approximately 3750 years before the present (the period of Old Babylonian.) Do these people have no access to a library?

    Tip: if your fancy computer model is giving results grossly at variance with known facts, the solution is not More Maths.

  24. Au most certainly contraire! More Maths are always around the corner, and with them the promise for perfect results. And if not, there’s Even More Maths after that.

    If over time languages lose phonemes on the average, or if they gain them, Proto-Human had either 1000 phonemes or 3, respectively. Either way, two of them were “u” and “g”.

  25. Sal! Ber! Yon! Rosh!

  26. The raw data (CSV file) of the database itself shows 5750 bp for Proto-Semitic, after Moscati 1969; And for Proto-Bantu 3000–4000 ybp (after Newman 1997), if I read it correctly. Looks like the figure caption should read BC, not YBP. I hope their calculations use the right numbers.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    Looks like the figure caption should read BC, not YBP.

    That would explain it. (Although it would also put both Samoyed and Lower Sepik at 4000 BC, which is surely much too early in both cases; Proto-Berber at 5000 BC also looks pretty silly.)

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    Apart from the opaque methodology (and it is opaque), it seems to me that the real fatal weakness of this project as far as the input data go is the protolanguages.* Telling how many phonemes there were in a protolanguage is not easy.

    I’ve been tussling with this myself with Proto-Oti-Volta; Oti-Volta is a pretty close-knit group where reconstruction is often fairly straightforward, at least as far as segmental phonology is concerned. But, there are not a few cases where particular languages have unexpected reflexes: presumed protolanguage initial palatals in some words surface as alveolars, for example. Do you split the reconstructed series in two? You can then make all the developments beautifully regular. But just how many “irregular” correspondences do you need before you decide to make the phonetic system of the protolanguage more complicated to “explain” them? Might the exceptions not in fact be due to dialect mixture, or loaning? Have you missed some conditioning factor which actually explains the split in the reflexes in the daughter languages? (Manessy himself, the doyen of this field, at one point set up an entirely spurious distinction among initial stops in Proto-WOV because he didn’t realise that the original short */e/ had become /a/ in some languages, so that he missed the perfectly regular rule for palatalisation of velars before front vowels which explains everything.)

    * Mind you, it doesn’t inspire confidence when the data on the one relatively obscure modern language I happen to be in a position to pronounce on authoritatively turns out to be unequivocal nonsense. What are the odds on just the one language I know about being wrong? What’s lurking among the stuff that I have no way of checking?

  29. DE, If you’re curious, the sources for Kusaal are Chanard , and Hartell (p.149, itself a source for Chanard), which is based on Spratt and Spratt’s 1966 Collected field notes on the phonology of Kusal, which I imagine sits within reach on your bookshelf. Where were the errors introduced on the journey from the Spratts to PHOIBLE?

    Proto–Lower Sepik and Proto-Samoyed are coded correctly in the raw files. So some of the numbers were read as BC, others as BP. No worry. Maths will fix it.

    The 5000 BC date for Proto-Berber comes from WP: “Louali & Philippson [Les Protoméditerranéens Capsiens sont-ils des protoberbères? Interrogations de linguiste., GALF (Groupement des Anthropologues de Langue Française), Marrakech, 22-25 septembre 2003.] propose, on the basis of the lexical reconstruction of livestock-herding, a Proto-Berber 1 (PB1) stage around 7,000 years ago and a Proto-Berber 2 (PB2) stage as the direct ancestor of contemporary Berber languages.” A nice summary of the subsequent published paper is in Phoenix’s blog:

    The internal coherence between the Berber languages strongly suggests a reconstruction of Proto-Berber no further back than the first millennium BC. At the same time, even if Proto-Berber forms a subbranch of Afro-Asiatic together with Proto-Semitic, their shared ancestor must be many thousands of years before that.

    This would suggest that either Proto-Berber somehow ‘koinized’ at some point, to be a lot less differentiated than one would expect, or that many expected sister languages of Proto-Berber once existed but have now died out (or both!)

    So 2500 BP, not 7000 BP, is the number that should have been used here.

    Not encouraging…

  30. My last comment got eaten. Can it be regurgitated?

    Also: the time depth for “Anatolian” is 4000bp. That, I imagine, is used to estimated the differences in phoneme inventories between Proto-Anatolian and the modern Anatolian languages. Um, what?

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    I suppose that the early dates might be intended to represent the point at which the protolanguage in question separated from its own parent stock; if interpreted as BC rather than YBP this works, more or less, or at least is not completely off the wall for the most part.

    Although as Lower Sepik has not been shown to be related to anything else, that would involve a yet further layer of untrammeled pure guesswork. But computerised untrammeled pure guesswork!

  32. It’s not that. Per my eaten comment some of the numbers in the database got interpreted as BC, others as BP. (ed.: not “AD”.)

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    This does not inspire confidence …

  34. I have made Akismet disgorge your comment. Sorry about that. (Pray that your comment is eaten last…)

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    Reverting to Proto-Oti-Volta phonemes (because Why not?):

    I do not know if velars and palatals contrasted before front vowels. Velars and labiovelars clearly did not contrast before rounded vowels, so there is a precedent for neutralisation. A majority of modern Oti-Volta languages turn all velars before front vowels into palatals, which confuses the issue quite a bit.

    One language which suggests that they might have contrasted is Buli, which normally has no velars before front vowels, but sports some exceptions. However, Buli also has notably more vocabulary shared with Western Oti-Volta than its closer relation Kɔnni does; in most cases it’s not possible to tell from the form of the word itself whether this is shared inheritance or borrowing. Are the exceptions all borrowings? How could you actually demonstrate that without lapsing into circular arguments? Not all of them have identifiable WOV cognates …

    Kusaal, like almost all the Western Oti-Volta languages, has shifted Proto-OV /c/ /ɟ/ to /s/ /z/, but it keeps velars before front vowels; unfortunately there is only one good example for in Kusaal for original /c/ before a front vowel with cognates across the whole Oti-Volta family, sid “husband”, and the vowel in this word seems in fact to have been secondarily fronted in Western Oti-Volta (cf Buli choroa “husband”) …

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    @Y:

    Thanks for the detective work on the Kusaal sources!

    I am indeed familiar with the Spratts’ work. They were true pioneers, and in fact I was greatly helped in the early stages of my own work by David Spratt’s all-too-brief (and unpublished*) introduction to Agolle Kusaal, which has a description of the tonal system: I had never previously encountered a tone language, and up until that point I had not really got any further myself than establishing that Kusaal has lexical tone (duh!); the introduction really gave me a leg up initially, though my own treatment has gone far beyond it now. The Spratts also basically invented the Agolle Kusaal orthography in use up until 2016, which is – let’s say – quirky, but for which I have developed a grudging respect/affection over the years; it shows remarkable ingenuity and insight into the phonology of Agolle Kusaal in using a frankly inadequate set of symbols in a way which minimises any real ambiguity.

    The work of theirs in question is a very early study of Toende Kusaal. It leaves a lot to be desired, and has been long since rendered entirely obsolete by Urs Niggli’s work. Their published early study of Toende Kusaal syntax is of almost no use (apart from being remarkably uninsightful, it’s marred by being forced into the then SIL-standard Pike tagmemic mould.) The Spratts got a lot better after that, but there’s not much published to show for it.

    * Kindly photocopied for me by the staff of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics in Tamale; they were remarkably indulgent of a stray foreign eye surgeon and I am very grateful to them.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    Also thanks for the Phoenix link, from the comments in which I learn that the Kusaal word anzurifa “silver” is ultimately the same etymon as “silver.” All true Hatters will immediately understand why this makes me very happy.

  38. SFReader says

    Gore gore gore gore

    Gornii les gorit gor’she?

  39. Bathrobe says

    Linguists who would like to draw inferences about human language based on present-day cross-linguistic distributions must consider their theories in light of even short-term language evolution.

    It certainly seems worth serious consideration. I’m a little surprised that no one (except for a passing mention by Mr Eddishaw) has mentioned Khoikhoi, with its globally unique inventory of clicks. It’s quite possible that these languages are a relic of the diversity that went before.

    But just how many “irregular” correspondences do you need before you decide to make the phonetic system of the protolanguage more complicated to “explain” them?

    One of the criticisms of Karlgren’s reconstructions of ancient Chinese was that they posited too many phonemes to account for the data.

    foreign eye surgeon

    Mr Eddishaw, I didn’t know (or forgot) you were an eye surgeon! How many hats can a man wear? (That is a hat tip to our host….)

  40. Trond Engen says

    David E.: Idly clicking through the PHOIBLE database (which lacks Kusaal, naturally rendering it utterly worthless*) I can only find two Western Oti-Volta languages, the closely-related Mampruli and Dagbani, which happen to belong to a WOV branchlet which has radically simplified the inherited vowel system, unlike Kusaal, Farefare, Mooré … I must admit that this must be pure coincidence, however.

    I think this could be indicative of selection bias. If phonologies that are encoded more easily end up being encoded more often, then the database of modern languages will be skewed towards easily encoded languages. The databases of reconstructed and attested ancient languages might be more complete, or at least biased by other effects.

    I’ve been reading Moran et al (2021) and finding some of the same errors as Y and David and some of my own. It’s not inducing confidence. But I should say that a mess-up of BCE and BP dates, while embarrassing, shouldn’t normally lead to false positives, it should make the tendencies more difficult to see. The same is the case with wrong age estimates for reconstructed languages. But that’s essentially a statistical argument from numbers and doesn’t apply if the number of ancient languages in the set is too small. If so, it might be hard to draw conclusions even with good data,

    Anyway, analyses like these should include some measures of error and estimates of error sensitivity.

    Bathrobe: I’m a little surprised that no one (except for a passing mention by Mr Eddishaw) has mentioned Khoikhoi, with its globally unique inventory of clicks. It’s quite possible that these languages are a relic of the diversity that went before.

    I haven’t mentioned it, but I had it very much in mind. If increasing long-range trade and travel did lead to global Sprachbund effects, it should be testable by comparing typologies between linguistically isolated regions at the time of first modern contact. Australia and North and South America are obvious “linguistic continents”. It’s reasonable to think that Southern Africa is one too. Beyond that, it may be a matter of degree.

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    Tom Güldemann has quite a few papers on Sprachbund effects in Africa, both southern and west-central. Unfortunately not a lot of them seem to be open-access.

    I think this could be indicative of selection bias

    A good bit of the African material seems to be based on a source which is largely about different orthographies; as (quite reasonably) many practical orthographies have chosen not to represent all the phonemic distinctions made by the language in question (and virtually none of them regularly mark tone) this seems quite likely to lead to undercounting. Also, though I mentioned that it’s hard to establish just how many phonemes a recontructed language has, it’s no pushover doing this is a real live language either. (For example, in Agolle Kusaal [iə] and [uə] quite clearly pattern as phonemic monophthongs a fact nowhere reflected in the orthography (which still carries baggage relating to being originally devised for the Toende dialect.)

  42. David Eddyshaw says

    Another Kusaal example: the PHOIBLE database has /ʔ/ for Kusaal. In fact, there is no such consonant phoneme in the language. Vowel-initial words can be (but need not be) realised with an initial [ʔ]; but what has really driven this misanalysis is the fact that Kusaal glottalised vowels are written as if they were /VʔV/ sequences, e.g da’a “market.” In fact, they can be realised with a glottal constriction (but not a voiceless [ʔ]) after the first mora (so this is not an unreasonable orthographic strategy by any means), though they are often just pronounced with creaky voice (this is a very common variation in languages which have such vowels.) But that as it may, such vowels unequivocally pattern throughout as V or V:, never as VC or VCV; the ‘ never begins a syllable and it is quite certainly not a consonant phoneme.

    This also means, incidentally, that by the usual way of counting such things, Kusaal has twice as many vowel phonemes as is implied by the misanalysis: all vowels may also occur contrastively glottalised.

    The PHOIBLE data for Kusaal also quite unaccountably lack nasal /ã/ along with all the long nasal vowels, but in compensation contain /ɰ/, which does not exist in Agolle Kusaal at all and has disappeared in Toende Kusaal at some point between Prost’s description in 1973 and Urs Niggli’s work in the 1990s; in the earlier language it is, in any case, quite clearly an allophone of /g/.

    The database also has /h/ as a phoneme, without comment; this is true, but in fact it occurs exclusively in loanwords (though [h] is common as a non-initial allophone of /s/.) The Spratts described Kusaal as having contrastively nasalised /j̃/ /w̃/ (derived from earlier [ɲ] [ŋ͡m], still heard from some older Toende speakers); these have mysteriously disappeared, probably because the Spratts’ digraphs ny nw were mistaken for clusters. [I myself analyse the nasalisation as belonging to the following vowel synchronically.]

    In a nutshell, PHOIBLE’s data for Kusaal are quite worthless (and, incidentally, undercount the number of segmental phonemes by twenty or more …) Naturally, they ignore tone. Kusaal has three.

  43. Stu Clayton says

    Unless you make allowances for your friend’s PHOIBLEs, you betray your own. [Pub. Syr.]

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    Very true. I still remember that awful day when I myself misanalysed a Kusaal allophone as a phoneme. Everyone was very kind and understanding at the time, but even now … it hurts.

  45. the Kusaal word anzurifa “silver” is ultimately the same etymon as “silver.”

    Maybe. How do you get from PB *aẓərfəʔ to silabur? You need a metathesis, a strengthening of the fricative, and an extra liquid. It’s quite the metallurgical trick. On the other hand, no one I’ve read (including Boutkan and Kossmann’s paper, ‘On the Etymology of Silver’), has any explanation of the more obvious match (formally, genetically, geographically) between PB *aẓərfəʔ and PSem ṣrp.

  46. Khoikhoi, with its globally unique inventory of clicks. It’s quite possible that these languages are a relic of the diversity that went before.

    It’s one plausible scenario. An equally plausible scenario, in my mind, is that the complex sound systems of South Africa represent a rare founder effect of a phonemic inventory which somehow got complex.

    The oldest genetic split of any Southern African population is 20,000 years, for Hadza, IIRC. From there to 100,000 YBP, a very conservative estimate for Proto-Human, we have 80,000 years, roughly the distance from Proto-Afroasiatic to Arabic, to the tenth power. A lot can happen in the meantime.

  47. Trond Engen says

    Why not both? If the world consisted of small regional Sprachbunds, some with weird founder effects, and all with separate processes of drift, the result would be variation.

  48. Sure, it’s possible. Likewise, maybe there were independently-evolved click languages in South Asia 50,000 years ago, which disappeared without a trace 30,000 years ago. HistLing fanfic.

  49. Exactly. I don’t really see the point in that kind of speculation unless one is writing sf.

  50. This BBC article is possibly somewhat relevant
    http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20210601-south-africas-language-spoken-in-45-clicks?referer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.com%2Fnews

    More is being lost than just the San languages. Since the San have been pushed off their traditional lands by the establishment of national parks, a wealth of information such as placenames, traditions about elements of the landscape, etc. is at risk.

  51. Trond Engen says

    Hat: I don’t really see the point in that kind of speculation unless one is writing sf.

    Speculation alone, sure, but scientific investigation? If there’s actual evidence in the data that language used to be more phonologically diverse, that’s surely of some importance to the understanding of human language and the processea that work on it.

    (And for the record: I’m not defending the quality of the paper, only the validity of the question and the potential of the inquiry.)

  52. Well, they haven’t convinced me that their method can be used to infer what happened in the far, far past. I’m not even convinced that their conclusions show a systematic effect in the last few thousands of years, but saying anything more definite would require some closer reading.

    And for the record: I thought up the very same idea in this paper in my distant and silly past, but didn’t do anything about it. I now think I did the right thing.

  53. David Eddyshaw says

    I think this particular way of approaching the problem is doomed to inevitable failure even if the execution were not error-ridden in detail, because of two basic problems:

    (a) telling how many phonemes a real spoken language has is a nontrivial endeavour, to say the least; perfectly sensible researchers come up with quite different answers for the same languages, and moreover there is an unavoidable arbitrariness to the choices they make. I could make a perfectly good case for saying that Agolle Kusaal has no less than 56 vowel phonemes, taking into account contrastive length, nasalisation and glottalisation, which mostly occur in all possible combinations (though there are actually fewer nasalised than oral vowels, as so often, which is why the number is not 72.) But this is actually quite a bizarre way of looking at the system: it’s much simpler to factor out nasalisation and glottalisation at least as prosodies/suprasgementals, which reduces the total number of “phonemes” greatly. Neither course is self-evidently the only right way to do it. Kusaal may be more problematic than average in this respect, but it’s certainly not an extreme outlier. This sort of thing is quite normal. Moran et al just don’t seem to get this.

    (b) despite the best efforts of comparativists, armed with the methodologically indispensible working assumption of Uniformity, reconstructed protolanguages are not real and are not actually the same sort of thing as a real modern language. (It is part of the actual process of doing comparative linguistics to make protolanguages as like the real thing as feasible, but this is an ideal to be striven towards, not a project capable of actual realisation.) Comparing reconstructed protolanguages with real languages in this way is thus misguided in principle: it is like comparing unicorns with carthorses.

    I strongly suspect that the criteria comparativists use for deciding on phoneme-hood are rather different from those used by field researchers analysing their recordings; and even to use the word “phoneme” for a constituent of a reconstructed protolanguage is a metaphor.

  54. John Emerson says

    For me this kind of speculation, even if scornfully rejected, serves as a reminder that everything we know about language is from the last 5000 – 10000 years, and that even so there are a tremendous number of loose end; while language has been around for many times that. Who knows what languages came into / passed out of existence during that prehistory.

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    Absolutely: almost certainly, the vast majority of languages ever spoken by human beings are now extinct and have left no traces for us at all. The tiny proportion of all natural languages that have ever been studied by linguists at all is a decidedly unsafe base for generalising about what is actually possible in language.

  56. And, uniformitarianism has its limits. By analogy to the Anthropic Principle, we are living in a special time in the history of mankind. The time in which you can have linguists documenting most of the world’s languages is very different than the time when the world was sparsely populated by many small populations of people traveling on foot and living off the land. The latter represents a far greater part of our prehistory.

  57. Stu Clayton says

    It has occasionally been lamented here that linguists have a hard time finding employment. If that’s so, do they too travel by foot and live off the land ? Seems like a good way to learn how language develops among non-linguists on the hoof.

  58. David Eddyshaw says

    do they too travel by foot and live off the land

    The trick is to develop a sideline, like motor mechanic or jobbing oculist, selling something that the punters actually want.

  59. Stu Clayton says

    Ah, how could I have missed that ? I myself job in IT while completing my dissertation linking phenomenologies of road signage and vision. The provisional title is Sign and Sight.

  60. Starting off with Guineense, I ended up in Guillaume Segerer’s website, chock-full of West African linguistics, and in it another compilation of African consonant systems. His Kusaal data also comes from the Spratts.

  61. David Eddyshaw says

    Pity that he only lists consonants.

    Interesting looking at the Kusaal (as, of course, I did straight away) to see that /f/ was absent from the original source, though PHOIBLE (quite properly) includes it. It gives an idea of how unreliable these sources are. There’s a Chinese-whispers aspect to this, too, as many compilations are made from other compilations rather than primary sources, and errors propagate upwards.

    One thing I hadn’t noticed before is that both this site and PHOIBLE give /r/ as a separate phoneme from /d/, which is incorrect for the Toende dialect that the data otherwise reflect: the flap is just an allophone of /d/. In fact, in all of Western Oti-Volta, only Boulba, Mooré and Agolle Kusaal preserve the Proto-WOV distinction of /r/ and /d/ as separate phonemes. (This must reflect fairly recent parallel developments, though, as the reflexes of Proto-WOV *r differ even between the very closely related Mampruli and Dagbani*, and, of course, between the two Kusaals, which are – more or less – mutually intelligible.)

    * And Songhay loans must have entered Dagbani when it still possessed the distinction: Songhay /r/ has become Dagbani /l/, just as Proto-WOV *r did: cf Dagbani bilichina = Mooré burkina “free person, honourable person.”

  62. David Eddyshaw says

    The Segerer entry for Kusaal is even worse than the PHOIBLE one.

    Of the 20 consonant phonemes given, two are spurious: /r/ and /ʔ/; one (/ŋ͡m/) is given a distinctly misleading symbol, given that its realisation is not as a stop, though that is a venal sin, I suppose; and no less than three actual consonant phonemes are missing: /w/, /ɲ/ (i.e. [j̃]), and /v/); it would have been five missing, if Segerer hadn’t spotted the erroneous omission of /f/ /j/ in his source.

    Although /h/ is confined to loanwords, it does nevertheless actually form part of the inventory on account of the thoroughly integrated loanword hali, so I’ll concede that one.

  63. jack morava says

    I had some grad school friends working a summer job for a Texas oil exploration company who saved their employer several million dollars by explaining that solving the diffusion equation backwards in time is well-known to be highly unstable: errors grow exponentially and you are soon looking at gibberish.

    … I have a vague memory of grammar of Nama Khoekhoen which laments the great multiplicity, even in small communities, of names for things. Humans are quite good at learning random lists. I propose that back in the day, everyone had their own individual ideolect, and that one’s job as a child was to understand that grandma’s word for grasshopper corresponded to some very different word used by grandpa; people can handle that sort of challenge. Chemical reaction networks can start very slowly and take a long time to come to completion. If everyone starts out with their own vocabulary it could easily take a hundred thousand years for convergence to a common tongue…

  64. John Emerson says

    I once blocked out a mental experiment: granted all the things that can change the language map, fission and convergence and elaboration and extinction and creolization and Sprachebund effects , how long would it take before none of the languages at point B cand be seen to have any intelligible relationship to any language at point A. 5000 years isn’t long enough, but would 50000 years be?

  65. David Eddyshaw says

    The majority view among Australianists seems to be that almost all the Australian languages, including the various non-Pama-Nyungan groups, are ulitimately related, and that could make Proto-Australian something like 40,000 years old.

    Mind you, I say “could” with many mental reservations and crossings of fingers: there could also easily be whole lineages of Australian languages which have died out without trace since human settlement began; and, in fact, those who believe in Proto-Australian seem to think in terms of a time depth of “only” about 12,000 years, which would presumably imply that its descendants have indeed supplanted many other unrelated languages and families.

    And even if Dixon is wrong in saying that diffusion has complicated the task of indentifying deeper genetic relationships beyond all hope of success, there’s no doubt been a colossal amount of convergence over the millennia.

    Afro-Asiatic is certainly real, and its time-depth has to be surely at least something like 10,000 years. But it’s a very special case, between the fact that it includes most of the earliest recorded languages of humanity, and that the protolanguage must have been so very peculiar typologically that it’s left traces of its weirdness right down to the present, from Valletta to Kano. It’s got a very distinctive signature.

    If Greenberg-style “Niger-Congo” is real (i.e. even including Mande and bits of Kordofanian) it seems to me that the time depth would have to be at least as great as with Afro-Asiatic. But I’m by no means persuaded of its reality myself (and I don’t seem to be alone in this nowadays.) Similarly with Nilo-Saharan. But the difficulty is that it’s by no means clear that these languages really are all provably related, once you get to this sort of level: precisely the difficulty you point out.

  66. it would also put both Samoyed and Lower Sepik at 4000 BC, which is surely much too early in both cases

    I wonder if they’re reading the proposed splitting-off of Samoyedic (i.e. the age of Proto-Uralic) as the age of its splitting-up. (This error seems to be made way more often with Samoyedic than I would expect.) Alternately they might indeed have added an extra 2000 years due to some kind of a BC / BP mix-up.

    (Some other weird errors with Uralic data in BDPROTO seem to include e.g. reading ś ń ĺ as s̄ n̄ l̄ and interpreting them as /sː nː lː/; and introducing a lot of voiceless laterals all over the place for some reason.)

    But just how many “irregular” correspondences do you need before you decide to make the phonetic system of the protolanguage more complicated to “explain” them?

    In cases like Oti-Volta it seems to me that the answer is “those ones are real for which you can identify a distinct source thru their external relatives”.

  67. John Cowan says

    The authors in fact invoke imaginary substrates

    Much like the imaginary dialects invoked in all too many dialect-mixture explanations.

  68. The date for Proto-Samoyed comes from Sammallahti’s chapter on historical phonology in the 1988 volume on Uralic edited by Sinor:

    This relative homogeneity began disintegrating after the introduction of neolithic techniques and livelihoods together with the new possibilities for longitudinal contacts that emerged when agriculture began producing relocatable surplus resources in the areas south of the Uralic proto-population. It can be estimated that Proto-Uralic began diverging — as a result of new areal patterns of communication — into Proto-Finno-Ugric and Proto-Samoyed as early as seven or six thousand years ago during the early Neolithic.

  69. Yes, thank you for proving my point I guess: this quote alleges when Proto-Uralic broke apart, not when Proto-Samoyedic did.

    Sammallahti actually even goes into this latter matter in the very next sentence: “…whereas Proto-Samoyed seems to have persisted considerably longer [than Proto-Finno-Ugric], probably until the last millennium B.C.”

  70. David Eddyshaw says

    I was delighted to see that Segerer has a pdf of his Bijogo grammar on his site: credit to him, and thanks (yet again) to Y for pointing me towards something interesting.

    It looks pretty good: but what struck me first on skimming in was the presence of several evident cognates to well-established Volta-Congo etyma which are absent in (say) Fulfulde and Wolof (specifically, “eat”, “drink”, “bite”, “die” and “tree.”) FWIW the personal pronouns look a good bit more Volta-Congo-like than those of Fulfulde and Wolof, too. As I’ve long been unconvinced about the demonstrability (as opposed to plausibility) of a genetic relationship between Atlantic and Volta-Congo, I found all of that very interesting.

    However, the right conclusion may not be that all of Atlantic demonstrably belongs with Volta-Congo; Segerer himself interestingly says in his conclusion to the grammar:

    Le bijogo semble ainsi, tant au niveau des structures que du lexique, plus proche du bantu que des langues atlantiques. En outre, il est plus proche du bantu que ne le sont les autres langues atlantiques.

    However, I believe he has since provided evidence that Bijogo, long considered an isolate within Atlantic, is in fact related particularly to the Bak languages, which complicates matters. Given that Atlantic is generally agreed to be extremely internally diverse, though, it wouldn’t be too startling if some bits of it turned out to be more clearly related to Volta-Congo than others.

    Bijogo has the whole paired-affix no-sex-please noun class thing going on that Greenberg thought was enough by itself to prove the reality of his Niger-Congo, but as with the Kordofanian languages, it’s really only a (very striking, admittedly) typological congruence: the actual individual affixes don’t look much like anything in Volta-Congo, any more than could be accounted for by sheer chance with such short morphemes; the human-class plural prefix is ya-, for example, not *ba-.

    It’s all very interesting, anyway.

  71. It is interesting indeed. The presentations on very-scary-scare-quoted “Atlantic” were quite interesting, but skeletal, and I hope he posts more details.

    I also like that unlike most pdf hoarders (such as myself) he has taken the effort to share most of his collection online.

  72. January First-of-May says

    Apparently I completely forgot to answer this:

    Gornii les gorit gor’she?

    More like V goru lesa goryat gorshe; it’s plural, forests. (Russian has three of the four roots involved, but not the “forest” one.)

    [Previously on LH 1. previously on LH 2. I think I might have mentioned it a few more times as well.]

  73. David Marjanović says

    Even in SAE languages words distinguished by stress placement alone are not particularly exotic, and IIRC some Kavian* dialects have outright multi-tone systems.

    Most seem to distinguish four tones (and Slovene up to three), but only on the stressed syllable.

    Various Latvian varieties are register-tone languages, though: the stress is always on the first syllable, but all syllables can bear a tone or creaky-voice-or-whatever.

    Punjabi might be an actual tone language, but I don’t know.

  74. John Cowan says

    English has acquired the alien contrast of /v/ versus /f/ word-initially

    Also /s/ vs. /z/, and (but not an alien contrast) /θ/ vs. /ð/.

    Do you split the reconstructed series in two?

    Of course, you can ask the same question about Modern Standard Mandarin: indeed, Hanyu Pinyin and Wade-Giles romanizations are on opposite sides of the question.

    This would suggest that either Proto-Berber somehow ‘koinized’ at some point

    Camels, it’s all because of the camels.

  75. David Eddyshaw says

    Everything’s better with camels.

  76. John Cowan says

    from Valletta to Kano

    Sanat (Iraq) is at 37° 21′ 10″ N, hard by the Turkish border, whereas Valletta is only 35° 53′ 47” N. So Arabic is apparently the northernmost AA language. It is also the westernmost, I think, though I don’t know how far south in Western Sahara AA languages are spoken.

  77. Starting off with Guineense, I ended up in Guillaume Segerer’s website, chock-full of West African linguistics, and in it another compilation of African consonant systems. His Kusaal data also comes from the Spratts.

    He also has https://reflex.cnrs.fr/Africa/ that I was exploring recently.

    “Sanat (Iraq)”
    Uzbekistan is even farther to the north.

  78. David Eddyshaw says

    RefLex

    For Mooré, it has 264 items, taken from Koelle 1854.
    For Buli, 332 items, from the same source.

    I don’t really see the point of this.
    There are full-dress proper modern dictionaries of both these languages (the Buli one, in particular, is exemplary.)
    The link to the detailed description of the site (which presumably explains the rationale) just times out for me.

  79. @”DE “…: almost certainly, the vast majority of languages ever spoken by human beings are now extinct and have left no traces for us at all. The tiny proportion of all natural languages that have ever been studied by linguists at all is a decidedly unsafe base for generalising about what is actually possible in language.”

    If so (I agree), is it not true that the search for “universals” in language is a waste of time?

  80. David Eddyshaw says

    I think it can be a legitimate pursuit so long as you don’t start interpreting your “universals” as being some sort of hard-wired limitations on what kinds of languages human beings are capable of coming up with and using.

    Moreover, there are some things which really do seem to be overwhelmingly common in the sample of languages that we do have, so it’s not unreasonable to at least hazard a guess that the languages forever lost to us may have tended to do the same things, unless you can concoct a plausible counterargument to the effect that languages that lacked these features would have naturally perished by a sort of natural selection, so that the prevalence of such features in surviving languages is not accidental.

    Mind you, “universals” of that kind seem to be pretty dull. Things like “has phonemes (or the equivalent in some other medium.)” It’s not a trivial observation, but it doesn’t seem to get you very far in terms of interesting consequences.

    “Interesting” universals seem all too often to turn out to be not so universal once you start looking seriously, unfortunately.

    I think, myself, that the statistical-association kind of quasi-universal is more interesting. I mean (for example) it’s not true that SOV languages always have postpositions rather than prepositions, but the fact that they are much more likely to have postpositions than e.g. VSO languages are, seems like it deserves some sort of explanation, and we might learn something from wondering what’s behind the association exactly because it’s evidently not a logical necessity that things should be that way.

    I suppose negative universals can be important, too: I mean there really don’t seem to be any languages which express negation by reversing the order of all the constituents of a sentence, beautifully iconic though that would seem to be. On the other hand, one can see rather severe practical difficulties with actually using a language like that.

    I must admit to being biased too. I just prefer oddities and exceptions to universals (which I disbelieve in anyway, on an ontological level.) So that probably distorts my outlook.

  81. a digression on perished by a sort of natural selection:

    this kind of invocation of a [usually ill-understood and incoherently applied] darwinian mechanism (which i hasten to say DE is in no way doing!) is, i think, a major part of the problem with a lot of large-scale social science and humanities work. there is simply no reason to think that a structure of change & continuity active in populations of living creatures and based on the specific physical materials of inheritance would have any relationship to structures of change & continuity in any other sphere. anyone who wants to argue for that ought to make a case for why they think there is a relationship in their specific instance – and rarely does. perhaps because when it is invoked, it’s almost always to lend an air of scientific authority to a just-so-story justifying someone’s ill-examined assumptions* (or, often, support for existing social or political hierarchies).

    dawkins has a lot to answer for in the recent phases of this. i’m very glad that his coinage has acquired a new meaning that makes it so completely unusable in its intended function!

    there are wonderful images and metaphors in darwinian theory – that was one of the great joys for me in reading steven jay gould’s Structure… – but using them elsewhere does get slippery-slope-y very fast!

    .
    * even ones as mundane as “the languages that have been studied in depth are typical of language in general”.

  82. J.W. Brewer says

    I agree with David E. about the potential interestingness of “negative universals.” His example is not unlike mine (which I either made up or picked up from someone else in a morphology class circa 1986), viz. that no language marks a noun as plural by reversing the order of all of its phonemes.

    Of course proposed “negative universals” can be falsified, as in the famous anecdote when at one point in the late ’70’s Geoff Pullum pointed out in a lecture the interesting fact that there were absolutely no OVS languages and then afterwards Desmond Derbyshire came up to him and said that actually he’d just come back from doing fieldwork in the Amazon on an OVS language (Hixkaryana, which had not been known to the generalization-producing typological theorists of the day).

  83. @DE, gathering all wordlists and dictionaries in one (electronic, searchable) place sounds like a necessarey thing to do anyway. Scanning a book takes hours, then correcting and parsing OCR.

    They have 1500000 records (which amounts to hundreds “books”). Once you have it, you can think what you can do with it, but I think what matters is having it.

  84. @DE and they observe copyright. Mooré dictionaries must be numerous enough, and maybe at least some authors/publishers would grant permission when asked…

  85. David Eddyshaw says

    I thought it might be to do with copyright (though the Mooré dictionary I referred to is freely available.)

    But whatever the practicalities, such tiny, outdated and inaccurate samples are hardly any kind of basis for reliable comparative work. Any conclusions drawn would only be correct by accident: I don’t think it’s overharsh to say that this breadth-over-depth approach is actually worse than useless as it stands. It’s a sort of standing invitation to shoddy and poorly evidenced comparison.

  86. David Eddyshaw says

    This seems to be a common thread with several of these big databases. The amount of hard work that’s gone into collating them simply distracts from the low quality of the actual data. It really isn’t good enough to say “but that’s what’s available: could you do any better?” These databases are being presented as they stand as viable sources for comparative work, and they aren’t good enough for valid conclusions to be drawn. Have people learnt nothing from the multiple errors in Greenberg’s mass comparison data? (as opposed to the iffiness of the method itself, I mean. A whole other issue …)

  87. David Marjanović says

    The most interesting universals, to me, would be those that are neither logical nor practical necessities. They could be explained by phylogeny and would be evidence for monogenesis of language.

    In biology I can rattle off a long list of such things that show all known life had a single common ancestor: the use of RNA and DNA that furthermore encode the same tiny sample of amino acids in practically the same way, for starters. In language none have been identified that I know of, and it wouldn’t be easy.

  88. David Eddyshaw says

    I agree; in practice, it seems hard to come up with any, partly (I think) because with a bit of ingenuity you can attribute pretty much any very-widespread language feature to practical necessities.

    We need Martian languages as a control group, though in the meantime I suppose you could point to the things that non-human animal signalling doesn’t have. Sign-signifier arbitrariness seems a possible candidate (certainly a better one than “recursion”), though even there things are not completely clear-cut.

  89. PlasticPaddy says

    @de
    Do birdsongs have sign-signifier arbitrariness? There is a trap of saying that any animal communication that seems to be too humanlike is labeled as “not communication”. A universal for mammals and birds would seem to be [HISS] = back off /snake / horrible reptile attack.

  90. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, if sign-signifier arbitrariness really is a biologically inherited characteristic of all human language, I suppose evidence of parallels (less spectacularly carried through, but parallels nevertheless) elsewhere among animals would actually make a biological-heredity basis more plausible, by showing at least that it’s the kind of thing that might be inherited biologically; indeed, selected for, given that it’s obviously not an all-or-nothing feature of communication, and iconicity remains an important part of human language still.

    This at least strikes me as a more plausible just-so story than Merge/Recursion/Whatever turning up For No Reason as a genetic fluke, switching it from Off to On in some lucky individual and then going on to conquer the (human) world by some never-quite-explained mechanism.

    So we need the Martians even more, to give us an idea as to whether you could even have a communication system as useful and flexible as human language that wasn’t based on sign-signifier arbitrariness. It doesn’t seem obvious to me that this is a logically necessary part of such a system (which I have deliberately avoiding calling “language”, because it might be entailed by your actual definition of “language”, leading to a circular argument.)

  91. ə de vivre says

    To me the fact that most linguistic “universals” are “merely” probabilistic rather than absolute says a lot about how disciplinary linguistics and cognitive science fit together. If we accept that the human brain is a physical organ that is the way it is due to the selective pressures of evolution and that one of the traits that has favourably reproduced in human brains is plasticity, then the fact that we all have human brains means that we’re predisposed to certain linguistic structures/phenomena/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, but it also means that we have a unique ability to learn to override our cognitive predispositions.

    I think it’s very interesting that default OVS word order is almost but not entirely absent from human languages. And finding “universals” like this (as well as figuring out how strong the tendency is) will tell us a lot about how human language works and how it’s acquired.

    WRT signifier–signified arbitrariness
    I don’t think you can make the case that human language is unique in signifier–signified arbitrariness. But one defining characteristic of human speech I’ve heard argued for is symbolicness (symbolicity?) in a Peircean sense. That is, a bird call may signify “danger on the ground” or “danger in the air” without any iconic resemblance between signifier and signified, but there must be a non-arbitrary physical/temporal relationship between the use of the signifier and the signified. That is, a bird call can only mean “there is a danger on the ground here and now” and not “I saw a danger on the ground yesterday” or “Dangers on the ground are not as bad as dangers in the air.” I don’t know if this argument holds up in detail, but it seems promising.

  92. David Eddyshaw says

    I suppose one also needs to distinguish two different sorts of arbitrariness. It’s actually fairly easy to imagine a race of Martians who all spoke the same language, in the sense that every “word” (or whatever) had a biologically inherited association with meaning; that would be “arbitrary” in the sense that Red Martians and Green Martians might speak quite different languages (and translation might well be absolutely impossible for them. Inconceivable, in fact.)

    Human-language arbitrariness is obviously a different matter.

    I find it difficult to imagine any Martian communication system as elaborate as human speech plausibly evolving entirely via biologically inherited form-meaning correspondences, though. The Red/Green Martian scenario seems a priori unlikely to arise in the first place, for all that it’s readily imaginable in itself.

    Still, bees …

  93. David Marjanović says

    Here’s an idea of what a Completely Different language could look like. It’s not imagined as biologically inherited, though.

  94. I wonder whether each bee’s reading of her nestmate’s honey dances is recalibrated by experience – I think she’s telling me to head 75 m NNW and look for a cluster of yellow flowers… oh, she means 80 m NW, and these flowers are actually orange.

    Is that known through current research?

  95. But whatever the practicalities, such tiny, outdated and inaccurate samples are hardly any kind of basis for reliable comparative work. Any conclusions drawn would only be correct by accident: I don’t think it’s overharsh to say that this breadth-over-depth approach is actually worse than useless as it stands. It’s a sort of standing invitation to shoddy and poorly evidenced comparison.

    @DE, are not you saying that it is better not to have wordlists for several hundred languages than to have them?

    They just brought many old wordlists and some new wordlish together… I am not advertizing it, I just think it is a necessary thing to do. The limitations here are (1) amount of work (in hours) scanning and even finding a copy of some rare sourse takes. (2) copyright.

    It is not just Koelle (I do not think Koelle contains a million and a half entries). You can scroll down the list and click at random languages to see the picture…. Or better click statistic and then map (size fits records count).

    It seems northern Ghana and Burkina Faso are poorly covered (better covered langauges are cakali : “Brindle 2017 : Chakali records: 3965”, sissala : “Zalvé et al 2013 : sissala records: 4060; Koelle 1854 : IV-C-1 – Kóāma records: 260 ; Koelle 1854 : IV-C-2 – Bágbālan· records: 274” and “Bloemarts 2012 : boore records: 6547”)

  96. @DE, sorry, I did not read your next comment.

    It really isn’t good enough to say “but that’s what’s available: could you do any better?” These databases are being presented as they stand as viable sources for comparative work, and they aren’t good enough for valid conclusions to be drawn.

    Yes, it is a good idea to be aware of this. My point was that it is a necessary thing to do anyway.
    I am exporing it and trying to figure out how such sources can be used.

    The presentation might be totally wrong.

  97. That is, a bird call can only mean “there is a danger on the ground here and now” and not “I saw a danger on the ground yesterday”

    Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_F._Hockett#Hockett's_13_design_features_of_language , displacement

  98. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks, drasvi. I was just thinking of Hockett and the Features.

    It’s interesting to think about which of them you could bin while still talking about “language” (as opposed to something else.) They’re certainly not all mandatory (#1 obviously isn’t, for a start …) and some of them seem to be just different aspects of the same feature, really (like #7 and #8.)

    I am exploring it and trying to figure out how such sources can be used

    Fair enough. And as I said before, I think I have something of a bias against such things in general, which probably means I’m not being fair. It may (as you imply) also be a factor that the areas I happen to know about in any detail are indeed recherché enough that I am particularly likely to focus on areas where they just happen to be particularly weak: these areas may indeed be unrepresentative of the whole.

    (On the other hand, I have seen quite a few published papers which treat scanty and inaccurate data as gospel: I recall an elaborate list of verbal derivative suffixes across “Niger-Congo” where all the “Gur” data were from Gaston Canu’s really very bad account of Mooré verb derivation … but on the other other hand, that’s an argument for scholars being better aware of the limitations of their sources, rather than an argument for not making the sources conveniently available at all.)

  99. or “Dangers on the ground are not as bad as dangers in the air.” I don’t know if this argument holds up in detail, but it seems promising.

    Tthis one is interesting. As for the former (referenced above) I heard that it was discussed as a feature distinguishing humans from apes (particularly in experiments where apes were taught some form of human language) and that counter-examples were found but it is what I merely ‘heard’ of.

    Hockett himself says ‘almost unique’, not unique: ‘Man is apparently almost unique in being able to talk about things that are remote in space or time (or both) from where the talking goes on. This feature—”displacement”—seems to be definitely lacking in the vocal signaling of man’s closest relatives, though it does occur in bee-dancing
    But there are more counter-examples.

    There are other tricks, like tits using ‘danger!’ to scare off possible competitors when they find food.

    imagine a race of Martians who all spoke the same language, in the sense that every “word” (or whatever) had a biologically inherited association with meaning; that would be “arbitrary” in the sense that Red Martians and Green Martians might speak quite different languages (and translation might well be absolutely impossible for them. Inconceivable, in fact.)

    This is a trick I particularly like, I mean: “imagine a ET race who…”:) This specific race never occured to me.

  100. no language marks a noun as plural by reversing the order of all of its phonemes

    Un œil, deux yeux

    (OK, a bit of a cheat because French does rarely contrast [œ] and [ø], but close.)

  101. And even if it were phonetically perfect, it’s a question whether one or two cases where it came about by historical accident would already count as refutation of the universal or whether the mechanism would have to be analogically extended to a class of nouns in order to count.

  102. David Marjanović says

    Some accents seem not to. I heard some strong southern accents last week, and they strictly distributed lax vs. tense vowels to closed vs. open syllables regardless of spelling.

  103. How to evolve a naturalistic language that by default forms plurals by reversal:

    1) plain stems are CVK (C, K both any ckonsonants, to avoid clunky subscripts); plurals are formed by reduplication: CVKCV́K, and have final stress.
    2) an epenthetic echo vowel develops in the cluster -KC-, giving CVKVCV́K.
    3) the antepretonic first syllable of the reduplicant is reduced and deleted, giving KVCV́K.
    4) stress moves to the left, giving KV́CVK.
    5) the post-tonic rime is deleted, giving now reversed KVC.

    I.e. probably not impossible, just unlikely to happen. Note that besides the current steps this also need a consistent absense of several other steps such as any sound change differentiating initial C- / final -C across the board.

  104. Stu Clayton says

    How about a language in which, by default, plurals are formed by uttering the singular forms at twice the volume (to indicate “more”) ? None of the evolutionary stages listed by J Pystynen would have to be traversed.

  105. Because that’s not a plausible language.

  106. David Marjanović says

    It’s actually an interesting language universal that volume is never used to express lexical or grammatical meaning, except insofar as it is part of phonemic stress where that exists.

    The same holds for speed.

  107. Stu Clayton says

    Perhaps volume is never used in this way because it was already reserved for speaking to foreigners and, more generally, yelling at people to signal annoyance.

    Speed for plurals was rejected in evolutionary anticipation of Spanish radio presenters.

  108. Pragmatic variation of volume (and probably also speed), based on factors such as distance and ambient noise levels, must be older than grammatical language. (Other apes vary the volumes of their utterances to account for such things.) This presumably blocked its implementation as a morphological feature.

  109. Stu Clayton says

    Yet other apes vary phonemes and stress patterns, apparently without regard to distance and ambient noise levels.

    Are there languages which do not lend themselves to being shouted ? How are phonotactics affected by loudness of utterance ?

  110. David Marjanović says

    That reminds me of when I discovered that [r] is impossible to articulate with your mouth full. I was very surprised. [ʀ] doesn’t have this problem.

  111. PlasticPaddy says

    @dm
    Why were you talking with your mouth full? Were you a kid? I thought this was a big faux-pas in Germany, at least for sober adults.

  112. David Marjanović says

    a big faux-pas in Germany

    In theory. Meaning, people who care a lot about proper etiquette will quietly despise you – that’s all.

    When I was a kid, I basically had no concept of [r]. I only have [ʀ] natively. Later I was looking for [r] in the wrong direction for years…

  113. Lookin’ for [r] in all the wrong places…

  114. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s actually an interesting language universal that volume is never used to express lexical or grammatical meaning, except insofar as it is part of phonemic stress where that exists.
    The same holds for speed.

    And for absolute pitch (which is hardly surprising when you think about what the consequences would be if it were so used.)

  115. My high school German teacher told us that, whatever they might say about manners, people in Germany were always talking with their mouths full—that it was a form of theoretical rudeness much more tolerated there than in America.

  116. Lars Mathiesen says

    I want to enjoy my food, so why are you distracting me? In Denmark it’s a trope that if the small talk stops, the food is good and people want to concentrate on tasting it.

    It’s not so much a question of good manners as a cultural respect for the meal.

  117. John Cowan says

    I want to enjoy my food, so why are you distracting me?

    <rant>It is notorious that my countrymen as a class have no interest in “good food well prepared.” At all levels of society, they seek out and consume things that would make any self-respecting dog, never mind a European, upchuck at the mere sight and smell of them. (I am not entirely exempt from this tendency.) Furthermore, when they eat in public, the food is at most their fifth concern, after what is said and who says it, who is wearing what, how the table is laid, and what pictures are on the walls, for Ghu’s sake.

    This should not be mistaken for a claim that there is no good food to be had in the U.S — there is. There are 200 Michelin-starred restaurants and 14 with three stars (but don’t get me started on the international abomination that “tasting menus” have become: oysters and strawberries well mashed together would be ambrosia by comparison). Nor is the native cuisine of the United States, well prepared, to be scorned. But on the whole “culinary wasteland” is a fair description.</rant>

  118. This from someone who lives in NYC?! Screw Michelin — you can get great food from dozens of cuisines by just hopping on the subway. I’ve eaten fantastic Uzbek, Persian, Brazilian, Cambodian, Lebanese, Turkish, Afghan, Korean, and regional Mexican food there (and much else, of course — those are just the first few that popped into my head). Pull down thy snobbery!

  119. Lars Mathiesen says

    Is that why Usonians eat such huge meals? The better the food, the smaller the bites.

  120. Reminds me of that old joke:
    “That restaurant is really the worst. The food there is awful, absolutely inedible.” – “Yes, and the portions are way too small!”

  121. John Cowan says

    This from someone who lives in NYC?!

    NYC is not America, it is St. Petersburg West.

  122. Still, you’re making a generalization about an entire country that doesn’t apply to the part of it you know best. It also doesn’t apply to Los Angeles or Chicago, to pick two cities I happen to know something about. If you’re going to say “Well, but what about Dubuque,” I put it to you that the culinary quality and variety available in other countries’ equivalents of Dubuque are not exactly Michelin-worthy.

  123. There is an intercultural difference in what happens when you and your freinds/colleagues get hungry. I mean, the amount of love and attention invested in cooking and consuming food (and whether wine is served or not too).

    Moscow is certainly behind many in that, and I do not mean that there are not great eateries.

  124. What you can expect in the Dubuques also varies from country to country, region to region, and across time. 40 years ago in Northern Germany, you would have to go to a regional center to be sure you’d get half-decent food somewhere (standard pub food was like wieners from a jar and oily, mushy potato salad out of a plastic container from the supermarket, plonked on a plate), while in Southern Germany you could go into any village pub and be sure to get a small selection of local food prepared by someone who knew what they were doing. That was mostly because in the North people went to a pub to drink, not to eat. Nowadays it has become much better, also because you’ll find ethnic eateries in almost every village now, but the South is still ahead.

  125. Lars Mathiesen says

    I think this varies with the cultural expectation that everybody is able to cook a decent meal themselves at home.There has always been a segment that would employ a cook and a maid and go to the town’s hotel for dinner on the cook’s day off — or the modern equivalent which is probably to stay in town for a restaurant while the au-pair takes care of the kids (including cooking them a meal). But everybody else would eat at home, and if you didn’t want to cook you could very well end up with oily potato salad and wieners from a jar. (Spaghetti and ketchup and carcinogenic-red wieners if you could manage to boil stuff without starting a fire. No wieners if skint). So why should the Krug do better?

    That was then. Now you can probably get a decent meal delivered every day for a year without repeating your choices (if you are in Copenhagen), but it’s still a trade-off between money and time spent to prepare stuff from scratch (and learning to do it). And if you live in the countryside, the nearest grocery store will be 10 times as far away as in the 70s. But there’s online ordering of staples too.

  126. True. But there’s also, at least in Germany, a difference between the beer- and schnapps- drinking North, where going to the pub meant (and often still means) drinking combined rounds (Lagen) of both with no food involved, and the priority being to get plastered fast, and the wine-and cider-drinking South, where having a meal together was more part of the pub culture. (I’m exaggerating here, obviously; the Lagen culture exists in the South as well, and many people in the North go to the pub for a beer or two without competing on who can drink the other under the table.)

  127. David Marjanović says

    A year and a few days ago…

    The “Doctrine of Uniformity” in Geology briefly refuted

    In 1866, it was not yet known that the Earth is heated by radioactivity. Calculating how hot it must have been from how much heat it’s currently radiating off does not work.

  128. @David Marjanović: Well, yes. But Kelvin was right to point out that it could not just be assumed that the temperature of the Earth had been relatively stable for hundreds of millions of years. I don’t remember whether it’s in the famous paper I linked to or something he commented on elsewhere, but Kelvin did write about the possibility that there was some other unknown source of heat energy for the planet’s interior—probably because it was losing heat so rapidly that even modest estimates of the age of the biosphere were hard to sustain in light of what he had calculated.

    I once called in to Science Friday (but didn’t get on the air that time) to complain about the way their guest was characterizing Kelvin’s measurement and Fred Hoyle’s idea of an eternally expanding universe. The science journalist they had on was characterizing them as being very similar, but they were actually wrong for two diametrically opposed reasons. In both cases, there was an old idea that our environment (in one instance the planet Earth, in the other the universe as a whole) could be arbitrarily old, with its conditions not changing that much over time. Kelvin noted that the rate of heat loss from the Earth meant that the planet could not be particularly old unless there was new physics involved—which there was, in the form of radioactivity. Kepler was showing that the assumed vast age was not something that was consistent with physics as it was then understood.

    Hoyle’s arguments were in the exact opposite direction. There was an increasing accumulation of evidence that the expanding universe could not be older than billions of years. Going back that far in time, the whole cosmos would have been extremely hot and dense. (Hoyle himself coined the term “Big Bang” for this origin to the universe, meaning the name to be derisive.) The argument was qualitatively similar to Kelvins—that physics as it was understood did not allow for a much older universe that had stayed about the same temperature for all that time. Again, the exception would be if there were some new fundamental physics involved. Unlike Kelvin, who pointed out that, based on what was known, the planet did not seem to be that old, Hoyle tried to rescue the idea of a very old—perhaps eternal—universe by inventing a form of new physics (creation of new matter as the universe expanded) that would fix the thermodynamic problems with the models that called for a very old universe.

    So they were both wrong. However, Kelvin was following what was understood to draw a very counterintuitive conclusion about the likely age of the Earth. Hoyle was positing a whole new type of physics to avoid facing the consequences of a similarly counterintuitive conclusion about the likely age of the entire universe. Kelvin was doing good science; Hoyle’s science was much more questionable.

  129. A year and a few days ago…

    Sheesh! It’s as much as I can do to keep up with the ‘few days’. We are absolutely not running short of conversation that you need to re-litigate a year ago.

    (But thanks anyway for the lesson on terrestrial thermodynamics.)

  130. I personally am delighted when people revive old threads. Keep the conversation flowing!

  131. JC – standards in Europe are dropping as well. Or, more likely, food has actually gotten much better in the US over the past 40 years. On the one hand McDonalds, Burger King, and other fast food are increasingly popular in much of Europe, as well as frozen pizzas from supermarkets, microwaves, etc. (The French TV series Dix Pour Cent features incidentally the horrible dietary habits of one of the protagonists – a harried overworked member of the modern young Parisian striving professional class) .

    On the other hand, American food is no longer the slop we survived on in the 1970s (I remember a lot of Chef Boyardee, Kraft Mac & Cheese, Hamburger Helper, fast food and horrible white bread). In rural New Hampshire we can now get really good artisanal cheese, excellent beer, fresh fish, high quality beef, and tasty organic produce in season. In Boston the pastries at upscale bakeries are much better (although more expensive) than in Vienna. I am constantly amazed every time I go back to the US. And don’t get me started on Mexican food in Europe vs. America.

    You are still on point about presentation and manners though. I have never seen a European bring take out meals aboard an airplane, the way Americans seem to do. That is utterly gross.

  132. Lars Mathiesen says

    We actually have pretty good Mexican here, at least tacos, according to my friend from Mexico who lives here. They just cost 5 times as much as in Mexico. But also a lot of Tex-Mex which most Danes accept as genuine Mexican. And nobody wants to sell me blue gorditas, sad. Or even white. Yet. At least I can get the masa azul and chicharrones, how hard can it be then? And canned tomatillos.

  133. Stu Clayton says

    I have made my peace with canned tomatillos. How else to make salsa verde in Cologne ?

  134. I have never seen a European bring take out meals aboard an airplane, the way Americans seem to do. That is utterly gross.

    What?! You think we should eat airline food? Talk about gross! I remember when I first learned to bring my own meal on long flights, and I never looked back.

  135. I was amazed to see so many varieties of sliced white cotton in German supermarkets. Why? When there are bakeries everywhere (even in the same supermarket) selling a dozen kinds of really excellent freshly made bread?

  136. I’ve never seen the point as well. I almost never buy bread from supermarket shelves, except when it’s late and the bakeries / bakery sections are closed, which is almost never.

  137. David Eddyshaw says

    You think we should eat airline food?

    I had a really very nice airline meal on Alitalia (of blessed memory) some forty years ago. I particularly remember that each serving came with a little bottle of wine as standard.

    Ah me! We shall not see the like again …

  138. Yes, I recall having a nice dinner on some European airline decades ago. It was a pleasant surprise, not to be repeated.

  139. David Marjanović says

    Kelvin was doing good science; Hoyle’s science was much more questionable.

    That’s why Kelvin Is Lord!

    re-litigate

    That’s not the way I think. I saw this thread, saw I hadn’t followed the link last time, remedied this deplorable omission, and then found I should comment on it to avoid misunderstandings among future readers.

    Didn’t even see who the author of the paper was, BTW… :-]

    And don’t get me started on Mexican food in Europe vs. America.

    Due to the general chronic shortage of Mexicans, I’m only aware of one Mexican place in Berlin and zero in Vienna. I’m sure the real numbers are higher, but not much higher.

    BTW, in walking distance from where I live in Berlin there’s a Vietnamese restaurant that’s not a phở place. Von Vietnam lernen heißt siegen lernen, I guess.

    That is utterly gross.

    Doesn’t that depend on what the take-out meal is? (What was it in the cases you experienced?)

    airline food

    I’ve found airline food to be very, very heterogeneous, depending not only on the airline but also on pure random as far as I could tell. When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s wrong-headed to begin with, I eat only the edible parts and stay hungry. 😐

    Why?

    Perhaps to make authentic toast. Bread meant to be toasted can even contain sugar, even in Austria. *shudder* I don’t think that was a thing when I was little.

  140. You think we should eat airline food?

    I had a really very nice airline meal on Alitalia …

    And I had a superb veggie curry on a Thai Airways internal flight. I’d say in general Asian airlines serve food better than anything you could bring from home — after it’s been processed through security.

    (But then I’ve only once flown across the USA, and that was on Air NZ 30 years ago.)

  141. Lars Mathiesen says

    I lost all hope for the English when I found out that the nice new bubbly-and-seafood bar at Heathrow would cheerfully charge me 20 quid for some salmon and a glass, and then slap two slices of ASDA bargain-shelf multigrain toast bread on the plate with a 25g foil packet of Lurepak. And just see what happened later, it was fated I tell you, people like that can’t maintain an empire properly.

    But when flying to Mexico from Heathrow 16 years later, I did take some water and a sandwich from some airport place, because I had not been able to find positive confirmation that my ticket entitled me to dinner or what currency I should carry if I had to pay for stuff. (IIRC, it turned out that I got a nice [cold] meal and several rounds of soft drinks. No cocktails, though).

  142. You think we should eat airline food?

    I think on a two hour flight maybe you don’t really need to eat anything? I am not talking about bringing some sandwiches or a container of pasta salad to tide you over from NYC to Buenos Aires, I‘m talking about people who bring fresh burgers and fries onto a shuttle from Philadelphia to Manchester NH. It smells, creates greasy trash and takes up space, very inconsiderate to fellow passengers.

    A few years ago Vienna had to pass an ordinance forbidding people from eating in the public transport, so Europe is slowly tending in the same direction.

  143. Due to the general chronic shortage of Mexicans, I’m only aware of one Mexican place in Berlin and zero in Vienna. I’m sure the real numbers are higher, but not much higher.

    There are actually several in Vienna these days, and despite my ranting, I know two taquerias run by Mexicans here that are pretty decent, just not close to my flat. We do have a Styrian run burrito/indian curry place that is in no way authentically Mexican but very good “hippie” fare (which is to say it reminds me of the better kind of burrito you find in college towns in New England). Vienna is quietly becoming quite cosmopolitan.

  144. I think on a two hour flight maybe you don’t really need to eat anything? I am not talking about bringing some sandwiches or a container of pasta salad to tide you over from NYC to Buenos Aires, I‘m talking about people who bring fresh burgers and fries onto a shuttle from Philadelphia to Manchester NH.

    Ah. In that case I understand your point (although you never know what people’s schedules are — maybe they haven’t eaten in quite a while), but your original statement was way too sweeping.

  145. January First-of-May says

    I’ve found airline food to be very, very heterogeneous, depending not only on the airline but also on pure random as far as I could tell. When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s wrong-headed to begin with, I eat only the edible parts and stay hungry.

    That’s my experience, for the most part, except that I think I hadn’t (yet) been on flights long enough that I couldn’t just get away with a meal in the departure airport and/or a meal in the arrival airport if there were any problems with the in-flight meal.
    (OTOH I think I also hadn’t yet been on flights short enough to not involve a meal at all, which I gather is far more common in the USA, because their train system sucks.)

    Overall, though, by far the majority of my experiences were on the good side. OTOH sometimes the airline provided food items that were inconvenient to eat in the plane (such as apples), so we just put them into the bag and ate them after arrival.

  146. Apples?
    How are they inconvenient to eat?

    ???

  147. Australia is so far away from anywhere that we get to experience proper airline meals all the time when travelling overseas.

    Some 10 years ago Heston Blumenthal revolutionised airline food by doing experiments to see how taste buds perceive flavours at cruising height. It turns out the savoury flavours (or ‘umami’ as foodie wankers say) work better in that environment.

    Since then, the taste and quality of food on planes has improved considerably.

    I was shocked to read in the posts above about having to take your own food onto flights in USA. What rubbish customer service.

  148. sometimes the airline provided food items that were inconvenient to eat in the plane (such as apples), so we just put them into the bag and ate them after arrival.

    Pro tip, applying to both NZ and Australia: since both are “so far away from anywhere” it’s worth them trying to prevent nefarious critters coming over the borders, both have stringent biosecurity laws. Bringing apples/any fruit — even airline-issued fruit — even the delicious Galas that were carried out from NZ on the plane and never even breathed the stinking air in Shanghai — in from the plane will get you an instant fine, and a lengthy talking-to. (The talking-to is long enough to severely disrupt your onward journey — and quite deliberately so; so you and your whole organised tour won’t do it again, and will go back home and tell everybody else.)

    Similarly, if you’re bringing in outdoor gear esp boots/skis, they must be scrupulously cleaned of anything that might harbour ‘foresaid critters. I was even ticked off about flecks of mud on my laces. (And I knew all about these rules.)

    Otherwise, both countries’ borders are welcoming and friendly — in total contrast to U.S. and U.K.

  149. Apples?
    How are they inconvenient to eat?

    I guess because those stupid plastic knives are useless for slicing them up. And of course your handy pocket penknife that you carry so habitually you never thought to put it in checked baggage, got confiscated by security.

    (Hangers-out here might be of such an age/dental decay that merely biting into the things is hazardous.)

  150. David Eddyshaw says

    and of course your handy pocket penknife that you carry so habitually you never thought to put it in checked baggage, got confiscated by security

    I was once foolishly carrying a Swiss Army knife (that I am rather fond of, as it was a sort of ceremonial gift from the Swiss Red Cross) when I got on an Air France flight from Ouagadougou to Paris. Happily, the officials in question were content simply with telling me not to get it out during the flight. Vive la France! (I was so grateful that I decided not to hijack the plane after all.)

  151. @J1M, since a few years ago cheap flights between Russian cities are a thing (sold both in the form of “горящие путёвки” and in the form of tickets). My friend’s parents bought a tour for a few days (from Astrakhan oblast I think) to Sochi for 400 roubles (for both). May.

    I never used it but a couple years ago I was curious and checked prices … there actually were tours like Moscow-Sochi-[2 days in a hostel]-Sochi-Moscow for some 10$. It was February. This was new, it means when a Muscovite is in a mood to walk along the cold Black sea (otherwise not very attractive for Muscovites in February), she can just walk along the cold Black sea and then teleport herself back:/ I wondered if there are also tours Sochi-Moscow-Sochi or Crimea-Moscow-Crimea… and yes, they offered a tour to a hotel in Moscow oblast for about the same price.

    Tickets as such are a bit more expensive, yet cheaper-than-train tickets happen… or it was so a few years ago. Right now they are not cheap at all.

  152. @AntC

    Yes, the quarantine rules are very stringent.

    It used to be the case that you knew you landed in Australia because someone would walk through the cabin with 2 cans of bugspray spraying the overhead baggage lockers and the plane passengers.

    Australian (& NZ) travellers know not to bother carrying anything organic into the country (food, wood, plant and animal matter). Not so with, who foreigners are not used to the concept.

    One of the most popular TV shows here is called Border Security. It regularly features foreigners bringing bags loaded with food. They get a stern talking to, while at the same time trying to justify that the eg. stinking fish they were caryying across the border is not food, and they didn’t really understand the declaration form.

    Australian viewers of course get outraged with the ludricuosly small fines for these egregious quarantine breaches.

  153. January First-of-May says

    cheap flights between Russian cities are a thing

    Oh they sure are, but at distances where the flight takes less than, oh let’s say 2 hours, it’s usually cheaper and/or more convenient to take a train. Often quicker too (long waits at airports). And 2-hour flights do include meals.

    (Granted, AFAIK I’ve never taken a flight to someplace like Kursk or Kazan that wasn’t a major tourist destination, so maybe it works differently in there.)

    Apples?
    How are they inconvenient to eat?

    Biting into and through them takes a while, and then the core gets in the way. Maybe “uncomfortable” is a better word than “inconvenient”.
    I think there were better examples, but I couldn’t think of any offhand. Sugar packets would qualify, I guess.

    That said, I’ve never been to Australia (or New Zealand, or anywhere else in Oceania), and if it’s that strict I suspect I’m unlikely to ever actually get there.
    (Same applies to US and UK, I guess, though at least in the US case I might not have a choice eventually. I heard Canada’s pretty bad too and I’m highly likely to end up going there sometime in the next two decades.)

  154. @January 1.V

    Don’t let me put you off travelling to Oz. You’re welcome here.

    All you need to do is rememeber not to carry food with you across the border. (There are even bins when you arrive where you can chuck out food that you might have with you; and that’s before you get to the quarantine control.) We’ve got plenty of all sorts of delicious things to eat in the country.

  155. @J1M,

    Moscow-Kazan, 21.06
    18:25-19:10 1249 roubles.

    23:40- 12:54 22.06
    Сид от 1 431 Плац от 2 279 Купе от 3 386  СВ от 8 758 

    Cидячий “seated”, плацкартный “Platzkarte-ish”, купейный “coupe” спальный “sleeping” вагоны “coaches”.
    That is 4, 3, 2, 1 classes.

  156. @January 1.V

    Don’t let me put you off travelling to Oz. You’re welcome here.

    Seconded for NZ: in fact we’re desperate to get tourists back. The only thing we’re strict about is not letting food or bug-harbouring materials across the border. There’s heaps of fresh produce grown here: you’ve no need to bring anything from home.

  157. P.S. January First-of-May, I did not mean to object, it was just a random price measurement. I do not know what is usual now, but I do like trains.

    P.P.S. In India “sleepers” are (conversely) cheap. The same kind of coaches that most Indians use (and the “Indian train” that most Russians fear I suppose?). But the first class is more affordable compared to Russia, Delhi-Calcutta is some 1400 r for sleepers and then 2400, 3400 and 4400 for the first class, roubles or rupees I don’t remember, some $25-70. A Russian tourist who has just spent hundreds on tickets to India won’t even notice it, and internal flights are not any cheaper. And this first class looks nice.

  158. I like trains too, and I wish the US passenger system hadn’t degenerated so badly. I still remember a cross-country trip I took with my parents in the… early ’60s maybe? Seeing the Rockies loom up as we traveled west was amazing.

  159. John Cowan says

    I remember crying as a small child when the mean man took away my orange when my parents’ car crossed from Nevada to California, and feeling absolutely desperate as an adult when my lunch was confiscated just before I was due to eat it (per diabetic meal scheduling) when flying from Canada to the U.S., as I knew damned well there wouldn’t be anything I could eat on the other side of the line. I subsisted on sugar packets until we reached New York.

  160. January First-of-May says

    roubles or rupees I don’t remember

    For a while the exchange rate was nearly 1:1. I once got a 2 rupee coin in change instead of a 2 ruble coin, and (having looked up the exchange rate) found it funny that it was in fact worth almost exactly 2 rubles.

  161. Probably not, however, worth two rubies.

    (The standard exhange rate is, going by Legend of Zelda, rather 1 ruby = 20 rupees.)

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