Bill Poser at Language Log has a wonderful post laying out the basics of historical linguistics that should be required reading for anyone even thinking about pontificating on the field, and it should be memorized by anyone actually working in it. I want to single out here a quote from Georg von der Gabelentz’s Die Sprachwissenschaft (1901) which is as pertinent today as it was when he wrote it:

It is terribly seductive to roam the world of languages comparing words from them at random and then to bestow upon scholarship a series of newly discovered relationships. Very many stupidities also result from this; for the most urgent discoverers have unmethodical minds. He who, endowed with a good memory for words, has gone through a couple of dozen languages from different parts of the Earth, – he need not at all have studied them -, finds familiar forms everywhere. And if he records them, investigates them, tests intelligently whether the indications pan out, he does only what is right. Only logically correct thought belongs here, and where it is not absent from the outset then he gladly gets lost in the giddiness of the mania of discovery. Thus it went, as we saw, with the great Bopp, when he sought to assign Caucasian and Malayan languages to the Indo-European language family. Fortune had decreed him a curious fate. It was, to have to prove the correctness of his principles twice, first positively through his magnificent main work, which is based on them, then, negatively, by coming to grief as soon as he was unfaithful to them… Languages are different because sound change has taken different paths. But it has gone its way consistently hither and thither; therefore Order reigns in differentiation, not Chaos. Language comparison without comparison of sounds is irresponsible game-playing.

Poser provides the German original, and also links to a pdf file of his and Lyle Campbell’s paper “Indo-European Practice and Historical Methodology,” which I commend to your attention if you’re interested in more details. The fight against sloppiness is endless but must continually be fought.


  1. It isn’t so much sloppiness, against which I am hardly in a position to rail, as willfull ignorance that’s behind the Long Rangers approach.
    That’s the really annoying thing about it – everyone, but everyone, who’s been exposed to a live sample of the Historicus Linguisticus strain of clue knows all this perfectly well.

  2. I made a PDF of his entire post yesterday with the intention–as you say–of memorizing the entire argument. Great stuff. Everytime someone tells me an English slang word comes from Wolof because the two words sound alike, I’ll be ready.

  3. irrelevant but I must let our host know: I found TRAVELS IN ARABIA DESERTA, Unabridged! at my relatively small local used book store!!!!!!!!!! & for only $18!!
    Just wanted to share the thrill
    Keep on hatting

  4. Great! That’s the kind of “irrelevant” comment I wouldn’t want to miss. Enjoy it!

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  6. That’s the kind of “irrelevant” comment I prefer to miss!
    [Spam comment retained to preserve opportunity for punch line; address and URL deleted to spite spammer.]

  7. Wow, there’s a voice thundering from the mountaintop! Worth memorizing indeed. But what’s this?

    Only logically correct thought belongs here, and where it is not absent from the outset then he gladly gets lost in the giddiness of the mania of discovery.

    Surely that was supposed to be “where it is not present“? A misnegation — perpetrated by Language Log itself! Here’s the original German, as quoted by LL:

    Allein dazu gehört folgerichrichtiges Denken, und wo das nicht von Hause aus fehlt, da kommt es gern im Taumel der Entdeckungslust abhanden.

    I’m not sure, is that the same misnegation in German? (Here’s the original book on Hathitrust: the quote is correct, except “folgerichtiges” was incorrectly transcribed as “folgerichrichtiges”.) Any German speakers want to follow the link to LL and check the rest of the translation?

    It just goes to show that misnegations are especially likely — and likely to pass undetected — in passages of fiery moral denunciation, where the author’s emotional stance is so obvious that you don’t need to read every word to get the point.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    Why is that considered a misnegation? If you prefer you could translate the German as “If [logical thought is] not absent from the very begining, it is soon abandoned in the euphoria of discovery “

  9. Aha, thanks. If that’s what the German means, then it should not be translated into English with “then” — and “even if” would be better than “if” — because concessive conditionals don’t use “then”. See, Language Hat was right about that! “Then” makes it sound like a cause, not a concession.

    What’s the effect of “da” in the German? Was Poser translating too literally and word-for-word? He does seem to have made a mistake in putting “he [the linguist] gets lost”, instead of “it [logical thought] gets lost”.

  10. David Marjanović says

    No misnegation at all. “The trick is that consequential (consistent) thinking is necessary for this, and wherever it isn’t already lacking to begin with, [people] like to lose it in the tumble of the joy of discovery.”

    (PlasticPaddy’s translation is even better, I only saw it afterwards.)

    Da is quite literally “there”, contrasting with wo “where”, just like “if … then”. I’ve omitted it above, though, because the sheer impossibility of a literal translation of gerne forced me to completely rewrite that clause anyway.

    …so, yes: “even if it isn’t absent to begin with, it is joyfully abandoned in the manic tumble of discovery”.

  11. Thanks for the explanation. I shouldn’t have rushed to judgment, though I still say Poser’s English version is bad.

    Does German normally use “da” even where “wo” or “wenn” is concessive, i.e., where it could be “even though/”even if” in English?

  12. David Marjanović says

    Could it? Neither wo nor wenn can mean “even though” (obwohl or a ton of rarer synonyms) or “even if” (sogar wenn) as far as I can think of. Disclaimer: got my booster shot yesterday, and today’s weather was really dark, while yesterday was flat-out summer.

  13. Stu Clayton says

    da kommt es gern im Taumel der Entdeckungslust abhanden.

    gern used in this way – in an impersonal statement – is a mildly arch façon de dire, suggesting “[all too] easily”, “[all too] often”, “[all too] predictably”. Here it doesn’t mean “joyfully” or “gladfully”.

    Wiktionary has some good examples:

    [2] Solche Unfälle enden gern tödlich.
    [2] Auch Lavendel oder Hortensien werden gern von Insekten angeflogen
    [2] „So etwas steht in bester gesellschaftspolitischer Tatort-Tradition, geht aber gern sehr schief.“

    Solche Unfälle enden gern tödlich in particular clearly is not saying that anyone “gladly” dies in “such accidents”.

    In the insect sentence, on the other hand, insects “joyfully” go for lavender and hortensias.

    In the last sentence, the writer seems to be referring to a tradition of “socially relevant” plot themes in Tatort thrillers. He suggests that one particular plot development fell flat in a big way – as happens all too easily with such ambitious projects.

  14. Stu Clayton says

    In the insect sentence, on the other hand, insects “joyfully” go for lavender and hortensias.

    My archness got the upper hand in that formulation. The German sentence is saying insects “often/typically” are drawn to those flowering plants. All three sentences marked with “[2]” exemplify the same kind of use of gern that I explained. Only by invoking the pathetically entomological fallacy would you read the second sentence as saying that insects “like” to do what they do.

    For all we know, insects don’t at all like doing what they have to do to stay alive, but they do it anyway. Just like many humans. So the “pathetic fallacy” might not be a fallacy, even though it’s pretty pathetic.

  15. David Marjanović says

    [2] Solche Unfälle enden gern tödlich.


    I could only say that with a lot of snark. To me it can only mean “such accidents like to end deadly”.

    The other two examples are barely more acceptable to me.

    “People like to forget this”, in contrast, doesn’t surprise me at all in this genre of criticism; I might well say or write it myself.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    Papst besorgt über Österreich:

    One of the commenters writes: Ich meine: Liebe, die sich nicht auf Personen richtet, geht gern schief.

    From an Austrian car magazine Motormore, a headline about the new Škoda Fabia:

    # Neu sein und doch nicht anders, das geht gern schief.
    Zu wenig, zu viel, falsch. Eine heikle Operation!

  17. Lars Mathiesen says

    Danish gerne (probably loaned from LG) means anything from “please” to “often”.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    The non-“gladly” meanings are found already way back in MHD, according to Grimm:

    # 9) von erfahrungsthatsachen, die sich zu wiederholen, leicht einzutreten pflegen, gewöhnlich, gemeinlich, in der regel, meistens, häufig, oft: [5,3726] mhd.

    swer sich lobt aleine
    des êre ist gerne kleine. Freidank 61, 5;

    swelch mate ist gemeine
    der gras ist gerne kleine. 120, 27;

    nhd. also dasz sy (die wunden des oberschenkels) vast geren tödtlich sind. BRAUNSCHWEIG chirurg. (1 ..
    10) leicht möglich, leicht zu thun, mit leichtigkeit, ohne schwierigkeit: gern, facile DASYP. E 5c; mhd.

    alsô gerne mac ein man
    übele tuon alsô wol. Iwein 2524;

    wer âne alle scholt getruwen frunt vurlois,
    der wirt vil gerne sigelois. Limburg. chron. 37, 3 Wyss;

    die weil eჳ (das erlenholz) grüen ist, sô læჳt eჳ sich niht sô gern spalten sam daჳ tännein; aber wenn eჳ gedorret, sô læჳt eჳ sich gerner spalten. MEGENBERG 315, 2; das es (scheit) dester balder ganz dürr werd und gerner brenn. KEISERSBERG seelenpar. 154a; algiosus, der gern freust. ALB. uu 4b; es begegnet mir gerne, dasz ich zu rasch urtheile. SCHILLER liter. nachl. d. frau v. Wolzogen 1, 228 (von 1788); #

  19. Stu Clayton says

    That should be “in the MHD wayback engine”.

  20. David Marjanović says

    geht gern schief

    I could say that in a metaphoric way; snarky, but less macabre than with deadly accidents.

    But the MHG quotes seem to show that the original meaning was “easily”, which makes perfect sense when I think about it.

  21. And if he records them, investigates them, tests intelligently whether the indications pan out, he does only what is right. Only logically correct thought belongs here, and where it is not absent from the outset …

    I already expected “where it is absent”.

    1. … he does only what is right. [ironical approval, the mode of action of a silly researcher in reality]
    2. Only logically correct thought belongs here,… [preface, explaining why the following is terrible]
    3. ….and… [the terrible : adventures of the silly researcher continue. Without ironical approval]
    4. … where it is not absent from the outset [consession]

    Where here refers to the subgroup of silly researchers at the entrance to the Maze.

    I read it:

    1. … he does only what is right. [serious approval]
    2. Only logically correct thought belongs here,… [how to do it right]
    3. ….and where it is not absent from the outset [the terrible, that happens where you do it wrong]

    Where here refers to a subset of all situations.

  22. Neither wo nor wenn can mean “even though”

    So they’re not as overloaded as “if” is in English? Does that mean that if you translate this into German:

    If we no longer think, with Swift and Johnson, that languages ought to be stabilized, we still feel that their proper condition is stability.

    … you could not use wenn?

    wo *does* correspond to “even if” in the sentence about logical thought: that is, I think the English version needs some signal — such as “even” or else something like “still” or your “already” — that the main clause is perhaps surprising given the if-clause, rather than an obvious consequence. That’s why Gabelentz has to issue such a thundering warning: if you’re reading his book then you’re presumably not an unmitigated fool, *but* don’t get cocky! You’re *still* likely to screw up in your euphoria! (Although since you and Paddy figured it out without that signal, maybe I was just wifty.)

    And speaking of mildly arch, “why then” works much, much, much better for me than plain “then” in this sentence. “If logical thought is not absent from the very beginning, why then, it is likely to be abandoned in the euphoria of discovery.” That’s another way to signal surprise.

  23. … you could not use wenn?
    Not alone. You’d have to say auch wenn wir / wenn wir auch or selbst wenn wir.

  24. Stu Clayton says

    Or wenn anders, but only in high-tone prose not composed for a twitter. It’s the kind of thing YPT call veraltet since they haven’t read such prose since they were forced to in school. They would probably call a good aged cheddar veraltet, in that they know only melted “cheese” in a Big Mac. [McDoof here dropped the “Mäc” at some point.]

  25. David Marjanović says

    Never seen wenn anders, and can’t imagine how it would make sense here.

    The Mäc was dropped in the mid-90s, IIRC.

  26. In Heidegger’s open letter to Jünger “Über ‘Über die Linie’,” he writes:

    »Eine gute Definition des Nihilismus« könnte man somit von einer Erörterung de linea erwarten, wenn anders das menschenmögliche Bemühen um die Heilung sich einem Geleit trans lineam vergleichen läβt.

    The translation here:

    “A good definition of nihilism” might thus be expected of a discussion de linea provided that the effort within the power of man to effect a cure can be compared to being escorted trans lineam.

  27. Ah, here we go, from Kabale und Liebe: ein burgerliches Trauerspiel, von Friedrich Schiller (H. Holt, 1915), p. 167, fn. 12:

    wenn anders, if really, provided, a favorite phrase with Lessing, now no longer used; cf. Emilia Galotti, II. 5 Claudia. — Welch ein Mann! — O, der rauhen Tugend! — wenn anders sie diesen Namen verdienet.

  28. Jen in Edinburgh says

    If anyone else is puzzled by that snippet, it brings up something completely different if you click on it…

  29. Well, hell. I’ll replace it with another link/description. Thanks for the heads-up.

  30. Re wenn anders: I’m with DM here – it’s a construction I’d have had to look up to understand what it means if Hat hadn’t gracefully posted the snippets above. My ignorance is probably due to reading only Twitter tweets all day…

  31. See, the internet really is killing language. Back to stone tablets!

  32. Tsk… you should remember that writing is where the rot started, as people didn’t have to commit everything to memory anymore!

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