Alexis on classification

manaster at manaster at
Mon Jan 26 22:16:34 UTC 1998

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
Larry Trask writes:
I call this the "Democritus fallacy".  A number of ancient Greek
philosophers speculated wildly about the nature of the world, all of
them on the basis of no evidence at all.  Most of their speculations
are dismissed today as empty and worthless.  However, quite by chance,
Democritus's speculation turned out to look something like the atomic
theory settled on by chemists over 2000 years later, on the basis of
evidence.  Consequently, chemistry textbooks often give Democritus
credit for being the founder of the atomic theory.  But this is
absurd: Democritus had no more basis for his speculations than any
other Greek; he just got lucky.
**End of quote**
But I am not trying to argue that Sapir for example should
get credit for recognizing Pakawan despite the lack of data
in his published work on this.  In fact, I never said anything
about credit.  I am concerned about the fact that a lot of
linguists, yourself among them, have been publishing all kinds
of statements about the validity or otherwise of work in
linguistic classification while staunchly avoiding getting
their hands dirty at all or only doing so in cases where one
is shooting ducks in a barrel.  For example, there has been
a lot of often quite uninformed discussion of Nostratic
but no real attempts to evaluate the actual claims of the
theory (the best-informed work I know, by Brent Vine, does
not even venture outside IE and hence by definition does not
addres any of the comparisons among lg families which are the
whole point of the theory!).  I have seen no substantive
reactions to Vovin's Ainu-Austroasiatic.  Swadesh and Hamp's
comparison of Eskimo-Aluet and Chukchee-Kamchatkan has been
sitting around for decades with almost no response.  My
recent defense of Nadene has elicited no response, and
my work on Pakawan has only resulted in a predictable
response from Campbell (a reply to which will be out soon),
but neither he nor anyone else has looked at the actual
arguments for Pakawan.  Recent attacks on Altaic by
Nichols are based on third-hands sources.  ALmost all
critics of Greenberg's Amerind, myself excepted, have had
nothing more to say that that he got some forms wrong,
but do not address the comparisons he makes at all.
And so on.
Of course, I find the uncritical acceptance of untested
or even provably wrong proposals on the other side (whether
in the case of Nostratic, Dene-Caucasian, Amerind, or
any other such proposal) equally distressing.

More information about the Histling mailing list