various posts on classification

Johanna Nichols johanna at
Thu Jan 29 13:58:05 UTC 1998

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
Alexis writes:
> Even if ALL the evidence presented by someone for
> theory X is refuted (or if no evidence was ever
> presented in the first place, as happened with Sapir
> several times), that does not mean that X is false
> or incapable of being shown true or even unworthy of
> further effort.
and Scott writes:
No assumption
of relationship means just that--it most definitely does not mean
that investigating the possibility further is an irresponsible
waste of time, as some of our colleagues do seem to assume.
I would like to insert the perspective of someone who not only pursues
demonstration of genetic relatedness but also needs to *apply* the results
of historical scholarship in designing samples and doing comparison.  Using
only proven families, evaluating the evidence proposed for relatedness, and
rejecting (as a basis for comparison and sampling) the many proposed
relationships for which no probative evidence has been presented, are
crucial to proper comparison.  Using a consistently designed sample and
reporting the basis for the design to one's readers are responsible
science.  Elsewhere in their posts Alexis mentions 'extremists' and Scott
refers to the 'ideological
climate of contemporary historical linguistics'.  Would that we had, across
most of the historical linguistics literature, a position -- any position
-- as consistent as extremism, or any reliably identifiable ideological
climate.  Then applications could be done with confidence that apples and
apples were being compared.  Note that a wish to compare apples and apples,
or oranges and oranges, or whatever and its ilk, is not the same thing as
liking apples, destroying orange trees, or declaring apples true and
oranges false.  It's just sorting things so you know what you're counting.
It is fiendishly difficult even for me, a professional historical linguist,
to sort out all and only apples in the literature.  Little wonder that
geneticists, archeologists, and others can't sort things out properly.  If
my experience is typical, putting the probative evidence up front in more
publications and reviewing it in surveys would foster communication in our
field and between fields and would go far to create consensus about
standards, relatedness, and the worth of different kinds of historical

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