Sum: Yakhontov's principle

Larry Trask larryt at
Thu Jan 21 20:41:08 UTC 1999

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
The other day I posted a query about a certain principle imputed to
Yakhontov.  I've received several illuminating responses.

Sergei Yakhontov (or Iakhontov) is a distinguished Russian Sinicist, now
occupying a chair at St. Petersburg University.  Around 40 years ago, he
published some classic papers on Old Chinese.  Since then, he has rarely
published anything at all, and he disseminates his work via lectures,
mimeographs and personal letters.  But he is alive and well, and one of
my respondents rang him up.

He has a major interest in the languages of East Asia, and also a big
interest in Swadesh-style lexicostatistics.  He has attempted to modify
and improve Swadesh's 100-word list, partly in order to eliminate words
which he considers too culture-specific to be generally useful, and he's
devised a modified list with about ten different words.

Further, he has divided his list into two sublists, of 35 and of 65
words, with the shorter list containing the words he regards as most
resistant to replacement.  Of these sublists, he has made some claims.
My respondents cite two very different claims, and I am presuming that
Yakhontov has in fact espoused both.

Claim 1: If two languages are genetically related, then the proportion
of cognates in the 35-word list will always be higher than the
proportion in the 65-word list.

I am told that this claim has been verified by checking against a number
of languages known to be related.  Interesting, if substantiated.

Claim 2: If the proportion of phonetic resemblances in the 35-word list
is higher than the proportion of phonetic resemblances in the 65-word
list, then this is evidence that the languages are related.

This second claim I have big problems with.  I myself do not believe
that phonetic resemblances are of any significance at all in comparative
linguistics, at least in the absence of a rigorous statistical
underpinning.  Given the current conspicuous disagreements among the
linguists working on statistical approaches to comparison, and the plain
absence of any statistical approach that is generally regarded as valid
and effective, there can be no such underpinning at present.

A published summary of this work can be found here:

Sergei Starostin (1991), Altajskaja Problema i Proiskhozhdenie
Japonskogo Jazyka, Moscow: Nauka, pp. 59-60.

This book was reviewed by Bernard Comrie in Language 69.

I am told also that Yakhontov himself published a relevant paper in a
volume released in 1997, edited by Alexander Ogloblin, and called
`Indonesia, Malaysia, Phillipiny'.

Just for interest, here is Yakhontov's 35-word list, passed on to me by
one respondent, and taken from Starostin:

wind, water, louse, eye, year
give, two, know, tooth, name
stone, bone, blood, who, moon
new, nose, fire, one, full
horn, hand, fish, dog, sun
salt, thou, die, ear, tail
what, this, I, tongue, egg

My thanks to Ralf-Stefan Georg, Leonhard G. Herzenberg, Alexis Manaster
Ramer, Sergei Starostin, and Alexander Vovin.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at

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