phonetic resemblances

Richard M. Alderson III alderson at
Thu Jan 28 01:21:47 UTC 1999

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
To challenge Larry Trask's assertion that linguistic relationships are not
*demonstrated* by phonetic resemblances, although they may suggest hypotheses,
Alexis Manaster-Ramer lists the following:

>Examples: Slavic, Romance, Germanic, Indo-European, Shoshonean (later subsumed
>under Uto-Aztecan), Semitic, Malayo-Polynesian, Samoyedic, Finno-Ugric,
>Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic

Let's examine these for a moment.

For sentimental reasons, I'll start with Indo-European.  Sir Wm. Jones may have
noted a "phonetic resemblance" among Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin which piqued
his curiosity, but we all know upon what evidence he drew his conclusions: The
"affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar" of the three

Romance was simply "known" to be a family, given the historical knowledge that
all these languages were somehow "corrupt" forms of Latin--not merely in the
phonology but in the morphology.  Similarly, tradition held that the Hebrew and
Arabic languages were spoken by descendants of the two sons of Abraham, so the
similarities in morphology and phonology were simply accepted.

I believe--I admit I have not read the 1752 monograph--that it was morphology
rather than phonology that convinced a Hungarian diplomat that the Finnish
language was related to his own, though he likely noticed the phenomenon of
vowel harmony first.

I sincerely doubt that any of the accepted families in the list of examples are
accepted because of similarities in the non-grammatical lexicon alone, or were
posited only because of such similarities.  While early writings may not share
the rigour of our current discipline, it was clearly "grammar"--that is,
morphology both inflectional and derivational--that was the deciding factor in
the success of these hypotheses of relationship.

                                                                Rich Alderson

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