phonetic resemblances

H. Mark Hubey HubeyH at
Thu Jan 28 01:25:49 UTC 1999

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
Larry Trask wrote:
> Yes, I am happy to concede this.  Obvious phonetic resemblances have
> frequently -- probably even usually -- attracted the attention of
> linguists to language families whose members are rather closely related.
> But I know of no case in which a genetic link has been demonstrated on
> the basis of phonetic resemblances, nor can I conceive of a way of doing
> this other than a rigorously statistical one.

I gave an example of the usage of phonetic resemblance. Here is another;

CAse 2:

                Language A              Language B
                -----------             -----------
                haeend                  haend
                aam                     arm
                ...                     ...

Language A is supposed be represent the typical Southern drawl of
English. Obviously phonetic distances between pairs of words in language
A and language B in this case are not zero but "small". That means
that there is phonetic resemblance. Furthermore, the semantic distances
between the pairs of words is either zero or small meaning that either
the southern dialect or the northern one might have additional slang
meanings the other does not have. Thus we have a case of small phonetic
distances and small semantic distances. This is how we know that the
languages are dialects.

Case 3:

                Language A              Language B
                ----------              ----------
                mother                  mutter
                father                  vater
                ....                    ......
                one                     ein
                ...                     ...
                two                     drei
                ...                     ...

The semantic distances are small (or zero) but probably larger than that
of Case 2. The phonetic distances are larger than that of CAse 2. Yet
these distances are smaller than that of say comparison of Malay to
This is how we know that these languages are members of a subfamily, in
this case Germanic. This is also the procedure we use to create other
subfamilies such as Italic, Celtic, Slavic, etc.

Case 4:
                Language A              Language B
                ----------              -----------
                one                     ras, adin
                two                     dva
                ...                     .....
                brother                 brat
                ...                     ...

Chances are the phonetic distances are larger than case 3, and semantic
distances can be the same as case 2 or larger.

Case 5:..... CAse 6:.......


In all  of these it is precisely the correlation of phonetic distances
and semantic distances that are use to posit family relationships.

The conclusion is that precisely the opposite of what Larry Trask says
is true, namely that historical linguistics is about nothing else except
the computation of correlation of phonetic and semantic distances. Of
course, the word "resemblance" like "similarity" is nothing more than
the inverse of distance.

What Larry means by "rigorous statistics" is not clear to me. After all,
the present families posited are nothing more than heuristic(heuristic)
computations of the distances (phonetic and semantic) and a heuristic
correlation of the said distances. And probability theory (and
statistics) is nothing more than the same common sense except with
explicit computation. However, where heuristics fails, explicit
computation (i.e. prob theory and statistics) does not fail. It's time
to move to the next stage of historical linguistics.

Best Regards,
hubeyh at =-=-=-=

More information about the Histling mailing list