phonetic resemblances

Johanna Nichols johanna at
Thu Jan 28 13:20:49 UTC 1999

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
I would like to add a comment to Rich Alderson's comment (below).  Slavic
is another family which was never discovered by a linguist.  The ethnonym
'Slav(ic)', its use to refer to the Slavic languages as a family, and
awareness of their historical unity, are all contributions of traditional
Slavic wisdom.  They entered western linguistics, as far as I can tell,
through the work of Leibniz and his contemporaries, who used (writing in
Latin) the terms 'Slavi' and 'lingua slavonica' to refer to the Slavs, the
Slavic languages, and the Slavic language family, borrowing the term and
its meaning from Slavic languages.  This is from my paper 'The comparative
method as heuristic', in Mark Durie and Malcolm Ross, eds., The Comparative
Method Reviewed (Oxford UP, 1996), which discusses criteria for relatedness
in traditional comparative method.  I agree with Rich's assessment of
Jones's evidence for IE.

Johanna Nichols

>----------------------------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
>>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
>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
>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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Johanna Nichols
Department of Slavic Languages
Mailcode 2979
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720, USA

Phone:  (1) (510) 642-1097 (direct)
        (1) (510) 642-2979 (messages)
Fax:    (1) (510) 642-6220 (departmental)
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