phonetic resemblances

Larry Trask larryt at
Fri Jan 29 16:35:51 UTC 1999

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
On Fri, 29 Jan 1999, H. Mark Hubey wrote:

> Instead of writing things everyone misunderstands, I will instead
> wait for someone to show the genetic relationships of two language
> via some examples, and then I will demonstrate why that is about
> nothing more than phonetic and semantic distance.

A demonstration that languages are related is far too large to post on
an electronic list.  To see such a demonstration, you must consult the
specialist literature, and you must be prepared to devote quite a bit of
time and effort to understanding the evidence.

And the final presupposition is quite false.  For the 87th time,
linguistic relationships are not demonstrated in terms of "phonetic and
semantic distances".  This is a common misperception among
non-linguists, and it is the reason I am constantly being approached by
cranks who believe they have "proved" a relation between Basque and
Irish, or Basque and Slavic, or Basque and Avar, or some damn thing in
that vein.  They do this because they mistakenly believe that linguistic
relationship are based upon resemblances -- or, in your terms, small
phonetic and semantic distances.  But this is merely the mire that our
illustrious predecessors crawled out of 200 years ago.

> With a slight perturbation of the same language example, you can see
> immediately that dialects are based on small phonetic distances,
> family groupings on larger phonetic distances, and so on. It is
> trivial to demonstrate that it is so.

Very interesting.  It is blatantly, howlingly false that "dialects" and
"family groupings" are based upon degrees of "phonetic distance", as you
can learn by reading any elementary textbook of historical linguistics.
But you declare that your methods are readily able to prove this
falsehood.  So what conclusion should we draw about your methods?

To begin with, the words `dialect' and `language' cannot even be defined
in purely linguistic terms.  The distinction is made, almost always
somewhat arbitrarily, on the basis of a body of evidence, some of which
is linguistic, but much of which is non-linguistic -- social, political,
cultural, historical.

Moreover, "phonetic differences" are characteristic of different
*accents*, not of different dialects.  In the US tradition, an accent is
commonly regarded as just one aspect of a dialect.  In the British
tradition, however, an accent is regarded as something quite distinct
from a dialect.  These different decisions largely reflect the different
states of affairs in the two countries.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at

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