Greenberg etc.

Alexis Manaster-Ramer manaster at
Sat Jan 30 15:45:43 UTC 1999

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
Sally Thomason says:

"I wouldn't deny that Joseph Greenberg is a historical linguist
at all -- he did some historical linguistics in the past
(for instance on aspects of Semitic, if I'm remembering right,
and on the history of Bantu tones).  But I would certainly deny
that he has been doing historical linguistics recently; all he's
been doing, at least as reflected by his publications, is inspecting
wordlists and a few affixes for phonetic resemblances and grouping
languages on that basis.  That isn't what historical linguistics is

I think is quite unfair to Greenberg, but that is not the main
objection. My main objection is that I do not see what the basis is
for Sally telling him or us what historical is or is not.  All
any of us can say, assuming we do historical linguistics
at all, is what we think it is, and admit that there are major
disagreements about much of it among people who actually do it.

Sally further says:

"Merritt Ruhlen, at least, explicitly distinguishes what he
calls "classification" from historical linguistics, and says that he's
doing classification.  I don't believe Greenberg himself has explicitly
said that he's doing classification rather than historical linguistics,
but he's doing the same thing that Ruhlen, following him, is doing."

This is not true.  First, Greenberg HAS explicitly made exactly the
same distinction as Ruhlen, but the distinction is not the
straw man one Sally sets up between HISTORICAL LX and CLASSIFICATION
but between two BRANCHES of historical linguistics: the one that
does classification and the one that does reconstruction.

I myself do not entirely agree with them, but it is certainly
true that much of the work that involves reconstruction goes
far beyond anything required to do classification.  We do not
need to agree on how many laryngeals Proto-IE had or even if
it had any to agree that the IE lgs are related and that
therefore SOME kind of Proto-IE existed.  This is the whole
distinction: showing that a given proto-lg must have existed
and figuring out every last detail of its structure and
lexicon.  Obviously, the former is a much less stringent
task than the latter, and people can do the former without
caring about the latter.

It is also very importan=t to obsever that traditionally
historical lx texts and courses had very little to say about
how classification work was and is done and that there is
a very small number of linguists who do such work compared
to the vast number who do work on the reconstruction of
some proto-lg whose existence and basic outline have
long been established.  This is important because it
means that most people who are historical linguists have
no qualifications to address issues of classification.


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