phonetic resemblances

Larry Trask larryt at
Sat Jan 30 15:46:59 UTC 1999

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
Sorry; I'm getting a bit behind with my mail.  This is a response to
several recent postings from Alexis Manaster Ramer and others.

I myself have little experience of working on languages that are extinct
and sparsely attested (and sometimes also unreliably recorded).  But I
have to say that I am puzzled to know how any secure conclusions at all
can be reached on the basis of scanty evidence.  If two extinct
languages are very closely related, then I suppose the relationship
might be conspicuous even in sparse data -- though I would always be
worried about possible loan words.  But, when the languages are not so
closely related, I find it hard to understand how we can ever get beyond
the stage attributed by Sally Thomason to Ives Goddard: we have a
reasonable basis to suspect a relationship, but no more.

As for Eric Hamp, we need not argue about his views, because he has
recently proclaimed his own position with great clarity, in the
following three-page article:

Eric P. Hamp. 1998. `Some draft principles for classification'. In
Joseph C. Salmons and Brian D. Joseph (eds), Nostratic: Sifting the
Evidence.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Pp. 13-15.

This is an uncompromising statement which demands maximal rigor and
brooks no departures.  I endorse it, and I commend it to anyone who has
not seen it.  Hamp says in his first footnote that the statement was
written in the late 1980s, "in the unfulfilled hope that the public
press would prefer reasoned discourse and foundational criteria to
quixotic and episodic speculation".

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at

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