Arabic and IE

Alexis Manaster-Ramer manaster at
Sun Jan 31 23:36:10 UTC 1999

----------------------------Original message----------------------------

On Sun, 31 Jan 1999, Larry Trask wrote:

> ----------------------------Original message----------------------------
> Not for the first time, Alexis M R has raised a troubling question of
> terminology.

I don't know if I should be pleased or not.  But it IS true that
I do sometimes raise questions of terminology.  However, I
more often raise issues not of terminology but of the substance,
methodology, or (a sure sign of moral turpitude) history of
linguistics.  And I don't think I raised any question of terminology
here at all.
> When we say that languages A and B are related, we mean that a genetic
> link between them has been established to general satisfaction -- though
> I am, of course, begging the question of what constitutes "general
> satisfaction".

Yes, you are begging one of  the central questions, and ignoring the
other (which is just WHO constitutes the generality that must be
satisfied).  People who have no credentials in the relevant fields
for example seem to me to be excluded for that set, yet it also
seems to me that they are the dominant force that I am having
to contend with.

> But, when this state of affairs does not obtain, things get awkward.
> We commonly say that A and B are not related, but Alexis has, quite
> properly, pointed out that this wording can easily give outsiders the
> wrong impression, by implying that a link between A and B has been
> disproved -- an impossible conclusion.
That was NOT my point at all.  My point is that if someone who
is clearly not a linguist asks 'Does deep structure exist?'
the only fair answer is that this has (had?) long been a controversial
question. Ditto as to whether Semitic and IE are related.

> So, as Alexis argues, we really ought to be more careful and say
> something like "no link between A and B has at present been shown to
> exist".  But this precise wording is long and cumbersome, and it's just
> too much of a mouthful to use over and over again.

This is not all my point again.  I am not concerned with how
we should describe the relationships of Zuni to any other
languages, this being to my mind a case where essentially
nothing is known (although it would be disinformation not
to point out that there have attempts to relate it to
Penutian, by Newman, Ameridn generally, by Greenberg,etc.,
and I would not like commit that act of disinformation).
I am concerned with the fact that people are pretending that
the Nostratic theory either does not exist or has been
> When I talk to linguists, I have no hesitation in saying "A and B are
> not related", since I assume that any linguist will know what I mean --
> though Alexis has objected to this, too, in an earlier posting.

I do, but mostly because we say these things precisely
as a way of spreading disinformation, even among linguists.
We rarely have occasion to talk about the fact that
Polish does not have a special relationship to Chinese
to the exclusion of the rest of IE and Sino-Tibetan.
If we did, then (and only then) would it make sense to
say 'Polish is not related to Chinese'.  In any other
context, it is impermissible.

> When
> talking to non-linguists or to beginning students, I try to be more
> careful, but even so I often retreat to the wording "not discoverably
> related".  Others use "not relatable".  But both of these, if taken
> literally, would appear to imply that no relationship can ever be
> discovered -- exactly the thing that's bothering Alexis.

Again, that is NOT my concern here.

> So what should we say?

We should tell them the truth, which is that the question is
controversial. THIS is what is bothering Alexis, that even
honorable and competent scholars like Larry cannot bring
themselves to sayTHAT simple truth, that it is CONTROVERSIAL
(everybody together now: CONTROVERSIAL) whether, for example,
AA is related to IE.  Now was that so hard?

> As for Semitic and IE, I am puzzled that this issue continues to attract
> such attention.  Of Greenberg's four African families, Afro-Asiatic is
> the only one that appears to command universal assent -- or, at least, I
> can't name a single linguist who queries it or rejects it..

I can and you know that, because I have named him in various
postings in discussions you were involved in (and in print,
but who has time to read!?). Gerhard Doerfer is certainly
a better known name in hist ling than yours or mine, and
he did for many years claim precisely that Semitic is not
related to Cushitic, he then seemed a couple of yearsago
to take it back (to my great relief), but I have reason to
believe he in fact did not mean to take it back and still
holds that opinion.  But I am not 100% sure.

>That being so, and Semitic being accepted by all as a branch
> of AA, why should people be expending so much energy on trying to link
> Semitic to IE?  In my view, if a feature of Semitic cannot be shown to
> have been present in Proto-AA, then it is simply not available for any
> external comparisons -- except by someone who denies the Semitic-AA
> link, of course.

There ARE people who compare IE to Semitic directly, of course,
but I have not been talking about them precisely because
they discredit themselves by not taking AA into account.
But it is not a priori impossible that the intenal
subgrouping of Nostratic that we are asssuming here
is wrong. Maybe Semitic is more closely related to IE
than to the rest of AA.  A PRIORI possible. I do not
particularly think that it is likely and I dont think
it has ever been considered, but I am not even sure of that.
On the other hand, could Semitic with Egyptian and Berber
be more closely related to IE than to Cushitic?  Not
nearly as crazy perhaps.  But none of this is
relevant to "what bothers Alexis".

I just would like people to be able to say
that one word 'controversial'. I am not
a native speaker of English and I can say it just
fine.  Those of you who are should have no trouble.


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