linguistic features

Larry Trask larryt at
Fri Mar 12 18:20:49 UTC 1999

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

On Thu, 11 Mar 1999, H. Mark Hubey wrote:

> 5. Over the long-period, beyond what standard linguistics
> methodology allegedly cannot have anything to say, we have to use
> other methods to arrive at unconventional (but logical and rational)
> conclusions. Why is it that only some features of languages are used
> for geneticity when languages have so many other characteristics?

Because only certain features are valuable in recovering ancestry.

There are countless inflectional systems available for use in languages,
and countless possible phonological forms for expressing any given
meaning.  Consequently, data in these areas are typically useful in
recovering ancestry.

But other features are different.  For example, there are very few
possible alignment systems, and very few possible word-order patterns.
But every language has to have *some* alignment system, and *some*
word-order pattern.  Consequently, data in these areas are of little
utility: it is simply not the case, for example, that VSO languages are
more likely to share a common ancestry than arbitrary languages.

> (See Crowley,1992 and especially Nichols' works on this.)

But Nichols's work is not really intended to set up language families:
her purposes are otherwise.  I'm afraid I don't know what "Crowley
(1992)" might be, but, if it's the earlier edition of Terry Crowley's HL
textbook, I don't understand why it's being cited.

> 6. Recent finds such as the Black Sea flood circa 5,500 BC and the
> rising of the ocean levels circa 12,000 years ago also point to the
> obvious. IE, AA, and some of the Caucasian languages (probably) and
> the Khoisan languages must be related in the distant feature.

I don't know what "the distant feature" is intended to mean.  But I
can't for the life of me see how paleoclimatological data can lead to
any linguistic conclusions at all -- least of all to the conclusion that
certain languages must be related.  This is a big *non sequitur*.

> The languages being spoken in the ME before the proto-AA peoples
> migrated to the ME lacked initial liquids which can be seen in the
> lack of initial r in Hittite and Akkadian, in Linear-B, and in the
> lack of them in the toponyms of Mesopotamia region before the
> Sumerians and Akkadians (see von Soden). Altaic and Dravidian lacks
> initial liquids. That means the people who lived in the ME did not
> all get absorbed and at least some of their relatives are still
> around and kicking.

Fanciful, I'm afraid, even if the reports are true, which I doubt.
Linear B is not even a language, but a particular writing system used
for writing Mycenean Greek -- and Mycenean Greek emphatically did not
lack initial liquids.  Do you perhaps mean `initial rhotics'?  But some
of the words and names in the Linear B texts appear to have initial /r/
(which wasn't distinguished from /l/ in any case in that writing
system).  Anyway, classical Greek certainly has /r/-initial words, some
of them seemingly with good IE etymologies, so it's not easy to see how
Mycenean Greek could have lacked initial /r/.

Besides, the absence of word-initial /r/ is not a rare feature -- even
my own favorite language, Basque, has never tolerated initial /r/ and
still doesn't tolerate it today, but I don't think anybody would regard
this observation as evidence that Basque was once spoken in the Middle

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at

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