Incorrect information (cont'd)

Johanna Laakso johanna.laakso at
Thu Sep 6 13:55:57 UTC 2001

Dear Uralists,

in connection with the discussion on "disinformation on Uralic", I would like to clarify my original standpoint (as Trond Trosterud and E. Helimski also have done).

It seems that there are many deeply felt controversies around some core questions of Uralistics, above all the genetic relationship of languages, taxonomies and definitions, proto-language reconstructions etc. Discussion of these questions is very welcome indeed. However, opinions on these questions, however well-founded, may be difficult to consider as "demonstrably (un)true".

What may very well be criticized in this context - for example, on the WWW page I am planning - is the loose and "un-scientific" character of certain statements. As an example of "loose statements", we might mention speaking of "Uralo-Altaic linguistic affinity" in our days, without questioning the certainty of this idea, i.e. without considering or, at least, referring to the work of those linguists who have serious arguments for not regarding even Altaic as a valid language family. However, I don't know if the Uralo-Altaic hypothesis, or even the Nostratic hypothesis as such, would qualify as "demonstrably untrue" - even if I don't feel very convinced about them.

It is also true that prestigious handbooks on Uralic languages or standard reference grammars may contain obvious errors and outdated ideas, or superficial statements based on too little consideration of actual language use. The analysis of compound words vs. nominative attributes, as pointed out by László Fejes, is a case in point (BTW, you are aware of Juri Anduganov's papers on this question in Mari, aren't you?). It might be a good idea to collect errors or misleading statements of this kind as well - "Uralistic inside myths", so to say. And, certainly: I think URA-LIST could be a good forum for discussion on these questions.

However, all this is a little "beside the point", as concerns the original idea, i.e. the problem that there are clearly and indisputably incorrect statements about the Uralic languages circulating in linguistic works of the "outside world". My idea is to collect examples of this "disinformation", the abundance of which is often deplored among Uralists but seldom illustrated or analysed in more detail. This might give us and other linguists important insights into the mechanism of linguistic inquiry and its possible weak points, such as
- ways of gathering data: do linguists acquire erroneous data by pressing their informants too hard? (Imagine a lecturer of Finnish [etc., mutatis mutandis] in a foreign university or even a linguistically uneducated native speaker, who suddenly meets an eager typologist from the local linguistics department and is forced to give a yes/no answer of the type "Does Finnish have X?" or "Can you say XYZ in Finnish?", with no time to think it over.)
- Or do they trust outdated sources (as, if I remember it right, Roger Lass did in his book "Historical linguistics and language change", when getting and giving the impression that there are traces of consonant gradation in Mordvin)?
- Or do they use incompetent informants (problems caused by the notorious "near-native speakers" have surfaced at least in the discussion pertaining to vowel quality, quantity and tone in Estonian)?
- Are non-Uralist linguists not just unable to find reliable sources - even if these exist in English or, at least, in German or Russian - but also able to accept even completely unreasonable statements concerning "exotic" languages, such as the example (from an American publication - sorry for quoting from memory, w ith no reference) of Hung. "cammog" (verb for a certain kind of walking) being derived (!) from "mackó" ("Teddy", nickname for the bear)?
- Or is it just all too easy to accept that "the worse for the facts" approach, to simplify and regularise data in order to make it fit into the theoretical framework you have (for example, when stating that the subject pronoun may be dropped in Standard Finnish, without mentioning that it is obligatory in the 3rd person)?
- And, last but not least, is there anything we Uralists could do to propagate true knowledge ;-) of "our" language family?



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