Principled Comparative Method - a new tool

X99Lynx at X99Lynx at
Wed Aug 18 15:56:48 UTC 1999

In a message dated 8/12/99 11:43:21 PM, jonpat at quoted:

<<Lloyd Anderson said
    The real task of extending the Comparative Method to deeper time
    depths is to make explicit more of these sophisticated tools,...>>

Perhaps what the discipline really needs here are better ways to reconstruct,
rather than better ways to use reconstructions.

And the answer may be - as it was in geology and paleobiology - to find ways
to better correlate the data to time and place.  After all, this is history.
And if the evidence sometimes confuses us about what happened, it is first of
a matter of history. - then language.  And history at first glance can
mislead us.

Consider the process that geologic science went through to explain seashells
found on mountains.  Was it the water that rose or was it the mountains?  Or
was it that these were not seashells at all, but some other phenomenon that
bore an accidental resemblance to seashells?  All three possibilties were
considered.  And we should understand with some humility that the answer was
then not obvious and neither was the proof.  (Even Leonardo got it wrong
about the seashells, but his reasoning was both contemporary and ingenious.)

In ancient languages, it is not impossible that parent languages could be
daughters and daughters could be parents, depending on where we place them in
time.  Is the first recorded language the oldest?  Or is that assumption
another case of history misleading us - leaving seashells on mountains?

The tools needed first should get the history right, so that the apparent
relationship between langauges are not merely artifacts.

jonpat at wrote further:

<<Our data has to be the word set in the parent form (reconstructed words or
real words) and then one word set for the each daughter language and the set
of phonological transformation rules between each parent and daughter for
each word in their chronological sequence.>>

I'm wondering if there isn't a possible flaw here in using <<the parent form
(reconstructed words...)>>.

Reconstructed words have already made assumptions about the relationship
between the parent and the daughter languages.  In fact they are nothing but
a presumed relationship between the daughter languages.

<<If we have the cost of the messages for two parent-daughter pairs then
the shorter cost represents the daughter that is closer to the parent. In the
case of modern Cantonese and Beijing we got 35,243.58 bits and 36790.93 bits
respectively, indicating Cantonese is closer to the common parent, Middle
Chinese, than Beijing. >>

Depending on how much reconstruction of the parent you used, could this not
be an artifact of the reconstructions?  In *PIE, certain aspects are
considered the innovations of a particular daughter language because they do
not appear in the other daughter languages, and are therefore factored out of
the reconstruction.  If you only have two daughter languages - as you did
above - how do you identify the innovation versus the original form in
reconstruction?  And if you decide in favor of one or the other in
reconstruction, it will show up in any further use of that reconstruction.

In effect, you may to some degree be measuring how the relationship between
the daughters has been perceived in the reconstructions that you use, as much
as anything else.

I would think that the method you describe would be much more functional if
it at least triangulated daughter languages.  And avoided using prior
reconstructions - proving itself on its own, so to speak.

Steve Long

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