Premature final judgements

Thu Aug 19 13:43:15 UTC 1999

In a message dated 8/18/99 11:50:18 PM, Larry Trask writes:

>But the null hypothesis of
>unrelatedness among the families assigned to Nostratic is at present
>*not* disconfirmed, and that is why few linguists accept Nostratic.

Agreed.  I don't accept it either.  (Nor do I reject it certainly!)

>It doesn't matter that there is evidence in support of Nostratic: what
>matters is that there is insufficient evidence to reject unrelatedness.

Wrong here.
It DOES matter.  Very much so.
It makes the question worth investigating with better data and better tools.

The major dilemma in modern comparative linguistics is how to make
both the data and the tools available in such a way that new hypotheses
can be reasonably considered and looked at, NECESSARILY not by
people who are the primary experts all at once in ALL of the language
families being considered, since no one can be such an expert in so much

The problem with the strict absolutists (which Larry Trask is behaving
as in these discussions) is that they think we have to render FINAL
JUDGEMENTS on whether a hypothesis is proven or not
at every step along the way.  They have little room for the long
withholding or deferring of judgement.

If we had to render final judgement on Nostratic right now,
we would have to say, of course "unproven" (to some level of
certainty which is of no concern to me here).


If we did always have to render final judgement immediately,
then (circularly) new ideas could never be investigated,
because the very fact that they were new would mean
that at the beginning they could not already be provable.

A propos of my comments on normal reality here:

>> Actually, how they work most often is that the investigator has
>> plausible evidence for a conclusion, and then AFTER THAT sets up a
>> null hypothesis which the investigator already has some reason to
>> think is false and can be defeated, and then proceeds to lay out the
>> evidence to defeat it.

Trask says:

>Oh, sure.  In practice, we are hardly ever able to work through an issue
>in the optimal manner I have described.  Real life is inevitably
>messier.  We make mistakes and eventually correct them; new evidence
>becomes available; new tools become available; all sorts of things
>happen along the way.  But how we do the work is one thing, while how we
>present our results in order to persuade our colleagues is another.

The same leeway needs to be granted to the proposers of new hypotheses
today as was granted to those in the past, namely, that they cannot prove
their hypotheses when they start out with them.


To solve these unprofitable discussions, we need more and more tools
AND to give people easy access to those tools.  Is there for each recognized
language family a web site listing the most up-to-date resources,
not excluding some of the older ones which may preserve useful information
which modern investigators did not choose to include in compilations?

Larry Trask has created some of those tools for Basque.
His views of what are the best dictionaries and other sources should
be part of such a web site for Basque.

For Indo-European there is now a nearly complete dictionary of verbs
with their attested stems in each Indo-European language family
(Rix: Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben), something which is not
available for most or any other language family.

My purpose in mentioning these things is that it should be possible to
REFER someone with a new hypothesis to the best existing literature,
not merely what is in the head of some expert who may not be interested
in the the new hypothesis or even opposed to it.
Only if we can refer someone in that way is it reasonable to ask that
they take account of existing scholarship.  And when existing scholarship
is not available in an easily accessible form, it is NOT reasonable to
criticize anyone for not making use of it, as too often happens.

What is involved here MAY be the democratization of all
academic learning.
Those of us who wish to maintain high quality and
reliability MUST be concerned with how to make the
high quality information sources MORE easily available
than the low quality ones.
And to do so without engaging in censorship of unpopular hypotheses.

Best wishes,
Lloyd Anderson

More information about the Indo-european mailing list