Principled Comparative Method - a new tool

Sean Crist kurisuto at
Mon Aug 23 19:43:01 UTC 1999

On Sat, 21 Aug 1999, Robert Whiting wrote:

> Steve is quite correct here.  A reconstruction is just that.  In
> the best case it is only the statistically most probable
> original relationship between the forms found in the daughter
> languages.

The Comparative Method is not quantitative or probabilistic.  It's
incorrect to describe reconstructed forms as "statistically the most
probable".  That's not how the Comparative Method works; it doesn't
compute numeric probabilities among competing reconstructions.

I've seen other variations of the phrase "statistically probable" on this
list in contexts which suggest that what the writer means is something
like "what we've judged to be most likely."  That's not a correct use of
the terminology.

>> 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.

(I know this is from an earlier post, but I'll go ahead and answer it here

Suppose that the proto-language has two phonological categories, e.g. */a/
and */o/.  Suppose further that one of the daughter languages merges these
categories, and the other doesn't.  It will be obvious in the daughter
languages which one innovated.

> It is not so much a question of innovation versus preservation.
> It is a matter of how much innovation there is in each daughter
> language.  When you have the parent preserved, this can be
> measured.

What exactly is being measured?  This whole line of discussion assumes
that "innovation" is something that can be measured.  I'd like to know
exactly what this means.  What is being counted?

> will also help to reduce the likelihood of the daughters having
> innovated the same way independently (historical linguists really
> hate it when this happens because it screws everything up).

Not as bad as you think, because you can often tell from the relative
chronology that the change must have happened independently.

  \/ __ __    _\_     --Sean Crist  (kurisuto at
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