Ruhlen's work

Wed Aug 25 15:52:23 UTC 1999

Larry Trask writes:

>We are not talking about minor improvements.  At least as far as Basque
>is concerned, the errors in Ruhlen's data are so awful as to be beyond
>salvation.  Anyway, he never pays any attention to my corrections: he
>just tells me I must be wrong because his comparisons are so compelling.

It is the last sentence of this which I regard as the strongest criticism
of Ruhlen's work.  Although sometimes external comparisons CAN
cause the re-evaluation of morpheme structure within a single language
or family, nevertheless I do not think Ruhlen has at least usually done
the kind of work that could support such conclusions.

Consider "sparrowgrass", OBVIOUSLY a compound of two English
morphemes, until we realize that it is actually a reformation of
"asparagus", a borrowed word, to make it LOOK LIKE
a compound of English morphemes.
"Lookalikes" can even affect the specialist within a single language!
(I couldn't resist that needle <grin>.)
The "obvious" is sometimes not true.

As with any other writer on any subject,
I always grant that there may be useful aspects of someone's work
quite different from what the authors themselves think is
the point of their work!  Such paradoxes are part of normal life.
This happens more often with people who are otherwise known to
be uniformly careful, but not only with them.

In the development of the fields of Mayan hieroglyph decipherment
and history, the late Linda Schele made a number of terrific
contributions, AND was at times over-eager to draw cosmic conclusions.
Both are in one person.  So what?  We have still gained enormously
from her.  I regard Greenberg in the same way.

Ruhlen may contribute something useful by stimulating attempts
to find NE Asian relatives of Athabaskan, whether or not his Ket
(Yeniseian) suggested comparisons pan out.

\At least the search
for NE Asian relatives of Athabaskan may provide some useful
results of some kind, possibly unanticipated ones.  DNA studies
may give us more hints of where to look, though of course only
hints, perhaps even misleading ones.

Best wishes,
Lloyd Anderson
Ecological Linguistics

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