Algorithm for comparative method?

Fri Aug 27 01:13:21 UTC 1999

In a message dated 8/26/99 6:10:47 PM, kurisuto at writes
concerning the possibility of doing the comparative method by algorithm:

>the major unsolved problem is
>modeling the semantics in a way that allows a program to make human-like
>judgments regarding what semantic developments are reasonable.  The
>phonology, tho, could almost certainly already be computed by program.

I would suggest that the phonology hides problems just as great as the
because we do not have an explicit empirically based metric there either!
No metric of how probable each state-to-state transition is between
particular sounds, in specified contexts of languages of particular overal
phonological or phonetic structure, etc.  Given that the number of languages
is so small (even if we count 6000), there will always be large problems of
estimation.  For this reason many different kinds of evidence will need
to be used at the same time, to make judicious choices when the data does
not compel us.  For example, by using archaeology and biology and natural
history to estimate the direction of some sound changes like vowel space
rotations, if we do not have sufficient purely linguistic evidence.

Developing a handbook of such information is very much like the task of
developing the handbook of physical and chemical constants.
Linguistics is in its infancy to a great degree
because this is still handled on an intuitive basis, and one investigator's
judgement may be quite different from another's, based on the accidents
of what "odd" languages that investigator happens to be familiar with.
There needs to be a much better way of integrating data from many different
sources, making it available to all.

Lloyd Anderson
Ecological Linguistics

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