Larry Trask is right that...
ECOLING at aol.com
ECOLING at aol.com
Fri Aug 27 19:04:09 UTC 1999
Larry Trask is right that I overstated Greenberg's
reasonableness, by focusing as I always have on his very
rare more modest statements that he "assumed" the languages
of his studies to be related, and only could draw conclusions
about relative degrees of similarities.
For me, his belief that his method alone was sufficient
was an unproven extrapolation from his African Language
classification and from some easy applications.
I just thought it was silly, and it never bothered me much.
I sort of think it is always a good idea to try to find what
is of use in someone else's work and emphasize it,
(even if it is different from what they themselves thought
was of most value in their own work! :-)).
The method of Multilateral Comparison has always
been simply a heuristic. Please see a separate exposition
of Multilateral Comparison, its strengths, and how it has
not been properly understood, in another message today.
I would much rather spend my time with positive contributions
and trying to work towards consensus, as in that message.
Greenberg does not own and did not invent
Mutlilateral Comparison, it was used at least as early as
Catherine the Great, with results in that case
uncontradicted to this day.
I still maintain that if we discount Greenberg's excess
claims to have proven his conclusions, rather than to have
used a heuristic to suggest them, what he has IN FACT done
is very much like what the Cambridge group has been doing,
as described by Larry Trask.
That Cambridge work is also a useful heuristic,
primarily for the same reasons, although their explorations
of computer algorithms will presumably also be productive.
However, the fundamental gut-level resistance is still manifest
on the part of so many very competent comparative linguists,
the unwillingness to admit that heuristics and the
hypothesis-formation stages of discovery
are part of the normal scientific method,
as they have always been.
They use them themselves, for goodness sake!
(They may not present them in public, but that is another
Below I will present a consistent pattern in which Trask
repeatedly fails to distinguish between what Greenberg has
actually done and what Greenberg's view of his own work is.
Trask seems unable to handle an assumption
that all languages are related, to see where it leads,
EVEN AS AN EXPLICIT WORKING ASSUMPTION.
Consider his misstatements in the following discourse yesterday:
>>> The assumption that all languages are related is out of order.
>>> The assumption that all languages *might* be related is hardly an
>>> assumption at all, and in any case such an idea is excluded by no one.
>> The assumption is of course quite in order, to see what it might
>> lead to, as long as it is merely that, an assumption. So there is
>> really no difference between the above two statements just above.
Now Trask changes the question, by neglecting the explicit
limitation "as long as it is merely that, an assumption":
>Statement 1: All languages are related.
>Statement 2: All languages might be related.
>You really can't see any differences between these? Gad.
[somewhat insulting, of course...]
>I know of no one who queries (2), but I know of very few people prepared
>to defend (1).
>> Except some emotional flavoring which antagonizes some people.
>Sorry, but the difference between (1) and (2) looks to me like far more
>than "emotional flavoring".
Of course, I was not discussing the contrast between Trask's (1) and (2)
Given the totally explicit "as long as it is merely that, an assumption"
the proper contrast is the following:
(1) "What if all languages are related?"
(2) "What if all languages may be related?"
The nature of a working assumption (and assumptions in
self-conscious science are that, working assumptions)
is of course logically equivalent to a "what if?" exploration,
while one is inside the "what if?",
and when that modal value is applied to a sentence, anything within
the scope of the modal acquires modal value. Therefore it makes no
difference whether there is a redundant modal inside the scope.
In fact (2) is slightly aberrant English precisely because of the
redundancy. It almost requires a "so what" response because it has
failed to even make a working assumption! So actually not (2) but
(1) is the preferred form for such a working assumption.
Assumption (2), taken as distinct from (1), would not justify
spending as much time on Multilateral comparison, it would rather
justify something in the form of Pascal's famous wager:
not knowing X or not-X, it would be better if we did Y,
because we lose nothing and may gain.
If we take "What if all languages are related?" as a working premise,
then all use of Multilateral Comparison, whether by Greenberg or
by anyone else, is to be understood in a particular way,
that it cannot prove relationship
(that was by working assumption, remember),
but that it can indicate relatively closer similarities or
relatively greater divergence.
(If used as a heuristic, it might later LEAD TO discovery of
something we could regard as a proof.
But that is a separate question.)
Very simple, unobjectionable, and no cause for trench warfare
such as we have witnessed in the last years in historical linguistics.
There is simply no justification whatsoever for trying to ostracise
Greenberg or his work from the field, when it is so easy to state
simply that its value is as a heuristic, that the method has not yet
been tested at such great time depths, and that we may all benefit
from using the heuristic as such.
It is certainly falsifying the education of our young linguists
if it is concealed from them how Multilateral Comparison was
successfully used in Catherine the Great's time, for example,
and again and again since then.
It is also falsifying the education of our young linguists
if they are not given thorough grounding in the Comparative
Method. Both are valid, and have different uses, strengths,
The greatest giveaway phrase in academic trashing that I know is
the phrase "fundamentally flawed", which is usually devoid of
much content, and is used to ostracise person and work,
to claim that they are not part of a professional field.
It has been applied in this case from near the beginning
of the debates over Greenberg's work. Applied to
someone who systematically and with some (!) degree of care
accumulated a gigantic amount of data and organized it,
to the potential benefit of others
Others can of course correct the data and improve it.
I was glad to see Trask acknowledging the excess vituperation
we have been subjected to:
>> and I have been simply amazed at the antagonisms.
>Here I have some sympathy. The stridency of a few of G's critics is
>greater than I consider proper. But we shouldn't let that unfortunate
>stridency blind us to the very substantial *linguistic* critiques of G's
I agree with the second part also. I urged those comparative linguists
who said they had sets of vocabulary corrections to Greenberg's data
to publish them pronto.
>> Shouldn't we always try to make the best use of the contributions of
>> each one of us? Didn't Greenberg attempt to systematize a large
>> amount of data which others can then correct and improve on?
But notice in his reply to the sentence above that Trask has
shifted to a different topic,
not what Greenberg actually or potentially contributed,
but what Greenberg's own view of his contribution was.
Strictly and logically speaking, irrelevant to whether others of us can
make use of Greenberg's work as a starting point for further progress.
>G's own view is that such corrections and improvements can extend only
>to the details, to the subgrouping and to the individual comparisons.
>He does not allow for the possibility that his vast mega-agglomerations
>like Amerind are merely phantasms -- as many of his critics maintain.
[LT, in the context of the Cambridge work]
>>> If the same is true of Greenberg's highly informal approach, then G
>>> cannot distinguish relatedness from unrelatedness,
>> Exactly. I have always, from the very beginning, understood that
>> was exactly what Greenberg's approach did.
Note in his immediate reply to the sentence just quoted
that Trask AGAIN focuses on what Greenberg
says about his work, instead of what his work actually does.
>Nope. Read what he writes. He damn well *does* believe that he can
>distinguish relatedness from unrelatedness -- insofar as he recognizes
>concept of unrelatedness at all, which I frankly doubt that he does,
>given his constant asides about "Proto-Sapiens".
>> He would classify Basque and Chinese as the most divergent members
>> of such a set.
>You have a point here, though not the one you intend.
Actually, exactly the point I intend, reinforced by Trask's
next sentence with which I totally agree.
>For G, *no* language ever gets left out of his agglomerations. The only
>issue, for him, is which agglomeration to put it into.
An agglomeration of only one (!) at a particular level (!)
is of course not an agglomeration but rather an isolate (!) at that level (!).
Since there is always a higher level potentially,
it is not significant to say everything is in an agglomeration.
That would be significant only if there were some which were not
part of any grouping. Rather one must deal with something MORE
SUBTLE (in this respect only), relative DEGREES of similarity
>> he concludes "most divergent", just as he in fact did for the
>> families Athabaskan and Eskimo-Aleut. The difference in these modes
>> of expression is utterly trivial as long as we are concerned with
>> tentative hypotheses, not with ultimate truth.
And yet again, in his immediate reply to the sentence quoted just above,
Trask switches from what use WE can make of
Greenberg's work, which is what I have been primarily discussing
and was discussing in the quote above,
to what Greenberg himself thinks of it.
>But G firmly believes that he has established "ultimate truth".
I don't have to care what Greenberg thinks of his work.
As a member of society, I have an obligation to make the best of it,
if it has value. As a heuristic and a starting point for later works,
it clearly does have some value.
That is ALL that is required.
Finally, Trask's summary:
>I close with a reaffirmation of my central point: Lloyd Anderson's
>attempt at characterizing Greenberg's work bears no relation to
Once again, Trask has failed to distinguish Greenberg's work
from Greenberg's view of his own work. My characterization
of certain aspects of Greenberg's work bears little relation to
what Greenberg most commonly SAYS about those aspects
of his work. That is an entirely different question.
Can we get past this in the field of historical linguistics?
I am very glad for the existence of all of the comparative linguists
like Trask who do good work,
and who critique data and point out errors in reasoning of others.
I also emotionally want to stick up for them when they are maligned.
I was exceedingly offended at a Smithsonian lecture
by a speaker who
USED the work of generations of comparative linguists,
who presented new methods and said how good they were
and how sloppy those preceding generations were, yet who
also said the results of the new superior methods were quite similar
in most respects to the results of preceding scholarship.
Isn't there something wrong here?
Can't we have people more respectful of the work of others?
I chose typological and comparative linguistics for my profession
because I thought it was both interesting and important,
for our souls to understand our past and our common humanity
and our diversity.
This field has made me extremely sad through the pervasive
antagonisms which have grown up in it towards some of the
potentially most stimulating new statements of problems.
Would everyone please just stop ad hominem attacks
and cooperate more?
More important, for the survival and welfare of the field,
can the established comparative linguists please manage to discover
that comparative linguistics is NOT A NEARLY-DEAD FIELD,
that there are new things to do, new ways of refining tools,
new empirical questions for which handbooks of data
can be created, etc. etc.??? By all means teach good methods,
honestly and inclusively, with due regard to both hypothesis
discovery and hypothesis testing and much hard work
all along the way. But USE the enthusiasm generated by new
sets of questions, instead of depressing everyone by trying
to stomp on innovation, and acting as if the Comparative
Method itself were a dead fossile which cannot be improved!
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