Refining early Basque criteria (miau)

X99Lynx at X99Lynx at
Sat Dec 11 16:13:19 UTC 1999

Pat Ryan wrote:

<<I continue to believe that some terms ... should not be excluded from
consideration of inclusion in Pre-Basque.... It may be that this category of
terms has preserved an older or non-typical phonological form than other
words of the vocabulary but they should be seriously considered because of
their ubiqiuity.>>

(This would seem to be an essential consideration in tracking the
phonological history of any language.  After all, a "central" question about
Basque and its uniqueness is common ancestry with other languages.  Evidence
of its descent to seem to involve considering words that would be relatively
"ubiquitous."  At minimum, this matter would seem to deserve careful
qualification and not a flat yes-or-no.  But it seems I'm wrong...)

In a message dated 12/11/99 5:38:52 AM, LTrask replied to Pat Ryan:

<<No.  Their ubiquity is *precisely* the reason why they should be excluded.
After all, in most of the languages on the planet, the word for a cat-noise is
something like <miau>, but this ubiquity is not an argument for pushing the
word back to Pre-Proto-Everything.  Rather, it is a compelling argument for
disregarding the word altogether, on grounds of *motivated* independent

This kind of statement reflects a basic problem in the way Prof. Trask is
approaching the use of a computer in acheiving some kind of objective results
about his subject matter.  How is he defining "ubiquity"?  Is this "miau"
word in any dictionaries he is using to support his statement about "most of
the languages of the planet?"  How much ubiquity is enough ubiquity for

In Swedish, the sound a snake makes is called <va:s>.  In Polish, a word for
snake is <was>.  The difference in usage can be subtle, but it is rather
faithfully applied in both languages.  Does this make <va:s> too ubiquitous?
Or would it make his list?  Or does its appearance in both languages say
something about the origins of the word and would that justify the word
making that list?  On the other hand, <hiss> does not appear in the
dictionaries of either language.  Does that mean it's not ubiquitous enough
to be excluded?  Would you have to go to a Japanese, a Bantu and a Finnish
lexicon to answer that question - diregarding Swedish and Polish?  Is there
something about a snake noise versus cat noise that makes one ubiquitous and
the other not?

Can you state that rule so that readers will know how you intend to apply
this exclusionary process to other animal noises?  In the interest of
establishing the "principled" nature of your prescreening process.  So that
an observer may say with confidence that the results of your prescreening is
not a case of GIGO?

Without casting any aspersions on your judgments as a highly competent
professional linguist, unless you can state "operationally coherent"
definitions of your prescreening criteria, your choices can look VERY
arbitrary.  And if you can state operable definitions, the computer should be
doing the "choosing" to confirm the objectivity of the distinctions being
made.  That is the "control" that would be expected in other fields when one
would claim that a computer is confirming ones choices.

And why is it again that you can't feed the entire contents of Basque into
the computer first as "raw" data and then do these operations?

Steve Long

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