Refining early Basque criteria (miau)

Larry Trask larryt at
Wed Dec 22 09:31:53 UTC 1999

[ moderator re-formatted ]

Steve Long writes:

> 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...)

Indeed.  The Basque for a cow-noise is <mu>, for a sheep-noise <me>, for a
dog-noise <au-au>, for a rooster-noise <kukurruku>.  Now these words are
strikingly similar in form and meaning to words in English and in a number of
other languages.  Does Steve, or anybody, want to argue that this observation
constitutes evidence of any kind for the common ancestry of Basque and some
other languages?

> 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
> creation.>>

> 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
> exclusion?

> 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.

Perhaps I didn't express myself very well.

Pat Ryan suggested that instances of form-meaning correspondences that are very
widespread in languages, such as the mama-papa words, should be taken as
serious evidence for remote common ancestry.  I disagreed, on the ground that
such form-meaning correspondences can readily be shown to be independently
motivated.  And it is not so much the ubiquity of such items that is the point:
it is the motivation.  But it is precisely such motivated form-meaning pairs
that tend to exhibit some noticeable degree of "ubiquity" -- though never total
ubiquity, of course.

Let me cite an example from outside language.  As is well known, many species
produce what we label "danger calls" on perceiving a predator.  Some species
have two or three different calls for different kinds of predator -- for
example, airborne versus ground-dwelling.

Now, it has been observed that a diverse array of species -- birds and small
mammals -- all use acoustically very similar danger calls for warning of hawks
and similar flying predators: a kind of high-pitched [siiiii] noise.  Since
such calls are found in a range of birds and mammals, the descent view favored
by Ryan would require us to derive all these calls from a single ancestral
hawk-warning call in Proto-Mammal-Bird, over 300 million years ago.  Right?

But there's a much better explanation.  Hawks have acute hearing, and they are
very good at locating the source of a sound accurately.  This fact would appear
to make the production of *any* danger call a very dangerous enterprise for the
individual producing it, and hence an evolutionary disaster for his species.

*But*.  It turns out that the hawk's usually reliable sound-location mechanism
breaks down with high-pitched noises resembling [siiiii]: it can't locate the

So, we have a simple explanation for the widespread form-meaning pairing that
we observe in diverse species: independent motivated creation.  Individuals
that produce such calls are not spotted, and they survive and pass on their
genes.  Individuals that produce other calls get spotted and eaten.

So, since there exists a simple explanation for the widespread form-meaning
pairing in terms of motivation, its "ubiquity" is already accounted for, and
there is no reason to appeal to common origin.

As I pointed out in an earlier posting, just such a motivated explanation is
available for mama-papa words (and, of course, for imitative words like 'moo'),
and hence these items, the ones which recur so frequently in diverse languages,
cannot serve as evidence for common origin.

To put it another way, comparative linguistics is obliged to work with
linguistic items which are arbitrary in form -- items, that is, whose form is
in no way motivated by their meaning.  Trying to work with motivated
(non-arbitrary) items is a guarantee of spurious conclusions.

> 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?

As I've said before, the use or non-use of a computer is not a matter of
principle, but only of procedure.  Once the database is assembled, the computer
is faster and more accurate than a person, but it still can't do anything other
than what a person tells it to do.

Nor does the use of a computer in any way guarantee greater objectivity.
If I decide to reject words showing property P, then I can do this by hand or
with a computer program, and the results will be the same.  After all, the
computer isn't going to inform me that it doesn't like my criteria.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at

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