<Language> Re: Caucasus and Kaska

Claire Bowern C.Bowern at student.anu.edu.au
Tue Jan 26 02:58:38 UTC 1999

>But, Claire, to decide that "initial conditions are irrecoverable" is pure
>dogma. It has not been proved.

OK, "initial conditions are irrecoverable with current methods". The best
historical linguistics can do at the moment is about 15,000 years (at the
most - many would say less). Language has been around for at least 100,000
years; possibly, if recent finds in Flores are substantiated, much further
back than that. That's a very big gap, and I am not convinced that
theorising beyond the available data, whether using the latest whizz-bang
mathematical models or meticulous comparison, is very useful. Especially, I
might add, when there is so much to be done where the data are good!

>Sadly, I notice in your final sentence yet another attempt to distance the
>methodology of linguistics from non-linguistic sciences.

>The "Big Bang" is not really recoverable except theoretically, but a lot of
>very intelligent people are doing valuable work  on the hypothesis that it

You misunderstand me. I'm not trying to distance the methodology of
linguistics from other sciences, on the contrary, I agree that there is a
lot of room of methods which incorporate more mathematical rigour, and this
is indeed happening, for example in dialectometry and in comparative
Pama-Nyungan. What I do object to, however, is the idea that mathematicians
work with the same sort of data that linguists do. Linguistic data,
especially in historical linguistics, is inherently unreliable (this hasn't
been said for a while so might as well repeat it). Think of the number of
times a single language in a subgroup preserves what is probably the
proto-form. For all of you out there who have done original reconstruction
- think of the amount of guesswork involved in determining the likely
proto-forms and finding possible sources of the innovations. Think of the
number of dead languages which are preserved in only a few words, and think
of how many more there must be for which we have no knowledge whatsoever.
Mathematicians don't have to deal with irregular gaps in their systems.
Historical linguists do.

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