<Language> Re: Caucasus and Kaska

Patrick C. Ryan proto-language at email.msn.com
Tue Jan 26 03:23:09 UTC 1999

Dear Claire and EvolLinguists:

-----Original Message-----
From: Claire Bowern <C.Bowern at student.anu.edu.au>
Date: Monday, January 25, 1999 8:51 PM

>>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).

This is but the assumption beyond the assumption. It has also not been

>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!

Yes, socio-linguistics is interesting.

What does that possibly have to do with the larger issues?

>>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

And that, appreciatedly candid Claire, is what invalidates linguistics and
those who presently practice it. Guesswork by Researcher A is not
necessarily of the quality of guesswork by Researcher B. The only solution
is to have a consensus on what the proper methodology is for calculating
odds that will show that Researcher A's brilliant guesses are statistically
probable, and expose B's as professorial humbug.

>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.

It is certainly not necessary to know every language that ever has been
spoken to be able to say with a fair degree of surity whether a vocabulary
item was liable to have been present in the substratum of all language.

>Mathematicians don't have to deal with irregular gaps in their systems.
>Historical linguists do.

Sorry, I will have to disagree. Modern math can deal with every model you
can imagine.


More information about the Indo-european mailing list