<Language> Re: Caucasus and Kaska

Dr. John E. McLaughlin and Michelle R. Sutton mclasutt at brigham.net
Tue Jan 26 06:04:15 UTC 1999

[ moderator re-formatted ]

Patrick C. Ryan wrote:

> 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.

Pat, you've said this a couple of times now (on a couple of different lists),
but I must correct you.  Historical linguists do not rely on statistics to
prove or disprove the validity of a given theory of relatedness.  They rely on
PREDICTABILITY.  That's what regular sound correspondences are all about.  For
example, Jakob Grimm described the relationship between the consonants of
German and Proto-Indo-European.  I can now take his theory and see if it works.
I take the word 'father' and Grimm's laws (I'll include Verner's here too) tell
me that the German word with also start with [f], will have a [d] in the
middle, and end with an [r].  And sure enough it does.  I take the word
'father' and run the rules in the other direction and I can predict that the
Latin word will start with [p], have a [t] in the middle, and still end with
[r].  Right again.  If I can do this with form after form after form, then the
sound correspondences are reliable and the genetic relationship postulated is

If, on the other hand, I postulate a linguistic relationship with a few sound
correspondences, but those sound correspondences offer no predictive power
beyond the few dozen forms I cite as evidence, then that linguistic
relationship cannot be considered proven.  It will always be considered only a
hypothesis.  A good example of this is Whorf and Trager's Aztec-Tanoan family.
Beyond their few dozen examples, no one has ever been able to use their sound
correspondences to find any more forms in either Uto-Aztecan or Tanoan that fit
the rules.  It's a dead end.  Therefore, the relationship is considered to be
suggestive, but no more.  Not proven by any stretch of the imagination.

It's not statistics, it's correspondences and predictive power.

John McL

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