nasality, negation, and historical linguistics

Eduardo Ribeiro kariri at GMAIL.COM
Thu Oct 11 14:31:37 UTC 2007

Dear colleagues,

Thank you very much to all those who responded to my query on the
negation/nasality claim.  It's interesting to know that it is a far from
proven (and, it seems, far from systematically tested) hypothesis.

My main interest in this topic is historical-comparative.  I've recently
written a paper (with Dutch linguist Hein van der Voort) proposing the
genetic relationship between the Jabuti and Jê families, as part of a larger
Macro-Jê stock (Lowland South America).  Considering the potentially
controversial nature of this proposal, I just wanted to anticipate any
criticisms on some of the proposed cognates.

Among the latter is a pair of negative morphemes which are extremely similar
in both families, and can actually be reconstructed individually for both
Proto-Jabuti and Proto-Jê:

Djeoromitxi -tõ (Jabuti family)
Xavante -tõ (Jê family)

Djeoromitxi ma (Jabuti family)
Xavante ma (Jê family)

In addition to distributional similarities (both Djeoromitxi and Xavante
-tõ, for instance, can be used with nouns in a manner similar to English *
-less* in *childless,* etc.; *ma* is in both families used in responses to
yes/no questions), the phonological correspondences between both sets of
morphemes are fully corroborated by the lexical comparison.

I guess, however, that even though there are many exceptions to the idea of
a nasality/negation nexus, there's no place for comfort with this type of
word when one is dealing with long-range genetic comparison.  It is similar
to so-called nursery words: even though many languages will have clearly
non-symbolic words for "daddy", "mommy" etc., the use of a similar word as
evidence for (long-range) genetic relationship may always be seen
as questionable.

Something possibly relevant is that there seems to be a "scale" along which
the plausibility of cognacy may increase: from a more interjection-like form
(where the likelihood of chance similarities will be higher) to a more
grammaticalized form (where chance similarities will be less likely).  A
recent study on words for "yes" ('A cross-linguistic corpus of forms meaning
"yes"', by Steve Parker;
shows that "this word exhibits cross-linguistic tendencies to contain
laryngeal phonemes".  I wouldn't be too surprised if a similar study with
nasal interjections showed a similar tendency (involving nasal sounds, that
is).  But that's another story, far beyond my current, modest purposes.

Again, thanks for all your help!


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