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Re: Language family trees

From:Erich Rickheit KSC <rickheit-cnl@...>
Date:Monday, February 3, 2003, 19:15
Tristan wrote:
> ... "A significant proportion of linguists no longer subscribes to the > theory of a language tree"
Well, as an amateur I might be wrong about the details of the theory, but the metaphor is clearly severely flawed. 'tree' suggests a structure where a node can have multiple descendants, but only one parent (yes, family trees are built upside down, don't give me grief about the terms). So the theory goes: In the early Maldonian period, Old Bostonian was the primary language. Some early settlers to Revere began the use of nasalized [r], while the Dorchester residents introduced the infix "fuckin'" to show adjectival agreement. Old Dorchester as spoken in Jamaica plain turned initial [T] into [D], and medial [T] into [sQuIki]. Cambridge maintained a close relationship with the mother language, via the number 60 bus, reducing all color terms to the suffix "-American". A splinter group of Unitarian-Universalists from Cambridge later discover they had evolved forty-seven distinct terms for 'snow' and therefore had to move to the Artic Circle, where the invented their uniquely beautiful form of Nativity poetry, (where each strophe begins with 'close the door' and finishes with an antiphonal 'were you born in a damn barn?') See our neat little tree: Boston Modern Revere Dorchester Jamaica Plain Cambridge Northern UU | | \ / \ / | | \ / \ / | Revere Low Dorchester Ancient Cambrige | | / / \ | -------------- ------------------- \ | / / Old Boston--------------------- But we know the data doesn't fit this neat little metaphor; languages can have variable number of parents. Modern English is descended from French as well as Old English, and is chock-full of Greek borrowings as well. There must be a hundred pidgins and creoles, each put together from two or three languages. Esperanto, it could be argued, has a half-dozen parent languages. Imagine this background: after Lemuria sank into the sea, its citizens escaped to South America and Australia. In Australia, they intermarried with people from Mu, whose island was destroyed by a volcano, and their children used Lemurian nouns to describe things in the house and Muuic verbs to discuss actions outside the home. Refugees from Mu also fled to Europe, where they lent their case system to refugees from Atlantis. Atlanteans that escaped to South America found communication with the Lemurians very easy if the spoke clearly and loudly (much of their language now is derived from the Lemurian terms for "I'm not deaf" and "Hush, I just put the baby to sleep"). Could a tree theory predict the existence of the three actual parents? Language derivation must be a more general directed graph.
> Is this some weird form of ... creationism applied to language?
Well, creationism does apply to some languages (per my graph remarks, some languages have zero languages as ancestors) - tlhIngan, Lojban, and Láadan were indeed all created by intelligent design by independent agents. I even hear there's a mailing list full of people who construct languages.
> To say I'm amazed is an understatement (but then, I've been amazed > before, like when I heard there really were creationists complaining > about evolution being taught in American schools). Will wonders never > cease?
(Did you just say this to start a fight? Did you really want to see four hundred messages arguing inanely over what a 'theory' is, filled with theological arguments by people who never finished the book of Genesis? Why couldn't you just have mentioned Hitler and be done with it?) Erich


Joe <joe@...>
daniel andreasson <danielandreasson@...>
Roger Mills <romilly@...>OT (Atlantis dept.) Re: Language family trees