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Re: THEORY: A possible Proto-World phonology

From:Lars Henrik Mathiesen <thorinn@...>
Date:Friday, June 30, 2000, 11:09
I lost the later emails in this thread that I was going to reply to,
so I'll start over from Ed's mail here, with comments on other posts
below that.

> Date: Thu, 29 Jun 2000 00:43:57 -0400 > From: Ed Heil <edheil@...> > > >[From someone else:] > >IIRC, Nostratic is IE and a whole bunch of other languages, some that > >are thought to be isolates, the Siberian langs, etc. I don't know which > >languages are included beyond that. Nostratists (?) are basically trying > >to prove that IE is related to many more languages, that all share a > >common ancestor, which probably would indeed be pre-IE. > > And in case everything wasn't confusing enough, Winifred Lehmann rides up and > claims "Pre-Indo-European" as a technical term for an older stage than > Proto-Indo-European but one which has nothing to do with Nostratic; > Pre-Indo-European was active, though Proto- became accusative; > Pre-Indo-European had no reconstructible phonemic vowels*, while Proto- had e > and o. > > Basically anything that is a really radical bit of reconstruction, and which > is not *directly* reflected in the IE languages but is theoretically elegant > or compelling in some way, he throws into Pre-Indo-European.
That's what I meant about Occam's razor and so on: Lehmann can make these claims about Pre-IE because there's no way to disprove them.
> *RE the lack of reconstructible phonemic vowels: Lehmann has been criticized > on this list and elsewhere for this point, which seems rather like > structuralism pushed too far -- it's rather like pointing out that because > they are in complementary distribution, english [h] and [N] could be regarded > as two different realizations of the same phoneme; while it's perfectly good > on a certain theoretical level it is intuitively abhorrent. I'm not sure I > feel that strongly about the "lack of vowels reconstruction" but in any case, > Lehmann doesn't claim that Pre-IE was *pronounced* without distinctive vowels > or anything nutty like that, only that the vowels were completely conditioned > in quality by their context.
As someone else wrote, people come up with similar analyses for modern languages where they have actually done fieldwork, so it's not nutty. But even for those languages, reasonable men can and do disagree about the right analysis --- the one-vowel analysis of NW-Caucasian is not undisputed. Personally I don't see why there can be more than one way to analyse something, as long as you get the same predictions about the actual data --- it works for physics --- but I suspect that there is too much academic prestige bound up in giving neat answers. To make up a simple example of what I mean: One scholar says that language A has consonants /k/, /k^j/, and /k^w/ (plain, palatalized and labialized) but only one vowel /a/ --- with mandatory allophones [a], [e], [o] when following [k], [k^j], [k^w]. Another says that there are three vowels /a/, /e/, /o/ and one consonant /k/ --- with mandatory allophones [k], [k^j], [k^w] before [a], [e], [o]. The data are that we only ever see [ka], [k^je] and [k^wo]. So which scholar is 'right?' (In the real world you'd probably be able to find other evidence, like what happens with/after /s/ or /l/, but ignore that for now). ---------------------------------------- The terms North- and North-West Causasian: Please be careful and check that you all mean the same by this. IIRC, NW-Cauc. used to be seen as being relatively recently related to the rest of N-Cauc., but many researchers have abandoned that view in favor of an areal feature explanation of the similarities. The various proposals for Nostratic explicitly only include NW-Cauc. The Caucasus is often cited as a good example of a marginal area where languages and cultures can survive long after their good farming land has been taken over by others. (Cf. Basque in the Pyrenees, whose ancestor Aquitanian extended much further north in Roman times). What this means is that geographical proximity in the Caucasus counts for very little when judging whether two languages are related. ---------------------------------------- Scholarship in Nostratic: The two main proposals for Nostratic are not just lists of resemblances between modern languages. Both Bomhard and Illich-Svitych have set out the sound laws they assume for development of Nostratic into IE, AA (Afro-Asiatic, including Semitic as the best reconstructed branch), Uralic, NWC, Kartvelian and so on, and they have published multi-volume works with on the order of 500 proposed Nostratic roots, with citations for the reconstructed proto-forms they compare and lists of reflexes in modern languages. They may still be deluding themselves --- it's a bit odd that they disagree on how the three series of consonants in IE and AA correspond, but still both find lots of matches --- but it's not just superficial kookery. ---------------------------------------- Typology as evidence for deep relationships: The lack of strong evidence does not make weak evidence enough to determine the truth. Any two language families might in theory be related --- but on the other hand any language family might be an isolate to a time depth beyond our ability to ever recover. If you already have other evidence of a relationship --- say a new branch of IE was discovered with clearly inherited morphology, but with vocabulary evenly mixed between Germanic and Indo-Iranian --- then you could perhaps use typological arguments to decide where it belonged in the tree. (If you still believe in trees). But if the only evidence says "they're located sort of close together, and there is no typological argument to the contrary," it would in my opinion be better to just admit that the case can't be proven either way. Lars Mathiesen (U of Copenhagen CS Dep) <thorinn@...> (Humour NOT marked)