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Re: [ontolog-forum] 15,000-year-old ancestral language

To: ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
From: John F Sowa <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Wed, 08 May 2013 16:51:05 -0400
Message-id: <518ABAB9.6010709@xxxxxxxxxxx>
On 5/8/2013 2:03 PM, Simon Spero wrote:
> Sally Thomason is not exactly impressed.
>
> See: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4612    (01)

I agree with the criticisms by you and ST.    (02)

But I also agree with the criticisms by Joseph Greenberg that the
comparative method is far too limited as a tool for determining
which language groups are related.    (03)

SS
> Like other long-rangers with dreams of discovering bigger and bigger
> family groupings  maybe even the ur-human language, what the late
> Joseph Greenberg called Proto-Sapiens  Pagel et al. believe that
> abandoning the one method that is known (not just "thought") to be
> reliable can achieve the goal.    (04)

The critical term is the word 'goal'.    (05)

The 19th century historical linguists did some great work by using
the comparative method to reconstruct the hypothetical IndoEuropean
roots from which that huge family of languages evolved.    (06)

But there is a very big difference between the goals of *reconstructing*
a protolanguage and just recognizing that certain languages are related.    (07)

The criteria for the first goal are extremely tight.  They not only
demand very close similarities, but they also demand a precise rule or
set of rules for deriving the later forms from the earlier ones.    (08)

Those criteria are certainly the most reliable, but they reject many
similarities for which a precise rule has not been found.  For example,
few linguists would doubt that the Latin 'magnus', the Greek 'mega',
and the Sanskrit 'maha' are related.  But none of the known rules can
show how the three daughter words evolved from a common mommy word.    (09)

Greenberg used much looser statistical criteria for grouping language
families of Africa and the native Americans.  Before him, none of the
historical linguists could produce a convincing argument for any groups
beyond some small, obvious families.  Since then, few historical 
linguists seriously doubt the major outlines of his groupings.    (010)

There is certainly a lot of controversy about the larger groupings
along the lines of Pagel et al, and I am an onlooker rather than an
expert in the field.  But I would not dismiss that work lightly.    (011)

John    (012)

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