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Darwin-L Message Log 1:260 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<1:260>From sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu  Wed Sep 29 16:14:15 1993

To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: Heritability and cultural evolution
Date: Wed, 29 Sep 93 17:17:51 -0400
From: Sally Thomason <sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu>

Kent Holsinger asks "whether there is evidence for independent origin
of certain language features or if common features of otherwise
unrelated languages always represent borrowing."

 The former is correct: there is LOTS of evidence for independent
origin of certain language features.  For instance, if we consider only
well-established language families, there are dozens in the world,
i.e. groups that are (as far as we can tell from our chronologically
limited methods) unrelated to each other.  In comparing all these
families one finds similar features that cannot be accounted for by
either inheritance or borrowing.  This is true even when we allow
for universals of grammar that (some would argue) may be hard-wired
genetically in the human animal.  So, for instance, the fact that the sounds
[p t k s m n i e a o u] occur in unrelated languages all over the world is
probably not to be attributed to historical links among languages
but rather to the fact that that particular set of sounds is easier
to learn and/or easier to perceive, and thus likely to arise
independently.  More interestingly, one finds identical linguistic
changes that occur independently in many languages; an example is
the palatalization of [k] to "ch" (as in English church), before front
vowels (e.g. the vowels in beet, bit, bet, bat); another
example is the voicing of [p t k] to [b d g] between vowels; still
another example is the agglutination of unaccented postpositions (like
prepositions, but appearing after the noun instead of before it) onto
the preceding noun (that is, they become suffixes), ...and so forth.

 It has often happened that someone looks at a group of languages and
says, gee, these languages share a lot of features, so they must be
related -- and then it turns out that they aren't related, or rather
that there is no solid evidence that they are related.  It's easy to
be misled by "accidentally" shared features, i.e. features that don't
provide evidence of historical connections among languages.  Historical
linguists' methodology for establishing family relationshiops -- the
Comparative Method -- depends on systematic correspondences throughout
the grammar and lexicon, but especially sound/meaning correspondences;
using this method, it's easy to rule out accident when languages are
closely enough related that they still show such correspondences.
(And if they aren't closely enough related for that, then you can't
establish the relationship at all.)  It's also possible, by this
method, to distinguish borrowed from inherited features.

 (Apologies if I'm repeating myself from an earlier post! I
can't remember what all I said in my last couple of comments.)

  Sally Thomason
  sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu

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