Darwin-L Message Log 4:79 (December 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.

<4:79>From sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu  Sun Dec 19 16:14:18 1993

To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: Greenberg, Renfrew, Ruhlen, proto-World
Date: Sun, 19 Dec 93 17:17:43 -0500
From: Sally Thomason <sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu>

  Jeffrey Wills asks if anything has changed, and if progress has
been made in understanding the methodological issues, as a result
of Greenberg's (et al.'s) proposals and the discussion of them.
I'd say yes.  Not from talking to Greenberg himself or his
followers, because there the big differences in fundamental
assumptions probably preclude a useful exchange of ideas.  But
it is challenging to try to explain the mainstream historical
linguists' view(s) to nonlinguists, especially nonlinguists like
archaeologists who try to address similar kinds of problems in
their own work -- problems like how to cope with incomplete
information in historical sciences, how to test historical
hypotheses that can't be tested directly in real time, etc.  And
trying to explain such things helps clarify one's own thinking,
I've found.  That's the basic benefit that Wills mentions.

   My impresssion is that, within linguistics, Greenberg's
hypotheses (and comparably distant-relationship proposals) have
made no impact on the beliefs and methods of the vast majority
of linguists interested in establishing genetic relationships:
the success-in-Africa argument isn't persuasive to Americanists,
because the range of diversity in the Americas is so much
greater in the Americas than in Africa: even if you accept
Greenberg's classification, for instance, Amerind must still have
a much greater time depth than, say, Niger-Kordofanian.  There
are many more isolates in the Americas than in Africa (or
elsewhere).  And so forth.  Similarly, Greenberg's third
full-scale classification -- Indo-Pacific -- has not been accepted
(and is very rarely cited, though it pre-dates his 1987 book by
some years) by the vast majority of specialists in those languages.

   Greenberg's major successes have been among nonlinguists --
anthropologists and biologists.  His Amerind family is beginning to
turn up, for instance, in standard anthropological textbooks.  It's
hard to tell how this will turn out in the end: if linguists continue
to reject Greenberg's findings, it seems at least possible that,
eventually, anthropologists and others will also become skeptical.
But maybe not, and then we could have a situation where a set of
proposals that are rejected by specialists are accepted uncritically
by all nonspecialists.

   It should be said, however, that Greenberg's influence in African
historical linguistics has been immense: his classification of
African languages is widely accepted, even for language groups
that have not yet been established by more conventional means.
And two of the biggest groups, notably Niger-Congo and Afro-Asiatic, are
now considered firmly established, thanks to standard comparative-
method research that has been conducted since Greenberg made his
sweeping proposals for African linguistic groupings.

   Still, what seems to impress Africanists is Greenberg's
insights in Africa, not his methodology per se.  So it's hard
to tell whether Africanists see Greenberg's methodology
as an important achievement.  (The African picture is
complicated by the question of how original Greenberg's groupings
were there: one hears different stories from different Africanists,
so the situation isn't entirely clear.  What is certain is that,
when Greenberg proposed his African groupings, the dominant
view was very different and based in part on linguistically
worthless criteria like cultural features, skin color, and

  Sally Thomason

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