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Darwin-L Message Log 4:82 (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.


<4:82>From GOLLAV@axe.humboldt.edu  Mon Dec 20 03:18:33 1993

Date: Mon, 20 Dec 1993 01:23 PST
From: GOLLAV@axe.humboldt.edu
Subject: Re: Renfrew, Greenberg, etc.
To: Darwin-L@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

Sally Thomason correctly notes that "Greenberg's major successes have
been among nonlinguists -- anthropologists and biologists," and suggests
that "one source of interest in the distant-relationship proposals is
the desire on the part of scientists in other disciplines to make use of
the results of such research."

I believe that, especially with Colin Renfrew, there is another factor
involved.  This is the feeling on the part of many non-linguists that
the language families posited by most historical linguists are not serious
scientific hypotheses, and that the field can only profit from an injection
of hard-nosed reductionism.  Renfrew dismisses the accumulated findings of
150 years of Indo-Europeanist scholarship as mere ingrown scholasticism.
In his view, the down-to-earth data of archaeology and the quantifiable
data of genetics determine the structure of European prehistory, and language
relationships that do not reflect this structure are irrelevant or mistaken.
His "new synthesis" (of archaeology, genetics, and linguistics) in fact
ignores the real scientific contributions of the putative third partner,
substituting for them either the simplistic "lumping" of Greenberg et al.
or, even worse, ad hoc linguistic connections invented to match the physical
data.  Real historical linguistics is dismissed as a supposed "establishment"
of timid and intellectually isolated adherents of 19th century methods.
I suspect that the editors of _Scientific American_ use the same reasoning
to justify their support of Renfrew, Greenberg, and the others of that ilk.

This attitude reflects, I think, the ever-deepening chasm (at least in
Anglo-Saxon countries) between "science" and the "humanities", and the
tendency of those who see themselves on the scientific side to (at best)
patronize anything having to do with language, literature and culture.
Since historical linguists typically have appointments in language
departments, they get swept up in the general scientific disapprobation
of "mere humanism."  The only study of language that is taken even half
seriously as a science is formal ("autonomous") linguistics, which has
achieved this only by jettisoning most historical, social, and cultural
work with individual languages.

For a few decades earlier in this century, anthropology provided a
"scientific" home for at least some historical linguists in the US, and
it was in this milieu that the basic scheme of American Indian linguistic
relationships was worked out (most notably by Edward Sapir and his students).
But since WW II, historical linguistics has all but disappeared from
anthropology faculties in North America.  Interestingly enough, one of
the last of the breed is none other than Joseph Greenberg, which may help
explain the disconnection of his work from "normal" historical linguistics.

Victor Golla
Humboldt State University
Arcata, CA 95521 USA
GOLLAV @ axe.Humboldt.edu

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