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Darwin-L Message Log 5:46 (January 1994)

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.


<5:46>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Sun Jan  9 18:56:18 1994

Date: Sun, 09 Jan 1994 20:02:19 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: A positive and workable idea for the historical linguists
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

Dear Melancholy in Madison:

A couple of comments first, and then a positive idea.

It does seem to be a difference between systematics and historical linguistics
that the linguists will sometimes claim that certain major language families
are either not historically related, or that the evidence that they are can
never be recovered.  Systematists, in contrast, tend to assume that everything
is related (there is only one tree of life), and that it's just a matter of
figuring out what these historical relationships are.  That being the case,
it may be difficult for some of the systematists to understand criticism of
Greenberg et al. on the grounds of non-relationship of the languages, because
it is one of the routine assumptions of our field that "non-relationship"
doesn't really exist; it's all a matter of more and less close relationship.
The geographic points (which I was quite pleased to see) also tend to run
counter to our common assumptions.  This is _not_ to say that we are right
and the linguists are wrong; it is only by way of pointing out how each of our
disciplines is inclined to approach the problem.  Wallace wrote a classic paper
in 1855, as he was trying to develop his ideas on evolution, in which he
proposed what is now usually called "Wallace's Law": "Every species has come
into existence coincident in both space and time with a pre-existing closely
allied species."

But now a positive idea in response to Victor's original question of what the
non-specialists would like to see from the historical linguists; things that
might promote the field as a whole.  What I would like to see is a large wall
chart, maybe three or four feet square, professionally done, that illustrates
the history of the Indo-European languages.  I could and would use such a
chart in some of my courses in evolutionary biology to show the parallels
between the two fields, and maybe some of the linguistics societies could get
together and promote this as a great thing for school and college classrooms.
What this chart should show is PIE at the root, with a list of sample words
alongside the root, and as you go up the tree the changes in these words are
traced (numerals, kinship terms, etc.).  Thus when I look at the tips of the
branches I would see the selected words in English, French, Russian, etc.,
and would be able to trace back all of their transformations.  This chart
should be packed with information, and should not bejust a sketch.  In the
corners you could have a simplified version of the tree imposed on a map to
show migration routes.  The main tree will of course have some reticulation
in it, representing borrowing, etc.  (When I use the word "tree" I don't
mean something that is rigidly bifurcating; I just mean a genealogical diagram
that shows an estimate of the history.  If some of that history is reticulate
that's fine; it's still mostly a tree.)  The French branch, for example, would
have a set of dotted lines crossing over to the English branch around the time
of the Norman Conquest, and this would carry indications of the types of
language elements that were most likely to be transferred and the ones that
were most likely to remain unaltered.  It would take a lot of work to produce
such a chart, but I think it would be well worth it from the view of both
pedagogy and proselytizing.  Put this chart in every elementary and high
school classroom where an Indo-European language is spoken, and pretty soon
there'll be more little historical linguists running around than you'll know
what to do with.  ;-)  If such a chart in fact already exists, I want to know
about it.

I make the above suggestion in the knowledge that I should be able to give you
an equivalent chart showing, say, the phylogeny of the vertebrates, but I
cannot.  This is something on my list of someday-projects.  Smithsonian Press
publishes a not-so-great chart of animal evolution.  The real models to follow
for style and professionalism are the geologic time scales you can get from
Cambridge University Press, for example, or professionally done periodic
tables of elements.  The Cambridge geologic time scale is $14.95, and comes
nicely folded in a sturdy plastic envelope (ISBN 0-521-39880-0).  Just right.

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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