Darwin-L Message Log 5:56 (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.

<5:56>From WILLS@macc.wisc.edu  Mon Jan 10 20:11:13 1994

Date: Mon, 10 Jan 94 20:11 CDT
From: Jeffrey Wills <WILLS@macc.wisc.edu>
Subject: Re: A positive and workable idea for the historical linguists
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

Bob O'Hara points out an important difference between systematics and
historical linguistics:

>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."

Some comments: I think most linguists would subscribe to Wallace's Law. Our
problem is that borrowing between distantly-related or "unrelated" languages
can often give the illusion of close relationship (especially to those working
mainly by lexical equivalences). Biologists also have the problem of
convergence, but for language this seems to be a much more common phenomenon.
As a result, linguists treat adjacent languages with some caution if systematic
reflexes cannot be shown.  The fundamental difference, as O'Hara rightly points
out, is in the assumption about possible "non-relationship". Demonstrating that
language A has more features in common with B than any other language doesn't
necessarily do much if you are always suspecting non-relation. The comparative
method in a sense relies on process of elimination (ruling out universals and
borrowing) and borrowing is most easily eliminated in the case of languages
which have been separated for some time.  In short, Language varieties arise
coincident in space and time but their genetic affiliation is most easily
demonstrated when they are no longer coincident.

A question: Are there major consequences from including/excluding possible
"non-relationship"? What differences are created by assuming that all the
jigsaw pieces on the table come from one puzzle rather than from several? Is
this just a possibility in human culture systems (like the tree of writing
systems or legal systems) or is non-relationship a question in other historical
sciences too?

Jeffrey Wills

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