Darwin-L Message Log 5:63 (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.

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<5:63>From sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu  Tue Jan 11 19:31:23 1994

To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: Systematics and linguistics
Date: Tue, 11 Jan 94 20:34:44 -0500
From: Sally Thomason <sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu>

Kent Holsinger brings up the issue of frequency of hybridization
in language history, as opposed to biological evolution.  It's true
that it's a lot easier (and more common) for languages to borrow
features than for "a little" hybridization to occur in biological
species (as far as I know); but hybridization to the point that
the branchings in a linguistic family tree become obscured seems to be
rare.  That is: slight to moderate linguistic borrowing -- not
just words, but also sounds, syntax, and even some word structure
-- doesn't obliterate the main lines of descent of a language;
and when borrowing becomes so extreme that the main lines of
descent are seriously obscured, there are usually clues in the
structure of the language.  Most often, the vocabulary doesn't
match the grammar, in a seriously mixed language -- that is,
the vocabulary and grammar can't both be traced to the same
historical source.  In my view, when this happens you can't
put the mixed language in a family tree at all, and it isn't
related (in the sense of descent with modification) to any of
its source languages.  The best-known examples are pidgin and
creole languages, like Tok Pisin (a.k.a. Melanesian Pidgin
English), whose vocabulary comes almost entirely from English
but whose grammar can't be traced to English at all.  Other
striking examples are mixed languages like Michif, whose
noun phrases are French and whose verb phrases (and most of
the syntax) are Cree (an Algonquian language, Canada).

   So I don't think reticulation, to use the biological terminology
Kent Holsinger was using, is too likely to be a stumbling block --
at least not often -- in the effort to establish relationships
among languages.  As in biology, linguistic evolution is, as far
as I can tell, mostly non-reticulate...as long as you're
dealing with completely separate languages and not dialects of
the same language, and as long as you are looking at languages
as wholes rather than at individual
linguistic features taken separately.

   Sally Thomason

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