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Darwin-L Message Log 5:88 (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.


<5:88>From delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu  Mon Jan 17 11:46:36 1994

Date: Mon, 17 Jan 1994 09:28:15 -0800 (PST)
From: Scott C DeLancey <delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu>
Subject: Re: Systematics and linguistics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

Kent E. Holsinger pursues the question of parallels and non-parallels
between biological systematics and genetic linguistics, describing a
situation in which two subgroups of bats share "details of skeletal
anatomy (and more recently from molecular sequences)", but one of them
shows resemblances to primates in details of neural anatomy, creating
a problem in classification.  This is indeed reminiscent of the problem
of a language like Japanese, with apparent affinities to both Altaic and
Austronesian (which are themselves not related at any detectable level).
I think there are differences, though, which are worth exploring (if
only to see whether I misunderstand the biological case).  Kent says:

> I'm not sure what processes would produce convergence in vocabularies, but it
> appears that the problem Scott DeLancey is describing is similar in many ways
> to the one I've just described, except perhaps that linguists do not yet have
> a comprehensive theory that they could use to explain the convergences.

There is no imaginable process that would produce convergence in
vocabularies.  Similarities in vocabulary beyond what can be expected
by chance can only reflect common inheritance (i.e. genetic relationship)
or borrowing.  Vocabulary and details of morphological structure
(critically including not only patterns of structure but actual forms)
play a role analagous to molecular sequences more than to morphological
patterns, the difference being that vocabulary, at least, is very easily
borrowed, even between unrelated languages.
     I see the linguistic analogue to the kinds of morphological
similarities which can in principle be considered to reflect convergence
in biology as being typological similarities--type (rather than details)
of morphological structure, parallel syntactic constructions, case marking
patterns, etc.  Because they can so easily arise by "convergence"
(though that term is not much used), these sorts of similarities
carry very little weight in determining linguistic relationships.
     (I think historical linguists sometimes find biological arguments
about cladistic vs. phenetic taxonomy confusing, since only cladistic
classification has ever been recognized as a worthwhile or interesting
pursuit in historical linguistics).

Scott DeLancey                            delancey@darwking.uoregon.edu
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403

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