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Darwin-L Message Log 5:92 (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.


<5:92>From GOLLAV@axe.humboldt.edu  Tue Jan 18 05:37:45 1994

Date: Tue, 18 Jan 1994 03:44 PST
From: GOLLAV@axe.humboldt.edu
Subject: Re: Systematics and linguistics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

Sally Thomason writes, re: Scott DeLancey's assertion that "there is no
imaginable process that would produce convergence in vocabularies":

>  Phonetic symbolism is another matter: most linguists would agree that
>  you might find occasional convergences due to sound symbolism.  But
>  the overall effect on the vocabulary from such a process will be
>  slight....

This is the received wisdom, but one wonders.  Empirical investigation of
phonetic symbolism has largely been carried out by psychologists and
psycholinguists.  Comparative linguists have been content to assume (as
Sally indicates) that its effects are marginal and of no great concern in
the sorting out of languages into families and stocks.  But I recently
came across an anthropology dissertation that takes a rather different
view:

Ciccotosto, Nick.  Ph.D., U. of Florida, 1991.  Sound Symbolism in Natural
Languages.  301 pp.

According to the abstract (Dissertation Abstracts International 53(2):
541-A), Ciccotosto challenges the "Saussurean assumption" that the phonetic
structure of morphemes is generally arbitrary.  Using a large data sample
from "virtually all known language phyla," he tests a series of sound-
symbolic hypotheses on 16 items of "core vocabulary. . . routinely used by
linguists to trace genetic relationship among language phyla."  The positive
results are "striking" and lead C. to believe that sound symbolism "must
have evolutionary adaptive value."

Unfortunately, I haven't yet gotten hold of a copy of this dissertation,
and can't comment on how convincing C.'s data are.  But it seems to me
that this is a topic well worth investigating.  Any fair test of a claim
of historical relatedness between languages should exclude resemblances
that can be explained by established phonetic-symbolic processes.  Yet
historical linguists by and large operate with only an anecdotal under-
standing of phonetic symbolism, and some choose to ignore it entirely.

--Victor Golla
  Humboldt State University
  Arcata, California  95521
  gollav @ axe.humboldt.edu

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