Darwin-L Message Log 7:67 (March 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.

<7:67>From CRAVENS@macc.wisc.edu  Sat Mar 19 09:40:16 1994

Date: Sat, 19 Mar 94 09:38 CDT
From: Tom Cravens <CRAVENS@macc.wisc.edu>
Subject: Trees in historical linguistics
To: DARWIN-L@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

I'll take Bob O'Hara's bait, and respond briefly to the observations about
tree relationships. What I'll say here should be preceded by "It seems
to me that...", and may not represent everyone's thinking. Also, for
economy's sake, I'll leave out the appropriate hedges.

Tree diagrams in historical linguistics can serve as convenient fictions
to illustrate after-the-fact relationships of relative linguistic likeness
among sister dialects, but the fiction can become inconvenient if we fall
into thinking that the "event" suggested by branching reflects real-
time historical development, and/or sudden geolinguistic discontinuities
in speech communities. That is, a tree can represent nicely that,
say, Catalan and Venetian are distinct speech types, and in that sense,
the tree represents reality. But it's not very useful for representing
actual history. It turns out that there is no point in time
at which (or period during which) we can report that Latin has split into
these and other varieties. Of course, this is partly due to lack of
documentation, that is, we don't have written texts of actual speech
running every few decades from Cicero to the present, but even if we did,
there is no reason to believe that these texts would reveal a definitive
period of split (in this example there are no catastrophic events such
as major migrations, shifts in language contact, etc.).

And if we look closely at the present, we also see that even the modern
distinction is not represented well by the vertical tree. We can certainly
see that Catalan and Venetian are quite different, but if we hike from
Barcelona to Venice, we can find no point at which the village-to-village
chain of mutual comprehensibility breaks down. Folks from village A have
no trouble whatsoever communicating with folks from village B, B with C,
and so on (as long as everyone involved is using the native speech of
the village, and not the imposed national languages).

In this case, it's not clear to me what positive purpose the tree serves,
other than that of a shorthand illustration of relative likeness; even if
we have enough branching to include every mini-community, the tree is
still illustrating discrete breaks where none can be found, both historically
and--in its spatial arrangement--synchronically. This is "Tyranny of the
Stammbaum" (Curtis Blaylock) in historical linguistics.

From what I've understood of the exchange among Ken Jacobs, Kent Holsinger
and Bob O'Hara, some of the same dangers seem to be lurking in tree
representation of hominid evolution. Have I understood correctly?

Thanks to Bob for DARWIN-L!
Tom Cravens

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