Thursday, June 12, 2014

Historical Linguistics

Okay, half of you just went away.

My brother is a theatrical lighting designer, and has witnessed enormous technology changes in the field over his career.  He mentioned once that a senior designer in an academic setting – which means, even older than us – was distressed about what was not being taught to current students.  She brought out a carefully constructed lighting plot.  They look a bit like this. 

They have been gradually superceded since CAD came in. The pen-and-ink draftings on special paper which I remember from the 1970’s are long gone in most places, but she still liked hers.

“This is also art.” she said emphatically. My brother smiled uncomfortably and moved on to other subjects.  It is easy to see how it comes about.  Not only are lighting plots interestingly patterned, but they take craft and knowledge to create, and to a professional, much that is additional – how this light operates on the stage – is implied as well. The skill is not useless, but it has been transformed to such a degree as to become progressively less useful.  Lighting design has not become useless, but a particular technique, even a central technique, has apparently become so.  (I will check with my brother whether it has entirely lost usefulness or only diminished in usefulness.)

The drawn lighting plot came about to meet a certain need.  It does not have intrinsic value.

I have gotten involved (again) in the controversy about language superfamilies, which most historical linguists believe are still speculative, and likely unprovable.  A minority believe that there remain enough traces to show common ancestry of the Uralic, Altaic, and Indo-European languages in an older Nostratic superfamily, and some believe there is evidence of a single origin of language and ultimate relatedness of all tongues.

The doubters, the majority, believe that such things might be so, but there is not sufficient evidence to sign off on it, nor is there ever likely to be, because the time-depth is beyond what side-by-side language comparisons can show.  Sounds, structure and vocabulary change too quickly – demonstrably so among studied languages in historical timeframes – to give much credence to reconstructions beyond 5,000 years ago.  Oops, I mean 10,000 years ago.  That has changed in my lifetime.

The insistence is “we do comparisons in a particular way, which we have developed over time and provide protection against leaping to faddish conclusions.” The difficulty is that the supposedly speculative theories point to a relatedness among peoples for which genetic evidence is accumulating.  Greenberg proposed three main language groups in the New World (perhaps chief among those which annoy his opponents) correlates with DNA pretty well.  Not perfectly, but enough to lend considerable weight to Greenberg’s classification, even though he made many mistakes in understanding and reporting his data.

I know the argument that one can be led astray by attractive but false theories if one does not adhere to the side-by-side comparison rules of determining linguistic relatedness.  Yes, errors might occur.  But historical linguistics came into being because it looked like it might help answer certain questions about the journey of mankind, and give clues to a history that was not written down.The techniques are not art forms of intrinsic value, even though they might have some use, require skill, and be beloved by practitioners.


Texan99 said...

There are people who don't find this stuff absorbing? I find that hard to imagine.

This search for the ur-language reminds me a bit of how difficult and confusing things were for the earliest geologists. Reconstructing the Earth of 4 billion years ago once seemed impossible in view of the long, long processes that carried away all the old evidence--and yet it turns out that with care and ingenuity we often can find ways to look backward in time.

Nevertheless, it's always a good idea to keep firmly in mind the difference between a theory that can't yet be disproved and one for which there is convincing evidence. One keeps the mind open to fruitful possibilities; the other risks becoming a fad.

Retriever said...

I love this stuff. I lost a long comment signing in to Google AFTER writing it...grrr. But my fascination is with the ways people diverge, develop something into their own, then sometimes converge again from different places...

One of the reasons I love travelling is being gob-smacked by visual evidence of cultural pillaging or borrowing and how architectural, agricultural, artistic loot was developed in people's home environs. Likewise, when one has grown up thinking of something as uniquely British to suddenly find it in a 12 century Moorish arch in Spain and to realize how much people actually travelled in the Dark Ages and how much cultural cross pollination there was, is wonderful. Language, alas, does not usually survive as well in fragments of its original form as buildings...

On a recent trip to Spain I saw the most beautiful synagogue ever. Built in the 12th century by Arabs, it looked like a mosque and was beautifully cool despite 90 degrees outside. Arab arches, simply whitewashed. High ceilings. One felt the presence of God. Instantly transformed into a Catholic church after the Spaniards grabbed it from the Jewish Community. Amazing how the atmosphere induced by architecture of a sacred space can transcend the crimes of its landlords. Also, sensible conquerors use and reuse the religious and secular buildings they win. The Spanish kings' castles were gorgeously decorated Moorish palaces. Yet, cultural ambivalence ever visible, in the same area, one Spanish king kept old iron chains on the front of the cathedral facade that had been taken off the Moors' Christian prisoners...Dear God, the things we do on the name of religious differences! Delights the Evil One!

Have been reading Acemoglu and Robinson's "why Nations Fail" which wd be interesting to discuss w commenters from this blog. It's pretty good, and IMHO its main value lies in its point that exploitative, extractive, politically repressive societies ultimately cripple themselves, and only enrich the rich elites and a few in power. A cautionary tale given the way the US is headed (living in a region infested w hedge funds, I am perhaps more obsessed than people w nicer neighbors)