Discussion Problems on
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(1) The comparative method (using inter-language comparisons to establish systematic correspondences) and the method of mass comparison are generally treated as two differing ways of working out genetic relationships between languages.
(2) Why do some linguists believe there is a temporal limit beyond which it is impossible to provide any convincing evidence of genetic relationship? About how far back is that temporal limit? How is this putative limitation reflected in present-day classification of the world's languages?
A number of researchers would argue that the limit for demonstrating genetic relationship between languages is about 10,000 years from the time of the original ancestor language. At that depth, given what we know of the rate of vocabulary change, nothing would be left of the original vocabulary in the descendent languages, and any apparent resemblances could not be convincingly shown to be cognates rather than chance resemblances. Evidence for this claim is the fact that none of the well-accepted families are reconstructed as having histories longer than 10K years, and most such families have shorter histories.
(3) What sorts of classifications have been proposed for American Indian languages? What controversies have arisen in classification of these languages?
Classifications range from several hundred families of languages in North and South America down to just three big families. The most vitriolic controversy has centered on Greenberg's 1987 Language in the Americas, with just three big families. The arguments have been carried in popular print media, academic journals, and conferences. The geneticist Luigi Cavali-Sforza claims to have established human genetic support for Greenberg's groups from DNA sampling. More conservative linguistics consider Greenberg's classification to be just pre-scientific eyeballing of data, pointing out that we have no reason to believe that just three big migrations took place into the Americans, and even if there were just three such migrations, there is no reason to believe that all the members of each migration spoke related languages.
(4) What is Nostratic?
Nostratic is a "super-phylum" consisting of grouping Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Dravidian, Caucasian (or Kartvelian = South Caucasian), and Afroasiatic.
(5) What range of views can be found among linguists on the reconstructability or even the existence of "proto-Human"?
Views on proto-Human range from proposals by people like Merrit Ruhlen for reconstruction of a few vocabulary items to complete dismissal of the idea that we can say anything at all about a language that may have been spoken 100,000 years ago. Nonetheless, most linguistics probably accept the idea that all human languages have a single origin. Language is genetically part of being human. To argue that language had multiple origins would be like arguing that the human shaped vocal tract had multiple origins.
(6) Give some ways that (at least some linguists have claimed that) linguistic classification and reconstruction has implications for human history.
The video mentions at least two:
- Greenberg demonstrated the relatedness of the huge Bantu family of Africa, which covers almost all of Africa from just north of the equator all the way to the southern tip, and certain "semi-Bantu" languages of Nigeria [the term "semi-Bantu" is generally rejected as linguistically nonsensical today, since it is sort of like saying that Spanish is "semi-Italian" or the like--RGS]. Because of the linguistic uniformity of the Bantu languages vs. the diversity of the languages in Nigeria and Cameroon to which they are related, we assume that they must have spread relatively recently and rapidly from present-day Nigeria/Cameroon to cover half the continent.
- The Basques of southern France/northern Spain speak a language unrelated to any of the surrounding languages. We know that the Romance languages (Spanish, French, etc.) have developed in this area in only the past 2000 years. We assume, therefore, that Basque is the only remnant from the language(s) spoken in at least the Atlantic seaboard of Europe since we know that humans have inhabited this region for perhaps 40,000 years.
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Group the languages in the table below into two or more genetic groups based on shared vocabulary resemblances
|In each row, the words which seem to go together are color coded, e.g. in the row for 'one', languages B and D seem to go together (coded as red), languages E and H seem to go together (coded as green), and languages I and K seem to go together (coded as aqua). Words in black do not seem to group with other words in the row. Using this color coding, we can look down the columns and see that for each colum, one color seems to predominate. The languages with a particular predominating color form our apparent genetic groups--see below.|
Genetic groupings of the languages in the table above:
F. Ahlõ (Kwa)
I. Efik (Benue-Congo)
Are there any resemblances which might be a result of chance, borrowing, or sound symbolism rather than historical descent from a common origin?
Within the genetic groups, are there any subgroupings which emerge?
The only sub-grouping that emerges with any clarity is E (Teda) and H (Kanuri) within Saharan. These languages share more resemblances than either does with either of the other Saharan languages, the words for 'eye', 'ear', and 'mouth' are very close, and most important, they share a word for 'mouth' which is different from that word in the other Saharan languages. For subgrouping, we look for shared innovations rather than shared retentions from the proto-Language.
Had we included Hausa as one of the Chadic languages, we could see such a shared innovation with Bolanci in the word for 'two', which is biyu in Hausa. As we noted above, Bolanci bolau is known to be a borrowing from Niger-Congo. The native Chadic root is the *s-r- root seen in Miya and Ngizim. Bolanci and Hausa share the innovative (borrowed) word for 'two' and thus can be recognized as belonging to a separate Chadic subgroup from Miya and Ngizim. On the other hand, we CANNOT group Miya and Ngizim as a subgroup on the basis of the word for 'two'. They share this root because they inherited it from proto-Chadic, not because they share an innovation.
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