Saturday, March 08, 2008

A big advance in comparative linguistics?

Some tricks for manipulating human behavior are so easy that you feel bad using them (or maybe not). Getting a lot of traditionally-oriented historical linguists' blood pressure way up into the zone where hospital monitors start beeping and blinking has long been no mean feat: Even if you're not a historical linguist, just start talking about any "long range" proposal for genetic affiliation of language families in an earnest tone. Long range proposals are those for 'deep' family connections among languages beyond those that are clearly established — for example going beyond Indo-European to connect it with various other families as 'Nostratic', connecting almost all American languages in 'Amerind', or connecting Basque with anything.

Sure, your old-school historical linguist might start by gently explaining to you why Nostratic is an intriguing idea but not yet proven by the high standards of the comparative method, or why evidence for seeing Basque as related to any other language is flimsy and flawed, but if you hang with it for a while and take the notion seriously, and you can rattle them deep down in their hearts.

In fact, it used to be a first-order faux pas to even raise the issue except as a joke. Happily, a newer generation has been open to these ideas, and numerous Indo-Europeanists have given serious attention to examining evidence for Nostratic and hardly in a dismissive way. While such people aren't buying Nostratic wholesale, it's being taken more seriously than it was 20 years ago, certainly. (A connection of some sort between Indo-European and Uralic, which includes Finno-Ugric, looks pretty appealing to a lot of scholars.)

One of the links that inspires tremendous interest, for obvious reasons, is the possible connection between languages of the Americas and those of Siberia (or beyond in Asia). For a while now, people have been talking about very promising work on this topic by Ed Vajda of Western Washington University, who works on the Ket language of Siberia, and a group of scholars who work on Na-Dene languages (a family which stretches from Alaska to the southwestern US). The story has now broken of strong evidence for a connection, presented at a conference in Alaska — see here for the LinguistList version and here for a newspaper account. A genetic connection between a language spoken along the Yenesei River and Tlingit, Navajo, and others is huge news.

You can see the evidence for yourself here. I am not particularly qualified to evaluate it, but the list of scholars who have reviewed this stuff and spoken positively is an impressive one, including some old school historical and comparative linguists.

This could be a big moment happening here.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Yes, this is generating lots of interesting debate of various sorts. People interested in the sociology of the long rangers might check out the threads on this topic spinning along on these two discussion groups:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MTLR/
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Indo-Eurasian_research/