Time Depth in Historical Linguistics 1-2

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Colin Renfrew, April McMahon, and Larry Trask (eds.), Time Depth in Historical Linguistics 1-2, Papers in the Prehistory of Language, Cambridge, England: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research; or Oakville, CT, U.S.A.: David Brown Book Company, 2000, 681 pages.

These two volumes are collections of papers by several linguists, several anthropologists and archaeologists, some Orientalists, one specialist in molecular genetics, one Classicist, and several by people whose return address did not reveal their specialties. The linguists fall into three main categories, which for convenience we may call Traditionalists, Experimenters, and Exotic.

Traditionalists contribute several fine papers, replete with anecdote and important detailed refinements to the Comparative Method, an approach which has consistently proven its worth over the last two centuries. A few of these papers merit special mention. Lyle Campbell's paper (1:3-19) provides a welcome detailed review of most of the traditional topics related to time, amply illustrated.

Bernard Comrie (1:33-44) tackles some new as well as old but often forgotten insights, notably the idea that rates of linguistic change are more rapid in small societies, and in societies with word taboos. He also discusses the often forgotten fact that it is easier to reconstruct using several daughter languages than it is using only two, something Greenberg's scapegoaters always seem to forget.

Larry Trask (I: 45-58) provides a long and insightful account of Basque as a 2000 year linguistic adstratum to Latin and later Spanish, discussing the types of loans that took place and the extent to which they can be dated. This is required reading for anyone working on languages in contact or the borrowing process.

Kalevi Wiik (II: 463-480) also takes up borrowing over long periods, and the dating of loans, but from the point of view of a substratum language (Uralic) and its effects on the superstratum (Indo European), and how this progresses in time. The model he proposes here suggests the best account I know of the relationship between a pair of language families I work on, Aymara (substratum) and Quechua (superstratum).

Experimenters provide a wealth of exciting new ideas, as well as discussions of possible refinements of much less exciting old ones. Two proposals stand out particularly among the new ones, both exploring the possibility of using language data to go boldly back in time, where linguists have never gone before. Johanna Nichols (II: 643-664) attempts to use language data to help date human entry into the Americas. This is only one of a long series of papers, in which she works on these questions. Dixon does not contribute a paper to the present volumes at all, but is richly present in the discussions.

To my mind, the Nichols paper should be thought of not so much as a research report, but rather as a research proposal. It contains a great number of very preliminary formulations and estimates that are in need of testing and refinement, over a substantial period of time. Only then can the reasoning used be tested in a meaningful way.

Meanwhile, the virulent criticisms to which the paper is subject are premature, as would be any acceptance of its conclusions. One senses a defensiveness on the part of scholars who have made their reputations with traditional -approaches to language, and do not want to share the limelight with upstarts. It leaves me with the uneasy feeling that this is academic warfare, and that, as in all warfare, the first casualty is likely to be the truth. These same likely applies to Dixon's theories as well.

Glottochronology has of course been around for a long time, often buried, yet always returning like the "undead." The present volumes are full of criticisms of it, which Matisoff (II: 333) calls "an exercise in necrohippomachy" (beating a dead horse). It also has several defenders and revisionists (mainly mathematicians whose writing I do not understand). …