Linguistic KB (was Re: Original Dravidian Homeland)

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Mon Jun 28 09:21:17 UTC 1999

At 12:26 -0700 6/19/99, Das Devaraj wrote:
>So that puts 4000 BCE (or 6000 years ago) as the upper limit
>of the currently known linguistic knowledge base.

 and Dominik has questioned that date as well:
>Do you have good reasons to disagree with the techniques for linguistic
>chronometrics and language drift

This point of view has been strongly criticised by the Long Range
Comparitivists such as M. Ruhlen who attributes it squarely  to a "myth"
concocted  due to the domination of historical linguistics by
Indo-Europeanists and their perception that IE (and other languages) do not
allow reconstruction beyond c. 4000 BCE (sometimes 6000 BCE).
(Merritt Ruhlen, On the origin of languages, Stanford Univ. Press 1994 etc.)

He may not be quite right in this anti-IE analysis, but there are scholars
in various fields  who maintain that sounds just change too much over time
as to allow reconstruction beyond such limits, --  as, for example, is
necessary for  Nostratic = (IE, Dravidian, Uralic, Altaic, Afro-Asiatic,
part of the Caucaus languages) at 10,000 BCE or even earlier.

On the other hand, he is right in pointing out that some sounds change
less, on *average*, than others (for example the resonants and the
sibilants -- of course one can readily find some counter-examples),  and he
certainly is right in saying that some configurations in various language
families have virtually not changed over millennia.
(I remember to have read that argument already in 1966/7 , made by one of
the early Soviet Nostratic linguists.)

However that may be, it allows some confidence in the proceedings, e.g. of
the Nostraticists who simply use the principles of  'traditional'
historical linguistics to go beyond the arbitrary 6000 year level.

Even some of the long range comparitivists now begin the move towards
establishing regular sound correspondences between the world's
(macro-)families. And also in establishing the recostruction of
grammatical elements.

Both of which will be the proof of the pudding.

Michael Witzel                          Elect. Journ. of Vedic Studies
Harvard University        
my direct line (also for messages) :  617- 496 2990
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