restricted access Chapter 2: The "Nostratic" and "Euroasiatic" Hyper- and Super-Families

From: Black Athena

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L inguists seem to have stopped, or at least suspended, the debate over whether there was a single or multiple origin of all existing languages. A consensus that all existing languages are ultimately related to each other now appears to have emerged. Bitter debates remain , however, as to whether it is possible to demonstrate specific relationships or to reconstruct any aspect of the original ancestral language. In general terms, the division is between those crudely identified as “lumpers” and “splitters.” Lumpers look for the common features manifested in different phenomena, while splitters are more concerned with the distinctions among them. Splitters can be characterized as having a desire for certainty and a fear of error. Lumpers tend to believe that perfect accuracy and certainty are not attainable and that the most one can or should aim for is “competitive plausibility.” To put it in another way, lumpers tend to be frightened of two different kinds of error: First, errors of commission often involving the statement “x is related to y” which is later disproved. Second, errors of omission in which no relationship is proposed where, in fact, one exists. Splitters, by contrast, are overwhelmingly afraid of errors of commission. In recent years, the best known American linguistic lumpers have been the late Joseph Greenberg of Stanford and his student Merritt Ruhlen. Greenberg, who began as an anthropologist, will be remembered as the Linaeus or grand systematizer of the world’s languages. His classification THE “NOSTRATIC” AND “EUROASIATIC” HYPER- AND SUPER-FAMILIES CHAPTER 2 40 BLACK ATHENA of African languages has become standard; his Euroasiatic scheme, similar to that of Soviet scholars, is now frequently accepted. His division of American languages into three families, including the vast “ProtoAmerican ,” is still fiercely contested. Ruhlen, who accepts all of Greenberg’s macrofamilies, is now compiling what is already becoming the standard Guide to the World’s Languages and hopes to use this wide sweep to reconstruct Proto-Human or Proto-World.1 At the other end of the scale are the linguistic splitters; the most extreme of whom are the conventional Indo-Europeanists. These work, in the tradition referred to in the last chapter, on the elegant intricacies of the genetic relationships among Indo-European languages. Their attitude is epitomized in a remark by the Indo-Europeanist Eric Hamp, reported from a conference in 1996: “Our job is to produce an absolutely spotless reconstruction of Indo-European. Nothing else really matters.”2 Indo-Europeanists tend to be unhappy both with attempts to relate Indo-European to other language families and with the messy and, to them, aesthetically displeasing, process of linguistic borrowings from outside the Indo-European family.3 Though few Indo-Europeanists deny the possibility of wider linguistic relationships, they tend to dismiss any proposal of specific links as “mere speculation.” The requirement of certainty is often linked to a certain intellectual rigidity and a reverence for the scholarly ancestors that has made dialogue between them and other comparative and historical linguists increasingly difficult. NOSTRATIC AND EUROASIATIC Between the vague generalities of the reconstructors of Proto-World and the narrow-mindedness of the Indo-Europeanists, some scholars work at the intermediate level, considering large clusters of languages. The clusters of most concern to the subject of this book are Nostratic and Euroasiatic. The name Nostratic is distasteful because it is derived from the Latin nostras “our countryman,” which implies that speakers of languages from other language families are excluded from academic discussion . Nevertheless, no other generally accepted term exists for this very useful concept. The idea of genetic relationship between Semitic and Indo-European languages goes back to the origins of modern historical linguistics in the early nineteenth century and, beyond that, to the days of the church [CH. 2] “NOSTRATIC” AND “EUROASIATIC” FAMILIES 41 fathers and the Middle Ages, when the language of both Eden and the Tower of Babel was assumed to have been Hebrew.4 In the nineteenth century, a number of attempts were made to demonstrate the relationship between Indo-European and Semitic verbal roots. Research along these lines, however, was inhibited, partly by the difficulties of achieving certainty but equally by the cult of the noble Indo-European-speaking Aryans. The passionate anti-Semitism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was equally impeding. The two significant exceptions to such trends were Hermann Möller and his student Holgar Pedersen.5 Möller was ignored and Pedersen’s ideas on this topic were considered an eccentricity...