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DISCUSSION NOTE On megalocomparison James A. Matisoff University of California, Berkeley* Introduction: The war of metaphors 1. Joseph H. Greenberg's Language in the Americas (LIA; 1987) has been greeted with dismay by many specialists in Amerindian linguistics1 (cf. Chafe 1987, Campbell 1988, Adelaar 1989), and defended by the author in a reply to Campbell in Language 65.1 (1989). There is no denying that G's central thesis—that all the native language families of the Western hemisphere (except for Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene) are genetically related, descending from a common ancestor, 'Proto-Amerind', spoken about 1 1,000 years ago (335)—has a certain romantic sweep to it. Such a far-reaching claim would seem to require pretty convincing evidence to back it up. Yet G expresses his disdain for the conventional sort of historical comparison , so 'obsessionally' preoccupied with sound correspondences and asterisked reconstructions.2 Instead he values the kind of evidence provided by the more 'powerful' method of 'mass comparison', whereby wordlists and grammatical paradigms from many languages are grokked simultaneously to see whether any root-words or affixes look alike. Languages which share a number of resemblant vocabulary items are then deemed to be genetically related , unless these forms are obvious loans (22-23). So powerful is this method, G believes, that it yields valid results even with the worst data, and to any desired time-depth: 'The method of multilateral comparison is so powerful that it will give reliable results even with the poorest of materials. Incorrect material should have merely a randomizing effect' (29). Errors do not greatly concern G: 'Although I have exercised great care, it would be miraculous if, in handling such a vast amount of material, there were no errors offact or interpretation' (1989: 1 12). To this G's critic Adelaar (a Quechua specialist) rejoins that 'This is highly questionable if one looks at the quality of the data G presents where the number of erroneous forms probably exceeds * [Editor's note: Because ofthe importance to historical linguistics ofthe issues raised by Joseph Greenberg, his supporters, and his critics, the editor decided to solicit a discussion of these issues by a scholar whose qualifications included extensive experience in comparative linguistic research and a presumed lack of prior bias either for or against Greenberg's views. The following essay is the result.] ' My own ignorance ofthe Amerindian data (which I have managed to retain despite my Berkeley formation) ensures a certain objectivity, which is perhaps why I have been asked to contribute this Discussion Note. At least I cannot be accused of an axe to grind based on an 'accident of expertise' (LIA, p. 4)! 2 Until very recently linguists in the People's Republic of China have held a similarly unflattering view of the reconstructive enterprise, likening it to 'painting ghosts' (huà gui)—i.e. trying to lend a specious reality to something imaginary. 106 DISCUSSION NOTE107 that of the correct forms' (1989:253). The consensus among professional Amerindianists seems to be that G has not in fact 'exercised great care' in the selection or utilization of his materials, and that he has ignored the results of the best recent research on many topics. The most damaging accusation against LIA is that its methodology and data are so inadequate that they are incapable of distinguishing between similarities that might be due to genetic relationship and those which are due to pure chance (see §2.4 below). Yet in a way all this criticism of LIA misses the point. Some scholars are impervious to criticism because they are totally convinced that their underlying thesis is correct, regardless of any disconfirmatory factual 'details' that might be wrong.3 In G's case this conviction derives from a larger belief system that far transcends the narrow confines of the New World, but embraces our whole planet and our whole species. Although G provisionally recognizes about 15 'major linguistic families' in the world (Table 11, 337), it is clear that in his heart he believes he can show that all human languages descend ultimately from a single common ancestor (62), since 'there is no theoretical limit to the depth at which classification...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-0665
Print ISSN
0097-8507
Pages
pp. 106-120
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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