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Thread: exclusive classification

  1. #1
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    exclusive classification

    Hello,

    Is there any consensus among historical linguists on what statements such as the following mean?


    "English is a Germanic language [and not a Romance/Hellenic/non-IE language]"

    "Hungarian is a Uralic language [and not an IE/Turkic/etc. language]"

    "Tok Pisin is an English Creole language [not a Papuan/IE/etc. language]"


    The only criteria I know of for making these kinds of statements are the Swadesh list and similar lists of "core" vocabulary/morphemes. There seem to be sets of words and other morphemes that are more resilient than other words/morphemes (though never perfectly resilient, that I know of) when they are passed on from person to person.

    However, Swadesh-type sets don't constitute anything like the totality of the language spoken by any individual (I don't use only the Swadesh list of English words, people in Hungary don't use only the Swadesh list of Hungarian, etc.). What's the rationale, then, for classifying these totalities in an exclusive way, such that English can only be considered Germanic and not also Romance (despite the vocabulary English has acquired through French, etc.), Hungarian can only be considered Uralic and not also Turkic (despite the vocabulary Hungarian has acquired through Turkish), and so on?

    Or, are exclusive classifications primarily a relic of earlier periods in historical linguistics, and not felt to have any validity (except as a practical tool) by most researchers today?

    I'm not assuming that the majority of historical linguists think in these terms, but some of the most common terminology still in use (inherited word, loanword, family, cognate) seems to imply exclusivity, and I wonder if this terminology doesn't sometimes affect the thinking of the people who use it.
    Last edited by Gavril; 18th January 2013 at 4:00 PM.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Words are freely, promiscuously borrowed: in the dictionary, English is half Romance, Japanese is half Chinese, and Arabic has massively influenced everything it's ever touched. But mostly the grammar is untouched. English has entirely Germanic grammar, Japanese bears scarcely any resemblance to Chinese at all, Malay has resolutely Austronesian syntax and morphology, and so on. There are plenty of instances of minor grammatical borrowings and influences, but it's very rare for there to be reshaping on anything like the scale of word borrowing.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Quote Originally Posted by entangledbank View Post
    Words are freely, promiscuously borrowed: in the dictionary, English is half Romance, Japanese is half Chinese, and Arabic has massively influenced everything it's ever touched. But mostly the grammar is untouched. English has entirely Germanic grammar, Japanese bears scarcely any resemblance to Chinese at all, Malay has resolutely Austronesian syntax and morphology, and so on. There are plenty of instances of minor grammatical borrowings and influences, but it's very rare for there to be reshaping on anything like the scale of word borrowing.
    Granting that this is the case, it's still not clear why this makes English a Germanic (not Romance) language, Malay an Austronesian (not Sinitic) language, and so on. Are grammatical infixes/affixes more essential to the nature of a language than the roots/stems they attach to, and if so, why?

    (I don't know if you're taking the position that they are more essential, but it seemed valid to bring up this question regardless.)

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    Re: exclusive classification

    I am not an expert on historical linguistics and I see your point as far as the Swadesh list is concerned. However, I would assume that the classification relies on other types of evidence too. Syntax is one point. English does not display a generalized verb second constraint, but there are remnants of it that match the patterns found in Old English (which was clearly Germanic). Phonology is perhaps another point. Stress assignment, syllable structure and certain pronunciation features put English in the same group as the other Germanic languages.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Quote Originally Posted by myšlenka View Post
    I am not an expert on historical linguistics and I see your point as far as the Swadesh list is concerned. However, I would assume that the classification relies on other types of evidence too. Syntax is one point. English does not display a generalized verb second constraint, but there are remnants of it that match the patterns found in Old English (which was clearly Germanic).
    Was it? It had vocabulary from Latin, Celtic, and probably other languages that wouldn't normally be called Germanic. Perhaps it was a purer Germanic than modern English is, but we still have to define what completely pure Germanic would be (even in theory).

    Phonology is perhaps another point. Stress assignment, syllable structure and certain pronunciation features put English in the same group as the other Germanic languages.
    Again, what makes these features more central to the identity of a language than others? The modern-day Germanic languages share many phonetic features with one another but also differ on many features (e.g., voicing is not contrastive in Icelandic, some of the Scandinavian languages have a pitch accent, etc.).

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    Re: exclusive classification

    You could start from any features as a basis for classification: you would however find that syntax, morphology, and phonology, being inherited (with modification), actually give you a consistent classification, and to a large extent agree with each other (allowing for drift over time), whereas words don't. Nothing groups Turkish, Persian, Malay, and Swahili together apart from lots of shared words, whereas all their grammatical and phonological differences make them seem completely different. Grouping by lexical borrowing turns out to be shallow and uninformative grouping.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Quote Originally Posted by Gavril View Post
    Was it? It had vocabulary from Latin, Celtic, and probably other languages that wouldn't normally be called Germanic. Perhaps it was a purer Germanic than modern English is, but we still have to define what completely pure Germanic would be (even in theory).
    I am not sure a bunch of loanwords from other languages is enough to change linguistic genetic affiliation. If that was the case, it would be impossible to establish languages families.


    Quote Originally Posted by Gavril View Post
    Again, what makes these features more central to the identity of a language than others? The modern-day Germanic languages share many phonetic features with one another but also differ on many features (e.g., voicing is not contrastive in Icelandic, some of the Scandinavian languages have a pitch accent, etc.).
    I am not saying that these features by themselves are more central to the identity of a language. I am just saying that a bundle of these features (the Swadesh list, phonology, syntax, morphology etc) provides a good basis for claiming that some languages are related.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Quote Originally Posted by entangledbank View Post
    You could start from any features as a basis for classification: you would however find that syntax, morphology, and phonology, being inherited (with modification), actually give you a consistent classification,
    What do you mean by a consistent classification? I don't think we can expect a language's classification to be completely uniform over time, unless we choose to define certain features as the "essence" of a language and everything else as secondary.

    I agree that certain morphemes, vocabulary items and phonetic features tend to be more persistent through time (as they're passed from individual to individual) than others; I agree that these features can be studied as a group and labelled "Indo-European", "Austronesian", etc. But what's the basis for deciding that a given language "is" these features, and only these features (and therefore, that this language must be classified only on the basis of these features)?

    and to a large extent agree with each other (allowing for drift over time), whereas words don't. Nothing groups Turkish, Persian, Malay, and Swahili together apart from lots of shared words, whereas all their grammatical and phonological differences make them seem completely different. Grouping by lexical borrowing turns out to be shallow and uninformative grouping.
    Uninformative in regards to what? Are you thinking of how (for example) some linguistic groupings may tell us more about the ethnic history of the people who speak (or have historically spoken) these languages than other groupings would?
    Last edited by Gavril; 18th January 2013 at 4:11 PM.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Quote Originally Posted by myšlenka View Post
    I am not sure a bunch of loanwords from other languages is enough to change linguistic genetic affiliation.
    The only sense in which loanwords change genetic affiliation is by making it more complex. Old English didn't cease to be Germanic when it adopted some vocabulary from Latin: it became partly Italic as well as Germanic.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Quote Originally Posted by Gavril View Post
    What do you mean by a consistent classification? I don't think we can expect a language's classification to be completely uniform over time, unless we choose to define certain features as the "essence" of a language and everything else as secondary.

    I agree that certain morphemes, vocabulary items and phonetic features tend to be more persistent through time (as they're passed from individual to individual) than others; I agree that these features can be studied as a group and labelled "Indo-European", "Austronesian", etc. But what's the basis for deciding that a given language "is" these features, and only these features (and therefore, that this language must be classified only on the basis of these features)?
    A languages is in fact defined by these 3 components. There is a lexicon and there are restrictions on the shape of lexical items (phonology). Finally, there are restrictions on how these lexical items can be combined (syntax). What kind of features do you suggest that we use apart from a lexicon, a phonology and a syntax etc? The number of speakers? The demography of its speakers? Its geographical location?

    Quote Originally Posted by Gavril View Post
    The only sense in which loanwords change genetic affiliation is by making it more complex. Old English didn't cease to be Germanic when it adopted some vocabulary from Latin: it became partly Italic as well as Germanic.
    Are you proposing that a given language should be considered 80% Germanic, 18% Romance and 2% Slavic, reflected in the number of lexical items found in that language?

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    Re: exclusive classification

    I don't think loan words can bring about a change as to how a particular language is classified. Languages are classified as complete linguistic systems, the essential grammatical structure inherited from its ancestor languages being, however, the main criterium for language classification. It is obvious, somehow to me, even on an intuitive level, that English is a Germanic language, even if it had 50% of words of other origins, just the same way as Polish is a Slavic language, although it has many words borrowed from other language groups. I don't think classification into language groups is the same as classification into synthetic and analytic languages, for example, where many languages exhibit features of both. I have never heard about a language classified as Germanic and Romance. I think it is either, or.
    Last edited by LilianaB; 18th January 2013 at 4:45 PM.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Grouping languages by borrowings gives you a number of trans-linguistic isoglosses, but knowing which languages use reflexes of kitab for "book" doesn't even give you much predictive power about which have taken, say, manzil for "house" (as Persian did) or dunya for "world" (Swahili and Turkish, maybe others). Other isoglosses are the very large television one, as opposed to a handful of hold-outs like Fernsehen and (Icelandic) sjónvarp. No doubt these are interesting and worth studying, but they're not by any stretch a significant classification.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Quote Originally Posted by myšlenka View Post
    A languages is in fact defined by these 3 components. There is a lexicon and there are restrictions on the shape of lexical items (phonology). Finally, there are restrictions on how these lexical items can be combined (syntax). What kind of features do you suggest that we use apart from a lexicon, a phonology and a syntax etc? The number of speakers? The demography of its speakers? Its geographical location?
    I said, "certain morphemes, vocabulary items and phonetic features", not all such features. For example, in English, morphemes such as -s (plural), words such as man, and phonetic features such as initial stress and aspirated stops (tH, kH, pH) are seen as part of its essential, inherited legacy; but, morphemes such as -er(agent), words such as count, and final-syllable stress (as seen in words like create, devote etc.) are seen as things that merely "happened" to English over the course of its history.

    If you were to take the first set of features out of English, many people would say that the resulting language is no longer English. If you were to take the second set of words out of English, I think many people would say that the resulting language is still "essentially" English, even if no English speaker alive today could understand more than a tiny fraction of it.

    Are you proposing that a given language should be considered 80% Germanic, 18% Romance and 2% Slavic, reflected in the number of lexical items found in that language?
    No, I'm just proposing that a given language not be considered 100% Germanic. I don't think we can know the exact percentages involved: when a word comes into English via another language, it may influence the language in subtler ways than just occupying a new entry in the dictionary.
    Last edited by Gavril; 18th January 2013 at 6:33 PM.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Quote Originally Posted by entangledbank View Post
    Grouping languages by borrowings gives you a number of trans-linguistic isoglosses, but knowing which languages use reflexes of kitab for "book" doesn't even give you much predictive power about which have taken, say, manzil for "house" (as Persian did) or dunya for "world" (Swahili and Turkish, maybe others).
    What predictive power does the classification of English as Germanic have, outside of Swadesh-type vocabulary?

    In terms of grammatical morphemes, English doesn't have many left to begin with, and at least one of the most important morphemes in English, 3sg. -s, doesn't regularly correspond (as far as I know) to any morphemes in other Germanic languages.

    Other isoglosses are the very large television one, as opposed to a handful of hold-outs like Fernsehen and (Icelandic) sjónvarp. No doubt these are interesting and worth studying, but they're not by any stretch a significant classification.
    I think a significant classification could be built on (to give one example) the large range of Greek and Latin words that have spread through most of Europe (including countries that don't speak IE languages), but not to more distant areas like China, or at least, not in the same degree. Along with the Greek/Latin vocabulary, one could include words/phrases that have originated in English, French, German etc. but have been widely calqued into other European languages.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Quote Originally Posted by Gavril View Post
    However, Swadesh-type sets don't constitute anything like the totality of the language spoken by any individual (I don't use only the Swadesh list of English words, people in Hungary don't use only the Swadesh list of Hungarian, etc.). What's the rationale, then, for classifying these totalities in an exclusive way, such that English can only be considered Germanic and not also Romance (despite the vocabulary English has acquired through French, etc.), Hungarian can only be considered Uralic and not also Turkic (despite the vocabulary Hungarian has acquired through Turkish), and so on?
    I think a significant classification could be built on (to give one example) the large range of Greek and Latin words that have spread through most of Europe (including countries that don't speak IE languages), but not to more distant areas like China, or at least, not in the same degree. Along with the Greek/Latin vocabulary, one could include words/phrases that have originated in English, French, German etc. but have been widely calqued into other European languages.
    Your original question has been answered. The Swadesh list is of course not enough but it is supported by syntactic and phonological evidence. That sounds like a pretty solid basis for linguistic affiliation to me. You are calling the traditional classification into question by asking for the rationale behind it. And then you propose something you call a "significant classification" based on random loanwords without the support from syntax and phonology. I am sorry but I really fail to see the rationale behind that.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gavril View Post
    What predictive power does the classification of English as Germanic have, outside of Swadesh-type vocabulary?
    Being told that "this language is Germanic" tells me a lot more than "this language has borrowed the word for biology from Greek".

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Quote Originally Posted by myšlenka View Post
    Your original question has been answered.
    My question was, simply put, why can't a language belong to two or more families at once? I may be missing something, but I don't see where in this thread the question was answered.

    The Swadesh list is of course not enough but it is supported by syntactic and phonological evidence. That sounds like a pretty solid basis for linguistic affiliation to me. You are calling the traditional classification into question by asking for the rationale behind it. And then you propose something you call a "significant classification" based on random loanwords
    I don't see the basis for calling the enormous number of Latin/Greek terms used throughout Europe (with the exception of Iceland) "random loanwords".

    Also, I wasn't proposing a classification based on these Lat./Greek terms as a replacement for other (Swadesh-based) classifications of European languages: the two classifications can co-exist without difficulty.

    Being told that "this language is Germanic" tells me a lot more than "this language has borrowed the word for biology from Greek".
    If I heard that a language was classified as Germanic, and I knew nothing else about it, all that this would tell me is that it probably shares most of its Swadesh vocabulary and some of its inflectional morphemes with English/German/etc. (exactly which vocabulary and morphemes, I wouldn't know), that it possibly has initial-syllable stress, and perhaps a few other possibilities (e.g., maybe it has no synthetic form for the past imperfect). Again, this is only a tiny fraction of what there is to know about any given language.

    In the case of languages (e.g. English) that have more loanwords than inherited words, knowing the major sources of the loans may well provide more information about the language than knowing what ancestral group it has (traditionally) been classified in.
    Last edited by Gavril; 19th January 2013 at 1:15 PM.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    I think that Gavril is wanting the classification of languages by families to provide the same sort of information as the classification of animals and plants where at any given rank it can be stated what characteristics can be attributed to the members of a taxon. However, the classification of languages is about establishing at any given level whether two or more languages have an immediate common ancestor. Languages change quickly so that two languages with a common ancestor may soon become mutually unintelligible and each may develop or lose features so that eventually the point may be reached where any connection between the two is not readily apparent. The classification of languages by families is about showing demonstrable relationships between languages and that involves looking at their history, or deducing it by applying generally accepted "laws" about how languages change. Whether the tree or wave model is used, we are never going to learn from it what the languages covered have in common. They may differ as to the degree of synthesis or analysis, method of word formation, phonemic inventory, branching and favoured order of subject, object and verb.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Quote Originally Posted by Hulalessar View Post
    However, the classification of languages is about establishing at any given level whether two or more languages have an immediate common ancestor. Languages change quickly so that two languages with a common ancestor may soon become mutually unintelligible and each may develop or lose features so that eventually the point may be reached where any connection between the two is not readily apparent.
    My question had nothing to do with how clear or apparent the relationships between languages are. Myslenka seemed to be saying (unless I misunderstood) that the classification of a language as "Germanic" provided more information about that language than classification according to (for ex.) what loanword area the language is in. I questioned whether the first type of classification really does explain more than the second.

    It may be misleading to speak of relationships between languages to begin with: the relationships that historical linguistics deals in are (as far as I can see) relationships between individual words and morphemes, not between "languages" as unified/coherent entities. Is this recognized by proponents of the wave model?


    Last edited by Gavril; 20th January 2013 at 12:10 PM.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    In terms of grammatical morphemes, English doesn't have many left to begin with, and at least one of the most important morphemes in English, 3sg. -s,doesn't regularly correspond (as far as I know) to any morphemes in other Germanic languages.
    The -as ending of (earlier) Scandinavian.

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    Re: exclusive classification

    Let's not refer to phonology as an indicator of language relatedness. For example, compare phonological aspects of Spanish and French—neighboring Romance languages—with regard to stress patterns, intonation, number of vowel phonemes and feature combinations utilized, the role of nasality in vowels, vowel/consonant ratio and tolerance for consonant clusters, apical vs. uvular rhotics and the Spanish r/rr contrast, the s/z distinction; the roles in Spanish (but not French) of "beta", "delta", "gamma", "theta" (not on my keyboard), and [x]; etc. Phonology will lead you off the track in the search for shared ancestry.

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