On that note, it's important to discuss how NOT to reconstruct a protolanguage so that we're all on the same page and can more easily distinguish between real linguists and narrow-minded loons, whether online or in print. Considering that even Merritt Ruhlen of "Proto-World" infamy has obtained his PhD from Stanford University, it's important to not be deceived by academic status. Theories can be ill-conceived no matter who one is or claims to be. So let's go through my cheeky list of important strategies that we can follow (using examples from the Tower of Babel project) if we want to isolate ourselves and be rejected by all universities around the world.
|1. Use "phonemic wildcards" obsessively!|
Cast the net wider and you might catch something!
The abuse of mathematical symbols like C, V, [a-z], (a/é/ö), etc. are an excellent way to make your idle conjecture look like a valid theory. It might be called "reconstruction by parentheses" since parentheses are either explicitly shown or hidden by a single variable. An example of this is *k`egVnV (claimed to be the Proto-Altaic word for "nine" in the Tower of Babel database). Obviously, if V represents all possible vowels in this proto-language and there are, say, ten of them possible in either position, then the fact that there are two wildcards in the same word means that the word represents a humungous, two-dimensional matrix of ONE HUNDRED possible permutations (10*10=100):
*k`egana, *k`egena, *k`egina, *k`egüna, *k`egïna, etc.
*k`egane, *k`egene, *k`egine, *k`egüne, *k`egïne, etc.
*k`egani, *k`egeni, *k`egini, *k`egüni, *k`egïni, etc.
*k`eganü, *k`egenü, *k`eginü, *k`egünü, *k`egïnü, etc.
Since no single form is actually being posited when wildcards are present, any claim of regular correspondence by such a theorist can be easily identified as fraud. If such linguists can't take themselves seriously enough to hypothesize a structured and testable theory, why then should we take them seriously in turn?
Other hilarious examples of wildcard fairy tales on the Tower of Babel site include Nostratic *cUKV ( ˜ č`-) "bundle" (in other words, all four are wildcards... jackpot!), Dravidian *kaṬ- "to cut into pieces" (universal onomatopoeia, anyone?), Semitic *ʔVrib- "tie (a knot)" (based on a single language, Arabic) and North Caucasian *ƛ̣_VẋwV ( ˜ Ł_-)̆ "rake" (wow, the number of possible permutations in this wildcard buffet is positively mindboggling! 200 perhaps?).
|2. Ignore Occam's Razor and never seek logical justification for your ideas!|
If an exotic phoneme gives you an orgasm, reconstruct it!
Most longrangers ignore Occam's Razor or fail to apply it in all aspects of their budding theory. It's easy to understand why it's not valid to reconstruct a sound in a proto-language which shows no regular correspondence in its daughter languages. However, even when one has justified a phoneme with evidence, one still has to justify the plausibility of the larger sound system that it's a part of. So if you have greater evidence for a palatal *ź than you do for its plain counterpart *z, you still have a problem to solve (c.f. phonemic markedness). If pronouns and common affixes use the more complicated sounds of the inventory of your proto-language, you still have a problem since this goes against the trend in languages we observe throughout the world, a reason that Allen Bomhard used to reject Illich-Svitych's reconstruction of Nostratic (e.g. Illich-Svitych and Dolgopolsky reconstructed the 2ps pronoun starting with the symbol *ṭ-, an ejective rather than its plain counterpart). This is how Occam's Razor works. In all aspects of our theory, we must abide by the simplest answer possible. Whenever you hear an argument like "Yeah, but, there's this language in some remote part of Africa with 30 speakers that uses a really rare sound or does something else that's really rare just like in my theory!" then you know that you're not dealing with someone in their right mind. Occam's Razor avoids unnecessarily exotic solutions at all times and teaches us to not confuse "minute possibility" for "convincing probability". For example, Klallam is certainly an existing spoken language, but there's also no doubt that its sound system and consonant clusters are very rare. So Klallam is something that your proto-language should not look like until you have solid proof (i.e. numerous regular sound correspondences) to back it all up.
By searching in the Tower of Babel's North Caucasian database for words beginning with sibilants, we get the following screwy search results. As of today, only one word with plain *z- in initial position is to be found, namely the first person pronoun claimed to be *zō, despite the fact that there are two instances of *ź- and *ž-. This means that plain *z- is outnumbered 3 to 1 by the comparatively more exotic counterparts with palatalization, labialization, clusters, etc. Even worse, there are only two instances of plain *s- among twelve roots starting with unvoiced sibilants. So plain phonemes are in the minority, as we would find if we were reconstructing a science-fiction language. Consistently, Starostin's North Caucasian defies any rational structure or common sense and a perfect example of diacritic overkill.
|3. Make pages and pages of "correspondence tables"|
They're sure to impress your family members!
"Correspondence tables" are lists of sounds in the daughter languages of a hypothetical proto-language proposed to prove regular correspondence and thus genuine relationship. So we can say that Germanic *θ often corresponds to Latin t as Jacob Grimm remarked upon in 1822 showing that Germanic and Latin are part of the Indo-European family of languages. However, language isn't that simple and far more often than not, there are numerous exceptions to such simplistic equations. For example, the word 'eight' is octo in Latin and yet *ahtōu with a *t in Germanic. This is because the stop fails to be weakened to a fricative after another stop. What good then are correspondence tables when we can save time and space by actually describing sound changes and their processes? For some reason, Nostraticists and other longrangers like to use these at every turn, as does Sergei Starostin. These childishly repetitive tables simply waste pages and pages of paper and bandwidth without being terribly informative, but it's certainly an excellent way to make your book look thicker and impress your family.
|4. Remember: All critics are conspiring against you!|
Beat dead horses to death and if you can't win, punch them!
You may find that your theory isn't gaining the kind of press that you had hoped and quite a few may be noticing several flaws in your theory. You may not have a single factoid in your favour to form a coherent rebuttal. This is when you bring out the big guns: ignorance combined with non sequitur. This tactic must be handled delicately however. You could try attacking your critics on the personal level, whether that be through the direct use of swearwords or through subtle mockery of your opponent. However this is a desperate last resort, more common on Yahoo! Forums or Youtube. It looks more professional however to simply ignore critics altogether while overpraising the capabilities of yourself and your associates. Using a plethora of unnecessarily sesquipedalian, multipolysyllabic megaterminology, such as "lexicostatistical", is a great tactic to conceal the weaknesses of your theories, as is treating your conjectures as proven facts in any of your publications so as to not bog down your important work with silly things like justification or common sense. Remember, all critics don't know what they're talking about. Their valid criticisms are just a devilish trick of theirs to throw you off-track and pull you off of your hobby horse.
 Note that this pdf incorrectly cites TLE 295 in reference to a word zar when in fact it's properly TLE 275. Furthermore, automatically assuming that zar and śar are the same word purposely ignores phonemic distinctions in order to stroke one's pet theory. The instance of huθ-zars declined in the genitive case (TLE 191) has absolutely nothing to do with zar and everything to do with the fact that a dental stop plus the initial sibilant of attested śar (TCort ii) yield z /tʃ/ in this one particular instance. It's all quite understandable once one puts in the time and effort learning the basics of Etruscan phonetics.
 See Krishnamurti, Comparative Dravidian Linguistics: Current Perspectives (2001), p.250 [click here]
 Visit Mark Rosenfeld's humorous but rational article on the Proto-World language and its associated failures in reasoning: Deriving Proto-World with tools you probably have at home. One of the most poignant criticisms towards the proposals of Merrit Ruhlen and Joseph Greenberg (R&G) that I appreciate here is: "R&G really gain the benefit of obscurity here: how many of us can determine whether they are (unconsciously) playing the same kind of tricks with Tfaltik and Guamo as I am playing with Chinese and Quechua here?" This criticism is equally applicable to Starostin's theory of North Caucasian and his Tower of Babel project where a similar "benefit of obscurity" is being used against his readers.
(Feb 14 2008) My entry The hidden binary behind the Japanese numeral system exposes another flaw in Starostin's reconstructions concerning the origin of Japanese numerals.