12 May 2009

More fun from the NY Times

While we're on the subject of shoddy articles from the New York Times and sensationalism born from ignorance, here's another one concerning the origin of languages. It's very painful to read if you know anything at all about linguistics:

NY Times: Linguists Dig Deeper into Origins of Language (By John Noble Wilford; November 24, 1987)
I like this borderline-Creationist statement before we even get to the 3rd paragraph : "Yet humans may have developed rudimentary spoken language at least 50,000 years ago, although from the evidence of fossil jaws, they probably could not have made the sound of any vowels other than a long 'a.'" Jaw fossil evidence, eh? Let me get this straight, Mr Wilford... Before 50,000 years we were talking with grunts and ughs, eh? That's funny because I could have sworn that homo sapiens complete with typical human jaw and functional larynx has been around far longer than 50,000 years ago. Just a little bogus already, no?

The article thoroughly pushes a bias slanted towards the kookier camps in linguistics that believe beyond all sense that mass comparison, a technique with obvious and well-documented methodological problems, is somehow "underappreciated" by those crabby ol' status-quo linguists. The article then repackages mass comparison as "the Nostratic technique". We're told that "Dr. Shevoroshkin complains that out of ignorance and skepticism scholars in the United States are discouraged from pursuing Nostratic techniques for reconstructing protolanguages." What a crying shame! While one can fairly admit to an unsaid taboo regarding the subject of long-range comparison in academia, pursuing it with insufficient "Nostratic techniques" only exascerbates the issue by vindicating the weariness of our more diligent scholars.

Then towards the end, as the article gains antilogical momentum, we arrive at the pièce de resistance: "Dr. Ruhlen, in an interview, conceded that reconstructed protolanguages were 'educated guesses based on a range of meanings and a range of sounds,' but he said that many critics are often unfamiliar with the Nostratic methods, in part because most of the research has been published in Russian." No, trust me. It's not the "Russian" issue that makes people 'unfamiliar' (ie. disinterested). It's the sophomoric claims and the many methodological failures that thankfully keep these views (aka. delusions) buried.

This Dr Merritt Ruhlen character is one of the firm reasons why I'm so outspoken against credentialism. This person obtained a PhD from Stanford University like many competent linguists. Yet here is the result of his education: Bengtson/Ruhlen, Global etymologies in Ruhlen, On the Origin of Languages: Studies in Linguistic Taxonomy (1994), pp. 277-336 [pdf]. There we can find a list of charming, conlang-like Proto-World terms. To even have to explain why this is a flamboyant waste of ink and paper is inane in itself. Eyeballing is not a true linguistic "technique" because it's quite simply subjective by its nature. What I may find 'similar', is not necessarily what you may find 'similar'. So without logical criteria to judge whose view is more sensible, it amounts to nothing more than an unintellectual opinion war.

Unfortunately, this fictional drivel lulls the feeling-oriented layman into a false sense of learning. Naturally in the time one would waste in disproving Bengston and Ruhlen's list of gaga terms (as if the onus to prove them weren't logically their *own* in the first place!), we could use our time more wisely from the get-go by getting caught up on what proper linguistic methodology looks like in more serious practice. However, as an example, we can see under **kati 'bone' that he misuses Indo-European *kost- as a cognate while conveniently omitting the fact that it's more common form is *h₂ost-. He clearly can't explain the alternation (since he so cleverly hid it from the reader's view), let alone give us an accurate and sensible account of the development of Pre-IE. Without being able to thoroughly and competently explain the regular development of these terms in each family, his views will always remain idle fantasy regardless of whether he himself is capable of understanding his methodological errors or not.

So, as you see, if a person with such uneducated and over-the-top views can get a PhD, what value is a PhD at all other than simply to impress others with a flashy title? Case in point. Credentialism is a distracting illusion because the only thing that really matters in assessing a person's views at all is good ol' logic, not a piece of paper with a title on it. In this case, Ruhlen's assertions fail. However this doesn't stop him from being front and center on a New York Times article because, to a newspaper, logic doesn't matter; only titles, sensationalism, politics and all other sorts of tactics that stir up people's feelings.

There you have it, yet another nonsensical New York Times article about linguistics that might not smell the slightest bit fishy to the average unknowing joe but which is nonetheless a woefully unbalanced representation of the state of comparative linguistics. Semper caveat lector.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely agree. Ruhlen and his ilk do more damage to Nostraticism than its opponents. I wouldn't have such a problem with mass comparison if it was used the way proponents say it's supposed to be used: As a quick way of comparing languages to see if more detailed comparison is warranted. Unfortunately proponents start and end at mass comparison and don't do any of the real work.