3 Jan 2012
The internet abounds with information if we make the effort to search. One interesting find is a pdf of the Baxter-Sagart reconstruction of Old Chinese roots in tabular format. Excellent! But being an analytical bad news bear, I also see some important issues that tie in with my stance on developing orthographies that properly conform to Occam's Razor. This is out of respect for logic, for necessary simplicity, for clarity and for general readers, some of whom may not be well-versed in linguistics but which nonetheless are interested in the beauty of a language and its history.
Contempt for Occam's Razor inhabits even mainstream linguistics and the field is far too often misconceived as an intuitive art than a logical science. I put my money on organized phonologies and uncluttered orthographies that express only what's necessary for the topic at hand. It's not necessary to show exact phonetics of a word each and every time when the discussion is not about the exact phonetics of a language. If we have a list of roots, it doesn't make sense to list it all out in excruciating phonetic detail any more than it makes sense to write English this way. As such, mixing IPA symbols into your orthography often spells more trouble than what it's worth. "IPA" doesn't stand for International Orthographic Alphabet. At some point a decent linguist must come up with a sensible, legible, optimal, uncluttered orthography to express their language of study beyond the microscale phonetic level. A means, in other words, to quickly and clearly cite words in a vocabulary, pruned for immediate and sufficient comprehension by an everyday reader. Abusing symbols to complicate the message is as corrupt a practice as abusing unnecessary specialist terms for little other reason than for show.
On the top of the list, the Baxter-Sagart team begins with roots like *ʔˤra. This shows us that they envision a phonemic pharyngealized glottal stop. Fine. However unless */ʔˤ/ is phonemically distinct from other phonemes in the language, say */ʕ/, why be so precise on the orthographic level? Why not use a single clear symbol for this instead of mixing up orthography with the phonetic level far below it? If the orthography, in its necessary simplicity, doesn't make the phonetics you intend very clear, one may simply write a quick primer on it and be done with it. If only this, then I can concede that perhaps there's some reason for it that I've overlooked.
Further down the list, we also have *qˤrep which is quite the tongue-twister. One may dismiss this as within the bounds of plausibility although I do admit that this apparent pharyngealized uvular stop is unusual for its Schrödingeresque ability to inhabit two places of articulation at once. Then again, there are many consonant rich languages like Klallam around, right? We also have to keep in mind though that these kinds of languages are also quite rare and there's nothing scientific and methodical about a theory that strives towards the exotic rather than the minimal. Strong proof should come before the addition of a new phoneme to a reconstruction.
But when we come across *qʷʰˤat-, what is Baxter and Sagart trying to express to us and how does it fit into a plausible phonological system? A labialized, aspirated, pharyngealized, uvular stop??? How on earth could this possibly be contrastive with another phoneme? Surely at this point we have to concede that Baxter and Sagart have not respected the differences and proper uses of phonetic versus orthographic transcription. It gives the impression of a poorly organized phonology and orthography, mixing exact and even unlikely phonetic symbols together to create a visual mess that ends up being more confusing to the reader than helpful. At this point, it's just not reflective of the facts, even when (and especially when) armed with knowledge of the IPA system!
Keep in mind that there are already expressed concerns by others about the use of "j" in Middle Chinese onsets in words like gji (祇 qí) considering that the "phoneme" doesn't seem to exist when compared to some loanwords coming from outside Chinese (eg. MC *bjut [Baxter] < Sanskrit buddha 'enlightened one; Buddha'). There is indeed informational value behind "j" here but it's very unlikely a true semivowel or a palatalization of the preceding consonant. At some point then, we have to get back to reality, paying careful heed to creating a balanced, minimal orthography because overcomplexity quite simply hampers progress in all things.