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Another protolanguage? 
Posted: 09 May 2013 03:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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Here’s the Washington Post link to some of the alleged “deep survivor” words being spoken in languages supposedly in the super-family. As others have pointed out, the word for “spit” in many languages sounds just like someone spitting - astonishing.

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Posted: 09 May 2013 06:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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She isn’t as vociferous as the commentators in the LH thread

Really?  I’d say “garbage in, garbage out” and “you still can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” are pretty vociferous (if by that you mean ‘scathing’).  And why shouldn’t one be scathing about crap like this?  I guess fellow members of the professoriat feel obliged to show professional courtesy, but there’s no reason the rest of us can’t call a spade a spade.  It gets my goat that non-linguists feel entitled to try to rewrite the findings of linguists without actually understanding them, and the more harshly they get slapped down, the greater the likelihood that they’ll think twice next time.

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Posted: 11 May 2013 01:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Another interesting (and rather withering) take on the ultra-conserved words paper.  While further debunking is perhaps not necessary at this point, this article approaches the issues from a somewhat different perspective, and I found its general discussion of the subject matter interesting in its own right.

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Posted: 12 May 2013 03:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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In the Washington Post, David Brown, claims that the following passage consists largely of such “ultraconserved words: “You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!”. Brown further contends that:

“… if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying.”

That’s a pretty amazing quote. Admittedly the author has no relevant credentials, but then again neither do I, and its falsehood is obvious enough to me.
Even if you said it to an English speaker 1100 years ago they’d be flat out picking up much, just from hearing it.

If nothing else, this is an interesting case of an over-reaching article by people working somewhat outside of their field can be blown up into something completely ridiculous by other authors working completely out of their field.

Is it really impossible for major news outlets to get actual linguists to do reviews on linguistics papers? Or would that spoil the fun?

EDIT: For that matter, why is it that these non-linguists’ linguistics papers get more general attention than those by linguists?

[ Edited: 12 May 2013 03:16 AM by OP Tipping ]
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Posted: 12 May 2013 04:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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For that matter, why is it that these non-linguists’ linguistics papers get more general attention than those by linguists?

This phenomenon isn’t limited to linguistics. Bad papers often get good press across a variety of disciplines. I know of two reasons:

1) Although this reason doesn’t apply in this case, quacks and pseudoscientists often use the press to get their ideas across. They can’t stand up to the rigor imposed by the academy, so they take the debate to a more forgiving forum, journalism.

2) University public relations offices often promote articles that have a good hook. Work that makes sweeping or big claims is more attractive to the press. (If it seems that shaky linguistic articles are more common than in other disciplines, it may be because of this. Stories about language are perceived to have wide appeal.) And often what is actually a decent paper will be blown out of proportion and misreported by the press.

Also contributing to the perception that this happens more often in linguistics is selection bias. Those who read this site are also more likely to read more linguistics articles. Since we see more of them overall, we’ll also see more bad ones. If this were a astrophysics site, the readers would probably think astrophysics had a disproportionate number of bad articles receiving press attention.

In this particular case, contributing to the press interest is that the article is in PNAS, a rather prestigious journal. That adds to the fuel for both the university PR office and the journalists reporting on it. The fact that PNAS doesn’t (as far as I know) often publish linguistics articles probably contributed to the problem of this being a bad paper (They don’t have editors versed in the subject and may not know the proper peer reviewers to contact.)

Note also that this article did not follow PNAS’s standard submission procedure. It had a “pre-arranged editor.” A PE is used by PNAS and some other journals when, “an article falls into an area without broad representation in the Academy, or for research that may be considered counter to a prevailing view or too far ahead of its time to receive a fair hearing.” Basically, the authors get to pick their editor. It doesn’t bypass peer review, but it can grease the skids. Depending on the authors’ influence over the editor, they may be able to pick their reviewers and a shaky paper that might be rejected by a more neutral editor is more likely to be accepted by a PE. Anytime you see an article with a PE, that’s a flag that the work is on the fringe—not necessarily bad, but a warning sign that it is more likely to be so. Journalists, of course, don’t pick up on this nuance.

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Posted: 12 May 2013 04:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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Possibly because it’s easier to rip to shreds.

Why Southern Europe in particular? Does that mean that none of the other tribes wandering through Europe at that point in time were intelligent, organised or fertile enough to have created and passed down language, or if they did create one, why didn’t it last?  Was it survival of the loudest, fittest or best adapted? (Nothing changes, obviously).  And if there is a proto-European language, which proto-languages account for the other language families and when did they emerge - before or after PIE?  And if there are other proto-languages, are they related to one another? 

There.  I’ve suggested a couple more doctoral theses for anyone willing to dig around a bit and come up with “don’t know”.

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Posted: 12 May 2013 05:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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It’s likely, if the recent “out of Africa” theory is true, that there is one proto-language that is the mother of all current human languages. That theory postulates that the descendents of all modern humans emigrated from Africa some 60,000 to 120,000 years ago. (According to this theory, there had been earlier emigrations, but we’re not descended from those.) If the departure from Africa is this recent, it is almost a certainty that those humans who left Africa already had language, and all languages extant today descend from this one. If there had been other, distinct inventions of language, say by the Neanderthals, those languages did not survive.

But postulating that such a proto-language existed and being able to deduce anything about what it was like are two entirely separate things. The first is a statistical probability, given certain theories about human migration and dispersion are correct, while the latter is an impossibility.

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Posted: 12 May 2013 06:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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What is needed here is the linguistic analogue of mitochondrial DNA. And I can’t imagine what that might be.

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Posted: 12 May 2013 06:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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Piotr Gąsiorowski, a historical linguist, has been discussing exactly that at his excellent blog Language Evolution (here‘s the first post in the series: “And Now for Something Completely Different: Proto-World!").  And at the moment he’s ripping the “superlanguage” story to shreds; here‘s the first post in that series ("the present PNAS article… is flawed in a very fundamental way; it abuses the scientific method. Its only use is that we can learn from it how iterdisciplinary research should not be conducted.’).

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Posted: 12 May 2013 06:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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That’s what Pagel, et. al. were attempting to provide. The trouble is that any such analogue is going to utterly disappear without a trace over the time scales we’re talking about. What I liked about their approach is that the statistical method they use might be a way to transcend the lack of actual evidence and tell us something about when this common ancestor might have existed—but not anything about the grammar or vocabulary of the language itself. Unfortunately, the assumptions on which Pagel and co. based that statistical model are just wrong.

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