John McWhorter is restrainedly enthusiastic about a recently published paper linking an isolated language of Nepal to the languages of the Andaman islands. Now, as I have recently pointed out, I am not terribly specialised in historical linguistics. The last thing I read on the historical linguistics of Papuan languages was Wurm's book from the mid-70's. Even when I read it over a decade ago, the very idea that the Andaman languages had any particular connection to the languages of Papua was considered controvertial.
Thus, I am ill-equipped to judge the connecting hypothesis - that if this Nepalese language is related to Andamanese languages and Andamanese languages are related to Papuan languages and Papua has been settled for some 75,000 years, then this link is reconstructing an 80,000 year old linguistic connection. But, it seems to me that I'd need to be convinced of the intermediate steps before considering the basic claim.
McWhorter does appear to be giving due diligence to scepticism about claims for such ancient reconstructions. I can't read the paper or see its bibiliography, so I can't track the entire argument back myself and come to my own conclusions.
He puts a lot of stock in the similarity of pronouns as a point in favour of this radical account of the origins of the Papuan languages. However, there is something else that I would want to check up on. I note that the authors are all involved in this project over at the Santa Fe institute. The intent is to construct a large database of core vocabulary for all - or a large part - of the worlds languages and accepted language reconstructions. This would enable them to make large comparisons across the whole database.
Now, while a similarity in pronouns might well be compelling when studying a small group of languages, if you have several hundred languages in your database, you might well find very surprising coincidences between languages that are nonetheless totally spurious. If the discovery of this previously unknown long distance similarity has been uncovered by such a database search, this argues against giving the coincidence of pronoun similarity any terribly great weight. Given a large enough sample, there is no relationship so unlikely that it can't be a coincidence. A lot of bad science - especially social science - gets published by ignoring this rule.
How you find something out is relevant in determining whether or not it is meaningful. Imagine if instead of an Andamanese language, this Nepalese language used almost exactly the same pronouns as - say - Farsi. We would immediately identify this as a coincidence. But, Farsi is a far closer neighbour geographically to Nepal than the Andamans.
Once again, I haven't read the article, but that is the only thing McWhorter describes that seems very striking to me. This Nepali community that appears to be the focus of this radical hypothesis is, like Andaman islanders, very short and dark. Southern Asia and Australasia have pockets of short, dark people who are physically quite different from their neighbours. They used to be called negritos (in Malaysia, they are nowadays called orang asli, but that name includes other peoples as well) and quite a few people have suggested that they are, in some sense, remenants of the original migration out of Africa in the distant past. However, I don't think there are any particular linguistic similarities between the "negritos" (I know some speak Austronesian languages, for example), and I am unaware of anyone claiming that they have DNA markers that would indicate a particularly common ancestry.
Now, this is not a body of research I keep terribly up-to-date in. These questions may have already been answered somewhere else. But, I wouldn't put much store by an article whose content is "A speculates that B, and C has found intriguing evidence of D, and if B and D and E (which we are proposing based on our search of a database of language etymologies derived from various sources) then possibly F. And, wow, wouldn't F be something!"
Maybe it's all legit and a radical breakthrough has just been made, or is at least plausible. But, this is the kind of thing I'd look out for if I could read the paper in question.Posted 2004/06/10 16:48 (Thu) | TrackBack