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MannyRayner

Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

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The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue - Merritt Ruhlen On 29 December 1566, Tycho Brahe, a young Danish nobleman who was studying at the University of Rostock, quarrelled with his third cousin Manderup Parsberg about the validity of a mathematical formula. Neither side would back down and they ended up fighting a duel over it, which resulted in Brahe losing part of his nose and being disfigured for life. He went on to become the greatest observational astronomer of his age, carrying out detailed measurements of planetary movements which after his death allowed his assistant Johannes Kepler to formulate the ground-breaking Three Laws.

Now that's how academics ought to be if they want to make a mark and be taken seriously. I am ashamed to say that, like everyone else I know in modern academia, I have never once fought a duel to defend a point of principle. The closest I've come was an incident in 1990 when I published a critical journal article that seriously pissed off a Swedish professor. One of my colleagues was attending a conference; a colleague of the person I'd criticized came up to him during the coffee break, pinned him against the wall, and asked him what the fuck I'd meant and how dared I say that. My friend was impressed! But, despite a few attempts, I have never been able to repeat this early triumph. In general, the current generation of academics are taught to avoid confrontation and try to get on with people.

Merritt Ruhlen, I'm delighted to see, is an old-school kind of guy, and even if he hasn't yet had his nose cut off I'm sure there are plenty of linguists who'd like to help him with that problem. This book gives a condensed, accessible account of the program he's been pursuing for a large part of his distinguished career, whose ambitious goal is to establish a family tree for all the world's languages. I am impressed to learn how much progress Ruhlen and his collaborators have made. Most comparative linguists apparently call him a crank, but Ruhlen has many supporters in the genetics, archaeology and anthropology communities, and is well-liked there; he has even published papers together with the legendary Murray Gell-Mann. For my money, Ruhlen is not a crank, and may go down in history as one of the 20th century's most important linguists.

Ruhlen says that his methods are essentially no more than common sense, and appears exasperated by the hostile reception he has received. It is, indeed hard to explain the hostility on purely rational grounds. The book starts with a precis of the pioneering work done 200 years ago to discover the Indo-European family of languages, which was very simple in nature: people noticed that basic words ("I", "you", "hand", "blood", "fly" etc) tended to have similar forms in all these languages, and logically hypothesized that this pointed to a common origin. Since then, the methods have become more sophisticated, and in particular have moved towards detailed reconstruction of the original "Proto-Indo-European"; but Ruhlen argues persuasively that linguists have lost sight of the original intuitions. Although linguists are now unwilling to admit that two languages are related if they have not been able to reconstruct a common ancestor, Ruhlen points out that the thing which started off the whole process was coincidence of common words. This is what motivated the later reconstructions.

A fairly large part of the book is concerned with the debate about Native American languages, where Ruhlen, building on earlier work by the late Joseph Greenberg, argues that all these languages can be divided into three main groups, each with a common origin: Amerindian, Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleutian. This is apparently anathema to mainstream Americanists, despite the obvious fact, noted from the earliest days of the subject, that the Amerindian group is generally distinguished by a first-person singular pronoun which starts with an 'n' and a second-person singular pronoun which starts with an 'm'. This contrasts with the equally wide-spread pattern among "Euroasiatic" languages of a word like "me" starting with an 'm' and one like "thou" starting with a 't', 'th', 'd' or similar consonant.

The obvious explanation of the contrasting n/m and m/t patterns, which correlate well with other less obvious items, is that they point to two very large language superfamilies, but this is roundly denied by most experts. Ruhlen spends some time discussing why this should be, and stops just short of accusing his colleagues of Nazi-like racial theorizing; he claims that much of the thinking goes back to the late 19th century, where linguists believed that Indo-European languages were more "advanced" than others, and somehow could not be related to them. It is easy to see why people hate him; however, Ruhlen says, with understandable satisfaction, that recent genetic research supports many of his claims, in particular the tripartite Amerindian/Na-Dene/Eskimo-Aleutian division.

The later chapters move towards the even bolder hypothesis that all the world's languages may be related. I was in particular astonished to see a list of roots that, it is claimed, may occur in all the world's language families. The clearest candidate is apparently TIK meaning "finger/one", which, Ruhlen says, has correlates ranging from "DIGit" and "inDICate" in English to te ("hand"; apparently a reduced form of tek) in Japanese. The number two candidate is "AK'WA", meaning "water", which also seems to be remarkably widespread. Ruhlen connects linguistic and genetic evidence, making a pretty good case.

The book is well-written and amusing; I read it in about a day. Highly recommended if you're at all interested in language! And now, if you'll excuse me, I must go and piss off some of my fellow academics. Ruhlen reminds me that I'm behind schedule.