Department of Germanic Studies

A Talk by Robert Mailhammer of the University of Western Sydney

Tue, April 29, 2014 | CLA 1.302B

3:30 PM - 4:30 PM

Historical Linguistics in the 21st Millennium: has reconstruction had it?

In recent publications the methodology to reconstruct the history of languages has been repeatedly criticized as unreliable. This pertains to its ability to make inferences about the cultural history of the speakers of a language, especially a historical chronology (see e.g. Gray & Atkinson 2003), and especially to its ability to determine the meaning of words in protolanguages (Heggarty 2013 et passim). Some even go so far as to call the entire method into question, as parallel but independent innovation cannot sufficiently be separated from true inheritance (Salmons forthc.).

This criticism has been used repeatedly over the last 15 years to justify alternative approaches, most notably phylogenetic approaches using Bayesian computational methods, which have received considerable publicity and recognition. As a result, in recent studies of the age of Proto-Indo-European linguistic arguments have not played a role, as their inadequacy has been taken as a given (see e.g. Bouckaert et al. 2012).

It is noteworthy that this criticism against the traditional methodology has been largely sweeping with no published falsification of concrete data, e.g. an etymology or a concrete reconstruction. But traditional historical linguists has so far not capitalized on this and has for the most part ignored the entire debate, running the risk of letting unproven claims dictate the field instead of triggering a healthy debate.

This paper aims at setting the record straight by taking up the criticism and prompting exactly such a debate. I will show that the existing methodology of linguistic reconstruction is by no means unreliable, provided it is remembered what it was designed for and what it is actually capable of. Using key terms from the set of wheeled vehicles terminology (Anthony 1995), it will also be demonstrated that the linguistic facts that are at odds with recent dates given for Proto-Indo-European can’t be simply brushed aside, as the etymologies supporting them for the most part solid and the result of a method that has proved its soundness time and time again. It will be argued that published instances of criticism directed at linguistic reconstruction stem from misconceptions about the method or from incomplete consideration of the evidence.

For more information please contact Dr. Hans Boas



Sponsored by: The Department of Germanic Studies

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