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

with Dr. Robert Mailhammer, University of Western Sydney

Tue, April 29, 2014 | CLA 1.302B, Glickman Center

3:30 PM - 4:30 PM

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, and especially to its ability to determine the meaning of words in protolanguages. 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.

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.

This talk aims at setting the record straight by taking up the criticism and prompting exactly such a debate. Dr. Mailhammer 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, 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.

Sponsored by: Sponsored by Germanic Studies, Linguistics Research Center, and Texas Language Center.

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