Once the rules of sound correspondence between contemporary languages have been established, the word in the parent language can be reconstructed. Scholars have reconstructed an extensive vocabulary in proto-Indo-European, the hypothesized ancestral tongue of many European and Indian languages. Any claim that a language is part of the Indo-European family can then be tested by seeing if its grammar and vocabulary can be derived, by the established rules, from proto-Indo-European. From the instances above, English might not seem so promising a candidate, but the initial "k" sound in Latin is known to correspond with an "h" in the Germanic group of languages, making head and the German word haupt (now a figurative word for head) cognates with Latin's caput. By the same rule Latin's canis is cognate with German's hund and the English word hound, all being derived from proto-Indo-European *kwon.
Rigorous application of the comparative method has freed linguistics from many false etymologies and crank theories. Many linguists insist that the comparative method is the only acceptable way of testing whether languages are related to each other. This position is based on the belief that, since words change so fast, two daughter languages will soon have only a small percentage of their vocabulary in common and at this point the number of true cognates may be exceeded by chance resemblances and words that sound alike because the two languages under comparison each borrowed them from a third. Because the signal of the true cognates is soon overwhelmed by the noise of specious ones, the roots of a family of languages, linguists say, can be traced no farther back than about 6,000 years or so, the period when most linguists believe proto-Indo-European was spoken. Greenberg, in his method of mass comparison, did not look for sound correspondences, nor did he try to reconstruct proto-languages to confirm his findings. Hence, in the view of many linguists, his method and findings cannot be trusted.
Whatever the theoretical objections to Greenberg's method, the bottom line is the empirical question of whether or not it works. Africanists have decided it did indeed work for African languages. But this apparently persuasive circumstance has not changed linguists' views about the validity of Greenberg's method. In a recent essay on Greenberg's Afroasiatic family, Richard Hayward, of the London School of Oriental and African Studies, writes that the "only admissible evidence" for establishing that languages have a common ancestry is by the comparative method and sound correspondences. "Now it was on the basis of 'mass comparison,' rather than the comparative method, that the canon of the Afroasiatic languages was established by Greenberg, and although this methodology . . . has, in the present writer's view, come up with the right conclusions, a methodology that does not invoke the rigour of the principle stated in the last paragraph [i.e., that of the comparative method] cannot make predictions, and so falls short of true theoretical 282
status," Hayward writes._In other words, even if Greenberg got the right answer, it was by the wrong method.
If the faculty of human language were extremely ancient, and if human populations were highly mixed, the likelihood of languages on the same continent being related to each other might be small, and it would be appropriate to assume languages were unrelated unless proven otherwise. But since fully modern language probably evolved only 50,000 years ago, and since today's populations still strongly reflect the original patterns of human migration, the reverse is the case: all languages are probably offshoots of a single mother tongue and related to each other at one level or another. In circumstances where history and archaeology make language relationships very likely, such as in the Americas, a lesser standard of proof would perhaps be appropriate. It is surely in Africa, where languages have had longest to diversify, that Greenberg's mass comparison method stood least chance of success, yet it is there that linguists judge it to be most successful.
Linguists' insistence on comparative method as the only acceptable classification tool is a matter of some frustration to researchers who would like to integrate the findings of population genetics and archaeology with a linguistic tree. Without a guide from conventional linguists to deep language relationships, population geneticists tend to rely on the work of Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen, his Stanford University colleague, as the best available guide to the overall structure of the world's languages.
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