For your enjoyment.

Lessons on how not to attempt to do science.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [evol-psych] In Click Languages, an Echo of the Tongues of the Ancients
Date: Mon, 14 Apr 2003 13:13:03 +0100
From: Larry Trask <larryt@...>
To: "M. Washington" <best@...>,

--On Friday, April 11, 2003 8:32 am -0500 "M. Washington" 

> The final question will be: what is the history and meaning of the term > 'conserved' in an anthropological and archeological sense and is what is > the possibility that branches of the Bushman click language are conserved.
First, there is no such thing as "the Bushman click language". There are dozens of distinct click languages, spoken by the so-called Bushmen and others. It cannot be shown that all click languages descend from a common ancestor, and it cannot even be shown that all the click languages spoken by Bushmen descend from a common ancestor.
> RECENT ARTICLES ON CLICK LANGUAGE: An article on click languages appeared: > Alec Knight, Peter A. Underhill, Holly M. Mortensen, Lev A. Zhivotovsky, > Alice A. Lin, Brenna M. Henn, Dorothy Louis, Merritt Ruhlen, and Joanna L. > Mountain, African Y Chromosome and mtDNA Divergence Provides Insight into > the History of Click Languages, Current Biology, v. 13, pp. 464 -473, > Issue of 18 March 2003.
This is the article which featured in the New York Times report recently discussed on this list. I won't go into that stuff again, but I will make another point. This article is based entirely upon an unstated and very dubious assumption, as follows: The existence of clicks is a great mystery requiring a dramatic explanation. I see no reason to take this notion seriously. Clicks are just consonants, for god's sake. They are very easy to make -- though some of the click accompaniments are another matter. The phoneticians Ladefoged and Maddieson report that naive subjects learn to produce clicks more easily than they learn to produce other unusual consonant types, such as ejectives and implosives -- which are nevertheless more frequent in the world's languages than are clicks. Clicks are acoustically salient. They are easily borrowed into languages that didn't originally have them. In short, there is nothing particularly amazing about clicks. So why do some anthropologists and geneticists get their knickers in a twist over these inoffensive little sounds? The scholars of the 19th century often got equally excited about tone languages. They regarded tones as extravagantly exotic, as inexplicable, as possibly even requiring a separate creation. But, since then, our understanding of tones has increased greatly. We now understand how tones can arise in languages that formerly lacked them, and we regard tones as a perfectly humdrum affair. With time and opportunity, we might hope to extend our understanding of clicks to the same level. Sadly, though, we're not likely to get the chance. Click languages are much rarer than tone languages, and almost all of them are endangered. Some known click languages have already gone extinct, and many others will probably follow suit in the near future. This is on top of the Bantu expansion of the last two millennia, which obliterated an unknown but probably very large number of click languages. [snip]
> Possible, not fact: My understanding of the original article, as it > appeared in Current Biology, is that one point was to introduce the > ground to state that there was a chance that branches of the click > language are possibly the most conserved language on earth. By saying > that branches are possibly the most conserved language on earth leaves > room for the alternative that they are not. With the publication of the > article, they re-opened a two century-old discussion.
Mr. Washington, will you *please* stop writing "the click language"? This is meaningless. Now, this notion that click languages are the most conservative languages on earth is not taken seriously by many linguists, and in fact it is incoherent. *Every* language is conservative in some respects but innovating in others. For example, if we look at the Germanic languages, Icelandic has been far more conservative in most respects than has English, which is among the least conservative of the Germanic languages. But English has been outstandingly conservative in at least one respect. Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the common ancestor of most of the modern languages of Europe, and spoken perhaps 6000 years ago, had a consonant [w]. This consonant has either changed into a different sound or disappeared completely in every single living Indo-European language -- except one. And that one is English. English is the *only* Indo-European language to preserve PIE [w] unchanged. For example, the PIE words for 'wolf', 'weave', 'water' and 'wasp' began with the sound [w] -- and their modern English descendants still start with [w]. As for the click languages of Africa, I will remind you that they are so different from one another that no common ancestry can be demonstrated. In fact, it's worse than that. They are so different that we can't even find any scraps of evidence for common ancestry. These languages have absolutely nothing in common but clicks. We might as well burble pointlessly about the possible common origin of tone languages, such as Chinese, Yoruba and Navaho. The tone languages have nothing in common but tones, and the click languages have nothing in common but clicks. Trying to treat the click languages as a unity, when no unity has been demonstrated, is therefore pointless. Recall from that Times article that the writer was baffled by the observation that the click languages had nothing in common but their clicks. "How can it be", he wrote, "that everything has changed except the clicks?" This is the kind of ridiculous corner you paint yourself into if you start out by assuming that click languages have a common origin. There is no evidence that click languages have a common origin, and no point in assuming that they do. The notion that clicks must be a fantastically ancient survival is supported by no evidence. And, as I pointed out earlier, it leads easily into absurdity: "Speakers can't invent clicks today, but they had no trouble inventing them long ago." [snip]
> Conservativism as 'frozen in time.' I would like to investigate the > possibility that click language is the most conserved language.
There is no such thing as a language which is "frozen in time". This is literally impossible. Languages are *always* changing. Anyway, if click languages are so conservative, then why aren't they similar to one another? Why do they have nothing in common except clicks? Answer, please. You might as well argue that red objects are more conservative than blue objects -- even though red objects have nothing in common except that they are all red. Or, getting back to languages, you might as well argue that tone languages are more conservative than the other ones, or that gender languages are more conservative, or that ergative languages are more conservative, or that languages with ejective consonants are more conservative, or... What's so special about clicks? [snip]
> A CONSTELLATION OF CONSERVED FEATURES: Peter Underhill, among others, have > championed the use of the multi-disciplinary approach in archeology or > genetics where diverse fields are drawn upon to support any given > hypothesis. To say that the click language of the Bushman is or is not > conserved in the absence of other multi-disciplinary evidence is not as > strong an argument to make as a multi-disciplinary one. I will try to > make a multi-disciplinary one and introduce a range of other aspects of > conservativism that may add credence to the possibility as the San (as > opposed to the Khoi or Ethiopian who are mixed races with San input) have > remained genetically isolated from other races. And in that isolation, to > have preserved a life-style deca-millenniums old. > > The following are features of the Bushman that MAY have been conserved > over time:
These features are linguistically meaningless. The observation, even if it is true, that a people preserves some ancient elements in its culture has no linguistic consequences. My American culture preserves several pagan festivals whose roots can be traced thousands of years back into the past: Christmas and Easter -- which have received a Christian gloss -- and Hallowe'en -- which has not. Does it therefore follow that my American English must preserve ancient linguistic features? (1) the extraction of termites from mounds has been found to
> be the same with some contemporary Bushmen as archeological evidence > shows it to have been about 1.2 mya; (2) the use of the hammer and anvil > of rock is the same among some branches of the Bushman as it is with the > chimpanzee; (3) the social hierarchy is the same among some branches of > the Bushman as it is with the hamadryas baboon;
Mr. Washington, this is disgraceful, and you should be ashamed of yourself.
> (4) the Bushman use of > clicks resembles that of the hamadryas baboon [See: Faidherbe, Revue > Linguistique, 1885];
Certainly not. Let's go through this again. In linguistics, 'click' is merely a shorthand label for what is technically called a "velaric ingressive consonant" -- or, in another terminology, a "velaric suction consonant". Do hamadryas baboons produce velaric ingressive consonants? Evidence? Hamadryas baboons are highly unusual among monkeys, and even among baboons. They live on the ground, and their diet consists of ground-growing vegetation. This food they gather with their hands. In fact, they spend the larger part of their day gathering food in this way. Apparently as a consequence, they spend little time in grooming one another -- which sets them apart from practically all other monkeys and apes. But hamadryads, unusually among monkeys, and unusually among baboons, engage in a kind of constant chattering. It has been suggested that this chattering -- and I have never heard it called "clicks" by anyone off this list -- represents the creatures' technique for bonding in the absence of grooming. In any case, it is clear that this chattering is an innovation developed by hamadryas baboons. It is not a typical feature of baboons; it is not a typical feature of monkeys; it is not a typical feature of apes; and Mr. Washington's attempt to suggest that the baboons and the Bushmen have both inherited some noises from a common ancestor is a disgraceful piece of racism. Finally, I think you will find that our understanding has moved on a bit since 1885.
> (5) the penotype of the San appears similar in > height, skeletal, and skull features as the earlier Boskopoid race which > lived in the same geographical area and maintained, the same kind of > hunter-gatherer life style; (6) there are some branches of the Bushman > that continue to make stone tools as did Mesolithic humans; (7) there is > a lot of literature on the mythology, folklore, and religious views of > the Bushman being similar to those recorded by most ancient Egyptians and > other groups first written in the historical record.
I don't believe this. But, even if it were true, it would be useless in arguing for the supposed antiquity of clicks. Mr. Washington closes with an extract from a certain Mr. Massey. This passage is arrant nonsense from beginning to end. It is clear that Massey was a nutter with several large bees buzzing about in his pith helmet. He was obviously determined to find clicks under the bed. This is not the sort of thing that anybody should take seriously today, and I suspect that not many people took it seriously in Massey's own day. Larry Trask COGS University of Sussex Brighton BN1 9QH UK larryt@... News in Brain and Behavioural Sciences - Issue 92 - 5th April, 2003 Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to

Mark Hubey