11 May 2013

Eurasiatic? It Ain’t No Rocket Science

Just as I was approaching the subject of long-range comparison and language superfamilies at a leisurely pace, newspaper headlines and the blogosphere went abuzz with big news about the very same subject. How timely from my point of view!
'Ershver tooni monhrr!' In other words, hey, can you give me a hand! The ice age 'superlanguage' Europeans spoke 15,000 years ago - and we can still understand today
  • Researchers uncovered language Ice Age people used to communicate - with many of the words still in use today
  • Believe 'superlanguage' may have existed so different groups could communicate
  • Experts say we could 'hold a simple conversation' using the language
Estonia, Moldova, and Macedonia: Here be dragons
It looks ridiculous and it is ridiculous. But then, all right: journalists will be journalists. In particular, the undereducated and uncritical science reporters of today inevitably misunderstand and misreport at least 60% of what they find in a scientific journal. But what did they report in this case? An article in a very serious and highly prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). I live in a backward Central European country in which the Sciences and the Humanities are not clearly distinguished. Like our German-language neighbours with their Wissenschaft, we use the word nauka for both. It could be roughly translated as learning into English (or as scientia into Latin). I am a linguist, so, in English terms, I may be a scholar, I may have a PhD and a university post, but I am not a scientist. The articles I write are therefore not scientific and journals like PNAS would not be interested in publishing them. But it is a totally different matter if a team of scientists attack a linguistic problem and apply the Scientific Method to it. Then, it seems, the results become scientific. It may even be cutting-edge science, wow!-science. Who knows, it might even shift a Kuhnian paradigm!

The article in question is this:
Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade. Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia
Published online before print, 6 May 2013
It has already been criticised here (by Sally Thomason) and here (by Asya Pereltsvaig), but there are several aspects of the study that have not been sufficiently covered so far, so I am going to devote a few posts to them. It is nothing personal, and please do not think that I am defending my linguistic turf against a rival gang. I hope it is clear that I am no Luddite afraid of computers and algorithms. I am a big fan of the natural sciences, especially biology. Some of my visitors may recall that in one of my previous posts I referred to another paper by almost the same team (published in 2007, also in a leading scientific journal, Nature in that case). In my opinion, that article was a valid and stimulating contribution to linguistics. I am sorry I cannot say the same of the present PNAS article. It is flawed in a very fundamental way; it abuses the scientific method. Its only use is that we can learn from it how interdisciplinary research should not be conducted. I know it sounds harsh, but I really mean what I am saying. Stay tuned in, and you will soon learn why.

[► Back to the beginning of the Proto-World thread]


  1. It's bizarre to even speak of the Scientific Method when there's nothing resembling a falsifiable hypothesis anywhere to be found in the paper, nor do they contrast their results against any baseline measurements which would show that/whether their results are actually above chance level. It should also be added that PNAS is normally peer-reviewed, but that papers can be communicated or prearranged-edited by members of the National Academy of Sciences, which also happened in this case, by Colin Renfrew.

  2. Agreed on all counts, but there are even more elementary flaws, especially the use of non-data to build the dataset. But I'll write about that separately.