15 May 2013

Eurasiatic: A Wild Pursuit (1)

The aim of Pagel et al. (2013) is to lend support to the Eurasiatic superfamily proposal by showing that the suggested cognate classes size of four of more (i.e. Proto-Eurasiatic words reflected in at least four out of the seven families making up Eurasiatic) correlate with the frequency of use of the corresponding meanings to a statistically significant degree. In other words, the frequency of use turns out to be a good predictor of cognate class sizes because words used more frequently are less likely to undergo lexical replacement and in general retain the form-meaning association more faithfully (see Pagel et al. (2007), where the mean frequencies in question are established for the Indo-European family and found to be correlated with the linguistic half-lives of words). High-frequency words are therefore likelier to survive in a larger number of lineages descended from a common ancestor.

Since the size of the cognate classes discussed in the article can only equal 4, 5, 6 or 7, and the total number of meanings is only 23, it is clear that any inaccuracy in determining the number of cognates can have a significant effect on the statistics. It really matters if a given word is judged to have a cognate class of 7 or of 5, for example. How are those numbers determined? The authors accept the cognacy judgements from the Nostratic/Eurasiatic list of etymologies in the LWED database. The actual “cognates” are not listed, but the reader can track them down in the database using the information from table 1 in the article. Cognacy is accepted, according to the authors, if the putative cognates have precisely the same meaning in different families (or rather the same reconstructed meaning in their respective protolanguages). It’s a conservative requirement, but does it really reduce the danger of spurious cognacy? Let us have a look at some of the 23 cognate classes, beginning with the one with the most impressive score – 7 cognates in 7 families. The most successful  Eurasiatic replicator is the 2sg. pronoun ‘thou’ (see this link).

The Proto-Eurasiatic pronoun is reconstructed as *ṭ[u] with an emphatic (ejective?) coronal stop in the Moscow dialect of Eurasiatic. It is clearly designed to yield the familiar IE stem *tu-, and so it does. Thanks to the *u being optional, it can be easily matched with the Uralic 2sg. pronoun, whose forms begin with *t-, though it has to be noted that a match based on a single segment (and a dental stop at that) is not particularly impressive. But Uralic, like IE, also has a 1sg. pronoun with initial *m-, which reinforces the impression that the pronominal systems of the two families are somehow related. And here easy comparison ends.

In view of 1sg. *kǝm in Chukotko-Kamchatkan (and the parallel 1pl. *muri, 2pl. *turi) the final dental in 2sg. *kǝð may plausibly reflect an original second-person marker, which would make Chukotko-Kamchatkan another “M/T family”. The Eskimo(-Aleut) 2sg. forms, cited but not discussed in the database, are much harder to analyse and their final *-n (*-nt?) cannot be unambiguously connected with the M/T system.

Left: Mars in 1894. Right: Mars now.
Dravidian has no matching form (the 2sg. pronoun there begins with *n-, uncontroversially attested throughout the family, including the outlying Brahui language). The editors of the database, however, are evidently prepared to bend over backwards to find a trace of the “real” Proto-Dravidian pronoun, so they list the verb ending  *-ti as a match, and Pagel et al. accept that despite their sworn insistence on strict semantic identity! Perhaps they didn’t know (because the database didn’t mention it) that the conjugational ending in question wasn’t even reconstructible to Proto-Dravidian; but at any rate, a verb ending instead of a pronoun does not constitute a match. There goes one member of the cognate class.

Altaic (assuming for the sake of the argument that it counts as a bona fide family) has a 2sg. pronoun in *s-, which can’t be derived from an earlier stop, emphatic or otherwise, by the Moscow School Nostraticists’ own rules. Mongolic, however, has an aberrant form which could be a possible reflex of *ṭ- (no *u again, but remember that the vowel is conveniently optional), so Mongolic evidence overrules the testimony of the remaining four subfamilies of Altaic and another match is arbitrarily declared.

Kartvelian 2sg. *sen isn’t a promising cognate, so a plural form is cited instead (as if the Proto-Kartvelian 2pl. *(ś)tkwen really looked like a plausible relative of IE *tu-, but then at least it contains a *t beside four other consonants). This alleged match flies in the face of the evidence and should have been disqualified by Pagel et al.

To sum up, we have possible cognates in three families (Indo-European, Uralic, Chukotko-Kamchatkan), one extremely doubtful case (Eskimo-Aleut), and three rather clear negatives (Dravidian, Altaic, Kartvelian). An optimistic but conservative determination of the cognate class size should be 3, certainly not 7, for the supposedly most successful Eurasiatic replicator. And even so, the “matches” involve a single consonant with the most common place of articulation. Such evidence would be easy to dismiss if it were not for the accompanying 1sg. m-pronouns. Nevertheless, ‘thou’ should really have been removed from the list rather than promoted to its top.

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