Comrie: Languages and genes – review


How do languages relate to genes? Does cultural transmission of language match
the biological transmission? Well, Bernard Comrie in Languages and Genes,
makes a clear distinction between languages and genes. Languages are transmitted culturally unlike
genes which are transmitted biologically. In his paper, he makes suggestions for reconstructing
human pre-history with reference to archeology, anthropology, genetics and especially linguistics. Analogies were made between languages and
genes by modelling tree structures. Language families were drawn designing family
trees as an analogy with genetic trees. These family tree models form the basis of
the comparative-historical linguistics. However, according to the author, there are
a couple of problems with the method. First of all, the method is a gross oversimplification. To establish a branch of a language family,
the model indicates innovations and not inherited features. Second, in some cases it is very hard, if
not impossible, to distinguish vertical transmission from horizontal transmission, in other words,
to distinguish inherited elements from borrowings. Think of mixed languages like creoles. He summarizes the main concepts of comparative
linguistics and draws attention to its problems. He deals with the reasons why languages may
share properties in common. There are four main reasons: language universals,
inherited properties, borrowings and chance resemblances. However, the well-known linguistic methods
fail to distinguish these four categories in several cases. As far as the borrowability is concerned,
there are some elements of the language which are more likely borrowables than others such
as the basic vocabulary against cultural vocabulary. It was widely believed among linguists that
grammatical structure was hardly borrowable, however when language shift happens, the grammar
is also transmitted, so similarities in grammatical structure is not enough to form genetic relationship. To establish a genealogical relatedness between
two languages, linguists use a certain criteria: the inflectional morphology of the compared
languages should be related. However, what happens if the inflectional
morphology is not available? Vietnamese does not have inflectional morphology. How to classify this language then? In his opinion, one of the major problems
is that linguists believe if a method is applicable once, it will be applicable for ever. He argues the reliability of the regularity
of sound laws (which approach is the foundation of historical linguistics), and he reveals
the problems of glottochronology (which is a method of dating the replacement of certain
words). As you can see, there are many problems with
comparative-historical linguistics. Comrie’s paper is a good summary of the
most important issues in this field. Let me know what you think and leave me a comment! Please, don’t forget to subscribe to my channel!

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