March 01, 2004

Cohering into families on the run

I guess this deserves a separate post. In Jack Hitt's Sunday NYT Magazine piece "Say no more", along with the things I've already discussed at excessive length, there are many small puzzles, one of which Nicholas Widdows emailed about:

Another bit of astonishing nonsense in that perplexing article was this, on the bottom of page 2:

'Then the multitude of idioms developed on the run cohered into language families, like Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Elamo-Dravidian'

Now I'm sure that's not what it said in the book he got it from. (Well, I hope it's not.)

Right. Darwin, who modeled his ideas about "descent with modification" on philological accounts of language evolution, would have gone off in a very different intellectual direction if he had construed historical linguistics as Hitt does. Like rivers joining as they flow to the sea, or political tendencies joining in the social fabric of the republic, the multitude of birds and mammals, in all their diversity, eventually cohered into the great family of reptiles. Not.

[Update 3/3/2004:

Bill Poser emails:

It occurs to me that, given the sloppiness with which Jack Hitt writes about the linguistic side of things, it is possible that what he meant when he wrote about the "multitude of idioms cohering into language families..." is not what we interpret him to mean, namely lots of unrelated languages assimilating to each other to the point that they appear to be genetically related. He may simply have meant that lots of little languages died out to be replaced by a relatively small number of widespread languages that gave rise in turn to a fair number of daughters. Not that I wish to defend either silly linguistics or sloppy writing, but just as one should not attribute to malice what is explained by stupidity, perhaps one should not attribute to foolishness what is explained by sloppy expression.

I'm reminded of a Gamble Rogers story about Still Bill trying to trade his dog. The other guy tries to lead the dog out into the yard to take a look at her, and she bumps head-first into the door jamb, backs up and makes it through the door, stumbles over the sill and tumbles down the back steps, caroms off the shed and fetches up against the fence upside down. The prospect complains that Bill is trying to trade him a dog that's stone blind. Bill's response?

She ain't blind -- she just don't care!

That's my diagnosis in this case as well.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 1, 2004 02:32 PM