June 13, 2004

Pronouns are like sweaters: Kusunda revisited

I should be a little clearer about my reasons for being excited about the Kusunda case.

Fellow lister Bill Poser is quite right that historical linguists have all reason to be skeptical of Greenberg and Ruhlen's claims. I properly ought to have written that historical linguists "assume" that this work is shaky for the very real reason that so much of it HAS been proven to be full of holes. Although I do think that interdisciplinary evidence is making it clearer by the year that Greenberg and Ruhlen have been on to something, way too often their arguments prove to have been founded upon misanalyses of data.

Some relevant demonstrations to consult are Stefan Georg and Alexander Vovin, "From mass comparison to mess comparison: Greenberg's Indo-European and its Closest Relatives" in the latest issue of DIACHRONICA, and pages 287-303 of a book called THE POWER OF BABEL whose author's name momentarily escapes me.

My feeling, as I flagged above, is that the theories of Greenberg and Ruhlen may not be demonstrable through linguistic evidence alone, but that in combination with archaeological, genetic, historical, and even phenotypic evidence, the general thrust of these theories may require acknowledgment. Ruhlen, coruscating arguer though he is, is not always quite explicit on this point: that the language data usually will NEVER be able to make a solid case.

But on the Kusunda-"Indo-Pacific" link, I would like to venture two observations, in full acknowledgment of Bill's comments.

First, certainly "Indo-Pacific" has not been demonstrated with anything approaching authority. But I am not sure that we risk essentializing indigenous people in not just proposing -- but considering it highly likely -- that if:

  1. Humans are now demonstrated by mounting genetic and archaeoological evidence to have migrated out of Africa along the southern Asian coast and sailed to New Guinea;
  2. Today, there are scattered remnant populations on the southern Asian coast who physically resemble people of New Guinea, to an extent that no humans elsewhere on earth do;

then there might be a historical relationship between (a subset of) languages of New Guinea and those of the remnant populations in question. And as such, if there are superficial resemblances between words in these languages, then this might be a distant echo of that relationship.

Most likely, words for things like CAT and DESPAIR have drifted too far apart in these languages for there to ever be a nice family tree (even with borrowings acknowledged) like the one for Indo-European. The linguistic data alone, then, will never provide anything but suggestions. But if other evidence draws a historical link between the people in question, then I wonder whether linguists need necessarily assume that the linguistic parallels still mean nothing at all.

Second, indeed, pronouns are borrowed all over the world. Certainly it is not that pronouns are NOT borrowed -- my point was that their borrowing is the marked case. And what most interests me is that where this happens, there is close and usually long-term contact between people. This is the kind of thing that allows people to get cozy enough to use parts of each other's languages beyond the usual exchange of words for food and gadgets.

And what makes the pronominal similarity between Kusunda and languages like Juwoi is that these people have not been in contact at all. Nor are the Kusunda a coastal people, nor is there a string of related languages or cultures extending from the Kusunda homeland down to the coast of India across from the Andaman Islands.

If Kusunda and Juwoi were spoken next door to one another, then the pronominal resemblance would be a yawn, as it would also be if either the Kusunda or the Juwoi were imperialist colonizers.

But imagine spending, say, a year in constant contact with Spanish speakers. When it was over, you might well find yourself saying HERMANO for "brother" or, depending what you were doing over that year, BORRACHO for "drunk." But how likely is it that you would start popping up with things like "So, what do TÚ want to do today?" Pronouns are borrowed, sure -- but they resist it.

We allow acquaintances to borrow a book, a kitchen appliance, some twine. But if someone borrows our sweater, they are likely either a close friend or a lover. Pronouns are like sweaters. When you see pronoun resemblances between languages spoken by two tiny, isolated groups, I suspect that something is up.

And then there is the possible "echo" of these features eastward in other languages, although we may choose to remain agnostic as to whether there is an "Indo-Pacific" group.

Thus I fully understand that Greenberg and Ruhlen do not have a great track record when it comes to following up on their ideas by checking the grammars. But there may be gold nuggets at the bottom of the pan.

Posted by John McWhorter at June 13, 2004 10:14 AM