March 29, 2007

Saussure v. Oppenheimer

In odd minutes during my recent travels, I've been working my way through Stephen Oppenheimer's "The Origins of the British". A few weeks ago, Sally Thomason unloaded on Nicholas Wade's account of Oppenheimer's account of Peter Forster's notion that "English is an ancient, fourth branch of the Germanic language tree, [which] was spoken in England before the Roman invasion" ("Nutty journalists' (and others') language theories", 3/6/2007). And a bit later, I quoted from a post and a comment on the blog Gene Expressions which called into question some of Oppenheimer's historical population genetics ("Not just bad linguistics, but shoddy historical genetics too?", 3/12/2007).

I promised to report back after reading some of Oppenheimer's books and consulting with experts in computational biology. This is not such a report -- I'm still reading "The Origins of the British". But along the way, several things have struck me as worthy of note.

Let me start by observing that I've enjoyed the book. Oppenheimer's method of laying out his "genetic detective story" is mostly to lay out the (mutually contradictory) arguments and conclusions of others, which means that the book is not really so much about the pre-history of British isles as about the intellectual history of the pre-history of the British isles. And this winding path is littered with interesting facts and factoids. All in all, the book is sort of like a one-person, uneditable slice from some of the more idiosyncratic layers of the Wikipedia -- full of fascinating stuff, and well worth reading, as long as you don't put much credence in it.

In the areas where I already know something, it's clear that Oppenheimer misunderstands some key concepts, so his assembly even of true pieces of the puzzle is likely to be logically flawed. Since I have a couple of minutes free this morning, I thought I'd give one example: his strange misunderstanding of the comparative method as practiced in historical linguistics.

Here's a representative passage, starting on p. 79:

Although in previous decades linguists made confident dates deep splits in languages [sic], based on the evidence of word sharing, some have had their fingers burnt, and rather than try again they have tended to avoid the practice. Others have simply never strayed from the tight confines of the last couple of thousand years, for which period the written word in documents and inscriptions is the ultimate test of time and place.

Scholars studying celtic languages have shared this reluctance. For the British Isles, they do have the advantage that the large body of extant inscriptions and other texts provides a tremendous opportunity to look in detail at sound changes over the past 1,600 years. They can cross-check their dates against those determined by the archaeologists. While this makes possible a microscopic in-depth exploration using the core tool of their craft (known as the comparative method), the evidence on which it based [sic] needs to be rigorously determined and of high quality, which means that this approach cannot be extended back any further than the first celtic inscriptions, around 2,500 years ago. Celtic linguists are therefore content for the big questions of European Celtic homeland origins and dates, first posed so long ago, to remain on the shelf. [emphasis added]

The context of this passage, and others in the book, suggest that Oppenheimer really thinks that the historical-comparative method is unable to offer any insights into linguistic history at times earlier than the earliest available texts.

But for a full century and a half, historical linguists have been using the comparative method to reconstruct proto-languages, and to argue for tree-structured theories of development through thousands of years of history before the earliest attested evidence. And there are several famous examples where daring hypotheses about proto-language features were later confirmed by discoveries of earlier text and even new languages -- one notable case is Ferdinand de Saussure's theory of the Indo-European laryngeals, which was later confirmed by the discovery of Hittite.

This bizarre misunderstanding, on the part of someone who is obviously obsessed with the investigation of pre-history, is an extraordinary indictment of my profession's failure to educate contemporary intellectuals, even about the linguistic theories and results of 150 years ago, much less those of more recent times. I described a similarly spectacular display of ignorance two years ("Gall in the family", 11/7/2003). Greg Ross, the managing editor of the American Scientist magazine wrote:

Ever since Darwin proposed an evolutionary tree to describe the descent of species, linguists have sought to apply the concept in their own field. ... Now historical linguists may stand to benefit by borrowing a second idea from evolutionary biology.

This was Ross's way of introducing a review of Forster and Toth's lexico-statistical reconstruction of the Indo-European family tree (which Oppenheimer, in the passage above, is about to invoke with respect to celtic origins). As I explained at the time, Ross "gets the direction of intellectual influence exactly backwards. The well-known fact of the matter is that Darwin modeled his idea of 'descent with modification' in biological evolution explicitly on what he took to be the obvious prior success of philologists in establishing 'descent with modification' as the basis of the the history of languages". I also pointed out that algorithmic creation of hypothetical phylogenetic trees for linguistic histories was pioneered by lexicostatisticians in the 1950s, before anyone tried such a thing in biology.

I'd like to correct one point in Sally Thomason's earlier post. She calls Stephen Oppenheimer "an Oxford geneticist". But in fact, as the Wikipedia explains,

Stephen Oppenheimer is a member of Green College, Oxford and an Honorary Fellow of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. From 1972 he worked as a clinical paediatrician in countries including Sarawak (Malaysia), Nepal and Papua New Guinea. From 1979 he moved into medical research and teaching, with positions at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Oxford University, the research centre in Kilifi in Kenya, and the University Sains of Malaysia. From 1990-1994 he was University Professor, Chairman and Chief of Clinical Service in the Department of Paediatrics in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and from 1994-1997 Senior specialist paediatrician in Brunei.

Professor Oppenheimer returned to England in 1996, and began a second career as researcher and popular science writer in prehistory. His books synthesize human genetics with archaeology, anthropology, linguistics and folklore.

In other words, he's as much an amateur in genetics, computational-historical or otherwise, as he is in linguistics. I see nothing wrong with that at all -- significant advances in many fields have been made by people without the intellectual union cards that are too often required as the price of entry into serious discussions. But on the other hand, there's no reason to defer to him as an authority in genetics or computational biology.

[Sally has pointed out to me that she got the description of Oppenheimer from Nicholas Ward, who calls him "a medical geneticist at the University of Oxford". Sally observed that this casts a further shadow on Ward's reporting, already rather dimly lit.]

[John Cowan wrote in with a quote from Carl Sagan about Immanuel Velikovsky:

Velikovsky has called attention to a wide range of stories and legends, held by diverse peoples, separated by great distances, which stories show remarkable similarities and concordances. I am not expert in the cultures or languages of any of these peoples, but I find the concatenation of legends Velikovsky has accumulated stunning. It is true that some experts in these cultures are less impressed. I can remember vividly discussing Worlds in Collision with a distinguished professor of Semitics at a leading university. He said something like "The Assyriology, Egyptology, Biblical scholarship and all of that Talmudic and Midrashic pilpul is, of course, nonsense; but I was impressed by the astronomy." (Broca's Brain, ch. 7)


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 29, 2007 04:37 AM