There are 8 thoughts on “Exploring Semitic and Egyptian in Uto-Aztecan Languages”.

  1. Thanks John R & John C, Ive learned a lot from your responses. I’m a tourist in the field with some sociolinguistic leanings drawn from working and living in Papua New Guinea a country of great linguistic diversity notwithstanding the identification of several homogenous groupings of languages drawn from wider work in Oceania (classified under Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages).
    I’m aware of attempts to re-establish various languages through identifying descent patterns and efforts to revive ‘dead’ languages. At my level of interest the establishment of historic ‘sound rules’ and their correspondence with meaning and use is somewhat problematic unless you subscribe to particular linguistic theories and accept particular assumptions. I can understand the hesitancy of some linguists to accept reified dictionary expressions of sounds and forms.
    I will take polite issue with the notion that linguists ‘describe rather than prescribe’ in respect of the way orthographies are developed. Encoding oral languages presents challenges and translating sounds to letters or into an ‘alphabet’ system’ potentially knocks out aspects of vernacular expression and register. In an oral language environment it is claimed by some that the creation of writing systems potentially ‘kills-off’ language as a spoken system – hence introducing literacy has the potential impact of re-structuring a linguistic system, making a historical reconstruction more challenging.
    What I was hoping to get from John R’s review was a sense of the social and cultural impact of Hebrew upon UA given its arguable influence/presence outlined in the Review. I see from John C’s comments that UA is a reconstructed linguistic system likely drawing upon a variety of dialects which does make the picture more complex. I was also not clear on the status of UA as a written ‘language’ and consider that contact with Hebrew written forms might be an explanation for its presence in UA.
    My initial interest was in the kinds of data and their mode (spoken, written, visual) that were providing the foundation of the analysis. Im unlikely to read Stubb’s work though I remain interested in language change and contact particularly as it relates to the fairly dynamic context in which I have worked where operating in several languages is common and the influence upon local oral language ecologies of dominant literate languages continues to rise.
    Thank you for your responses, I have little knowledge of other language families outside of my locale other than having come across the argument for a linguistic continua across the Indo-European group. I should have done a linguistics degree!

  2. sjames,
    If I may add some additional information to my former professor Robertson’s explanation of the source of the Uto-Aztecan forms/words mentioned in his review of Stubbs’ book, perhaps some more fundamental background would help (and as I review this, I hope it’s not too basic; pardon me if it seems to be so).

    UA is not a language, per se. No one speaks it now, although at some point in the distant past, people used the forms noted (or something very like them). UA is a group of related language families. Some language families you might be familiar with include Germanic (which includes the languages of most Northern European and Scandanavian countries–Finland being an exception), Romance languages (derived from Ancient Latin), Slavic (most eastern European languages–Hungarian being an exception: it’s related to Finnish), and so on. No one speaks “Germanic” today and the individual languages in the family are not mutually understandable, but they are clearly related in specific ways.

    At some point in the distant past, some group of people spoke a language that the present Germanic languages all derive from and by examining the descendants, we can make strong inferences about the source language. You’ll note that most of the UA forms in Professor Robertson’s review have an asterisk in front of the letters. This means that the term is “unattested” (it’s not found in written record or current spoken language); rather, it is a construction based on working backward from the children to the parent language.

    In the case of Romance languages, there is a fair amount written Ancient Latin and so this provides an excellent test case, if you will, of the principles of historical linguistics (the field of study involving reconstructing ancient ancestor languages). Similarly, there’s a lot of written Ancient Greek as well. And yes, linguists have gotten very good at reconstructing aspects of the earlier, parent tongue. It is not considered wild conjecture to derive an unattested form–as long as it can be justified by defined linguistic principles.

    Groupings of language families you might have heard of include the very widespread Indo-European family grouping (which includes most of the languages of Europe, many from the Middle-east [but not Hebrew or Arabic], and northern India also). This family, abbreviated IE, includes Ancient Latin, Ancient and Modern Greek, and Sanskrit along with the modern European language families mentioned above (and others).

    Linguists have a love-hate relationship with The American Heritage Dictionary. On the love side you’ll find contributions by Calvert Watkins (who is cited in Professor Robertson’s review), including an excellent article about the IE language families and what we can learn about the Indo-European people from their words. There is also a fascinating (at least to linguistic types) appendix edited by Watkins that traces the roots of English words back to their IE roots and then shows many different words that have entered English by way of borrowings and different genealogies from a single IE root word.

    By way of a simple example, Jacob Grimm (yes that would be one of the collectors of Germanic folk tales), determined a number of sound correspondences between different branches of IE and the Germanic languages. Some of these are easy to see in English because we have vocabulary that is rather freely borrowed from Latin and Greek as well as derived from the ancient Germanic roots. So, you’ll find many cognates in Romance and Greek with Germanic words where the Romance/Greek word starts with a k-sound and the Germanic word starts with an h-sound. Such as “capit” (as in English “capital”) and “head”; “corn” (as in English “cornet”) and “horn”; there are many others and there are other sound correspondences.

    There are other kinds of changes that languages undergo. In the late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance, English went through what is called “the Great Vowel” shift. So, when you read Chaucer, the correct pronunciation of “how now brown cow” would be more like “hoo noo broon coo.” In Modern German, vowel shifts show correspondences between the current High German influenced pronunciations of Modern German and the older German (which, is retained in many cases in so-called Low German). High and Low referring to the “high” mountainous regions rather than the “low” coastal plain. English’s Germanic derived words are more closely related to Low German than High German.

    Note that the spelling isn’t the issue, it’s the word’s sound. So, the Latin-derived English “circle” does not correspond to an English or IE h-word. There are many other sound correspondences between Latin/Greek/IE and Germanic. And these are the kind of rules that are used to show the kind of language interactions that lead to conclusions such as in Stubbs’ book. A more comprehensive list of the IE language families’ sound correspondences is found in The American Heritage Dictionary. Whether or not you find that appendix compelling, I recommend the Watkins article.

    (Incidentally, the hate part of the aforementioned attitude to The American Heritage Dictionary comes from that particular dictionary’s somewhat snobbish usage advice. Linguists prefer to describe rather than prescribe.)

    [I earn my living as a computer geek but I’m still proud of my linguistics degree. I learned a lot from Professor Robertson.]

  3. John please forgive these somewhat naive questions as I try to determine some broader significance.

    Is there a suggestion here that Hebrew and UA descend from a common ancestor?; or is it implied that they are languages that have at some time been brought into contact (if so, is there evidence of mutual influencing)?

    Why is it that the author appears to privilege Hebrew in the analysis, ie position Hebrew forms as a source of change and not a derivative?

    Finally, it’s not clear to me what the UA data sources were, where they are from or their mode. For example, reference is made to sound comparisons, was the UA data drawn from samples of spoken text?

    Thank you for drawing my attention to this work.

    • <>

      jsr: A very good question that might have been covered more thoroughly in the review. Implicit in Stubbs’ work is the well-known phenomenon of language contact. It is not possible to tell whether the UA’s mixed lexicon is the product of a creole, a mixed language or some other kind of language contact. Given Stubbs’s data, the UA lexicon is mixed, consisting of Northern Semitic (Hebrew, Aramaic), Egyptian, and unknown other(s). With languages in contact, when a new language emerges, there is usually a separation primarily from a given language, and lexical items, primarily from another language. However, there are other types that include a mixed lexicon. A good example of this is Saramaccan, a language spoken in Suraname.

      “Lexically, Saramaccan deviates in two main ways from other creoles, both inside and outside Surinam. It has a mixed lexicon. Although it is basically English-based, Smith (1987) shows that some 35 percent of the basic vocabulary is from Portuguese, as against 50 percent from English. Some of the most basic words are indeed from Portuguese, such as wómi ‘man’, mujέε ‘woman’. In fact, there is no way to predict whether a particular word will be Portuguese-derived or English-derived. The word for ‘foot’, fútu, is from English, the word for ‘hand’, máun, from Portuguese. The word wójo ‘eye’ is from Portuguese, the word for ‘nose’ núsu is from English.”

      “Second, Saramaccan has the highest proportion of identified words from African languages of any creole of the New World. Although only about five percent of the basic vocabulary is from African languages, hundreds of words have been identified so far, most and tools, as well as flora and fauna. More than 125 words are from Kikongo (Daeleman 1972, Price 1975) and a similar number are from Gbe (Ewe-Fon), as well as a smaller number of words from other African languages (in particular Twi). There are also many words from Amerindian languages, and an increasing number from Dutch, of them in the more ‘cultural’ domains of the lexicon: food and cooking, religion, utensils” (Pidgins and Creoles: An Introduction edited by Jacques Arends, Pieter Muysken, Norval Smith pp. 169-170).

      I suspect that what happened to Near Eastern + some UA prototype may have resulted in a language akin to what happened with the emergence of Saramaccan.

      <> Because of the time depth.

      From Stubbs’s field work, from dictionaries and grammars by various authors, and by other published articles. His bibliography contains all relevant information.

  4. Perhaps the bias charge could be eliminated using this new “Computational Method” I recently read about at Having read Stubbs pdf and his “for Mormons” book and then reading this gave me hope that his years of work could be given due credit without spending a lifetime as he did.

    Researchers have tested the capacity of different computational approaches to detect cognates with striking success rates: The best-performing method could detect word relationships with an accuracy level of nearly 90 percent. This result confirms the potential of computational methodologies in the humanities, but also opens up exciting new pathways for future research in historical linguistics and human prehistory.

    • The bottom line of this article — literally the bottom line — is:

      Gray says: “Computational methods can take care of the repetitive and more schematic work. In this way, they will allow experts to concentrate on answering the interesting questions.”

      Notice that the validity of such computational results requires the hard work done by comparatists using the comparative method. At the end of the day, the comparative method really is the gold standard.

      The idea apparently is that because there aren’t enough linguists who practice the comparative method, said computational algorithms might be used to assess massive amounts of data to find possible genetic relationships, subject of course to further human assessment.

      In any case, Stubbs’s lifetime of work is out there to be assessed computational or otherwise.

  5. Having also read Stubbs’ two books in this area, I fully agree and feel this is one of the most surprising and intriguing new discoveries of particular significance to Book of Mormon students. Thank you for your careful and thoughtful evaluation of a work too many dismiss prematurely.

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