Eulogies from 2018-2019
Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (1922–2018), who was on ASLIP / Mother Tongue’s Council
of Fellows, died at his home in Belluno, Italy, at the ripe age of ninety-six years. Professor
Cavalli-Sforza was a titan in the field of human genetics, and little will be said here about
his achievements, since so much information about him is available elsewhere. Cavalli-
Sforza was keenly interested in how the field of genetics might correlate with other sci-
ences of human history, archaeology and genetic linguistics. Some of his major works
along these lines include The History and Geography of Human Genes (with Paolo Me-
nozzi and Alberto Piazza; 1994) and The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diver-
sity and Evolution (with Francesco Cavalli-Sforza; 1995). Cavalli-Sforza has been hailed
as a visionary “of the genome as a prism for understanding the history of our species” by a present-day ‘rock star’ geneticist, David Reich of Harvard, who adds that recently “the
genome revolution, with the help of ancient DNA, has realized Luca Cavalli-Sforza’s
dream, emerging as a tool for investigating past populations that is no less useful than the traditional tools of archaeology and historical linguistics.”
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Eric Pratt Hamp (1920–2019) was one of the most prolific and respected scholars in Indo-European studies. Hamp was not known as being sympathetic to long-range (“macrocomparative”) studies, but to his credit he worked with a large variety of obscure and endangered languages, like Quileute, Gaelic, and Eskimo. Naturally, Hamp has been celebrated in many eulogies easily accessible on the Web (for example, “Eric P. Hamp, renowned linguist of lesser-known languages, 1920–2019”), 1 so here I shall just tell some anecdotes that show how he helped and influenced the editor of this journal (yours truly). At about the age of seventeen I was having a discussion about language with my father, a Christian pastor and theologian, who then introduced me to Grimm’s Law, as briefly described in my family’s dictionary. I was immediately astonished on learning that there was a scientific control – sound correspondences – on linguistic change, and set about learning all I could about Indo-European (IE) and historical linguistics. Somehow I found out about Eric Hamp, who had already been at the University of Chicago some fifteen years by then, and wrote a letter to him requesting information on IE. Professor Hamp kindly sent me a 56-page bibliography (dated June 1964) which he had compiled for his students in his classes on IE.
In March 1988 my co-author of “Global Etymologies” (GE), 2 Merritt Ruhlen, initiated
a discussion of these putative world-wide lexemes with Hamp, and the Chicago professor responded with a handwritten three-page letter in which he politely, but firmly, refuted the proposed etymologies. Remember that Bopp in 1816, & probably Jones, before him, started with morphology. It’s never enough to look for roots; you have to look at totally accountable words & phrases with their morphologies & syntactic
markings. Only then are the semantics justified against all formant increments. – That’s what I urge as a goal for cleaning up (or rejecting) these proposed etymologies. Often disappointing, yes, but terra firma. So for me all 25 fail.
The final 1994 version of GE proposed twenty-seven etymologies. The first time I saw Eric Hamp in person was later in 1988, at the International Symposium on Language and Prehistory at the University of Michigan (November 1988), where I presented a report on global etymologies, and Hamp stood up and disputed my citation of Proto-Indo-European *kost- ‘bone’. I thanked Professor Hamp for his comments. Hal Fleming remarked privately, with a grin, that the encounter was my ‘baptism by fire’.
The last time I saw Eric Hamp was at the Athabascan (Dene) Languages Conference,
at Berkeley in July 2009. Then in his late eighties, the professor looked physically frail,
but that did not hinder his strong participation in the conference, in which he heartily en-
dorsed Edward Vajda’s Dene-Yeniseian as a “demonstration [which] ranks amongst the
great discoveries of this type of productive inferential reasoning.” 3 He repeatedly emphasized the phrase “total accountability,” as in the 1988 letter quoted above. I could finally agree with my old mentor that Vajda’s work was important and has convinced a significant number of linguists that there can, indeed, be convincing evidence of linguistic relations between North America and the ‘Old World’. Requiescat in pace, Eric Pratt Hamp. [JDB]
2 Bengtson, John D. & Merritt Ruhlen. 1994. Global etymologies. In: Ruhlen, Merritt, On the Origin of Languages, 277–336. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. It is often incorrectly stated that Ruhlen alone was the author of GE, but in fact it was a true collaboration initiated when Ruhlen and I first met (at Rice University in 1986). The first plan was to include the article in a proposed book edited by Vitaly Shevoroshkin, but this never materialized. We submitted GE to the journal Language, but it was rejected by the
editors. Finally Merritt was able to include GE in his 1994 book.
3 Hamp, Eric P. 2010. On the First Substantial Trans-Bering Language Comparison. In: J. Kari and B.A. Potter (eds.), The Dene-Yeniseian connection, 285–298. Fairbanks: Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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Stephen L. Zegura (1943–2019) was born in San Francisco, California. In 1965, Steve
earned his BA in anthropology, magna cum laude and with departmental honors, at Stanford University. He received his master’s degree and doctorate in human biology in 1971 from the University of Wisconsin (Madison), where he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. In 1972 he moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he was a professor at the University of Arizona and taught physical anthropology and human genetics for over forty years. He authored many important research papers during his long career, including groundbreaking work on the peopling of the Americas; the Y chromosome as a marker of human pathways; and the origins, genetics, and evolution of all humanity. He was also honored to write the physical anthropology entry for the Britannica Book of the Year for over a decade.
Readers of Mother Tongue will recall Steve Zegura’s occasional articles keeping us
informed on the latest breakthroughs in physical anthropology, including, most recently,
“Ode to our ‘randy’ ancestors: an essay in honor of Hal Fleming” (Mother Tongue XX). A
few years earlier Steve contributed “Current topics in human evolutionary genetics” to the Festschrift in honor of Hal Fleming. 4
University of Arizona obituary: https://anthropology.arizona.edu/news/memoriam-stephen-l-zegura
4 In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory: Essays in the four fields of anthropology in honor of Harold Crane Fleming. Bengtson, John D., Ed. 2008. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
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Murray Gell-Mann (1929–2019) was best known as a renowned physicist (Nobel Prize
1969), but anyone who met and talked with him found that he had many other deep interests, including historical (genetic) linguistics. In fact, as a young scholar his primary interest was historical linguistics, but (as Murray told it) his father did not believe he could make a living in that field, and eventually convinced him to concentrate on physics. But all along he continued to study historical linguistics. In 2001 Gell-Mann finally was granted his chance to make his mark on genetic linguistics. Thanks to a generous endowment from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and support from the Santa Fe Institute (which he had co-founded in 1984), he collaborated with Sergei A. Starostin and Merritt Ruhlen to organize the Evolution of Human Language project (EHL). The goal of this project has been “integrating data from all of the world’s major and minor language stocks in order to push our knowledge of linguistic prehistory as far back as possible.” See the following links for more information about Gell-Mann’s thoughts about genetic linguistics, and the activities of the EHL project.
Murray Gell-Mann and the Evolution of Human Languages: The Burden of Proof. Narrated by George Starostin (1:06.31) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgDdu-zdqEk
Ted Talk: The ancestor of language. (2007) (2.02) https://www.ted.com/talks/murray_gell_mann_on_the_ancestor_of_language
Ted Talk: Do all languages have a common ancestor? (2.16) https://www.youtube.com/watch?=gR4UlNoOrlc
The EHL project: http://ehl.santafe.edu/
In memoriam: Murray Gell-Mann: https://www.santafe.edu/news-center/news/murray-gell-mann-passes-away-89
The Evolution of Human Languages (EHL)5
By Murray Gell-Mann
Comparative and historical linguists have succeeded in classifying attested languages in
families, each of which consists of daughter languages descended from a common proto-
language spoken a long time ago. Occasionally that proto-language is itself attested (like
Latin, the ancestor of the Romance languages). Otherwise, it has had to be reconstructed
by linguists from their knowledge of the daughter languages. Much of the work consists of comparing items of basic vocabulary (words or meaningful parts of words) of similar
In classifying languages this way, one is concerned with “vertical transmission” of
language from parent (or other care giver) to child. One has to watch out for “borrowing”
or “horizontal transmission” from other languages, which can complicate the picture. In
addition, there are more or less regular sound changes over the generations, different in
different branches, that are studied carefully by historical linguists. For example, in the
Indo-European family of languages, an original initial p sound becomes an f sound in the
Germanic languages but remains a p sound in Latin and the Romance languages. Compare Latin pater and English father or Latin pullus and English foal.
The oldest universally recognized families (except in Africa) go back some seven
thousand years (like Indo-European). A few linguists, such as the ones involved in the EHL project, go beyond this stage and classify the families into super-families and even super-super-families, where the age of the proto-language may be ten or even fifteen thousand years. These “long-range” relationships are not accepted by most “mainstream” linguists in North America and Western Europe, although treated quite seriously in Russia and Eastern Europe. For some reason the four African super-families are exempt from condemnation by the “mainstream” crowd and so articles on them appear in the standard encyclopedias, which do not have similar articles on the superfamilies of Eurasia, which are carefully studied by EHL linguists. Yet the African super-families could be criticized on the same grounds as the others. What are those grounds? Mainly that when the age of the superfamily is ten or twelve thousand years or more, it is thought to be too difficult to weed out borrowing, similarity by accident, and faulty detection of the patterns of sound change. But if that objection were correct, then, as the age of the proto-language increases, there should be a steady decrease in the amount of information available for language classification, and at seven thousand years the evidence for families such as Indo-European should have dwindled to a small amount, in order that it be inadequate at ten or twelve thousand years. That, however, is not the case. The evidence for the Indo-European family is in fact overwhelming. If it were reduced by a factor of ten, it would still be convincing.
The EHL project consists of several parts. One is the continued growth of the database,
covering the languages of most of the world and their relationships. Nearly all the lan-
guages of Eurasia, Northern Africa and the Pacific and Indian Ocean islands (except for
some in the vicinity of New Guinea and Australia), have been found to form four super-
families, which in turn form a single super-super-family. Some of the indigenous languages of the Americas certainly fit into this scheme, and it may turn out that all of them fit into the afore-mentioned super-super-family. One important EHL activity consists of reviewing the evidence on the classification of the American languages. Another important activity involves seeing whether a relationship can be established with the two major super-families of Black Africa, Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Kordofanian.
It is important to improve the arguments for acceptance of long-range relationships,
especially by critical examination of the arithmetical arguments that have been put forward as allegedly showing that the observed similarities of lexical items in super-families could be explained by chance.
A fascinating topic is the prevalence of “bottlenecks.” For example, the native Aus-
tralian languages form a family that appears to be less than twelve thousand years old,
judging by lexical similarities. However, there have been modern humans in Australia
since the first successful explosion out of Africa, which peopled almost all of the Old
World. That took place around fifty thousand years ago, and the Australian language family is certainly not fifty thousand years old. The most appealing explanation is that a particular language, spoken either by a group of Australians or else by a group of invaders from New Guinea, spread their language over the whole continent, leaving only minor traces of the earlier languages.
It is conceivable that a similar bottleneck involved all or nearly all of the world’s lan-
guages. Say that some eighteen or twenty thousand years ago, at the height of the last ice age, when there were very few refugia for human beings on the planet, one of the languages then spoken eliminated all or most of the others. We would then see a number of lexical similarities over all or most of the world. In fact, there is some evidence for such “global” words and roots. It is important to follow up these clues and see if they withstand careful (but not bigoted) examination. Etymological dictionaries are being produced covering some large families and some superfamilies as well.
This project employs quite a few people, some in the US, some in Russia, and one or
two who commute between Santa Fe and Moscow. They perform various tasks, including
putting dictionary information into the database, working out language relationships based on lexical information, interacting with specialists in other fields, refining the ideas of lexicostatistics and glottochronology (measuring closeness of relationships and times of separation of languages by using overlaps in basic vocabulary), etc.
The project convenes workshops every couple of years at which the linguists interact
with leading geneticists, archaeologists, physical and cultural anthropologists, and earth scientists. The object is to understand the migrations of early modern humans and the relation of those migrations to the history of languages.
5 From http://tuvalu.santafe.edu/~mgm/Site/Front_Page.html (now a dead link). Apparently Gell-Mann’s homepage has been taken down.
Some of Murray Gell-Mann’s works on historical linguistics
Gell-Mann, Murray, Ilia Peiros & Sergei Starostin. 2008. Lexicostatistics Compared with Shared Innovations: The Polynesian Case. In Aspects of comparative linguistics 3 / Aspekty komparitivistiki 3, ed. by A.V. Dybo, V.A. Dybo, O.A. Mudrak & G.S. Starostin, 13–44. (Orientalia et Classica. Trudy Instituta vostočnyx kul’tur i antičnosti, Vypusk XIX.) Мoscow: Russian State University for the Humanities.
Gell-Mann, Murray, Ilia Peiros & George Starostin. 2009. Distant Language Relationship: The Current Perspective. Journal of Language Relationship / Вопросы языкового родства 1: 13–30.
Turchin, Peter, Ilia Peiros & Murray Gell-Mann. 2010. Analyzing genetic connections between languages by matching consonant classes. Journal of Language Relationship / Вопросы языкового родства 3: 117–126.
Gell-Mann, Murray & Merritt Ruhlen. 2011. The origin and evolution of word order. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108: 17290–5.
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