MOTHER TONGUE
Newsletter of the Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory

Issue 25 · Summer 1995


Significant Activity in Linguistics

Except for the fascinating case of a stalled paradigm whose followers grow ever so slightly more modest, nothing interesting has come out of linguistics in too many years. The great impact of Chomskyite theory on psychology and philosophy is now history, as the Americans say. Historical seems to be the only branch of 'scientific' linguistics still bearing fruit. It is also the oldest branch. Extraordinaire, n'est-ce pa?

One of our basic taxonomic regions -- Southeast Asia-Oceania - is bearing large fruit these days. Austric is finally coming out of the doldrums of scholarly caution. A super-phylum whose reach is from south India to Easter Island but whose core lies between Formosa and Bengal will enlighten prehistory in those parts. Accounting for at least 1/4 of human languages, it is very exciting!

Robert Blust has tipped the balance between cautious and very cautious scholars, in favor of Pater Schmidt's original notion that Austroasiatic (AA) was linked to Austronesian (AN). Robert is very clear about what he has done; reviewing the literature and making decisions in debates.

First, he has supported his colleague at U/Hawaii, Lawrence Reid, in Reid's analysis of the problem. Step one was to break up Paul Benedict's Austro-Thai (AT), while disparaging Benedict's methods and reconstructions. Step two is to relate the newly liberated AN to AA by affirming the only evidence that Benedict has agreed seemed to exist -- morphological. Tacitly perhaps, although no credit is given, this seems to be a confirmation of Pinnow's work stressing morphology in Austric.

Second, he stressed the rarity of the specific bound forms used to bind the phyla together, rather like marker genes in biogenetics. As many linguists are aware, there are three common verbal affixes; infix -um-, prefixes *pa- and *ka- (1st usually 'inchoative', the others causatives) in Indonesian languages and Mon-Khmer and elsewhere in AN. In one AA language, Katu, the two prefixes combine in a double causative paka-.

Although some use the word 'infix' rather loosely (e.g., in Indo-European, Afrasian), their 'infixes' are aspects of the phonology involved. A true infix has to be like other bound morphemes, a particle with ascertainable meaning. The only true infixes I know about in Africa are found in Koman of Nilo-Saharan where verb roots are split in two and pronouns infixed = put in the middle. But such is rare.

Anyway the -um- infix is an accepted part of Proto-Austronesian (PAN), so far as I know. Blust extends the three affixes to key parts of AA (e.g., Nicobar Islands) and draws the simple conclusion that such rare but verbally significant morphemes occurring in widely separated languages is per force evidence of kinship.

What about borrowing? Well, let me be Blust's advocate here. We will offer a prize to the first person who can demonstrate the borrowing of a true infix between any languages of the world. If some of us think that the borrowing of pronouns is rare or non- existent, that is still inherently more likely than the case of the Austric infix. It is not part of universal semantics like the pronouns are; rather it is part of specialized verbal behavior. Who will take up my wager? Who will win?

Third, having shoved my friend Paul aside -- maybe even denting his famous self- confidence -- Blust then allows as how Reid has shown AN cognates with Daic (Thai- Kadai) by properly correlating CVCV forms of PAN with CV forms of Daic. (In fact both Benedict and Matisoff had done this before; it was even mentioned in Mother Tongue), thus in fact bringing all of the former AT into relation with AA in the new Austric. This is not Robert's finest collegial hour.

Fourth, at no point is Miao-Yao ('Hmong-Mien') brought into this new Austric; mentioned but not included. And naturally the new field data coming back with Gérard Diffloth have not yet been incorporated into the mix either.

Fifth, it is quite important to stress how important a few scholarly decisions are when opinions and arguments are in conflict. Some good people have supported Austric; some good people have denied it. Blust tips the balance because he has great prestige as the finalizer of AN taxonomy and as a very competent but careful law-abiding 'professional'. With Greenberg, Diffloth and Yakhontov already backing Schmidt, Blust and Reid are enough to surmount the opposition of Dyen and Benedict. Add Pinnow and Matisoff to the scales on different sides. Only Norman Zide can tilt the balance back to level -- or even more one-sided.

Sixth, incidentally Japanese does not get included in Austric either. Its membership is rejected. (References at end of next topic)

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(c) 1996 Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory