Posts Tagged ‘Linguistics’

Reviving Kinship Studies or Re-Inventing the Wheel? A Comment on Stephen Levinson

Friday, September 14th, 2012

On the heels of Kemp & Regier’s article “Kinship Categories Across Languages Reflect General Communicative Principles” published in Science, Stephen Levinson calls for a revival of kinship studies. Dan Sperber echoes with a post entitled “Is Kinship Back?” Levinson’s specialty is language and cognition, his piece was published in the Psychology section of Science. It fascinates me how versatile “kinship” is. People with different academic backgrounds end up talking with each other about the same thing – kinship. That’s why it has been possible to build a comprehensive bibliography of kinship studies across a wide range of scientific disciplines – anthropology, linguistics, psychology, economics, history, biology, etc. All these studies turn out to be interrelated either in the kinds of underlying questions being tackled or, more directly, in the overlapping references.

Levinson’s plea is of course very welcome. One thing to be mindful of is the danger of re-inventing the wheel under the pretext of reviving something. Kinship terminologies have always been the mice of the social sciences in a sense that a myriad of types of formal approaches were either designed for or tested on kinship terms. I’m talking about componential analysis, scalogram method, equivalence-rule analysis, graph theory, set theory, optimality theory, etc. Kemp & Regier (2012) add another layer to this plethora of formalizations. But it remains unclear what problems all of these approaches are trying to solve and whether the questions have already been answered or should not be asked in the first place. One of the problems with “traditional” kinship studies was their insularity. The formal approaches tend to reaffirm it because it is impossible to concisely model something that has empirical connections to naming, pronoun use, reported speech and a host of other phenomena. But it is precisely the multi-faceted nature of kinship terms (not their boundedness as a lexico-semantic class) that needs to be accounted for.

On another note, Levinson suggests the application to kinship studies of “computational techniques of biological phylogenetics to extract the historical development of patterning in cultural categories.” “Traditional” kinship studies out of anthropology has been doing this for the past 150 years since Lewis H. Morgan’s “invention of kinship” and my book “The Genius of Kinship” is the 2007 state-of-the-art in this subfield. Biological phylogenetics may be a more distant cousin to these approaches, while the comparative methodology in historical linguistics is a close sibling. And it’s precisely in the extent to which students of kinship can cross-pollinate with historical linguists that the visible progress in the dynamics of language-bound categories can be made. The application of Bayesian method derived from biological phylogenetics to kinship terminological evolution, as exemplified by Fiona Jordan’s 2011 paper “A Phylogenetic Analysis of the Evolution of Austronesian Sibling Terminologies” referenced by Levinson as showing “patterns of irreversible evolution,” can be misguided because the essential units of analysis, which require knowledge of both anthropology and linguistics, are not coded properly. (I communicated the problem to Fiona but apparently it was too late to fix it, hence the paper came out in its original form.) This will correspondingly result in the revival of “conjectural history” decried by Radcliffe-Brown, not of kinship studies.

Levinson is trying to enter kinship studies but, from the very onset, he does it with a wrong set of assumptions about kinship studies. These questionable assumptions can be dispelled by a thorough historiographic dive or they can be solidified by a narrow focus on the some of the most recent works that just scratch the surface of the field.

Indo-European and North Caucasian: Linguistic Typology, Kinship Terms and Autosomal Genetics

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

Ranko Matasovic presented rich typological evidence (consonant-to-vowel ratio, tonal accent, number suppletion in personal pronouns, the presence of gender and the morphological optative and, possibly, the presence of glottalized consonants and ergativity) in favor of areal contacts between Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and North Caucasian (NC) in the eastern part of the Pontic steppe. He writes (pp. 306-307):

“The adduced typological parallels between PIE and Caucasian languages make it likely that PIE was, indeed, in contact with languages of the northern Caucasus. However, these contacts could also have been of indirect nature, since there are no demonstrable loanwords from North Caucasian languages in PIE, or vice versa. If such loanwords exist, their number is certainly not high. If direct contacts did exist, we cannot determine their nature: both long-term bilingualism due to exogamy and trade networks, as well as rather rapid language shift appear equally possible.”

Matasovic (p. 288-289) mentions one of such loanwords, namely the PIE kinship term *snuso– (Gr. nuos, Arm. nu, OCS snuxa, etc. ‘daughter-in-law’), apparently borrowed into many North Caucasian languages (Chechen nus, Avar nus, Akhvakh nusa, Kabardian nesa) as well as into Megrelian (nosa). But he fails to mention the cases of 1) PIE *swesor ‘sister’ and Chechen sesag ‘wife’, Lak sus, Lezgin swas, Ubykh sasa ‘bride’ and 2) PIE *geme– ‘son-in-law’  (Skrt jamatar, Avest zamatar, Gk gambros, etc.) and Chechen zam-o, Ingush sam-e ‘best man’, Lezgin c:am, Agul zam (Nikolayev S. L., and S. A. Starostin. ? North Caucasian Etymological Dictionary. Moscow, 1994). The combination of the these three apparent loanwords, all referring to marriage and affinity, favor the long-term exogamy hypothesis between PIE speakers and the natives of the Caucasus.

Naturally, if long-term marriage exchange was indeed practiced between PIE speakers and the natives of the Caucasus, we may expect to find its genetic traces in mitochondrial, Y-DNA and/or autosomal DNA. The amateur genome blogger Dienekes Pontikos recently reported the elevated frequencies of a “Caucasus” autosomal component among modern Indo-Europeans and its absence among Basques and low frequencies among Finns. While he labeled it “West Asian” and misconstrued it as suggesting a Near Eastern origin for Indo-Europeans (in contrast to the mainstream Kurgan hypothesis), it seems to be the best available evidence for genetic exchange between Indo-European speakers and the speakers of North Caucasian languages in the Pontic steppe and North Caucasus areas. The Chechens whose language contains all three kinterm loans from PIE, show this component at 54.6%. Matasovic focuses on the Maykop culture (3700-2500 BC) as providing the best archaeological correlate to the contact zone between PIE and North Caucasian languages. The Maykop culture is centered in Adygeia, which shows 52.5% of that “Caucasus” autosomal component. We have, therefore, a very strong fit between linguistics, kinship studies, population genetics and archaeology in this case.

It remains to be seen if this fit is real or spurious. It’s noteworthy that all NC societies are strictly patrilocal and patrilineal. PIE society is also reconstructed as patrilineal and patrilocal (see The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Cultures, with the original proposal in Friedrich, Paul, “Proto-Indo-European Kinship,” Ethnology 5 (1966), pp. 1-36). This commonality would facilitate marriage exchange between the two populations in both directions, as PIE women marrying NC men would go live with their husbands without violating the rules of either society. The same works for NC women. At the same time, PIE men and NC men would rarely end up as son-in-laws in foreign households, unless they had been first taken as prisoners. We don’t know yet if PIE speakers contributed any genes to the NC speech community. Neither do we know if genetic admixture between PIE and NC speakers manifested in mtDNA and Y-DNA. If it did, then we may be able to infer from the pattern of this admixture whether this gene exchange was sex-biased and whether it took place under peaceful or violent circumstances.

Russian Kinship Thesaurus: I

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

In “Sukhodol” (1911), Ivan Bunin documents a saying “a wolf is no affine to a horse” (volk koniu ne svojstvennik) (Bunin I. A. Derevnia. Moscow, 1981, p. 171).

I personally have never heard this expression but recall a similar one “A horseman is no partner to a person on foot” (konnyj peshemu ne tovarisch). It’s likely that “affine” is an early symbol of contractual obligations superseded during the Soviet times by a new label generalized social contract – tovarisch “partner, comrade.”