Merritt Ruhlen bigraphy, stories - American linguist

Merritt Ruhlen : biography

1944 -

Merritt Ruhlen ( born 1944) is an American linguist who has worked on the classification of languages and what this reveals about the origin and evolution of modern humans. Amongst other linguists, Ruhlen's work is recognized as standing outside the mainstream of comparative-historical linguistics. He is the principal advocate and defender of Joseph Greenberg's approach to language classification.

Research topics

Multidisciplinary approach

Ruhlen has been in the forefront of attempts to coordinate the results of historical linguistics and other human sciences, such as genetics and archaeology.Chen, Sokal, and Ruhlen 1995Ruhlen 1995eKnight et al. 2003 In this endeavor he has extensively worked with the geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza for three decades and with the archaeologist Colin Renfrew for two decades.

Taxonomic methods

Most of the criticism directed at Ruhlen centers on his defense of Joseph Greenberg's technique of language classification, called "mass comparison" or "multilateral comparison." It involves comparing selected elements of the morphology and basic vocabulary of the languages being investigated, examining them for similarities in sound and meaning, and formulating a hypothesis of classification based on these. Ruhlen maintains that such classification is the first step in the comparative method and that the other operations of historical linguistics, in particular the formulation of sound correspondences and the reconstruction of a protolanguage, can only be carried out after a hypothesis of classification has been established.

While Hock, for instance,Hock 1986Hock and Joseph 1996 claims that only reconstruction proves genetic affinity, and that Indo-European, Uralic, Dravidian, Austronesian, Bantu, and Uto-Aztecan have all been proved by successful reconstructions, Ruhlen disagrees, saying: And yet all of these families were universally accepted as valid families before anyone even thought of trying to reconstruct the protolanguage.Ruhlen 2001d As an example, Ruhlen mentions Delbrück (1842–1922), who considered Indo-European to have been proved by the time of Bopp at the beginning of the 19th century; the basis for this proof was the "juxtaposition of words and forms of similar meaning."Delbrück 1880

Ruhlen believes his classification of the world's languages is supported by population genetics research by the geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, who has identified the distribution of certain human genes in populations throughout the world. He has used this evidence to construct phylogenetic trees showing the evolutionary history of these populations.Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1988Cavalli-Sforza 2000 Cavalli-Sforza's findings are argued to match up remarkably well with Ruhlen's language classification. Ruhlen's linguist opponents hold that genetic relatedness cannot be used to adduce linguistic relatedness.

This tree has been criticized by some linguists and anthropologists on several grounds: that it makes selective use of languages and populations (omitting the numerous Sino-Tibetan speakers of northern China, for example); that it assumes the truth of such linguistic groups as Austric and Amerind that are controversial; and that several of the population groups listed are defined not by their genes but by their languages, making the correlation irrelevant to a comparison of genetic and linguistic branching and tautological as well.Bateman et al. 1990Trask 1996

Amerind macrofamily

The prevailing opinion on the classification of Western Hemisphere languages is that there are many separate language families in the Americas, among which concrete evidence for genetic affinity is lacking.Campbell 1997 Greenberg published his contrary hypothesis, Amerind language family, in 1987 in one of his major books, Language in the Americas. According to the Amerind hypothesis, all of the languages of North and South America, except for the Na-Dene and Eskimo–Aleut language families, belong to a single macrofamily. One of Greenberg’s most controversial hypotheses, it was updated by Ruhlen in 2007.Greenberg and Ruhlen 2007 Ruhlen has published papers presenting research in support of it, e.g., in 1994,Ruhlen1994cRuhlen 1994d, 177–188Ruhlen 1994e, 72–73Ruhlen 1994f 1995,Ruhlen 1995aRuhlen 1995bRuhlen 1995cRuhlen 1995d and 2004.Ruhlen 2004

Living octopus

Living octopus

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