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Language Classification


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Language Classification

How are relationships established among the world's languages? This is one of the most topical and most controversial questions in contemporary linguistics. The central aims of the book are to answer this question, to cut through the controversies, and to contribute to research in distant genetic relationships. In doing this the authors show how the methods have been employed, revealing which methods, techniques, and strategies have proven successful and which ones have proven ineffective. The book seeks to determine how particular language families were established and offers an evaluation of several of the most prominent and more controversial proposals of distant genetic relationship (such as Amerind, Nostratic, Eurasiatic, Proto-World, and others). Finally, the authors make recommendations for practice in future research. This book will contribute significantly to understanding language classification in general.

LYLE CAMPBELL is Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Utah.

WILLIAM J. POSER is Adjunct Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics at the University of British Columbia.

Language Classification

History and Method

Lyle Campbell and William J. Poser

Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi

Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK

Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title:

© Lyle Campbell and William J. Poser 2008

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2008

Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge

A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data

Campbell, Lyle.
Language classification: history and method / by Lyle Campbell and William J. Poser.
   p.   cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-521-88005-3 (hardback)
1. Comparative linguistics. 2. Language and languages–Classification. I. Poser, William John. II. Title.
P143.C36   2007
401′.2–dc22      2007048556

ISBN 978-0-521-88005-3 hardback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of
URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and
does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or


  List of figures, tables, and charts page   vi
  Acknowledgments vii
  Preface ix
1   Introduction: how are languages shown to be related to one another? 1
2   The beginning of comparative linguistics 13
3   “Asiatic Jones, Oriental Jones”: Sir William Jones’ role in the raise of comparative linguistics 32
4   Consolidation of comparative linguistics 48
5   How some languages were shown to belong to Indo-European 74
6   Comparative linguistics of other language families and regions 87
7   How to show languages are related: the methods 162
8   The philosophical–psychological–typological–evolutionary approach to language relationships 224
9   Assessment of proposed distant genetic relationships 234
10   Beyond the comparative method? 297
11   Why and how do languages diversify and spread? 330
12   What can we learn about the earliest human language by comparing languages known today? 364
13   Conclusions: anticipating the future 394
  Appendix: Hypothesized distant genetic relationships 404
  References 416
  Index 508

Figures, tables, and charts


  5.1  The Indo-European family tree page   84
  6.1  The Uralic family tree 89
  6.2  The Austronesian family tree 100


  7.1  Matching forms of the verb ‘to be’ across Indo-European languages 181
  7.2  Quechua–Finnish accidental morphological similarities 185
  7.3  Coincidences between Proto-Eastern Miwokan and Late Common Indo-European 188
  7.4  The FIRE ‘word family’ in Sahaptian–Klamath–Tsimshian comparison 211
  7.5  Borrowings of Salishan pronominal suffixes into Alsea 220
  9.1  Greenberg’s Indo-Pacific pronominal markers for each person 291
  10.1  Misassigned and underrepresented numeral classifiers in Nichols (1992) 314
  12.1  Comparison of English, Hindi, and Maori forms 382


  11.1  Larger and smaller languages in the same geographical area 335
  11.2  Spread and non-spread language families with and without agriculture 340


We would like to thank a number of friends and colleagues for answering specific questions, for providing comments and feedback on particular issues, or for helping us to obtain access to materials. We do not mean, however, to imply that any of them is necessarily in agreement with what we have written, and certainly all mistakes are our own. We sincerely thank:

      M. Lionel Bender
      Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy
      Rodolfo Cerrón-Palomino
      Terry Crowley
      Alan Dench
      Nick Evans
      Andrew Garrett
      Ives Goddard
      Matt Gordon
      Verónica Grondona
      Alice Harris
      Bernd Heine
      Jane Hill
      Juha Janhunen
      Jay Jasanoff
      Brian Joseph
      Harold Koch
      Joe Kruskal
      James Matisoff
      David Nash
      Elisabeth Norcliffe
      Andrew Pawley
      Robert Rankin
      Don Ringe
      Aryon Rodrigues
      Malcolm Ross
      Tapani Salminen
      Joe Salmons
      Pekka Sammallahti
      Larry Trask

We also acknowledge the support of a Marsden grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand, awarded to Lyle Campbell, which aided significantly in the preparation of this book.


We began talking together and thinking about the subject matter of this book when we prepared a paper for the Spring Workshop in Reconstruction in 1991, held at the University of Pittsburgh. We later decided to write this book, but were not able to do that until now due to other obligations. With respect to the division of labor, William Poser is primarily responsible for the writing of Chapter 5, part of Chapter 3, and parts of Chapter 4 (especially sections 4.8 and 4.11). Lyle Campbell is the principal author of the other chapters and sections of this book.

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