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Lecture | Comparative Indo-European Linguistics (CIEL) Seminars

Graeco-Aryan’ between myth and method

Friday 23 September 2022
This talk is also available online via Zoom.
Comparative Indo-European Linguistics (CIEL) Seminars
Also available online via Zoom | Register by emailing a.i.palmer@hum.leidenuniv.nl.
Lipsius 147


One of the most mysterious phenomena in Indo-European linguistics is the mythical creature of “Graeco-Aryan”. Unlike many other concepts, it is very rarely defined and treated or explained in detail, but it is usually mentioned in passing as a well-established fact or common background knowledge that goes under the radar. In this talk, I will address this Hörensagen in Indo-European linguistics: The phylogenetic relationship between Indo Iranian and Greek, which happens to be the topic of my ongoing PhD research. The aim of the talk is to address and discuss why early and deep branchings are so difficult to detect and determine, with an off-set in the illustrative example of “Graeco-Aryan”. Not only does any kind of higher-order subgrouping challenge our cladistic methods, but the disproportionate attestation of the Indo-European branches in time and corpus-size makes it even more difficult. The “safety in numbers” of computational approaches, and the corresponding “cumulative evidence” of more hand-held or traditional approaches, do not give actual safety when the data itself is as biased and skewed as is the case here. The fact that both branches are quite conservative and are to be compared with relatively more innovative branches further complicates things: once replacement and loss have taken place, there is no going back, and the innovated leaf-states will reveal nothing about the deeper branching structure. After introducing the premises of linguistic phylogenetics and dwelling on these methodological issues, I will address some of the problematic and interesting isoglosses following a taxonomy of isogloss-types. This will reveal the potentials and weaknesses of each category, such as the abundance but circularity of lexical cognates, the high credibility but low number of inflectional morphemes, the omnipresent issue of productivity in derivational morphology and the surprising scarcity of phonetic innovations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this will reveal that most Graeco-Aryan isoglosses are in fact archaism, parallelisms, independent innovations – or insignificant.

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