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The Most Demanding Science: Homage to Eric Hamp

“Historical linguistics is the most advanced and demanding known human science.”

That bold statement comes in the latest issue of the amazing journal Comments on Etymology. It’s not a publication you’ll find at your nearest newsstand, probably not even at your nearest university library, so I’ll explain here. (See note at end for information on the journal.)

What makes the claim about historic linguistics plausible is the person who made it: Eric P. Hamp. He holds the title Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, Departments of Linguistics, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Psychology (Cognition and Communication) and the Committee on the Ancient Mediterranean World at the University of Chicago. And he is an active 92 years old.

Hamp studies Indo-European languages, members of that great family of languages stretching from the Slavic, Germanic, and Celtic languages of northern Europe to the Sanskrit language of ancient India and its modern descendants Hindi and Urdu. The Indo-European family includes Welsh, Russian, English, French, Latin, Greek, and many others.

Indo-European linguists like Hamp compare the modern languages with one another to reconstruct the common ancestor spoken some thousands of years ago, long before any language was recorded. That means observing patterns of relationships among hundreds of current languages. To do this properly means studying those hundreds of languages. Hamp has done this, not only with written languages but also with personal fieldwork throughout Europe and parts of Asia to learn lesser-known languages and dialects.

To gain an understanding of how difficult it is to keep the complex pattern of relationships in mind, look at Hamp’s three articles in the December 2012-January 2013 issue of Comments on Etymology. The first is called “Approximant Numbers.” It’s a commentary on number words used in English and other Indo-European languages. It’s very slow reading, very dense and detailed, with eye-opening comments like:

“Unity can be very singular; therefore there are many mini-syntaxes, all regular! (The way all our analysis must be).”

“5. a clutch (single laying of eggs) < noun: clyccan. Noun: the first collective approximant ‘free’ number. ½ a decade, and a hand. i.e. it was a basic, major, abstract counting number, but open to synonyms (leaving traces). But a quintet, like a quartet, or a sextet (never a “hextet”, i.e. only from Latin, never Greek – often you must learn to be consistent), belongs to a series.”

This article is followed by “Parole on Counting” and a “Welsh Coda,” where he comments: “Welsh illustrates with its normal set of numeral terms how a sophisticated and notably artistic and musical culture can evolve a set of terms at the same time traditionally systematic yet so complex that it would tire out and lose any of their neighbors if they ever took the trouble to learn to read their genuinely gorgeous poetry (For accurate pronunciations you must listen locally.).”

Not light reading! But illuminating. And making a good case for historical linguistics being the most advanced and demanding. If you’re up to reading it, along with other articles like editor Gerald Cohen’s on New York City slang in 1865, you can get the journal by sending a check ($16 individuals, $20 institutions) payable to “Comments on Etymology,” to:

Gerald Cohen
Department of Arts, Languages, and Philosophy
Missouri University of Science and Technology
Rolla, MO  65409

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