Sunday, October 29, 2017

Butterfly-collecting: the history of an insult

Chomsky's barb about butterfly-collecting has echoed in the ears of descriptive linguists for decades, and is sometimes blamed for the withering away of field linguistics over the late 20th century. The earliest published version I could track down via Google is:
"You can also collect butterflies and make many observations. If you like butterflies, that’s fine; but such work must not be confounded with research, which is concerned to discover explanatory principles of some depth and fails if it does not do so." (Chomsky 1979:57)
So I was surprised to find a similar statement attributed to the eminent early 20th century physicist Ernest Rutherford, quoted by Dyson (2006:179) as saying "Physics is the only real science; the rest are butterfly-collecting." How did this metaphor make its way into linguistics?

For a start, it appears that Dyson's version is somewhat inexact. The Rutherford quote appears to belong to the oral tradition of physics, rather than deriving from any publication of his; the earliest version that I can find on Google Books is from Baker (1942:96):

"These ideas are crystallized in the statement, attributed to Rutherford, that science consists of physics and stamp- collecting. This is an epigram intended to mean that particular objects are uninteresting : it is the extreme view-point of a general analytical scientist."
The shift from stamps to butterflies came decades later, first attested only in 1974. In fact, the derisive comparison to butterfly collecting seems likely to have seeped into linguistics not from physics but from, of all subjects, anthropology. Edmund Leach (1961:2) makes it the central metaphor of his assault of Radcliffe-Brown:
"Radcliffe-Brown maintained that the objective of social anthropology was the 'comparison of social structures'. [...] Comparison is a matter of butterfly collecting — of classification, of the arrangement of things according to their types and subtypes. The followers of Radcliffe-Brown are anthropological butterfly collectors and their approach to their data has certain consequences."
Anthropologists would reuse the metaphor in debates over the distinction between different types of comparison in linguistics itself, whether endorsing it like Lehman (1964:387) or rebutting the criticism like Sarana (1965:29). From there it seems to have been taken up by Chomskyan linguists as an argument against Bloomfield's "disovery procedures", if I am correctly interpreting the incomplete fragment of Ferber and Lynd (1971) that I can find on Google Books:
"These procedures, which are largely a matter of classification, have been uncharitably called "butterfly-collecting" in the manner of pre-Darwinian biology: they account for a detailed "external" description of each language (what Chomsky [...]"
Geoffrey Leech (1969:4) deploys the same metaphor against rhetoric:
"Connected to this is a second weakness of traditional rhetoric - what I am tempted to call its 'train-spotting' or 'butterfly-collecting' attitude to style. This is the frame of mind in which the identification, classification and labelling of specimens of given stylistic devices becomes an end in itself [...]"
The redeployment of this argument to belittle descriptive work in general, rather than particular approaches, seems to be attributable to David DeCamp (1971:158), criticizing sociolinguistics from a Chomskyan perspective:
"The weakest theory is a 'functional' model, which only relates outputs from the black box to inputs, e. g. a grammar which would generate all and only the sentences of a language; the goal of much scientific research is to replace such a functional model with a 'structural' model, one that makes the stronger claim of describing what is actually in the black box. Mendel's 'genes' were only a functional model of genetics; the research on the DNA and RNA molecules has yielded a model that is much more nearly structural. Thus one branch of biology has at last become a true science; general linguistics is approaching that status; sociolinguistics is still in the pre-theoretical, butterfly-collecting stage, with no theory of its own and uncertain whether it has any place in general linguistic theory."
He then clarifies (ibid:170) that:
"'Butterfly collecting' is simply the collection of a whole lot of information toward the day when somebody can produce a formal theory. Now this is valuable, this is useful. We need a lot of empirical data collection also. I certainly would not want to imply by this that in this I'm saying that there is not an importance to the kinds of things that the Urban Language Survey is doing at CAL, or Bill Labov's work in New York. This is immensely important. What I am saying is that although it is necessary, it is not sufficient. We've got enough data now; it is about time to guide further research by means of some sort of a theory."
So, if we have to blame one person for reducing descriptive linguistics to butterfly collecting, it looks like it would be David DeCamp, at least until someone tracks down an earlier citation. But that misses a broader point: the disparaging comparison of data gathering to butterfly collecting seems to have become rather pervasive across a variety of disciplines in the late 20th century - including biology itself, which may well be part of where DeCamp got it from. All the way back in 1964, Theodosius Dobzhansky - who had been an ardent butterfly collector before becoming a prominent evolutionary biologist - comments sarcastically that:
"The notion has gained some currency that the only worthwhile biology is molecular biology. All else is "bird watching" or "butterfly collecting." Bird watching and butterfly collecting are occupations manifestly unworthy of serious scientists!" (Dobzhansky 1964:443)
Had he lived to see molecular biology turn to such quintessentially descriptive, list-making pursuits as the Human Genome Project, he would surely have enjoyed having the last laugh.

(If you have any earlier citations bearing on the history of this metaphor in linguistics, please tell me below!)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Siwi on Wikipedia

I am not a big fan of Wikipedia, despite its usefulness. To contribute good material to it - and there is a lot of wonderful material there - is to make an article look reassuringly reliable. That appearance of reliability then makes the article prime prey for anybody with an ideological or even commercial agenda to push: one little edit, and their propaganda is integrated into the same text, gaining credibility from its context, and getting copied over and over and over. Nevertheless, the insistent niggling itch of knowing that "someone is wrong on the internet" eventually got to me, and last month I ended up massively expanding the article Siwi language - including a fairly extensive section on Siwi oral literature. Suggestions or comments are welcome, although I make no promises.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Shoes in Songhay and West Chadic: towards an etymology

The proto-Songhay word for "(pair of) shoes, sandals" is *tàgmú (Zarma tà:mú, Kandi tà:mú, Gao taam-i, Hombori tà:mí, Kikara tă:m, Djenne taam, Tadaksahak taɣmú, Korandje tsaɣmmu). It is evidently related to a less widely attested verb *tàgmá "step on" (Zarma tà:mú, Gao taama, Hombori tà:mà, Djenne taam). (Velar stop codas are lost in all of Songhay except the Northern branch, leaving behind either compensatory lengthening or a w; see Souag 2012.)

In Hausa, the word for "shoe, boot, sandal" is tà:kàlmí: (borrowed directly into the Songhay (Dendi) variety of Djougou as tàkăm). Within Hausa, this likewise corresponds to a verb tá:kà: "step on". The two-way similarity is striking, but if there was borrowing, which way did it go? A cognate set in Schuh (2008) casts some light on the question.

Hausa belongs to the West Chadic family, in which the best comparison to Hausa "shoe" seems to be Bole tàkà(:), with no obvious cognates within its own subgroup, Bole-Tangale (Ngamo tà:hò looks similar, but Ngamo h seems normally to correspond to Bole p, not k.) For "step on", however, Schuh points to a potential cognate set in a slightly more distantly related West Chadic subgroup, Bade. In this subgroup, we have Gashua Bade tà:gɗú, Western Bade tàgɗú, Ngizim tàkɗú which Schuh analyses as *tàk- plus an unproductive verbal extension -ɗu supported by Bade-internal evidence, eg tə̀nkùku "press" vs. tə̀nkwàkùɗu "massage". Within Bole-Tangale, one might speculate that Gera tàndə̀- is cognate, but Gera seems to be known only from short wordlists, so that would be difficult to show.

So the comparative evidence provides some support for the idea that Hausa tá:kà: "step on" goes back to proto-West Chadic. If tà:kàlmí: "shoe" could be regularly derived from this verb within Chadic, then the answer would appear clear: Songhay borrowed it from Chadic. However, while Hausa frequently forms deverbal nouns with a suffix -i: (Newman (2000:157), there seems to be no plausible language-internal explanation for the -lm-. In Songhay, on the other hand, a suffix -mi forming nouns from verbs (sometimes -m-ey with a former plural suffix stuck on) is reasonably well-attested: Gao (Heath 1999:97) dey "buy" vs. dey-mi "purchase (n.)", key "weave" vs. key-mi "weaving", Kikara (Heath 2005:97-98) kà:rù "go up" vs. kàr-mɛ̂y "going up", húná "live" vs. hùnà-mɛ̀y "long life". A shift *-mi to *-mu seems natural enough, especially since a few Songhay varieties actually have reflexes of "shoe" with a final -i in any case; so the Songhay form looks kind of like it could be **tàg "step on" plus deverbal -mí̀. To top it off, deverbal noun-forming suffixes in -r- are widely attested in Songhay, and Zarma attests a combined suffix -àr-mì: zànjì "break" vs. zànjàrmì "shard", bágú "break" vs. bàgàrmì "piece of debris" (Tersis 1981:244). If we treat the Hausa form as a borrowing from Songhay, we can then analyse it as **tàg "step on" plus deverbal -àr-mí. But before we get carried away, we should note that within Songhay there's no motivation for analysing the -mu / -mi in "shoe" as a suffix; the verb and the noun differ (if at all) only in the final vowel.

So what to make of all this? So far, the scenario that suggests itself is something like the following:

  1. Songhay borrows a verb *tàk "step on" from West Chadic (or vice versa?).
  2. Songhay internally forms a deverbal noun *tàk-mí "shoe" (there is no reconstructible contrast between *k and *g in coda position in proto-Songhay), alongside a variant *tàk-àr-mí.
  3. Hausa borrows this as tà:kàlmí:.
  4. Songhay replaces *tàk with a denominal verb formed from "shoe" (which becomes internally unanalysable): *tàgm-á. This step has possible internal motivations: in most of Songhay, final velar stops disappeared leaving behind only compensatory lengthening on the preceding vowel, and the resulting form tà: would have been homophonous with the much commoner verb "receive, take".
  5. Djougou Dendi, a heavily Hausa-influenced, somewhat creolized Songhay variety spoken in Benin, borrows the Hausa form as tàkăm.

Further Chadic comparative data may yet turn out to bear upon this etymology, but one thing seems clear: these two families have been affecting each other for a long time.