From godly analogy to “distant like floating clouds”: the inevitability of the Sino-Dene hypothesis and the scalability of comparative linguistics

Yukun Zeng
University of Chicago

Li Fang-Kuei and Edward Sapir

Li Fang-Kuei and Edward Sapir (Sources: Li & Sapir)

1. The Problem of Scaling in Language Classification

Language classification is a matter of scale and scaling. Most basically, it assigns languages into mutually exclusive categories. The scale underpins the categorization but does not come from nowhere. It displays an historical configuration and is invariably centered on the authoritative voice of science (Gal 2016:95). Both linguistics and anthropology are essentially Western disciplines that scale themselves up from provincial to universal sciences (Chakrabarty 2008). For instance, comparative linguistics depends on the expandability of the colonial project, which is best exemplified by the British colonialization of India and the discovery of Indo-European linguistics (Trautmann 1997). To understand the dialectical relationship between language classification and political agenda, it is useful to follow the recent conceptualization of scaling as pragmatics (Carr and Lempert 2016). Language classification is necessarily political in terms of both pragmatic presupposition (colonial exploration) and entailment (governing colonized territory).

It is reasonable to question the absence of intellectual agency in such an account and to reconsider one of the most intellectually triumphant moments in the development of linguistics, Bloomfield and Sapir’s adoption of the originally Indo-European comparative method to study Native American languages. As Sapir famously commented on Bloomfield’s reconstruction of Primitive Central Algonkian, their applications of neogrammarian comparative method brought “postulates of exceptionless […] autonomous phonological change” (Silverstein 2014) from mere assumptions to “proved truth.”

On Sapir’s side, most eminently, the application of the comparative method to Native American languages simplified its language classification from John Wesley Powell’s clumsy 58 families to Sapir’s six “superstocks” (Goddard 1996:312). These superstocks or phyla, in the most neutral term, are not only instrumental for historical linguistic studies on Native American languages but also, in Sapir’s hope, serve as a “stimulus to more profound investigations and as a first attempt to shape the historical problem” (Sapir 1921a :408).

Nevertheless, what Sapir did is not just re-arrange splitters into lumpers. What makes lumpers different from splitters is neither that the former contains more languages nor that it explains more similarities. What is crucial for him is the historical “thickness” implicated in the genetic relationship that “inject[s] chronology into descriptive cultural data” (Darnell and Hymes 1986:228) and gives history to people without written languages.

Also, the scaling-up of the Powellian family into superstocks hinged upon methodological interscaling, the emergent “connections between disparate scalable qualities” (Carr and Fisher 2016:134). Heuristically, Sapirian superstocks mobilize comparativists to nail down phonological and morphological details among different languages in a stock, which is the same ground that splitter-oriented scholars contest. Superstocks, however, enable the observation of more general linguistic features, propping a stock comparable with not just other stocks in North America but language families in other continents. The intra-stock discussions are scaled up to inter-stock ones.

One inter-stock comparison is Sapir’s famous Sino-Dene (or Indo-Chinese, see Darnell 1990:126) hypothesis, a generic connection drawn between Sino-Tibetan and Na-Dene language families across the Pacific Ocean. This idea was formulated around the time of Sapir’s six superstock proposal. It was first entextualized in a letter to Kroeber on Oct 4, 1920 (Golla 1984:347) as “godly true”:

if the morphological and lexical accord which I find on every hand between Nadene and Indo-Chinese is “accidental,” then every analogy on God’s earth is an accident.

Sapir paid particular interest to Na-Dene for a long time. And the particularity of Na-Dene interscalarly was sharpened via comparing it with Sino-Tibetan. Most saliently, tone was identified by Sapir as the trait that distinguishes Na-Dene from other superstocks (Darnell 1990: 240). At that time, tone was widely regarded as the characteristic linguistic trait of Sino-Tibetan. Although in a 1921 letter to Kroeber, Sapir gave several examples of morphemes that are comparatively connected in Tlingit, Navajo, Naida, Old Chinese, Tibetan, Karen, Miao, etc (Golla 1984), the heuristics of comparison rather than systematic morphological and phonological correspondence finally seduced Sapir into relying on the similarity of suprasegmental features.

2. Tone and Tongue

Tone is essentialized as a feature of certain language families, so are those whose mother tongue is tonal. In 1926, Fang-Kuei Li (1902-1987), a Chinese student and recent graduate of the University of Michigan, arrived in Chicago hoping to continue his studies in linguistics. He came across Sapir on his first day at the registration table and signed up for Sapir’s introduction to linguistics (Li 1984:381).

From Li’s account, his interest in working with Sapir “was to learn the field method of studying living languages—the analysis of their phonological systems, their grammatical systems and so forth” (1984:381). But Sapir’s interaction with Li was hardly arbitrary. Sapir was “especially pleased at the arrival of Fang-Kuei Li, an ‘able Chinese student’ (Sapir 1927), who could be expected to hear tone especially well” (Krauss 2005:57). And Sapir then “turned over his Sarcee materials to Li, whose study on Sarcee verb stems was in fact his master’s thesis,” including an analysis of the condition of tone (Krauss 2005:57).

Sapir’s plan to use a native tonal tongue to perfect his Sino-Dene project nevertheless fell apart. In 1927, Sapir asked Li if he “wanted to do some field work in American Indian languages” (Li 1984:382), which later became a series of fieldwork on Mattole, which resulted in Li’s dissertation on Chipewyan and Hare. But Li merely found “high tone, not low, before old glottal stop, basically the reverse of the Navajo-Sarcee-Kutchin” (Krauss 2005:60). The inability to find tone in Mattole complicated the reconstruction of a proto-Athabaskan tone, let alone the up-scaled reconstruction of Na-Dene and Sino-Dene.

Sapir’s failure is described by Athabaskanist Michael Krauss:

His inability to deal with evidence contradictory to his original conceptions of Athabaskan tone, especially in the context of his relations with the immeasurably lower-ranked “intelligent Chinaman” Li, set back the development of comparative Athabaskan syllable nuclei by four decades.
(Krauss 2005:61)

What led Krauss to conclude that there was an unequal relationship between Sapir and Li is partially that Li never published anything challenging Sapir (Krauss 2005:60). What Krauss fails to engage is Li’s expertise on the other side of the Pacific: his fieldwork and comparison of Sino-Tibetan and especially Thai (Li 1977). When Krauss’s portrayal is complemented with Chinese sources, Li’s intellectual personality is much more complicated than a reticent, passive Chinese student pictured here. Tone plays a pivotal role in his foundational piece Languages and Dialects of China, published in 1937 as the defining element of “Indo-Chinese,” namely Sino-Tibetan family:

The tendency to develop a system of tones is another characteristic of this family. We do not know whether tones existed in early Indo-Chinese speech, and it is doubtful whether tones existed in classical Tibetan, however, modern Chinese, the Kam-Tai languages, the Miao-Yao languages as well as varieties of modern Tibetan all possess tones.
(Li 1973[1937]: 2)

So, although skeptical of transpacific comparisons and cautioning against the use of tone to draw genetic relationships, Li rescaled tone for the sake of language classification in China.

3. From US to China: Fang-Kuei Li’s Re-scaling at the Institute of History and Philology

Li returned to China in 1928 after finishing the prolonged Athabaskan fieldwork. He immediately devoted himself to the burgeoning field of modern linguistics in China as a senior researcher in the Department of Linguistics at the Institute of History and Philology in the Academia Sinica, the most important institute of humanities and social science at that time.

The name Institute of History and Philology sounds archaic and alien for contemporary scholars, but the Institute aimed to revolutionize and modernize humanities and social sciences in China and, later, to a large degree fulfilled this aim. Led by its director Fu Ssu-nien (1896-1950), the Institute has been “viewed as the embodiment of China’s Rankean school,” demanding solid and new evidence from primary sources for historical and social inquiries (Wang 2000). In the famous foreword of the journal Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology (1928a), Fu contrasts his new history with the old paradigm of Chinese philology, or jing xue (经学), the study of Chinese classics. Studying in Germany from 1923-26, Fu had not only been acquainted with Rankean historiography but also neo-grammarian comparative linguistics and the emerging linguistic emphasis on field methods (Wang 2000:59). Given this context, Li’s arrival with training from Sapir and Bloomfield was a perfect match for the linguistic patch in Fu’s blueprint of new history and philology.

So Li transformed and transcaled his scholarship from an Athabaskan linguistics to a Chinese one. But which Chinese one? Choosing not to repeat the dialectology work of Chao Yuen-Ren, his colleague at the Institute, and the father of modern Chinese linguistics in China, Li chose to study non-Han languages (Xu 2010:41), for which he became known as the father of non-Han Chinese linguistics in China (Wang 2003). So, which Non-Han language groups?

Let us look at the other manifesto in the first issue of the Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology. In the last article, “The Scope and Interest of the Linguistic Work of Our Institute,” Fu Ssu-nien explicated his plan to solve the inaccuracy of the traditional rime-table philology. Fu introduced two solutions, experimental phonetics and synchronously investigating Chinese dialects and other languages relevant to Chinese language or history. Like other comparative projects, the one Fu envisaged was not politically neutral. Fu’s plan to expand the scope or scale from merely Chinese dialects to include “other languages” like Tibetan, Miao-Yao, Mon-Khmer, Mongolian, and Turkic was clearly in accord with the “unified multinational” politics (Mullaney 2011) promoted by the Republic of China.

What Fu really invested his comparatist ambition in was “Southwest Languages,” which were believed to be in the same language family as Chinese. Especially interesting is his urgent call to study “Southwest Languages”:

When these languages are well studied, not only knowledge in Indo-Chinese language advances, but also studies in Chinese benefit a lot. Since our mother tongue is in this language family, we Chinese, by nature or by mentality, are more capable of studying these languages. If the field of Indo-Sino linguistics is occupied by Europeans, that would be a tremendous shame on the Chinese.
(Fu 1928b: 116)

We do not know how much shame or other nationalist emotion experientially affected Li, but he devoted much of his career on the study of “Southwest Languages,” especially Kam-Tai and Miao-Yao.

Indeed, in Languages and Dialects of China, which was originally written in 1937, Li classified languages of China in four groups, which were a somewhat more sophisticated version of Fu’s dichotomy of “Southwest Languages” relevant to Chinese and irrelevant “Central Asian Languages”:

  1. Indo-Chinese: a) Chinese, b) Kam-Tai, c) Miao-Yao, d) Tibeto-Burman
  2. Austro-Asiatic: Mon-Khmer
  3. Altaic: a) Turkish, b) Mongolian, c) Tungus
  4. Indo-European: Tokharian (extinct)

(Note that Li used the term “Turkish” here, which does not mean Anatolian Turkish but Turkic languages in our contemporary usage.)

The most fine-grained lumper is the Indo-Chinese or Sino-Tibetan, for which he developed further detailed sub-classifications (e.g., Li 1977) via substantial learning and investigation of multiple dialects of Thai, Kam-Sui, Miao-Yao, etc. For Li, unleashed from Sapir’s transpacific comparative project, was soon enrolled in another comparative project in China whose scale was different but no less ambitious. Ironically, the linguistic solidarity in Southwest China recalls Sapir’s linguistic utopia where “Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam” (Sapir 1921b:234).

4. Conclusion: Principles of Sino-Tibetan Comparison and the Poetics of Scaling

The reception of Li’s classification of Chinese languages is also divided by different scales. Although still well respected in China, there has been quite a harsh attack in the United States. Using the term “’The ‘Indo-Chinese’ Pseudo-Stock,” Matisoff was especially dissatisfied that “Li lumps Chinese and Tibeto-Burman together with Kam-Tai and Miao-Yao, largely based on monosyllabicity and tone” (1973:471). What Matisoff attempted to back was the massive lexical comparison done by his colleague Paul Benedict, who aligns “Tai not with Chinese, but rather with Austronesian (=Malayo-Polynesian)” (1973:472). Herein, Tai is inter-scaly rescaled via replacing tone with lexicon as the measuring unit.

Rebutting Matisoff’s and Benedict’s principle for comparison, Li identified his approach as “splitter first, lumper second,” different from the Sapirean heuristic to first lump. In his biographic oral history, Li attributes this attitude to his other teacher Bloomfield (Li 1986:69-70): “You want to study some languages, but you know one language well.” Paul Benedict’s dictionary-based Sino-Tibetan Conspectus was soon disqualified since “Benedict never studied any language” (ibid 69) and Matisoffian megalocomparison is just nonsense.

The contested principles of comparison, however, should be understood across both geopolitical scales and the individual labor of scaling. The possibility of doing fieldwork, to collect synchronic data, hinges upon not just the aforementioned colonial expansion but traditional or modern hegemonic modes of establishing fieldworkable geographic contiguities and projecting historical or potential unifiability, between different preservations across North America, between East Asian metropolises and Southeast Asian, and not so successfully across the Pacific Ocean. Scaling up, scaling down or just preserving a given scale are always individuals’ intellectual adventures that make the geopolitical agenda explicit, popularize-able, falsifiable and sometimes ridiculous. And for itself, classificatory scaling is not always given truth but highly affective heuristics, as we see in Sapir’s acclamatory Sino-Dene letter to Kroeber. And affective scaling is sometimes indicative of geographical scale, as a last snapshot of Fang-Kuei Li would illustrate. After the Chinese Civil War, Li chose to neither stay in mainland China nor go to Taiwan with his colleagues from the Institute of History and Philology. After a series of teaching positions, he ended up teaching Chinese at the newly-founded Far East Department at the University of Washington. And after decades of teaching, Li eventually commented on Sino-Dene that Sino and Dene are “distant like floating clouds” (Yue-Hashimoto 1987), a metaphor common in traditional Chinese poetics to describe a nostalgia for homeland.


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How to cite this post

Zeng, Yukun, 2017. From godly analogy to “distant like floating clouds”: the inevitability of the Sino-Dene hypothesis and the scalability of comparative linguistics. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

Posted in 20th century, America, Article, China, History, Linguistics
4 comments on “From godly analogy to “distant like floating clouds”: the inevitability of the Sino-Dene hypothesis and the scalability of comparative linguistics
  1. David Marjanović says:

    Ironically, the linguistic solidarity in Southwest China recalls Sapir’s linguistic utopia where “Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam” (Sapir 1921b:234).

    What utopia?

    The context of the quote is here. Against the (then) popular misconception that languages with a long written tradition (or whatever) are more complex (however measured) than others, Sapir insisted this was nonsense – the distribution of grammatical complexity has nothing to do with culture.

    “[…] we shall do well to hold the drifts of language and of culture to be non-comparable and unrelated processes. From this it follows that all attempts to connect particular types of linguistic morphology with certain correlated stages of cultural development are vain. Rightly understood, such correlations are rubbish. The merest coup d’œil verifies our theoretical argument on this point. Both simple and complex types of language of an indefinite number of varieties may be found spoken at any desired level of cultural advance. When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.” – rather than speaking a “more complex” language, that is.

    This also makes it difficult for me to believe that Sapir was as racist/xenophobic as you make him seem; is the “intelligent Chinaman” in the quote from Krauss a quote from Sapir?

    and Matisoffian megalocomparison is just nonsense.

    [citation needed]

    Scaling up, scaling down or just preserving a given scale are always individuals’ intellectual adventures that make the geopolitical agenda explicit, popularize-able, falsifiable and sometimes ridiculous.

    This makes it sound like you think everyone has a geopolitical agenda…?

  2. zengyk91 says:

    Thanks David for the comments.

    My argument on scaling is not just about the individual intention of Sapir (or any scholar) but the whole sociocultural context conditioning the possibility of their research. So I guess geopolitical agenda is not the right word here.

    I’ll add the citation you suggest later.

    “Intelligent Chinaman” could be found on page 184 of Ruth Benedict’s An Anthropologist at Work (edited by Margaret Mead). That’s what Krauss originally cited. I don’t think a single word could suggest Sapir as a racist, which is not what my paper tries to do.

    And your understanding of Sapir from the quote you gives is definitely right and in line with this paper, namely Sapir’s comparison project got embraced by Li in a very different context, though you are right Sapir did warn us of another kind of comparison that links the development of culture with linguistic morphology. However, the metaphor Sapir used here is not random. “Plato and the Macedonian swineherd” as well as “Confucius and the head-hunting savage of Assam” are linguistic neighbours with distinctive cultures. To disentangle the false correlation between culture and language necessitates some radical contrasts like these, which are rendered from linguistic comparison like Sino-Dene.

  3. I am really not a big fan of Matisoff’s pre-Neogrammarian approach to ST comparison, but writing “Matisoffian megalocomparison is just nonsense” is simply not acceptable — the way this sentence is formulated makes it look like Matisoff is a proponent of what he calls “megalocomparison”, while he argues against it. It is unethical to misrepresent a scholar’s position, whether you agree with it or not.
    To treat a topic like Li Fang-kuei’s relationship to Sapir, a minimal familiarity with the topic at hand would be needed. Among other issues, you cannot possibly treat this topic without discussing Li Fang-kuei’s work on Tibetan, in particular his crucially important 1933 article, “Certain Phonetic Influences of the Tibetan Prefixes upon the Root Initials”, Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology 6.2: 135-157 which is universally recognized as the basis of all further research on Tibetan (see for instance; note that Sapir also had an interest in Tibetan, though he never published anything on it.
    If you want to continue working on this topic, I suggest that you learn something about ST comparative linguistics first — doing research on the history of a discipline without being specialist of that discipline first it is putting the horse before the cart, in my opinion.
    A few years ago there was a volume edited at Academia Sinica on Li Fang-Kuei, which is directly relevant to this issue, in particular Weldon South Coblin’s contribution:

  4. zengyk91 says:

    Sorry Guillaume for replying late. It’s been a crazy quarter for me. Thanks for all the suggestions. It is definitely worth delving into the technical details of Sino-Tibetan comparison. And I do wish to gain more training in this direction. But given the fact that so many much more qualified scholars have been giving judgment of the progress of Sino-Tibetan comparative linguistics, this article is doing something different. It aims to delineate the contexts and conditions that made Sapir’s grand proposal, Li’s pioneering work and late conservative attitude, as well as their encounter possible. And only in this way, the complexity and lack of consistency of Sino-Tibetan comparative linguistics are what this project tries to explain by pointing to the problem of scaling. Hence, in doing this project, I have read South Coblin’s memoir among others. They are cited in a longer version of this article.

    And thank you for picking up the sentence on Matisoff, which I need to clarify and change the tone. I don’t mean to give a negative judgment of Matisoff’s approach. Indeed, the whole paragraph is paraphrasing Li’s attitudes, not mine. In Linguistics East and West, Li treats Matisoff much in line with Benedict. And in “on Megalocomparison”, Matisoff himself appreciates “Benedictine megalocomparative ingenuity” and uses Benedict’s megalocomparison to push back Greenberg’s megalocomparison. Thus I actually use Matisoffian megalocomparison to mean the very Benedict method that he is sympathetic with, not the Greenberg one. There is little room in the original post to explain the complicatedness. But thank you for pushing me to explicate it.

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