Lumpers and Splitters - Usage in Various Fields - Language Classification

Language Classification

There is no agreement among historical linguists about what amount of evidence is needed for two languages to be safely classified in the same language family. For this reason, many language families have had lumper–splitter controversies, including Altaic, Pama–Nyungan, Nilo-Saharan, and most of the larger families of the Americas. At a completely different level, the splitting of mutually intelligible dialect continuums into different languages, or lumping them into one, is also an issue that continually comes up, though the consensus in contemporary linguistics is that there is no completely objective way to settle the question.

Splitters regard the comparative method (meaning not comparison in general, but only reconstruction of a common ancestor or protolanguage) as the only valid proof of kinship, and consider genetic relatedness to be the question of interest. American linguists of recent decades tend to be splitters.

Lumpers are more willing to admit techniques like mass lexical comparison or lexicostatistics, and mass typological comparison, and to tolerate the uncertainty of whether relationships found by these methods are the result of linguistic divergence (descent from common ancestor) or language convergence (borrowing). Much long-range comparison work has been from Russian linguists like Vladislav Illich-Svitych and Sergei Starostin. In the US, Greenberg's and Ruhlen's work has been well publicized, though it has met with little acceptance from linguists. Some well-known earlier American linguists like Morris Swadesh and Edward Sapir also pursued large-scale classifications like Sapir's 1929 scheme for the Americas, accompanied by controversy similar to that today.

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