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Monday, May 14, 2007 -- 10:18 pm

As I read more books on linguistics, I'm noticing a very strong bias in the research. The same languages keep coming up again and again to illustrate various points. At times I even start to suspect that the authors are working from a library strikingly similar to my own. This is an understandable result -- it simply wouldn't be possible to simultaneously do original field research on the world's dwindling and endangered languages, and systematize it to look for deeper patterns and structures by comparing our findings to those of others.

And I have to wonder, of course, whether "documentation bias" is a coherent complaint; it's essentially saying that the survey is inherently biased because it's based on things we know, and have documented, rather than an appropriate mixture of languages we know about and those we don't. But to compile a survey based on things we don't yet know would mean that the survey would contain more data than the studies it relied upon. Most scientists would apply the word "fraud", rather than "deduction", to such a scenario.

At least we've mostly abandoned the days when people would deduce language universals from a comparison of French, Spanish, and Italian, but something tells me that generalizing from a comparison of Tariana, Semelai, and Fijian is only a partial improvement.

Sunday, May 13, 2007 -- 10:07 pm

As I dabble in genealogical exercises and try to reconstruct family histories, I'm often struck by just how difficult it is to describe a life. Even the photographs are complicated. I happen to have a lot of photographs to work with, especially from the German side of the family, and in one case I have at least one photograph per year from a very long and complex life. But how much does this really say about the person? It's difficult even to reconstruct his daily existence. A few pieces of correspondence between estranged family members, or worse, a set of legal documents, really leaves me feeling like I know understand less than when I started. At most, I'll be able to reconstruct a series of mutually incompatible snapshots that only poorly, if at all, approximate the life and mind that once walked the earth.

I realize, of course, that that's all that was ever likely to be possible anyway -- most of us don't have the luxury of having well-documented ancestors, and even when we take pains to document the lives of people we know, a lot is lost -- through lack of documentation, through forgetfulness, through dissimulation. And the documentation of even our own lives tends to be a little sketchy; right now I'm in the process of purging papers from the last few decades becasue I can no longer store them, and realize I no longer need them. I've got no choice but to shred the documents, but I know that in doing so I'm deliberately destroying traces of my own past.

Getting back to genealogy, the inevitable loss of information, and the impossibility of truly knowing people of the past, begs the question of what I'm hoping to accomplish in the first place. The interest cannot simply be a genetic one -- the history of any family includes adoptions and other interventions that confirm the apparent anthropological view that the family is something created by its members, often by convention and sometimes by little more that circumstance and force of will. Part of the interest, I think, is that genealogical research gives us a personal stake in history. It suddenly matters a bit more where the railways of eastern Europe meandered in the years after the war when you know someone who crept along one trying to get home, while staying out of sight. Part of the interest, though, is probably a desire to claim legitimacy: much of the value of a thing lies in the stories told about it, i.e., its pedigree. The Kula traders of Melanesia have a detailed knowledge of esteemed armbands and necklaces that they've encountered over years of ritualized trade, and reminisce over the great exchanges that took place and the respected custodians of various artifacts, past and present. By the same token, the stories that we can tell about our own past, and about our families' past, serve as an answer to the intractable question of just who we are and where we came from. They provide a footing in the world and a proxy for our own worth. And it's of course impossible to overlook the fact that telling stories about a person, so others know them as you did, is a powerful form of grieving that keeps the person vivid long after their last breathe disperses. It's not quite possible to reconstruct those stories from marriage certificates and baptismal records, but it seems to me that it's worth trying.