James Matisoff


James Alan Matisoff (born 1937) is an American linguist who specialized in Sino-Tibetan languages and other languages of East and Southeast Asia.


  • The severe difficulties in attempting a rigorous reconstruction of Proto-Tibeto-Burman on this basis [of scant data] have not prevented certain hardy souls from leaping to ever more far-flung comparisons (particularly of Tibetan or Burmese with Old Chinese, or even with Thai) in an attempt to say something about the great Sino-Tibetan proto-language. There are no doubt those who would have tried to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European simply on the testimony of Provençal, Avestan, and Old Norse. We are only now becoming more realistic. It seems wiser to concentrate for the time being on reconstructing PTB sub-group by sub-group...
  • Bilingual humor may be viewed as a relatively benign response to the frustrations inherent in living in such a linguistically and racially heterogeneous region as the hills and valleys of backwoods Southeast Asia.
    • "Lahu bilingual humor" (1969) (p.172)
  • In the Beginning was the Sino-Tibetan monosyllable, arrayed in its full consonantal and vocalic splendor. And the syllable was without tone and devoid of pitch. And monotony was on the face of the mora. And the Spirit of Change hovered over the segments flanking the syllabic nucleus.
    And Change said, "Let the consonants guarding the vowel to the left and the right contribute some of their phonetic features to the vowel in the name of selfless intersegmental love, even if the consonants thereby be themselves diminished and lose some of their own substance. For their decay or loss will be the sacrifice through which Tone will be brought into the world, that linguists in some future time may rejoice."
    And it was so. And the Language saw that it was good, and gradually began to exploit tonal differences for distinguishing utterances – yea, even bending them to morphological ends. And the tones were fruitful and multiplied, and diffused from tongue to tongue in the Babel of Southeast Asia.
    • "Tonogenesis in Southeast Asia" (1973) (p.73)
  • The long drought in Tibeto-Burman and Sino-Tibetan historical linguistics is over. The field is opening up now as never before. Where once it was the esoteric preserve of a few, it is now being enthusiastically taken up by a new generation of lively, inquiring, talented students. For much of this exciting new activity, we have Paul K. Benedict to thank.
    • "Benedict's Sino-Tibetan: a rejection of Miller's Conspectus inspection" (1975) (p.167)
  • Rhinoglottophilia–an affinity between the feature of nasality and the articulatory involvement of the glottis–is more prevalent than is generally realized. Although it sounds like a disease, or even a perversion, rhinoglottophilia is actually quite a benign and natural condition. It is of interest chiefly because it is not obvious why there should be such an affinity at all.
    • "Rhinoglottophilia: the mysterious connection between nasality and glottality" (1975) (p.265)
  • Semantic shifting goes by many different names. In his pioneering article, Benedict 1939 calls it "semantic differentiation." In his article on Gnau, Lewis calls it "referent slippage." American Indianists have traditionally called it "gloss shifting." The latter term has the merit of recognizing that the meanings given in dictionaries are only the constructs of the lexicographer's mind, and do not necessarily exactly mirror the meanings "in the minds of the native speakers," whether they are now long dead or still alive.
    • Variational semantics in Tibeto-Burman: The "organic" approach to linguistic comparison (1978) (p.267, 270)
  • ...the more I learn about Lahu the less I think I know. It has seemed that the more fluently I came to speak the language, the more apt people were to correct my mistakes, and the less likely they were to accept unidiomatic utterances from me.
    • The grammar of Lahu (2nd edition, 1982) (p.lv)
  • I suggest that the reconstruction of PTB [Proto-Tibeto-Burman] is a noble enterprise, where a spirit of competitive territoriality is out of place. We should pool our knowledge and encourage each other to venture outside of our specialized niches, so that we begin to appreciate the full range of Tibeto-Burman languages — a family as vast and diversified as Indo-European.
    • "Proto-languages and proto-sprachgefühl" (1982) (p.41)
  • There can be no more solemn duty for the comparative linguist than to reconstruct his language family's word for the Supreme Being.
    • "God and the Sino-Tibetan Copula" (1985) (p.4)
  • I remember particularly a moment just before leaving for Japan and Thailand in 1976, when I was gazing forlornly at the 14 boxes of fileslips spread out on the diningroom table, wondering if I should really schlep them all across the Pacific for one "final" checking, or just let it go at that. At this critical juncture, it was lucky that Martine Mazaudon was there to say the few words that I wanted to hear: "Yes, take them – you can't stop now!"
    • The dictionary of Lahu (1988) (p.xviii)
  • The South-East Asian mono-syllable often seems to be bulging at the seams with phonetic material: consonantal, vocalic, and supra-segmental.
    • "The bulging monosyllable, or the mora the merrier: echo-vowel adverbialization in Lahu" (1989) (p.163)
  • All this having been said, if I were to pick a single word to describe [Joseph] Greenberg's apparent motivation in doing megalocomparison, it would have to be columbicubiculomania-a compulsion to stick things into pigeonholes, to leave nothing unclassified. Greenberg gives the impression that the highest intellectual activity is the act of classification itself, regardless of the nature of the evidence upon which the classification rests.
  • The computer will be crucial to handle the etymological information explosion of the future, but machines will never be able to do all the work for us. There will still doubtless be room for gut feelings, intuitions, temperamental quirks, and professional rivalries, even in the Computer Age. In making etymological 'judgment calls' there will never be a substitute for hands-on human experience in a given language or language family.
    • "On Megalocomparison" (1990) (p.119)
  • It is a remarkable fact that a tremendous spate of tonogenetic and registrogenic activity occurred all over the South-East Asian linguistic area in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, triggered by the devoicing of the previously *voiced series of obstruents in many Middle Chinese and Hmong-Mien dialects, in Siamese and other Tai languages, in Karenic, in Burmese and many Loloish languages, and in Vietnamese, Khmer, and other Mon-Khmer languages. It is interesting to note that this period was roughly contemporaneous with the Mongol invasions that convulsed Eurasia in those centuries. Is it going too far to regard these extralinguistic events as a sort of punctuation in the sense of Dixon (1997), a period of upheaval that shook up a previously stable prosodic constellation in South-East Asia? Could the peoples of the region have been so terrified by the Golden Hordes that they hardly dared to vibrate their vocal cords, dooming the voiced obstruents to transphonologize into mere breathy voice or lower tone?
    • "Genetic versus contact relationship: Prosodic diffusibility in South-East Asian languages" (2001)
  • I decided to start with the reproductive system, not only because of its prurient interest but also because it seemed like the point of departure for all things.
    • Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman (2003) (p.x)
  • I decided to select the Reproductive System as a pilot project, not merely for its prurient interest, but also because this semantic field tends to be neglected in historical linguistic studies, despite the fact that it is particularly rich in metaphorical associations with other areas of the lexicon.
    • The Tibeto-Burman Reproductive System: Toward an Etymological Thesaurus (2008) (p.xxii)

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