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BP Jonsson wrote:

>  >> This makes a reconstructed protolanguage a rather special
>  >> thing, and different from the actual prehistoric
>  >> language(s) that once existed in that you can only
>  >> reconstruct the regularities and those parts of structure
>  >> which survive -- or leave a mark, the technical term is
>  >> "leave a reflex" or "be reflected" -- in the descendant
>  >> languages. Any irregularities and anything which analogy,
>  >> phonetic loss ('merger with zero'), syntactic and
>  >> morphotactic change [...] has done away with cannot be
>  >> reconstructed, so a protolanguage ( '*asterisk language'
>  >> ) is only a subset of the actual prehistoric language.
>  >
I'd say this is true only in limited cases-- (1) when trying to reconstruct 
the past of a single living language (without benefit of [much] earlier 
_written_ evidence)**; (2) when dealing with a very limited number of 
survivors (again, without earlier evidence).
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** and that's not always a help-- "Old Malay" inscriptions from the 7th/8th 
cent. CE are all but equivalent to modern literary Malay (a few vocab. 
losses aside, and spelling oddities due to the Indic script they used)
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As language families split up and "degrade", subgroups are formed; the 
members of a subgroup may be quite uniform, but in comparison with members 
of other subgroups, we can see where developments diverged.  It is true that 
if all subgroups show a given change, that change can only be attributed to 
two sources: a) independent/parallel development in every subgroup, or b) 
the change is inherited from the proto-language.

> I might add / revise that complete mergers, whether with
> zero or something else, aren't recoverable. E.g. there is no
> way to tell that Old Swedish had a /T/, since its allophones
> have merged completely with /t/ or /d/, (in the dialects
> also with zero, where it was intervocalic or word-final.)

True enough; but if Dialects A and B have a t::t correspondence, as well as 
a t::0/d corr., that merits at least an hypothesis that two earlier sounds 
were involved. And surely comparison of Old Swedish with [almost any?] other 
Germanic language will prove or disprove the hypothesis? That's why we call 
the method "historical-<I>comparative<I>" :-)))))