‘fringe’ historical linguistics 2 (including comments on comments!)

Hi again, all!

Thanks very much for the appreciative and well-informed reactions to my first post!  I’ll start with some responses to the issues you’ve raised.

As has been noted, the theory of a recent Proto-World is in fact difficult to reconcile with various pieces of evidence, notably the modern archaeological evidence that modern humans had spread as far as remote Australia by 40,000 (or even 60,000) years BP, presumably already using languages related to other human languages (as are the contemporary Aboriginal languages).

Some enthusiastic commentators have asked for information about language ‘super-families’: larger, deep-time ‘families’, each giving rise to recognized later/smaller ‘families’.  One of you specifically mentioned Nostratic, which is a supposed deep-time common ancestor of Indo-European and some other ‘families’ including Semitic (Arabic, Hebrew etc.), Uralic (Finnish etc.) and Dravidian (Southern India); the exact composition of the Nostratic ‘super-family’ varies among its advocates.  Now down the track I may well have things to say about ‘super-families’ and about ‘Nostratic specifically; but many of the ‘Nostraticists’ and the advocates of other ‘super-families’ are themselves professional linguists (although they constitute minorities in accepting such theories), and much of this material is thus outside my remit here.  Controversial ideas are not by any means always ‘fringe’.  (But I still welcome comments and queries on these matters and will try to engage in discussions of them!)

On the other hand, there will definitely be more to say in this context about some specific languages which have attracted ‘fringe’ as well as mainstream attention, such as Etruscan (written in a known script but apparently ‘genetically’ isolated and still only marginally intelligible) and Sumerian (the earliest known written language and another which, while now largely understood, is again regarded as ‘genetically’ isolated) – also about the ‘cuneiform’ script used originally for Sumerian and later applied to unrelated Mesopotamian languages.  Comments on specific non-mainstream historical ‘linguists’ such as Jordan Maxwell and Michal Tsarion are also forthcoming! 

If readers’ patience with me holds out, I will also have something to say about ‘Inuit words for snow’ and related matters – but not under the present heading, since these issues are essentially non-historical in character.  If it appears after some time that I’m forgetting to get back to this, please nudge me!

OK, to resume:  As I said in Post 1, the language identified by ‘fringe’ writers as Proto-World may be a known (ancient) language or a language which has been reconstructed or invented by the author in question.   Where the language is a familiar one, it is usually an ancient language favoured [British spelling!] by the author, often the ancestor of her own language or even a known older stage of that language.  Biblical Hebrew, regarded by many as the Ursprache in pre-scientific times, remains popular in this respect, but there are many others, especially revered classical languages such as Sanskrit and Ancient Greek.  Languages of unknown or disputed ‘genetic’ affiliation, such as Hungarian, Sumerian and especially the genuinely mysterious Basque (another ‘genetically’ isolated language), are also commonly identified as ancestor languages.

The identification of a language dear to the writer as the Ursprache – or as otherwise especially important – does not of course itself show that the writer is biased, or even mistaken; but it excites reasonable suspicion as to unscholarly motives.

Other claims of this first sub-type do not involve an ultimate Ursprache but rather alleged more recent (but still ancient) ‘genetic’ links between specific cultures and languages which are normally deemed unconnected (one such writer is Michal Tsarion, who proposes a ‘secondary Ursprache’ which allegedly emerged after a catastrophe; see further later).

The second way in which unacknowledged links between languages are said to have arisen (see Post 1) involves ‘borrowing’ or ‘transfer’.  In cases of this kind, an individual word (or other linguistic feature) from one language is taken over by another language in a contact situation, as in genuine cases such as English restaurant, borrowed from French.  For example, members of one culture are said to have completed long voyages and to have arrived in the territory of the other, and the cultures and languages are supposed to have influenced each other.  (Claims of this kind clearly do not directly involve an Ursprache.) Some such cases involve the theories of Barry Fell, Thor Heyerdahl etc. about unrecognized early transoceanic contact.

In all these various types of case – even where language is not itself of especial interest to the writers in question – linguistic forms (spoken and/or written) are very commonly invoked, because they (with their meanings) appear prima facie much more specific and much more easily identifiable than most other cultural traits, and the probability of chance similarity seems much lower.  For instance, it is observed that the male name Madoc is found in Welsh and that the male name Modoc is found in Mandan (USA).  It is held that these two forms are so similar that they are very probably etymologically related; and on the basis of a limited number of individual pairs of this kind it is deduced that the Welsh and the Mandans had a common ancestor culture or experienced influential contact in remote times.  In this specific case, it is normally this latter which is at issue; the matter involves the American voyage of the medieval Welsh prince Madoc, an event not accepted as historical by mainstream scholarship.

In fact, in the absence of continuous textual evidence it can be established that words are cognates – that they descend from a common ancestor word or root in a common ancestor language, or that one of them is itself that common ancestor word – only if they display systematic correspondences in their phonology (the structural sound-units that make them up), repeated over large numbers of word-sets.  See for instance the systematic correspondences between synonymous (related) words, in the ‘subfamily’ of Indo-European languages derived from spoken Latin and known as ‘Romance’, in word sets such as Latin canis, French chien, Italian cane, Spanish can [later replaced by an unrelated word] (all meaning ‘dog’), Latin panis, French pain, Italian pane, Spanish pan (all meaning ‘bread’), Latin manus, French main, Italian mano, Spanish mano (all meaning ‘hand’), etc., etc.  In each word-set, Latin -an- has become -ain/-ien in French, -ane in Italian, -an in Spanish.  Such patterns exist because language change is very largely systematic and regular.

In ignorance of this, one might easily imagine, for instance, that Latin habere and German haben are cognates; after all, they are very similar (they differ only in respect of their grammatical endings), they both mean ‘to have’, and in this case we know independently that the languages themselves are ‘genetically’ related (that is, they have a common ancestor, the ancestor of all the Indo-European languages, although they are members of different ‘subfamilies’ of Indo-European).  But in fact these words are not cognate; they are unrelated, and their similarity is unsystematic and accidental.  German haben does have a Latin cognate, but this is capere (‘take’).  In fact, word-initial Latin c- systematically corresponds with German h-; other examples are canis/Hund (‘dog’), centum/hundert (‘hundred’), etc.

The reverse pattern also occurs; for example, English cow and beef, which now sound (and look, in spelling) very different, are in fact demonstrably systematically related and cognate; they do have a common deep-time (Indo-European) ancestor word.

Correspondences are less predictable where contact and borrowing are in question, partly because these involve interaction between two sound-systems and often individual words; but they are still fairly systematic, not merely haphazard, and any claim that a word has the phonological shape that it has because it has been borrowed from a given other language must be supported.

Next time I’ll go into further detail on these issues and their significance for ‘fringe’ historical linguistic claims.

Thanks again for all the interest!



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3 Responses to ‘fringe’ historical linguistics 2 (including comments on comments!)

  1. Kenneth Greifer says:

    I know that this is off-topic, but I was wondering if it is considered psychology or linguistics. Years ago I would watch a 24 hour church channel and they had people who claimed to be prophets who are very famous among Evangelical Christians, and whenever they prophesied, they would say Thus says the L-rd, and then lots of thees, thys, and thous, as if G-d spoke English like in the King James Bible, but they didn’t use the other old endings like “th” for some verbs, etc. I guess G-d didn’t fully understand that old form of English.

    Sorry about changing the subject, but I thought this was similar to the idea that certain ancient languages were the original languages usually for religious reasons like Hebrew. They think an older form of a English is holier than the modern form, and it is not a language considered religious like Biblical Hebrew.

    You mentioned people being biased and having unscholarly motives. I think bias does not make people wrong always. Sometimes you can be right if coincidentally the bias happens to be right. I also think bias can help scholars if they all have different biases and try to prove their beliefs and disprove the other side’s beliefs. Just like in a court of law, the prosecution and defense are biased, but they have to deal with each other’s arguments, and in the end, hopefully, people find the truth. Each side did not have to be unbiased to find the truth, you just need people biased on both sides to force each other to find the truth. Maybe biased scholarship could also find the truth this way instead of each scholar having to be unbiased.

    Kenneth Greifer

  2. Pacal says:

    Thank you for mentioning Barry Fell and Thor Heyerdahl. Both of those men were long time practitioners of the infamous word list game and the game of finding words that sounded similar and then presto asserting a link.

    You said:

    “In fact, in the absence of continuous textual evidence it can be established that words are cognates – that they descend from a common ancestor word or root in a common ancestor language, or that one of them is itself that common ancestor word – only if they display systematic correspondences in their phonology (the structural sound-units that make them up), repeated over large numbers of word-sets.”

    If only the practitioners of the word list game would get this through their thick skulls. But I guess learning some linguistics would be too time consuming for them.

    I should not I have read lots and lots of stuff by and about Thor Heyerdahl and the man was definitely a pseudo-Scientist. As for Barry Fell he should have stuck to Zoology.

    • Ken says:

      I remember one instance years ago in the Usenet days where someone was trying to show that classical Egyptian was a (sub-Saharan) African language. Their method was to find “cognates” at the phoneme level: These all have an /n/ and mean “woman”, these have a /t/ in the first syllable and are pronouns, and so forth.

      They were very, um, generous with the meanings (e.g. “woman” might be “girl” or “bride” or even “hen”) and were drawing on any and all of the African languages, even ones in their own families. Even I could see it was absolute crankery.

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