‘fringe’ historical linguistics 5

Hello again, everybody!

I said last time that there are solid general linguistic arguments showing why the words of a language cannot be predominantly monophonemic (composed of single phonemes).  It may be worthwhile here to expand slightly on this point.

All known languages – and indeed all invented languages – have a modest number of distinctive phonemes (speech-sounds considered as structural units): between ten and around 150.  Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of human language is its ‘double articulation’ into a) phonemes and b) meaningful morphemes/words (made up of these phonemes in combination), which enables it to express very many word-meanings with such a limited inventory of individual sounds.  If most or all morphemes were monophonemic, the result would be a great deal of homophony: different, unrelated morphemes/words with identical pronunciations, as in the case of short polyphonemic homophonous forms such as English roe (‘fish eggs’), row (‘line of items’) and row ‘propel boat with oars’.  Given an absolute maximum of around 150 monophonemic morpheme/word-shapes, a thoroughly monophonemic morphology would display altogether unmanageable amounts of homophony.  For instance, a language with monophonemic morphology and a system of fifteen consonants and five vowels (a typical small phoneme system) would have only a maximum of twenty possible morphemic shapes to cover the entire vocabulary (probably fewer, as consonants of many kinds cannot readily stand alone).

Even a thoroughly monosyllabic morphology must generate large amounts of homophony.   Subject to any specific further constraints, the imaginary language just introduced would have five possible syllables each consisting of a vowel alone, 15 x 5 = 75 possible syllables of another of the most basic syllable-types, Consonant-Vowel, etc., etc.  This would still yield large numbers of homophonous words; or else almost all word-meanings would have to be borne by polyphonemic compound (polymorphemic) words such as English black-bird.

There are in fact languages where morphemes are typically monosyllabic; Chinese is the best-known example.  The probability of homophony is thus high in Chinese – Mandarin, specifically, has only about 400 possible syllables as far as consonants and vowels are concerned (and still has only 1300 even when the ‘phonemic tones’ are taken into account) – and homophony at the level of individual morphemes thus occurs frequently.  This problem is resolved in part by other features of (spoken and written) Chinese.  However, these features would not be adequate in a language with many monophonemic morphemes; the question of how such putative languages would avoid or manage very widespread homophony remains unresolved.  (We saw last time that languages can have a few monophonemic morphemes.)

I also said last time that I would mention a particularly sensationalistic claim involving very short morphemes.  This is the case of ‘Mantong’, an alleged ancient language/script reconstructed from the English names of the letters of the Roman alphabet and various short English words associated with these.  In this case, the original language/script was regarded as coming from a very mysterious source.

The Mantong case was originated by the amateur writer Richard Shaver; it was initially presented in the form of (alleged) surviving fragments of the language/script.  Shaver had happened upon an article in Science World (1936) by one Albert Yeager, claiming that six letters of the Roman alphabet represented concepts as well as ‘sounds’ (phonemes).  He later claimed that he himself had discovered (by telepathy and then through actual contact with a non-human entity; see below) concepts represented by all the letters of the Roman alphabet in addition to their phonological function (not his words).  In 1943 Shaver offered this material to the science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories to be ‘saved’ for posterity and studied by any suitable more highly qualified people with an interest in the matter.  The magazine editor Ray Palmer was intrigued by the material, and large amounts of quasi-fictional material on Mantong and associated matters were published in Amazing Stories in the 1940s, and later in Palmer’s ‘Hidden Worlds’ series (with an increasing focus upon alleged mysterious ‘rock art’ supporting Shaver’s stories).

The case involves alleged subterranean humanoid but non-human beings known as the ‘dero’ (degenerate and wicked) and the ‘tero’ (good), the products of a disaster which occurred 20,000 years BP (involving a seriously non-standard account of the history of the Sun) and its effects on the Earth.  These two groups continued to compete for control and influence over humans, who represent an offshoot group who re-colonized the surface of the Earth after the disaster.

The Mantong script is bound to the English version of the Roman alphabet (which is itself highly suspicious).  Five letters (B, C, I, U, Y) are morphemes with the meanings of English words expressing core concepts and homophonous with the contemporary English letter-names (be, see, I, you, why).  The letter X represents conflict, as its form might suggest, and R refers to horror. Sixteen letters refer to other core concepts expressed in English by words commencing with the letter in question; thus, M has the sense ‘man’ (man), W ‘will’ (will), etc. The last three letters are especially important: D refers to detrimental forces, T to ‘integration’ and growth, and Z to a state where these two forces neutralize each other (and thus sum numerically to zero).

Shaver’s analyses of individual words allegedly made up of these elements are not always consistent. For instance, he analyzes the word trocadero as t- (‘good’) + -ro- (‘one’, that is, ‘person’) + -c- (‘see’) + -a- (‘a’, the indefinite article) + -d(e)- (‘bad’) + -ro (‘one’), overall ‘good one see a bad one’; he relates this to the (derived) use of the word as a name for theatres, though why spectators might be deemed good and actors bad is not made clear.  This analysis involves: a) an unexplained morpheme ro (‘one’), not apparently made up of r and o and having a meaning unrelated to their meanings; b) a interpreted as ‘a’, the indefinite article, not as ‘animal’ as provided in Shaver’s list; c) d replaced in spelling by de, with the presence of e unexplained.  In a further bizarre ‘twist’, the word dero, already explained as ‘bad one’ as in trocadero, is then re-explained as derived from abandondero, an obviously English-based word meaning ‘the abandoned ones’.

In addition to these inconsistencies, Shaver appears naive in his linking of supposedly ancient forms with the English alphabet as now read off and with contemporary English words, and also in treating letters (and their names) rather than words as primary; indeed, he seems unaware of the important distinction between language and script.  Furthermore, the largely monophonemic nature of the morphemes which he establishes generates the various problems discussed above.  Shaver also ignores known or well-established etymologies, simply proclaiming his own.  Even if the non-linguistic aspects of this case did not appear outrageous, the linguistic aspects would appear very dubious indeed.

As well as positing very short morphemes, Shaver and Palmer also believed in conspiracy aimed at concealing the truth surrounding Mantong.  In this case, this had allegedly been conducted not by any human agency but by the dero themselves.

There are other such cases of this kind; but it may be better at this point to turn to some other special groups of historical linguistic claims which are not so dramatic in character either linguistically or by way of background ideas but which illustrate particular types of historical and other non-linguistic background thinking/motivation.  These involve religions, nationalistic ideas, Afrocentrism, catastrophism, etc.  I will talk about some of these claims next time.


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6 Responses to ‘fringe’ historical linguistics 5

  1. cclemon5 says:

    When you are a foreigner with bad tones, Chinese has even more homophones. Take this famous Chinese tongue twister, Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den:


    In pinyin: (the most popular romanization system)

    Shī Shì shí shī shǐ
    Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
    Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
    Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
    Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
    Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
    Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
    Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
    Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
    Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
    Shì shì shì shì.


  2. Pacal says:

    The Deros thing was a an example of a carefully crafted media event. Raymond Palmer was at the time a very well known publisher of Science fiction and apparantly quite an excentric. Raymond Palmer also founded Fate a magazine that published all sorts of psychic stuff.

    Richard Shaver is a rather mysterious character who kept himself out of the limelight and it appears likely that Palmer in effect rewrote many of Shaver’s stories not just edited them. The first was published in Amazing Stories in 1945.

    Palmer milked the Deros “mystery” for all it was worth for years. It was revealed many years later that supposidly during part of the time that Shaver was sending Palmer Deros stories he was in a mebntal institution!

    Whatever Shaver actually believed about the “Deros” stuff he was producing it is likely that Palmer didn’t believe a word of it. It did however help to massively boost the sales of Palmer’s magazine Amazing Stories. Eventually Palmer founded a magazine called Flying Saucers about UFO’s in which Palmer claimed that the Earth was hollow and flying saucers came from there. In 1970 Palmer published in Flying Saucer a photo that allegedly showed te hole in the north pole. What it showed was the area the sun didn’t rise in the northern winter!

    I could also mention that Palmer promotted a piece of new age hookum called Oahspe, allegedly channelled by a New York dentist that supposidly “proved” Shaver’s concoction.

    Later in his life Shaver promotted “rock books” that you allegedly found by slicing rocks in half and then if you looked at the “right” way you found pictures and writing!

    Palmer died in 1977.

  3. Ken says:

    The letter X represents conflict, as its form might suggest,

    Its form is from a proto-Canaanite glyph which had a vertical line with three horizontal crossbars and which subsequently evolved. All the glyphs have changed a lot over the past three thousand odd years, so any argument made from modern letter-shapes is immediately nonsense.

    The meanings are also nonsense; the above X-progenitor glyph (probably) meant something like “support” or “post”. As for:

    D refers to detrimental forces, T to ‘integration’ and growth, and Z to a state where these two forces neutralize each other

    sorry, no; try “door”, “mark”, and “knife/weapon” respectively.

  4. marknewbrook says:

    Ken, these are values ascribed to the letters by Shaver et al.! I fully agree that they are nonsense and I am NOT endorsing them (I thought this was obvious). Naturally there are much more sober & better-informed theories of letter-origins, though some of this remains subject to debate. (Of course, Shaver et al. posit other senses elsewhere, as I stated.) Mark

    • Ken says:

      Oh, I was definitely criticizing Shaver, not you; I can tell when you’re reporting and when you’re giving your own work. The history of the alphabet just happens to be one of my hobbies.

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