Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 32

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues!


Morris Swadesh was a mainstream linguist whose ideas became markedly less mainstream towards the end of his life. His approach was intended to extend linguistic reconstruction into the remote past, beyond the range of the established methods of standard comparative methods (using those established methods, forms and families can be reconstructed with any reliability only to a date a little earlier than the earliest written records, that is, to about 10,000 years BP). Swadesh developed statistical methods known as ‘glottochronology’ and ‘lexicostatistics’, which purported to allow reconstructions (and quite precise estimates of date) on the basis of the ‘mass comparison’ of large numbers of superficially similar potential cognates across a wide range of languages, and to arrive at ‘family trees’ which could not be demonstrated using the more clearly reliable traditional comparative methods because the posited time-depths were too great. The theory was rapidly undermined by contrary data from known language ‘families’; it is now invoked mainly by writers with only a limited knowledge of linguistics – although some mainstream linguists, notably William Wang, have revived it in modified forms in more recent times (and some ‘maverick’ linguists such as Merritt Ruhlen have adopted broadly similar approaches) However, Swadesh himself persisted with his own initial version of glottochronology, and towards the end of his life his proposals – set out in an ultimately posthumous book (The Origin and Diversification of Language, Chicago, 1971) – became truly wild (by this time he was working in Mexico after coming under suspicion in the USA for his overtly left-wing views) . For instance, he presents a map of the Earth purporting to show the probable geographical distribution of language ‘families’ in 25,000 BCE.

One group of contemporary non-linguists who still use Swadesh’s methods is the Russian group of chronological-revisionist historians led by Anatoli Fomenko. Fomenko argues that conventional historical chronology is seriously awry and that several bogus centuries have been inserted by way of scholarly error into the accepted accounts of ancient and even medieval history. He and his associates advance novel interpretations of linguistic evidence by way of support for these ideas, based on glottochronological methods.

For some critical but not wholly unsupportive comment on these thinkers, see the work of the Canadian mathematician Florian Diacu, notably The Lost Millennium: History’s Timetables Under Siege (Toronto, 2005), especially pp. 199-206 on Fomenko and the historical dialectologist Andrey Zalyzniak. Zalyzniak is the linguistically-most-competent of Fomenko’s associates, and joins Fomenko in accepting glottochronology, although in fact his own main body of academic work is not centrally relevant here. Associated with this material is Diacu’s thought on catastrophism, as outlined in his 2009 book Megadisasters: The Science of Predicting the Next Catastrophe. See also his ‘Mathematical Methods in the Study of Historical Chronology’, at

More moderate historical claims of a broadly similar nature are rehearsed on sites such as

Roger Wescott, a ‘neo-Velikovksyan’ catastrophist, a ‘saltationist’ evolutionist, a ‘Nostraticist’ (Nostratic is a deep-time ancestor of Indo-European and several other language families, reconstructed/accepted by various linguists on the margins of the mainstream) and a qualified linguist, adopted a glottochronological approach to the early development of language in Homo sapiens; he too posited relatively recent dates for the commencement of diversification, partly because he dates sapiens itself as originating as recently as 55,000 BCE and partly because of his catastrophist account of the recent history of the planet (many pre-existing cultures and their languages, if these existed, would have been destroyed in any Velikovskyan catastrophe). See his book The Divine Animal (New York, 1969), and the book Language Origins (Silver Spring, MD, 1974), which he edited; see also, for example,

Wescott has understandably been adopted as a ‘pet linguist’ by neo-Velikovskyan catastrophists who themselves know little linguistics; his ideas have indeed been extended by writers of this persuasion such as David Talbott and the more extreme Ted Holden. In The Saturn Myth (New York, 1980), Talbott seeks to explain myths from around the world and the associated vocabulary as referring to a series of major-planet catastrophes and to the very different configuration of the Solar System which preceded them (Earth and the other inner planets were supposedly in captive rotation about a then-much-larger Saturn) – often obliquely and non-transparently, but according to Talbott with a startling degree of conformity. Holden’s material can be sampled at, etc. For Holden’s questions for mainstream scholars and brief but telling responses, see Wayne Throop, ‘Ted Holden’s Frequent Questions Answered’, available at, especially Why aren’t languages and ancestry better correlated?,
Why have languages gotten simpler instead of more complex?.

More next time!


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2 Responses to Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 32

  1. Pacal says:

    You are far too kind to these cranks. Talbot’s catastrophism is nonsense disproven by so much evidence that the theory is laughable. A swift overview of the fact that the orbits of the planets are near circular and that they “resonate” with each other puts any idea of recent planetary billiards out of the realm of possibility. It can be dismissed without further ado.

    As for Fomenko. The man is not merely a crank he is a knowing fraud. The ignorance he displays in his books, about coin studies carbon 14 dating etc., etc., is breath taking. It is of such a extent and breath that I cannot accept that he is arguing in good faith. His entire system of revisionist chronology reeks of absurdity. Did you know that according to his new chronology.

    -The middle ages never happened.
    -Ivan IV (The Terrible) was four separate people.
    -King John of England never existed.
    -Jesus was actually a Byzantine Emperor.
    -All the classical works we rely on to construct the history of Ancient Greece and Rome are forgeries created during the period 1500-1600 C.E, and so was much of what we now think of as classical art.
    -The Peloponnesian war actually happened in Spain around 1300 C.E.
    – Pompeii was buried around 1630 C.E.
    -Chinese history before 1400 C.E. was fabricated by Jesuits.
    -The cultures of southern Mesopotamia are thousands of years younger than thought today.
    -That modern classicalists and medievalists, sinologists etc., are engaged in a massive conspiracy to suppress the truth that Fomenko advocates and that they routinely lie and fake evidence.
    -That the west as been engaged for centuries in a campaign to undermine and destroy the “Russian Horde”, hence the Romanov dynasty and Communism.

    Fomenko is in the end a pernicious growth from 19th century Slavophilism that fears and distrusts the “West”, as the source of all Russia’s woes. His revised chronology puts Russia into the center of world history where it in his opinion belongs, and from which it was removed by evil westerners.

    As for Diacu’s book The Lost Millennium. It is another book by an academic who is trying to prove how daring and open minded he is by taking seriously a totally absurd idea and ignoring, down playing the myriad problems with it. Diacu studiously and deliberately ignores the many idiocies and absurdities of Fomenko’s revised chronology and pays little to no attention to the myriad serious problems with it. The book is a puff piece.

  2. Bob says:

    Eve and I went to a professional conference this week and presented on extraordinary claims. A guy in the audience started saying that Galileo faked his data, that Piltdown Man was an important milestone (proving?) evolution, and that he was having a hard time disproving Fomenco. :)

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