Non-standard Linguistics (new series) 4 Alphabets: A Good Thing?

July 13, 2015

Hi again, everybody!

The Alphabet Effect
Robert K. Logan
William Morrow & Co., New York

The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word And Image
Leonard Shlain
Viking/Penguin, New York, London, Ringwood, VIC, Toronto, Auckland and New Delhi

Demitris Nicolaides’ theory regarding the profound significance of alphabetic spelling, which I discussed last time, brings to mind earlier works along similar lines. Robert Logan, again a physicist, came to an interesting but arguably ‘maverick’ view of language through collaboration with Marshall McLuhan, and in his book he argued that various key features of Western civilisation – notably the development of a) logic, b) science and even c) monotheistic religion – are due to the adoption of ‘linear’ alphabetic writing (initially by the Greeks). The otherwise astute Chinese, supposedly handicapped by their (also ‘linear’!) logographic script (which is in fact very well suited to their language), were unable to think abstractly and thus never developed an independent ‘systematic science’. Logan had less to say about non-Western cultures which – perhaps inconveniently for him – did/do use alphabetic (or abjadic) spelling, such as India. And, while broad-brush differences between civilisations do clearly exist, Logan’s case for his EXPLANATION of these effects is more rhetorical than truly persuasive.

Leonard Shlain, a surgeon who also strayed into this set of issues, came instead to a strongly NEGATIVE view of alphabetic writing. (Long-term readers may remember reading some of this before.) Shlain argues that the development of literacy and in particular the adoption of alphabetic scripts in ancient times (at the expense of logographic scripts such as Chinese script) reinforced the brain’s ‘masculine’ left hemisphere at the expense of the ‘feminine’ right, upset the socio-psychological balance between the sexes and triggered massive, unwelcome changes in apparently unconnected areas of human thought and society. These chiefly involved shifts in the direction of ‘linear’, non-holistic thinking, an excessive concern with logic and science, and the growth of patriarchal systems in which women and their ideas have been suppressed and undervalued. Many of the major cultural patterns and changes of the last few thousand years are, Shlain maintains, to be explained in these terms.

Much of Shlain’s discussion of language and writing is badly confused, and some is simply wrong. Given that linguistics is central to his thesis, the major problems which he has in this area are crucial. He does not systematically distinguish adequately between languages (in their spoken forms or considered generally) and the writing systems used to represent them (a common problem for non-linguists). One very obvious instance of this is provided by his very strange discussion of the mutual non-intelligibility of pairs of modern European languages; Shlain blames alphabetic writing for this, but such languages are, naturally, mutually unintelligible in speech and equally naturally remain so in writing (in any language-specific script). In addition, Shlain does not distinguish adequately between alphabets and writing systems more generally; some of the negative consequences which he sees as arising from the use of alphabets would, if he were correct, come about even if non-alphabetic writing systems were used. He largely ignores the important phonological but non-alphabetic category of syllabary; and he mistakenly describes Chinese characters as ideograms (they are, of course, language-specific logograms) and Chinese itself as lacking in the grammatical category ‘word’. At an even more basic level, Shlain confuses the notions of phoneme and phone (‘speech-sound’) and his definition of the very word alphabet is utterly wrong; he naïvely defines an alphabet as ‘any form of writing that contains fewer than thirty signs’.

Furthermore, Shlain’s accounts of the origin and early development of language and society are highly speculative, inadequately referenced and at times overtly partisan, relying excessively on traditional beliefs and endorsing (rather uncritically) the currently popular but ideologically-charged theories of early matriarchal paradises which were later overthrown by literate males. His claims about links between writing systems (or other aspects of language) and cultural patterns are often implausible and/or inadequately defended. For instance, he suggests that the Phoenicians’ use of their abjad – as noted, the ancestor of the Greek alphabet (and thus of the Roman alphabet) – was somehow associated with the alleged barbarity and uncultured character of their civilisation. Overall, Shlain cannot be taken seriously.

More next time!

Mark N

Non-standard Linguistics (new series) 3 Greek and Greek Philosophy

July 6, 2015

Hi again, everybody!


Demetris Nicolaides is a professor of physics at Bloomfield College in New Jersey. In his book (In The Light Of Science: Our Ancient Quest For Knowledge And The Measure Of Modern Physics, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2014), he examines anew the major shift in thinking exhibited in the works of the pre-Socratic philosophers of the seventh, sixth and fifth centuries BCE (Thales of Miletus, etc.). These thinkers turned from the mythological ideas of their day and began to seek rational accounts of the natural world.

Nicolaides argues that the conceptual breakthroughs of the pre-Socratics actually anticipated much of later science, and indeed that much of the work of contemporary scientists involves the same fundamental problems. The perception of the dramatically novel ideas of these early thinkers as ground-breaking (and as the precursors of theoretical science) is wholly mainstream (and very familiar to scholars of ancient philosophy); but these stronger interpretations arguably involve a degree of special pleading. Nicolaides is himself obviously of Greek ethnicity, and where one’s own group identity is involved it is all too easy to over-interpret works written long ago in radically different cultural and intellectual contexts (and in markedly different varieties of the language in question, with no surviving native speakers) – especially where, as in this case, the material is known only from fragmentary quotations by later authors. One is reminded of attempts by some Muslim thinkers to interpret various passages in the Qur’an (typically vague, or expressed in terms of the very different concepts of the day) as importing the insights of modern science.

In the publisher’s ‘blurb’, it is suggested that Nicolaides also ‘makes a convincing case that … the power of the Greek language … played a large role [in this intellectual revolution]’. This specific aspect of his position invites skeptical-linguistic attention.

Over the decades, various non-mainstream writers have proclaimed the special status of specific languages and their ensuing suitability for use in various domains or especial effectiveness in life generally. The cases made for such claims are typically weak, to say the least. Predictably, the language identified is often one favoured by the author, typically his/her own language or its ancestor. Because of its long history and respected status, and the admittedly profound intellectual achievements of ancient Greek civilisation, Greek is a major focus for non-mainstream claims of this (as of other) kinds. So too is Classical Latin; the importance of a knowledge of Latin for the understanding of the grammars of other languages and/or of logic has at times been grossly exaggerated. All such claims require close scrutiny.

As a matter of fact, Nicolaides’ treatment of language in this context is quite brief: the main discussion of Greek per se occupies only six pages (pp. 80-81, 85-88). He begins by highlighting the Greek writing system: as the Greeks became literate again in pre-Classical times, the Phoenician abjad (one symbol per phoneme, but with only consonants represented) was converted into a full essentially phonemic alphabet in which the vowels too were represented (by re-assigning consonant symbols not needed for Greek). Nicolaides proclaims that this made Greek ‘the first easily read and written language of the world’; but this view seems to arise out of a pro-alphabetic bias rather than from any empirical evidence (in his support he also quotes Bertrand Russell, who was many things but was not a linguist). It should be noted here that Leonard Shlain (see below) has argued that the adoption of alphabetic writing had a DAMAGING effect on culture. More seriously, it appears that all known alphabets and abjads are descended from a single ancestor script, suggesting that the very idea may have occurred to would-be codifiers of language only once. And, as I have stated in this forum, some prominent linguists hold that strictly phonemic alphabetic writing is in fact psychologically UNNATURAL.

When he resumes his discussion of Greek specifically (p. 85), Nicolaides admits his ignorance of the linguistics of Greek but endorses as ‘generally accepted’ the partisan notion that Greek displays ‘extraordinary richness’, ‘a plentiful vocabulary’, ‘thorough and rigorous grammar’ (it is not clear what these two adjectives mean in context; the grammar of ancient Greek was in fact rather chaotic), ‘diverse phonology’ (not explained in detail; in fact, Greek had only an average-sized inventory of phonemes), and in consequence ‘a highly expressive and communicative nature’. But, even if this were all true, it would not follow that Greek was especially suited to empirical science. It might even be argued that some specific features of the language (such as the ready expression of abstract notions in constructions such as ‘the good’ or ‘the unbounded’) encourage the development of metaphysics and the philosophy of mathematics rather than empirical science or mathematics as actually used in science. In any case, instead of attempting to justify these claims, Nicolaides at once resumes his discussion of the (unrelated) issues involving the alphabet; and when he returns to the language itself (pp. 86-88) his treatment is vague and unconvincing. He also weakens his case where he suggests in a blatantly folk-linguistic manner that some (unidentified) languages (in contrast with Greek) can be described as ‘poor’ and indeed are obstructive of clear thinking and communication.

Whatever the strengths of Nicolaides’ other ideas, these specifically linguistic aspects of his thesis cannot at present be taken seriously.

More next time!

Mark N

Non-standard Linguistics (new series) 2 The Phaistos Disk Re-visited

June 29, 2015

Hi again, everybody! Here’s the second in my new series on non-standard claims/theories. Some of these blogs, including this present one, will deal with professional linguists (‘mavericks’ & worse) who adopt minority non-mainstream stances on specific issues – often (though not always) without explicitly acknowledging this, still less defending their views against the relevant current mainstream positions. Skeptics and others, not themselves trained in linguistics, who look at this material, especially if they seek to apply linguistic knowledge in other domains, need to be aware of such cases.

Readers may remember my earlier comments on the Phaistos Disk (1) and/or may know independently about this fascinating artefact.

In her two books (2), Roberta Rio advances yet another novel interpretation of the Disk. Rio has a mainstream academic background; principally, she studied undergraduate History and postgraduate Archiving, Palaeography (highly relevant) and Diplomatics (to PhD level) at the University of Trieste. However, like the similarly educated Susan B. Martinez (see earlier blog), Rio has shifted away from mainstream thought. She reports that her subsequent life experiences have ‘made aspects of existence less rational and much deeper known’ to her, and have shown her that ‘man [sic] … can go much further than the limits of rational understanding’. This approach to learning is precisely exemplified in these two books. The details are given mainly in the larger, earlier book, although even here there is no LINGUISTIC as opposed to epigraphic detail (see below).

As might be expected given her announcements as quoted above, Rio’s approach to decipherment is essentially intuitive; she simply proclaims her ‘findings’ without presenting rational evidence or argumentation. This means, of course, that (unless decisive counter-evidence appears) there can be no reasoned debate as to the likelihood of her being correct; her thesis is not a legitimately empirical one. She berates the mainstream archaeological and historical world as cognitively stagnant but offers nothing in its place beyond reliance upon subjective intuitions about items from long-extinct cultures (citing in her support the historian Johan Huizinga, who would surely have regarded her as taking his ideas to an unjustifiable extreme).

At least Rio is ‘upfront’ about her methods, unlike Martinez and other qualified but ‘maverick’ authors such as György Busztin, who simply ignore the established principles of the discipline without any explicit comment.

Without giving any actual evidence, Rio proclaims that the Disk was created on the island of Anafi in the Cyclades, not in Crete, and was later used in rituals in Crete (which she describes in detail) along with the circular, decorated Kernos Stone, which is now within the archaeological site at Malia; her discourse is ‘New Age’ in character. She does not seem to regard the Disk text as genuinely linguistic and does not identify any particular language as represented, still less any specific phonological words. (In this respect Rio’s decipherment resembles that of Jean-Louis Pagé in his 2002 book Atlantis’ Messages, where no language is identified on the Disk and no phonological forms are proposed.) Indeed, Rio seems to regard the characters on the Disk as ideograms (not members of a true script) expressing concepts (most scholarly analysts instead hold that the system probably is a true script, more specifically a syllabary), classifies them into sets (as referring to ‘energies’, ‘body parts’, etc.) and ascribes specific (language-neutral) meanings to them. She also offers an interpretation of the text into sentences, but the grammar of these sentences has inevitably been added by her and is not itself directly represented – as occurs in some interpretations of linguistic material allegedly emanating from extraterrestrials,.

Rio’s approach is unscientific and her proposals cannot be taken seriously.

More next time!

Mark N


The Phaistos Disk is flat, made of baked clay, and sixteen centimetres in diameter; it was presented to the learned world in 1908 by French and Italian archaeologists excavating the Minoan palace complex at Phaistos in South-Central Crete (built about 1700 BCE). It is inscribed on each side with a text apparently running from right to left (anti-clockwise) and spiralling in from the rim to the centre (though some read it in other ways; Roberta Rio, as discussed here, reads it clockwise). There are some 240 character-tokens in all, representing 45 distinct types, some pictorial and some apparently abstract; they are divided into 61 groups by broken radial lines. Very remarkably given the early date, the signs were impressed into the clay when it was soft by means of a set of cut punches. Neither the Disk itself nor the characters resemble any other items yet discovered in the Aegean (including the undeciphered Linear A), and both the intended use of the artefact and the interpretation of the text remain mysterious. Many (mostly unqualified) authors have advanced and continue to advance ‘decipherments’ and ‘translations’ of the Disk, sometimes in non-linguistic terms (calendars etc.) but more usually finding novel writing systems – and often languages or locales favoured by themselves for extraneous reasons. None of these proposals presents an overall reading which has persuaded professional scholars; and naturally they all contradict each other. Others regard the Disk as a modern forgery.

New Light On Phaistos Disc
AuthorHouse, Bloomington, IN, 2011
Mysterious Ritual Enclosed In The Phaistos Disc And The Kernos Stone
AuthorHouse, Bloomington, IN, 2012

Non-standard Linguistics (new series) 1: Phonetics and Singing

June 24, 2015

Hi again, everybody! Sorry about the long gap! I will try to blog semi-regularly! A new series on non-standard claims/theories commences here.

(prepared with the expert help of Dominic Watt, University of York)

Complete Vocal Technique (CVT) is a singing method developed by Danish singer, vocal coach and vocal researcher Cathrine Sadolin, and forms the basis for teaching at her ‘school’. Since the 1980s she has been researching ‘all the sounds the human voice is able to produce’. She came up with a new terminology and visual representation for her findings, which can be found in the book Complete Vocal Technique (revised edition 2012). The technique ‘covers all the sounds the human voice can produce’. Sadolin states that the method is not to be regarded as complete in the sense that there is always room for improvement; research is still going on and techniques are updated regularly.

Some basic CVT principles (

CVT is based on anatomy and physiology instead of myths. Its goal is to use the voice in a healthy and unharmful manner.
CVT can be used in all musical genres.
The applied technique must work at once. If not, the singer is doing something wrong.
Singing is not difficult: anyone can learn how to sing.
Singing should always feel comfortable and never hurt: trust your own sensation.
All sounds can be made in a healthy way.
In teaching: separate taste and technique. The singer makes the artistic choices, not the teacher.
Sounds which sound hazardous, like grunting or screaming, are perfectly healthy to the voice as long as they are performed correctly.

Sadolin is in contact with mainstream academics and especially with medical professionals. Her colleague Eddy Bøgh Brixen, whom she cites, is known for having given expert evidence in the forensic phonetic context. However, because he comes from an audio-engineering rather than a phonetics background there has been some doubt in Denmark and beyond about his competence to talk about speech production as such. On the other hand, Sadolin has obviously has worked to good effect with some professional phoneticians, notably Adrian Fourcin.

There appears no reason to doubt that Sadolin’s own vocal training techniques are generally effective. The feedback which she reports suggests that most learners find them very useful. In fact, the techniques appear quite conventional in many respects, not especially innovative (this may not be immediately obvious, because terminology varies from writer to writer, especially among non-linguists).

Sadolin’s ‘theory’ (the ‘four modes’, etc) IS more novel, and this would have to be assessed carefully by phoneticians (not yet attempted). But proposals of this kind often work well in practice even if the associated theory is obscure or not yet demonstrated.

In this context: some of Sadolin’s specific phonetic assumptions do not appear very sound. For example, she suggests that rounding one’s lips perturbs what the vocal folds are simultaneously doing. It is not clear how this would happen.

Sadolin’s intermittent bombastic-sounding statements (‘The technique covers all the sounds the human voice can produce’, ‘The applied technique must work at once. If not, the singer is doing something wrong’, etc.) may have discouraged some professional phoneticians or linguists from looking further at her material. This is not the usual tone in academic writing. If these statements were re-phrased as claims or hypotheses (and defended), more linguists would be inclined to set out to test them, and if such strong statements really proved to be justified they would be most impressed and interested.

The main problem with Sadolin’s ideas is that they can be read as EXCLUDING some accents from use in singing as not meeting her criteria. (This kind of issue has arisen in the context of some earlier proposals by non-linguists regarding speaking and/or singing, for example those of the French author Alfred Tomatis.) Sadolin’s stance suggests that she is ‘prioritising’ standard varieties of languages. Her comment ‘Different languages and dialects can trick you into thinking that you are using the correct vowel. This is why, in the beginning, you must spend time familiarising yourself with the exact vowel sounds’ could well serve to make speakers of non-standard varieties feel that they will never master vocal techniques unless they first adopt the ‘correct’ vowels of RP (‘BBC English’) and so forth. This type of ‘normative’ discourse is actually common in dialect/accent training literature (except where actors/singers are being trained to use a specific non-standard or regional accent which is not their own). The community of (socio-)linguists may need to engage more with the entertainment community to explain what we think we have learned over the decades about variation in speech. Of course, many non-linguists might still disagree with our views on such matters even after hearing what we have to say. But if Sadolin really is saying that it is impossible to sing well in some accents, we linguists would call upon her to defend this view against our objections. And, if she is NOT saying this, we would welcome a clearer statement of what she does think about this issue.

In this context: Sadolin has little to say about the less usual airstream mechanisms, for example as the ‘velaric ingressive’ mechanism (involving the velum/soft palate, referred to by Sadolin as the ‘palate’) which is used when producing certain consonants in the ‘click’ languages of Southern Africa and does not require ‘pulmonic’ air coming from the lungs – although her comment ‘The technique covers all the sounds the human voice can produce’ would imply that her approach does cover such sounds and other special categories such as ‘implosives’.

In addition, Sadolin’s book contains some errors of detail (for example, in the use of phonetic symbols) and also some inconsistencies involving which specific accents are envisaged (for example, some of the transcriptions assume an accent where /-r/ occurs before a consonant or before silence at the end of a word, such as General American or Scots, while others assume an accent where /-r/ does NOT occur in such cases, such as RP and indeed most accents in England; but almost all accents are internally consistent in this respect, and it is therefore difficult to imagine an accent where all these transcriptions were simultaneously correct).

In the context of the theory: using ‘popular’, non-specific terms like twang in an otherwise technical context rather detracts from the scientific gloss.

Mark Newbrook

In the Corner of Brian’s Mind

February 18, 2015

Note: This essay is cross-posted at Skepticality, where it appears in easy-to-swallow podcast form.

On the Virtual Skeptics this past week, I had a good long grump about the media and how it was treating NBC news anchor Brian Williams. The short version of the story, at an event sponsored by NBC Williams gave a speech about a retiring helicopter pilot who had flown Williams while Williams was a correspondent in during the Iraq War. It sounded like that they had been through some pretty hairy stuff, because, Williams said, their helicopter was forced down by a rocket propelled grenade. Veterans who were a part of that mission disputed Williams’ version of events on social media, and soon, Williams was on the air apologizing for making misstatements.

Now as the media went back to look for more instances of Williams’ misstatements, I was all in a huff. I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to educate people about the fallibility of memory. As I was considering this, I was rather dismayed to see so many people online going on about what a liar Williams was. And these were skeptics. I didn’t think that they had any more information than I did, and surely they must have seen how we self-appointed skeptical purists were going on about how memories are unreliable. But they kept insisting that you’d remember if you were shot down or not. My sense is maybe not. I’ve had a World War II veteran who was in a unit stationed in Italy tell me that he was in the Battle of the Bulge, an impossibility.

There is the illusion of course that highly meaningful and important events are more firmly etched into our memories, but the truth of the matter is that so-called flashbulb memories, like every other memory, is subject to the same processes of change over time. But the perception, the misperception, that is, that highly significant memories are durable likely explains a general defaulting to believing the veterans like Lance Reynolds, who flew that mission and took Williams along. On facebook, Reynolds challenged Williams’ account:


Certainly, goes the logic, this event where Reynolds had just been shot at and was in harm’s way would have been more significant to him than it would be to someone on a more or less passive journalistic assignment, and therefore Reynolds would remember it. He has no incentive to lie. But Williams filed a report about this particular mission. In the online clip of that report, Tom Brokaw introduces the segment by saying that Williams had “A close call in the skies over Iraq”. He was in a Chinook helicopter. There were stories among the air crew that iraqis dressed as civilians had been shooting, and this is mentioned in the context of looking down at civilians as the Chinooks fly over their heads. We hear a radio broadcast about a helicopter that has taken fire while Williams’ group is in the air: “We took fire on the way in. We currently are NOT under fire, NOT under fire.” Williams’ Chinook is ordered down and not told why. The Chinook “ahead of them” (how far ahead is not said) has been grazed by an RPG fired from the back of a pickup truck, they realize. The crew of the helicopter did not grant an interview. The helicopters are forced to hunker down for 2 days, as there is a sandstorm. There was an armored unit there from the 3rd infantry, who coincidentally, confirm of the image of the fighters, irregulars fighting from the back of pickup trucks. Williams credits 3rd ID for looking after the perimeter. After 2 nights they leave. At the end of the report, Williams explains on their first night, they heard machine gun fire, a group of Iraqi irregulars with an RPG were stopped at the perimeter, presumably trying to get into position to shoot at the helicopters, one of which Williams was sleeping in. Ultimately a 6-hour mission became something like a 50-hour mission.

This story is NOT that different from the one that he told the crowd at Madison Square Garden. All the elements are there–only their relationship to one another is altered. Heck, he even gets the bit about the 3d ID that Reynolds apparently doesn’t remember (though you don’t see people noting the veterans’ memories are wrong too). And even Brokaw, in the introduction to the original segment, seems to dramatize what has happened a bit, maybe. But initially Williams doesn’t take any credit for anything special. The reporting seems OK. In my opinion one need not invoke deceit to explain what happened, and if you are willing to defer to what Ray Hyman called the “principle of charity,” I thought that perhaps we should not jump on him so badly. It was reasonable to think that he was guilty of nothing more than having a completely normal human brain.

So that’s kind of what I was thinking when NBC decided to slap a 6 month suspension on Williams, saying in a memo:

“By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.”

At this announcement I was indignant. I thought, how could we waste such a brilliant opportunity to educate people about how fallible memory is? That the really interesting thing about this non-story was how normal it was? And I imagined that the people who were happily dancing around the Williams sacrificial pyre smugly confident that their memories were intact and reliable, and I was annoyed some more. My hard won skeptical superpowers had paid off. I enjoyed the most satisfying and aggravating emotion: righteous indignation. It’s so good to be right. I could just bathe in that creamy feeling all day.

Aaaand then the next day I read an article in New York Magazine suggesting that there may well be a host of other incidents where Williams’ may have exaggerated his role in stories. And at least one of them is of a type that, if it turns out to be a fabrication, will be less easily explainable. I can see his meeting the Pope at Catholic University becoming less accurate over time. I can even see him inadvertently slightly nudging himself ever closer to the events surrounding the fall of the Berlin wall as reasonable. Both accounts are questioned by the magazine, but the one that really seems like it could be his undoing is his claim about a SEAL Team 6 during the Iraq war, making friends with the SEALs and then this, according to the magazine:

He also claimed that, nearly a decade after this supposed embed, a member of SEAL Team 6 sent him a souvenir from the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. “I got a white envelope and in it was a thank-you note, unsigned,” Williams said during […] a Late Show appearance. “And in it was a piece of the fuselage of the blown-up Black Hawk in that courtyard. Sent to me by one of my friends.”

It seems improbable that the Williams would have been with a group of SEALs flying into Baghdad 3 days into the war, when US forces did not reach Baghdad until the 10th of April, about 20 days after the ground invasion began. But, unlike the way SEAL Team 6 members describe Williams as being “embedded” Williams never uses that word in the clip with Letterman. So, maybe he’s misremembering the date of his flight to Bagdhad? Like maybe it was like 3 days after the coalition reached Baghdad? But it seems super weird that one of the people he befriended sent him a piece of fuselage of the (still classified) helicopter that crashed in Bin Laden’s compound….for some reason committing what, god, has to be a major security violation. And that’s the bit that I think may well get him in trouble, because there is apparently some tangible evidence that could be checked, though the provenance is in Williams’ account to Lettermen is obscure…

BUT THERE I GO AGAIN. Pretending that I could possibly figure out what was happening among special forces 12 years ago in Iraq! On what basis? Listen, when a story appears in the media, I try to understand, and all I have to go on are narratives. I’m constantly reminding myself that these narratives are reconstructions based on memories and evidence put next to each other and assembled into something transmissible–a story. But inherent to storytelling, and I don’t think that I am equivocating on the meaning of “storytelling” here, are characters and plots, and some of these characters and plots are more transmissible in the media than others. It’s easier for a headline to say that Williams’s story is “false” than it is to say it is “inaccurate in a number of ways but perhaps understandable with a good understanding of the workings of memory”  It’s easier for someone on the air to say that X journalist is a liar than it is to bring on memory experts and give the public a lesson in the weird, clever wrongness of memory and then ask the audience to filter the story through that model of memory to come up with a complicated and nuanced view of Williams as partially both engineer of his own demise and victim of human imperfection. The public wants a story; the media needs a story. And with the story comes villains and heroes, and what is Williams? I honestly have no idea.

Following this story is a frustrating exercise in humility, that just drives home hard learned lessons that I easily forget. That I have to be willing to be confused. I have to be patient. Ultimately I need to be willing to admit when I just don’t know and that that is sometimes the best, only correct answer. In the case of Brian Williams’ wartime exploits, I have a lot of information that may or may not be relevant to whether or not he is telling the truth. Currently I have no way of determining what is relevant and what is not. And I’m just going to have to be ok with that for the time being.


Folk-Linguistics 3

August 4, 2014

Hi again, everybody! Next entry on Folk-Linguistics follows.


When a known language is identified by non-mainstream thinkers as the Ursprache /‘Proto-World’, the ultimate ancestor language of humanity (see my earlier posts), it is often a classical language highly regarded in the writer’s community for religious or similar reasons. A favourite is Sanskrit, the great classical language of Northern India and, as the vehicle of the Vedas and other such texts, the main classical language of Hinduism worldwide.

When Sanskrit first came to the serious attention of Western linguists and its deep-time ‘genetic’ relationship with Greek, Latin etc. became clear, the notion of the Indo-European language ‘family’ began to develop (a key date is 1786). It was initially imagined that Sanskrit, ‘older’ than Greek or Latin and displaying archaic features and high levels of phonological and morphological systematicity, was especially close to Proto-Indo-European.

This idea was soon superseded as Indo-European studies developed further during the 19th Century; Sanskrit is now regarded by linguists as an elaborated literary form of the North Indian branch of early Indo-European (see below), which also included the ancestor of later ‘Indic’ languages such as modern Hindi. But the initial view remains popular with non-mainstream thinkers, especially but not only those with North Indian or (most of all) Hindu connections. The more moderate such thinkers see Sanskrit as close to or identical with Proto-Indo-European, the more extreme see it as a world Ursprache.

Indeed, this has become almost a popular ‘myth’. Many non-linguists who would never seek to publish non-mainstream ideas have come to hold folk-linguistic views about Sanskrit similar to those outlined above. Most such people (unaware of Indo-European or of language ‘families’ generally) seem to regard Sanskrit as a general Ursprache.

Although some 200 years out of date even in its moderate form as applying only to Indo-European, this idea is very widely shared among disparate groups of thinkers: for example, David Oates, the originator of ‘Reverse Speech’ (see my earlier posts), apparently believes that Sanskrit is [regarded as] the Ursprache, and so did two members of my local philosophy discussion group until I told them otherwise.

Another common error involves the idea that the -skrit in the word Sanskrit is connected with the Latin-derived English word script. Some people actually spell the word as Sanscript (I saw this recently on a panel in a Glasgow church where the words meaning ‘peace’ were set out in several identified languages). When questioned, some report that they have assumed or imagined that the name meant ‘sacred script’ (because of Sanskrit’s links with Hinduism).

Sanskrit is, of course, a language and not a script (this crucial contrast is obscure to many non-linguists, and disastrous mis-conceptualisation ensues). The name of the abjadic-alphabetic script usually used to write Sanskrit and other North Indian languages is Devanagari or Nagari. And the word Sanskrit itself originally means ‘elaborate’, as opposed to the term Prakrit (‘simple’) which is used of the spoken North Indian Indo-European languages from which classical Sanskrit was developed.

More next time (when pos)!


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Folk-Linguistics 2

June 30, 2014

Hi again, everybody! Next entry on Folk-Linguistics follows.


Very many linguists are especially interested in grammar, and in other highly structured aspects of languages such as phonology (sound-systems). The vocabulary of a language, on the other hand, is the least heavily-structured major aspect of that language, much less highly organised than the grammar or the phonology. And, because vocabulary is so lacking in structure by comparison with grammar or phonology, and thus is so ‘open-ended’, a language’s vocabulary can change much more rapidly than its grammar or its phonology. These changes involve the loss or gain of words and the development of new senses of words as culture and technology change and linguistic requirements change accordingly. Understanding such changes and other matters involving vocabulary requires very little understanding of linguistic theory or the techniques needed for describing and explaining linguistic systems. In fact, most of what non-linguists know (or think they know) about a given language involves vocabulary.

Specifically, the vast bulk of the argumentation associated with non-mainstream amateur claims about language origins and diversification (as discussed in Chapter 1 of my book Strange Linguistics) involves vocabulary, which is replete with superficial (mostly accidental) similarities and which, as noted, requires much less understanding of linguistics. Grammar and phonology are largely ignored, apparently out of ignorance.

Much the same applies to some discussion by non-linguists about e.g. possible communication with extraterrestrials; see for example Fernando J. Ballesteros’ 2010 book E.T. Talk: How Will We Communicate with Intelligent Life on Other Worlds? The grammars and phonologies of the languages invented by science-fiction and fantasy writers (with the exception of those few who have been trained in linguistics, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Suzette Haden Elgin) are also scantily described and often misconceptualised; almost all of the clearly described features of such languages involve vocabulary.

In contrast, unless they are specifically lexicographers of one kind or another (historical, semantic, dialectological, etc.) with a particular focus on vocabulary, linguists of all kinds and persuasions tend to have only a limited interest in issues involving vocabulary (to the extent that many linguists are less than fluent even in their languages of specialisation; they are very competent in the grammar and speak with a good accent, but because they are bored by vocabulary they do not learn enough words to speak fluently). Most historical linguists are much less interested in the etymologies of words than are amateur historical dialectologists (such as the authors of popular books on the dialects of various regions). Qua linguists, at least, they are interested in an etymology if it is important in respect of some structural issue of more general significance, for example if it helps to resolve a puzzle involving the development of a sound-system. If the etymology is not specifically revealing in this way, it may be of great interest to local authors and their readers, possibly in part through its links with local culture – but not of especial concern to a linguist.

Because it can be carried on, as far as vocabulary in concerned, without specifically linguistic expertise, amateur dialectology predates professional academic dialectology and indeed modern linguistics. It goes back at least as far as John Ray in the 17th Century and has been intensively practised since around 1800 (modern academic dialectology began only in the late 19th Century). Amateur dialectologists mostly work on the usage of their own home areas; they vary greatly in respect of their degree of familiarity with contemporary academic dialectology (and the rest of modern linguistics).

Amateur dialectologists with an interest in vocabulary are in fast very useful to professional linguists in the same way that amateur comet-spotters or sunspot-mappers are useful to professional astronomers. They provide huge amounts of raw pre-theoretical data (albeit often needing to be checked and/or reformulated) which the professionals, too busy and insufficiently motivated to do such work themselves, can treat as input to their broader-brush investigations of fact and to their considerations of theory. But the amateurs, even if they are aware of professional linguistics, may not be aware of how much they themselves are valued by the professionals – especially if disparaging terms such as butterfly-collector (implying a lack of interest in or knowledge of theory) are used of them, as still occasionally happens. And (with their own typically limited awareness of linguistic structure and its significance) they may also be surprised, perplexed or frustrated at the lack of interest shown by linguists in the bulk of their work.

Like non-mainstream authors as discussed above, most amateur dialectologists and non-linguists commenting on dialect display too little awareness of the centrality of grammar (and of phonology) in respect of matters of linguistic differentiation. For instance, it is often said that ‘broad’ Cumbrian dialect is still close to Norse, and indeed intelligible to modern Icelanders or even Scandinavians; but the surviving similarities (other than general features common to all Germanic languages) involve only certain words and a few short phrases made up of these words, not grammar – and mutual intelligibility is very limited. And in the 1960s the linguist William Labov was told by elderly natives of Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts) that the traditional speech of the island was ‘almost a separate language’, whereas in fact its peculiarities consisted merely of a strong Eastern Massachusetts accent exemplified especially in certain locally salient words.

More next time (when pos)!


For my book Strange Linguistics, see:

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