Review of Shakespeare’s Beehive, Part 1

April 26, 2014

George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler. Shakepeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light. New York: Axeltree Books, 2014. Kindle ed.


Last week, Shakespeare fans celebrated the Bard’s 450th birthday, and two New York antiquarian booksellers announced that they had discovered a copy of an Elizabethan dictionary annotated by the birthday boy.

In 2008, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler purchased a copy of the second edition of John Baret’s Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie, containing four sundrie tongues: namelie English, Latine, Greeke and French on Ebay for over $4000. This copy was annotated in what Koppelman and Wechsler believe is a late Elizabethan or early Jacobean hand.


Over the years, several scholars, particularly T. W. Baldwin (in William Shakespeare’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke) have suggested that Shakespeare was probably familiar with and may have owned a copy of Baret’s Alvearie*, along with Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus. Koppelman and Wechsler go one step farther: they believe Shakespeare owned their copy of the Alvearie and that the annotations are in his hand. If this were true, the volume would be of immeasurable value to Shakespeare scholars; in a more literal, monetary sense, it would also be of immeasurable value to Koppelman and Wechsler.

Baret defines each word or phrase in English, then provides the equivalents in Latin, French and Greek. He also includes quotations and aphorisms in all languages. The annotator has added two types of annotations. Koppelman and Wechsler call the first type “mute” and the second “spoken.” The mute annotations include underlined words and phrases, slash marks by major headwords, circles by subsidiary headwords, and other marks. The spoken annotations are additions: words and phrases as cross-references to other entries, corrections, or additional quotations and aphorisms, including biblical quotations in English.

On their website, (free registration required), Koppelman and Wechsler have provided a zoomable digitized copy of the Alvearie, as well as a compilation of all the annotations. Regardless of the identity of the annotator, this is of huge value to scholars. A complete digitized copy is useful in itself, and the annotations provide valuable insights about how such a dictionary was used in the Early Modern period.

Why do Koppelman believe the annotator was Shakespeare, and how strong is their evidence? They present their case in their newly published book, also called Shakespeare’s Beehive, which they present as an (extremely) extended catalog description of the their copy of Baret.

Although I wrote my MA thesis on The Tempest, and Shakespeare was a test area on my Ph.D. written and oral exams, Shakespeare and Renaissance literature are not my primary areas of study. I am not an expert on paleography or textual studies. However, I know enough to be profoundly skeptical of Koppelman and Wechsler’s argument and deeply unimpressed by their evidence. Even before examining the evidence in detail, I noticed some red flags that caused me to question their methodology. In their introductory chapters, they are extremely defensive about arguments that no one, as far as I know, has actually made. Of course, when mounting an argument, it is necessary to anticipate possible objections, but Koppelman and Wechsler’s arguments have a strong whiff of straw about them.

For instance, Wechsler is quoted in several stories as saying that scholars “were extremely helpful giving advice, but it was also clear that they weren’t about to jeopardise their reputations with such a claim.” He and Koppelman make similar comments in their book. They even suggest that they won’t be taken seriously because they are booksellers, not scholars:

For two booksellers in Manhattan to purchase, out of the blue, a heavily annotated book from the library of all libraries, on Ebay… it’s understandable that no one would give that a chance.

Much the same thing is said by proponents of Bigfoot, Young Earth Creationism, psychics, Reiki, or any other fringe belief. Why don’t experts in the relevant field back the fringe-proponent up? Because they wouldn’t get tenure, they wouldn’t get published, they’d be mocked and ostracized, they’re in on it, they’re pawns of Big Whatever, they’re closed-minded, they don’t pay attention to amateurs.

But who are these scholars who won’t support Koppelman and Wechsler? They don’t say. In general, they have gotten sympathetic coverage, and scholars have been cautious but not dismissive. Stephen Greenblatt is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying, “It would reinforce, in a fascinating way, Shakespeare’s passion for language. We know that Shakespeare had an eye out for unusual words – but we have only limited knowledge of where he went to find them.” He adds, however, that he has “not had time to weigh the evidence.” Shakespeare scholars would love to find a copy of absolutely anything annotated by Shakespeare. Seriously, they would be absolutely giddy with delight over the Elizabethan equivalent of “roflmao” next to a dirty joke.

But just because they want something to be true doesn’t mean it is true. Good scholars are cautious. Good scholars do not accept an extraordinary claim within days of its announcement. Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library responded to Koppelman and Wechsler’s announcement:

Even the most skeptical scholar would be thrilled to find a new piece of documentary evidence about William Shakespeare. Scholars, however, will only support the identification of Shakespeare as annotator if they feel it would be unreasonable to doubt that identification. This is a fairly high evidentiary standard, since it requires on to treat skeptically the idea that this handwriting is Shakespeare’s and to seek out counterexamples that might prove it false.

This is exactly how scholars in any field should respond to an extraordinary claim. They go on to explain the research methods that will likely be used to assess Koppelman and Wechlser’s claims. These are rigorous and time-consuming, as they should be. Such a high evidentiary bar diminishes the possibility of confirmation bias and cherry picking.

Koppelman and Wechsler also use straw man arguments when discussing the the handwriting of the annotator. The only universally accepted genuine examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting are six signatures on legal documents. All of the signatures are in Secretary hand. Other examples of handwriting that are sometimes attributed to Shakespeare–some other signatures, including signatures in books, and Hand D of the manuscript of the collaborative play Sir Thomas More–are also in Secretary hand. Most of the “spoken” annotations in the Alvearie (and almost all of the annotations in English) are in Italic script. As far as paleography is concerned, this is problematic, but not in the way Koppelman and Wechsler suggest. They argue at length against the suggestion that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have been capable of writing in Italic script. They don’t, however, quote or cite anyone who has actually made this argument.

They even compare this supposed insistence on Shakespeare’s exclusive use of Secretary hand with those who deny Shakespeare’s authorship:

The overriding question…is whether Shakespeare should forever be categorically denied an ability to use both scripts based principally on his Stratford background. Does this not seem oddly in perverse harmony with someone who argues that a provincial boy from Stratford as author is incompatible with one of the great speeches in, say, Henry V?

I suppose it is possible that scholars have argued that Shakespeare couldn’t have ever used Italic script because of his humble background, but Koppelman and Wechsler provide no evidence that this is so. The association between conventional scholars and Shakespeare-deniers is particularly ironic, since Shakespeare-deniers rely, to a large extent, on confirmation bias and cherry-picked evidence. As we shall see, these are techniques at which Koppelman and Wechsler also excel.

This straw man argument also disguises the real paleographic problem: it is very difficult to compare two different styles of handwriting. With only six rather variable signatures to use as comparison, study of Shakespeare’s handwriting is ridiculously difficult anyway. But Koppelman and Wechsler skirt the issue by focusing on irrelevancies and side issues. They lament, for instance, that people (presumably scholars) will demand scientific proof. They also hint that the general public may be more sympathetic:

Understandably, things bend heavily, even necessarily, under the burden of proof in the quest for any namable [sic] annotator, because we live in an age where an enormous amount of trust is placed in the ability to test and prove something scientifically. In the absence of scientific proof, evidence – no matter the strength – is often deemed unreliable, regardless of how it registers in the court of public opinion. It follows, then, that an inability to precisely test ink from the Elizabethan period will make for a wobbly case in the quest for answers as to the exact age of the annotations in our Baret, let alone to the still more complicated determination of who has added the ink to the pages.

I hardly know where to begin. There is the idea that “scientific proof” is somehow different from–and more definitive than–“evidence.” When a formal distinction is made between “proof” and “evidence,” mathematics and law usually get custody of “proof.” Scientific conclusions–no matter the strength of the evidence–are always provisional. In addition, why would anyone expect “scientific proof” when the relevant field is not a science? One could certainly make the case that the methods and evidence used in the Humanities are often unfairly denigrated in comparison to those used in the sciences, but that is not the issue here.

Scientific testing of the ink would only be relevant if the annotations were suspected forgeries. Again, this does not seem to be the case. Even so, scientific testing would be of limited value–it could show a forger used ink not available during the Renaissance, but precise dating of the ink would be much trickier. There are many non-scientific methods for dating texts, manuscripts, literary works, and handwriting. They have been around for ages and have become refined over time. They do not rely on scientific testing. They are not always 100% reliable, but they work fairly well. In some cases they can provide a narrower date than C14 dating, and they are less destructive. Again, this focus on science is a straw man.

The real issue is the difficulty of comparing Shakespeare’s hand to the annotator’s hand. Because of the different scripts, the comparison may be impossible. More accurately, it may be possible to say with a degree of certainty that Shakespeare did not write the annotations, but the chances are vanishingly small that an examination of the writing will suggest the likelihood that Shakespeare is the annotator.

Let’s consider why the accepted signatures are accepted: they are on official legal documents. That’s pretty much it. It’s the nature of the documents that assures authenticity. They form a pathetically small and poor sample for handwriting comparison. No other alleged example of Shakespeare’s handwriting has been accepted based on a comparison with the signatures. Let us look for a moment at Hand D in Sir Thomas More. For many years, many scholars have suggested that this handwritten passage is the work of Shakespeare: that it matches his style and some of his idiosyncratic spellings, and that it is consistent with his handwriting. The corrections suggest that it is an authorial hand: if Shakespeare is the author, it is his hand; if it is his hand, Shakespeare is the author.

Hand D has been studied and studied and studied. It has been subjected to two computational stylometric studies (that’s sciencey). One, by Hugh Craig and Arthur Kinney, concluded that it was the work of Shakespeare; the other, by Ward E. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza of the Claremont Shakespeare Clinic, concluded that it was not.** All that study, and the jury is still out.

That’s how high the evidentiary bar is. That is how high it should be. Koppelman and Wechsler’s straw man arguments attempt to lower the bar, to trump objections that haven’t even been made yet. Bias in favor of science or against amateur booksellers doesn’t matter. Evidence matters. In my next post, we will examine the evidence.

*Latin for beehive. His students, like bees, went off to find the nectar of words and then returned to him with the fruits of their labor.

**For a discussion of the stylometric studies, see MacDonald P. Jackson, “Authorship and the evidence of stylometric,” in Shakespeare beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy, ed. Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Cambridge UP, 2013.


Note: this essay is cross-posted at Skepticality.

Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 40

April 14, 2014


Hi again, everybody!  ‘Hall Of Shame’ resumes (again not sure at what intervals).

The Australian feminist visual poet Thalia, whose work consists of a mixture of orthodox verbal expression and large-format non-iconic quasi-logographic/ideographic symbols,argues that women and men perceive non-iconic symbols of this kind very differently (categorically or nearly so), and that women – but not men – spontaneously understand them as referring holistically/ideographically to key aspects of female life.  These aspects include, especially, matters such as IVF (In Vitro Fertilization), which Thalia regards as an unwelcome process forced upon women by male-dominated societies and which she portrays symbolically.  See New & Selected Poems (Melbourne, 1998).  No clear evidence has been produced in support of Thalia’s position.

More next time (when pos)!


For my book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany.  Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address. 


Shilling for Big History

March 11, 2014

Note: This essay is cross-posted at Skepticality.

Last December, a metal detectorist named Bruce Campbell was plying his retirement hobby in a tidal mud flat on Vancouver Island, when he came across a rare Edward VI shilling. The silver coin was minted between 1551 and 1553, the span of Edward’s brief reign. You’ll remember that Edward was the son of Henry VIII and the half brother of Elizabeth I. The date of the coin has recently fueled speculation about the earliest date that Westerners explored the northern Pacific and the west coast of Canada. If the deposit of the coin is roughly contemporary with the date stamped on it, say within 30 years or so, it would push back the earliest visitation of the coast by the English some 200 years.

The metal detectorist shared his find with an online hobbyist community, and when they recognized the coin, one of them contacted an independent scholar named Samuel Bawlf, who had written about the idea that perhaps Sir Francis Drake had visited the region, and perhaps even made it as far as south Alaska, in 1579, during his eventual circumnavigation of the globe. Bawlf is excited because other 2 other old coins have been found in the area, a 1571 sixpence dug up in 1930 and another coin with a similar date unearthed on Quadra Island, which is nearby. This it seems supports Bawlf’s idea.

To Bawlf.

I honestly don’t know where to begin, so let’s start with who Drake was.

Sir Francis Drake is best known for being a pirate, harassing Spanish galleons in the years before the Spanish Armada. He was extremely successful, seizing the modern equivalent of tens of millions of dollars worth of cargo from the Spanish. It is generally accepted that in the summer 1579, Drake was along the Pacific coast of what is now the United States, and there is much speculation about how far up the coast he made it. There are some fairly good indicators of the extent of his travel; he certainly made it as far as mid-California and might have even made it as far as Oregon (which seems to be about the farthest north that mainstream scholars are reasonably comfortable placing him). The method of placing him comes from ethnographic work deriving from detailed descriptions of the natives, their dress and culture stemming from the trip. During this summer sojourn, he apparently encountered flows of ice. Drake completed this journey by circumnavigating the globe.

The idea that Bawlf puts forward is that Drake was looking for a Northwest Passage on behalf of Queen Elizabeth, an endeavor which would have economic and military implications that the rival Spain could not know about. Therefore, at her order, it was a completely secret mission. While on this secret mission, however Drake deposited coins along the way to the natives in the region to show that they had been there in case some other European power showed up. On the face of, this seems incompatible with the idea that it was a super-secret mission that nobody could know about.

Also, there is the matter of how countries staked claims of new territories. While I may not have examined enough, I don’t see examples of Brits claiming territory through depositing coins in the literature–and the idea seems problematic to me as there are other ways that coins could make it to unexplored territory, such as trade. As such, coins alone would not establish a presence. As best I can tell claiming territory during this time is a messy process. It starts with discovery and landing with the intention of making claims of land. The strength of new claims is improved by establishing settlements and colonial government, extensively mapping an area and waterways, setting up commercial ties with natives, initiating exploration of the region, fortification, and active defense. Matters of territorial ownership might also be clarified through negotiation and treaties. Nothing remotely like any of these patterns appears in the historical record until the late 18th century, when Spain and England vied for control of the region and almost went to war over it. If the British staked a claim…they did absolutely nothing with it for 200 years, and they seem to not have invoked Drake’s prior claim to it in the later squabble with Spain.

So, what does the discovery of this shilling tell us? The coin by itself tells us very little. Interpreting finds like this is all about determining context. Without context, the coin tells us only that at some point a coin ended up in the tidal mud. The only hint of context that we have is that on the same outing, according to the Tribune-Review, Campbell found the shilling: “along with a rare 1891 Canadian nickel, a 1960s dime and penny from 1900.” Now, it doesn’t say that they were physically clustered together. That’s frustrating, because if so, we’d be able to say that the deposit was dropped no sooner than the 1960s, which would not require us to rewrite our understanding of the Pacific Northwest. Nonetheless, it was a grand day out for a new metal detectorist.

The hobbyist who contacted Bawlf (named Herbst) about the find speculated about the context:

“You don’t find things like that in Victoria,” Herbst told the Times Colonist. “The fact that it was found in a layer of mud on the foreshore, to me, I recognized that that was probably an ancient aboriginal village down there. … I knew it was possibly significant.”

So, it was probably an aboriginal village, said some guy on the Internet. I spent a little time looking for aboriginal archaeological sites in the region and haven’t had much luck–I know that’s because I am researching outside my area, since Canadian authorities have well established protocols for documenting and reporting finds of archaeological materials including human remains. According to the rough description of the site given in the Times Colonist, that Campbell was poking around at low tide “on the mud flats on the Gorge, just down by Curtis Point.” That seems to place him in the Victoria Harbor region, and that entire promontory of land is the aboriginal home of the Songhee people. There’s comparatively little written about this tribe, though their later history is intertwined with the growth of Victoria. This would likely have been the tribe that Drake would have encountered. I have been able to find no tradition of stories of contact with European sailors in the Songhee tradition before 1790, at which time the Spanish reached the region. The Herbst hypothesis at this point it looks like speculation that is not bolstered by anything, and certainly no evidence is offered. As best I can tell, the coin is being used to argue for the existence of an aboriginal settlement and the aboriginal settlement is being used as an argument for why the coin was there in the first place. This seems shaky.

So the coin is apparently completely out of any independent or meaningful context, at least as far as news reports are concerned. For that reason it does not clarify anything, only become fuel for speculation. An interesting side note about this part of the shore. The area that the coin was found in was a popular area for swimmers at least up until the 1930s. There might be no end to the cultural contamination of the site that might influence what one might find in the area. We should perhaps not be especially surprised if anything that a swimmer or tourist could possibly bring out there ended up there. Coins are small, portable, and completely losable. We are being asked to accept that the true context of these coins are other old coins throughout the region, occasionally on other islands, without convergent supporting evidence that that should be the case.

Another problem that the Drake hypothesis faces (or, in a turn of classic conspiracy theory benefits from) is that the original records of Drake’s travels were destroyed in a fire. But some contemporary accounts remain. None of them indicate travel to areas recognizable as Canada or Alaska. But what about the ice that appears in those early accounts? Does that not suggest that Drake was summering far further north than historians have given him credit for? Well, probably not.  Apparently, the dendrochronology of giant redwoods from the years surrounding Drake’s travels suggest that there was little growth in the trees that year, suggesting that the weather was unusually dry or cold. There is therefore apparently no pressing reason to extrapolate from the observation of ice that Drake had to be so far north.

The takeaway of all this, I think, is that the breathless reporting of a single find that overturns the entire known history of a region is to be taken with a grain of salt in much the same way we should avoid concluding that a single observation should completely overturn decades of established science. Of course, it is tempting for a journalist to report the bigger, slightly more sensational story, though it beggars belief how someone could not think that the exploits of Drake and his crew were not sensational enough to hold our interest.


Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 39

February 24, 2014


Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ resumes (again not sure at what intervals).

Some critics of mainstream linguistics explicitly reject the non-prescriptive approach to language adopted by linguists (see the Introduction). One such writer is the Australian journalist Mark Halpern.

Halpern’s views are partly grounded in a belief which he knows is shared by very few indeed, at least among those who think seriously about language, but which he nevertheless regards as clearly correct: namely, the belief that most linguistic change is deliberate and a matter of choice, because linguistic features (he believes) depend on the conscious minds of speakers or writers, especially when they are actually changing. He contrasts this view with a diametrically opposed ‘straw man’ view which he mistakenly attributes to mainstream linguists, the idea that grammatical and other structures ‘have a life of their own’ and do not depend at all upon the minds of language users. Halpern apparently fails to discern the actual viewpoint (intermediate between these two extremes) adopted by (most) mainstream linguists, according to which linguistic features are indeed epiphenomena of human minds rather than independent entities but are mostly not accessed by the conscious minds of native speakers of the language in question in the absence of explicit study – and which are liable to systematic change without conscious decisions being made and indeed without there necessarily being any awareness of a given change while it is in progress. This mainstream viewpoint, of course, is well supported from evidence and argumentation.

Halpern exemplifies mainly with vocabulary changes, the study of which requires much less understanding of linguistic theory or descriptive techniques than that of changes at more heavily structured linguistic levels such as grammar. It is true that some vocabulary changes are deliberate or semi-deliberate, or at least readily accessible to the conscious minds of language users without study. In these respects, linguists will disagree with Halpern less than he suggests they would. But he is mistaken in extending this observation (albeit implicitly and without exemplification) to grammatical and other structural changes.

Furthermore, Halpern regards many of the vocabulary changes which he cites as very unwelcome and as constituting degradation of the language in question (in this case English). He berates linguists for refusing to accept this prescriptivist folk-linguistic stance (which of course is very widely shared).

More next time (when pos)!


For my book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies

February 4, 2014

Note: The following essay originally appeared on Skepticality.

This is Bob Blaskiewicz from and

I’ve always wondered about the Cottingley Fairy hoax. European spiritualism and fairy folk are a little out of my realm of expertise, but what the heck, let’s give it a go. In some ways, I suppose, the stage was set for the Cottingley Fairies by Romanticism, which celebrated the common man and elevated his culture. This, in turn, led to a reappraisal of national folk traditions in Europe in the 19th century, as seen in the collection and study of folk tales by Anglo-Irish literary luminaries Lady Gregory and Jane Wilde, who was Oscar Wilde’s mother and gathered and published a collection of Irish fairy lore in 1888. This just happens to be the same period that manufactured gnomes (or gartenzwerge) were appearing in German gardens and becoming popular in Europe. Do with that factoid as you will.

If you aren’t familiar with the Cottingley Fairy story, in 1917, two girls, 9-year old Frances Griffiths and her 16-year old cousin, Elsie Wright, presented photographic evidence that they had been cavorting with fairies in the woods behind Elsie’s house in Yorkshire.



A second series of photos appeared in 1920, the year that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a credulous article about them in The Strand, brought the number of fairy photos to 5. But one photo is iconic, the image of Frances sitting in a glen with 4 fairies dancing around her as she gazes off into the distance. In reality, the fairies were copies of images from a popular children’s book, Princess Mary’s Gift Book, held up up with hatpins. The girls admitted this in the 1980s. But as often is the case with claims of the extraordinary the hoax itself is not so interesting, rather it’s the fact that people actually believed this stuff. One of the biggest questions, and the one that has always interested me, is how did someone like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote one of the most analytical, forensically minded characters in literary history, Sherlock Freaking Holmes, come to believe that these fairies were real.

However, I think that the idea that an author must share personal characteristics with their literary inventions–and the corollary belief that all fiction is somehow autobiographical– is one that often leads people to strange, insupportable conclusions. I can think of no better example of this than the notion that the key to Shakespeare’s “real” identity is somehow hidden in the plays or in the sonnets. That somehow in order to write about the nobility that one needs to have been a noble, or that to write about Italy, one would need to have travelled to Italy, or that to write a series of sonnets that one has to have had one’s own real-life dark lady and a pretty pool boy. I think that there is a tendency to think about Conan Doyle in terms of his creation Sherlock Holmes, who it is admitted by all other characters in the novels as a universal genius. People think that any mind that could create a character as clever as Sherlock Holmes must be at least as shrewd. (Honestly, if you look more closely, you realize that Holmes, much like Hannibal Lector, is simply given knowledge by his author that he otherwise could not possibly know.)

The book that came out of Conan Doyle’s exposure to the Cottingley Fairies, 1921’s The Coming of the Fairies, is, in a word, a hot mess. It’s a quick read–one night should do it for you. The book is really a collection of writings, letters, testimonials, and previously published articles about fairy folk, with special attention to the photos taken by Frances and Elsie. Despite the pretense in his introduction that he’s just laying the facts on the table for analysis, you can tell, Conan Doyle is a true believer. Throughout, when he quotes someone raising a reasonable objection, you can see Conan Doyle inventing reasons to dismiss them. But there are a couple of historical particulars that make the telling of the fairy story really interesting, especially with respect to the types of special pleading that the believers came up as well as the unstated assumptions about childhood and class that are especially jarring to the modern ear.

For instance, it seems likely that Conan Doyle harbored a highly romanticized idea of childhood that may have blinded him to the possibility that the two girls were not being completely honest. It is the very purity and innocence of children, by some mechanism as of yet unknown, that allowed the children to see the fairies. Edward Gardner, who was Conan Doyle’s proxy and collaborator on the investigation, and who was known, according to Conan Doyle, for his “reputation for sanity and character” (23), worries that the window of opportunity afforded by the girls’ abilities may be closing as it is just a matter of time before one of the girls “will ‘fall in love’ and then–hey presto!!” (25). Conan Doyle himself thought that perhaps the girls’ powers of perception would have flagged in the three years between the taking of the first photos and Gardner’s visit to them in Yorkshire, because “I was well aware that the processes of puberty are often fatal to psychic power.”

Another presupposition that seems to have blinded Conan Doyle and Gardner to the possibility of a hoax was that the girls’ artisan class precluded them from designing elaborate photographic hoaxes involving double exposures and so on. But they were not expecting something so staggeringly simple as paper dolls on a stick. Conan Doyle opens the first chapter, “The series of incidents set forth in this little volume represent either the most elaborate and ingenious hoax ever played upon the public, or else the constitute an event in human history which may in the future appear to have been epoch-making in its character” (13).

I think that most interesting for science enthusiasts is how Conan Doyle was sensible of the need to put the existence of these little creatures in a modern scientific context. Very few people had ever seen fairies while awake, and most of Conan Doyle’d experiencers claim to have been especially psychic. This worked well for Conan Doyle, who was above all a committed Spiritualist and had a great interest in seeing the claimed abilities of these sensitive people (and thereby proof of the afterlife) proved with photographic evidence. He makes a move familiar in modern new age circles of saying that perhaps the critters existed in another frequency and that perceiving them was a matter of tuning. Perhaps, he thought, some sort of fairy detecting goggles would be developed that would allow regular people to perceive fairyland.

There is nothing, strictly speaking, preventing little winged people living in your garden other than the course that evolution happens to have taken. Well, that and house cats. Nonetheless, Conan Doyle and his correspondents spend a surprising amount of time talking about how they can reconcile the existence of these little creatures with evolution. The solution is that the fairy is descended from butterflies, while the gnome “has more of the moth.” They even attempt to sketch out the biogeography of fairy folk and other ethereal critters by analyzing masses of anecdotes from around the world.

Throughout the book, fairies seem to embody a close relationship with nature, one buoyed by happiness, music, and a carefree idyllic existence. According to Gardner, “For the most part, amid the busy commercialism of modern times, the fact of [fairies’] existence has faded to a shadow, and a most delightful and charming field of nature study has too long been veiled. In this twentieth century there is promise of the world stepping out of some of its darker shadows.” We can’t avoid the immediate context of this statement, as the previous decade had seen mankind perfect mass death on the battlefields of Europe, a conflict that took Conan Doyle’s son. As the industrial engines that had powered commercialism turned to manufacturing corpses on unfathomable scales, perhaps the escapism and innocence of childhood visions seemed overpoweringly attractive to these spiritual seekers. We may be certain that the surge in interest in spiritualism during and after WWI was related to the loss of a generation of European youth in much the same way spiritualism prospered in the wake of the American Civil War. A harmonious and joyous return to nature, which just happened to confirm the powers of those who could communicate with that lost generation, was perhaps seen as restorative to a crippled Europe.

An excellent review of some of the issues raised by the Cottingley incident can be found in Carole Silver’s study, “On the Origin of Fairies: Victorians, Romanticism, and Folk Belief.”

This is Bob Blaskiewicz from and


Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 38

February 3, 2014


Hi again, everybody!  ‘Hall Of Shame’ resumes (not sure at what intervals).

In ‘Fringe Historical Linguistics 3’ (this forum, March 2012), I discussed Stan Hall’s book Savage Genesis: The Missing Page (no place, 2011), one of many non-mainstream books (etc.) which treat the Hungarian language as especially important in ‘deep-time’ linguistic history and as connected (‘genetically’ or by contact) with many languages around the world.  Hungarian is one of the ‘favourite’ languages of fringe historical linguists (with or without personal Hungarian associations) because of its uncertain ‘genetic’ provenance (it appears to be an outlying member of the Uralic language ‘family’ but this has been disputed), its arguably anomalous geographical location, and the ensuing air of ‘mystery’ which has come to surround it.  For more on these Hungarian matters, see my the relevant sections of Chapters 1-4 of my 2013 book Strange Linguistics (see below).

György Busztin, author of The Legacy of the Barang People, Equinox, Jakarta, 2006) is another author of this kind; but he differs from writers such as Hall in that a) he himself is Hungarian and b) he has an academic background in linguistics (PhD in Arabic Language and Semitic Philology from Lorand Eotvos University in Budapest).  He is thus even more relevantly qualified than Susan B. Martinez – whose book The Lost History of the Little People I have also reviewed in this forum – and might well command some respect from non-linguists.  However, Martinez’s academic background did not prevent her from making major errors; and, although Busztin’s ideas are clearly more sober than hers, his material too is suspect in important ways (see below).

Busztin is also a former Hungarian ambassador to Indonesia, where he has spent much of his life; and his specific proposal in this book involves ‘deep-time’ links between Indonesian and Hungarian.  Indonesian (aka Bahasa Indonesia) is a partly creolised language based mainly on Malay, the principal Malayo-Polynesian language of Malaysia and the region (the two languages remain very similar).  In the years after World War II Indonesian was developed and adopted as a modern national language for the newly-independent multilingual nation.

Busztin’s historical thesis (outlined in Chapter 3 and the Conclusion; pp. 63-107) is that the westward migration of the Hungarians from Central Asia in early historic times was in fact part of a more general diffusion of peoples (with ensuing linguistic differentiation) which also included the southwards movement of people who became speakers of Malayo-Polynesian.  He accepts the thesis of the geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer regarding wide-ranging links of this nature between various peoples of Eurasia (p. 99), but he thus seeks to reverse the south-to-north direction of diffusion proposed by Oppenheimer.

It has to be said that for all his academic background Busztin’s linguistics itself appears naïve and weak in places.  He does not use established linguistic conventions (italics for forms, single quotes for meanings, etc.).  And although his book is written in English he does not consistently provide English glosses for the Hungarian and Indonesian words which he cites (although in his ‘Glossary of [Hungarian and Indonesian] Wordpairs’ = Chapter 1 on pp. 17-44 he does gloss most of the items); and indeed he suggests (p. 15) that readers who do not themselves know Hungarian and/or Indonesian might not trouble to work through the Glossary in detail (which would of course entail taking his general statements on trust).

More seriously, Busztin’s comments about language and linguistic change (pp. 7, 9, 11, etc.) are often too ‘sweeping’ and indeed emotional in character; he misspells words from other languages (a Greek expression on p. 11; also the language-name Bask = Basque on p. 75); and he prescriptively and inconsistently identifies English and non-English language-names as ‘correct’ (pp. 8, 11).  There are also other ‘quirks’, as where he appears unaware (or facetiously dismissive?) of the entire sub-discipline of psycholinguistics (p. 21).

Among the established linguists whom Busztin quotes by way of background is Morris Swadesh, described on p. 11 as ‘particularly praised’ but in fact generally regarded as a ‘maverick’ much of whose work can be disregarded.  Busztin does not cite (even by way of rejection) the ideas of leading mainstream historical linguists such as Donald Ringe, presumably because these ideas would undermine his own, apparently unsystematic treatment of the data (see below).  In this context: he provides (p. 10) a brief, fairly promising discussion of the various possible explanations for similarities between words sharing meanings (common origin as ‘cognates;’, ‘loans’, accident).  However; immediately after this he refers to a ‘set, albeit small set of rules that work very much the same way in both languages’; but these ‘rules’ prove to be suspect (to say the least) in ways familiar to skeptical linguists.  Seven such ‘rules’ are rehearsed on pp. 12-15.  Six of them are grammatical in character.  Three are ‘typological’ (shared ‘agglutinative’ morphology, flexible word order, lack of grammatical gender; all of these are in fact general in Uralic) and thus (as Busztin admits) cannot be used to demonstrate relatedness between languages, because typology involves very general features which are inevitably shared by many unconnected languages.  (In fact, the grammars of Hungarian and Indonesian are not at all similar.)  Three further ‘rules’ involve a range of suffixes, prefixes and other word-terminating sequences, all of which are (as usual) very short morphemes or single syllables and could easily be shared by chance.  Busztin’s extreme confidence regarding one particular roughly similar pair of prefixes is altogether exaggerated; even the grammatical meanings are different.  His seventh ‘rule’ involves phonetic similarities and is impossibly vague.

On p. 12 Busztin admits that he finds only 150 or so ‘wordpairs’ which he believes display genuine historical links between Hungarian and Indonesian and share an origin.  This is too small a number to support a connection in terms of statistical ‘mass comparison’; and as far as the longer-established ‘comparative method’ is concerned the similarities, as set out in the Glossary (Indonesian words first), are typically superficial and unsystematic.  For example, word-initial Indonesian ar- is presented as corresponding with Hungarian ar-, ir-, ér-, etc. in different words (pp. 18-19).  No explanation is given for this lack of systematicity.  (Most such cases involve multiple Hungarian forms corresponding with the same Indonesian form, since Hungarian has a richer, more complex phonology than Indonesian; but there are cases where the reverse is true, for instance where Indonesian has ta- or te- corresponding with Hungarian te-; see pp. 40-41.)  However, as I have repeatedly explained (see now Chapter 1 of Strange Linguistics), differentiation of this kind is largely systematic, regular and indeed predictable once the patterns are known; it is not haphazard.  These proposals are thus prima facie implausible.  (As in the case of Martinez, if Busztin is in fact familiar with historical linguistics but rejects mainstream thinking on the methodology of the subject, he should state this openly and should argue for his own position.)

Busztin sometimes refers to generally accepted etymologies which he is seeking to overturn and replace with his own, but normally only to dismiss them on inadequate (often apparently subjective) grounds or to say no more about them (see for instance dorong-dorong on p. 25, lekat-lakat on p. 34, minum-innom on pp. 35-36 where he ‘reverses’ an established historical derivation, etc.).  Furthermore, many of the Hungarian and Indonesian meanings given by Busztin correspond only approximately/indirectly, if at all; special pleading often appears to be involved (see for example ‘get’ versus ‘yield’ for terima-terem on p. 41, ‘know’ versus ‘accuse’ for tuduh-tud on p. 42).  Busztin does express a measure of scholarly caution in these and some other cases (for instance some on p. 34), but by including them in his main list rather than listing them separately he is invoking them as supporting his case, and in many other cases he is far more forthright about connections than appears to be warranted even in his own terms.  And he occasionally contradicts himself in respect of the degree of conviction associated with an etymological proposal, as for instance on the Indonesian word tangan on p. 40 (‘we are left wondering…undoubtedly…’).  In still other places in his Glossary Busztin invokes specific explanations which actually conflict with his hypothesis of a link between Hungarian and Indonesian; for instance, on pp. 31 and 34 he acknowledges that both a Hungarian word and its Indonesian semantic equivalent may arise from ‘sound imitation’ (onomatopoeia), but nevertheless still asserts that the relevant words are linked.

Busztin’s summary of the Glossary (pp. 42-44) includes the general claim that the Hungarian forms, often the shorter, are therefore probably the older (but there is no such principle; in many cases involving many pairs/sets of related languages the opposite is true), and lists a range of specific types of phonological change which he has invoked in various cases, without any good explanations as to why each type of change occurred where it occurred.  This gives the impression of arbitrariness: each process is invoked only where it can conveniently be used to ‘explain’ forms.  (See also references in the Glossary itself to other such phenomena, such as ‘metathesis’, invoked – without either clarity or persuasion – on p. 19, in the case of amarah-marah-harag.)  All in all, the summary amounts only to a somewhat more detailed restatement of an inadequately supported hypothesis.

In Chapter 2 (pp.45-61) Busztin seeks to link his linguistic ‘findings’ with Hungarian-Indonesian cultural parallelisms which he proposes.  In some cases the discussion in this section adds a degree of plausibility to his equations as presented in the Glossary; but the above-mentioned problems associated with these equations per se remain outstanding.

All in all, Busztin’s equations are thus unconvincing.  Whatever the strengths of his other ideas, the specifically linguistic aspects of his thesis cannot at present be taken seriously.

More next time (when pos)!


For my book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany.  Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.



Refael Elisha Cohen: A Family’s Misery Exploited

December 25, 2013

I would rather be doing anything other than writing this right now, but as Susan Gerbic has put it, advocates of science and evidence-based medicine have “drawn a line in the sand” and I don’t feel that we can yield an inch.

For the last few weeks, skeptics have been following the heartbreaking plight of the family of Refael Elisha Cohen, a 6-year old with medulloblastoma, a devastating brain tumor. According to the family, every single medical option has been tried–chemotherapy, surgery and radiation–but the monster has come back. At this late stage, there are compassionate options, palliative care and the relief of pain.

The family, understandably, is still looking for something, ANYTHING that might conceivably help their son. This desperation has sadly driven them into the hands of Stanislaw Burzynski at just the time that he needs a little good PR. The family has embarked on a campaign, appealing to the White House for a compassionate use exemption so that Refael Elisha can receive antineoplastons, Burzynski’s “signature” drug, which have been pumped into generations of cancer patients but have never met the most basic requirements of the scientific community. (In fact, we have seen 3 high profile campaigns simultaneously, unprecedented in the two years I’ve been following the clinic.)

While there are no demonstrable benefits of antineoplaston therapy, there are known side effects, about 3 pages worth, according to the Clinic’s own patient consent form. Because nobody wants to see a child die, a hundred thousand people have signed the petition to allow a compassionate exemption for Rafael Elisha. I share the generous sentiment of these signers, that a child deserves a regular life. Yet, knowing what that Clinic is after two years of continual searching for evidence that the treatment might work, having read the stories of literally hundreds of former patients, I can say without fear of contradiction that to support this family’s quest for antineoplaston therapy puts cancer patients in harm’s way.

I’ve largely remained silent about this campaign, which has featured prominently in the global Jewish press. It seems clear in the numerous reports that have appeared in the press that the family has not received accurate information about Burzynski, the treatment, or the prospects for that drug’s approval. An article came to my attention this morning that I felt I needed to answer, “Houston Boy Battles Brain Tumor; Needs Community Support.” written by the Campaign to Save Refael Elisha Cohen and which appeared in the online Jewish Voice. I hope that the two sentences I submitted in the comments will appear, but just in case they don’t, I figured that I would use my own venue as an opportunity to critique some of the points that were made.

According to the press release published at the Jewish Voice (which is all I can call this appeal, even if it is touching and sincere), a group of volunteers are collecting and sorting leads from around the world for potential treatments. I would like to offer them an additional source, if they have not seen it,, which lists all active registered clinical trials. Currently, there are 57 trials currently open for treatments into the type of tumor Rafael Elisha has. Any one of these trials is a better option than any illusory trial that the clinic might dangle in front of this family, and I hope they look into these options. I’m certain that Rabbi and Mrs. Cohen will understand that all anyone wants is for their child to heal, and if there was any evidence that the Burzynski Clinic had anything promising, that I would go down to Houston and hold the front door open for them.

In fact, there is one medical option which several prominent cancer researchers continually taught as the most promising for brain tumors.

The latter is called antineoplaston therapy, developed by Doctor Stanislaw Burzynski. The therapy uses peptides and amino acids’ and is manufactured in a block long pharmaceutical laboratory which operates directly under FDA Supervision. The FDA recognizes that the trials show efficiency, but has pulled its approval in 2012 pending reapproval possibly within the year. Current negotiation process is over interpretation of argumentative technicalities.

I would suggest that the statement that antineoplastons are “taught as the most promising for brain tumors” could not possibly be less true, as evidenced by this USA Today article, “Experts Dismiss Doctor’s Cancer Claims.” There is no evidence that any cancer, much less the intractable ones that Burzynski has claimed success for, are caused by “antineoplaston deficit,” which is the entire premise of the therapies. Lack of antineoplastons are simply not recognized as a cause of cancer. Secondly, as far as I can tell, Burzynski has never identified a therapeutic target for these drugs. Instead, we get vague words that sound nice like, “it turns off the cancer cells,” but we are not given an explanation of how that is supposed to happen. I’m willing to bet that if you were to ask the Cohen family how this drug is supposed to work, they won’t be able to tell you either. And if they have the mechanism, I’d honestly be eager to hear it.

The statement that “the FDA recognizes that the trials show efficacy” is purest bunk. There are no clinical trials that would demonstrate this. None. Burzynski has never completed and published a single clinical trial. The tumors he treats, especially the brain tumors, have a pretty high turnover rate. You would think that in over 15 years he might have managed to publish a single clinical trial, but he hasn’t. As part of a deal with the FDA 16 years ago, Burzynski agreed to only treat patients with ANP under the auspices of a clinical trial. So he opened dozens and never published a single finished one. We should not be surprised, of course, when his lawyer says of the Clinic’s trials:

[W]e decided to hit the FDA with everything at the same time. All of his current patients would be covered in a single clinical trial which Burzynski called “CAN-1.” As far as clinical trials go, it was a joke. Clinical trials are supposed to be designed to test the safety or efficacy of a drug for a disease. It is almost always the case that clinical trials treat one disease.

The CAN-1 protocol had almost two hundred patients in it and there were at least a dozen different types of cancers being treated. And since all the patients were already on treatment, there could not be any possibility of meaningful data coming out of the so-called clinical trial. It was all an artifice, a vehicle we and the FDA created to legally give the patients Burzynski’s treatment. The FDA wanted all of Burzynski’s patients to be on an IND, so that’s what we did.

….and that…

Burzynski personally put together seventy-two protocols to treat every type of cancer the clinic had treated and everything Burzynski wanted to treat in the future. [...]

Make no mistake. Burzynski’s publication history, which is open for ANYONE to see at, is perhaps the most abysmal ever put forward as a marketing tool with a straight face. What he offers instead is his cherry-picked best cases and case series. While we delight that these people have survived, and while we understand why these patients support Burzynski so fervently, they tell us nothing about whether or not the treatment works. If you are only looking at the people who happened to survive, say, there are a dozen, just by looking at them you don’t know how many died. 20? 40? 1,000? 10,000? You don’t know because you are only looking at the survivors. This is why his claimed results are meaningless without published clinical trials. The family and friends of the Cohens should be demanding that Burzynski publish his damned trials so that the FDA will have no choice BUT to allow antineoplastons. Instead, the well-wishing allies of the Cohens are demanding an end-run around the scientific approval process, which is designed to bring effective drugs to market safely. Early this year, Burzynski told the BBC on camera that “Phase II clinical trials were completed just only a few months ago.” Don’t take my word for it. Start at 23:35 or follow the link above:

This was in the spring, which means that it’s been about a year since Burzynski “completed” his clinical trials. Now it is his obligation to publish. If they work, any delay can be attributed directly to his not publishing his results.

Because the clinical trials are supposedly already “completed.” He just told you that himself. As of last month, at least, Liz Szabo at USA Today could report:

Even his staunchest supporters wonder why Burzynski’s drugs are nowhere close to receiving FDA approval. [...]

In fact, the FDA hasn’t had a chance to approve Burzynski’s drugs. He has never officially asked.

Although Burzynski said he has completed 14 intermediate-phase studies, he has yet to file a new drug application, the final step toward getting a drug approved.

So, why the end run around regulation if his drugs work? Again, his treatment is “nowhere close to receiving FDA approval.” Why does this family believe otherwise? If nothing else, I would be keenly interested in knowing that.

The statement that the process of restarting trials is due to “current negotiation process [...] over interpretation of argumentative technicalities,” is also tragically inaccurate. According to a warning letter issued 2 days after the Cohen family launched their petition to the White House, the issues are not mere technicalities. I quote Liz Szabo of USA Today again:

In letters to Burzynski and his research institute posted online Wednesday, the FDA says that Burzynski inflated success rates for experimental drugs that he calls antineoplastons. The FDA also says Burzynski failed to report side effects and to prevent patients from repeatedly overdosing.

The FDA placed Burzynski’s clinical trial on hold last year after the death of a 6-year-old boy, Josia Cotto, of Linden, N.J. The FDA also conducted several months of inspections of Burzynski’s research.

But when the FDA asked to see the child’s medical files, Burzynski sent the agency records that were different than those stored in his office, giving the appearance that the records had been altered, according to the warning.

Burzynski’s failure to keep accurate patient records “raises concerns about subject safety and data integrity, as well as concerns about the adequacy of safeguards in place at your site to protect patients.”

We’re talking about over a hundred overdoses and no evidence to suggest that the Burzynski took steps to prevent them from continuing.  These are basic regulatory issues. Would you willingly send someone to a restaurant that had an unbroken, decade-long string of failed health and safety inspections? Then why would you ever send a child with cancer to a clinic with the exact same record? Even if they were selling conventional treatment, you wouldn’t send a child there. None of this is the regulators’ fault, mind you. Again, Burzynski is responsible and his supporters should hold him to account. Nobody can say the FDA hasn’t given him a chance!
According to today’s letter in the Jewish Times:
Ironically, the Cohens reside 10 minutes away from the Burzinsky clinic. They can see the meds that can potentially save their son even touch the medicine but cannot administer the antineoplaston due to the FDA clinical hold.
If the family was allowed to handle a bag of the antineoplastons, given the true state of Burzynski’s business and trials, it was unfathomably cruel and cynical. I truly hope that did not happen.

According to the press release:

Firstly let us state in crystal clear turn the Cohens are rational, intelligent people. They have researched the Burzynski option on many levels and encourage people to watch the eponymous film “The Burzynski movie part 1 & 2”. In doing so one can readily comprehend why the Cohens are doing their utmost to obtain this treatment. Who within reason could blame them?

Nobody doubts this, but these poor people are also under duress and running out of time. The two Burzynski two movies are veridically worthless.  Again, you have a handful of anecdotes from a few people who happen to have survived and no opposing views. This has been an effective recruiting tool for the desperate, but as this oncologist’s analysis reveals, the director clearly did not understand the patient files that were given to him. The second movie is simply dishonest by omission. Furthermore, the director is clearly a true believer and given to irresponsibly demonizing critics instead of taking into account contradictory evidence. Take for instance his comments about a prominent Burzynski critic who started his online skeptical career debunking Holocaust deniers:

Screen shot 2013-04-05 at 11.15.52 AM

 Nobody blames the Cohen family for their petition or their desire that their son survive. However, the whole reason that decade-long record of overdoses, inaccurate outcomes, and make no mistake, untold millions of dollars raised and clearly wasted on apparently unpublishable clinical trials, were allowed to happen is because Burzynski’s desperate patients campaigned for him the last time he faced regulatory sanctions. So when those lobbying for Burzynski charge that skeptics:

actively speaking against the petition while strong arming others to follow suit are trying to directly hurt the compassionate work of over 80 strong volunteers who are working around the clock to aid the Cohen family

…they are correct, because it has happened before and untold hundreds of cancer patients bore the consequences of that kindness. Uninformed compassion can and has done immense damage in the past. It is my sincere hope that Refael Elisha Meir ben Devorah is healed entirely and he that does not suffer.

For people who want to understand why I and dozens of other skeptics are fighting, this video puts our campaign in context. Please watch it before accusing skeptics of being heartless:

If, after reviewing the evidence, you believe that the Burzynski Clinic needs to be held responsible for its clearly deficient clinical trials, visit for information about how you can help stop this.



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