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.


Women of the Viking Age Kicked Ass, But That Doesn’t Mean They Were Vikings

September 7, 2014

In the last week, a number of websites have informed their readers that recent scientific evidence shows that roughly half of Viking warriors were female. proclaims, “Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female,” while Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing declares that “Half the Remains of Slain Vikings in England Are Female.” Wow, cool! How is it possible that we didn’t know this before? Well, according to Emma Cueto of Bustle, it’s because of evil sexist scholars. Her post boasts the level-headed title, “Women Viking Warriors Existed, Confounding Sexist Scientists Everywhere.” She claims that sexist archaeologists have used sexist assumptions to come to sexist conclusions rather than looking at the actual data:

After all, if archeologists [sic] are letting their sexist assumptions affect the way they collect and classify data about the past, that has some pretty troubling implications. For instance, when people argue in favor of “traditional” gender roles, they often cite history, saying that since this is how things have always been, clearly it’s natural and therefore right.

I’d like to see an example of a modern archaeologist saying that something is natural and right because it was common in the past: “Well, human sacrifice is traditional. It’s been practiced for millennia. So I’ve slaughtered a couple of the slower diggers to appease the gods. What? Stop looking at me like that!”

Human Sacrifice: Traditional, Therefore Required*

Human Sacrifice: Traditional, Therefore Required*

Cueto continues:

And if we are imposing our own ideas about gender back onto the past, that’s not only bad for the modern fight for gender equality, but it’s also just bad science.

So if archeologists could stop making sexist assumptions and maybe start being thorough researchers, that would great. Sound good, guys?

She’s right: doing thorough research is important; looking at as many types of evidence as possible is important. Scholars in all fields should stop imposing their own ideas about gender onto the past, and they should look at the actual data.

It is especially ironic, then, that she appears to be imposing her ideas about gender roles and gender equality onto the Viking Age and that she hasn’t looked at the data. That is to say, neither she nor many of the other writers seem actually to have read the scholarly article that inspired them.

They seem not, for instance, to have noticed its date of publication: 2011. Even the USA Today and Jezebel articles that actually get cited and quoted are from 2011. It’s not entirely clear why this story has been resurrected, although it may have something to do with the popularity of the History Channel’s series Vikings, which features a shield-maiden named Lagertha.

Photo: Jonathan Hession, The History Channel

Photo: Jonathan Hession,
The History Channel

The actual scholarly article, “Warriors and Women: The Sex Ratio of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 AD” by Shane McLeod has nothing to do with female Viking warriors. It only tangentially relates to warriors at all. He’s talking about migrants, early Norse settlers. His focus is very narrow: Norse burials in eastern England from the latter half of the ninth century. Specifically, he discusses Scandinavian burials contemporary with the incursions of the Great Heathen Army (865-878) and a second army that rampaged in the 890s. Considering the narrow focus, it’s dangerous to extrapolate the data to the entire Viking world.

Extrapolation is even more dangerous when we consider that he is discussing fourteen burials. Fourteen. According to osteological examination, seven of the skeletons** were male, six were female, and one couldn’t be sexed because it was a juvenile. This data suggests that there may have been a higher percentage of female settlers during this period than has previously been assumed. It was commonly believed that males–warriors–came first. After they claimed land and began to settle, Norse women began to join them in larger numbers, while many Norsemen married Anglo-Saxon women. McLeod isn’t the first to suggest that more women arrived earlier than was previously thought, although he provides some data to support his contention.

The sample size is, however, tiny. And his findings don’t necessarily contradict the idea that there were many intermarriages between the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons or that more Norse women arrived later.

Here are some things the article doesn’t say: McLeod never says that any of the remains belong to “the slain.” He never claims the female migrants were warriors. Indeed, he refers on several occasions to women and children who accompanied the armies. So where does this whole “warrior woman” thing come from, and what’s up with the sexist archaeologists?

Well, he points out that the sex of Viking Age human remains is often determined by looking at grave goods (this is true of other pagan burials as well). He believes that grave goods may not always be a reliable indication of sex, and he focuses instead on remains that have been sexed by an examination of the bones. And this is fair enough. All data should be taken into account: both grave goods and osteological examination.

Of the fourteen burials he discusses, most of the male remains were found with items traditionally associated with male burials, and most of the female remains were found with items traditionally associated with female burials. There are two exceptions. One is a double burial, a female with the juvenile of undetermined sex. These two were buried with “sword hilt grip, shield clamps, knife” (Table 2, p. 345). Of course, we don’t know which of the grave’s occupants was the proud owner of these items. Another woman was buried with “axe, seaxes, sword pieces in mortuary” (Table 2, p. 345).

So, that’s it–that’s the big sexist scandal. Now, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one thing, osteological examination isn’t always possible. Sometimes there simply isn’t enough bone evidence. And osteological evidence can also be problematic. In fact, McLeod does a good job of showing exactly how difficult it is to make many determinations when dealing with very old human remains. Not only is the sex of the remains a problem, so is determining date, establishing whether the remains are really Norse, etc. So, yes, consider the bone evidence, but don’t ignore the evidence of grave goods. The article does not reveal some sort of nefarious sexist scandal in the field of archaeology.

So are the few women who were buried with weapons warriors? Possibly, but it’s difficult to say for sure. We don’t really know why they were buried with these items. Were there female Vikings? Well, the Vikings Wiki certainly things so:

Shield-maidens were women who chose to fight as warriors alongside the other Viking men in the pagan Scandinavia.

They took part in warfare, and they played vital strategic roles in the battlefield, where the shield-maidens were either part of the front-lines in their shield-wall formation, or were the ones who helped close the gaps in their defense by picking up the shields of the fallen and holding them up themselves. Scholars like Britt-Mari Näsström suggest that sheild-maidens [sic] where transsexual women who where adapted as warriors to fit in.

Wow, that’s super-specific. And there’s absolutely no evidence for it. Shield-maidens are often associated with valkyries, who were mythological semi-divine women–not real, historical warrior women. Lagertha, the shield-maiden from Vikings, may have started out as a goddess or giantess. Lagertha, along with several other warrior women, also appears in Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, but these are all within the realm of legend rather than history. Saxo also disapprovingly presents them as transgressing normal female behavior, and they are ultimately defeated. Also in the realm of legend is Hervör of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks.

In semi-historical works, there are a few women who take up weapons. Freydis, the daughter of Eirik the Red and sister or half-sister of Leif Eiriksson, has a great warrior moment in the Saga of Eirik the Red. She has accompanied Thorfinn Karlsefni to Vinland. When the Norse retreat after an assault by the Skraelings (Native Americans), Freydis derides them for cowardice. Because she is heavily pregnant, she falls behind. When confronted by Skraelings, she picks up a sword from a dead man and slaps it against her breasts. This action scares off the Skraelings. She is not, however, a Viking warrior.

Scandinavian women of the Viking era (particularly Icelandic women) had more rights than many other European women, and Old Norse literature is filled with strong, interesting, powerful, influential, respected, and occasionally villainous women, but most of them are not warriors. Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, argues that women who took up weapons were rare in medieval Scandinavia:

Like most periods of human history, the Viking Age was not free from conflict, and war always impacts on all members of a society. It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.

Swedish archaeologist and skeptic Martin Rundkvist agrees that warrior women were very rare during the Viking Age, and he argues that osteological sexing tends to support the evidence of grave goods:

[F]urnished burial is strongly gendered and this correlates with osteological sexing. Looking at richly furnished graves, you get weapon burials and jewellery burials, so dissimilar that you have to seriate them separately when you build chronology. The stuff they tend to share are things like pots and table knives. Almost always the weapon graves contain male-sex bones and the jewellery graves contain female-sex bones.

Every once in a very long while you get a jewellery grave with a single piece of weaponry in it, or vice versa. But in most cases those are cremation graves where it is impossible to know if (to pick a 6th century case from my dissertation about the Barshalder cemetery) the heavily armed cavalry man was buried with a dainty bead necklace around his neck or if his wife just put it on the pyre next to his feet as a parting gift. So it seems that if a few women were buried as warriors, their grave goods would be likely to be 100% weapon-gendered, not mixed.

Like Jesch, he agrees that women in rare circumstances may have fought to protect themselves, but that these were not Viking women:

Did any women ever fight? Yes, I’m sure some did, particularly when threatened by male warriors, as would have been an unfortunate fact of life in that barbaric age. But the ones who joined an armed retinue, lived the ideal warrior life and went to Valhalla must have been vanishingly few.

Finally, he argues that whether there were women warriors in the Viking world has no effect on gender issues today. He does not believe that tradition should guide contemporary actions. Clearly Dr. Rundkvist is not the sexist straw archaeologist that Cueto set up. He ends by saying,

The past is not our mirror and archaeology must resist attempts to use its results or bend its interpretations for political purposes today.

He clearly agrees with Cueto that archaeologists should follow the evidence and that they should not let “their sexist assumptions affect the way they collect and classify data about the past.” Unlike Cueto, however, he seems to believe archaeologists should follow the evidence even when it suggests that Viking warrior women were largely a myth.

*WickerManIllustration” by Unknown Original uploader was Midnightblueowl at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transfer was stated to be made by User:Midnightblueowl.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

*The remains were not necessarily complete skeletons. Some came from cremation burials.



Foss, Arild S. “Don’t Underestimate Viking Women.” ScienceNordic.

Jesch, Judith. “Viking Women, Warriors, and Valkyries.” British Museum Blog.

McLeod, Shane. “Warriors and Women: The Sex Ration of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 AD.” Early Medieval Europe 19.3 (2011): 332-353.

Rundkvist, Martin. “Shield Maidens! True or False?Aardvarchaeology.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Spirits

August 19, 2014

Note: The following essay is based on a segment from Skepticality.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is known for many things: the creation of Sherlock Holmes, a spectacular mustache, and his belief in spirits and fairies.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Hairy Friend

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Hairy Friend

M’colleague, Bob Blaskiewicz, has discussed Doyle’s* seemingly ludicrous belief in the Cottingley fairies, but spiritualism was Doyle’s burning passion. He possessed a religious, missionary, perhaps even messianic zeal to promote belief in discarnate spirits and life after death. He lectured and wrote voluminously on the subject, including a two volume History of Spiritualism.

It’s easy to make fun of Doyle’s beliefs. Really easy. Stunningly easy. In fact it’s quite hard to refrain from making fun of them. In his writings on spiritualism, he displayed the same degree of levelheadedness and perspicacity that led him to conclude that this is an actual picture of a fairy:

"And his mustache is THIS big!"

“And his mustache is THIS big!”

His credulity seems almost infinite. By the time he published The History of Spiritualism, most of the mediums he discusses had been exposed resorting to fraud, in some cases repeatedly. Some of the mediums had even confessed. None of this deters him. He is able to defend the supernatural abilities of anyone who seems to display gifts that in some way bolster his religious beliefs:

In the light of our later, fuller knowledge we know that much that bears the appearance of fraud is not necessarily fraud at all.–The History of Spiritualism, Vol. I

How can an apparent fraud not be a fraud? Oh, so easily. For instance, he defends medium Eusapia Palladino although everyone–including Doyle and Palladino–admits that she sometimes did cheat. He, like Palladino, blames her trickery on skeptics who were looking for trickery. In other cases, the fraud wasn’t really fraud. On more than one occasion, an investigator grasped the foot Palladino was using to produce effects. Doyle doesn’t deny that a foot was grasped or that it was attached to Palladino’s body; however, he suggests it may have been a pseudopod, an ectoplasmic limb extruded from her body. This explanation assumes that skeptics are incapable of counting up to three.

Doyle even believed that magicians, like his erstwhile friend Harry Houdini, possessed real supernatural abilities but refused to admit it. Doyle genuinely believed that when Houdini appeared to walk through a wall that he was actually dematerializing and walking through a wall (Brandon 168).

Doyle’s credulity, rationalizations, and cognitive biases are not particularly unusual. They were shared by many contemporaries and are still common today. Doyle, however, combined credulity with arrogance, condescension, and an unswerving belief in his own rightness. He railed against scientists for not taking spiritualism seriously. He claimed that

[T]he attitude of organized science during these thirty years was as unreasonable and unscientific as that of Galileo’s cardinals, and that if there had been a Scientific Inquisition, it would have brought its terrors to bear upon the new knowledge. No serious attempt of any sort, up to the formation of the S[ociety for] P[sychical] R[esearch] was made to understand or explain a matter which was engaging the attention of millions of minds.–The History of Spiritualism, vol. I


When scientists did take spiritualism seriously, he railed against them for being too skeptical. In discussing the work of the Society for Psychical Research he says,

In an exaggerated striving after what was considered to be an impartial, scientific attitude, a certain little group within the society has continued for many years to maintain a position, if not of hostility to, yet of persistent denial of, the reality of physical manifestations observed with particular mediums. It has mattered not what weight of testimony was forthcoming from trustworthy men whose qualifications and experience made them worthy of credence.–History of Spiritualism, Vol. II

While dismissing many scientists and sciences, he praises to the high heavens those scientists who shared his credulity and biases, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection. He is inordinately fond of the argument from authority, frequently citing the testimony of eminent men.

He can be both snobbish and anti-intellectual. He even quibbles with other spiritualists and many mediums who don’t understand the true significance of spiritualism–that is to say, they do not interpret it the way he does.

Worst, he can be uncharitable. Inevitably, he spends a considerable amount of time discussing Katie and Maggie Fox, who sparked the craze for spiritualism when they heard (or produced) knocks and raps in 1848.  They were eleven and fifteen years old at the time. They were relentlessly exploited by their much older sister Leah. Leah ended up wealthy and secure and lived to a ripe old age. Kate and Maggie both descended into poverty and alcoholism, and Leah abandoned them when they became scandalous.

Doyle believes in the Fox sisters’ gifts and has great respect for Leah, but he says of her sisters,

[T]hey misused their gift in the direction of giving worldly advice, receiving promiscuous sitters, and answering comic or frivolous questions. If in such circumstances both their powers and their character were to deteriorate, it would not surprise any experienced Spiritualist. They deserved no better, though their age and ignorance furnished an excuse.–History of Spiritualism, vol. I

Despite all his flaws, though, I find myself getting angry on Doyle’s behalf. He became a fervent, evangelizing proponent of spiritualism in the wake of World War I. His eldest son was seriously wounded in the war. After he had largely recovered, he died of Spanish flu. Doyle’s brother and two brothers-in-law died during the war and two nephews shortly after. Doyle’s devotion to spiritualism sprang from deep grief. He needed to know that his loved ones were all right, that they still existed in some form, that he would see them again, that he could still communicate with them.

People who claimed they could communicate with his loved ones took advantage of his grief and betrayed his trust, just as psychics continue to take advantage of grieving people today. A wise man has asked “What’s the Harm?” Doyle provides an answer.



Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism. Vol. I (1926):; Vol. II:

Ruth Brandon, The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, New York: Knopf, 1983.

*There is some confusion about Doyle’s name, specifically, whether “Conan” was a middle name or part of a compound surname. It seems to have been a middle name, but Doyle sometimes used it as a compound surname. For instance, his second wife was known as “Jean Conan Doyle” rather than Jean Doyle. Strictly speaking, however, his surname was simply “Doyle.”

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)!


For my book Strange Linguistics, see:

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Sea Serpents and the Hippocampus in Abominable Science

July 20, 2014

Abominable ScienceDaniel Loxton and Donald Prothero’s Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids is an admirable book. I admire it immensely. I have used it in my freshman writing classes. If you haven’t bought it already, I encourage you to do so immediately.

However, I have some reservations about Loxton’s chapter on Sea Serpents. In chapter 5, “The Evolution of the Sea Serpent: From Hippocamp to Cadborosaurus,” Loxton argues that the classical hippocampus, hippocamp, or hydrippus is behind legends of sea serpents. The hippocamp is a sea monster that is part horse and part fish (or vaguely fish-like).

According to Loxton,

Developed by the Greeks, embraced by the Romans, and passed from country to country during the Middle Ages, the image of the hippocamp slowly mutated into something more than a decoration for vases. Over time, this fantasy creature became an allegedly real crytpid. In my opinion, the modern  myth of the Great Sea Serpent (including the recent version, Cadborosaurus) is a cultural invention descended from the artistic tradition of the hippocamp (Abominable Science! 187-88)

Loxton says that hippocamps “were not gods. They were not characters in myths. Most important, they were not believed to be real animals” (AS 188). At least not originally. The image of the hippocamp spread throughout the Roman Empire. The image above comes from a mosaic in Bath, England. The hippocamp also appeared in the Physiologus, a didactic text written in the second century that allegorized animals (real and mythological), plants, and stones.The Physiologus was copied, adapted, and translated over and over again. The oldest vernacular version is in Old English. This verse version from the Exeter Book describes only three animals: the panther, the whale, and the partridge.

The Physiologus also influenced medieval bestiaries, lavishly illustrated compendia of mammals, fish, birds, and serpents, both real and imaginary. Many of these also include hippocamps. However, they also include a wide variety of serpents, including dragons. Some of these, such as the critter identified as a hydrus below, resemble sea serpents.

London, BL MS Harley 3244, fol. 62r. From

London, BL MS Harley 3244, fol. 62r. From

In a section subtitled “The Hippocamp in Nordic Culture,” Loxton says that the “modern sea serpent legend was born out of Nordic culture, with its origin in medieval Iceland and its florescence in Enlightenment Norway.” It is with this section that I have serious quibbles.

Loxton begins by discussing “The Icelandic Hrosshvalr.” In this section, only one work–a 2009 stamp–is actually Icelandic. The other works discussed are Norwegian or Dutch. Loxton says that

By the twelfth century, the Norse society of Iceland had adopted a belief in a creature called the hrosshvalr (horse whale), which was depicted as an unmistakable hippocamp. We will see that this innovation–the Nordic reimagining of the Greek hippocamp as a maned, horse-headed “real” marine monster–is a key to solving the modern mystery of the Great Sea Serpent. (AS 193).

Despite its name, the hrosshvalr is not “an unmistakable hippocamp.” Loxton admits that it is “probable that the words hrosshvalr (horse + whale) and ‘walrus’ (whale + horse) are etymologically related,” but does not accept that the word generally describes a walrus. Geir Zoëga’s A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic defines hrosshvalr as “walrus.” Richard Cleasby and Guðbrandur Vigfússon’s more thorough An Icelandic-English Dictionary also defines it as “walrus” and mentions its etymological relationship to Old English horshwæl (horse-whale), which also means “walrus.”

Loxton then cites the thirteenth-century Norwegian text Konungs skuggsjá (King’s Mirror). In a section on sea creatures (including the sperm whale, narwhal, and Greenland or basking shark), the anonymous author mentions two ferocious critters, the hrosshvalr and the rauðkembingr (red comb, which Cleasby-Vigfússon describe as “a fabulous whale or sea monster”):

There are certain varieties that are fierce and savage towards men and are constantly seeking to destroy them at every chance…. They are very voracious and malicious and never grow tired of slaying men. They roam about in all the seas looking for ships, and when they find one they leap up, for in that way they are able to sink and destroy it the more quickly . These fishes are unfit for human food; being the natural enemies of mankind, they are, in fact, loathsome. (King’s Mirror qtd. in AS 194)

While Loxton notes that scholars “have tended to identify these creatures as walruses or sea lions” (194), he points out that, according to the description, they are much too large (thirty or forty ells–67 to 90 feet). While the description does not fit real pinnipeds, there’s nothing particularly horsey about the description either, except for the element hross in the animal’s name. And, since we know the word hrosshvalr could mean “walrus,” we can’t leap to the conclusion that it refers here to the hippocamp just because the first element in both compounds means “horse.” The creature’s size could be an exaggeration, along with its willful enmity toward humans.

A stronger link between the hrosshvalr and the hippocamp comes from Abraham Ortelius’s map of Iceland.

The sea surrounding Iceland is positively teeming with monsters. Just below Snæfelsness is a very horsey looking hrosshvalr.

The problem is that Ortelius was a Flemish cartographer working in the late sixteenth century. He is not a medieval Icelander depicting a native beastie; he is a Renaissance artist representing another culture’s folkloric monster. He has made the Icelandic hrosshvalr into a classical hippocamp. Renaissance artists classicized everything. Loxton fails to provide convincing evidence that medieval Scandinavians interpreted or depicted the hrosshvalr as “an unmistakable hippocamp.” This is problematic as this association is crucial to his argument. For instance, in his discussion of Olaus Magnus’s A Description of the Northern Peoples (1555), he says the book “provided the final stage set for the modern sea serpent (although the curtain would not fully open for a further 200 years). By then, the Scandinavian reimagining of the Greek hippocamp as a ‘real’ sea monster was itself a centuries-old tradition,” but the evidence for this centuries-old tradition is extremely weak.

In the next section, Loxton discusses Jörmungandr or Midgarðsormr, the World Serpent, a mythological Norse sea serpent that in no way resembles a hippocamp. An offspring of Loki and the giantess Angrboða, the World Serpent lies in the ocean and encircles the earth.

Loxton admits that “[i]t is certainly plausible, even likely, that the Jörmungandr myth could be among the roots of the Norwegian sea serpent legend. In turn, the Midgard Serpent can be plausibly interpreted as a regional iteration of primordial dragon myths, such as the Babylonian Tiamat and the biblical Leviathan” (197), but he minimizes its importance, mentioning it only briefly before returning to the hippocamp.

He also makes a strange statement about the World Serpent:

It’s worth noting that our sources for the Midgard Serpent and other Norse myths date from well into the Christianization of the Nordic countries. Written by a Christian, The Prose Edda begins with the words, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth and all those things which are in them; and last of all, two of human kind, Adam and Eve, from whom the races are descended” (197)

I’m not sure why it is important to note this. Is the Prose Edda’s description of the World Serpent untrustworthy because it has been tainted by Christianity? Even if this were the case, how is that different from the alleged influence of the classical hippocamp on the native hrosshvalr?

In any case, the statement is incomplete to the point of inaccuracy. It’s true that Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Prose Edda, was a Christian. It is also true that he began his work with a concise summary of Genesis and that he euhemerized Norse mythology as part of the framework of the Edda; however, once he began recounting the mythological stories, he just got on with the job, without constantly moralizing and euhemerizing (unlike Saxo Grammaticus, another major source for Norse mythology).

It is also true that Snorri may have misunderstood some elements of the mythology he was recounting; he certainly conflated and interpreted the material he gathered from his various sources. Consequently, our concepts about Norse mythology may be somewhat skewed and may not match the beliefs and rituals as they were actually practiced by pre-Christian Germanic peoples.

But not the World Serpent. The World Serpent is well attested in works earlier than the Prose Edda. One of the most famous stories about the World Serpent concerns Thor’s attempt to catch it during a fishing expedition. This story is told in Hymiskviða from the Poetic Edda. The exact age of the poems in the Poetic Edda is a matter of dispute. There are also questions about how much they were altered in transmission, but Thor’s fishing expedition is mentioned in earlier skaldic poems, such as Bragi Boddason’s Ragnarsdrápa (ninth century) and Úlfr Uggason’s Húsdrápa (tenth century). Both these poems were composed before the conversion to Christianity. Of course, they are preserved in later, post-conversion works (Snorri quotes them), but there are also several early carvings which depict the World Serpent and Thor’s fishing expedition.


The World Serpent clearly goes back to pre-conversion Germanic traditions, and it seems to have been the source for some later sea serpent tales, such as that of the Stoorworm.

In the next installment, I will discuss other Germanic sea serpent tales.






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:

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.