This is the first part of a series of posts dealing with this subject. I’m trying not to assume any knowledge of linguistics but please stop me if anything needs further explanation (or indeed if you’d like to challenge anything, add comments, etc).
When modern linguistics first developed, in the nineteenth century, the discipline was mainly historical in nature. It was concerned chiefly with language change and language origins: the origins and ancestry of languages over historic time, and the origins of particular words (etymologies) and constructions/systems (grammar, sound-systems, etc.) Although the twentieth century saw the very extensive growth of various branches of NON-historical linguistics, historical linguistics remains an important sub-field of the subject. And one of the most important sub-fields of non-mainstream (‘fringe’) linguistic thought is ‘fringe’ historical linguistics: non-mainstream claims and theories about these very matters.
So: there are many non-standard ideas – most of them ‘hyper-diffusionist’ (see below) and many of them sensationalistic – about the origins, relationships and histories of languages, especially ancient languages. These ideas are rejected by those professional linguists who are aware of them but often attract support among fringe historians and indeed among the general public. I’m commenting here on these non-standard claims and theories in my capacity as a professional linguist associated with the world-wide skeptical movement. At this stage I’m focusing upon claims regarding LANGUAGES (and their words, etc.) rather than scripts and inscriptions (I’ll talk about these later).
Many of the writers in question here have never studied linguistics, and some apparently do not know that the subject exists. Some of them are specifically interested, as amateurs, in language or in particular languages. But even these authors typically write in apparent ignorance of the subject; for instance, they generally show little or no awareness of recent historical linguistic theory.
Others among these authors are mainly interested in history itself, and present linguistic data and argumentation by way of support for their views on historical or archaeological issues. In many cases these writers are motivated in large part by nationalistic and/or religious sentiments.
Like other ‘fringe’ thinkers, writers of all these kinds generally believe that their ideas are rejected or ignored by the mainstream not because of weaknesses in them but as a result of prejudice and hidebound adherence to established ideas – and, of course, the desire to protect the status of mainstream scholars.
Claims and theories of this type may involve:
historical relationships between languages (involving alleged common origin and/or contact)
the etymologies of specific words (including onomastics, the study of names) and the development of constructions/systems
‘out-of-place’(spoken) languages (found used or understood in unexpected locations)
These claims are often associated with general historical claims involving entire cultures and peoples. These typically assert that some geographically (and in some cases temporally) separated cultures and – crucially in this present context – the associated languages, which are normally thought of as unconnected, were in fact closely linked.
There are two main ways in which this is said to have occurred. The first way involves the cultural diffusion of ‘genetically’ related languages from the language used in an earlier common source civilization, which is itself often one unknown to mainstream scholarship (for example, Plato’s Atlantis). (‘Genetically’ here does not imply the BIOLOGICAL inheritance of specific languages or linguistic features; these are acquired, CULTURAL traits and this term is used by way of an analogy. I’ll talk about the second way later.)
In many cases this civilization is said (in a HYPER-diffusionist tone) to have been the ultimate ancestor civilization of all humanity. Its language is thus identified as the ultimate ancestor language of all humanity, the Ursprache or, in current linguistic terminology, Proto-World.
Two key points here:
1) It is not certain that there ever was ONE single Proto-World; humanity may have developed language more than once. It IS possible that all known human languages (whether still used or not) descend from one common ancestor, either because humanity did in fact develop language only once and the phenomenon diffused from that one starting-point, or because only one ultimate ancestor language, out of a number which once existed, has left any surviving descendant languages. On the other hand, it is possible that the known languages descend from multiple ancestors. There are on present reckoning at least fifty ‘families’ of ‘genetically’ related languages (including some ‘genetically’ isolated single languages) which by definition cannot currently be shown to have ever had common ancestors; the best known such ‘family’ is Indo-European, which includes English, most other European languages ancient and modern, the North Indian languages descended from spoken Sanskrit, ancient and modern Persian, etc. (Some linguists seek to establish deeper-time relationships between these ‘families’ by means of overtly statistical methods.) We remain ignorant on this issue precisely because of Point 2).
2) As is generally agreed by historical linguists, on the evidence available, Proto-World or multiple ancestor languages must have been spoken so long ago (at least 70,000 years BP, probably more like 150,000) that (given the observed range of rates of linguistic change) it/they cannot possibly be reconstructed in any detail. Using statistical methods such as those mentioned in Note 1, a few ‘maverick’ linguists HAVE argued that more recent dates for Proto-World should be accepted, and thus that Proto-World (along with other very ancient ancestor languages closely descended from it) CAN be reconstructed in part. However, most of this work is now dated, and all of it is marginal to the mainstream at best; much of it involves methodology which, at least nowadays, is regarded by most linguists as too loose and approximate to be reliable. Similar, often more extreme ideas have been developed by clearly non-mainstream authors. These writers too consider that a single Ursprache/Proto-World (typically a language similar to their own ‘favourite’ ancient language; see later) existed relatively recently (within the last 20-30,000 years, or even more recently) and CAN be reconstructed in part.
The language identified as Proto-World may be a known (ancient) language or a language which has been reconstructed or invented by the author in question. More on this next time!
Can’t wait for you to discuss “Super” Families of languages.
Also please discuss in the future at some point that perennial attraction to the crank and cracked Etruscan. A language we can “read” but cannot understand!
I would also like a your take on Sumerian. The language for whom the Cuneiform writing system was originally invented. It was then applied to write Akkadian (Also called Babylonian), a Semitic language and it is too put it mildly a bad fit.
So a bit about Sumerian would be interesting. This of course a invitation to write about the “Sumerian problem” and its relationship to lingustics. It is my understanding the Sumerian is not related to any known language and in that way it is like Etruscan.
Or how about a bit on the old bugbear of the Inuit having hundreds of words for snow?
I am looking forward to your future posts as well. Linguistics is a really fascinating subject which is plagued by a lot of misconeptions in popular culture. Especially if you live in a country with an unhealthy worship of it’s ancestors and their language.
When is your book on fringe linguistics coming out?
Doesn’t the archeological evidence rule out a recent Proto-World? Humans were in Australia at least 40,000 years ago, and in the Americas 20,000 years ago and perhaps more.
Postman – could you clarify this quote. I’m just really curious. 🙂
“Especially if you live in a country with an unhealthy worship of it’s ancestors and their language.”
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