‘fringe’ historical linguistics 3

Hi everybody!

Thanks again for the various comments!

Kenneth G draws attention to the tendency for religious (especially Christian) material in English to be couched in language similar to that of the 1611 King James Bible (to varying degrees, and with varying levels of accuracy).  The idea clearly exists that the language of the oldest well-known versions of texts deemed sacred is itself ‘special’ (even where, as here, it is obvious to all but the very least well-informed that these versions are only translations).  This is perhaps a weaker form of the idea that the original language of a body of scripture (Hebrew, Sanskrit, etc) has special status – and, in extreme versions, represents the Ursprache.  More later on some such cases.

Kenneth’s comment about amateur attempts to find ‘cognates’ at the phoneme level (individual speech-sounds, seen here as bearing consistent meanings across languages) foreshadows my upcoming account of cases of this kind (watch this space!).

From what I said, it will be obvious that I agree with Kenneth that bias does not necessarily lead to error; and it may even be the case, as he suggests, that multiple accounts with different biases can sometimes yield a more reliable conclusion than an attempt to avoid all bias, which perhaps can never succeed in full.  (But I am reluctant to be too ‘post-modernist’ about such matters!)

Pacal reasonably says: ‘If only the practitioners of the word list game would get [my point about systematicity] through their thick skulls’.  Unfortunately, even at this late date there is little sign of this actually happening.  For instance, reliance on lists of unsystematically similar words pervades Stan Hall’s posthumous 2011 book Savage Genesis: The Missing Page (see my review of this book on the British ASKE web-site, at http://www.aske-skeptics.org.uk/savage_genesis.html).  Like most such writers, Hall – who identifies many words from around the world as derived from Hungarian and/or Sumerian – has wilfully failed to consult linguists, and thus appears utterly ignorant of this key point.  If he hoped to interest people with the relevant knowledge in his linguistic ideas (as opposed to misleading the untutored), Hall should have learned the basics of the subject; and then, if he still held to his views, he should have attempted to show either a) that his own equations are in fact systematic (that is, that most of the very many apparent inconsistencies can be explained away) or b) that the conventional standards of evidence, in particular the requirement for systematicity, should be loosened so as to render such equations at least arguable.

Some amateurs, apprised of the objections to their claims, actually recommend this latter approach (b).  But see below on the consequences of any major loosening of the standards of evidence for cognatehood.

As I said last time, I’ll now go into further detail on the issues discussed earlier and their significance for ‘fringe’ historical linguistic claims.  Some of the text presented here is based on sections of my forthcoming book on these matters.

The precise probability of accidental (unsystematic) similarity between words in different languages depends upon a number of factors:

a) the degrees of phonological and semantic similarity (phonetic form on the one hand and meaning on the other) required if words are to be seen as prima facie likely to be shared between languages

[Such decisions are often arbitrary to a degree; for example, scholars might disagree as to whether a word san meaning ‘scarlet’ in one language and a word zen meaning ‘orange’ in another language were similar enough in form and/or meaning to be regarded, prima facie, as probably shared (but note that the degree of phonological systematicity across the vocabularies, as discussed last time, will often be helpful in resolving such cases).]

b) the lengths of the words (for example, if two languages not known to be connected share a very short word-form such as [sa] with the same meaning, this could very well be accidental, whereas if they share a form such as [tolpesveblig], again with the same meaning, or with transparently related meanings, this is less likely)

[There are, of course, ‘borderline’ cases involving intermediate word-lengths; and where there is supporting non-linguistic evidence – especially where contact and borrowing are in question – some such cases may be fairly persuasive (even if systematicity cannot be demonstrated).  For example, three-syllable words of the form kumara or umara, meaning ‘sweet-potato’, occur on both sides of the South Pacific, and this vegetable, apparently of South American origin, has long been cultivated in Polynesia.  It is thus not unlikely that the sweet-potato diffused by means of unrecorded transoceanic contact; this would probably have involved intrepid (but non-literate ) Polynesian voyagers reaching what is now Peru/Chile and bringing the plant and borrowed names for it back to their homelands.}

c) the cross-linguistic frequencies of phonemes (speech-sounds) and phoneme-sequences (very widely-shared sounds such as [e], [s], etc. or common sound-sequences such as [til] or [po] are more likely to be shared by chance than sounds and sequences found in relatively few languages)

[I’m restricting myself here to international phonetic symbols (always given in [square brackets] by linguists) which correspond in form and approximate pronunciation with familiar Roman letters; I’ll introduce unfamiliar phonetic symbols only if necessary, and I’ll explain them when I first use them.]

d) the phonological and semantic systems of the relevant languages (these considerations are often rather technical where phonology is in question)

However, in any given case the precise probability of accidental (unsystematic) similarity is easily shown to be much greater than most non-linguists (including ‘fringe’ writers such as those discussed here) imagine.   There are millions of words and word-parts in the several thousand known languages; and there are only so many common sounds and sound combinations.  The calculable probability of pairs of superficially and unsystematically similar words in apparently unrelated languages having very similar or the same senses by chance is in fact much higher than non-linguists – including non-mainstream writers of the kind I’m discussing here – generally imagine.  Therefore, superficial phonetic similarity between isolated words and/or meaningful word-parts taken from different languages is in itself no evidence of cognatehood or of any genuine, non-accidental connection, even if there are many such words or if their meanings too are similar.  If the meanings are not really especially similar, or are merely alleged to be related as part of some writer’s theory, the case is even weaker.  There is vast scope for accidental similarity between the words of unconnected languages.

And indeed, as noted, it is phonological (and also grammatical) systems which are normally decisive in establishing genuine links, not superficially similar words per se.  But few ‘fringe’ writers know enough linguistics to deal adequately with phonology or grammar.  Indeed, the vast bulk of the ‘evidence’ associated with non-standard amateur claims involves vocabulary, which is replete with superficial similarities.  The analysis of vocabulary requires much less understanding of linguistic theory and methodology.

In fact, any major loosening of the standards of evidence for cognatehood, such as are required by claims such as those I’m discussing here, would have the consequence that very many alternative proposals (involving, for example, a whole range of different languages of origin for the same words) would be roughly equally plausible.  But these proposals all contradict each other; only one of them, if any, could be correct.  In that event, the reasonable conclusion would probably be that we could not say much at all about philology or older etymologies with any confidence.  Mainstream linguists would regard this conclusion as a last resort and as not warranted by the actual evidence.

In addition, etymologizing should (for obvious reasons) be based not upon well-known contemporary forms, as often occurs in the ‘fringe’ literature, but instead upon the forms of the relevant words in the oldest available versions of the languages in question – and upon the ranges of known cognate forms in the relevant language ‘families’.

Another issue here involves known or very well-grounded established etymologies for words, involving the often well-established histories of these language ‘families’.  Many of the novel etymological claims discussed here fly in the faces of known or very probable etymologies, which are often very well supported with historical and linguistic evidence.  For example, Michal Tsarion proposes an outlandish etymology for the English word bishop, ignoring the well-established Greek etymology; Gene Matlock advances equally bizarre Sanskrit etymologies for a wide range of words with known etymologies, for instance deriving the modern coining Australia (with its transparent Latin etymology: ‘southern [land]’) from Astralaya, supposedly meaning ‘land of missiles’.

Proposers of such alternative etymologies obviously need to argue that theirs are more plausible than the established ones.  But this is very seldom even attempted; readers are simply invited to accept the alternative etymologies, and the established ones are mentioned, if at all, only to be glibly dismissed.  This renders many of the etymologies offered seriously implausible or indeed impossible.

Other etymological claims deal mainly with the very remote past where the actual etymologies for words and word-parts are obscure and uncertain, or simply cannot be established, at least by current methods.  The point here is not that novel etymologies offered by non-mainstream writers are known to be wrong but that there is no particular reason to believe that they are correct.

In some cases multiple etymologies with different sources are posited for the very same word or morpheme.  For example, Don Smithana offers a double etymology for the –osis suffix in the Canadian lake-name Winnipegosis.  Etymological ‘blends’ of this kind do occur, but are predictably very rare; any such claim must be very strongly supported.

More next time on various special types of ‘fringe’ claim in this area.



8 Responses to ‘fringe’ historical linguistics 3

  1. Kenneth Greifer says:


    I used to participate in a discussion forum called B-hebrew which is about Biblical Hebrew, and there was a guy who posted a few thousand ideas usually involving etymologies of names. It drove me and other people nuts because you can’t disprove anything the person says, but on the other hand, he had no followers, so did it really matter?

    Does anybody get hurt if one or a few people have false ideas about ancient word meanings? Besides driving other people crazy with their unusual ideas, have you ever seen it actually have any effect on the world that matters?

    I am sure truth matters, but in a practical way, I am not sure anybody gets hurt by strange language beliefs.

    Kenneth Greifer
    P.S. I am not “Ken” who also comments here. I would never call myself “Ken”. I think you confused me and “Ken” in your article. It doesn’t really matter, but I think he mentioned cognates, etc.

    • Pacal says:

      I’m not aware that anyone here has suggested that believing nonsense about linguistics ‘hurts” people. of course I would argue that promoting false ideas is in and of itself a “harm”. So why are you bringing up the alleged point that a few people believing linguistic nonsense is supposidly “harmless”? Are you implying that it “should” be ignored? Even if it was / is harmless, why?

      Oh and sometimes strange language beliefs are part of a far from harmless belief system. The Nazis used liguistics about “Aryan” languages for far from harmless purposes. (Yes I’ve Godwinned) I should also mention that in Latin America fake / dubious linguistics have been used to deny the modern day descendents of the Aboriginal inhabitants their claim to the achivements of their ancestors on the grounds that it was actually Caucasian immigrants who created those things and are responsible for them and this is part of the process of keeping these people down.

      So most of the time yeah these beliefs are “harmless”, but sometimes they tie into really unplesant belief systems. But then even in its “harmless” form it harms the truth and as such should not be ignored.

      • Kenneth Greifer says:


        The reason I asked if it has actually harmed anybody was because I wanted to know. I said I wasn’t sure if it did, but I didn’t think it did. That was my opinion.

        I have not studied linguistics, fringe linguistics, or the effects of fringe linguistics in the world, but since Mark has studied these things, I asked my question about it. Obviously, he thinks it is important or he would not have spent so much time studying it. I just don’t know how important it is except as an odd problem that exists in the world.

        Kenneth Greifer

    • Bob says:

      It can matter, if, for instance, someone is looking at an ancient religious text and base their lives around that text. (Never do that, by the way.)

      If I may quote the movie Animal House, “Knowledge is good.”

      I think that an important underlying theme to Skeptical Humanities is that one of the best ways to build an accurate understanding of the world is to be able to recognize genuine authorities, no matter what the field. Often, you see that someone who has a hard time asking the right questions for determining authority in one field has a hard time gauging authority in many other fields as well. This is one approach to that larger problem, I think.


  2. Pacal says:

    Thank you for your further explanation of how linguistic comparison works. It is very informative.

    However your discussion of the sweet potato sadly shows a little too much influence of Thor Hyerdahl and his followers.

    Although it is certainly possible / probable and perhaps even certain that Polynesian voyagers got to South America it appears that they did NOT get the sweet potato from there. Genetic analysis indicates that the Sweet potato of Polynesia came from Mesoamerica. Regarding kumara or umara. Well first of all among the Indians of costal South America it appears none use this term or anything like it for the sweet potato. The usual word for sweet potato among the Quechua speaking people of the highlands is apichu. And this is indicated by the earlist sources like Garcilaso de la Vega. It does appear that Quechua speaking people in part of modern day Ecuador do use the word cumar. Exactly when they adopted this word and from where is not known for sure it may in fact be from originallly the Amazon basin.

    Also as I mentioned when this word came into the vocabulary of these particular speakers of Quechua is not clearly known. I suspect late difusion from POlynesia or a rather striking coincidence.

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