This Week in Conspiracy (4 March 2012)

March 4, 2012

Georgia seems to have survived yet another assault of tornados sent to us by HAARP, probably to silence the beacon of reason that is this website. Of course, now that Skeptical Humanities is an international affair, it will be harder to take us down. Muahahaha!

So, this is the Week in Conspiracy, my take on the week in weak. And this week was not weak in terms of its weakness. It was powerful weak.

The biggest story on the scaredy-sphere this week was the death of right-winger and all around truly horrid person Andrew Breitbart, which I imagine was a tragedy for someone, somewhere. Probably someone like Rush Limbaugh.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, you’re lucky, but he would fake stories about supposed devious doings on the left, which, for some reason, the media took seriously. Think of the Shirley Sherrod affair a few years back. Breitbart.

Conspiracy theories appeared almost instantaneously. Alex Jones wondered if the Obama crime machine was responsible for the death. He goes so far as to wonder if there is a Stalinist purge of Administration critics in the works. Truth Excavator wonders:

“Was Breitbart becoming too big of a problem, and needed to be taken out, mafia-style? This is only speculation at this point. But 43 is too young for someone to die of natural causes, so let the conspiracy theories fly and we’ll see where the truth lands.”

People die of natural causes at young ages all the time. Insofar as Breitbart being a big problem, Obama is head and shoulders above whatever goofball the Republicans put up against him in November. The going theory among the less than scrupulous is that Breitbart was going to release college video footage of Obama. Why risk killing someone? As for the question, “Cui bono?” which is being asked all over the conspirasphere, clearly the conspiracy theorists have benefited and are therefor the most likely killers of Andrew Breitbart. Of course Breitbart predicted something would happen on the first of March. Did the CIA use a “heart attack gun” on Breitbart? A poison dart? Perhaps the autopsy will get to the truth. The best part of this story was a comment thread following Gawker’s coverage about the conspiracy theories that exploded on Twitter after Breitbart’s death was announced.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week

I can imagine it now–an adviser to Ron Paul shuffles up to the candidate and whispers: “Dr. Paul, why don’t you stand here in front of this big freaking Confederate flag and bitch about how the Civil War deprived white people of rights…OH, F*CK I WAS JOKING!”


‘fringe’ historical linguistics 1

March 2, 2012

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:

ancestor languages

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!



I’m very pleased to be a new contributor to skeptical humanities!

March 1, 2012

Hi all!  If you’d like to know about my background, please see my recently-posted mini-bio.

My first set of contributions is going to involve my own most central area of interest as a skeptical linguist: a summary of the main issues regarding non-mainstream (‘fringe’) claims regarding the etymologies of words and historical links between languages, and explanations of why such claims very typically don’t hold up.  Comments and queries will of course be most welcome.  Please stand by for this material.

Mark Newbrook (currently with my beloved in England’s beautiful Lake District)

Introducing our new contributor, linguist Mark Newbrook

March 1, 2012

Eve and I are happy to introduce a new contributor to Skeptical Humanities, linguist Mark Newbrook. Mark has years of experience exploring the fringe theories of language from a skeptical, professional perspective. According to his bio:

Mark was born and brought up in Wirral near Liverpool in North-West England, where he now lives again.  He completed a BA (Honours) in Classics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford and went on to take an MA and a PhD in linguistics at the University of Reading, specialising in variationist historical dialectology and associated attitudinal matters. Subsequently he spent many years as a lecturer (professor) and researcher in linguistics in Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia.  While in Australia, Mark combined his professional activities with his broad based interest in skepticism to become one of the few ‘skeptical linguists’ around; he was linguistics consultant to Australian Skeptics and now occupies similar roles in the equivalent British organisations. He has authored several books and many articles and reviews on various aspects of linguistics; and he has recently completed the first-ever general skeptical survey work on fringe linguistics (forthcoming).

Welcome, Mark! We look forward to working with you!

By the way, we are looking to build a community of scholars here, so if you would like to contribute to the site, let us know and we’ll see what we can work out. Professionals in all areas of the humanities are welcome.