Bob on the BEASTcast talking about the Denver Airport

April 30, 2012

Last week I was interviewed by the BEASTcast about the Denver International Airport conspiracy theory, as well as a good bit about the humanities and skepticism. That interview is out today.

Thanks to Josh Bunting for the opportunity to speak with him. I enjoyed it very much!


Are Ghost Stories History?

April 25, 2012

I like ghost stories. I like the fictional variety, and I like the non-fictional variety, within reason. That is to say, I enjoy collections of ghost stories that don’t try too hard to convince me that they’re true: “No, really, it was a real ghost. We got photos of orbs and EVPs and everything!” I like the folkloric and historic aspect of ghost stories: an interesting story about an interesting place. Walter Raleigh bopping around the Tower of London, yes; “footsteps” in a 60s ranch house in Indiana, not so much.

I recently found The World’s Most Haunted Places: From the Secret Files of by Jeff Belanger on a discount shelf at Barnes and Noble. Yay, ghost stories. Sadly, the ghost stories are pretty dull: full of clichés and footsteps when no one was there and doors opening when there was no wind. For example, one of the world’s most haunted places is, apparently, the catacombs of Paris. Belanger spends most of his time describing how creepy the place is. Fair enough–the place is full of countless skulls and bones. And the ghosts? The place is “as haunted as it is macabre,” Belanger assures us. Here is the evidence of haunting:

“Avez-vous vu un fantôme?” I asked the man at the ticket counter in my best French if he has seen a ghost. “Je ne sais pas,” was his reply. The man smiled and shrugged his shoulders” (p. 71)

“It’s a little overwhelming with all of the bones,” said Julie Hardman of Tempe, Arizona. I spoke with Hardman after she visited the museum with her daughter, Megan.

A security guard who asked not to be identified told me, “Some people go down and they are very afraid after seeing the bones. Some people say they hear things. Voices” (p. 75)

I was interested, though, in something Belanger says in his introduction:

To study these spirits is to study history. The spirit world and our past are intertwined–there’s a lot we can learn by studying both. (p. 11)

Now, I wouldn’t have put it like that, but to some extent I agree. For one thing, when ghost stories become attached to a place, such as the Tower of London, for instance, they become a part of that place’s history, even if they don’t accurately reflect the events that actually occurred. Like it or not, they become part of the folk history. More importantly, researching ghost stories certainly does involve studying history. In the first place, you are looking at the history of a location and the people associated with it. Secondly, in studying ghost stories in general, you will see how the stories change as the world changes. Belanger, of course, doesn’t look at ghost stories from this point of view–such a study might shake his belief in ghosts–so let’s look at how well he handles the history of the locations he discusses.

First up is Ballygally Castle, now greatly expanded into a hotel in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. According to Belanger,

Ballygally was originally built by James Shaw, a Greenock, Scotland native who came to Northern Ireland in 1613. Shaw built the castle in 1625 in a French chateau style….

Shortly after the completion of the castle’s construction, James Shaw took a wife named Lady Isobel Shaw. The current legend says that  during the first few years of their marriage, Lady Shaw had a daughter. James Shaw became angry that his wife didn’t produce a male heir, and so he locked her in the tiny turret of the castle facing the sea. It’s unclear whether Lady Shaw leapt to her death from the small window while desperately trying to get to her daughter, or whether James Shaw had some henchmen throw her down the steep staircase, killing her.

The first time I heard this bit of folklore, it didn’t sit right with me. (pp. 15-16)

Oh, good, because it doesn’t sit right with me, either. First of all, I’m highly suspicious of that title, which varies between Lady Isobel, indicating that her father was an earl or above, and Lady Shaw, indicating that her husband had a title (which Belanger doesn’t use). Secondly, what a Gothic cliché: evil husband confines wife to turret room for some crappy reason. She jumps or is pushed to her death. What do the records tell us?

If James Shaw was so upset about not getting a male heir, wouldn’t the couple just try for another child? After some digging, I heard another version of the legend that seemed to make more sense. Apparently, Lady Shaw may have been having an affair with a seaman. One could also speculate that her daughter may have been the love-child of this mysterious man. (p. 16)

Oh dear. Apparently, historical research involves looking for unsubstantiated anecdotal legends and choosing the one you like best. Well, I did a bit of extremely superficial historical research myself. That is to say, I asked my friend Google. It was difficult to find information that wasn’t ghost related. Even the Wikipedia entry on Ballygally was infested by legend. I found that Isobel’s name is variously spelled and that she is sometimes called Elizabeth. She didn’t have a title, and her maiden name was Brisbane. The information is confusing, but the following is a typical nugget, which comes from the Brisbane family genealogy. Among the offspring of John Brisbane was

 f-III. Elizabeth, m. to James Shaw, of Bailliegellie, in Ireland, of the family of Shaw of Greenock, and was mother of JAMES SHAW, who is mentioned hereafter, as the husband of his cousin, ELIZABETH BRISBANE, and continuator of the family.

Elsewhere, I did find James Shaw’s wife referred to as Isabella Brisbane Shaw, and they apparently had a daughter named Margaret. I think it’s possible that Isabella got confused with the Elizabeth Brisbane who married the second James Shaw. Regardless, she seems to have had a son, and there is no record of a mysterious death outside the ghostie books.  Nothing I found definitively contradicts Belanger’s legends (except for the erroneous title), but the genealogical information certainly calls certain aspects of the stories into question. And that’s after maybe a half an hour of Googling. Belanger didn’t try to find the truth behind the legends. He didn’t look at historical records–official documents recording births and deaths or genealogical research–he just listened to people telling stories. That is not history. But maybe he’ll improve as he warms to his subject.

The chapter on Ordsall Hall in Salford, England begins,

Here lies Lord have mercy upon her;
One of Elizabeth’s maids of honour.
Margaret Radclyffe fair and witty;
She died a maid, the more the pity.

Margaret Radclyffe’s gravestone is inscribed with the preceding epitaph. Radclyffe died November 10, 1599 at the age of 25. She was one of Queen Elizabeth’s maids of honor, one of the top six ladies in the royal court. The young maiden died in the building she grew up and lived in: Ordsall Hall. Because of her royal connections, she would receive a semi-state funeral and be interred in Westminster Abbey in London, but her spirit will always be at Ordsall Hall. (p. 87)

Margaret Radclyffe was one of Elizabeth I’s ladies in waiting. She did die young. She was not, however, buried in the Abbey, but at St. Margaret’s church on the Abbey’s grounds. As for the epitaph: there are several variants of it. Some do mention Margaret Radclyffe, but not all. I certainly can find no evidence that the passage is on her gravestone: it seems wholly inappropriate. Most of the variants do not name the lady. Here is the most common version. Some sources attribute the poem to John Hoskyns or Hoskins.

Don’t feel too bad for Margaret, though. One poet did write an epigram on her death:


M arble, weep, for thou dost cover
A dead beauty underneath thee,
R ich as nature could bequeath thee :
G rant then, no rude hand remove her.
A ll the gazers on the skies
R ead not in fair heaven’s story,
E xpresser truth, or truer glory,
T han they might in her bright eyes.

R are as wonder was her wit ;
A nd, like nectar, ever flowing :
T ill time, strong by her bestowing,
C onquer’d hath both life and it ;
L ife, whose grief was out of fashion
I n these times.  Few so have rued
F ate in a brother.  To conclude,
F or wit, feature, and true passion,
E arth, thou hast not such another. (source)

Oh, I know–it’s not as dignified as a bit of doggerel about how it’s a shame that such a pretty girl died a virgin, and the poet’s no John Hoskins. It’s only Ben Jonson.

I’m beginning to suspect that Belanger and I have a different understanding of the word “history.”



Belanger, Jeff. The World’s Most Haunted Places: From the Secret Files of New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004.

Finucane, Ronald C. Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation. New York: Prometheus, 1996. A book that genuinely combines ghost stories and historical research.

This Week in Conspiracy (23 April 2012)

April 24, 2012

Technically, it will be “These Last Few Weeks and a Bit in Conspiracy,” but who’s keeping score, really?

It is of course well known that careless talk costs lives, but the full scale of the problem is not always appreciated.

For instance, at the very moment that Arthur said “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle,” a freak wormhole opened up in the fabric of the space-time continuum and carried his words far far back in time across almost infinite reaches of space to a distant Galaxy where strange and warlike beings were poised on the brink of frightful interstellar battle.

The two opposing leaders were meeting for the last time.

A dreadful silence fell across the conference table as the commander of the Vl’hurgs, resplendent in his black jewelled battle shorts, gazed levelly at the G’Gugvuntt leader squatting opposite him in a cloud of green sweet-smelling steam, and, with a million sleek and horribly beweaponed star cruisers poised to unleash electric death at his single word of command, challenged the vile creature to take back what it had said about his mother.

The creature stirred in his sickly broiling vapour, and at that very moment the words I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle drifted across the conference table.

Unfortunately, in the Vl’hurg tongue this was the most dreadful insult imaginable, and there was nothing for it but to wage terrible war for centuries.

Eventually of course, after their Galaxy had been decimated over a few thousand years, it was realized that the whole thing had been a ghastly mistake, and so the two opposing battle fleets settled their few remaining differences in order to launch a joint attack on our own Galaxy – now positively identified as the source of the offending remark.

For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across – which happened to be the Earth – where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.

Those who study the complex interplay of cause and effect in the history of the Universe say that this sort of thing is going on all the time, but that we are powerless to prevent it.

“It’s just life,” they say.

Twit of the Week:

Paul of Paul and Storm had a good tweet this week:

Paul and Storm ‏ @paulandstorm

[P] In honor of today’s anniversary of Project MKULTRA, I’m going to secretly feed my family LSD-laced tacos.

The twerpiest tweet of the week won not only because of the horrific violation of the laws of logic the tweet embodies, but also because the article talks at some length about how Anders Breivik told the court how he did it all alone. TURN ON YOUR THINKER, DUDE!

We are speeding into the last weeks of classes right now, and I have a couple of little projects in the works. You will hear of them soon, I am sure.

Muahahaha, as they say.


‘fringe’ historical linguistics 9

April 24, 2012

Hello, everybody

Thanks for the ongoing feedback!

I am aware of the Zuni-Japanese claims and may well comment on them down the track as one example of claims of this nature!

Re a query re my earlier comments about ‘Jewish’ writers who uphold non-mainstream ideas about Hebrew: I am informed by David Leonardi that he personally identifies as a Christian (albeit of an unusual kind), and that some of Jeff Benner’s supporters are also Christians. As far as I know, Benner himself is Jewish.

Another set of non-mainstream claims regarding relationships between languages involves the use of typological similarities as evidence of unrecognized links between languages. Typological features are general features, at any linguistic level (phonetic, phonological, morphological, syntactic), which may be shared between languages whether or not they are (‘genetically’ or by contact) related (for instance, the degree to which words are heavily ‘inflected’ = displaying many grammatical affixes such as noun-case endings, verb-tense markers, etc.) – or on the other hand may differ between languages which are closely related (for example, Icelandic and Afrikaans are quite closely related [Germanic] languages, but the former is heavily inflecting and the latter almost entirely without inflections). In many cases, typological features have only a small number of possible values; for example, there are obviously only two possible preferred word orders for pairs of associated linguistic items such as a noun and its modifying adjective (‘big book’, ‘book big’). Typological features cannot themselves be treated as evidence of relatedness.

Despite this, there are various typology-based claims that apparently unrelated, often geographically dispersed languages are in fact related either ‘genetically’ or by contact. For example, there are various claims regarding links between Dravidian (Southern India) and Finno-Ugric (Finnish, etc.) based largely upon typological similarities, notably the ‘agglutinating’ morphological structure which both groups of languages display. This use of typological similarities by non-mainstream writers in no way strengthens their cases.

Of late, it has become common for conclusions regarding deep-time linguistic relationships to be grounded partly in newly available data on the evolutionary cladistics (‘family-tree’ structure) of human genetics. Not surprisingly, these two sets of characteristics do often correspond significantly; and this means that one can seek to clarify obscurities in historical linguistics through ancient genetic information, which is often more readily accessed. This applies especially to the pre-literate period, where there are no linguistic details at all apart from reconstructed ‘deep-time’ ancestor-forms (inevitably uncertain).

However, there are many cases, such as those of the African-Americans, where genetically identifiable groups have (for various reasons) abandoned their languages, at least in some areas. Although some recent discoveries suggest that there are fewer such cases than might be imagined, it is still clear that it is dangerous to press arguments of this kind too far in filling in ‘gaps’ in the linguistic record. The important genetic work of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and others does not necessarily have the major linguistic implications which might be attributed to it (especially by writers predisposed to argue for genuine ‘racial’ divisions of the species on these and other grounds).

Despite these issues, some important findings have emerged from this interaction between disciplines. For example, Spencer Wells, relying mainly on genetic data and the ideas of the maverick linguist Ruhlen, treats Na-Dene (North America) as demonstrably related to Sino-Tibetan and as probably related to Caucasian (Caucasus). Although this position might appear outrageously hyper-diffusionist to most linguists, it has been argued since the mid-1990s (by Ruhlen and Sergei Starostin) and with more persuasion since 2008 that the Yeniseian language ‘family’ of Siberia is related to Na-Dene in a larger Dene-Yenisein ‘family’ (obviously involving a very considerable time-depth). Even this more modest proposal is not by any means universally accepted, but it is not altogether to be dismissed. On the other hand, it is not clear that the comparative method as such is appropriate when dealing with a proposed common ancestor as early as 50,000 BP. (Starostin for his part ranges more widely, for example linking Basque and Amerindian.)

Some non-mainstream authors propose entire alternative theories of language change, intended (overtly or covertly) to replace existing mainstream theories (similar in nature to more general alternative linguistic theories). Such theories tend to display degrees of confusion; some of them involve elements, not necessarily compatible with each other, drawn eclectically from those mainstream theories with which the author does have some familiarity. Some of the mainstream ideas used in this way are also misinterpreted.

One writer of this kind is David Leonardi (discussed previously), who believes that all or nearly all of the world’s languages and very many of their forms are related (that is, there are far fewer genuine cases of accidental similarity than most mainstream linguists hold), chiefly by way of language contact and diffusion; Leonardi downplays the entire notion of ‘genetic’ relatedness. He invokes in his support various mainstream and marginally mainstream linguists, some of whom disagree profoundly with each other. They might also reject Leonardi’s interpretations of their ideas, which he sometimes takes to be closer to his own than they are. (Edo Nyland, also discussed earlier, takes a similarly inaccurate view of the status of his own ideas.) However, Leonardi’s exposition of his own ideas is often obscure, and it is difficult to comment upon them in detail.

A more prominent alternative theory of language change was expounded by the members of a mid-twentieth-century breakaway Italian school of non-scientific linguists, the ‘Neo-Linguists’, influenced by the idealist philosophy of Benedetto Croce. Some of the neo-linguists, such as Giorgio Fano, rejected Croce’s more extreme ideas, but remained conspicuously non-mainstream in international terms. Robert Hall – interestingly a believer in the Kensington Stone (see later) – provides a linguistic critique of Neo-Linguistics.

More next time!


‘fringe’ historical linguistics 8

April 17, 2012

Hello again, everybody!

I summarize here the linguistic aspects of some general catastrophist theories involving Atlantis and other ‘lost’ continents/civilizations.  Some of the thinkers in question, like Ryan & Pitman (discussed last time), are highly qualified in some of the relevant disciplines; one such is Stephen Oppenheimer, who locates an early centre of diffusion in a now-submerged South-East Asian continent (but note that both Oppenheimer and his linguistically-trained ally Paul Manansala appear relatively weak where historical linguistics is concerned).  Others, such as Stan Hall (to whom I referred earlier) are clearly non-mainstream.

Arysio dos Santos accepts the reality of Atlantis; he places much emphasis on historical linguistics, arguing that unexpected similarities (at all the main linguistic levels) exist between languages such as Guanche (Canary Islands), Etruscan and Dravidian (Tamil etc.), at frequency levels which exclude chance.  He disputes the mainstream use of statistics in this area and argues that accidental similarities are much less likely than has been concluded by mainstream linguists such as Ringe (see earlier).  The disagreement does not seem to involve the mathematics per se but rather dos Santos’ handling of the linguistic data, which, a linguist might suggest, does not appear to incorporate adequately the factors which I discussed, such as structural differences between the languages in question.  (Dos Santos also rejects conventional ideas about proto-languages and language families.)

Other writers who accept the reality of Atlantis (especially as a lost land rather than as a location or culture known later by other names) include: Viatcheslav Koudriavtsev and his colleagues with their ‘Protolanguage’ (pan-Slavic) and its ‘Protoscript’; J.M. Allen and Rand & Rose Flem-Ath with their focus upon South American locations(the Flem-Aths believe that Atlantis was in Antarctica and that the Atlantean refugees arrived first in South America; they endorse some extreme and unjustifiable claims about the structure of Aymara which are associated with the idea that it is of Atlantean origin); Constantin Benetatos with the view that all later European languages (especially those in Northern Europe) are descended from the language of Atlantis; etc., etc.

J.S. Gordon also accepts the reality of Atlantis (and links his ideas about Atlantis as a real entity with arguments in support of the currently fashionable theory of the universe as pervaded by consciousness).  His work is vitiated by a number of unwelcome features, including some relating specifically to his use of linguistic data.  For instance: a) he repeatedly discusses key linguistic matters in an impossibly vague manner; b) he fatally confuses linguistic levels (pronunciation and grammar) in using key terms such as agglutinative; c) he relies upon earlier non-mainstream thinkers and ill-informed and dated sources; d) he proposes wildly implausible and unsupported scenarios involving the development of languages and scripts (intended to replace well-established mainstream ideas about these matters); e) he largely ignores the two hundred years of scientific historical linguistic scholarship and thus employs the usual loose, seriously unreliable non-mainstream philological/etymological methods; etc.

One of the works of Gene Matlock (see my earlier references) also argues for the reality of Atlantis.  His claim to have ‘proved’ his case is grotesquely exaggerated, to say the least.  As in his other works, Matlock relies repeatedly upon isolated and unsystematic superficial similarities of vocabulary items in attempting to establish etymologies which would demonstrate his diffusionist claims about ancient links between the languages and cultures of India (and other Old World areas) – all derived from the supposed Ursprache, Sanskrit – and the Americas.  And again, as in his other works, his claims on these fronts also contradict many established etymologies and vast amounts of well-established information about the relationships between languages.  Matlock ignores the crucial structural aspects of the languages which he compares; his linguistic terminology is popular and non-standard; he makes many claims about poorly-documented periods of early history without presenting any references or worthwhile evidence; he cites other non-mainstream claims rejected by most experts; etc., etc.

Zoltán Simon argues for a historical Atlantis in Western Atlantic waters, and for a catastrophist and otherwise revisionist account of early human history; he believes that the cases for (a) catastrophist interpretations of early history, (b) the early discovery (and subsequent loss) of advanced technology, and (c) extraterrestrial intervention in that period are much more persuasive than they are.  His linguistic ‘evidence’ is of the usual amateur kind; he also makes various specific errors; and he rejects reconstructed proto-languages such as Proto-Indo-European, assessing the evidence/argumentation for such entities in thoroughly confused terms and grossly undervaluing it – partly because he wishes to propose alternative genetic and other links between languages, often involving his native Hungarian.  Indeed, he exaggerates the influence of Hungarian and the Hungarians on linguistic differentiation and world history, finding pseudo-cognates and grammatical parallels between Hungarian and English and reading the mysterious Yarmouth Runestone (Nova Scotia) as Hungarian.  (Again, compare Stan Hall.)

Some other non-mainstream authors are interested in Lemuria and/or Mu rather than (or as well as) Atlantis.  One such, Frank Joseph, cites similarities between short words and syllables, with related or allegedly related meanings, in languages normally regarded as unrelated and as not having experienced important cultural contact.  These include the words moai as used in Okinawa and Easter Island (where the meanings are not in fact even close), Japanese torii and German Tor (both meaning ‘gate’), various words containing the syllable –mu-, etc. He believes that these similarities mostly indicate common origin in Lemuria/Mu.  (Joseph also includes in this discussion a completely mistaken comment about the pronunciation of the Latin names Romulus and Remus; he believes that these words too contain the word Mu and were stressed on the relevant syllable.)

There is an entire small world of non-mainstream scholarship based on the works of Immanuel Velikovsky, a major-planet catastrophist and chronological revisionist.  The (minor) linguistic element in Velikovsky’s thought involves the alleged diffusion of words after the catastrophe (compare Michal Tsarion).  Since Velikovsky’s death his ideas have persisted and diversified.  One leading Neo-Velikovskyan tradition is represented by David Talbott and his fellow ‘Saturnists’, who hold that Earth and the other inner planets were formerly in captive rotation about a much larger Saturn and that this situation and the catastrophic restructuring which led to the present configuration of the system are reflected in myths around the world.  Talbott places emphasis upon the similarity and alleged common origin of words in many apparently unrelated languages, which in his view relate to myths and motifs associated with cultural ‘memories’ of the earlier configuration and the ensuing cataclysm.  Most of the Saturnists show little detailed knowledge of linguistics, but one of Talbott’s associates was Roger Wescott, a qualified linguist, who posited relatively recent dates for the commencement of linguistic diversification, partly because of his catastrophist account of the recent history of the planet (many pre-existing cultures and their languages would have been destroyed in any Velikovskyan catastrophe).

There are writers in this area of thought with even more markedly non-mainstream ideas.  These include, notably, Ted Holden, who argues, for instance, that features of the Baltic languages (Latvian and Lithuanian) reflect the beginning of the re-diversification of languages ‘from scratch’ following a catastrophe early in the first millennium BCE.  Holden is also a supporter of Julian Jaynes’ highly suspect theory that during the first millennium BCE the psychology of Homo sapiens underwent a major shift – revealed, for instance, in contrasts between discourse styles found in Homeric Greek and in later Classical Greek – involving the loss of telepathic abilities and the emergence of self-awareness.


This Week in Conspiracy (11 April 2012)

April 12, 2012

It’s that time of the week, y’all, when I mosey up to biggest and baddest in conspiracy theory, size ’em up,  and brand them with humor. Then I run away, trying not to get gored.

Let’s see what’s shaking.

Not exactly the Durham Light Infantry

Twit of the Week:

President @BarackObama claims to be a Trekkie. But where’s the proof? Why won’t he release his fan fiction? — Conan O’Brien (@ConanOBrien)

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

Well, that’s about all I can take this week folks. I have a backlog of conspiracy theories for you, but a lot of work to attend to in the near future. Also, my brother suckered someone into marrying him this weekend, and I need to write the best man’s toast. But I will keep my ear to the ground, don’t you worry.


By the way, I also write as “The Conspiracy Guy” for the CSICOP website. Visit me there for in-depth coverage of some of the major conspiracy theories. My latest is about the Denver International Airport.

The Denver International Airport Conspiracy

April 12, 2012

My most recent “Conspiracy Guy” article is up at the CSICOP website. It’s about the DIA conspiracy.


‘fringe’ historical linguistics 7

April 10, 2012

Hello again, everybody!

Correction: back in my third post, I attributed the derivation of the word Australia from Astralaya (supposedly meaning ‘land of missiles’) to Gene Matlock.  Without having all the relevant books immediately to hand, I think that this etymology was originally proposed by Stephen Knapp, who does include it among his examples.  I’m not sure that Matlock has endorsed it or would endorse it.

Some who interpret UFOs as extraterrestrial spacecraft claim that various human languages (especially ancient languages) are or have been used by aliens.  Often, the actual origin of the favoured language is said to be extraterrestrial (which would obviously require adjustment to accounts of the relevant human language ‘families’!).  One such group is the Aetherius Society, founded by George King, who ‘channelled’ various beings of this kind.  (I’ll return later to the general question of channelled languages, both ancient and modern.)  Like several of the non-mainstream writers discussed in my last post, the Society ignores what has been learned about the Indo-European origins of Sanskrit, and regards it not merely as the ancestor of all human speech but as vastly ancient and the main lingua franca of a whole series of inhabited planets.  They consider that it was ‘scientifically and metaphysically’ devised and is derived from fifty primeval sounds (which they confuse with the ‘alphabetic’ devanagari letters used to write the sounds of the language).  These sounds themselves are said to be derived from features of the Chakras, supposed energy vortices in the ‘subtle’ bodies of human beings.  (I’ll have more to say more later on the Aetherius Society and other ‘UFO fans’!)

Paul von Wardascribes special status and universal applicability to the devanagari script and to the Sanskrit language itself.  He too ignores/rejects what has been learned about the Indo-European origins of the language, and he implausibly interprets the language and its script as the ultimate ancestors of all later languages and alphabets, which have allegedly deteriorated and suffered from loss of phonetic range and expressive power.  He attributes the invention of devanagari to ‘Advanced Beings’, extraterrestrial or inter-dimensional beings whose activities are reflected in myths around the world.  Von Ward is more widely read in linguistics than most such promoters of ‘ancient astronauts’, but his ‘understanding’ of the subject is very uneven and idiosyncratic.

The Theosophical Society also focuses on Sanskrit; the founder Blavatsky’s ideas on the language and on linguistics, which were strange and dated even in her own time, continue to command respect among Theosophists.  Some Theosophists freely invoke Sanskrit in the context of their beliefs (in lectures, etc.) without much knowledge of linguistics.

In a rather different vein, Jordan Maxwell, Paul Tice and Alan Snow were inspired by the late nineteenth century diffusionist writer Gerald Massey and by the anonymous author of a three-volume work called Priesthood of the Ills and published around 1940, both of whom believed that they could trace all religions back to a small number of linked cults (stellar, lunar, solar).  The ancestor culture and language is identified by Maxwell et al. as Egyptian or (especially by Snow) as Hebrew; but some specific words are again held to be of Sanskrit origin.

Maxwell et al. present linguistic ideas in support of their viewpoint, following Priesthood of the Ills; notably, they adduce some non-standard philology as support for these diffusionist theories of religion.  They also believe that there is a specifically linguistic conspiracy, part of a vast overall conspiracy also involving religion, which involves a) keeping humanity divided by enforcing the use of many mutually unintelligible languages and b) blocking humanity from discovering the original (‘true’) meanings of words, especially words with religious significance.  (See my fourth post for other ideas of this nature.)

This latter notion (b) suggests that all changes in the meanings of words are illegitimate, which of course is an untenable folk-linguistic idea; but the earlier author, again supported by Maxwell et al., argues chiefly for the more specific claim that the ‘true’ meanings of some of the key words in ancient languages were very different indeed from those of the English words normally used to translate them.  This has allegedly been deliberately concealed (by the Forces of Evil) by various means, including the disguising of important words through the manipulation of spelling.  The ‘true’ meanings which have been concealed in this way are implicated in huge numbers of unrecognized links between languages.

These writers go on to suggest that simply focusing on pronunciation rather than spelling will enable a listener to begin to overcome this conspiracy, because they will then hear and thus know which words are genuinely connected historically (as cognates, etc.) – since truly connected words will sound similar.  (Then one can appreciate the ‘true’ form of Christianity and its links with earlier religions.)  Historical linguistic scholarship is simply ignored here, in particular the vast body of evidence that in most alphabetically-written languages spelling is a more reliable guide to etymologies than is modern pronunciation.  This is because spelling is typically rather conservative and thus reflects shared older forms of words and common origins somewhat better than does phonology with its relatively rapid shifts.  Indeed, paying attention only to pronunciation will encourage the treatment of words which are in fact unconnected homophones – such as English roe (‘fish eggs’), row (‘propel boat with oars’) and row (‘line of items’) – as probably connected, and will thus encourage the development of false theories regarding associated non-linguistic connections.

Examples of unsubstantiated etymologies proclaimed here include the derivation of the name Abraham from ab-ra-am (said to mean ‘father of nations’), of the name Jesus from an alleged Egyptian expression meaning ‘light bearer’, of Amen as used in Christian prayers from the Egyptian god-name Amun, etc., etc.

I’ll deal later with some ‘Afrocentrist’ ideas about historical linguistics.

A further interesting sub-set of cases involves links between non-mainstream ideas about language history, on the one hand, and ‘catastrophist’ accounts of ancient history more generally, on the other.  I have referred to Michal Tsarion’s ideas about the aftermath of the destruction of Atlantis (see below); but he is far from alone in this respect.

As most readers will know, until the nineteenth century it was widely held that catastrophes had been of major significance in the development of historical events over the ages.  However, in modern times historians (and scientists) have developed other models of history and pre-history which may be described under the general term uniformitarianism.  These models emphasize continuous and repeated patterns of cause and effect, explaining historical events in terms of such patterns as far as possible in preference to attributing them to ‘one-off’ events such as catastrophes.  This model of history became especially prominent with the rise in status of post-Enlightenment science, chiefly because it contributes to the repeatability and perhaps the testability of historical explanations, rendering history (and historical linguistics) more scientific in character.  (But the general idea of repeated patterns in history and the ensuing possibility of general explanations for historical events goes back at least as far as Thucydides.)

Nevertheless, there clearly have been some genuine catastrophic events of various kinds during human history (and indeed during pre-history): large volcanic eruptions, major tsunamis, large earthquakes, minor-planet impacts on the surface of the Earth, etc.  Some of these catastrophes have impacted profoundly on cultural (and linguistic) history; for instance, the tsunami which followed the eruption of Santorini appears to have devastated parts of the Minoan civilization centred on Crete, weakening it and perhaps contributing to its later downfall (and the resulting loss of literacy in the Greek-speaking world).  In more recent decades there has thus been something of a shift of focus back towards moderate forms of catastrophism, considered alongside uniformitarianism as an explanatory model for certain specific (often dramatic) historical events.  For example, some writers (not all of them non-mainstream) believe that there have been large minor-planet impacts during human history, perhaps as recently as 10-12,000 years BP.

One not implausible catastrophe scenario during early human history involves claims regarding the sudden flooding of the Black Sea Basin around 7,500 years BP through the straits leading to the Sea of Marmara and on to the Aegean, as proposed by the scientists William Ryan and Walter Pitman.  It is suggested that this event profoundly affected the pattern of civilization in that area, with much diffusion of populations and their cultures to the surrounding territories; and that the patterns of diffusion from this area included the diffusion of Indo-European, which until then may well have been centred close to the Black Sea – according to some scholars to the north of it, in the modern Ukraine, according to others to the south in Anatolia.  Ryan and Pittman therefore invoke historical linguistic evidence.  If they are correct, the Black Sea area would have been a centre for linguistic contact and later for diffusion.  But – despite their references to mainstream historical linguists such as Donald Ringe – their material on linguistics itself is weak and confused. For instance: they quote Ringe on matters internal to IE, but then make a link with the ideas of deep-time reconstructionists, whose views on pre-Proto-IE matters are regarded by scholars such as Ringe as much too speculative on present evidence.  They do not mention these differences.  Next they confuse the issue of borrowings into IE and that of borrowings from IE; and then they give a list of cognates/probable cognates/loans mostly taken from within IE.  They fail to state that the non-IE etymologies proposed in more doubtful cases are often disputed.

There are, however, many much more extreme and/or dubious catastrophist accounts of ancient history which are proposed by palpably non-mainstream writers. Some of these writers are strongly opposed to modern uniformitarianism and uphold the role of catastrophes as the dominant force in human history. Some claims of this kind involve cultural diffusion in historic times from the surviving remains of an earlier source civilization or culture which was destroyed in a catastrophe, such as the supposed sunken island/continent of Atlantis or equivalent land-masses in the Indian and Pacific Oceans such as Lemuria and Mu.

The linguistic aspects of such theories involve the cultural diffusion of many or all known languages, seen as ‘genetically’ related and descended from the language used in the earlier common source civilization. The civilization destroyed by the catastrophe is sometimes said to have been the ultimate ancestor civilization of humanity, and its language is thus often identified as the Ursprache. (Compare Tsarion’s view of Irish Gaelic as a post-catastrophe Ursprache.)  Next time I will summarize the linguistic aspects of some of these theories.


‘fringe’ historical linguistics 6

April 2, 2012

Hello again, everybody!

As I said last time, there are some special groups of historical linguistic claims which illustrate particular types of historical and other non-linguistic background thinking and motivations.  Some of these involve religions, nationalistic ideas, Afrocentrism, catastrophism, etc.

One obvious group of claims of this general type involves the view that the original language of a revered body of scripture has special status – and, in extreme versions, represents the Ursprache.  As I noted earlier, Biblical Hebrew, regarded by many as the Ursprache in pre-scientific times, remains popular in this respect among fundamentalist Jewish and Christian authors, but there are many others, notably Sanskrit (Hinduism/Vedanta) and the related Pali (Buddhism).  Some religious believers eagerly adopt non-standard accounts of the history of the relevant languages (and territories) which they find congenial in this respect; many of them will not countenance objections to these accounts.

For example, David Leonardi argues that the ‘Masoretic’ amplification of Hebrew spelling – which employs ‘points’ displaying the vowels, hitherto unwritten or written in makeshift ways; the Masoretic system was originally developed around 700 CE and after, and persists today – seriously distorts the structure of ancient Hebrew (and thereby frequently distorts the meanings of biblical texts).  He holds that early Hebrew had an exceptionally highly ‘organised’ phonology involving very short morphemes (compare the works which I discussed in earlier blogs; my brief comments about Hebrew foreshadowed these present comments) and can be regarded as a shallow-time Ursprache (and was also much more closely related to Ancient Egyptian than is generally held; he largely rejects the accepted decipherment of Egyptian).  Leonardi suggests that God created spoken and written Hebrew fully formed (which supposedly explains the ‘organised’ nature which he ascribes to the language).

Other Jewish authors who regard Hebrew as the Ursprache – many of them ‘creationists’ – include Isaac Mozeson (who claims that virtually all the words of all languages derive from his ‘Edenic’, which is basically early Hebrew), Jeff Benner (who also advances non-standard notions about Hebrew script, specifically), and some of the British Israelites.  I will say more about these and other such writers on request.

Similar claims regarding Sanskrit (often incorporating extreme Indian nationalist ideas) are promulgated by various writers with Hindu/Vedantic affiliations.  Some of these writers are again creationists, but it should be noted that Vedantic creationism involves very long time-depths rather than the short time-depths adopted by most Jewish-Christian fundamentalists.

The standard academic position is that Sanskrit was probably brought into India (not necessarily by way of an ‘Aryan Invasion’ as was once held) around 3,500 years BP, as part of the European/West-Asiatic diffusion of the Indo-European (henceforth IE) language ‘family’ from a base somewhere near the Black and the Caspian Seas (variously dated as commencing around 4-6,000 years BP).  There is something of a case for the contrary view that the language was in India rather earlier and is perhaps represented by the undeciphered Indus Valley Script (IVS) – to which I shall return – found on tablets in the ruins of Mohenjodaro and Harappa in modern Pakistan and dated around 4,500-4,000 years BP.  On this scenario, IE was in India too early for the Indian IE-speakers to have arrived as an entire group by way of an incursion as late as the second millennium BCE.  But even this relatively modest claim is not especially widely accepted by mainstream scholars, especially linguists.  (I am trying here to summarise this complex matter fairly; I realise that there is a range of views, and that knowledge is constantly developing.  For example, some scholars have recently argued that the Indus Valley ‘script’ is in fact non-linguistic in character.)

Extreme versions of this position, presented by Indian writers such as K.D. Sethna, treat the IE ‘family’ as having actually originated in India.  Sanskrit would thus be especially close to the ancestor language of the ‘family’, Proto-Indo-European.  This latter was a popular view among mainstream linguists in the early decades of the 19th Century when the discipline of historical linguistics was new; however, the philological arguments against this view are strong, and few qualified scholars would now endorse it.  (For instance, Ancient Greek is clearly a better guide to the Proto-IE vowel system than is Sanskrit, where parts of the system had undergone far-reaching changes.)  In addition, this position struggles to handle the obviously long-standing presence in India of other language ‘families’, notably Dravidian (now found mainly in the south); but its advocates find ‘ways around’ this issue.

On still more extreme versions of such a position, upheld by some nationalistic ‘Hindutva’ believers, Sanskrit is the ancestor of all (or almost all) languages, i.e. the Ursprache; thus, human language diffused from an initial base in India.

Some writers of this kind argue extensively from detailed linguistic data without the requisite knowledge of linguistics; one such is David Lewis.  In an attempt to render his position more impressive, Lewis attacks various quasi-mainstream ‘straw-men’; he appears insufficiently familiar with the relevant scholarly tradition.  For example, no qualified writers have argued that Sanskrit derives from Proto-Dravidian as Lewis suggests; it is transparently IE (the main clearly Dravidian elements in Sanskrit are some transferred vocabulary and some aspects of the sound-system).  In addition, Lewis makes egregious errors of his own.  So-called root words of Sanskrit do not appear in ‘almost all major languages’, as he claims.  Only other IE languages share words with Sanskrit, except for the special cases of a) words (etc.) transferred within South Asia into Dravidian (notably Malayalam) and other local languages and b) relatively recent transfers into other languages of cultural words involving Hinduism.  Even the words which are shared between Sanskrit and non-Indian IE languages do not in general derive from Sanskrit, as Lewis implies, but from the common IE ancestor, Proto-IE.

Another recent manifestation of this belief system is the work of Stephen Knapp, who argues that Vedic ideas, together with the Sanskrit language, were once spread all over the Earth by a technologically advanced Hindu civilization which provided the impetus for all later civilizations.  Knapp argues on the usual specious grounds that Proto-IE – as distinct from Sanskrit – never existed, and indeed that Sanskrit is the ancestor of all languages; and he also asserts that conventional linguistic methods cannot be used to date Sanskrit, because it is ‘neither mundane nor human’.  Like Vedic ‘knowledge’, it was literally given to humanity by the gods.

However, most of Knapp’s linguistic claims are simply mistaken; as is usual in such cases, he proceeds by identifying unsystematic, superficial similarities between Sanskrit words on the one hand and words in other languages on the other, and deduces that the non-Sanskrit words are derived from the Sanskrit words (corrupted and perverted are among his own terms).  Most of these equations are simply asserted as facts, with no supporting evidence.  At best they are undemonstrated and not especially plausible, and in fact most of them are actually known to be invalid; the words in question are simply not connected but have established unrelated etymologies.  In some other cases, we simply cannot be sure whether words are cognates or not, as there is insufficient evidence; but there is no reason to accept Knapp’s equations.

In some of Knapp’s examples, the IE roots from which an English word (or a word in another European IE language, especially an older language such as Ancient Greek or a conservative language such as Lithuanian) is derived do also have reflexes in Sanskrit.  But in most such cases the English or other word is clearly derived from IE via older European IE forms (Germanic, Latin, Greek, Baltic etc.) – not from the Sanskrit forms (compare Lewis).  For instance, Knapp identifies English month names such as October as derived from their Sanskrit equivalents; but in fact they are clearly derived from familiar Latin roots, with which the Sanskrit forms are themselves cognate.  Knapp also identifies other words as derived from Sanskrit in various ancient and modern languages of the Middle East and Europe, and also in Arabic, Hebrew, Malay, Vietnamese, Khmer, Japanese, Quechua (‘Inca’, as Knapp calls it), etc.

Another writer in this vein is Gene Matlock, whose procedures and conclusions are similar to Knapp’s but if anything are even more extreme.

Knapp and Matlock draw much inspiration and many examples from P.N. Oak, an older pro-Hindutva writer.  Oak attacks the accepted etymologies for hundreds of English and other non-Indian words, place-names etc., and proposes new Sanskrit etymologies – most of them ludicrous both linguistically and historically.  For example, he derives Liver– in the English city-name Liverpool from Lava, the name of a son of the divinity Ram.  Like Knapp and Matlock, he gives no evidence for most of his etymologies, but merely invites readers to agree that they are obviously correct.

Next time I will commence with some other religion-oriented positions, including some still more extreme ideas about Sanskrit and also the views of Jordan Maxwell.