‘fringe’ historical linguistics 6

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.




11 Responses to ‘fringe’ historical linguistics 6

  1. Ken says:

    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.

    That’s even more ridiculous given that we have an very good history of the development of the Roman calendar. Out of morbid curiosity, does he have a Sanskrit-based explanation for July and August?

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks, Ken! Re July & August: don’t THINK so but will check when book is to habd! Cheers! Mark

  2. Pacal says:

    Glad you mentioned the Hindutva nonsense. There as been in India an explosion of Woo idiocy around the concept of an eternal and always Hindu India recently. It is religious / ethnic nationalism of the worst kind. It as also been noted in India that Hindutva nonsense, (Which includes teaching such crap has “Vedic” science and that civilization in India is 10,000, if not hundreds of thousands of years old.), is closely allied with covert attempts to back up the caste system and to advance the interests of Brahmin castes. It is also closely allied to attempts to end efforts to end untouchability as a status and curse for millions of Indians.

    The attempt to define “Indian” as Hindu is of course bad news for Muslim, Christian and Buddist Indians.

    In fact Hinduvta adherants use a variation of the old Nazi slogan, (Yes I’ve godwinned.), Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer! They also have engaged in some truly despicable attacks on respected Indian academics such as Romila Thapar.

    It is fascinating that while castigating Europeans for allegedly being “colonial” and “eurocentric” for claiming that Indo-European languages came from outside into India and thus insulting Indians, they grandly claim all Indo-European languages came from India with successive waves of Sanskrit speaking invaders from India spreading it all over Asia and Europe. They of course state that alleging that “Aryan” invaders brought Sanskrit to India is insulting, colonial and demeaning to Indians. How ironic.

    They also attack an idea, the Aryan invasion theory that is not held by the great majority of Indianologists anymore. These days it is more the “Arayan” infilitration model over a very long period of time not one big invasion c. 1500 B.C.E. But then attacking straw men is eternally popular.

    As for the nature of Indus script. It is true that the majority of experts do think the script is for a Dravidian language. Some have even advanced tentative interpretations based on that theory. A minority thinks it is Indo-European.

    The theory that it is a purely symbolic system not intended to write a language was originally advanced c. 10 years ago. It is an intriguing idea. Sadly adherents of this notion have been often stunningly arrogant and condescending in presenting their views and responding to criticism. Frequently accusing their critics of being incompetants, true believers, pseudoscientists and not having a clue. In other words they have been insulting. Those who think the script is in fact a script may be wrong but I would not characterize them as pseudoscientists. This attitude has largely turned me off the proponents of the idea that the Indus script is not a script. Although it has not turned me off the idea.

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks as ever, Pacal! You’re obviously very well-informed; it’s great to have such a commentator! I heard about the current version of the theory that IVS is a purely symbolic system not intended to write a language (or at least not intended to write a particular language) from Richard Sproat, one of the scholars in question, at the 2008 Phaistos Disk conference in London. They advance various arguments, including the extreme brevity of all known texts. I’m not wholly persuaded but I think they have a case. Are you saying that these particular scholarsare guiltyofunfair ‘debunking’,condescending attitudes, etc? If so, details? (I can ‘bounce’ same off Sproat.) Mark

      • Pacal says:

        Its been a while since I’ve been interested in this area. I’ll see what I can dig up. From my memory file I can remember a certain unplesant correspondence regarding a paper by Rao that criticised the not script idea.

    • Nari says:

      In your 4 helpful precinplis (not principals), number 4 mentions that the adjective comes before the noun and goes on to further explain that this is different to English.In English we too put the adjective, for the most part, before the noun. E.g. using the following sentence:The yellow spade (English) adjective beforeDie gelbe Spaten (German) adjective beforeAn spe1d bued (Irish) adjective afterLa vanga giallo (Italain) adjective after

  3. […] ‘fringe’ historical linguistics 6 (skepticalhumanities.com) […]

  4. Kenneth Greifer says:


    You mentioned “other Jewish authors” who think Hebrew was the Ursprache. I think only one of those authors Mozeson (?) was Jewish. Do you know if the rest are because Benner only mentions on his site that his father was Lutheran. He doesn’t mention his beliefs. And Leonardi says on Facebook that his mother left her Christmas tree up a long time. Do any of these people actually claim to be Jewish? I am sure they believe this about Hebrew for religious reasons, but I don’t think they are all Jewish? I don’t know if religious Jewish people believe every language is from Hebrew or that Hebrew was just the first language.

    Kenneth Greifer

    • marknewbrook says:

      Hi & thanks, Kenneth. In correspondence, Leonardi and Benner seem to identify as Jewish; I’ll check further when I can. Idon’t suggest that ALL religious Jewish people believe that every language is from Hebrew or even necessarily that Hebrew was the first language (though the latter, at least, would surely make sense). But SOME do, and nowadays few others do, except for some Christian fundamentalists. Mark

  5. Deacon W says:

    Thanks greaat blog

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