‘fringe’ historical linguistics 7

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.


8 Responses to ‘fringe’ historical linguistics 7

  1. Pacal says:

    You mentioned in your post the castrophic eruption o0f Thera (Santorini), and its possible relationship with the fall of Minoan civilization.

    The date of ther eruption has been subject to debate for about a generation. In the late 1960’s and into the mid 1970’s it was thought that the eruption of Thera occurred c. 1500-1450 B.C.E., although some researchers dated it to c. 1550-1500 B.C.E. When Greenland ice cores began to be examined it they appeared to indicate that the eruption occurred c. 1680–1640 B.C.E.

    The debate as I said as been going on since c. 1980. The reason is that the icecore results may not record the Thera eruption. It appears that some great eruptions left no noticible result in Greenland ice cores. So it is not a settled question that the Greenland icecore “ring” that records the Thera eruption does in fact record it. There are also a host of technical issues involved in “reading” the ice cores that make the thing disputable. However despite the uncertainty the general over all view is that the eruption occurred c. 1700-1600 B.C.E. and only a minority of Archeaologists etc., favour a later date.

    What also is now also disputed is how castrophic the eruption was. In the late 60’s and into the late 70’s the general view was that the eruption was an apocalyptic event that hopelessly crippled Minoan civilization and lead to its fall and its replacement by the Myceneans.

    This appears to be overdrawn. recent studies seem to indicate that the eruption was indeed apolalyptic for the inhabitants of Thera who were forced to leave but that it was not apocalyptic for Crete. The damage seems to have been signifigantly less than previously thought and so was the ash fall it seems. It appears that Crete recovered rather quickly. And I should point out this merely down grades the event from apocalyptic to a catastrope. Still pretty bad but not the end of the world.

    In fact it appears that this event was indeed associated with the end of “Palace” cultures at sites other than Knossos. It appears that Zako, Phasistos and Maila were abandoned at this time. It used to be thought that this was the result of the eruption and its associated earthquakes. It appears that instead what seems to have happenned is that Crete divided into various city states centered on “palaces” was largely united under the rule of Knossos which apparantly put a end to any attempt to revive other centers of authority. How far the new domination of Knossos was related to the effects of the eruption is not clear.

    It used to be thought that the appearance of Greek on tablets at Knossos showed the domination of Crete by the Mycenean Greeks and the establishment of a Greek dynasty in the wake of the disaster. That contention seems to be a lot less firm than previously thought.

    The Myceneans despite the effects of the eruption on mainland Greece entered into a golden age after the eruption, when it appears that Minoan domination of trade, already waning before the eruption was replaced by Mycenean domination in the Aegean and in much of the eastern mediterreanean. How much this had to do with the eruption is debatable considering Crrete’s recovery after the eruption and the emergence of a single state dominating Crete and centered in Knossos.

    The collapse of Myceanean civlization c. 1200 B.C.E. and its associated disapearance of literacy was part of a wide spread phenomena that included the disapearance of the Hittite empire the serious decay and decline of Egypt and Mesopotamia, widespread chaos, population movements. A series of events I like to call the Crisis. The relation ship between these series of events and the eruption of Thera which occurred at least 2 centuries earlier and likely more than than 4 centuries earlier seems unlikely.

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks very much as ever, Pacal. If I had felt able to take up morespace, I myself would have said much of this. I hope that what I did say is judged sufficiently reserved. Mark

  2. carlfink says:

    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.

    I was taught a definition of “history” that starts with literacy and written records. By this definition wouldn’t you write “prehistory”?

    • marknewbrook says:

      Yes, maybe ‘late pre-history’ would be better in this specific case; those who claim that such events occurred in still more recent times probably DO all count as non-mainstream. Thanks! Mark

  3. zweibarren says:

    Why aren’t the first four discussion levels available for discussion?

  4. louis says:

    Hi Mark , Could you give me some more info on that three-volume work ‘Priesthood Of The Ills’ that you mention. I can’t seem to find anything on it except form a few places that you’ve referenced it again. I’ve got maxwells ebook and I can’t see any reference to it… Thanks in advance!

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