‘fringe’ historical linguistics 9

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!


7 Responses to ‘fringe’ historical linguistics 9

  1. Pacal says:

    In a shocking development Pacal did not write a long winded fact filled comment expanding on a point in one of Mark’s postings.

    Pacal explained it by saying he was feeling under the weather, which was why he was referring to himself in the third person.

    I would like to say that the examples you give above of trained Linguists holding far out ideas goes to show that the notion by many “alternative” thinkers that the “orthodox” are hide bound, closeminded people is more than a touch wrong. In fact one of the things I learned going through University is how much batshit insane stuff comes from so-called “orthodox” specialists.

    • Kenneth Greifer says:


      I think that people have to go through bad, stupid, and crazy ideas as they work toward good ideas. I don’t think people can always go directly to the right good answer. During that process ideas sound crazy, but over time they might turn out to be good. Nobody likes stupid ideas, but I doubt anyone in any subject has had a good idea without first having many stupid bad ideas that led to it. Sometimes people get stuck on stupid ideas and they never reach good ones, but things don’t always work out nicely.

      I am glad to hear that real linguists can have wild ideas too and still be heard by the other linguists. Bad ideas can also lead to good ideas by people who try to disprove them and think of things they didn’t notice before. Fringe linguists like all fringe theorists have weird ideas that force people to think.

      As a fringe person in my own subject, I know I have had many stupid and crazy ideas, but over time I think they helped me get to better ideas. Of course, I could be wrong. It is hard to notice your own stupidity and craziness.

      Kenneth Greifer

    • marknewbrook says:

      Get well soon, Pacal! I agree both that many mainstream scholars come up with weird ideas and that this shows (as I have myself said elsewhere) that ‘nutters’ are mistaken in thinking of mainstream thought as fiercely confirmist and orthodox; but I would add that in general the non-mainstream ideas of non-linguists are (predictably) rather ‘further out’ than those of ‘maverick’ trained linguists. Mark

  2. Kenneth Greifer says:


    Jeff Benner was born into a Christian home and later he become involved with Messianic Judaism which is really a form of Christianity mixed with Judaism.

    He has a lot of articles on his site about his religious beliefs.


    On the left side of the page, there are many links with more details.

    Kenneth Greifer

  3. […] ‘fringe’ historical linguistics 9 (skepticalhumanities.com) […]

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