‘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.