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.