‘fringe’ historical linguistics 10

Hello again, everybody!  Thanks as ever for your various helpful comments!  I turn here to claims associated with ‘Afrocentrism’.

Many non-mainstream diffusionist authors have claimed that Africa was an early centre for the spread of cultures and languages.  (These claims are not to be confused with the almost universally accepted view that hominids first arose in Africa and spread over the Earth from that base in the much more remote past; most of them are also separate from the widely-held view that Homo sapiens, specifically, spread from an African base at a considerably later but still very ancient date.)  The theories of most of these authors involve ‘Afrocentrism’: the tendency (especially in the USA) to exaggerate the role of Africa in world culture, by way of reaction to the previous, often racist down-playing of Africa’s contributions to history and intellectual life.  Afrocentrism has been popularized among African-American students and researchers in recent decades; it involves the reassessment of matters concerning the history and culture of Africa and the African diaspora (especially the African-American world) with a very heavy focus upon the experiences and traditional viewpoints of African people.  Central to much Afrocentrist theory are the claim that African civilization is very old indeed and the hyper-diffusionist view that Africans have had much more influence on word culture than is usually believed, notably (but not exclusively) through ancient Egypt (see also below), which Afrocentrists dubiously call Kemet and which they regard – very controversially – as ethnically and culturally part of Black Africa.  It is also suggested that Africa is much more linguistically and culturally united, at least historically, than non-Afrocentrist scholars would allow; for instance, Ancient Egyptian has often been identified – prominently by the major mid-twentieth-century Afrocentrist Cheik Anta Diop – as a pan-African ancestor language, contrary to the views of mainstream linguists.

Many Afrocentrists hold that words (and loosely similar sounds) from Ancient Egyptian, Ge’ez (the classical language of Ethiopia) and other widely-distributed and apparently unrelated African languages have common origins; the intention is to argue that all African languages are really one ‘family’, possibly descended from Ancient Egyptian.  They also claim that African languages and scripts were influential in early Europe, Asia and the Americas, and that many forms in European languages, along with the associated cultures, can be attributed to African sources.  Some Afrocentrists, notably Clyde Wintersand his associates, pay especial attention to linguistic matters; for instance, Winters ‘deciphers’ the genuinely mysterious Indus Valley Script (discussion to follow!) as Dravidian (Southern India) and links Dravidian generally, Sumerian and even Chinese with African languages held to have been widely diffused by an early African diaspora.  Some other Afrocentrist diffusionist work focusing upon language has been published under the editorship of Ivan Van Sertima.

Martin Bernal’s claims to the effect that Greek borrowed very heavily indeed from Egyptian as part of an Egyptian cultural ‘invasion’ of Greece are set in a more scholarly context, but still involve the usual loose comparative linguistic methodology.  Bernal’s etymological ideas have been generally rejected by classical scholars and Egyptologists following justifiably sharp critical reactions by philologists such as Jay Jasanoff and Alan Nussbaum.  Jasanoff and Nussbaum discuss many Greek words for which Bernal unconvincingly proposes Egyptian ancestor-words on the basis of loose semantic similarity and unsystematic and/or superficial similarity of form; for example he derives the Greek goddess-name Athene from the (phonetically not really similar) Egyptian expression Ht Nt (‘temple of the goddess Neit’). Many of Bernal’s etymologies appear arbitrary and there is no reason to accept them.

One of the more prominent recent Afrocentrist writers with a linguistic focus is Ayele Bekerie, who focuses especially upon the Ethiopic script, which is an ‘abugida’ (intermediate between an alphabet and a syllabic writing system) and which he treats as uniquely well-structured.  In addition, Bekerie uncritically accepts hyper-diffusionist accounts of the development of human civilizations – especially those formulated by Afrocentrists – and the associated (discredited) methods of comparative reconstruction that I have discussed earlier; for instance, he gives an implausible etymology for Greek sophia (‘wisdom’) in terms of words in Egyptian and in Ge’ez.  Other words from various languages are identified as cognate with Ge’ez words, with no worthwhile evidence.

Bekerie’s linguistics is indeed unorthodox and dubious more generally; he often seems to be operating in a folk-linguistic manner, without much awareness of the discipline as normally practised. For instance he claims that ‘grammar’ can be deduced from writing systems alone, and suggests that certain formal structures in some African languages and the Ethiopic abugida itself closely reflect African ‘philosophy’ – which does not seem to be the case.

Another such case involves the linguistic sections of Molefi Kete Asante’s work, which promotes Afrocentrism more generally, focusing especially on the alleged close links between ancient Egypt and Black Africa.  Asante makes implausible claims similar to those of Bekerie.  He identifies even the ‘indigenous’ peoples of Australia and New Guinea as African, the result of a very early African diaspora.  Asante’s discussion of Indo-European and of ancient languages and their relations is badly confused and the etymologies given are far-fetched to say the least.  His account of Egypt and its ancestral significance for the languages, cultures and ‘science’ of Black Africa is highly partisan and (again to say the very least) contentious, and he is overoptimistic about the reconstruction of very ancient languages using only modern data.  He also uses dated sources and the views of near-’fringe’ linguists to support his theories about the relationships between African languages, as developed in particular by Diop (see above).  Folk-linguistically, he uses phonetic(ally) to mean ‘phonemic(ally)’.

More next week!




2 Responses to ‘fringe’ historical linguistics 10

  1. […] ‘fringe’ historical linguistics 10 (sorry about wrong title!) (skepticalhumanities.com) […]

  2. Pacal says:

    It is interesting to note that Afrocentrism originally emerged as a methodological approach that tried to see the history of sub-saharan Africa from a African perspective. The idea was that “coventional” historiography tended to see things from the point of view of Europe or a Eurocentric perspective. THe idea was to try to see the history of Africa and in some cases the world from a African perspective and see what new insights and perspectives such a methodology resulted in.

    This way of looking at history did not in the slightest intail the acceptance of nonsense and woo. In many respects it prommised to open new avenues and perspectives. Well sadly it opened up in much of the west the sluice gates of woo and crap.

    What I find particularily amusing is how so many of the purvayeurs of Afrocentrism are astoundingly ignorant of the actual achievements andhistory of Africa. Many of them seem only to be interested in Ancient Egypt and their knowledge of the rest of Africa minimal.

    Most so-called Afrocentic scholars couldn’t tell the difference bettwen Bornu-Kamen, Ghana, Maili, Hausea, and Zimbabwe.

    The man called by some the founder of Afrocentrism Cheik Anta Diop, is interesting in that much of what he wrote is provocative and interresting but a great deal is pure woo. His insistence that the Ancient Egyptians were “Black” is esspecially a little hard to take. It appears that the ancient Egyptians were like modern Egyptians a “mixed” population whoose skin colour tended to get darker the further up the Nile you went. However off the wall Cheik Anta Diop went his successors went much further out and furthermore they were unlike him were generally deeply ignorant of sub Saharan Africa.

    Martin Bernal is a interesting case in his own right. He seems to be working out identity issues with his books. I am esspecially annoyed with his use of comparative plausibility. I.e., that if something is plausible it is worth taking seriously even if their is no evidence of it happening. Thus Bernal takes up the idea of Egyptian colonization of Greece etc. All to be taken seriously because they are plausible.

    Yeah, right!? His faith in the stories from Greek mythology is touching and very, very simpleminded.

    Ivan Van Sertima is another case his arguement that Olmec civilization was founded in Mexico by Kushites during the Kushites dynasty in Egypt isn’t phased by the fact that Olemc civilization was in existence by 1200 B.C.E. and its beginning are c. 1500 B.C.E. Long before the Kushite dynasty ( c. 750-670 B.C.E.). His book is over 30 years old and Ivan Van Sertima has yet it seems to use any of the last generations research on the early Olmec culture.

    But then Afrtrocentrists have often been guilty of publishing the most easily refuted crap. Yosef Ben-Jochannan for example has stated repeatidly in writing and in interviews that Aristotle stole books from the library of Alexandria and published them under his name. The fact that Aristotle died in 322 B.C.E. and the Library of Alexandria was not established until c. 285 B.C.E., seems to have escaped his notice.

    It is sad to see how a interesting methodological approach has been hijacked by woo meisters and yes fraudsters.

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