New Feature at the JREF Swift Blog

May 9, 2012

Hey, folks. I have a new gig editing a feature on skepticism and teaching at the JREF website. I contributed the first…uh…contribution on using Sagan’s novel Contact to teach critical thinking. Go check it out!


writings on the walls? (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 11′)

May 9, 2012

Hi everybody!  I’ve been away with my fiancée in Northern Ireland and then Wales, hence the lateness of this blog-instalment!  Thanks for the continuing interest.

I’ll return later to further cases involving specific languages which have been the focus of ‘fringe’ historical linguistic attention: Basque, Hungarian, Sumerian, Zuni, etc.  If anyone is especially interested in a given language as discussed in this context, please let me know!

I turn here, however, to non-mainstream ‘epigraphic’claims involving scripts rather than languages themselves, or at any rate involving the written rather than the spoken forms of (usually ancient) languages.

It must be noted at this point that the very familiar term alphabet is restricted in technical discourse to scripts which employ (at least roughly) ‘one symbol per phoneme’.  Of course, there have been (and still are) many important non-alphabetic scripts: logographies (one symbol per morpheme/word, as in Chinese script), syllabaries (one symbol per syllable, as in Cretan Linear B or Japanese kana), abugidas (see my earlier comments on Ethiopic script), abjads (alphabets displaying only the consonants of words, as in Hebrew script), etc.

There are statistical features which can provide some indication of which script-type is represented in what appears to be a given mysterious or doubtful body of writing.  These include the sheer total number of different symbols (low for an alphabet or abjad, higher for a syllabary, still higher for a logography), the ratio of tokens to types (much higher for an alphabet with its small number of symbols than for a logography; most alphabetic letters occur many times in a given text, whereas most symbols representing entire words will obviously occur much less frequently), the typical text-length (longer for an alphabet, where several characters are required to make up each word/morpheme; systems involving only very brief texts probably represent logographies, or indeed non-scripts; see below), the complexity of symbols (individual alphabetic letters tend to be simpler, requiring fewer ‘strokes’ than logographs), etc.

Naturally, it is also important to distinguish clearly between scripts and the languages which they are used to represent; a script is not itself a language.  A given language may be written in a variety of scripts and a script may be used (perhaps with modifications) to write various languages.  The Roman alphabet used to write English, French, Malay and many other languages is an obvious example.  And the fact that, for example, Hebrew script is used mainly to write the Hebrew language and vice versa does not mean that the script is the language.  In the same way, Chinese names written in the Roman alphabet are not thereby ‘in English’.  Sometimes a language and the script which is usually used to write it are very closely associated (as in the case of Hebrew, and also that of Greek), and the script may even be especially well-suited to the language (as in the case of Chinese); but even in these cases it is always possible to write any given language in a different script (Mandarin Chinese is now often written in a modified Roman alphabet), and it is also quite possible for a script associated with one language to come to be used for another, perhaps very different language (Japanese kanji are Chinese characters).

Indeed, one script can sometimes be altogether abandoned for another by users of a given language.  The motivation for the change of script is itself often partly non-linguistic, as in the case of the Turkish move from Arabic to Roman script in the 1920s (Turkey was moving from an Islamic to a secular/‘western’ self-image and cultural framework); however, there are also important linguistic factors, involving the degree to which each relevant script can readily handle the phonological structures of the language (in the case of Turkish, the new script is actually better suited to the language than was the old).  Even if a language and its script genuinely emerged simultaneously, as is sometimes implausibly claimed for Hebrew) and as does occur in the cases of invented languages, this would/does not prevent the later adoption of a different script.

The set of claims I’m introducing here saliently involves several well-known ‘scripts’ and individual documents lacking any authoritative decipherment: the Phaistos Disk from Crete, Easter Island Rongo-Rongo, the Indus Valley Script (IVS), etc., and also the medieval ‘Voynich Manuscript’ (many decipherments have been advanced for all of these).  Some of these items, such as the Phaistos Disk, are believed by many scholars to be undecipherable, because the texts available are too short to permit analysis in the absence of a bi- or multi-lingual ‘Rosetta Stone’.  Others, again including the Phaistos Disk and also for example the tablets found at the mysterious Glozel site in France, are considered by some scholars, on linguistic and other grounds, to be modern fakes.

Some purported decipherments in this area involve systems such as Gimbutas’ ‘Old European’, some African systems, and the Panaramitee ‘rock art’ found in Aboriginal Australia, which appear in fact to represent non-linguistic semiotic systems (comparable with traffic lights and such) rather than written language (or, in the last of these three cases, simply art rather than writing of any kind).  The Glozel tablets may also be of this nature.  In fact, as I noted earlier, it has recently been suggested by some mainstream linguists that IVS too, with its very short texts, is non-linguistic in nature.  (This is not to say that such systems, if genuine, are not interesting.)

Another sub-set of this group of cases involves claims to the effect that currently accepted decipherments are incorrect.  For instance, some writers reject the standard decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs; such authors (notably, for Egyptian, some Latter-Day Saints) often offer rival decipherments.  Some of the non-standard claims regarding Hebrew involve the view that Biblical Hebrew was grossly misinterpreted by the Masoretes, the scholars who developed the originally purely consonantal Hebrew abjad so as to display the vowels.

The best known ‘fringe epigraphist’ is the late Barry Fell, who was also the most prominent recent exponent of the hyper-diffusionist claim that transatlantic and/or transpacific voyages brought representatives of many cultures to the Americas before the now firmly established Norse settlements of around ten centuries ago.  Working extensively from allegedly inscriptional material, Fell and his many and varied associates identify the cultural and linguistic influence of Chinese groups, Japanese-speakers, Indians, ‘Celts’ from Ireland or Wales, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Hebrews, etc., etc., and also that of Africans (some ‘Afrocentrists’ are involved here, notably Ivan Van Sertima).  There are similar claims for Australasia and other regions.

In some cases, these claims involve the contentious decipherment of what are alleged to be inscriptions (on rocks etc.) as being in known scripts, adopted or adapted to write local languages which are generally deemed to have been unwritten until modern times.  Other claims in this general area involve ‘out-of-place’ written languages in essentially familiar scripts, for instance the Yarmouth Runestone from Nova Scotia (interpreted as written in a variety of languages including Hungarian), the Kensington Runestone from Minnesota (allegedly written in runic Scandinavian in medieval times, but more probably a 19th Century forgery), and the inscriptional Chinese, Mongolian, Malayalam etc. allegedly found in various unexpected locations as reported by Gavin Menzies.

However, many of the alleged inscriptions appear to be natural markings, plough-marks, etc.  Others (for instance some Egyptian hieroglyphic material ‘found’ in Australia) appear to be recent forgeries (often displaying learner errors).  Even where an inscription appears genuine, the specific scripts and linguistic forms identified are typically so unfamiliar that their provenance is partly a matter of speculative reconstruction.

It will be seen from the above that most claims of all these types are highly dubious, to say the least.  Those without the relevant expertise should probably accept the negative linguistic consensus on the non-standard ideas about each such case.

I will comment on some specific cases of this kind next time.




Guest article up at Skepchick

May 7, 2012

I recently wrote a guest post about the horrid little show Ancient Aliens for the website Skepchick. This means, of course, that we can expect the notorious Skepchick bump (which, now that I think about it, sounds like a pregnancy).


This Week in Conspiracy (29 April 2012)

May 2, 2012

It was a good week at Casa Blaskiewicz. Unexpected goodness of all types. On the other hand, I also had to watch Ancient Aliens for a guest post at another site. (TBA) Sort of a wash, really.

When I have something official, I’ll mention it here. Heheh.

Anyway, I imagine it was quite another week in the conspiracy-o-sphere. Not a lot going on, but let’s have at it.

“The goal of every person I knew during my formative years with a desire to succeed was to one day hold in their hands an official looking embossed document announcing their ascension to the ranks of the intellectually anointed.  I was never so keen on the idea.” [No shit.]


Twit of the week is @SheepHunter, who totally lost his sh*t this week:

Decaf, bro. And a dictionary. The runner up was Adam Kokesh:

I’m a professional fucktard. Cursing is my bread & butter. (@YouTube — Adam Kokesh (@adamkokesh)

Well, that’s it. I have not been moved to crown a conspiracy theory of the week. But surely something wacky will pop up next week!


‘fringe’ historical linguistics 10

May 2, 2012

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!