around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (1) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 12)

May 15, 2012

Hi everybody!

I’ll begin to comment here on some important specific cases of non-standard ‘epigraphics’ around the world

In his book, Saki Mafundikwa provides a survey of historical and other aspects of African scripts.  Some of the systems discussed by Mafundikwa are not in fact true scripts but are instead semiotic systems not representing specific languages or their words, or even simply art or at best matters of graphic design (see above).  This may involve the desire to suggest that pre-modern African societies were more literate than was in fact the case (a manifestation of Afrocentrism).  In more general terms, too, the level of linguistic expertise leaves something to be desired.

There are also more overtly Afrocentrist works about African scripts.  Earlier I referred to Ayele Bekerie, who focuses upon the Ethiopic script, which he believes spread from Ethiopia to South Arabia rather than vice versa as is generally held.  Bekerie uncritically adopts hyper-diffusionist accounts of the development of human civilizations – especially those formulated by earlier Afrocentrists – and the associated (discredited) methods of comparative reconstruction.  He also advances a highly tendentious view of the origin of the Greek alphabet, and claims links between Armenian script and Ethiopic.

The epigraphic ideas of Molefi Kete Asante (also mentioned earlier) are confused and at times simply mistaken, in much the same manner.  He first seems to endorse the notion of the development of scripts through successive types, in Africa as elsewhere (as also does Bekerie); but laterhe rejects the entire ‘Eurocentric’ notion of script as too narrow to cover all relevant African systems (some of which do not really appear to be written language; see earelier). Still later, Asante decries emphasis on the development of writing as itself Eurocentric.  However, this conflicts with his claim that any advanced civilization must have written language (which is falsified, in any event, by the case of the Inca).  In fact, Asante’s entire discussion of writing systems is terminologically and conceptually utterly confused.

As far as the Americas are concerned, many claims of this type involve the contentious decipherment of what are alleged to be inscriptions found in the Americas as being in known Old World scripts (or variants thereof) and either in known Old World languages or adapted to write local Amerindian languages which are generally deemed to have been unwritten until modern times.  This is the main linguistic aspect of hyper-diffusionist claims to the effect that transatlantic and/or transpacific voyages brought representatives of many cultures to the Americas before the firmly established Norse settlements of around 1000 CE.  The non-mainstream tradition in question is best represented in the USA, where its proponents identify themselves as ‘epigraphists’; many of them are members of the Epigraphic Society1, which has various regional branches in the USA and issues ‘occasional publications’.  As I noted last time, the best known American ‘epigraphist’ is Howard Barraclough (‘Barry’) Fell, the late academic biologist and hyper-diffusionist non-mainstream linguist.

Fell and his supporters interpret many markings found in the Americas as inscriptions in various scripts/languages: Chinese, Egyptian, Libyan, Phoenician, Hebrew, African systems, etc.; and also in an otherwise unattested variant of Ogam/Ogham, a script used mainly to write Irish Gaelic.  They also link the Tifinagh alphabet (a series of abjadic and alphabetic scripts used by some Berber peoples of North Africa, notably the Tuareg, to write their language) with Ogam and its variant ‘Consaine’ (vowel-less Ogam).

A few of the very many alleged inscriptions are:

The Bat Creek Stone Inscription (Tennessee) (interpreted as Hebrew, as Cherokee or – by skeptics – as a hoax; it may not be linguistic at all)

The Cook Farm Mound Tablets (Iowa)

The Davenport Tablets (Iowa)

The now lost Grave Creek Mound Stone (West Virginia)

The Los Lunas Decalogue Stone (New Mexico)

The Mystery Hill artefacts (New Hampshire)

The Newark Holy Stones (Ohio)

The Newberry Inscription (Michigan; allegedly in the Cypriot syllabary)

The Yoder site (California)

Petroglyphs (markings on rocks) found in Michigan

The allegedly mysterious ‘hieroglyphs’ used to write Micmac (Eastern Canada); Fell implausibly regards the characters as Egyptian in origin

Alleged inscriptions on amulets and ‘out-of-place’ coins found in the Americas, including characters found on the ‘mini-maps’ found on Phoenician coins as interpreted by geologist Mark McMenamin

As I noted, some of the alleged inscriptions appear to be in fact markings produced by natural processes or by non-linguistic human activity such as ploughing. Some genuine inscriptions are apparently recent and uncontroversial (they are being misinterpreted); other inscriptions may be deliberate forgeries.

Some writers claim that the Norse penetrated deep into North America in medieval times. The main set of claims involves the Kensington Stone from Minnesota, allegedly written in runic Scandinavian in the fourteenth century CE.   Most informed commentators have concluded that the Stone is a nineteenth-century forgery, but a few accept it as genuine.

Another key case is that of the Yarmouth Stone (Nova Scotia; thirteen characters only). Zoltán Simon reads the Stone as Hungarian, while others read it in various other ways, in one case also in Hungarian but with the opposite ductus and naturally with a different meaning. (Of course, if the Stone is indeed in Hungarian, it may still date from the time of the Viking settlements in North America, around 1,000 years BP: users of Hungarian could conceivably have accompanied Viking expeditions.)

Other allegedly runic inscriptions include the Spirit Pond Runestones (Maine), the Heavener Runestone (Oklahoma) and other Oklahoma runestones.

I’ll comment further on any of these cases on request.

Over the years, a number of serious scholars, such as the Islamic historian and archaeologist Norman Totten, have supported Fell – but usually without adequate knowledge of linguistics.  Cyclone Covey (whom I mentioned earlier) is an academic historian with research interests in the Greeks, Troy, etc. and with some knowledge of languages and linguistics; he too has been persuaded by the arguments of Fell.  Covey’s specific epigraphic interests include Burrows Cave (see below) and especially artefacts unearthed at a site in Arizona interpreted as the remains of a Latin-using community terming itself ‘Calalus’ which allegedly migrated there from Europe around 775 CE.  The main linguistic aspect of this case involves supposed Latin texts, notably one inscribed on a lead cross; but the artefacts are no longer available for examination.  Richard Flavin, Bill Rudersdorf and other scholars have concluded that this site, while not a hoax, has been misinterpreted and is in fact from a much later date and not controversial.

Burrows’ Cave is a decidedly controversial site in Illinois; in 1982 a large quantity of cultural material was allegedly found there by Russell Burrows.  Some of the markings are regarded by supporters of Burrows as epigraphic in nature, including surprisingly accurate maps (identified by Bill Kreisle), coins, and thousands of stone tablets apparently bearing texts. Paul Schaffranke and Brian Hubbard ‘deciphered’ some of the inscriptions as Vulgar Latin written in an Etruscan alphabet.  Others were ‘deciphered’ as Hebrew and Egyptian by Arnold Murray and Zena Halpern. Fred Rydholm and Joseph Mahan, founder and long-time president of the Institute for the Study of American Cultures (ISAC), suggest that bodies found in the cave are those of refugees from Ptolemaic Egypt, including a Jewish contingent from the Roman-controlled Kingdom of Mauritania.  Kurt Schildmann also endorses the material, but regards it as written in Sanskrit (which he also finds in similar texts reported from Peru); in addition, he finds words from Old World languages in Mayan script.  The scholarly community is agreed that the items alleged to have been found in Burrows’ Cave are in fact modern fakes.

More next time!




Skeptical Humanities Store

May 13, 2012

Hey, folks.

Last night, I thought to myself, “Self, I would really like a t-shirt that said: ‘The Essex Rebellion Was an Inside Job.'” Then I thought, you know what, I could make one and put the Skeptical Humanities logo on it. Then I asked Eve to make it for me.

She did. And now we have a very little cafe press store with a single lonely item in it: the aforementioned t-shirt.

Our t-shirt is made of finest t-shirt material, probably, and fits over most humans, depending on the size of the shirt and the size of the person. In the event of shipwreck, it can be used to flag down a passing coast guard ship. Also, it has an obscure reference that only really cool castaways will recognize, which makes forming alliances within your emerging Lord-of-the-Flies-type society easy.

Do it today, won’t you? We’ll be glad you did.


This Week in Conspiracy (11 May 2012)

May 11, 2012

Things are looking up. Last week I accepted a Visiting Assistant Professor position in Wisconsin, so at the end of the summer, the home base of Skeptical Humanities is going to be shifting northward. This does not mean, however, that I am going to be able to let the goofers of the world off the hook. Indeed, I will likely dive into it with more zeal than ever since I am less likely to overheat way up there than I am in Atlanta.


Through the influence of a Rosicrucian-Masonic brotherhood, Washington D.C. seems to be constructed to be the capital of Francis Bacon’s vision of the New Atlantis, which is likely to become the center of the New World Order. On the back of the dollar bill we read the words Novus Ordos Seclorum, which means New Order of the Ages or New World Order. These words are found below an Egyptian pyramid with the all-seeing eye of Lucifer above it, inside of a smaller pyramid. This occult symbolism signifies that in the New World Order, a Luciferian elite will rule the masses; or to use the terminology of the Fabian socialists like H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell, a scientific elite. This is the restructuring that is going on in America right now.

Twit of the Week:

Yeah, this one. It’s like the worst kickstart ever:


I will go to #Bilderberg2012 if you help fund my voyage. A Chipin donation box is up on Use PayPal. Thanks in advance.

Mark did leave a couple of unpleasant presents in my twitter feed this week. Another one is:

We only know the new #UnderwearBomber was a #CIA agent because someone leaked it to the #AssociatedPress. There are good people in gov.

It sounds like the CIA is annoyed that the news got out, but think of their position: is the entire support structure behind the operation now blown, as well as…how many other covers? Are now other lives in jeopardy I can see why they might be miffed.

Visibility911 made a valiant effort this week, though:

It’s just plain old nauseating how @BarackObama is trying to grandstand over killing Osama bin Dead For 10 Years.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

Without a doubt the conspiracy theory of the week is the notion that the CIA staged a fake underwear bombing scare. The evidence is, of course, the fact that the bomb-makers assigned an informant to deliver the bomb. And then he informed, as it were. It’s all the rage, and the media illiterate are flailing about in their own ignorance exultantly under the delusion that everything that they always believed about the CIA staging domestic terrorism was true. The IntelHub (sigh) it was a “corporate media manufactured story [that] was literally a NON EVENT.” There is a difference between making a bomb and being handed a bomb, ding-dongs. Go out and show that the CIA made the bomb and you’ll get Pulitzers. Really.

UPDATE! This wins. I must strip the IntelHub of the only award it ever earned. I saw this minutes after I posted and felt compelled to revise. A concerned citizen from Nebraska gives her view of Dutch gays who like watching people perish, as well as p-e-n-i-s homiciders and anus-licking gay child molesting genociders who go to Gender Studies, but because only because they are gay like Hillary Clinton. She also talks about why college kids need their own doom rooms, when Canadian corpse funguses come from gay ruptured instestines, while Roman bathhouse orgiers watched Christians be eaten at the Colosseum, so that gays cuss sadistically after gaying each other sexually and before committing treason and their children rape each other hetero all day when they aren’t told not to and Judas was a homo:

I’m out of here. I’m going to try to get these back on a more regular schedule in the next week or two. Meanwhile, check out some of my other work which is popping around the web. I recently posted about Ancient Aliens at Skepchick; I wrote about using fiction (specifically Carl Sagan’s contact) to teach critical thinking over at the JREF Swift Blog (the first of many posts on teaching and skepticism); and my next article should be up at the CSICOP website shortly.


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!