around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (7) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 18)

June 25, 2012

Hi again, everybody! Thanks for comments as ever! I turn now to the final set of cases of this kind. Some of these involve East Asia.

Dubious claims have been made regarding artefacts and written texts from a sunken civilization off the coast of Taiwan associated with the aboriginal Ketagalan group. Also in the Chinese world, Nu Shu (or Nü Shu) is a script and supposedly a language confined to women in one specific area within China. Unlike the standard logographic Chinese script, Nu Shu is syllabic (and hence phonological); each of its characters represents a syllable in the local ‘dialect’. It possesses considerably too small an inventory to represent all the syllables, including tonal distinctions; digraphs are used for the remainder. Zhou Shuoyi, reportedly the only male to have mastered the language, compiled a dictionary listing 1,800 characters, many of which are variant forms of Chinese characters. The origin of Nu Shu is unknown, but it has been suggested that it may date back as far as the third century CE.

Bruria Bergman claims in connection with her theory that a Japanese temple chant is in distorted Hebrew (mentioned earlier) that in 1935 one Kiyomaro Takeuchi discovered an actual document in the area in question (Herai) which dates from around 100 CE and is written in the kana syllabary (several hundred years before kana are known to have been used); this text allegedly shows that Jesus is buried in Herai, and contains his will. However, the document is probably a nineteenth-twentieth-century forgery.

Some cases of this general type are not closely associated with a particular region, because they involve portable manuscripts rather than inscriptions and are not linked with any identifiable language. The best known of these is the Voynich Manuscript, a genuinely mysterious medieval book-length work in an unfamiliar script, including illustrations; the topic may be botanical. Many decipherments have been advanced (some of them themselves book-length). The case arguably involves cryptography rather than linguistics, but either way the issue is my no means settled. Another such case involves the Rohonc Codex, which is of unknown date and may well be a hoax; there have been various attempts at translations (into Hungarian, an unidentified form of early Romance, Hindi etc.), mostly transparently non-mainstream in character.

A few non-mainstream theories involve written numerals. One such proposal, by Jason King, deals with the origins of the shapes of the ‘Arabic’ (apparently ultimately Indian) characters used to represent numbers (integers). Some such number-symbols, notably ‘Arabic’ 1, appear motivated: the symbol 1 is a single stroke. Most of the ‘Arabic’ symbols, however, appear arbitrary: for example, the character 9 does not obviously express the meaning ‘nine’. However, King holds that the ‘Arabic’ numerals 1-9 and also the zero sign (0) are not in fact arbitrary. The basic claim is that each symbol was invented so as to have angles corresponding in number with the meaning of the symbol. Thus, 0 has no angles, 1 (written as now usually printed) has one, 2 (written here as Z) has two, etc. King has to make various dubious assumptions in arriving at this view. For instance, he assumes that 1 was originally written as now printed; but in older versions it is typically a single vertical stroke with no angles. King does not offer any actual evidence that his forms are original ones; and he claims that they were invented by the Phoenicians rather than in India (although the usual Phoenician number-symbols were not in fact similar to the ‘Arabic’ symbols). In sum, it does not appear that King is correct here. The best that can be said is that he has drawn attention to a somewhat neglected matter.

I have now completed this summary survey of non-mainstream historical-linguistic and epigraphic claims. On request I will comment on claims regarding any particular language not so far discussed (especially linguistic rather than epigraphic claims). Apart from this, I now propose to look at non-historical aspects of ‘fringe’ linguistics. I may take a short break from blogging before embarking upon this. But thanks again for your support, and see you soon!


Eve’s Swift Blog article is totally…warranted

June 22, 2012

Oh, I’m such a delight!

Eve has a new post up at the Swift blog, where we are collecting writings by educators who use extraordinary claims in their classes to teach critical thinking. This one is about warrants.


This Week in Conspiracy (12 June 2012)

June 22, 2012

I’ve been sitting around Atlanta for weeks waiting for classes to start. To keep myself occupied, I’ve been combing through the conspiracy literature, reading for my upcoming class on the Cold War, and generally puttering about contentedly. I also watched a disturbing amount of Deadliest Catch (which is “any Deadliest Catch,” by the way).

Currently, I am up in Minnesota, where I failed to find a house for the next semester. I met members of my new department in Eau Claire, WI, which was delightful, and I have a jump on how to think about my upcoming class. So that was productive. I also hit n00b night at the Minnesota Skeptics and met some of the people who live in my electronic friend box. But not all the squeaky cheese in the world would keep me from bringing you up to speed on the weak that was weak! Perhaps delay me for a week or two, but that’s it.

Or how about Mark Dice’s reaction?

Mark Dice (@MarkDice)
6/8/12 1:27 AM
And Rand Paul announced it on #SeanHannity‘s show!!#ScrewRandPaul.

“So if there was weird stuff going on,” he said, “I actually think it was happening back in his college days because I think he has spent $1.5 or $2 million through attorneys to have all of the college records and all of that stuff sealed. So if you’re spending money to seal something, that’s probably where the hanky panky was going on.”

Twits of the Week

This has become a favorite feature-within-a-feature for me. I get a lot of joy/agony out of the twitterverse. Here’s agony:

#DefineObamaInOneWord Satanist — Kn0Wledge[!] (@An0nKn0wledge)

Here’s joy:

In KENYAN. // RT @UberFacts “Barack Obama has read every Harry Potter book to his daughters.” — BillCorbett (@BillCorbett)

Here’s some unintentional irony, in tweet form:

Dear Occupiers who hate me, just remember I was at the #BilderbergProtest aka #OccupyBilderberg for four straight days. Were you? — Mark Dice (@MarkDice)

Anyway, Eve and I are both going to be appearing at TAM in a few weeks, and my classes have started up again. I will do my best to keep the conspiracy coming!


Viking-Age Psychic: Some Hits and One Big Miss

June 21, 2012

Old Norse literature is filled with supernatural beings and occurrences. Obviously, the mythological works refer to gods, elves, dwarfs, giants, enormous serpents, etc., while the sagas feature the returning dead (lots of them), trolls, shape-shifting berserks and the occasional giant. There’s also quite a lot of magic. There is active magic: spells and curses, but, since the sagas were written by Christians and the Icelandic family sagas (Íslandingasögur) often take place after the conversion (at least in part), this kind of magic is often viewed negatively. In addition, since seiðr magic was particularly associated with women, male practitioners (including Odin) were often viewed with suspicion and contempt. Even though magic sometimes has a bad reputation in the sagas, it is generally taken for granted and therefore often works (in the saga accounts–not in real life).

Along with active magic, there is also prophetic or divinatory magic. Sometimes active and prophetic magic go hand and hand, but they could also be separate, and I’m going to focus on prophetic magic in this post. Prophecy can come in many forms in the sagas: sometimes people have prophetic dreams; sometimes a member of one of the overlapping groups of female deities associated with human fate will turn up (dísirfylgjurnornir). Since the sagas’ original audience would often have been familiar with the general plots of the stories, saga writers don’t build suspense in quite the same way modern novelists do. Instead they often use a lot of prophetic foreshadowing. This is particularly noticeable in Laxdæla saga, in which the author applies prophetic foreshadowing with a trowel: there are dreams, cursed weapons and predictions out the wazoo.

Some saga characters are particularly gifted at foretelling the future. They “see further into things than other people.” Some of these people are men, and they don’t bear the same stigma as men who practice seiðr. Indeed, they are often considered wise counselors. For instance, in Laxdæla saga, a man named Gest Oddleifsson

was an important chieftain and especially wise man, who could foretell many events of the future. Most of the foremost men of the country were on good terms with him and many sought his advice. (ch. 33, p. 328)

On one occasion, he and Olaf Hoskuldsson observe a group of young men swimming. He is able to identify Olaf’s sons and nephew. After Olaf leaves, Gest begins to weep and predicts that one day Olaf’s nephew Bolli will

stoop over [his cousin/fosterbrother/best friend] Kjartan’s corpse and in slaying him bring about his own death, a vision all the more saddening because of the excellence of these young men. (ch. 33, p. 331)

Earlier, he had interpreted a series of dreams for Gudrun Osvifsdottir. These dreams also relate to the central tragedy, as Gudrun gets engaged to Kjartan, but marries Bolli.

The sagas also feature professional seers, the völur (singular völva). The völur were female and often practiced seiðr as well as divination. The title of the mythological poem Völuspá means “The Prophecy of the völva.” The völur were respected and well-compensated (the Wikipedia article gives some examples of very rich völur graves).

Eirik the Red’s Saga gives one of the most detailed descriptions of a völva’s appearance and performance. Thorbjorg lives in Greenland and is known as the Little Sybil (lítilvölva). She and her nine sisters were all völur, but she is only one still alive. The saga makes it clear the kind of respect the völur commanded:

It was her custom in winter to attend feasts; she was always invited, in particular, by those who were most curious about their own fortunes or the season’s prospects…. Thorkel invited the prophetess to his house and prepared a good reception for her, as was the custom when such women were being received. A high-seat was made ready for her with a cushion on it, which had to be stuffed with hens’ feathers…. When she entered the room everyone felt obliged to proffer respectful greetings, to which she responded according to her opinion of each person. (ch. 4, pp. 81-82)

Her clothing and her meal are described in very great detail. This is what she ate:

[S]he was given a gruel made from goat’s milk, and a main dish of hearts from the various kinds of animals that were available there [during a time of famine]. She used a brass spoon, and a knife with a walrus-tusk handle bound with two rings of copper; the blade had a broken point. (ch. 4, p. 82)

The clothing, food, hen feathers and accouterments all presumably have some sort of magical significance. Unfortunately, she needs one more thing: a bunch of women who will stand in a circle and at least one woman who can sing certain spells. The only woman who knows the spells is Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, a young woman recently arrived from Iceland, who learned the spells from her foster-mother but is hesitant to perform them because she is a Christian and doesn’t want to do something so pagany. Eventually, she is convinced.

If you strip away all the magical trappings, however, the Little Sybil’s performance isn’t too different from that of a modern psychic or a nineteenth-century spiritualist. She doesn’t actually contact the spirits of the dead–when the Norse dead wanted to contact the living, they just got up and did it themselves, using their dead bodies (this occurs in Eirik’s saga, when Thorstein Eiriksson sits up to give a final message to his wife, the aforementioned Gudrid). She does, however, mention spirits (náttúrur):

Many spirits are now present…which were charmed to hear the singing, and which previously had tried to shun us and would grant us no obedience. And now many things stand revealed to me which before were hidden both from me and from others. (ch. 4, p. 83)

And what is her actual prophecy? Well, she’s been invited because there has been a severe famine, and people want to know when it will end:

I can now say that this famine will not last much longer and that conditions will improve with the spring; and the epidemic which has persisted for so long will abate sooner than expected. (ch. 4, p. 83)

Yippee! Exactly what people want to hear. She also has a prediction for Gudrid:

…I can see your whole destiny with great clarity now. You will make a most distinguished marriage here in Greenland, but it will not last for long, for your paths all lead to Iceland; there you will start a great and eminent family line, and over your progeny there shall shine a bright light. (ch. 4, p. 83)

She gives readings to others as well, although the details are not provided. We are told, however, that “there were few things that did not turn out as she prophesied.” And, indeed, her predictions are accurate as far as they go, but, considering she can see Gudrid’s whole destiny, she leaves out a few important details: “During your first marriage, there will be an epidemic, and the dead will rise. Your own husband will rise as a zombie, but don’t worry, he doesn’t want to eat your brains; he just wants a Christian burial.” Missed that one.

Oh, and there’s one more glaring miss: all Gudrid’s paths lead to Iceland, except the one that leads to a new world that hadn’t been discovered at the time of the prophecy. Gudrid will start a great and eminent family line in Iceland, but one important member of that family line will be the first European born in that brand new world. North America–kind of a big thing to leave out, don’t you think?

Actual photo of “The Little Sybil”



Eirik’s SagaThe Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America. Tr. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. Penguin Classics ed. London, Penguin, 1965. All quotations are from this edition.

Eiríks saga rauða. Ed. Guðni Jónsson.

The Saga of the People of Laxardal. Tr. Keneva Kunz. The Sagas of Icelanders. Ed. Örnólfur Thorsson. New York: Viking-Penguin, 2000. All quotations are from this edition.

New Conspiracy Guy post up at CSI site

June 21, 2012

My most recent “Conspiracy Guy” column is up at CSI. It’s called, “Tim McVeigh’s Must-Read List: The Turner Diaries.” As always, I encourage comments here, as the CSI site does not offer that option. It’s a pretty goddamned awful book I’m discussing with a pretty goddamned good scholar, Tom Lolis.

RJB (codename: Defiant Taco)

around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (6) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 17)

June 18, 2012

Hi again, everybody! Thanks for comments as ever! I turn now to issues of this kind involving Pacific territories.

The mainstream view of Pacific linguistic history is that the Polynesian languages as they spread eastwards from East Asia across the ocean, and the other Pacific languages, were unwritten until the beginning of European colonization. The only exception is the now small corpus written in the Rongorongo script of outlying Easter Island (Rapa Nui). Rongorongo lacks an accepted decipherment but is generally presumed (in the absence of other candidate languages) to encode an earlier stage of Rapa Nui, the contemporary Polynesian language of the island (settled around 400 CE); it is possible that it represents an independent invention of writing.

Hundreds of tablets written in Rongorongo existed as late as 1864, but most were lost or destroyed in that period and only twenty-six remain today; almost all of these are inscribed in wood. Each text has between two and over two thousand simple glyphs (some feature what appear to be compound glyphs). The longest surviving text is that on the ‘Santiago Staff’: around 2,500 glyphs, depending upon how the characters are divided. The glyph-types are a mixture of geometric figures and standardized representations of living organisms; each glyph is around one centimetre in height. Thomas Barthel provides a standard list.

Only Tablet Q has been carbon-dated, but the results limit the date only to after 1680 (in any event, some carbon-dates for Rongorongo are demonstrably inaccurate). Texts A, P, and V can be dated to the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries by virtue of being inscribed on European oars.

Some ‘decipherers’ themselves regard Rongorongo as local in origin. Sergei Rjabchikov (unusually ‘mainstream’ in this case) interprets the texts as in an early form of Rapa Nui. Barry Fell (see earlier) ‘deciphers’ the script with the aid of cave ‘inscriptions’ and other texts from New Zealand (see below); he treats the language as an artificial (priestly) Polynesian language closely related to Maori.

On the other hand, various non-mainstream writers have linked Rongorongo with scripts and languages from remote areas. A common choice is Indus Valley Script, itself currently undeciphered (see earlier); some Rongorongo characters superficially resemble those of IVS.
Stephen Fischer (one of the ‘decipherers’ of the Phaistos Disk) has argued that Rongorongo is in fact a modern invention and is logographic and ‘semasiographic’ in character (and thus, in part, not strictly linguistic). He reads the text on the Santiago Staff as a series of creation chants. Konstantin Pozdniakov notes that the Staff shares short phrases with a very few other texts but nothing with the rest of the Rongorongo corpus; and Jacques Guy argues that Fischer’s reading is untenable (and that if it were correct the text on the Staff would consist almost entirely of personal names). Paul Bahn and John Flenley support the Fischer ‘decipherment’, but without displaying linguistic expertise.

The prevailing mainstream opinion is that Rongorongo is not true writing but ‘proto-writing’, or even a limited system of mnemonics. This view was foreshadowed by some earlier writers, notably Katherine Routledge, who interpreted Rongorongo as an idiosyncratic mnemonic system in which the meanings of the glyphs varied from scribe to scribe

Another regional focus of non-mainstream theorizing involving scripts in the Pacific proper is New Zealand, which was settled from Eastern Polynesia around 1000 CE. The mainstream position is that here too the languages (Moriori and Maori) were unwritten until the colonial period. However, some non-mainstream authors offer hyper-diffusionist theories (similar to those applied to the Americas) involving unrecognized early visits to New Zealand on the part of voyagers from Asia, Europe, Africa etc. – some involving unrecognized early contact with the New Zealand Polynesians, who are themselves sometimes held to have settled the islands earlier than the given date (see for instance the works of Barry Brailsford).

Barry Fell claimed to have identified Libyan and Numidian script in New Zealand, and also found Polynesian elements on the Phaistos Disk. Ross Wiseman and others believe that they have found Egyptian and Phoenician inscriptions around New Zealand, confirming their hyper-diffusionist views of history. However, some of these are natural markings on rocks, which they are over-interpreting; others are indeed written language but contain errors and are surely fakes. With some other amateurs, Martin Doutré argues for an alternative hyper-diffusionist view of early New Zealand history involving early voyages by ‘Celts’ and members of other Eurasian groups. Doutré’s linguistics is of the usual non-mainstream type. Like Wiseman, he identifies ancient inscriptions in Eurasian languages in New Zealand and endorses the ideas of the ‘Viewzone’ group (who also link the Panaramitee Aboriginal rock-art tradition of Australia with their claims regarding a common world script in very early times).

I turn now to Australia, on the fringe of the Pacific. Many non-mainstream authors have offered and continue to offer hyper-diffusionist theories involving unrecognized early visits to Australia by long-distance voyagers. Some of these theories involve the supposed presence in Australia of inscriptions in Egyptian or Phoenician script, found on rock faces or associated with ruins (typically, in fact, of nineteenth-century origin) and ruin-like rock formations. (For cultural reasons, there are far fewer genuine pre-colonial ‘indigenous’ buildings in Australia than in New Zealand.) Some of these alleged inscriptions again contain errors and are surely fakes; others are over-interpreted natural markings.

One author who has proclaimed the presence in Australia of Egyptian hieroglyphic texts is Paul White, who endorses as genuine a set of rock carvings found in the National Park forest in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales. White (claiming support from an Egyptologist) argues that the inscriptions feature early forms of hieroglyphs which ‘correlate’ with archaic Phoenician and Sumerian sources, but this view of early Egyptian script is simply mistaken, and the text in question is now acknowledged as a fake.

Val Osborn claims to have found a Phoenician port in Sarina, Queensland, and other authors report Phoenician or Egyptian inscriptions from that state and from New South Wales, notably the prominent ‘anomalist’ Rex Gilroy. Gilroy and Brett Green have identified ‘texts’ linked with the ‘Gympie Pyramid’ in Queensland (which probably represents ruined nineteenth-century vineyard terracing) as Egyptian or Indian in origin.

More next time on a few additional cases (some of them involving East Asia).


around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (5) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 16)

June 12, 2012

Hi again, everybody! I turn here to claims regarding Indian scripts.

Many of these claims involve the interpretation of the Indus Valley Script (IVS). IVS has been found on tablets in the ruins of Mohenjodaro and Harappa and dated around 4,500-4,000 years BP. The Indus Valley Civilization, if IVS is genuinely a script (see below), is one of the oldest literate civilizations known, and the issues extend well beyond linguistics.

IVS is the subject of a vast scholarly literature but has no accepted decipherment or interpretation. The two most plausible candidates for the unidentified language represented are Indo-European (probably early Sanskrit/pre-Sanskrit) and Dravidian, the main language ‘family’ of Southern India; the best known language in this ‘family’ is Tamil. On the ‘Dravidian IVS’ theory, the later arrival in India of the IE-speakers might have contributed to the fall of the Indus Valley Civilization, or might alternatively have post-dated it altogether. The old mainstream notion of an ‘Aryan Invasion’ of India by users of IE around 3,500 years BP has long been modified; but if IE arose much further west, as is still accepted in the mainstream, the language ‘family’ must have entered India at some date.

Many of those who believe that IVS represents Dravidian invoke Brahui, the isolated Dravidian language of the Indus region, which they interpret as a survivor of early Dravidian domination in the region (but there are other, mainstream accounts of the situation of Brahui suggesting that the language was transplanted to the region at a much later date).

If IVS instead represents very early Sanskrit or the like, IE was in India much earlier than orthodox scholarship maintains, too early to permit any Aryan incursion in the second millennium BCE. The arrival of IE in India might, indeed, have been the event which triggered the development of the Indus Valley Civilization. Edwin Bryant has proposed a moderate version of the view that IE entered India at an early date, but (as I noted earlier) there are also stronger, clearly non-mainstream views, proposed by K. D. Sethna and others, according to which IE actually had its origins in India. An authoritative and generally accepted decipherment of IVS would be a very important factor in the solution to this historical problem.

There have been over 100 ‘decipherments’ of IVS, many by non-mainstream writers and those with political, cultural and linguistic biases. Predictably, most ‘decipherers’ favour either IE or Dravidian (or languages which may be related to Dravidian, such as Elamite), depending upon their own linguistic background or interests. IE interpretations of IVS include those of Barry Fell (see earlier), who believed that he had deciphered the script as representing early Sanskrit/pre-Sanskrit, George Feuerstein and his associates, David Frawley, Daniel Salas, Rama Sarker, etc. Dravidian interpretations include those of Tariq Rahman and Anand Sharan, who believes that IVS is still in use in Bihar State, India (not close to the IVS sites). Sharan therefore accepts a version of the ‘Aryan Invasion’, but (as a ‘Dravidian supporter’) he also denies that the Dravidian-speakers were culturally and technologically inferior to these invaders. His account of how in that case Dravidian came to be ‘pushed’ south is not entirely convincing. Of course, it is not agreed by mainstream Indologists that IVS is indeed still in use, in Bihar or anywhere else.

Clyde Winters and other Afrocentrists ‘decipher’ the script as Dravidian; they go on to link Dravidian generally, Sumerian and even Chinese with African languages held to have been widely diffused by an early African diaspora. Ivan van Sertima and his associates present a range of other Afrocentrist views. Most of the material in this work is non-linguistic in character, involving artefacts, ‘racial’ characteristics and such; but Walter A. Fairservis claimed that the language represented by the Indus Valley Script was Dravidian – which is hardly supported by his editor’s claim that the IVS-users were black Africans rather than Dravidians akin to dark-skinned contemporary Southern Indians (endorsed by Wayne B. Chandler, who believes that Dravidians later ‘inherited’ what was originally an African civilization).

Indologists Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat and Michael Witzel have proposed that IVS is in fact a non-linguistic symbolic system (see above) which was used by an elite in a multilingual situation and does not encode any particular language. They support this view with many arguments, including the total absence of long texts in IVS (the longest known text has only seventeen characters, and very few have more than ten); this would make IVS unique as a true script, if it were a script. Richard Sproat has also commented on some academic approaches to such issues which in the view of these three authors have not led in the direction of what they hold to be reliable solutions. Michael Witzel offers extended critiques of non-mainstream proposals in this area. William Bright also concludes that none of the ‘decipherments’ offered to date can be substantiated and that the methods adopted are often dubious).

There are also claims regarding mysterious artefacts, some of them bearing markings interpreted by some as short inscriptions in an otherwise unknown script, found submerged in Indian waters off Cambay.

There is a body of markedly non-mainstream work regarding an ancient civilization and language known as Naacal, allegedly carried to Mesopotamia, Egypt, India etc. in very remote ages by Mayan adepts. The first recorded use of the term is by the maverick archaeologist Augustus le Plongeon. Le Plongeon believed in a late-pre-historic world civilization centred on a Pacific continent known as ‘Mu’ or ‘Lemuria’ (later submerged, giving rise to pre-Polynesian cultures in places such as New Zealand) and massive early diffusion more generally. His ideas were linked with those of H.P. Blavatsky and were developed further by James Churchward , Wishar Cervé and others. Churchward claimed to have learned from a priest in India to read the Naacal language, written on ancient tablets which are said to represent fragments of a larger text. He also claimed to have verified the material from the records of other ancient peoples, although his references to ancient sources are typically ludicrously vague. (Le Plongeon also asserted that Jesus spoke Mayan on the Cross, and Churchward further claimed that the Greek alphabet, as normally recited, is really a poem in Mayan.)

More next time, heading still further east!