Hi again, everybody!
I turn here to another ‘popular’ aspect of non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics: non-historical issues involving written texts and scripts.
I start with claims regarding hidden patterns in texts. Many of the cases at issue here concern religious texts; some of these involve literary, religious and mathematical/statistical issues, as well as linguistic issues. The linguistics practiced by the writers in question is often less than competent, although this is not usually the main aspect of the work which either invites or has drawn skeptical comment.
There have been many efforts to prove that the Bible or some other religious text is reliable by finding numerical and/or verbal patterns in the text which allegedly could not have come to be there by chance and which often carry important messages (prophecies, etc.). For example, Ivan Panin, supported by Chuck Missler and others, claimed to have discovered significant numerical patterns in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. However, the best known such set of claims is now that presented by Michael Drosnin in The Bible Code and later volumes. Drosnin identifies statistical/distributional patterns (‘the Code’) in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament; these allegedly predict important later events, some of them in very recent times (such as twentieth-century political assassinations) and others still in the future at the time of writing (such as the end of the world in 2006, which of course did not occur). Grant Jeffrey and others support and extend Drosnin’s notions. Drosnin even suggests that the Code was written by extraterrestrial life-forms, who he claims also brought the human DNA code to Earth; he believes that these aliens left the key to the code in a steel obelisk.
Skeptics argue that claims such as these are typically much weaker in statistical terms than their proponents suggest. It has been argued, especially against Drosnin, that the likelihood of finding patterns of this kind by chance is much greater than he suggests (compare my earlier comments on chance similarities between unrelated words) and that post hoc one can find a wide range of spurious messages in any sufficiently lengthy text. For instance, by applying Drosnin’s analytical methods Brendan McKay found references to twentieth-century political assassinations and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales (1997) in the texts of novels such as Herman Melville’s 1851 work Moby Dick (even though written English is less flexible than the Hebrew abjad in such respects).
One important set of linguistic considerations with respect to the Bible Code and similar claims involves the spelling of Hebrew and in particular the ‘pointing’ of the Hebrew abjad (the inclusion of diacritics indicating vowels, which were not originally written). Even prior to the adoption of pointing, some consonantal letters were also employed in a secondary capacity to indicate long vowels, and a given word may appear either with these characters or without them. In addition, repeated manual copying of texts naturally created variants, some introduced in error and some intentionally (often for the sake of greater clarity). These considerations obviously affect the numbers and identities of the letters in any given section of the text of the Bible.
Claims such as Drosnin’s thus have no secure textual basis and cannot be taken seriously – unless the evidence suggests very strongly in a given instance that the alleged prophecies are indeed both a) startlingly accurate (especially in respect of events yet to occur at the time when the theories are propounded) and b) statistically unlikely to appear in the text by chance. Neither of these conditions appears to have been met in any analyzed case.
There are many other critics of Drosnin employing statistical considerations and arguments such as these. In contrast, John Weldon (writing with Clifford and Barbara Wilson) discovers many errors and inconsistencies in Drosnin’s work but also attacks the Bible Code theory on religious grounds, urging Christian believers to focus on the plain messages of the text of the Bible rather than seeking hidden additional messages.
Claims similar to those of Drosnin have been made regarding the Muslim Qur’an, notably by the United Submitters International organization; this approach was pioneered by Rashad Khalifa. Khalifa argues that the Qur’an contains a mathematical structure based on the number nineteen, involving many of its elements: chapters, verses, words, letters, numbers of words with the same root, etc. Most other Muslim writers reject Khalifa’s claims or at least regard them as dubious, for example Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips and Ibn al-Rawandi. Non-Muslim skeptics have also critiqued Khalifa’s work.
Another writer who found hidden messages in the Bible was Max Freedom Long. Long came to believe that Jesus had studied in an ancient Polynesian mystical tradition called Huna; he and his apostles had inserted secret messages in the texts of the Gospels, which are much more important than the overt message of the texts. These messages are in a secret language or ‘code’ which is the ancestor of Polynesian and is said to be still used by a tribe in Morocco. Long also identified in the texts ideas derived from ancient Egypt, transmitted via ancient India and Israel; he regarded the Hawaiians as one of the ‘Lost Tribes of Israel’. In 1945 he founded an organization called the Huna Fellowship.
In fact, Long’s ideas bear little relation to traditional Hawaiian ideas about the world, which do not involve his use of the term huna. In addition, his specific claims often seem to involve current Hawaiian, not early Polynesian. He clearly did not know any linguistics, and his interpretations cannot be deemed plausible.
More next time!