texts and scripts 2 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 6)

September 17, 2012

Hi again, everybody!

Many claims regarding Hebrew script (as discussed last time) involve gematria (isopsephia in Greek). This is a form of mystical numerology, applied mainly to the Hebrew scriptures and other sacred Jewish writings – notably those associated with the Kabbalah (see below) – but according to some of pre-scriptural or other extraneous origin (again, see below). Like numerology generally (to be discussed later), gematria is a system of assigning numerical value to a word or phrase, in the belief that words or phrases with identical numerical values bear some relation to each other, or bear some relation to the number itself as it may apply to a person’s age, the calendar year, or the like. The letter-values and calculation methods to be used in gematria vary somewhat across sources.

There is some evidence that versions of gematria existed in ancient Mesopotamian syllabaries. Some authors suggest that gematria was then further developed in Greece. David Fideler argues that the spellings of the names of the Greek gods were formulated according to isopsephic principles, under Pythagorean influence, around 500 BCE (for example, the name Zeus was allegedly formulated so as to express the geometric mean of the names Hermes and Apollo) and that many Greek temples, including the Parthenon (447 BCE), were constructed isopsephically. Although some of these individual claims are dubious or worse, the general notion expounded here agrees with the only known etymology of the word gematria (from Greek geometria, ‘earth-measures’). Other authors have made similar suggestions, notably Karl Menninger, David Diringer and Georges Ifrah. Ifrah notes that the numeric uses of Greek letters date back at least to the end of the fourth century BCE, whereas the oldest known examples of the Hebrew system date only to the last few years of the second century at the earliest.

The classicist Kieren Barry also argues that gematria and the Hebrew Kabbalah itself had their origins in Greek. Barry analyzes the history of Greek ideas regarding links between, on the one hand, the Phoenician abjad and its offshoot the Greek alphabet, and, on the other, the number system, the zodiac, planetary aspects of astrology, planetary astronomy, musical scales, symbolism associated with individual letters, acrostics used in invocations and imprecations, Pythagorean notions about the universe, etc. The idea that gematria has Greek origins (while unwelcome to some Jewish writers) is not prima facie ridiculous. However, some of Barry’s discussion, in particular, is rather approximate and even inaccurate. In addition, he agrees too readily with Joscelyn Godwin in finding significance in the ‘seven vowels’ of Greek.

Kabbalah (variously spelled) is itself a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between an eternal and mysterious creator and the mortal and finite universe. Authors who interpret Biblical text in interesting Kabbalistic terms include George Sassoon and Rodney Dale (claiming that Moses ben Shem Tov’s thirteenth-century work Zohar actually describes a machine for making ‘manna’) and Carlo Suarès (proposing a novel and arguably tendentious analysis of Genesis which implies that the names of the twenty-two Hebrew letters of the Hebrew abjad are in fact proper names originally used to designate different states or structures of ‘cosmic energy’). Some writers, such as Lawrence Kushner and Michael Munk, focus upon the alleged special, often mystical attributes or characteristics of some of the individual letters. Compare also the ideas of Leonardi as discussed earlier.

It has never been convincingly argued that gematria or Kabbalah should be regarded as having any empirical validity.

Among special claims involving Kabbalah, Gregg Braden believes that the universe (‘creation’) ‘speaks’ to humanity through a ‘language’ which has been forgotten (over 530,000 relevant documents have been lost) but which can now be re-accessed through advances in the understanding of ‘quantum science’, human DNA, non-physical ‘energies’, and especially Kabbalah; he links the letters of the Hebrew abjad with mystical and other non-linguistic notions (such as chemical elements) in the usual manner. However, Braden’s linguistics appears weak: his account of the Hebrew script is incoherent and mistaken in various ways, he presents a confused typology of writing systems, he confuses script and language (at least terminologically), and he frequently refers to subjective ‘feelings’. In fact, Braden does not attempt serious linguistic analysis of Hebrew or the Hebrew abjad.

A very striking multi-disciplinary proposal is advanced by Stan Tenen, a mathematician who holds that the shapes of number symbols, the shapes of the letters making up the Hebrew abjad and in other guises the Greek and Arabic scripts, and the meanings of the acrophonic Hebrew names of the Hebrew letters all derive from gestures made with the human hand and the (multi-dimensional) symmetries which these allegedly display. Tenen supports this analysis with data of many types, including the communicative behaviour of non-human primates, the use of communicative gestures by pre-linguistic infants and congenitally blind people, findings regarding the origins of cognition more generally, etc. He also believes that his findings have implications for communicating with putative extraterrestrials.

Tenen is sophisticated on various fronts, but some of the claims made here appear at least overstated. For instance, even if Tenen’s account of the Hebrew letter-names were itself correct, this would not enable non-Hebrew-readers to determine the senses of longer words spelled with these letters. Thus, even if the letter corresponding with P, whose name (pe) means ‘mouth’, does represent a hand pointing to a mouth, most longer Hebrew words containing this letter have nothing to do with the word pe or its meaning. Hebrew words cannot be interpreted merely on the basis of knowing (by whatever means) the forms, meanings and alleged origins of the individual letter-names.

Tenen expands his theory into a general account of the evolutionary origins of human language and writing, arguing for instance that the human genetic capabilities underlying reading and writing clearly pre-date the actual invention of written language in its known forms and thus must have developed for other reasons, which he takes to be such as would account for his own gestural theory. Tenen believes that these points relate to the ‘Tower Of Babel’ language-origin myth reported in Genesis. More generally, he implicates Biblical, religious, esoteric and cosmological theories with his central ideas; he has founded the ‘Meru Foundation’ for the purpose of exploring the implications of these ideas.

More next time!


The Virtual Skeptics (12 Sept 2012)

September 12, 2012

Watch us here live at 8:00 Eastern:


texts and scripts 1 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 6)

September 10, 2012

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!


This Week in Conspiracy (9 Sept 2012)

September 9, 2012

Apparently, the entire Internet did not appreciate the meaning of last week’s conspiracy-related snark. What I was trying to say was that you should not take conspiracy theories at face value because they are often unreliable. So I’m going to do another week, and I would very much appreciate it if the entire Internet would give me its full attention. Surely that is not too much to ask? Please try to keep up, Internet.


Twit of the week:

Alex Jones, who just couldn’t be more of a scam artist:

My gut tells me #Gold is only going up. Call Midas Resources & Ask about the ‘Alex Jones Specials’ 800-fwe-f2w7 — Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones)

As Carl Sagan said in the reading I just assigned my students, “I try not to think with my gut.”

That’s what I have. We’ll have another episode of the Virtual Skeptics live on Wednesday night at 8:00PM Eastern. Keep your eyes here or watch for the #virtualskeptics hashtag.


Britain’s New Secretary of Wishful Thinking

September 6, 2012

The following is adapted from my segment on last night’s Virtual Skeptics webcast, now available for your viewing pleasure on the prestigious Internet.

It’s a good time to be British: first they had the Olympics; now they have a new Health Secretary. Jeremy Hunt, conservative member of Parliament for South West Surrey, was named Secretary of State for Health on Tuesday, September 4, after a Cabinet reshuffle.

His appointment has been controversial for a number of reasons. For starters, in his previous position as Culture Secretary, Hunt reportedly attempted to banish the celebration of the National Health Service from Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremonies fandango. Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary, opined:

Right now the NHS needs somebody who believes in its values and is ready to stand up for it. Instead, the prime minister has given it to the man who reportedly tried to remove the NHS tribute from the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.

Of even greater concern to anyone interested in science and effective health care, the Health Secretary supports homeopathy. Because of this, New Scientist has dubbed him the Minister of Magic.

(Yes, I know Dumbledore wasn’t Minister of Magic)

In 2007, Hunt signed a House of Commons Early Day Motion in support of the “positive contribution” homeopathy and other alternative therapies had made to the NHS. The motion states:

That this House welcomes the positive contribution made to the health of the nation by the NHS homeopathic hospitals; notes that some six million people use complementary treatments each year; believes that complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients, including chronic difficult to treat conditions such as musculoskeletal and other chronic pain, eczema, depression, anxiety and insomnia, allergy, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome; expresses concern that NHS cuts are threatening the future of these hospitals; and calls on the Government actively to support these valuable national assets.

In his reply to a constituent who wrote to point out to Hunt that homeopathy doesn’t work, Hunt said:

I understand that it is your view that homeopathy is not effective, and therefore that people should not be encouraged to use it as a treatment. However I am afraid that I have to disagree with you on this issue. Homeopathic care is enormously valued by thousands of people and in the NHS that the Government repeatedly tells us is “patient-led” it ought to be available where a doctor and patient believe that a homeopathic treatment may be of benefit to the patient.

Personally, I enormously value human sacrifice as an effective treatment for migraines. I’m currently seeking a doctor* who agrees with me. If I can find one, I fully expect that my insurance will cover my dark rituals, since medical care should be “patient led.” I mean I know more about it than a neurologist, right? RIGHT?

I’m also a big supporter of the British Veterinary Voodoo Society. They believe that if Homeopathic magic is a valid treatment, then so is Voodoo magic:

The principle of voodoo healing is simple. As “like affects like,” an appropriately manufactured and treated wax doll or cloth puppet may substitute for the patient, and manipulations performed on the doll substitute for those performed on the patient. Techniques of visualisation and channelling of healing are easy to learn, and it is possible to combine voodoo with “conventional” or allopathic medicine simply by administering the medicine to the doll rather than to the patient.

The response to Hunt’s appointment has not been enthusiastic. Dr. Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter (the first such position in the world), trained as a homeopath, but now studies homoepathy and other alternative and complementary therapies from a science- and evidence-based perspective. He said:

To praise the positive contribution of homeopathy to the NHS does not bode well for the new person in charge of UK healthcare. One can only hope that with the reality of the new job, there will be a more rational insight in the actual evidence on this topic.

John Krebs, professor of Zoology at Oxford University, noted:

There is overwhelming evidence that homeopathic medicine is not effective. It would be a real blow for those who want medicine to be science-based if the secretary of state were to promote homeopathy because of his personal beliefs.

In the Telegraph, Tom Chivers compared Hunt’s appointment to “putting someone who believes the Second World War began in 1986 in charge of the Department of Education.”

*It doesn’t have to be a real one: I’ll go with a homeopath, iridologist, naturopath, chiropractor, acupuncturist, energy healer, aura cleanser, reflexologist, witch doctor–I’m not picky.

The Most Interesting Imam in the World: Rimsha, Khalid Chisti, and Pakistani Blasphemy Laws

September 6, 2012

My fellow panelists on Virtual Skeptics have given me the go-ahead to post the text of my story from last night. We’ll be whipping up a permanent home for the show and its supplemental material in a few days, I think, so stay tuned!

Today we’re going to talk about what happens when a religion gets access to a police force. A Christian girl named Rimsha Masih was arrested in an Islamabad slum on the 16th of August when a neighbor reported that she had burned papers that were alleged to have contained verses from the Koran. Now, the reports of what is alleged to have happened are somewhat varied, but I’ve done my best to disentangle them. The First Information Report was filed by Muhammud Ummad, who claimed that the girl had taken 10 pages of a book called the Noorani Qaida, burned them, and flung them into a garbage can. The Noorani Qaida is a sort of child’s primer for reading the Koran and is considered a holy text, so you don’t get to burn that. The neighbor contacted the local imam, Khalid Chisti, and the imam alerted the authorities and had the girl arrested. Ashes and pages of the Koran were found in her bag.

In the aftermath of the arrest, there was a mass exodus of Christians from the slum, some 2,300 of them, because a mob was poised to attack their homes. The imam who had called the police, Khalid Chisti, used the mosque’s loudspeakers to rile up the crowd and tell the local Christians to leave, saying: “All you chooras [a derogatory term for Christians] must leave here immediately or we will pour petrol on you and burn you alive.” An advisor to the Prime Minister on Minorities Affairs asked clerics to not allow the town to be attacked and raised questions about the legitimacy of the arrest.

There is a lot of dispute about the status of the girl. Human rights workers and her family say that the girl is 11 and has Down Syndrome. The police asserted that she is 16 and is 100% healthy. Eventually, she was determined by a medical examiner to be both a minor and developmentally delayed, though that decision was stayed because of a protest on the part of the accuser’s lawyer, who is demanding a bone scan. This lawyer, Rao Abdur Raheem, has specialized in prosecuting blasphemy cases, and observers saw his involvement as a very bad sign for the girl. He’s not what you would call a moderate, saying: “Those who burn the Koran are burning us,” he said. “This girl has confessed. Even if she is found to be 14 the offence is so serious the law says there cannot be leniency, she cannot have bail.” He also told The Guardian: “If the court is not allowed to do its work, because the state is helping the accused, then the public has no other option except to take the law into their own hands.”

On the 20th, the Telegraph reported that the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, had ordered an investigation into the arrest. The blasphemy law has been criticized by the West and Human Rights organizations for the way it has been used to settle minor disputes. But opposing this law has gotten two high profile politicians assassinated last year, including the Punjab governor and the minorities minister. Last month, another mentally ill person was seized from a police station in the province, where he was being held on a similar charge, and killed by a mob.

So, there have been problems in the past.

In a twist that caught my attention this week, on Sept 2nd the government arrested imam Khalid Chisti for planting burned pages on the child, charging HIM with blasphemy. 3 worshipers at his mosque, including the prayer caller, came forward and told a judge about the imam, saying that he had added pages of the Koran to the burned pages against their protests. The testified that he had replied: ‘You know this is the only way to expel the Christians from this area’.” This let the government, I think, out of a hell of a bind. It was under immense internal pressure to convict and intense international pressure to acquit. The arrest of the imam for the same charge as the girl faces is about the only contingency that I could think of that might take off some of that internal pressure.

A number of issues strike me as important about this story. After the fact, the imam gave an interview to AFP where he claimed that she burned the pages deliberately as part of a “Christian ‘conspiracy’ to insult Muslims and said action should have been taken sooner to stop what he called their ‘anti-Islam activities’ in Mehrabad.” This is an age old accusation, one that has been recklessly hurled at Jews, whose supposed actions against Bibles and eucharists was often used as a pretext for violence against them. It seems to me that the nature of the crime is one that destroys its own evidence, and it seems consistent that most of these incidents have hinged entirely on accusation. Furthermore, this is dangerous because, clearly, in the eyes of the mob as well as that horrid weasel prosecutor, an accusation is tantamount to conviction. I want to note that I have read literally dozens of reports on this story from all points in its development, and nowhere in the last few days have I seen any mention of taking legal action against the imam or the lawyer for threatening Christians, inciting violence against them, or subverting the justice system.

I do want to mention that even hardline Islamists in the region have said the prosecution of an illiterate minor with a developmental problem is an inappropriate application of the blasphemy law.


Was Risha Mashir framed by Islamist bigots: Pakistan’s anti-human blasphemy laws

Father of Pakistani Christian ‘blasphemer’ girl appeals to President Asif Ali Zardari

Pakistani Blasphemy Case Shifts as Cleric Is Arrested

Virtual Skeptics (5 Sept 2012)

September 5, 2012

We go live at 8:00Eastern!


This Week in Conspiracy (3 Sept 2012)

September 3, 2012

The summer has almost ended. In the morning, I teach my first class in Wisconsin. I’m teaching two different syllabi this semester, the first time I’ve done that in a while. I’m teaching 2 sections of “Conspiracy Theory” and a section of “Extraordinary Claims.” The extraordinary claims course will be for more developmental writers, but it is still a seminar class, which is fun.

As you might imagine, I have been rather busy over the last few days, getting things together for the class and so on. Add to that the fact that my smart phone (where I first pick up most of my leads for this feature) committed suicide this week, and you will see that my offerings are somewhat limited. Nevertheless we persevere!

Is this the end of cover up establishment Warren Commission Puppet Arlen Specter? http://t.co/XACbCEkx — Jason Bermas (@JasonBermas)

Headline of the Week:

That gem was closely followed by this one from the Village Voice blog:

Twits of the Week: 

Not only does Obama’s birth certificate not exist, OBAMA DOESN’T EVEN EXIST. #eastwooding — Paul Fidalgo (@PaulFidalgo)

Ana Marie Cox (@anamariecox)
8/30/12 5:33 PM
Uh, the Ron Paul people are putting on black armbands.

(Unfortunately, it was later reported that Ron Paul was in fact still alive and healthy.)

That’s all for now, people! Now, where do I pick up my big government shill check?

FYI, we have another edition of the Virtual Skeptics coming up this Wednesday at 8:00PM Eastern in our Google+ On Air hangout. As far as stories go, we’ve scooped the most popular skeptic podcast two weeks in a row. We’re going for a three-fer!


skeptical about the mainstream 5 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 5)

September 3, 2012

Hi again, everybody!

I turn here to some less persuasive criticisms of mainstream linguistics made by non-mainstream thinkers who believe that they know enough linguistics to attempt this exercise.

Amorey Gethin, who has a good knowledge of language in general terms and writes with a particular focus upon the teaching of languages, has apparently exceeded his understanding of these matters in claiming that the entire discipline of linguistics is essentially nonsense. Much of his focus is upon Chomskyan linguistics, and many of his points have also been made by non-Chomskyan mainstream linguists; but his announced intention is certainly to demolish the basis for the discipline as a whole. Indeed, as the originator of ‘anti-linguistics’, Gethin himself has sought to show that mainstream linguistics as a whole is very badly flawed and indeed that there is no such legitimate discipline. As has been seen, even some ‘non-nativist’ professional linguists, notably Sampson, have in fact argued for a general linguistics of minimal scope; but amateur critiques such as Gethin’s are more forcefully expressed and indeed are themselves at the very least exaggerated.

Gethin essentially denies the reality of linguistic structures and systems of all kinds. In particular, he rejects the notion of grammatical structures (syntax, etc.) as an ‘illusion’; and he attacks the entire stance of modern scientific linguistics according to which syntactic structures are typically seen as perhaps the most clearly unique feature of human language. In this respect he represents a more extreme version of Deacon (see above). Indeed, he seems to believe that linguists actually know that grammar does not exist at all, but promote it so as to bolster their own status. Inevitably, he also holds that the errors of language learners almost entirely involve vocabulary (word-level semantics and context) – not grammar, which mainstream applied linguists would hold is implicated in very many learner errors.

Gethin ‘explains’ all linguistic and language-learning phenomena in terms of the meanings of words (and word-parts) alone, treating grammatical phenomena (including features such as the singular-plural distinction, as in cat/cats) as matters of ‘general meaning’ (as opposed to the specific meanings of words as displayed in contrasts such as girl versus boy). However, by no means all linguistic phenomena (even if phonology is excluded) can be fully explained in terms of meaning (semantics). For instance, a noun is not itself the same kind of thing as the word for an entity considered in terms of its meaning. ‘Noun’ is a grammatically-defined category (for example, a noun can be the grammatical subject of a clause). Different languages assign different grammatical categories to the words for entities (etc.); in Russian there are verbs meaning, for example, ‘be white’, and it has been argued that in Apache the word corresponding most closely with English waterfall is a verb; some languages lack certain grammatical categories altogether; and even within one language the distribution of grammatical categories is often complex (for instance, red is usually an adjective, but the more general word colour is a noun).

Furthermore, sentence-length linguistic meanings are not necessarily directly expressed in the forms of the actual sentences. If they were, even the (often complex) syntaxes of unrelated languages would be much more closely similar than they tend to be. And even within one language there are often two or more grammatically different ways of expressing the same meanings, for example active and passive voice equivalents such as Mark drank the beer and The beer was drunk by Mark. Conversely, there are syntactically identical but semantically and logically distinct pairs of sentences such as Jane is planning to marry a Dutchman (‘a specific Dutchman’ or ‘some so-far unidentified Dutchman’).

Gethin deals unconvincingly with cases of these types; and even thinkers of this kind can hardly deny that the typical order of subjects, verbs, objects, clauses etc. in a sentence differs from language to language. For instance, as I noted above, Welsh sentences typically begin with the verb. This itself is a matter of syntactic structure, not of meaning. Gethin also denies the reality even of the mainly semantic distinction between referential and ‘anaphoric’ uses of English the (as in The man over there versus A man appeared … the man then left.

Another writer with views similar to those of Gethin is David Kozubei. Kozubei attributes all linguistic constraints to context; he appears to believe that if a sequence of words can be interpreted as grammatically and semantically feasible in any way whatsoever – however contrived and however remote in meaning from the sequences with which it is being compared – this disallows Chomskyans from identifying it as grammatically anomalous and from arriving at any generalizations on that basis. (Sampson and other anti-Chomskyan linguists make similar points but with much more restraint and much stronger background knowledge.) Kozubei argues, in fact, that sentences identified by linguists (especially Chomskyans) as grammatically anomalous (‘ungrammatical’ in a given variety of a language) are in fact grammatically unusual at most. He therefore rejects the entire descriptivist notion of ‘ungrammatical’ (= ‘not found in a given variety or accepted as correct usage by the users of that variety, for grammatical reasons [rather than, for instance, because of odd use of vocabulary]’).

Like Gethin, Kozubei is moving towards a model of language which will include only a minimal grammar and in consequence will fail to capture many key facts. This will be rejected by non-Chomskyan linguists as well as by Chomskyans. Kozubei goes on to claim (again like Gethin, and again unpersuasively) that the errors of foreign language learners are all semantic or contextual in nature; they do not involve grammar.

I will move onto other issues in this general area next time.