Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 4

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues! I propose to include here some thinkers who for various reasons failed to ‘make it’ into my now-available book Strange Linguistics! There is always more ‘grist to the mill’!


Like some authors discussed in Chapter 2 of my book, the Australian amateur author ‘Alferink’ proposes new etymologies for modern words which are held to be constructed out of basic, allegedly ancient individual sounds, syllables or other very short sequences; these have somehow retained fixed meanings (obscure to modern scholars and the general public) over long periods. I became aware of Alferink through a leaflet picked up at a ‘New Age’ street-emporium in Melbourne.

The main word of interest to Alferink is the very name Australia (for which alternative etymologies have also been proposed by authors such as Knapp; see Chapter 1 of my book). Alferink interprets Australis, the immediate source of the word Australia, as Au (‘gold’) + S (‘Sun’) + T (‘top’) + Ra (‘Sun’) + L (‘land’) + Is (‘is’). However, the form Australis clearly means ‘southern’ in Latin; and the form Australia (which first appears in English in 1625), has a clear associated meaning, ‘southern land’. Alferink does not offer any defence of his own interpretation against this very robust etymology.

Some of these very short morphemes appear to have been derived by Alferink from specific words or word-parts drawn from specific non-English languages. Thus, Ra is very close to the Egyptian name for the Sun-god, and Au is the international chemical symbol for ‘gold’, derived from Latin aurum. However, most of those consisting in orthographic form of only one letter are identified as each having the same meaning as a specific modern English word commencing with that letter. For example, S means ‘Sun’, T ‘top’, etc. It is not made clear why these specific words are selected rather than other words commencing with the same letters; but it appears that they may have been chosen in an attempt to explain the origin of the alphabetic letters used to write English, since the work is titled ‘Theory on Origin of Letters’. Alferink may have tried various different analyses of each longer word such as Australia until he came upon one in which he felt that meanings which he could ascribe to the individual letters together made up a suitable sense for the entire word.

Naturally, there are considerable problems with this theory. Firstly, Alferink offers multiple readings of some of the letters, inevitably if there are to be enough words of very short length to provide a vocabulary of adequate size (and compound words of manageable lengths). For instance, S may also be read as ‘swerve’. This obviously allows Alferink excessive freedom in proposing compound derivations for known, longer words. Secondly, it is not clear why, prior to the invention of the alphabet, the initial sound of a given word, or any other sound of the language in any context, should have suggested a particular letter-form. The forms of alphabetic letters are phonologically arbitrary; any motivation they have is semantic, by way of ‘acrophony’. (Acrophony involves the conversion of a logographic symbol to an alphabetic or abjadic letter representing the initial phoneme of the corresponding spoken word. For example, the form of the Hebrew/Phoenician abjadic letter beth (which later became Greek beta and Roman B) derives from a logographic (and pictographic) symbol resembling a house, which was used earlier to represent the Hebrew/Phoenician noun beth (‘house’), one very common word which has beth as its initial phoneme.) The idea that a letter-form can be explained in terms of the pronunciation of a word commencing with the relevant phoneme is wholly naive and confused. Overall, in fact, Alferink (like several other such writers) is naively folk-linguistic in treating letters rather than phonemes as primary.

Thirdly, the alphabet used to write English is of course much older than the English language; it developed initially out of regional versions of the Greek alphabet as a means of writing Latin, which is why it is called the ‘Roman alphabet’. Any explanations of the forms or pronunciations of the letter-names, or of the original pronunciations of the letters as used in words, must relate to Latin (or to Greek or the still earlier Phoenician), not to English, to which the letters were applied much later.

Fourthly, there are further unexplained complexities within Alferink’s system. He complicates the quasi-monophonemic morpheme-system (one letter per word-meaning) by introducing digraphs such as AB (‘original’; itself unexplained) and Au/Ra/Is (as cited above; the last of these is interpreted simply as the English word spelled in this way), and also other symbols, some established ones such as + (‘Christ’, etc.) and some novel ones such as a symbol for ‘woman’ representing a woman’s mammaries.

More next time!


2 Responses to Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 4

  1. edheil says:

    So… has the origin of the Basque language finally been discovered? I’m going to go ahead and say “no” but you might find this an interesting topic to cover as part of the linguistics series.

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks for this, and for the link to Martin’s material.  On historical-linguistic issues regarding Basque, see my ‘historical’ blogs here (2012) and Chapters 1-2 of my book Strange Linguistics (Lincom-Europa, 2013).  Essentially, Basque (while of course displaying influence from Visigothic, Spanish, etc) has no known ‘genetic’ relatives (all attempts to connect it with other languages, including Martin’s attempt to link it with Dogon, involve faulty methodology) and presumably was in Europe before the Indo-European languages.  It is difficult to see how more can be said, unless caches of material in ancient languages similar to Basque are found.  I hope this helps.  Mark N

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