Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 5

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues!


Grahame Walsh, Ian Wilson and others have argued that the Bradshaw rock-paintings of the Kimberley in Western Australia, first seen by a European (Joseph Bradshaw) in 1891, can be attributed to a pre-Aboriginal Australian culture. The dating of these paintings has been heavily debated but they may be very early; and local Aboriginal people do not regard them as their ancestors’ work (or even as human in origin, though there are suggestions that their producers may have been the mysterious ‘Mimi’ people referred to in Northern Territory Aboriginal myths). Walsh argues that they represent the work of a pre-Aboriginal group who came to the area as long ago as 75,000 BP and developed the art-form during a sequence of cultures. He goes on to speculate as to where such a group might have originated, likening the art itself to certain African forms but more seriously suggesting that a negrito group such as those found on some Indian Ocean islands might have been involved. Such a group would later have been displaced or absorbed by Aboriginal populations. The movement of Aboriginal people into Australia appears to have been part of the earliest phase of Homo sapiens diffusion from Africa, and any suggestions that they were not alone in being the first inhabitants of Australia are obviously politically provocative (though they should, naturally, not be rejected on these grounds).

The controversial historian Keith Windschuttle (best known for his revisionist ideas about nineteenth-century Australia) argued, with Tim Gillin, in support of Walsh’s theory. Williamson and Gillin invoked some linguistic arguments; Colin Groves and Sean Ulm responded forcefully to Windschuttle and Gillin’s article from a mainstream anthropological standpoint; Gillin then responded in turn, denying the validity of some of Groves’ points and citing some more material by earlier authors (not linguists), including new linguistic arguments. However, these latter are partly based on Merritt Ruhlen’s ‘maverick’ ideas and are thus less persuasive than is suggested. In addition, the linguistic differences in the ethnically mixed area in question appear within normal variation limits for Aboriginal Australia. Of course, such mixing in historic times would be too recent for Walsh’s thesis, and probably too recent for Windschuttle as well.

In a very different vein, Rupert Gerritsen (of Dutch extraction) proposes that some groups of early Dutch sailors and passengers, marooned in Western Australia, had considerable influence on some of the coastal Aboriginal cultures. A fairly high proportion of the evidence offered is linguistic. This material has been informed by extensive reading in the discipline; but Gerritsen’s treatment nevertheless displays various naïveties and misconceptions. These include the usual popular but long outdated comparative linguistic methodology, use of minority/non-mainstream/outdated theories, very loose/inaccurate treatment of phonetics, phonology and spelling, implausible proposals on specific cases, some quite large factual errors, etc. The Aboriginal languages in question do seem to have some unusual features; but in most instances the case that these involve Dutch influence is not strong. (This is not to deny that Dutch and Dutch-speakers might have had some influence in the area.)

New Zealand was settled (by Eastern Polynesians, the Moriori and then the Maori) much more recently than Australia, to all appearances only in the last thousand years. The nineteenth-century writer Edward Tregear claimed to have proved that Maori, specifically, is related to Sanskrit and that the Maori and other Polynesians are really ‘Aryans’ who migrated to New Zealand from Europe via India. But Tregear’s linguistics was dated even in his own day; some of his claims appear ludicrous, notably his derivation of Maori verbs from the names of the associated animals, not themselves found in New Zealand: kauika ‘lie in a heap’ is said to be derived from Sanskrit gaus (‘cow’; cognate with the English word); the reference is to dung!

There is a body of markedly non-mainstream work regarding an ancient civilization and language known as Naacal, carried to Mesopotamia, Egypt and India in very remote ages by Mayan adepts, and a late-pre-historic world civilization centred on a Pacific continent known as ‘Mu’ (later submerged); Augustus le Plongeon and James Churchwood are the best-known exponents of these ideas, but many others have taken them up. Joan Leaf (recently deceased) was an amateur New Zealand historian and genealogist who accepted many of Tregear’s ideas and also accepted the reality of Mu, which supposedly gave rise to pre-Polynesian cultures in New Zealand and massive early diffusion more generally. In her self-published books, Leaf endorses Churchward’s ideas (including his claim that the Greek alphabet as recited is really a poem in Mayan!), and she regards Mayan as the language of Mu and the ultimate Ursprache. She uncritically treats orally transmitted stories and genealogies as very reliable, and her comparative linguistic and cultural methodology (shared with other current New Zealand diffusionists) is, as ever, far too imprecise and unsystematic; it reflects pre-scientific ideas.

Bryan Mitchell promotes the idea that there was Scots Gaelic settlement of New Zealand well before the eighteenth-century colonization. He upholds a diffusionist account of New Zealand history which minimizes the positive influence of the Maori, and accuses contemporary Maori of inconsistency in denying that some unearthed human remains and artefacts involve their own ancestors but still claiming control over them and thus preventing analysis. Mitchell believes that this involves a conspiracy involving politicians, academics and Maori activists, aimed at hindering the study of what they regard as strong evidence for pre-Maori settlement in New Zealand. This view is clearly exaggerated, although it is arguably true that it has become ‘politically incorrect’ to dispute the mainstream view that New Zealand was uninhabited until the Maori and other Polynesians began to arrive around 1000 CE. On the other hand, this is precisely what the evidence (reasonably interpreted) appears to suggest.

In respect of evidence which favours his own view specifically, Mitchell suggests that a number of Maori personal names and place-names used in Northland (the area north of Auckland) are in fact Gaelic-derived; he exemplifies with Gaelic Taine (ascribed to a Gaelic-speaking navigator who allegedly reached New Zealand) and Maori Tane (the name of a forest divinity), Gaelic Tara (used of high-set citadels) and Tara- as in the Maori region-name Taranaki, etc. He knows some linguistics, but his philology is of the usual amateur brand, and these examples are unsystematic and wholly unpersuasive.

References for specific writers on request! More next time!


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