Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 12

May 31, 2013

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


Claims regarding the actual production of language by children in their first few months of life have always emerged as suspect or worse on analysis (this includes David Oates’ special claims regarding ‘Reverse Speech’ as allegedly produced by infants). In contrast, some self-proclaimed psychics sidestep the evidence involving actual speech and assert that they can communicate TELEPATHICALLY with babies. The skeptical psychologists Chris French and Krissy Wilson tested the ‘powers’ of one such person, David Ogilvy, the ‘baby-whisperer’, in 2007. Ogilvy also took on the James Randi Challenge. In both cases he failed to demonstrate any abilities in this area.

There are other claims regarding mysterious linguistic material involving older children. One such case involved triplets who abbreviated and modified English words when communicating with each other and at one stage intoned their utterances as if using a language with phonemic tone such as Chinese.

Cases are also reported of teenaged and older couples developing ‘secret languages’ – although– like other ‘languages’ invented/concocted by non-linguists – these often consist very largely of novel vocabulary items and are unremarkable in phonological and grammatical terms. One such case involved a teenaged lesbian couple in Melbourne, Australia in the 1990s; one of the women instructed the other in satanic ideas and an accompanying private vocabulary.

There are cases of groups of deaf children apparently inventing new (but wholly orthodox) signed languages.

For introductory (but of course largely unrefereed comments) on special linguistic behaviour of twins or other very small groups, see; on the (often generally similar) idiosyncratic linguistic behaviour of individual speakers, see

More next time!


For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:

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Non-Mainstream Methodology

May 30, 2013


Hi again, everybody!

Non-mainstream writers and others who accept the veracity of highly controversial claims are often quick to condemn skeptics and the mainstream more generally for assuming (or proclaiming without adequate argumentation) that mainstream methods of investigation and assessment are superior to (more reliable than) non-mainstream. However, there are many cases in which it is instead the non-mainstream methods that blatantly invite criticism along these lines. Two examples, from opposite ends of the ‘respectability’ spectrum:

The maverick amateur Liam Jones (discussed last time) deflects critical questions by likening himself to the 20th-century English philosopher and populariser C.E.M. Joad, who used to commence his analysis of amateur proposals and queries (e.g. on radio shows) by asking for the background assumptions behind the discourse – and hence the key aspects of its meaning – to be made explicit. Jones asks professional linguists and philosophers to apply this approach to their own questions regarding his obscure statements; he declines to respond to these questions unless this is done first. But these questions are, typically, already as ‘paradigm-free’ as possible, making the minimum of assumptions. And Jones’ own material is largely unintelligible in the absence of answers to these questions. This is special pleading on a grand scale.

Even more judicious and astute authors who endorse non-mainstream claims sometimes seem to assume that positive reports on the outcomes of experiments or other studies (for example, reports made by the investigators themselves) are veridical. For instance: in his tribute to the polymath and parapsychologist Archie Roy (Seriously Strange [Association For The Scientific Study Of Anomalous Phenomena] 142 (2013), pp. 14-15), Hugh Pincott says that Trish Robertson and Roy demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the ‘messages’ from alleged deceased persons in question in their studies were more relevant to intended recipients than others. Now Pincott is fully entitled to his own assessment of what R&R demonstrated – but surely his wording should have acknowledged that skeptical commentators on R&R do not accept their own very positive interpretations of their results. Even if he believes that he could overturn the skeptical objections, or indeed that they have already been overturned, it would be reasonable to mention that they have been raised. (Of course, no-one is saying here that R&R MANIPULATED their data.) One would hope that writers of all views on such matters would acknowledge thoughtful disagreement.

For samples of skeptical comment on R&R, see:

More ‘Hall Of Shame’ at the weekend!


For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 11

May 25, 2013

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



Melbourne-based Jones sent his treatises on language to various linguists including me; I was the only one who was game enough to respond at any length! Jones’ ideas involve proposed novel, large-scale theories about the nature of language, strikingly different from generally-held mainstream ideas and developed on the basis of a very limited knowledge of the discipline. In Jones’ case this involved some acquaintance with Chomsky’s thought, which he had however seriously misunderstood. His structural and sociolinguistic terminology is very different from mainstream terminology and does not seem to relate closely to the latter; it is mostly left unexplained, as if it is supposed to be already familiar or readily grasped on first exposure (some amateur philosophers in Australia proceed in similar ways). This also applies to many of Jones’ proposed non-mainstream analyses and theoretical claims, which imply many unannounced and unexplained assumptions. He declines to explain his terminology, apparently believing that he needs to avoid mainstream terms in order to make novel points and that the onus is upon his critics to determine his meaning as best they may.


One ‘Chico’ appeared on an atheist bulletin-board, saying: ‘Nothing fails like prayer? As a linguist with a strong faith in the delusional linguistic common, as a positive phenomenon, (which actually works as an illusion), but fails miserably as a tool for value, this statement as to the failure of prayer, disturbed me deeply. As usual when confronted with linguistic phenomenon, I began a lengthy search into formulation of my conceptualization. I am happy to report, I found this statement to be absolutely truth, and have found the truth to be a linguistic positive, due to the fact, language is a delusional, illusion. It is not real, and therefore, requires failure to eliminate most all positives, and nearly all the negatives as well. It prevents sensory overload, and prevents drowning in linguistic immersion’. A request for clarification proved fruitless; ‘Chico’ responded: ‘The concept of illusion is greeted in the same manner as music, the concept of delusion is greeted the same as language. All four are illusion! This is a constant known as the four basics’. He ignored a further enquiry.


‘Forrester’, a contributor to skeptical bulletin-boards based in the USA, has adopted a peculiarly mixed stance in respect of Chomskyan linguistics. He rejects Chomskyan theories concerning Universal Grammar as not fully supported by the evidence, but he does accept certain features of UG (as he understands it) as applying to all human languages (and indeed, quite contrarily to Chomskyan views, to the communication systems of higher non-human primates also). He also argues (loosely) for a close link between the acquisition of these features and that of accurate perception and hence successful manipulation of the physical world, on the ground that UG reflects the relationships between entities in the world. This view seems to be at least overstated. One of the features of UG which Forrester accepts is the Subject-Verb-Object system of functional units in clauses. Interestingly, Chomskyans do not actually use these terms in their own versions of UG; instead of identifying some Noun Phrases as Subjects, they define the relevant NPs as the NPs involved in the basic clause construction NP+VP (= Subject-Predicate) and describe what other linguists call Objects as the NPs involved in the secondary construction V+NP within the VP. There are, of course, linguists (non-Chomskyan) who do talk in terms of Subjects and Objects (as basic functional units of clauses); but these linguists are often typologists and generally do not accept UG as genuine. Forrester himself clearly holds that ALL human languages actually have Subjects, Verbs and Objects; but this does not seem to be the case (‘ergative’ languages such as Basque resist analysis in these terms).


The proposed spelling reforms of ‘Tom Hardwyck’ (not his real name) have been featured in The Australian newspaper and elsewhere. His system is basically phonemic, with all the usual issues (of which he is apparently unaware; he writes as if he were the first to consider these matters). Hardwyck’s attitude to scholarship is one of determined ignorance and belligerence. One critic of Hardwyck, Nick Wade, is himself utterly naive in sociolinguistic terms and apparently wants to ‘reform and unify’ pronunciation so that spelling reform will then be ‘easy’.

More next time!


For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

rejoinder to ‘Kids Rule’ on my ‘Hall of Shame’ 10

May 20, 2013

I am struggling to relate this intemperate comment to what I said in ‘Hall Of Shame’ 10. Unless someone can persuade me that any of my statements there are out of order in any way, I don’t see any need to modify or withdraw my comments or to refrain from further comments on these issues. As I hope is clear, I am wholly respectful and sympathetic with respect to deaf people or anyone else with any kind of disability (naturally, I have my own shortcomings and hope that others will treat me too with respect and sympathy), and I am positive about any efforts made by deaf people to improve their situation. But this does not imply that I must accept EVERY proposal along these lines as helpful.

In any case, the one point of criticism of Ladd which I included was, as stated , originally advanced by Dale Mellor (himself deaf), not by me; I merely cited and endorsed it. But I DO endorse it. Young children (deaf or not) are not well equipped to make life-changing decisions, and it is by no means obvious that the desire of some deaf parents to impose avoidable deafness upon their children should be respected, still less applauded. (If an ADULT who has a choice wishes to remain deaf, that is of course their decision; they must live with the consequences.)

The most unfortunate deaf and non-speaking person referred to by ‘Kids Rule’ represents an extreme case, and people who need or wish to interact with such a person do probably need to become proficient at signing. But the fact remains that the non-deaf public at large are unlikely to learn signing, and such a person will need interpreters (who should be made as widely available as possible) in many situations. (If a cochlear implant would not work or help in such a case, naturally there would be no point in insisting on the operation in that specific case.)

Addendum: there is of course now a very welcome option to view signing (in various languages) on many TV shows.


Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 10

May 18, 2013

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


Some minority groups generally regarded as ‘disabled’ have of late begun asserting their right not to be ‘cured’ but rather to be accepted as they are. One such group is the deaf; the term is now often capitalized as Deaf. Many deaf people have long embraced without compunction the internal use and fostering of their various signed languages, which differ from group to group as much as other languages do and are not based on the spoken languages of the countries in which they live; they have rejected the policy of ‘oralism’, under which they were pressurised into shifting as far as possible to the wholesale adoption of speech. (In extreme cases, deaf people were discouraged from forming couples, in the hope of eventually ‘breeding out’ the condition.)

The aim of many deaf people is now to use spoken language only with the non-deaf who cannot sign. Taking this idea further, some Deaf community leaders have begun to urge that their group should be regarded as ‘differently abled’, do not need to be given full hearing even if this becomes easy and inexpensive, and must be treated analogously with minority spoken-language communities. In academic circles, this is already common: interpretation into the British and American Sign Languages, in particular, is often provided at conferences. (This is especially the case within linguistics, where signed languages have become a major focus of scholarly attention.)

One of the Deaf leaders is Paddy Ladd, who was a fellow linguistics student of mine at Reading some 30 years ago. In 2008 Ladd expounded his views in the book Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, based on his PhD thesis and reviewed online by Dale Mellor; for further summary comments, see Margaret Macmillan’s 2010 book The Uses And Abuses Of History (pp. 60-61). While Ladd is very informative and has much to say that makes excellent sense, he does seem at times to adopt an exaggerated stance on this issue. Mellor is himself effectively deaf and found himself adversely affected during his early life by the older ‘oralistic’ attitudes; but, as he says, Ladd treats the Deaf community rather as a ‘law unto itself’, going so far as to argue that parents are wrong to have their deaf children fitted with cochlear implants (rather than hearing aids) so as to facilitate their life in the wider community. There is a (presumably unintended) echo of the ‘glad to be disabled’ syndrome here. Deaf people do need to live in a largely non-deaf world; and it is unlikely that very many hearing people will learn signed languages to fluency for the purpose of interacting with others who mostly know the relevant spoken language well and can nowadays be given adequate hearing (without abandoning the asset of an additional, signed community language). And isolation from the hearing world – even if with international links to other Deaf cultures – is neither feasible nor, surely, desirable (although this notion has been explored, notably in some science-fiction).

Mellor suggests that nobody has ever tried seriously to invent written forms of signed languages. However, this is not the case; see, etc. These systems seem not to be as prominent as they arguably ought to be, and their further development and promotion would benefit those who prefer to function in signed languages where possible.

Ladd has also argued that autistic people, similarly, should not be seen as disabled; the validity of this view seems to depend on the degree to which their autism affects their ability to interact with the community at large.

More next time!


For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal a

Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 9

May 12, 2013

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues (a short one this time)!


Scott Alan Roberts’ work is in most respects typical of ‘pseudo-historical’ treatises dealing with the ancient world and incorporating some linguistic considerations. His book The Rise And Fall Of The Nephilim (2012) commences with a fairly typical much-overstated broadside against skeptics and unsurprisingly deals mostly with Roberts’ non-mainstream ideas concerning the ‘Nephilim’ (the mysterious ‘giants’ referred to in Genesis).

However, Roberts’ work also features an unusual linguistic quirk: he presents the relevant Hebrew data in a VERY strange manner! Hebrew is written from right to left, and usually with the ‘vowel-points’ introduced around 700 CE; when quoting from earlier sources, Roberts cites it in this form. But when citing Hebrew on his own account, he reverses the letter-order. Thus the words read from left to right, making them appear utterly bizarre to those who know Hebrew (as if the English word giants were spelled stnaig). And Roberts does not transliterate his cited Hebrew into Roman letters for the benefit of his non-Hebraicist readers (surely the vast majority); one therefore wonders why he thought that (inconsistently) adopting a left-to-right ‘ductus’ would be useful. He also omits the vowel-points, AND (by way of sheer error?) some of the letters themselves.

More next time!


For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:
Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

Phrenology in American Culture

May 6, 2013

(Source: Wikipedia)

At any one time, I am working on a couple of skeptical projects, most of which involve some sort of writing component, so I am always on the lookout for new material. Last month, in the class I am teaching about researching and writing about extraordinary claims, a student decided that he was going to look into medical quackery, and we brainstormed about topics that he could look into at the library.

As we sat in the computer lab, I started entering some terms into the university databases, looking for a source that might give my student a head start on the research. When I entered “phrenology” into the search box, I was surprised not only by how much came back, but especially by how much of it came back from journals in the humanities, especially in literature and history. I honestly knew next to nothing about phrenology, so I saved about 20 full-text articles with phrenology in their titles on the off chance that I would have time to look at them in depth later.

Sifting through these articles, I was struck by the impact that phrenology managed to have on American culture. Phrenology came out of the work of German doctor Franz Joseph Gall in the first two decades of the 19th century, and was popularized in the United States in the 1830s by a well-known physician named Charles Cardwell. I was surprised to learn from Robert E. Reigel, writing in the 1930s, that the earliest phrenologists were respectable physicians who had derived their theories by employing the empirical tools of observation and measurement to the psyche, even if the conclusions were uniformly unrevealing. The thought behind phrenology seems to have followed as such: that the brain consisted of modular faculties that were generally independent and localized, an observation that would have been supported through observations of traumatic injuries like the one received by Phineas Gage in 1848, whose personality changed radically when his left frontal lobe was largely destroyed by a railroad spike. It seemed not implausible that if mind and brain were deeply intertwined that the size of these various organs in the skull might determine one’s personality. And if the shape of the brain determined the shape of the skull, well, could one not possibly infer the personality traits of the individual from an examination of the contours of the head? Sure there are a lot of speculative leaps in there, but it’s not impossible. It could have been right. It just happened to not be, and quite quickly the interpretive flaws that doomed phrenology were recognized.

Phrenology, while in some ways reflecting a materialist sensibility about the origin of character, was also a very convenient tool by which to confirm racial and social stereotypes and beliefs that one’s true inner nature would be written on one’s body, like Dorian Gray’s portrait. As such, it was an especially useful pseudoscience for reconfirming the inferiority of darker races and confirming the inherently criminal nature of the lower classes.

What I am most surprised by as I go through these articles is the number and variety of prominent historical characters who underwent phrenological analysis. These include Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Clara Barton, most of the Northern generals in the Civil War, and the exhumed skull of Jonathan Swift. When these personages were not available for direct examination, phrenologists would base their analyses on paintings and busts of the figures. One of the most intriguing was a phrenological analysis of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. The Nauvoo Wasp on 2 July 1842 printed a letter from Smith’s phrenologist, Dr. A. Crane. which he prefaces with:

“Sir, I take the liberty to inform you that a large number of persons in different places have manifested a desire to know the phrenological development of Joseph Smith’s head. I have examined the Prophet’s head, and he is perfectly willing to have the chart published. You will please publish in your paper such portions of it as I have marked, showing the development of his much-talked-of brain, and let the public judge for themselves whether phrenology proves the reports against him true or false[.] Time will prove all things, and word to the wise is sufficient.”







(source: Bennet, The History of the Saints)

The scores range from 1-12, twelve meaning that the part of the brain in question is very large. It turns out, according to Dr. Crane, Smith was extremely susceptible to and desirous of the opposite sex. A lot. Like 11 out of 12 a lot.  Also, he was judged to have an enlarged region of critical acumen. He scored low on “attachment to places of long residence,” musical aptitude, destructiveness, indifference to life, and, interestingly, the sentiment of “veneration,” which is described as “religion without great awe or enthusiasm” and “reasonable deference to superiority.”

Mark Twain also had his head examined. In a series of articles published in the 1970s, literary scholars debated to what degree Twain was a believer in phrenology. Certainly he was familiar with phrenology and other forms of bunkum. It’s low hanging fruit, and he often deployed his satirical skills against popularly discredited practices. The exchange that these scholars were having, however, seem to miss the point that whenever Twain was writing for a large popular audience, he was uniformly damning of phrenology, which suggests to me that was likely his attitude toward the topic. In Huck Finn, the King and the Duke, two traveling confidence men included phrenology among their skills. Wandering phrenologists would come to his hometown of Hannibal, MO and give readings for a quarter. In his Autobiography, he recounted:

The phrenologist took great delight in mouthing [the] great names [of cranial features]; they gurgled from his lips in an easy and unembarrassed stream, and this exhibition of cultivated facility compelled the envy and admiration of everybody. By and by the people became familiar with these strange names and addicted to the use of them and they batted them back and forth in conversation with deep satisfaction– a satisfaction which could hardly have been more contenting if they had known for certain what the words meant.

“It is not at all likely, I think, that the traveling expert ever got any villager’s character quite right, but it is a safe guess that he was always wise enough to furnish his clients character-charts that would compare favorably with George Washington’s. It was a long time ago and yet I think I still remember that no phrenologist ever came across a skull in our town that fell much short of the Washington standard.

Twain also recounts a visit to a London phrenologist, once under a fake identity, and then again several months later under his own nomme de plume. He found that the two readings in no way matched, and that the second one was clearly far more specifically tailored to his public persona. I will include a detailed phrenological reading of Mark Twain that found–surprise, surprise–that he was very funny indeed.

I would be remiss if I did not add one final literary figure who received a phrenological analysis. Walt Whitman employed the language of phrenology in his Leaves of Grass. For instance, when he praises “the noble character of mechanics and farmers, especially the young men, he lauds:

The freshness and candor of their physiognomy, the copiousness and decision of their phrenology,

The picturesque looseness of their carriage, their fierceness when wrong’d,

The fluency of their speech, their delight in music, their curiosity, good temper, and open-handedness—the whole composite make,

The prevailing ardor and enterprise, the large amativeness[…]

And later in the poem, he questions himself:

Who are you, indeed, who would talk or sing to America?

Have you studied out the land, its idioms and men?

Have you learn’d the physiology, phrenology, politics, geography, pride, freedom, friendship, of the land? its substratums and objects?

But Whitman didn’t just use the language of phrenology in terms like “amativeness” (a phrenological feature suggesting sexual desire) and as a metaphor for understanding the deeper truths of American character; he also praised phrenologists alongside geologists, chemists, mathematicians, and oddly, spiritualists, as the “lawgivers of poets,” those who reliably illuminated the objective reality that poets use to fashion their verses. Furthermore, early printings of Leaves of Grass were initially distributed by Fowler and Wells, the New York publishers of the long-lived Phrenology Journal. Their office actually received Whitman’s professional correspondence for a time:



Further, Whitman published his phrenological readings by Lorenzo Fowler in several editions of Leaves of Grass.

For all its misuses and silliness, phrenology seems to have nonetheless left its mark on American culture. Indeed, at least a basic understanding of the pseudoscience is essential to understanding one of America’s most important literary works.


Works Consulted:

  • Bennett, John C. The History of the Saints: Or, An Exposure of Joe Smith and Mormonism. New York: Leland and Whiting, 1842.
  • Claggett, Shalyn. “Putting Character First: The Narrative Construction of Innate Identity in Phrenological Texts.” Victorians Institute Journal 38 (Jan 2010): 103-162.
  • Gribben, Alan. “Mark Twain, Phrenology and the “Temperaments”: A Study of Pseudoscientific Influence” American Quarterly 24.1 (Mar., 1972): 45-68.
  • Hungerford, Edward. “Walt Whitman and His Chart of Bumps.” American Literature 2.4 (Jan., 1931): 350-384.
  • Mackey, Nathanial. “Phrenological Whitman.” Conjunctions 29 (Fall 1997).
  • Riegal, Robert E. “The Introduction of Phrenology to the United States.” The American Historical Review 39.1 (Oct 1933): 73-78.
  • Stern, Madeline B. “Mark Twain Had His Head Examined.” American Literature 41.2 (May, 1969): 207-218.
  • Wrobel, Arthur.  “Corroborating His Phrenology”: The American Phrenological Journal, The Great American Crisis, and U. S. Grant. Journal of American & Comparative Cultures (24.3-4): 161-169.

Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 8

May 5, 2013

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


Like many ‘fringe’ authors, some artists and commentators on the arts apparently believe that scholars – including linguists – hold (or can reasonably be read as holding) that their theories and observations as published in books and articles are definitely correct, not admitting of any challenges, alternative stances or modifications. One such writer is Emma Cocker, an ally of John Latham (discussed briefly last time), who finds this supposed viewpoint unwelcome because of her own focus on the ‘margins’ between entities and the uncertainty of analyses (a popular theme among artists).

Although those of us who are active skeptics do of course find SOME alternative ideas ill-founded, this very ‘strong’ interpretation of what we say reflects a serious (and surprising) error in respect of our intent. Most academics – while confident enough to subject their ideas to scrutiny through publication – are well aware of the provisional nature of academic ‘conclusions’ and of the large amounts of uncertainty which obtain (perhaps especially but not exclusively in the humanities and social sciences). (However, we ARE also – naturally – much more interested than are artists in the RESOLUTION of uncertainties wherever possible, by synthesis or by the identification of some analyses as preferable to others.)

Some writers of this kind also advance more specific ideas (not necessarily non-mainstream) about language – though not always very explicitly or clearly; they are accustomed to using vivid metaphors rather than precise ‘academic’ wording. Cocker herself suggests that ‘seams become audible in the spoken language of certain districts’ (which, she explains in correspondence, refers to interference between dialects/accents in contact situations), and that speech can be ‘twisted and reversed’ (this refers to usage such as Cockney ‘backslang’, as in rofe meaning ‘four’). She discusses these two phenomena in the context of her more general notions about language and the mind, chiefly with respect to her ‘margins’ (these notions are only to a limited extent empirically grounded).

However, both phenomena are already rather well understood: the former is much more widespread in language generally than Cocker seems to imagine and normally requires no special explanation, and the latter is (obviously) typically involved in the encryption of information. Novel perspectives are always of interest; however, they need to be explicitly expressed and exemplified if linguists are to assess their validity and/or significance, and they are more likely to be genuinely useful if they are informed by knowledge of existing ideas within the discipline (even if their proponents reject these ideas).

More next time!


PS: For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.