“Is It Possible?” No. The Vikings Meet Ancient Aliens

July 28, 2013

On April 12, 2013, just a little bit too late for April Fool’s Day, Ancient Aliens aired “The Viking Gods” as episode 11 of season 5. It was a sober and compelling examination of the evidence.

Just kidding. It’s nonsense.

The show features a smattering of real Norse scholars. I don’t know why they are willing to appear on such a show; perhaps they’ve never seen it. I suspect, though, that Timothy R. Tangherlini, Professor and Chair of the Scandinavian Section at UCLA, and Kirsten Wolf, Professor and Chair of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wanted to dispel certain misconceptions about the Viking-Age Norse. Wolf says that, contrary to popular opinion, the Norse “were enormously sophisticated in terms of technology: ship-building, bridge-building, fortress-building….”

Her point is completely valid, of course, but it’s not one you want to make on Ancient Aliens because they are going to seize on any such statements and snatch those accomplishments from the hands of whatever group of humans is being discussed and place them in the freaky, attenuated fingers of little green men. And sure enough, the narrator jumps in to say,

But many researchers remain baffled at how the Vikings became so socially, politically and technologically advanced, especially while living in the cold, harsh environment of the North.

Ancient Aliens has taught me that researchers and scholars exist in a permanent state of bafflement. Still, I suppose it’s better than a state of permanent but unfounded certainty.

Just how were the Norse Vikings able to manage such technological and geographical feats? Are their fortresses and journeys to unknown continents evidence that the Vikings had access to extraterrestrial knowledge? Ancient astronaut theorists say yes, and believe the proof can be found by examining the religious beliefs of this mysterious people.

I’d like to pause briefly to discuss nomenclature: Norse Vikings? As opposed to what? Chinese Vikings? I also noticed that, although the program mentions some dates, the terms “medieval” and “Middle Ages” are never used. The Vikings are at times referred to as “ancient.” I realize the show is called Ancient Aliens, but do they think we don’t know the difference between ancient and medieval?

Regardless, while I would never diminish the accomplishments of medieval Scandinavians, there’s nothing completely baffling or inexplicable about their technological advancements. Consider their ships: they were superb, but, basically, they were boats. Humans have been building boats since someone first said, “you know, it would be quicker to cross that body of water than to go around it.” Viking ships were built by skilled craftsmen without any input from aliens. Why would aliens need ocean-going ships anyway?

Gokstad ship: built by humans. From Wikipedia

Gokstad ship: built by humans. Source: Wikipedia

But wait, there’s more proof of alien intervention:

An account of the attack on Lindisfarne says the assault coincided with extraordinary whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons crisscrossing the skies. Could these strange events be coincidence?

Well, not the dragons. I imagine they were made up, misinterpreted and/or were exaggerations of some natural phenomenon. The rest of it? That’s just weather. Sometimes weather happens. But you never know. After all, the Vikings were a mysterious people.

The Vikings…flourished from the late 8th century to the 11th century in what is today Norway, Sweden and Denmark, but unlike other ancient civilizations, like Greece, Rome or Egypt, relatively little is known about this mysterious people, as few written records or hieroglyphs have survived.

Okay, there aren’t many hieroglyphs, since the Norse didn’t use hieroglyphs (runes are not hieroglyphs), but as the narrator is saying this, we see on the screen a picture from Flateyjarbók, which, as its name implies, is a book–a huge book, filled with letters and words and even sentences. So important and precious is this book that it was one of the first two manuscripts (along with the main manuscript of the so-called Poetic Edda) that Denmark repatriated to Iceland. A significant proportion of the population went to the shore to greet the ship bearing the two books.

The corpus of Old Norse literature is vast. The Icelanders took to literacy with wild abandon. Admittedly, this material was written down later than the events described–in some cases much later–but quite a lot is known about Viking-Age Norse culture, from their own writings and from the writings of others. They really aren’t that mysterious.

It is true that there are questions when it comes to the mythology. We have limited sources. Some of those sources are difficult, confusing and contradictory. Some of the sources (especially Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda and Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum) were written by Christians long after Norse mythology had ceased to be an active religion. They euhemerized, synthesized, interpreted and probably misinterpreted. Consequently, we have limited knowledge about how the religion was actually practiced, and we are probably mistaken in trying to force consistency and coherency onto Norse mythology: beliefs change over time and differ regionally. Ancient Aliens recognizes this problem:

Because little information has survived related to the origin of Norse or Viking gods, modern scholars depend on a pair of Icelandic books written several hundred years after the Viking Age, called the Eddas.

Well, the Poetic Edda isn’t really a book. It is a collection of poems written by different poets at different times. It is called Edda for convenience and in association with the Prose Edda, which quotes Eddic poems extensively. The Poetic Edda was written down after the Viking Age, but probably contains much earlier material.

What’s weird is that, although what they say about the Eddas isn’t entirely accurate, they are correct in their assumption that the Eddas are not a completely reliable source for Viking Age belief. Having sort of acknowledged this, what do they do? They take these stories as absolutely true and accurate accounts of real events because Odin, Thor, Frey and the gang were all aliens. Duh.

Odin, you see, had two ravens named Huginn and Muninn (thought and mind). Every day they flew through the world and then returned and reported to Odin. Or were they ravens? Let’s ask David Hatcher Childress:

Whenever he wanted to observe other worlds, find out what they were doing, he would send these two ravens out, and they would be…like…spy drones or something, and they would go to to these other countries and come back to Odin and report to him what was going on, and it would seem like what Odin had was some kind of spy planes or spy drones that he was sending out, much as we do today.

Or they could be magic birds. Actually, ravens are very intelligent and can be taught to speak. Can they do what Huginn and Muninn were supposed to do? Well, no. They’re special, a god’s magic birds. There is nothing to suggest that there is anything non-organic about them, that they are mechanical or technological.

Given their names, it is also possible to consider them as Odin’s thought and mind (or memory) externalized, perhaps as part of a magical or shamanistic ritual. There is some precedence for this. In the Prose Edda, Snorri tells the story of Thor and Loki’s visit to a giant called Utgarda-Loki. Thor and his retinue face several challenges which they fail miserably. For instance Utgarda-Loki asks Thor to lift a cat. Thor can only get one paw off the ground. Eventually, though, Utgarda-Loki reveals that it was only through magic and tricks of perception that he was able to best Thor. The cat was actually the World Serpent, which circles the world at the bottom of the ocean. Thor had managed to pull it part of the way out.

Thor and the others also directly compete with some apparently humanoid opponents whose names reveal their true natures. Thor wrestles an old woman named Elli, who brings him to one knee. She is actually old age personified. Loki loses an eating match against Logi, who eats the wooden trenchers as well as the meat. Logi means “flame,” which consumes everything in its path. Thor’s servant Thialfi loses a footrace to Hugi. Hugi, like Huginn, means “thought.” As Utgarda-Loki says, “And when Thialfi competed at running with the one called Hugi, that was my thought, and Thialfi was not likely to be able to compete with its speed” (Edda, tr. Anthony Faulkes, Everyman ed.).

But imaginary spy drones aren’t Odin’s only spy technology. He also has his high seat (hliðskjálf) from which he can observe what is going on in the world. According to Jason Martell, author of Knowledge Apocalypse: Ancient Astronauts and the Search for Planet X,

It sounds to me as if Odin was sitting in some type of a captain’s chair in a space ship above the earth, which allowed him to have this view.

To have a captain’s chair in a spaceship, don’t you need to have a spaceship? When the high seat is mentioned, there is nothing remotely spaceship-like associated with it, and again, it isn’t described in a way that makes it sound like anything technological.

But Odin isn’t the only god with pretend alien tech. Thor has a belt of strength. Or is it a bionic exoskeleton? You see, the Norse would have no way to describe a bionic exoskeleton, so the best they could come up with was “magic belt.” If they’d seen the damned thing, and the show suggests that they did, surely they could have come closer than “belt.”

Frey has a magical, foldable ship, Skíðblaðnir. Or is it a spaceship? Well, perhaps, if the Vikings couldn’t tell the difference between something that sails on the ocean and something that flies. It’s not as if they were a sea-going people or anything. Well, perhaps they had no verbs that mean “fly.” Oh wait, they totally did. For instance, they were not forced to say that the ravens (spy drones) sailed on the ocean.

Odin’s spear, Gungnir, is so well-balanced that it will always hit its target. Or as Childress raves,

Gungnir was some kind of high-tech weapon. No matter who he threw it at, it would hit it, like some laser-guided missile or something like that, that just simply could not miss its mark once it had been sent to its target.

This time they have evidence of such amazing high-tech weaponry: the Böksta Runestone, which shows a spear-wielding man on a horse, accompanied by two dogs and two birds. The man might be Odin. And he has a spear. Okay, it doesn’t look like a missile, and you can’t tell that it’s laser-guided, and it looks a lot like a spear. Also, he’s hunting an elk or a moose. I suppose it could be some sort of space-ungulate.

Odin hunts a Space-Moose. Source: Wikipedia

Odin hunts a Space-Moose. Source: Wikipedia

The late Philip Coppens explains the true nature of Thor’s hammer:

It is actually said that this weapon is able to crush mountains. Now imagine a weapon which is able to destroy an entire mountain–the hammer does not cause explosions; it is really the physical force which destroys the object. That is something that today we describe as kinetic weapons.

The scene shifts to NASA Ames where Dr. Peter Schultz of Brown University is working on the Ames Vertical Gun Range. Schultz explains that if it’s really ramped up, “you’ll start melting, vaporizing material. In a sense, this is a kinetic weapon, except we’re not pointing at anything except a target inside the tank.” According to the narrator “the destructive power of this gun displays uncanny similarities to Thor’s Hammer.” Well, they are both powerful, and they both destroy things. So do puppies, but that doesn’t make them extraterrestrial technology.

If kinetic energy weapons and laser-guided missiles (or possibly smart bombs) aren’t enough, Bifröst, the Rainbow Bridge, is a wormhole.

Where did the alien Norse gods get their fabulous stuff? In many cases, from dwarfs. Coppens asks,

[A]re they real dwarfs, or…[are they] somehow more mythical, or whether the label “dwarf” actually stuck to them because they were somehow smaller. And of course today, we often describe the gray alien archetype as dwarfish as well, simply because they are smaller.

Childress also suggests that the Norse dwarfs got their name from their (lack of) height, as if mythological dwarfs were named for dwarfism, rather than the other way around. Aside from being small, dwarfs don’t have that much in common with Grays. According to John Lindow’s Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, dwarfs are “associated with the dead, with battle, with wisdom, with craftsmanship, with the supernatural, and even to some extent with the elves” (100). They are also said to live in the earth, rocks or mountains. Snorri says they were created from the maggots in the flesh of the primordial giant Ymir. They are creatures of the earth, not of the sky. Oh and while the English word “dwarf” has been associated with shortness for a long time, Norse mythological dwarfs don’t necessarily seem to be that small. Or gray. Or large-headed. Or small-bodied.

So where did the Norse gods/aliens go? Well, one might find it suspicious that they seem to have taken their spaceships, spy drones, laser-guided missiles, kinetic weapons, bionic exoskeletons and wormholes and buggered off right around the time the Scandinavians converted to Christianity. Surely there must be another explanation. Let’s look at ship burials. The Oseberg ship burial “revealed for the first time some of the Viking’s burial rituals.” Well, Oseberg was discovered 25 years after Gokstad, but okay.

Is it possible that the Vikings…buried their dead in boats in an effort to help their deceased on their journey to the afterlife?

Yes! Oh my god, YES, that IS possible! They actually asked an “Is it possible” question whose answer is “yes.” Yes, that’s how mythology works.

But wait, there’s more. Martell says “Now this seems very similar to some type of conveyance possibly going into space.” Well, yes, it does seem like that, except that it’s a sea-going ship buried in the ground.

They then describe Valhalla. Like Snorri, they conflate probably separate ideas regarding Valhalla, but they really seize on the description of it as being golden. Giorgio Tsoukalos says,

Valhalla was not a figment of our ancestors’ imaginations, but it might have been some type of an orbiting space station. The reason why I’m saying this is because we have a description of Valhalla: it is an incredible description of a place that has weird attributes.

And Martell just goes ahead and describes it as a “large metallic ship.” How the hell do you go from a “gold-bright” hall of the slain to a “large metallic ship”? It’s not a ship, and it’s not metallic.

Ship burials (and ship cremations), they claim, are supposed to replicate the gods’/aliens’ return to their home world or to the space station Valhalla. But Oseberg also contains sledges. Did the aliens’ return home also involve traversing space-snow? One other thing about Oseberg: its occupants were female. This is never mentioned on Ancient Aliens. In fact, you’d never know that there were Norse goddesses or Norse women based on the program. Anyway, except in unusual circumstances, women didn’t go to Valhalla, so Oseberg doesn’t really fit the weird scenario they’ve created.

Watching this episode, I found myself wondering if these people really believe what they’re saying, or if, in the fifth season, they’ve run out of things to talk about and will just say anything to keep the show going. However, when Bob and I went to the Paradigm Symposium, we both got the idea that these people are true believers, and Coppens did write about a Viking/ancient alien connection.

It’s just so hard to imagine the thought processes that could lead to such beliefs. First, they seem to conclude that human imagination is a comparatively recent invention, and that no one in the past could describe anything they hadn’t seen with their own eyes. Second, they make logical leaps of truly spectacular proportions. And finally, there is the ability to seize on some details, blow them up, and then ignore other details as if they weren’t there. This is particularly noticeable when they discuss the Böksta stone as an example of Odin’s spear. How on earth can they use this to support the laser-guided missile argument? He’s riding a horse (with only four legs; Odin’s steed Sleipnir usually has eight); he’s hunting an elk; he has hunting hounds; one of his birds (spy drones) is attacking the eyes of the elk. He is also accompanied by a human figure on skies, carrying a bow and arrows, possibly Ullr. It’s all sorts of terrestrial. Stunningly ordinary. If the stone does show Odin, it shows him behaving very much like a medieval Scandinavian hunter.



July 28, 2013

Sorry, there will be no blog this week; I have been unwell. Normal service should resume soon! Mark

TAM 2013 Recap…

July 20, 2013

Well, TAM 2013 was a hell of a thing.

Eve and I arrived on Wednesday, the night before our workshop. Outside of the security area, we met our driver who we identified by his sign, which read “Blaskiewicz/Siebert/Blackmore.” Excuse me? Susan Blackmore will be sharing our ride to the South Point? Oh, well, if she must! We chatted with her on the way to the venue, and I brought up her work on memes, which you may have heard of. I took an interest in memes a couple of years ago, but was coming at it at a different way than Susan was, from the point of view of a lit/rhetoric guy, not a psychologist. I encouraged her to read Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy and indicated that she might find useful his discussion of the forms of memorable thoughts (which are valued in oral cultures).

And that was just the ride to the hotel.

As we checked in, Eve and I bumped into Sharon Hill, our friend and fellow virtual skeptic. She had come through the desert on a horse with no name with a viking. She was pooped. I went to my room, dropped off my stuff, and picked up my badge. I loitered in the Del Mar for a while and was going to go upstairs to drop off my program and “fighting the fakers” t-shirt when, holy crap, Sanal Sedamaruku steps out of the elevator and asks me where he can get his credentials. When someone is basically in exile because he demonstrated that a weeping statue was actually exuding toilet water and the Archbishop is a petty bully without a shred of dignity, well, you help the guy get his badge so he can point at it and justifiably brag about how awesome he is.

I met the rest of my morning panel (“Skepticism Across the Curriculum”) at the Del Mar that night. The panel in the morning went pretty well. We had a chance to include a number of the audience members in the discussion at the end, though through a series of (my) miscalculations we did not have as much time as I had hoped we would. (At the same time we were presenting, one group of skeptics decided to bungee jump off of the Stratosphere on the Strip, or as Eve put it, “would rather jump off of a building than see our panel.”) I made it to a couple of other panels during the day, including the “Preserving Skeptical History” panel and the “Skepticism Around the World” panel. I was, however, a right twit because I missed Tim Farley’s talk about skeptics’ conferences; I know how much work went into that presentation, and I will have to catch it when it comes up on youtube. And you will too….

Much of what happened over the next few days is a blur. I saw Sharon’s talk about being an honest broker of doubtful news, which was pretty kickass. I caught the beginning and end of Karen Stollznow’s talk, but when you come into the end of the talk and she shows the video of Pastor Jack casting out demons to the tunes of Tom Jones…you just want to know about the theology that suggested that should be in the exorcism ritual! (I fell over possessed—WITH LAUGHTER!)

Yes, it is unusual. It’s very unusual.

After Karen’s talk, I watched a bit of Marty Klein’s presentation and then bopped out for a bit. I was back for the Honest Liar presentation, which featured Jamy Ian Swiss, Randi and the folks putting together the biopic about Randi. That night, the Skepticality crowd gathered for dinner with people from IIG, and then the Skepticality crowd went upstairs to try to record an episode. We don’t know if Derek is going to be able to get anything this week because the recording was fairly chaotic. I skipped Penn’s Bacon and Doughnut Party (but dropped the requested funds in the till) and partied in the Del Mar instead.

Saturday morning was spent in silent contemplation. I had my talk coming up at 2:20. I missed a number of really remarkable speakers, but to be fair, I was getting in the zone and focusing on the job. I heard that the Skepticism and Philosophy panel was out of sight–it was an all-star cast–and Michael Mann knocked ’em dead. David Gorski and I had planned to give two parts of a larger talk. David prepared a talk about the history and schmience of the Burzynski Clinic. I talked about the patients. We split 40 minutes evenly, which was enough to give people a taste of the larger project we’ve been working on for the last several months. I was pleased with how our presentations went. Next I was on the Science-Based Medicine panel with Harriet Hall and Mark Crislip, David Gorski and Steve Novella. I like to think that I represented “the common man” on that panel.

That evening was the speakers’ reception with Randi, which was swell. The man has the patience of a zen master, posing for dozens of photos and giving the benediction–I’M KIDDING! It was a great opportunity to meet with the luminaries you had not yet bumped into in the lounge, at the Del Mar, or in the hall.

The evening entertainment, Magic, Mayhem, and Mentalism, was produced by Jamy, and I finally got to see Jonny Zavant and Caroline Gayle’s act. I met them in the elevator the night before and psychically predicted while floor they were getting off on completely by coincidence. Also, I was pleased to see Todd Robbins again, who makes the Sideshow look…really uncomfortable if I’m honest, but his delivery is very polished and smooth and you get the sense that he is curating a tradition of entertainment that is fading. (I saw him as the host of NECSS 2+ years ago, and he was superb.)

Then there was a lot of drinking.

In the morning, I managed to get downstairs for the Sunday morning papers. I missed only the first one, and they were all of exceptional quality. Standouts were Andrew Hansford’s talk about the Marblehead UFO, an old fashioned debunking, Shane Greenup’s vision for the rbutr tool, and Jo Benhamu’s closer about the (other) FSM. Eve gave a talk about how creationists ruin all areas of human thought, in this case literary studies. I really liked the variety and pace of these talks, and think that they might do really well as a bunch in the middle of Saturday to change up the pace a little bit when people are getting tired.

The Bigfoot Skepticism panel was totally misleading. There was no bigfoot at all, only Blake moderating, and he didn’t even have his bigfoot costume this year! Sara Mayhew gave her talk next, which I had to be there for since I missed it last year. (“Beta blockers, Bob…They are sooo great.”) I also witnessed the blow up on the Magicians vs. Psychics panel between, well, the other magicians and Mark Edward. I think there was a lot going on in the background there, I think, ahead of time, and I watched as the panel took the ethical stances that they had elaborated during the panel and applied them to Mark’s case. Mark has long been a liminal case, it seems, and I’m not sure what the full backstory is there. It was a great discussion and as the accusations flew; I know at one point I realized my mouth was agape. It was one of those confrontations you want to munch popcorn while watching.

Harriet Hall followed next and thoroughly complicated my feelings about my prostate in her talk about screening tests.

In the evening was the Million Dollar Challenge. This year, a remote viewer failed to describe the contents of a sealed room in Las Vegas from his home in Algeria. Apparently Ramadan threw off his mojo. The JREF has invited the applicant to revisit the test after the holy month has ended so that he may be tested under optimal conditions.

After the MDC, the Virtual Skeptics recorded a show from room 1942, where we did a wrap up of TAM with a select few chums, including Susan Gerbic, who won the Randi prize for promoting skepticism in the public sphere. It was well deserved. You will see that we had a great time:

TAM ended in the Del Mar, as we said goodbye to everyone and George Hrab struck up an acoustic sing-along. A great end to an invigorating extended weekend surrounded by clever people being goofy and clever. It was great to see so many friends who had only been internet buddies live and for real. Many thanks to DJ and Thomas for the opportunity to come out. You guys should totally have another one next year.


Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 19

July 18, 2013

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues (early this week since my beloved & I are going away until next Tuesday).


Owen Barfield was a member of the mid-twentieth-century group of Oxford writers, literature scholars and philologists centred on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Tolkien himself espoused some implausible ideas about language grounded in literary and philological notions rather than in the then current work of linguists. He apparently believed, for instance, that he himself had acquired older varieties of English formerly used in his own home area near Birmingham (where his family had long resided) more readily than would students from other areas. No positive evidence of such effects exists, and, if they were genuine, they would in fact be difficult to explain in scientific terms (such characteristics are acquired, not genetically transmitted). For his part, Barfield developed a more articulated and wide-ranging non-mainstream approach to language. He lived to a very advanced age and long survived all the other ‘Inklings’.

Barfield’s most relevant works (Saving the Appearances (London, 1957); Worlds Apart (Hanover, NH, 1963); Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, 3rd edn (Hanover, NH, and London, 1973)) deals mainly with poetic language, seeking ‘objective’ standards of criticism involving philosophical considerations on the relation between language and thought (although it is far from clear that he succeeds in this enterprise). Like Tolkien, he was less aware of twentieth-century mainstream scientific linguistics than of philology (also scientific, albeit in a weaker, partly pre-theoretical sense) and linguistic philosophy. He offers little concrete empirical evidence for his general claims, and his comments about non-Indo-European languages (for example, on Chinese word order) are oversimplified.

Barfield claims that poetry genuinely is the ‘best’ language, and that in early times all language had a poetic character, before ‘logic’ came to dominate both usage itself and most strands of thought about the subject. This poetic character, he holds, is still found in ‘primitive’ languages such as pidgins (in fact, no truly ‘primitive’ languages are known, although some linguists do hold that some features of pidgins may reflect earlier stages of language). Barfield objects to the notion that a language becomes richer and more poetic as it ‘ages’ historically. He judges that the poet Percy Shelley and others were profoundly mistaken in holding that a spiritual, creative awakening, accompanied by a strengthening of the relevant aspects of language, occurred in their own time, arguing that if language were indeed becoming more poetic all people would have been accomplished poets by his own time.

Barfield’s focus on the past leads him to interpret the semantics of words in a heavily etymological manner, with a focus on metaphor as a vehicle of meaning-shift. He also accepts Otto Jespersen’s view that there is very generally a movement during the ‘lifetime’ of a language from inflectional morphology with relatively free word order (as in Sanskrit or Latin), which he prefers, to isolating morphology and a fixed word order (as in contemporary English); in fact, this is at most an Indo-European tendency.

Barfield’s ideas are interesting, but from the point of view of a scientific linguist they are too heavily grounded in partly subjective judgments and insufficiently justified in empirical terms.

For my 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’ 18

July 14, 2013

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


Jean Perdrizet (French; 1907-75) is one of the many eccentric thinkers featured in the very interesting current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London on non-mainstream ideas about many subjects (http://www.culture24.org.uk/art/painting%20&%20drawing/art439636). An excellent book is available to purchase if you can’t make the show itself; the article on Perdrizet (pp. 116-120) is by Eimear Martin.

Perdrizet was an inventor of speculative machines; many of his diagrams but none of his prototypes survive. He was interested in linguistics (among many other subjects), and more specfifucally he was very concerned with communication, especially by/with spirits, ‘robots on the moon’, Martians, etc. (Compare artificial languages such as aUI and Lincos aimed in part at communicating with extraterrestrials. Perdrizet was aware of some such proposals, notably Flournoy’s ‘Martian’ and Loglan.)

Whatever the arguable merits of some of his specific proposals, it has to be said at the outset that Perdrizet’s thinking about language appears conceptually confused. Notably, his ‘language’ Sidereal Esperanto is said to be modelled not only on Esperanto (the well-known alphabetically-written invented LANGUAGE) but also on Initial Teaching Alphabet, a 1960s alphabetic SCRIPT specifically intended by its author James Pitman to represent [certain accents of] British English.

However, Sidereal Esperanto is itself written logographically (one symbol per word or morpheme, as in Chinese) or ideographically, NOT alphabetically, and indeed (by intention) pictographically, with 92 symbols. These symbols are drawn as far as possible from those available on French typewriters, but they are not used alphabetically or indeed phonologically (it is not clear how they would be pronounced). They are chosen to represent specific ‘thoughts’, because the letter-forms supposedly suggest those thoughts and because Perdrizet believed that thinking is predominantly visual. For example, the ampersand (&) signifies the notion ‘knot’; M denotes ‘walking’ (it resembles legs in motion); C represents ‘hook’; etc. In some cases the link between form and meaning is rather abstract, as in the choice of lower case J to represent ‘date in time’ (it supposedly represents a point on a time-line), or is simply obscure. And some of the symbols used are, predictably, mainly used in French, such as the cedilla which ‘softens’ a C in order for it to represent /s/ rather than /k/ before a back vowel.

Perdrizet’s ideas are often intriguing but would benefit from collaboration with linguists.

For my own 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’ 17

July 7, 2013

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


In his book Voices In The Wilderness (Mariposa, CA; self-published; 2012; see also http://www.bigfootsounds.com), Ron Morehead promotes the view that Bigfoot/sasquatch (the North American equivalent of the Himalayan yeti) not only clearly exists but communicates using oral forms which (while not readily understood) clearly qualify to be described as language, supposedly in the strict sense of this term (but see below).
Morehead presents (not especially impressive) recordings of some such extracts on a CD which accompanies his book, and on the website his associate Scott Nelson presents transcriptions and discussion of lengthier extracts which he does not readily make available in recorded form (hence my comments below relate to his transcriptions and discussion). In addition, Morehead and Nelson appear reluctant to respond to queries regarding this material. I stress that my comments here are subject to modification as and when I do receive more information from Morehead or Nelson.

The fact that these claims involve a ‘cryptid’ (an animal not recognised by mainstream zoology) renders them all the more dramatic. But, naturally, animals as similar to humans as Bigfoot, if real, would be among the most likely non-humans to manifest behavioural and mental patterns of a linguistic nature.

Obviously, Morehead and his associates mainly cite authors who uphold positive interpretations of the non-linguistic evidence. These writers include some rather dubious commentators such as the Bigfoot-advocate Ivan Sanderson (see Morehead p. 14). Morehead also adopts a rather ‘popular’ and negative ‘anomalist’ view of science as practised by mainstream scientists; and in places (see p. 56) he advances the now widespread ‘New Age’ views regarding (for instance) the applicability of quantum physics to cryptozoology.

Morehead, Nelson and other cited commentators on the material are not trained in linguistics. Specifically, they do not offer explicit definitions of the notion ‘language’, and it is not always clear that they are adequately aware of this issue. Morehead himself can be read as equating ‘coherent’ oral communication – and perhaps even phenomena such as the unexplained clicking and quasi-metallic sounds which he and his associates reportedly heard in the Sierra Nevada – with unfamiliar manifestations of language proper. He is also very ready to interpret sounds heard just after he himself has vocalised as deliberate ‘replies’, even when no entity was actually seen; see for example p. 31.

Nelson for his part clearly knows SOME linguistics; but the term ‘crypto-linguist’, as used here to describe him, seems to refer to a person with skills in interpreting (and perhaps analysing) oral linguistic data heard or recorded in difficult conditions, rather than to a person with training or proficiency in linguistics. Such ‘crypto-linguistic’ skills would of course be RELEVANT here. However, there is a major difference between a) the task of interpreting material in a human language with which one is familiar, heard or recorded in difficult conditions, and b) the much more awkward task of analysing short samples of material which is not only recorded in less than ideal conditions but in addition is (if it is indeed linguistic in nature at all) in an altogether unknown language which is apparently non-human in origin – and thus may share far fewer features with any language known to the analyst than even altogether unrelated human languages might share.

Even some ‘pro-Bigfoot’ investigators (whether or not qualified in linguistics etc.) have expressed themselves dubious as to the claims made for auditory material of the kind in question here. For example, the anthropologist Grover Krantz (Big Footprints; Boulder, CO; Johnson Books; 1992), who regarded the existence of Bigfoot as highly probable, found ‘no compelling reason to believe that any of [the recordings in question] are what the recorders claimed them to be’ and indeed was informed by one of the very ‘university sound specialists’ cited in their support by the claimants that humans could easily imitate such sounds (pp. 133-134). While this information is rather anecdotal in character, it does cast further prima facie doubt upon the value of the ‘specialist’ endorsements of the present set of claims.

Nelson uses an idiosyncratic transcription system, the ‘Sasquatch Phonetic Alphabet’ (or more formally the ‘Unidentified Hominid Phonetic Alphabet’), supposedly a ‘variation of the English Reformed Phonetic Alphabet’. I have not been able to identify the system referred to by this last term, and the use here of the term ‘phonetic’ suggests an amateur source (though other interpretations are possible). Neither Nelson nor Morehead has replied to my queries on this matter. It is also unclear to me why Nelson chose to use a system of this kind in preference to the language-neutral International Phonetic Association Alphabet (IPAA), which would certainly be superior for such purposes to any imitated spelling system based on the phonetics of a specific known language such as English.

Nelson’s actual transcriptions and comments suggest a) that he himself does not in fact know enough linguistics for his purpose here and b) that the phonology of Bigfoot-language, if the language is genuine, appears implausibly similar to those of Indo-European languages and in particular to that of English. (This point is, of course, connected with the decision to transcribe the material into imitated spelling based on English orthography.)

Nelson also seems to believe that phonetic data (notably intonation data) in an altogether unfamiliar and ‘exotic’ language can be used as reliable indicators of: a) the emotional state of the vocalising entity (this might POSSIBLY be so but in a cross-species situation it certainly cannot be taken as given) b) whether or not the ‘utterance’ is a question, a command, a ‘direct response’, etc. Intonation patterns characteristically associated with responses, interrogatives/questions and imperatives/commands vary very considerably between human languages (some of which, for phonological reasons, make MINIMAL grammatical use of intonation) and even between accents/dialects of the same language. It is simply not possible to arrive at such judgments with any reliability when the language in question is unfamiliar, and this is again all the more the case in circumstances such as those in question here.

Ideally, what is needed is a series of analyses of all such recordings which are now or become available, by several independent analysts having suitable expertise, training and qualifications. If the proponents of claims such as these show themselves more willing to co-operate with the world community of scholars, this may eventually be achievable, and we may thus come to understand the true nature of this material.

A much expanded version of the above (with extended comments on Nelson’s transcriptions and discussion) is to appear, in two instalments, in the journal of the British skeptical group ASKE (http://www.aske-skeptics.org.uk/).

More next time!


PS: For a most interesting current exhibition (in London) on non-mainstream ideas about many subjects, see http://www.culture24.org.uk/art/painting%20&%20drawing/art439636. An excellent book is available to purchase if you can’t make the show itself.

For my own 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.

A rhetorical riff on the Don’t Be a Dick speech

July 3, 2013

(cross-posted at Skepticality.com)

TAM 2013 is upon us. The Amazing Meeting is the premier conference devoted to critical thinking and what is known primarily as “scientific skepticism,” a phrase which, though I share an enthusiasm for science with my fellow skeptics–hell, I even went to SpaceCamp–I believe is slightly misleading, and which conceptually shuts out a consideration of the role of critical thinking in the humanities. It is encouraging, then, to see that the James Randi Educational Foundation has made a point of inviting philosophers, literary scholars, historians, and artists to participate prominently in this year’s celebration of reason; this year’s keynote speaker is Susan Jacoby, who has written numerous cultural histories. As a sort of celebration of the humanities, skepticism and the Amazing Meeting, I’d like to take a look at one of the most talked about bits of public oratory to come out of TAM in the last several years, Phil Plait’s so-called “Don’t Be a Dick” speech. And we’ll see where it takes us.

The talk was actually titled, “The Goal of Skepticism,” and the message Phil wanted to deliver was essentially that skeptical activism is ultimately about long-term objectives, not about scoring cheap points in the short term, but I think that most people will remember that it as a speech about persuasion: How, he asks his audience, were you persuaded to embrace critical thinking? The art of skillful persuasion, or rhetoric, was at the center of education throughout Western history. At the inception of democracy, the Greek thinkers realized that active participation in public life would entail engineering consensus, and that it was vital for society to produce public figures who would be able to craft policies for the benefit of the polis and then persuade the masses to adopt those policies. Creating this type of public figure was the endpoint of most formal education for two thousand years. There were a number of models for what the ideal practitioner of rhetoric would be. The model that won out was the one proposed and promoted by Isocrates; someone who embodied the ideals and knowledge of a culture, who used broad learning to create arguments that were well-suited to the occasion. His model of the ideal rhetorician influenced the later Roman rhetorics of Cicero and perhaps more importantly Quintilian, whose Insitutio Oratoria has had some currency ever since humanists rediscovered it in the early 15th century. To Quintilian, the ideal rhetorician reflected the idea of the vir bonus, dicendi peritus, “the good man speaking well,” though in the modern era we’d modify that to the good person communicating well.

The arguments that Phil makes in his 30-minute talk draw heavily on the rhetorical tradition and reiterate some of its most important lessons, even if he’s unaware of it. Students of classical rhetoric (and high school debate club veterans) will recognize the three persuasive appeals that are available to the rhetorician or orator, logos (the appeal to evidence and reason), pathos (the appeal to emotion), and ethos (the appeal to the character of the person speaking). Any one of these elements of argument may be persuasive, which, it should be noted, is not the same thing as “leading toward truth.” Usually, all three operate to some degree in a successful argument. Part of what Phil calls “this art of ours,” persuasive skeptical outreach, is to balance these persuasive elements effectively.

Skeptics are all about the logos, baby. We want good evidence, and we want to follow it to its logical conclusion. When a skeptic meets, say, a moon hoaxer, I think the first instinct is to dismantle their arguments point by point and rebuild the hoaxer’s understanding with better arguments and better facts. But Phil points out that this generally unproductive, because it is hard to reason someone out of a position that they have reached irrationally. This means that we need to employ the other appeals. And Phil focuses on ethos, the character of the speaker as revealed through the speech. When the message is a difficult sell, such as giving up god or abandoning the comforts of magical thinking, the character of the speaker takes on special importance. Don’t be a dick. Cicero couldn’t have said it better himself, though he probably would have said, “Noli mentula.”

Perhaps the most important lesson that Phil tries to impart in terms of effective communication is to try and see the world from the perspective of your audience. When I teach about how audience influences message, I usually ask students how would they describe nuclear war to children. Then I show them the old 1950s civil defense film Duck and Cover, and you can see how the message has been tailored to a young audience. They leave out the most horrible parts, they’ve left out the bits about how their parents will be vaporized and how the survivors will long for death, and instead describe the effects of the nuclear flash like a very very bad sunburn, something that kids will understand. Phil’s analysis of audience is actually, for an old rhetorician like me, rather refreshing, as he applies empirically derived considerations to the evaluation of his audience; for instance, the observation that countering misinformation can paradoxically reinforce the prior flawed beliefs. He also brings foregrounds the fact that magical thinking is something that human brains do as a matter of course.

My favorite bit of the presentation, actually, is what Phil does with an aphorism. Rhetoricians from the classical period up through the Renaissance deliberately cultivated stores of standard tropes that they could employ and adopt for any occasion. These, I think, are a remnant of a preliterate oral tradition, when all knowledge had to be stored not in writing, but inside the heads of people who were actively using the knowledge; in these “primary oral cultures”, people had to think memorable thoughts and repeat them out loud if the ideas were to be preserved. Aphorisms and cliches are efficient vehicles of conveying information down through generations (as are story story and song). In one sense, aphoristic “common sense” is an important part of building a community on common assumptions. In the skeptics subculture, sayings like “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and “alternative medicine that’s been proven to work is called medicine,” and “what is asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence” are just a couple of these skeptical commonplaces. Sagan made a point of coining them by the dozen precisely because they are memorable. Phil brings up the aphorism that “the plural of anecdote is not data,” clearly a rhetorical feature that hearkens back to preliterate conventions. Then he does something that is decidedly literate by altering it, saying, when you take the anecdotes of a thousand skeptics and none of them became critical thinkers because of verbal abuse, you have data. In preliterate cultures, where the preservation of knowledge is an imperative, constancy is valued. When ideas can be stored outside of your head, as in literate societies, suddenly novelty becomes valued. Yes, literacy means that you have the mental resources free to have new types of ideas, record those new ideas in a permanent medium, and build a cumulative store of knowledge that is fixed and can be built upon. And this is why literacy makes science possible. For more on this topic, I recommend Walter Ong’s classic Orality and Literacy.

We’ll see you at TAM. Eve Siebert and I will both be on the skepticism across the curriculum workshop; Eve will be giving a paper on Sunday about how young earth creationists ruin everything; and I’ll be on the science-based medicine panel.