Mami Wata and the Nigerian “Mermaid” Riot

August 27, 2013

(Cross-posted at Skepticality)

This is Bob Blaskiewicz from

Last month, a really weird story came out of Nigeria, in what was reported as a “panic” surrounding reports of a “mermaid” appearing in Ibadan. I read about it on Doubtful News. A woman found a strange critter in a batch of frozen fish she was going to cook and sell from her home. It was reported that she shouted out in fear and a Muslim cleric was called in. As Sharon Hill reported it:

News of the mini-mermaid swept through the city causing a big commotion. It was reported in the local news that the first person who took a picture of the creature experienced a broken phone. Then it gets weird. The mermaid, described as “very small in size initially, grew bigger and was fish from waist downward and human being from waist upwards, with mouth, nose, eyes and long hair” was now said to have spoken, begging the woman who found it (also called Ramota Adeyemo or Ramota Salawu) not to reveal it. She was taken to the police station for questioning.

That night, the house in question was vandalized and her daughter was beaten up. The police have since confirmed that what was seen was an octopus. At the end of Sharon’s piece there is a little commentary, she did a little summary:

I’m not clear why the villagers thought it was something extraordinary unless they had never seen one either. A strong superstitious nature of the people led them to believe the finding would bring bad luck upon their village. But notice how the story grew so fast and caused what appears to be near panic!

What makes this so interesting for a skeptic is the way that this story has been presented, as a story of scared people converging on the site of the strange happenings and then how rapidly an intricate and bizarre story spread. And for a Westerner encountering a weird story like this without context it will seem exceedingly crazy. Honestly, I found it hard to believe that mass psychogenic illness could lead to a mermaid panic, though, to be fair, in France there outbreak of nuns meowing in 1844. When you look into the Nigerian case, there is a reason, actually several reasons, and the explanation is very, very cool.

First, however, I am going to tell you what I consider to be the most authoritative version of what actually happened, that of Ramota, the woman who found the creature. She bought frozen fish in the morning and found the critter in there when it thawed. Initially, she threw it out, but then decided to retrieve it and show it to her sister, who had sold fish for years to see if she had ever seen it’s like. An “Alfa”, the muslim equivalent of a pastor, happened to be there–he just came up behind her, she said–and tried to take a photo but couldn’t because the phone went dead. The brother who was there also could not take a photo because his phone went dead.

Ramota then took the critter to her elder brother’s house to show him. He is also an “Alfa.” While Ramota was with this brother, a crowd was forming at her house and she was called home to show them the octopus and disperse the crowd. I’ll tell the next part of the story in her words:

“But by the time I got home, there was a twist in the story. I learnt that the president of traditionalists in Ibadan had gone to report at the police station that I had a strange creature with me, which was inimical to the well-being of the people of the state.

“They had threatened that if the creature was not handed over to them, Ibadan would experience a serious flood disaster and that the 1980 experience would be a child’s play when compared to it.

“I was invited to the station by the police where I met the traditionalist. I told the police that it was a lie that nothing disastrous would happen because what I saw was just dust and not any miracle. I made them realise that I am also a water devotee from the popular family in Osogbo, Osun State. “

While she was at the station, Ramota’s house was ransacked by hooligans (they stole the fish for sale) and her daughter was beaten up. Her day ended at 9:00, and her brother, who had run off with the octopus when the pressure from the crowd got too great, brought the critter to the police the next morning where it was identified.

So what was going on? There are two principal elements to the story. The first element is the way in which Nigerian reporting seems to have been conducted–sources seem not to be ranked, so that the implied authority of the chief of police is not as far removed from that of bystanders outside of the house as it would be in the US. This may just be a style issue, but when the West picks it up it sounds like there is a lot more parity between the two versions than the native readership would probably give it.

The second contributing element is cultural background. Both of these conspired to give us the strange story that we received here.

It turns out that the idea of a water-woman is part of a local, and actually widespread diasporic traditional religion, the tradition of the “Mami Wata,” a word which is apparently a pidgin form of “Mammy-Water.” These are river spirits associated with a very feminine sect. The mami wata is often represented as a woman holding snakes or a half serpent as a half-fish. So this story of the mermaid was not brewed up on the spot. The story basically preexisted the appearance of the octopus, and the sect was in a sense waiting for something like this to appear.

Before I look at the beliefs surrounding the mami wata, I should mention that she is a highly variable figure, understood differently in many regions of west Africa and the diaspora. Her character varies from region to region. This is likely because the name “mami wata” has come to be applied to local water deities who retain their distinct characteristics. Honestly, there is enough disagreement in the academic literature about the origins and interpretation of the character, that one would do well to consult with an expert in West African religion and culture to have a full understanding of mami wata. I would say that it appears that most scholars have focused on one or two regional variations of the character, though there have been a handful of art exhibits that sought to bring together mami wata art from different regions.

What I can say however, mami wata has become increasingly popular over the last century. The stories and images associated with water spirits associate them with feminine beauty and prosperity. They also are reported to appear in human form to seduce young men. If they stay faithful to the mami wata, they are rewarded with wealth; if not, they suffer consequences. However, when misfortune is ascribed to her, those who have attracted her attention join her cult to propitiate her. Mami wata is thought to interact directly with followers, and some of the rituals associated with involve channeling the spirit, who is mostly benevolent. She dispenses health and fertility (but fertility costs you your prosperity). This actually seems to square with what one of the devotees outside Ramota’s house said, that the deity would make Ramota a healer.

It’s hard to say how faithful to the original indigenous water spirit beliefs the modern form of worship is. The current form of worship has clearly been influenced by colonial and economic forces, the same forces that allowed her to spread throughout West Africa and the diaspora. Mami wata has been incorporated into both Christian and Islamic beliefs in this part of Nigeria, adding another layer of complexity. However, I suspect that the figure, and certainly the term “mermaid,” is an interpolation of Western mythologies rather than an expression of a native one.

The takeaway for skeptics, I think, is that no matter how completely bizarre an event may seem, even in the case of a riot over a mermaid, if you dig down, you can usually find an explanation that makes it seem a lot less mysterious.

This is Bob Blaskiewicz from

Further Reading:

Drewal, H. J. “Interpretation, Invention and Representation in the Worship of Mami Wata.” Journal of Folklore Research 25.1 (1988): 101-39.

—. “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas.” African Arts (2008): 60-83.

—. “Mermaids, Mirrors, and Snake Charmers: Igbo Mami Wata Shrines.” African Arts 21.2 (1988): 38-96, 96.

Fabowale, Yinka. “Strange creature among frozen fish causes stir in Ibadan.” The Sun (24 July 2013).

Frank, Barbara. “Permitted and Prohibited Wealth: Commodity-Possessing Spirits, Economic Morals, and the Goddess Mami Wata in West Africa.” Ethnology 34.4 (Fall 1995).

Hill, Sharon. “Panic Over Alleged Mermaid Found in Nigerian Town.” Doubtful News (25 June 2013).

Mami Wata.” (Wikipedia)

Olanrewaju, Taiwo. “Commotion over ‘mermaid’ in Ibadan“ Nigerian Tribune (25 July 2013).

—. “Ibadan ‘Mermaid’: Fish Seller’s Daughter Attack, House Vandalised.” (25 July 2013).

Salmons, J. “Mammy Wata.“ African Arts 10.3 (1977): 8-15, 87-88.

Police Dispel Reports Of Mermaid In Ibadan, Says Fish Was Baby-Octopus.” Information Nigeria (24 July 2013).

Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 23

August 25, 2013

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


Jean-Louis Pagé (see my ‘Around The World In Mysterious Scripts & Texts’ 3, this site, 28 May 2012) claims that the Algonkian language Cree and its script are related to his version of ‘Atlantean’ (which very probably never existed) and thus to ancient languages of the Old World. The Cree writing system (a syllabary-cum-alphabet) was demonstrably invented by James Evans in 1840-46 on the basis of shorthand, the syllabic Cherokee script (itself held by some, such as ‘Traveler Bird’, to be much older than it appears to be; this system too was in fact, as it seems, invented, around 1821, by a member of the Cherokee nation named Sequoya) and other scripts known to him; it cannot be related to ancient scripts. In addition, Pagé’s conceptualization of the system as logographic or even ideographic is confused and inaccurate.

Cyclone Covey’s associate Ethel Stewart offers another non-mainstream account of Cree and its writing system.

Another interesting case is that of the ‘Walam Olum’, a document allegedly obtained by Constantine Rafinesque from the nomadic Lenape Amerindians but in fact probably forged. This text, written in Lenape in an otherwise unknown ‘ideographic’ (logographic) script, supposedly recounts the wanderings of the tribe over many thousands of years, starting from their ultimate origins in Asia. Others have endorsed and developed this analysis.

References to all these sources on request!

More next time (which will be delayed until midweek or maybe even 8 September; my beloved & I will be away, in Iceland)!


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’ 22

August 18, 2013

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


There are numerous nationalistic myths concerning the various Balkan Slavic languages, notably Serbian. Milan Elesin, a Serbian writer, apparently believes that the Lord’s Prayer was mistranslated into Serbian and other modern Slavic languages, preferring his own reading of the version in Old Church Slavonic (OCS) – the classical language of Eastern European Orthodox Christianity – supposedly written by St Cyril. Elesin seems reluctant to acknowledge the status of the New Testament Greek text as the original formulation of the prayer. For instance, he regards the Serbian equivalent of the word daily in the prayer – and, it seems, the English word itself and equivalent words in other languages – as a confusing mistranslation. Elesin does not seem to be denying that the Greek sentence in question has the meaning ‘Give us today our daily bread’, or claiming that the English, Serbian etc. are mistranslations of the Greek. Instead, he ascribes higher status to the OCS wording, which he repeatedly translates quite differently from the Greek (differing in this respect from mainstream OCS scholars, though without overt acknowledgment of this divergence). In the case of the key word epiousion (‘daily’) as cited here, he treats the OCS as importing ideas from an Egyptian hymn beseeching divine relief from a drought. His view seems to be that Cyril had access – directly or indirectly – to these pre-first-century formulations, and that the OCS thus preserves these better than does the Greek. But these versions are not themselves known; and – like all scholars between post-dynastic times and the nineteenth-century decipherment – Cyril himself was surely unable to read Egyptian.

In other places Elison’s own interpretations are truly bizarre; for example, he translates one section of the OCS as referring to the gas ozone. And his ‘understanding’ of the ideas and covert motivations of contemporary linguists and biblical scholars is also bizarre.

It may be possible to purchase Milan Elesin’s e-book on this subject by writing to him at It should be borne in mind that his English is often very strange and difficult to understand (some of it is machine-translated)

I found one source where Elesin’s surname was transliterated Elisin; maybe this spelling should be included in web-searches.

More next time!


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.

What’s Right with Skepticism?

August 17, 2013

The last two weeks have been difficult for members of organized skepticism, a community that I have been increasingly involved in over the last five years. In that time, I’ve made a lot of good friends, but recently many of them have forgotten they can disagree without hating one another. This animosity threatens a lot of progress that has been made over the past decade, during which time groups of overwhelmingly like-minded people have found each other in order to promote evidence-based thinking and to celebrate curiosity and progress.

Yesterday, Newsweek published a piece by Michael Moynihan called, “James Randi, the Amazing Meeting, and the Bullshit Police.” I think it’s safe to say that most of it was probably written before the most recent flare up of “The Troubles,” because in some ways the portrait of skepticism represented in that article–with the veneer of a united movement–reminds me of someone with whom I am intimately familiar, but who is impossibly distant. It’s hard to believe that just a month ago, I was in the company of 1,500 friends from around the world, any one of whom I could easily plonk down next to and have a beer with.

For all the dysfunction we’ve seen, though, skeptics are doing a number of things right, and I think that if ever were a time that we needed to appreciate the best of skepticism, it’s now. You may not agree with every item on the following list, and there is a very good chance that you strongly disagree with someone whose work appears on it. But it’s not a list of people or personalities, but of work that has been done. Regardless of how you feel about the people who are performing the work these projects deserve your attention and support.

SkeptiCamp–Since the first SkeptiCamp was organized by Reed Esau in Denver in 2007, skeptics in cities around the world have sponsored these gatherings where the only requirement is that you participate. Over 70 SkeptiCamps have been held to date and have given hundreds of people the opportunity to participate in skepticism, refine their research and presentation skills, and become more effective advocates of sound reasoning in the public sphere. These are powerful incubators of skeptical talent. If you think that skepticism is too centralized or that there are too many skeptical superstars or not enough variety at major conferences, then you should be participating in SkeptiCamp. You’ll get variety and you’ll be encouraging diversity at future national conferences. I was pulled into the screaming vortex of organized skepticism by Reed when Eve and I sat next to him at the food court at Dragon*Con and asked him about his “SkeptiCamp” t-shirt. Since then, I’ve presented at three SkeptiCamps and hope to attend more.

Science-Based MedicineThe Science-Based Medicine blog is one of the workhorses of skepticism, where experts discuss one of the perennial skeptical topics (alternative medicine) and guide readers through medical research that makes it into the news. The editorial board and author pool is a who’s-who of skeptical heavy hitters, and they deliver the goods. Week after week, you get the sense that this is the front line of the war on medical charlatanry. I think that SBM has managed to do what it does so well not just because of its talented contributors, but because it has stayed so close to its public mission throughout its run. Skeptics would do well to find ways to promote this valuable resource so that the SBM crew spends more time shaping public opinion than stomping out fires. And if there is someone you don’t like on there, there are a dozen other people you can get behind.

Doubtful News–This site has been going like gangbusters in the two years it’s been up, primarily, I think, because of the work of its founder, Sharon Hill. Doubtful News breaks more weird news before 9AM than most news organizations do all day, and she’s usually a day or two ahead of the news cycle. She and her co-editor are usually the first skeptical voices to chime in on the weird news of the day. And they are ALWAYS AT IT. This is another resource that we should be putting in front of the media. Skeptics should have a seat at the table when the news is somberly reporting bullshit. Further, Sharon has developed a useful Media Guide to Skepticism, a boilerplate introduction to what we do when we are at our best.

SiTP, Meetups, Virtual Drinking Skeptically–Skeptics in the Pub events are fantastic “gateway” social events, and when people report that they found a community of like-minded people in skepticism, SiTP is what they are usually talking about. But let’s say you don’t like bars or that you have kids that need constant attention/entertainment. Most local groups have occasional low-key and family days out, like Skeptics in the Park/at the Pool/at the Zoo. Lastly, Virtual Drinking Skeptically, an online project begun by Brian Gregory, is a way to enjoy all the benefits of drinking with skeptics without the hassle of leaving your most comfy chair. Actually, this is an attractive option for people like me, who live outside of the town outside of the town outside of the city.

Guerilla Skepticism–This little group has been kicking down doors and has made its presence known this year. Headed by the indefatigable Susan Gerbic, this international group is putting reliable information on Wikipedia, the universal go-to source for information. If there were ever a place skeptics should be devoting their attention and contributing heavily, it’s Wikipedia. My god, think if all the energy expended over the last few years on infighting between people (who really see almost everything else the same way) had been devoted to developing the skeptical presence on Wikipedia! Susan is working with other activist leaders on bringing more skeptical projects to fruition, so pay attention to her.

The Amazing Meeting–You’re goddamned right The Amazing Meeting deserves to be on this list. Ask almost anyone who was there this year. It’s an opportunity to meet the people you have been corresponding with online and whose work you admire. The sheer number of projects, ideas, and collaborations (not the mention the friendships) that begin at the South Point make TAM pretty much the best possible outcome of getting 1,500 humans together. SkeptiCamp came about in part because of TAM 2007. The Virtual Skeptics (full disclosure: we’re awesome) was born over drinks at TAM 2012. Susan Gerbic recruits SkeptiGuerrillas (is that a thing?) and holds meetings with her team there. Podcasters are brought into contact with high-profile interviewees, and some podcast teams have their only face-to-face interaction while in Vegas. I’ve heard many people say that TAM is what recharges them and prepares them emotionally for another year of often frustrating herculean (if not sisyphean) acts in the service of critical thinking; an important reason I got serious about taking on the Burzynski Clinic was because of Pamela Gay’s talk in 2012 about getting out there and doing something awesome. The regional conferences like SkeptiCal and NECSS are excellent too. So is CSICon (and what it is regenerating into), and so are international events like QED, Skeptics on the Fringe, and the European Skeptics Conference, but TAM has the greatest reach, and if I remember correctly, about half of the attendees were first TAMmers this year. It is clearly a unique opportunity to get new people involved in activism and outreach.

Podcasting and webcasting–In some ways, this is what makes skepticism an international community. There is no shortage of well-produced, thoughtful and intelligent digital content online. It began with Derek and Swoopy’s pioneering Skepticality, which was followed by innumerable other podcasts. Skeptoid, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Monster Talk, The Geologic Podcast, The Token Skeptic, Skeptics with a K, The Skeptic Zone, Oh No Ross and Carrie and dozens of other podcasts (I apologize if I missed your fave).

Independent Investigations GroupThe IIG, based in LA, is nuts and bolts skepticism, actively training people to test extraordinary claims, investigate reports of the paranormal, expose charlatanry, and take the hurt to fakers. They have conducted a couple dozen investigations of paranormal and other extraordinary claims. Perhaps my favorite was their investigation (and pranking) of the California Board of Registered Nursing, in which they were able to get workshops on preposterous (and entirely made up) alternative medicine regimens approved to be given for continuing education credit in the state of California. They have also welcomed claimants to test their paranormal abilities under scientifically controlled conditions for a shot at $50,000. The franchises that have popped up in a few cities across the country are expanding the mission of the IIG, and I am delighted to hear that the IIG-Atlanta group will be testing their first claimant for the prize in the near future.

Dragon*Con SkepTrackDragon*Con’s SkepTrack, a labor of love put on by Derek Colanduno, always brings an impressive number of excellent speakers and allows the Atlanta Skeptics to show their stuff.  It’s also a major first point of contact between skeptic nerds and pop culture nerds. There’s often very little difference between the two; it’s just that the pop culture nerds don’t realize that they are skeptics yet. This year’s SkepTrack is going to bring a lot of people together who have been at each others’ throats lately, and I’ve even heard rumblings that attendees should be disruptive to people they don’t like. If you do that during such a major outreach event, you are simply shitting in everyone’s macaroni. Don’t make me get all Jamy Ian Swiss on your ass. There’s a lot of other stuff to do at Dragon*Con while your nemesis is on stage, like visiting the celebrity petting zoo. The attendance at Atlanta Skeptics in the Pub surges every year following Dragon*Con because SkepTrack is an awesome and welcoming event. Keep it awesome. While you are there, go over to the Paranormal Track and see what the other side is up to. It’s illuminating.

Also, the Atlanta Skeptics get the party started early. Go to the Atlanta Star Party the night before Dragon*Con kicks off. This year, the proceeds are going to CosmoQuest, which had its budget disappeared by the sequestration. Noms, entertainment, science, bigass telescope on the roof. You want to be there. It’s like…the prom of skepticism.

I would be remiss if I did not mention another Dragon*Con related initiative, Women Thinking, Inc.’s vaccine clinics, which have had a presence at recent events and have distributed free pertussis shots. Free vaccines at high-profile public events are nothing but win.

Australia and the UK–Yeah, Australia seems to be doing something right. I kind of envision it as sort of skeptical paradise. Success after success comes out of Australia, whether they are stopping the AVN, seeing to it that PowerBalance bands officially don’t work on their continent, or crusading against woo in medical schools. So, yeah. Be like Australia. At the same time, the skeptics in the UK have forced libel law reform and have seen homeopaths wonder openly whether or not they should happily market their bogus wares as confectionary. This makes me happy.

Camp InquiryJunior Skeptic, the Mystery Investigators, Camp Quest, and the JREF education modules–These groups are doing a lot of work directed toward perhaps the most important demographic for skepticism’s long-term success. Skeptics who are interested in the growth of critical thinking should be working very hard to find ways of harnessing kids’ curiosity and empowering them to investigate the world.

What’–These sites are the product of one of the hardest working, most organized skeptics in the business, Tim Farley. Whether it it taking down the infamous Mabus, compiling all of skeptic history, or monitoring new technologies and finding ways to apply them to the larger skeptical project, Farley is constantly working. He’s introduced skeptics to Web of Trust, rbutr, SEO strategies for combatting woo online, turning FourSquare into a skeptical tool,, Lanyard, the FOIA Machine, and dozens of other applications that can help us do skeptical work. Further, he has created, a huge and growing searchable database that chronicles the consequences of superstitious and otherwise sloppy thinking. Like, it should be a standard reference work of skepticism. I’m seriously considering making little wristbands that ask, “What Would Tim Farley Do?”

Last words. I ask people to review Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech. Go back and read Ray Hyman’s wonderful “Proper Criticism,” which outlines principles of productive argument. Steal a copy of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), if necessary. And the next time you engage with a skeptic you strongly disagree with online, for the love of god imagine that Eugenie Scott is sitting right next to you. Our opponents, our REAL opponents, are not going to call a time-out so that skeptics can sort out their quarrels. If you are letting purveyors of woo advance their arguments unchallenged, whatever else it is you are doing, it’s not skepticism.


Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 21

August 10, 2013

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


Around 1890, Significs, intended to be a ‘theory of signs’, was developed by Victoria, Lady Welby, in close connection with the work of Charles Peirce, her correspondent. Some followers of Significs, particularly in France, developed the theory into an account of human language based heavily upon meaning and in particular on the international (originally Latin) root sign- as in English signify, etc. Significs constitutes, in effect, a ‘proactive’ version of what is more usually called ‘semiotics’, the overall study of meaning including linguistic meaning (semantics) but also the meanings of non-linguistic symbols of various kinds. As far as language per se is concerned, Significs is a doctrine of etymology and historical word-meaning, with a close focus on the study and classification of semantic terms themselves. It is argued, in fact, that reform of the use of semiotics in education and public policy is needed in response to the changing circumstances of humanity, but that linguistic reform alone, while necessary, is insufficient for this enterprise. Many of the specifics of the proposals are, however, rather abstract and philosophical in character.

In addition, some followers of Significs seem to have seen Ancient Greek and Latin as models for semiotic and linguistic reform, without giving an adequate explanation of this view; this aspect of the proposal appears rather traditionalist.

Stuart Chase was especially concerned with communication issues and the interface between language and other domains of human activity. Chase was troubled by miscommunication arising from the use of words with varied, shifting and largely emotive meanings and the political and social upshots of this effect. He argues (among many other things) that most people in developed societies have lost the ability to ‘translate’ words into ‘verifiable’ meanings and are thus liable to be defrauded. Much argument which is ostensibly about facts is in fact, he claims, about definitions. While there is an element of truth in this view, Chase’s specific version appears exaggerated. He summarizes, for the most part positively, the work of Alfred Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics.

Eli Abir claims to have arrived at an algorithmic means of determining and expressing linguistic context in such a way that machine translation can be completely reliable. His method as described is essentially a numerical expansion of existing methods, but if it were technically feasible it would indeed increase levels of reliability (though perhaps not as much as is suggested). Abir does apparently go too far in claiming that this work will revolutionize linguistic theory itself. He also seems to adhere to extreme and quasi-mystical worldviews.

The small book by an unidentified writer styling himself ‘Basilegist’, apparently a solipsist, begins: ‘Difficulties of language abound in the Retection. The simplicity of that, the opening section of the Retection does not mean that the language of Retection introduces linguistic tangles, but is a statement that as clouded thought is inseparable from language, then its apparent appearance even in Retected Thought using language as its medium is inevitable…’. What ‘Basilegist’ calls Retection involves an attempt to free the human mind from confusion allegedly generated by the universal expression of thoughts by means of language and to enable it to access the ‘morphic’ state in which language is no longer thought of as necessary. He dismisses all notions about the past which are ‘known’ through language, including notions about the origin of language itself. Some of his own usage is highly idiosyncratic.

More next time!


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’ 20

August 3, 2013

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


As some readers may recall, Zoltán Simon (ZS) argues for a historical Atlantis in Western Atlantic waters, and for a catastrophist and otherwise revisionist account of early human history; he believes that the cases for (a) catastrophist interpretations of early history, (b) the early discovery (and subsequent loss) of advanced technology, and (c) extraterrestrial intervention in that period are much more persuasive than they are. He exaggerates the influence of his native Hungarian and its early speakers on linguistic differentiation and world history, finding pseudo-cognates and grammatical parallels between Hungarian and English and reading the arguably mysterious runic Yarmouth Stone (Nova Scotia) as Hungarian.

ZS’s linguistic ‘evidence’ is of the usual amateur kind, but his approach is somewhat more overt than is often the case. For example, he believes that a good way of establishing whether or not any two languages are related is to compare their vocabularies for matching pairs (similar forms, similar meanings). In fact, he imagines that this is how mainstream historical linguists operate, and berates them for engaging in this enterprise in a disorganised way and for not following up apparent connections which they find unpalatable. ZS appears unaware of linguists’ focus on SYSTEMATIC similarities in this context. He also pays no attention to a) the degrees of phonological and semantic similarity between words which might be required if they were to be regarded, pre-theoretically and prima facie, as probably shared (he talks as if pairs of forms are either obviously connected or obviously not, and his own judgments on this front appear arbitrary), b) the phonological systems of the relevant languages (which affect how similar forms can be and which phonemes are likely to correspond with which if forms are connected), c) the lengths of the words (for example, if two languages not known to be connected share a very short word-form such as [sa] with the same meaning, this could very well be accidental, whereas if they share the form [tolpesveblig], again with the same meaning, or with transparently related meanings, this is less likely), d) the cross-linguistic frequency of the sounds and sound-sequences in question (very widely-shared sounds such as [e], [s], etc. or common sound-sequences such as [til] or [po] are more likely to be shared by chance than sounds and sequences found in relatively few languages). And e) he openly disregards matters of grammar, maintaining indeed that until recently many languages did not even have grammar (a most gross error!).

In addition, ZS has an interest in dialectology and has worked on a dialect atlas of Hungary. He has also done some work on the results of the 1950s Survey of English Dialects (UK), comparing the vocabularies of different English dialects with a view to assessing the relative closeness of relationship between each pair of dialects (as he does with languages, as described above). It is more unusual in this context for factors a)-d) above to be an issue (it is normally clear enough whether or not forms with the same meaning in different dialects of the same language are ‘the same word’); but ZS still ignores the systematicity requirement, the phonological structures of the various dialects, and matters of grammar. His approach (which he himself regards as altogether pioneering) is at best a rough-&-ready initial method of assessing the overall patterning of such data. (The same applies to his work on Hungarian.)

ZS criticises the SED for poor and incomplete presentation of their data (‘cartographically a disaster’), but this seems to involve the fact that he has seen only their maps themselves, not the background and interpretive materials.

ZS has a range of other non-mainstream opinions. For example, he holds that Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe is in fact autobiographical.

More next time!


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.