Refael Elisha Cohen: A Family’s Misery Exploited

December 25, 2013

I would rather be doing anything other than writing this right now, but as Susan Gerbic has put it, advocates of science and evidence-based medicine have “drawn a line in the sand” and I don’t feel that we can yield an inch.

For the last few weeks, skeptics have been following the heartbreaking plight of the family of Refael Elisha Cohen, a 6-year old with medulloblastoma, a devastating brain tumor. According to the family, every single medical option has been tried–chemotherapy, surgery and radiation–but the monster has come back. At this late stage, there are compassionate options, palliative care and the relief of pain.

The family, understandably, is still looking for something, ANYTHING that might conceivably help their son. This desperation has sadly driven them into the hands of Stanislaw Burzynski at just the time that he needs a little good PR. The family has embarked on a campaign, appealing to the White House for a compassionate use exemption so that Refael Elisha can receive antineoplastons, Burzynski’s “signature” drug, which have been pumped into generations of cancer patients but have never met the most basic requirements of the scientific community. (In fact, we have seen 3 high profile campaigns simultaneously, unprecedented in the two years I’ve been following the clinic.)

While there are no demonstrable benefits of antineoplaston therapy, there are known side effects, about 3 pages worth, according to the Clinic’s own patient consent form. Because nobody wants to see a child die, a hundred thousand people have signed the petition to allow a compassionate exemption for Rafael Elisha. I share the generous sentiment of these signers, that a child deserves a regular life. Yet, knowing what that Clinic is after two years of continual searching for evidence that the treatment might work, having read the stories of literally hundreds of former patients, I can say without fear of contradiction that to support this family’s quest for antineoplaston therapy puts cancer patients in harm’s way.

I’ve largely remained silent about this campaign, which has featured prominently in the global Jewish press. It seems clear in the numerous reports that have appeared in the press that the family has not received accurate information about Burzynski, the treatment, or the prospects for that drug’s approval. An article came to my attention this morning that I felt I needed to answer, “Houston Boy Battles Brain Tumor; Needs Community Support.” written by the Campaign to Save Refael Elisha Cohen and which appeared in the online Jewish Voice. I hope that the two sentences I submitted in the comments will appear, but just in case they don’t, I figured that I would use my own venue as an opportunity to critique some of the points that were made.

According to the press release published at the Jewish Voice (which is all I can call this appeal, even if it is touching and sincere), a group of volunteers are collecting and sorting leads from around the world for potential treatments. I would like to offer them an additional source, if they have not seen it,, which lists all active registered clinical trials. Currently, there are 57 trials currently open for treatments into the type of tumor Rafael Elisha has. Any one of these trials is a better option than any illusory trial that the clinic might dangle in front of this family, and I hope they look into these options. I’m certain that Rabbi and Mrs. Cohen will understand that all anyone wants is for their child to heal, and if there was any evidence that the Burzynski Clinic had anything promising, that I would go down to Houston and hold the front door open for them.

In fact, there is one medical option which several prominent cancer researchers continually taught as the most promising for brain tumors.

The latter is called antineoplaston therapy, developed by Doctor Stanislaw Burzynski. The therapy uses peptides and amino acids’ and is manufactured in a block long pharmaceutical laboratory which operates directly under FDA Supervision. The FDA recognizes that the trials show efficiency, but has pulled its approval in 2012 pending reapproval possibly within the year. Current negotiation process is over interpretation of argumentative technicalities.

I would suggest that the statement that antineoplastons are “taught as the most promising for brain tumors” could not possibly be less true, as evidenced by this USA Today article, “Experts Dismiss Doctor’s Cancer Claims.” There is no evidence that any cancer, much less the intractable ones that Burzynski has claimed success for, are caused by “antineoplaston deficit,” which is the entire premise of the therapies. Lack of antineoplastons are simply not recognized as a cause of cancer. Secondly, as far as I can tell, Burzynski has never identified a therapeutic target for these drugs. Instead, we get vague words that sound nice like, “it turns off the cancer cells,” but we are not given an explanation of how that is supposed to happen. I’m willing to bet that if you were to ask the Cohen family how this drug is supposed to work, they won’t be able to tell you either. And if they have the mechanism, I’d honestly be eager to hear it.

The statement that “the FDA recognizes that the trials show efficacy” is purest bunk. There are no clinical trials that would demonstrate this. None. Burzynski has never completed and published a single clinical trial. The tumors he treats, especially the brain tumors, have a pretty high turnover rate. You would think that in over 15 years he might have managed to publish a single clinical trial, but he hasn’t. As part of a deal with the FDA 16 years ago, Burzynski agreed to only treat patients with ANP under the auspices of a clinical trial. So he opened dozens and never published a single finished one. We should not be surprised, of course, when his lawyer says of the Clinic’s trials:

[W]e decided to hit the FDA with everything at the same time. All of his current patients would be covered in a single clinical trial which Burzynski called “CAN-1.” As far as clinical trials go, it was a joke. Clinical trials are supposed to be designed to test the safety or efficacy of a drug for a disease. It is almost always the case that clinical trials treat one disease.

The CAN-1 protocol had almost two hundred patients in it and there were at least a dozen different types of cancers being treated. And since all the patients were already on treatment, there could not be any possibility of meaningful data coming out of the so-called clinical trial. It was all an artifice, a vehicle we and the FDA created to legally give the patients Burzynski’s treatment. The FDA wanted all of Burzynski’s patients to be on an IND, so that’s what we did.

….and that…

Burzynski personally put together seventy-two protocols to treat every type of cancer the clinic had treated and everything Burzynski wanted to treat in the future. […]

Make no mistake. Burzynski’s publication history, which is open for ANYONE to see at, is perhaps the most abysmal ever put forward as a marketing tool with a straight face. What he offers instead is his cherry-picked best cases and case series. While we delight that these people have survived, and while we understand why these patients support Burzynski so fervently, they tell us nothing about whether or not the treatment works. If you are only looking at the people who happened to survive, say, there are a dozen, just by looking at them you don’t know how many died. 20? 40? 1,000? 10,000? You don’t know because you are only looking at the survivors. This is why his claimed results are meaningless without published clinical trials. The family and friends of the Cohens should be demanding that Burzynski publish his damned trials so that the FDA will have no choice BUT to allow antineoplastons. Instead, the well-wishing allies of the Cohens are demanding an end-run around the scientific approval process, which is designed to bring effective drugs to market safely. Early this year, Burzynski told the BBC on camera that “Phase II clinical trials were completed just only a few months ago.” Don’t take my word for it. Start at 23:35 or follow the link above:

This was in the spring, which means that it’s been about a year since Burzynski “completed” his clinical trials. Now it is his obligation to publish. If they work, any delay can be attributed directly to his not publishing his results.

Because the clinical trials are supposedly already “completed.” He just told you that himself. As of last month, at least, Liz Szabo at USA Today could report:

Even his staunchest supporters wonder why Burzynski’s drugs are nowhere close to receiving FDA approval. […]

In fact, the FDA hasn’t had a chance to approve Burzynski’s drugs. He has never officially asked.

Although Burzynski said he has completed 14 intermediate-phase studies, he has yet to file a new drug application, the final step toward getting a drug approved.

So, why the end run around regulation if his drugs work? Again, his treatment is “nowhere close to receiving FDA approval.” Why does this family believe otherwise? If nothing else, I would be keenly interested in knowing that.

The statement that the process of restarting trials is due to “current negotiation process […] over interpretation of argumentative technicalities,” is also tragically inaccurate. According to a warning letter issued 2 days after the Cohen family launched their petition to the White House, the issues are not mere technicalities. I quote Liz Szabo of USA Today again:

In letters to Burzynski and his research institute posted online Wednesday, the FDA says that Burzynski inflated success rates for experimental drugs that he calls antineoplastons. The FDA also says Burzynski failed to report side effects and to prevent patients from repeatedly overdosing.

The FDA placed Burzynski’s clinical trial on hold last year after the death of a 6-year-old boy, Josia Cotto, of Linden, N.J. The FDA also conducted several months of inspections of Burzynski’s research.

But when the FDA asked to see the child’s medical files, Burzynski sent the agency records that were different than those stored in his office, giving the appearance that the records had been altered, according to the warning.

Burzynski’s failure to keep accurate patient records “raises concerns about subject safety and data integrity, as well as concerns about the adequacy of safeguards in place at your site to protect patients.”

We’re talking about over a hundred overdoses and no evidence to suggest that the Burzynski took steps to prevent them from continuing.  These are basic regulatory issues. Would you willingly send someone to a restaurant that had an unbroken, decade-long string of failed health and safety inspections? Then why would you ever send a child with cancer to a clinic with the exact same record? Even if they were selling conventional treatment, you wouldn’t send a child there. None of this is the regulators’ fault, mind you. Again, Burzynski is responsible and his supporters should hold him to account. Nobody can say the FDA hasn’t given him a chance!
According to today’s letter in the Jewish Times:
Ironically, the Cohens reside 10 minutes away from the Burzinsky clinic. They can see the meds that can potentially save their son even touch the medicine but cannot administer the antineoplaston due to the FDA clinical hold.
If the family was allowed to handle a bag of the antineoplastons, given the true state of Burzynski’s business and trials, it was unfathomably cruel and cynical. I truly hope that did not happen.

According to the press release:

Firstly let us state in crystal clear turn the Cohens are rational, intelligent people. They have researched the Burzynski option on many levels and encourage people to watch the eponymous film “The Burzynski movie part 1 & 2”. In doing so one can readily comprehend why the Cohens are doing their utmost to obtain this treatment. Who within reason could blame them?

Nobody doubts this, but these poor people are also under duress and running out of time. The two Burzynski two movies are veridically worthless.  Again, you have a handful of anecdotes from a few people who happen to have survived and no opposing views. This has been an effective recruiting tool for the desperate, but as this oncologist’s analysis reveals, the director clearly did not understand the patient files that were given to him. The second movie is simply dishonest by omission. Furthermore, the director is clearly a true believer and given to irresponsibly demonizing critics instead of taking into account contradictory evidence. Take for instance his comments about a prominent Burzynski critic who started his online skeptical career debunking Holocaust deniers:

Screen shot 2013-04-05 at 11.15.52 AM

 Nobody blames the Cohen family for their petition or their desire that their son survive. However, the whole reason that decade-long record of overdoses, inaccurate outcomes, and make no mistake, untold millions of dollars raised and clearly wasted on apparently unpublishable clinical trials, were allowed to happen is because Burzynski’s desperate patients campaigned for him the last time he faced regulatory sanctions. So when those lobbying for Burzynski charge that skeptics:

actively speaking against the petition while strong arming others to follow suit are trying to directly hurt the compassionate work of over 80 strong volunteers who are working around the clock to aid the Cohen family

…they are correct, because it has happened before and untold hundreds of cancer patients bore the consequences of that kindness. Uninformed compassion can and has done immense damage in the past. It is my sincere hope that Refael Elisha Meir ben Devorah is healed entirely and he that does not suffer.

For people who want to understand why I and dozens of other skeptics are fighting, this video puts our campaign in context. Please watch it before accusing skeptics of being heartless:

If, after reviewing the evidence, you believe that the Burzynski Clinic needs to be held responsible for its clearly deficient clinical trials, visit for information about how you can help stop this.


Christmas Movie Review: Chupacabra vs. the Alamo

December 23, 2013

Spoiler alert: It sucked.

Since it premiered on SyFy in March of this year, the Erik Estrada vehicle Chupacabra vs. the Alamo has been lurking in the shadows, waiting for its moment to pounce. Today it sprang from its hiding place, cinematically ripping my throat out and leaving me a lifeless, tattered corpse.

I finished watching this movie 20 minutes ago, and I can honestly say I remember absolutely nothing about it.

As mentioned, the movie starred Erik Estrada who played….whose character was named….I think that he was in some sort of government job that let him wear leather, carry a shotgun, and ride a motorcycle. He was surrounded by characters who worked high school Spanish into every other sentence, though the computer-animated chupacabras were more convincing than most of their accents. Some of the characters, I believe, were younger than Erik (who am I kidding, they all were), but some especially so, and so I think those were supposed to be some sort of offspring or something.

Estrada’s character, we were assured, was not the complete asshole that he was. His family had been torn apart, not by chupacabras, but by death and crime. Estrada’s character is a widower and his kids are wayward. The boy child has trouble with the law, running in a gang of some sort. The other, the she-child, has trouble with mild parenting.

The movie opens with four drug dealers…apparently smuggling illegal things out of the US to Mexico via a tunnel. As the smugglers (or as I like to think of them, “coyotes without mange”) prepare to send the duffle bags full of, oh, let’s say dirty laundry, they are attacked by unseen chupacabras who first disarm them and then gnaw on their carotid arteries. This, for some reason, is Erik Estrada’s character’s problem, and he shows up on the scene to be vaguely sexist and unlikable. He, of course, has a new partner. We’re not told what was wrong with the previous partner, but I think that suicide is likely.

So, imagine the scene. Estrada is standing in someone’s lungs, which have been ripped out by an unknown animal. His partner, whose name is unimportant, finds a huge animal apparently dying of bullet wounds, and when she suggests that perhaps this animal might be related to the entrails seeping into Estrada’s socks, our hero is all like, “whatever,” and proceeds to be the worst investigator in the history of whatever agency he was supposed to be working for. Instead he goes to have some sort of family drama.

Or something.

So, it turns out that the chupacabras are sneaking into the country through the drug tunnels and taking jobs from mangey American canids. They maraud about San Antonio eating the occasional 30-pack of horny teenagers and commandeering large abandoned industrial sites, where they arrange police ambushes. At some point, the unlikable cop guy teams up with hoodlums, and the movie takes on dimensions of Future War. Instead of large flannel wearing gentlemen, however, everyone has bandannas and the special effects are so bad I longed for forced-perspective dinosaurs. In the climactic scene, the uneaten hooligans and the cop and his family somehow lure all of the chupacabras, which also have rabies–did I mention that they have rabies? they all have rabies– into the Alamo. Then they blow up the Alamo. The end.

Everyone involved with this cinematic war crime should be placed in front of an unconvincing green screen, tied to a stake, and have digital flames inserted onto them in post. I demand an apology.


Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 37

December 16, 2013


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

Instead of (or as well as) offering specific non-standard claims about specific languages or specific aspects of languages, some non-mainstream thinkers propose non-standard, often bizarre theories and methodologies involving language in general or major aspects of language(s).  These theories are rivals to the various general theories current in the mainstream of linguistics, and are often in sharp contrast with all such mainstream theories (and with each other).  I have discussed some such theories in earlier posts in this forum; for those involving historical linguistics, see now also Chapters 1-4 of my 2013 book Strange Linguistics (Lincom-Europa, Munich).  The writers who discuss non-historical issues in this vein include postmodernist philosophers such as Jacques Derrida with their focus upon written language at the expense of spoken, John Trotter, Owen Barfield, Brian Josephson & David Blair, David Wynn-Miller, and John Latham; on these authors, see now Chapter 10 of my book.

Another author of this kind is Mick Harper, who, as discussed last time, presents some astounding and inadequately supported views regarding the history of English (and of other European languages).  Harper also proclaims, by way of methodological background to these ideas, a supposedly novel research methodology for historical linguistics and indeed for the humanities generally, which he titles ‘Applied Epistemology’.  He seems to have developed this notion in response to what he perceives as sloppy and tendentious reasoning on the part of mainstream linguists, historians etc.  In his view, the errors in question are often so basic and so damaging that a new ‘paradigm’ of research is required, much more securely grounded in logic and the theory of knowledge.

Harper’s treatment of these matters is less than persuasive.  The most that can be said in his favour is that he occasionally spots a weak or inadequately explicit piece of argumentation in mainstream work.  But this is not a sufficient basis for erecting (or purporting to erect) an entire novel methodology.  And indeed Harper’s ‘Applied Epistemology’ does not appear significantly different from the methods actually used in the mainstream, where the philosophical background issues are already very familiar.  Harper rejects mainstream scholars’ conclusions – but he offers little valid criticism of the methods used to reach them.  In addition, Harper himself argues weakly and tendentiously in various places (sometimes also displaying inadequate knowledge of the facts); he often treats the evidence and reasoning against mainstream views and in support of his own as much stronger than they actually appear to be.

Recently, in this forum, I discussed the 2013 book Egyptian Hieroglyphic Decipherment Revealed: A Revisionist Model Of Egyptian Decipherment Showing Evidence That The Ancient Egyptian Language And The Ancient Hebrew Language Are Closely Related, by David Leonardi.   In Chapter 7 of this book (pp. 71-77) and the early sections of Chapter 8 (pp. 78-82), Leonardi presents his idiosyncratic ideas about morphology (the structure of complex words each including more than one morpheme = ‘meaningful component’) as applied to Egyptian and Hebrew and also – and more relevantly here – as applied to languages generally.  Following up his earlier published work (and his correspondence with me over the last decade), he introduces here an obscure and unnecessary system of novel morphological terms.  Leonardi regards himself as knowledgeable about historical linguistics, and he even runs a bulletin-board misleadingly called simply Historical Linguistics which promotes his idiosyncratic ideas.

Leonardi’s use of linguistic terminology is idiosyncratic and obscure, and more generally his wording is often strange.  These faults are well exemplified in this section of his book.  To exemplify: in his wording, at least, Leonardi repeatedly confuses synchronic (non-historical) and diachronic (historical) issues (as he does elsewhere) – despite announcing on p. 72 that his focus here is on synchronic issues only, at least as far as Egyptian and Hebrew are concerned.  Specifically, he badly hinders his own exposition of such matters by loosely using the diachronic term change to refer also to synchronic alternation as in English wife versus wive[s] (this is an instance of what a PhD supervisor would castigate as ‘undergraduate’ usage).

Further, Leonardi uses the term derivation with a broad ‘popular’ meaning involving various kinds of synchronic and diachronic relationship between the forms of related words and/or the varied and shifting meanings of one word or of a set of related words (see below for examples).  In fact, this term has a specific technical sense in linguistics, involving the (synchronic or diachronic) morphological relationships of form between distinct words – belonging to the same or to different ‘parts of speech’ – which share a stem, as exemplified by connected English verb-noun pairs such as condemn and condemnation (it contrasts here with the term inflection, referring to grammatically distinct forms of the same word, as in the verb condemn and its past tense form condemned).

Perhaps because of failure to appreciate this, Leonardi seems to confuse etymology considered generally (which is a diachronic matter and is occasionally and informally referred to by linguists as derivation) with the more specific issue of (synchronic or diachronic) matters of derivational morphology in the technical sense of derivation as just explained.  In particular, Leonardi’s decision to include under ‘derivation’ purely semantic differences and changes (those which involve only meaning, not any difference of or change in the form of a word) is very strange and confusing.  On p. 73 he even implies that in what he calls ‘morphological derivation’ there is always [a ‘change’ of] meaning associated with the ‘change’ in form (see above; does he intend the term change to be understood here synchronically, diachronically or both?).  But, although most derivational phenomena (in the narrow, technical sense of the term) do involve differences of (grammatical) meaning, there are counter-examples, involving pairs such as English orient and orientate (both verbs, same sense).  And Leonardi himself includes as derivational some ‘familial’ derivations (see below) involving no change of meaning.  His discussion of these matters appears utterly confused.

Leonardi’s use of some key specific expressions, such as in theory (for example on pp. 71 and 72) is also obscure – disastrously so, in context.

Another problem with Leonardi’s exposition involves his tendency to focus upon spelling and written forms rather than on phonology/pronunciation (which is, obviously, conceptually prior).  On p. 71, when defining his term familial (see below), his references fluctuate between spoken and written forms; but on p. 73 he goes so far as to declare that if a word undergoes only a ‘change’ (see again above; does he intend this term to be understood synchronically, diachronically or both?) in pronunciation (i.e. not in spelling) then that change does not qualify as a ‘morphological derivation’.  But the relationships between spoken and written forms in each language are historically complex; and there is no good reason to exclude differently-pronounced forms from the concept of ‘derivation’ merely because they are spelled the same (consider pairs of forms such as the English noun and verb both spelled permit and derivationally related but pronounced differently).  This confusion on Leonardi’s part is partly the result of sheer linguistic naivety and partly associated with his idiosyncratic non-standard belief that that God simultaneously created spoken and written Hebrew and that in early Hebrew, at least, letters and phonemes can therefore be equated.

Leonardi’s account also displays various outright inaccuracies.  For example, he commences Chapter 7 with the blatantly false (and confusingly supported) statement that ‘the field of Historical Linguistics lacks terminology to describe types of word derivations’ (p. 71); it appears that he is not sufficiently familiar with the linguistic literature or has failed to understand it.  And indeed – as in his earlier work – Leonardi misinterprets the statements of mainstream linguists such as P.H. Matthews (cited – without a full reference – on p. 79) about these matters (though he refuses to accept correction on this front); and in places he attacks ‘mainstream’ straw men.

Another set of mistakes involves Leonardi’s decision to treat as etymologically related various pairs or sets of words which either are known to be unrelated or have uncertain etymologies.  This is often connected with his belief that many words in many languages have unacknowledged Hebrew origins.  Examples include English plot and plate, cited together on p. 71, and his tracing (p. 74) of English court to English core and ultimately to Hebrew sor (‘court’).  There are also sheer errors of fact regarding word-meanings (for example that of the Latin word posterior; see p. 72).

Apparently thinking here of ‘derivation’ in his loose sense, Leonardi introduces some general issues which are only marginally relevant to the narrower technical notion of ‘derivation’: a) the transfer of words and of some of their phonemes from one language (or ‘dialect’; he confusingly refers in this context to ‘dialect group[s]’) to another, described here as filtered derivation (p. 73), b) the phenomenon of words taking on new meanings through originally metaphorical use (Leonardi calls this phenomenon analog derivation and is careful to distinguish this notion from that of analogy, on which see c) below) (p. 74); c) the reanalysis of the morphology of transferred words by way of analogy (p. 75), d) the obscuring of background morphological facts over time within one language (p. 75), and e) the development of words based on onomatopoeia or sound-symbolism (p. 75; also Chapter 8).  His comments on all these matters are largely valid in themselves, although some of the last body of material (e) relates to his own non-mainstream views about the origins of Hebrew phonemes and letters.

Leonardi’s own novel morphological terms include:

Familial (pp. 71ff)

In these cases, one word is said to be ‘derived’ from another (within one language or cross-linguistically; see p. 76) by way of an unsystematic difference of form and an associated unpredictable difference of meaning.  It is suggested (p. 77) that some cases of this kind can involve compounded sequences of two or more stems with distinct, linked meanings; but Leonardi’s main examples involve single stems with simple senses.  Leonardi states that ‘in theory’ there are no examples of familial derivation in Hebrew or Egyptian, because their morphologies are highly systematic.  But his examples from other languages (such as English plot and plate as discussed above) are typically wrong or at any rate unsupported; and in any event this would involve derivation only in Leonardi’s looser sense of the term.  In addition, Leonardi confusingly states (p. 73) that some familial derivations involve no change of meaning.  Overall, it is not at all clear that a new term is needed here, still less that familial would be the best term (Leonardi justifies it as referring to ‘families’ of words, an unhelpfully loose concept, subject – like his version of the notion ‘paradigm’ – to multiple interpretations).

Associative (pp. 72ff)

In these cases, the same form is said to have taken on (slightly) different meanings in different contexts (within one language or cross-linguistically).  Leonardi’s specific example (involving Latin and English uses of posterior) is wrong (as noted above), but the point is made.  Now in the technical sense of ‘derivation’ it is perfectly possible for some pairs of derivationally-linked words to have the very same forms, in writing (see above on permit and permit), pronunciation or both (consider noun-verb pairs such as English book and book = ‘make a reservation [in a book]’).  But the (main) differences of meaning between the members of such pairs are, obviously, grammatical.  In contrast, Leonardi (obviously thinking only of ‘derivation’ in his loose sense) is speaking here of (diachronic) shifts of meaning at word-level (‘lexical’ as opposed to grammatical meaning).

Lexiform (pp. 72ff)

Cases of this kind are said to be especially numerous in Hebrew and Egyptian as reinterpreted by Leonardi.  In these cases, two or more word-stems (lexical morphemes) combine to form what traditional grammarians and many modern linguists have called compound words, as in blackbird or antifascist (this is derivation in the technical sense).  Leonardi acknowledges this usage (see below) but also states that linguists have used the term complex word in this context.  This latter is false; he has misunderstood the literature.  Complex words are in fact those which include at least one lexical morpheme and at least one grammatical morpheme, as in derivation in the technical sense or inflection.  Leonardi rejects the ‘straw-man’ position he has erected on the grounds that it fails to allow for the later development of the words in question (originally sequences of two or more lexical stems with distinct, linked meanings) into simple words seen as having single meanings – a phenomenon used on p. 75 to exemplify his point identified above as point d) (the specific example used is English magpie).  But this objection appears irrelevant in any case: the initial (synchronic) compound nature of such words is one thing, and the subsequent (diachronic) loss of their internal morpheme boundaries (etc.) – and their later ensuing (synchronic) single-morpheme status – is another.  Leonardi is again, it seems, confusing synchronic and diachronic issues (and berating linguists for not thinking in this confused way!).   He goes on to suggest (again wrongly, as it seems) that the term compound is more commonly used (by linguists?) for cases which are ‘semantically disjoint’, giving two obscure English compound words as examples of this pattern but failing to explain his apparently idiosyncratic use of the term disjoint.  He then suggests (correctly) that some linguists use the term compound more widely to include all ‘lexiform’ cases and (obscurely) that they thus fail to distinguish ‘semantically singular’ and semantically disjoint words (the reader still does not know what either of these terms means).  And he concludes this section by redefining his term lexiform in quite other terms, as involving ‘changes’ (synchronic or diachronic?) of phonemes resulting in new meanings and as contrasting in this respect with ‘familial’ derivations which (here only) are said to involve no meaning change (see above).  After reading this section one still has no real idea as to what the novel term lexiform is supposed to mean!

Inflectional (pp. 73ff)

This term is itself mainstream (see above), but it does not actually involve derivation in the technical sense.  Leonardi’s own discussion of the relevant ideas again manifests large amounts of confusion and error.  First: he correctly states that inflections (‘inflectional derivations’) are grammatical; but so are derivations in the technical sense.  Second: some of Leonardi’s examples here actually involve derivation, not inflection (for example, the English noun cooker vs the verb cook), or else cases which are ‘borderline’ and/or ambiguous in this respect (such as cooking).  Third: Leonardi, correctly indicating that inflectional differences involve different forms of the same lexeme (‘dictionary word’), defines this latter concept in terms of the ‘bases’ (‘stems’?) of the (complex) words in question being ‘semantically exactly the same’ (having the same meaning).  This is correct in itself but not restrictive enough: i) the very same is true of derivational differences, and ii) the stems must also be the same in form, or at least recognisably closely related, to count as the same lexeme (the stems abattoir and slaughterhouse have the same meaning but they do not represent the same lexeme).  Fourth: Leonardi sets up another straw man by claiming that some linguists treat the English verb-forms left and went as inflectionally related; in fact, all linguists would agree with him in identifying went as inflectionally linked with go (as a highly ‘irregular’ past tense form).  (The morphological and semantic history of go and went is actually very interesting, but I cannot deal with it here.)  And the obscure final sentence of this section wrongly invokes (as it seems) ‘the point of view of the speaker’ and the sociolinguistic process of standardisation.

Leonardi completes this chapter with a summary (pp. 76-77) which includes further references to his own idiosyncratic views and serves mainly to add to the overall confusion.

I hope it will be clear even to non-specialists that the material discussed here, and Leonardi’s material in particular, exemplifies ‘how not to do linguistics’.

More next time (when pos)!


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’ 36

December 2, 2013


Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues! The case of M.J. (Mick) Harper arose in the context of my last post. Some readers are aware of him, and I am often asked about him when I identify myself as a skeptical linguist; so, while the iron is hot, here goes!

Harper presents the astounding view that Modern English, while related to Old English, is not descended from it, and that Middle English therefore did not exist at all except as a highly artificial literary variety (although this would not be his own preferred wording at this point). He also suggests (more obviously speculating) that Modern English has existed since ancient times, when it was current across Western Europe, and is indeed the ancestor of most modern Western European languages, including the Romance languages; that Latin was therefore not the ancestor of these languages and was in fact invented; and that the vast majority of the etymologies given for English words are therefore mistaken.

Harper thus challenges all scholarly opinion on the subject, purporting to offer an alternative, more truly scholarly position. But he does not fulfil the standard obligations of scholarship: there is no scholarly apparatus of any kind. Perhaps most strikingly, there are virtually no references to the scholarly literature, and opposing views and scholars are mentioned only to be dismissed with often facetious contempt as biased and hidebound. And on the evidence available Harper’s knowledge of linguistics is not adequate for the task he undertakes here; he is out of his depth in both factual and theoretical linguistic matters. For example, he repeatedly seizes on individual ‘anomalies’ as weapons with which to belabour scholarship. Some of these are spurious; others are genuine but are already familiar to linguists and are the subject of intense study. One good example is the apparently rapid series of changes which distinguish Middle English from Old English. The genuinely rapid lexical changes can be attributed to the flood of French loanwords which entered English after the Norman Conquest of 1066; but a major reason for the grammatical differences lies in the fact that literary Middle English was based on a Midland dialect, while literary Old English was almost entirely based on a Southern dialect. The two dialects were already divergent before the Norman Conquest, and many changes that affected early Midland dialects did not take place in Southern dialects; there is no evidence that the changes in the Midland dialects were markedly more rapid than any other linguistic changes. (This particular case also illustrates the general point that, like many non-linguists who venture into the discipline, Harper grasps issues involving vocabulary much more readily than structural issues involving phonology and grammar.) The case for the mainstream account of the history of English is much stronger than Harper thinks, and the alleged anomalies much less damaging. And, even if Harper were correct in his arguments against the standard view, he does not give readers sufficient reason to accept his alternative story.

Harper also makes broad overgeneralizations about what scenarios and changes are or are not plausible. For instance, he believes that two diachronically related languages could equally well be related in either order. For most such cases this is simply false: it is easy to show, both by internal evidence and by cross-linguistic evidence on the nature of linguistic change, that (for instance) the verb system of Italian is descended from that of everyday spoken (‘Vulgar’) Latin, rather than vice versa. (The novel Italian tense morphemes are clearly derived from Vulgar Latin auxiliary verbs; the Latin morphemes cannot be explained on the basis of Italian.)

Romance is also the locus of one of Harper’s most telling errors of fact. He argues (correctly) that it would be strange if a whole ‘raft’ of identical grammatical changes were to occur independently in languages which are descended from a common ancestor but which are not currently in contact. Under such circumstances, some identical and numerous similar changes would actually be expected, thanks to shared structural pressures among the related languages; but one would not expect globally identical changes. Harper uses this point to attack the standard model of Romance. But in fact most of the features that distinguish early Romance from Classical Latin were already found in Vulgar Latin, among them the reduction of the case system and the collapse of the neuter gender; there is no mystery here.

See Harper’s The History of Britain Revealed: The Shocking Truth About the English Language, 2nd edn, London, 2007, etc.). For more comments on Harper’s work, see Mark Newbrook and Sarah Thomason, Review of Harper, M.J., The History Of England Revealed (2002), The Skeptical Intelligencer, 7 (2005), pp. 34-6; see also Mark Newbrook and Sarah Thomason, Comments on Harper’s reply to Review of Harper, M.J. (2002), The Skeptical
Intelligencer, 8 (2005/2006), pp. 38-9.

More next time (when pos)!


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.