Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 37


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.


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