Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 39

February 24, 2014


Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ resumes (again not sure at what intervals).

Some critics of mainstream linguistics explicitly reject the non-prescriptive approach to language adopted by linguists (see the Introduction). One such writer is the Australian journalist Mark Halpern.

Halpern’s views are partly grounded in a belief which he knows is shared by very few indeed, at least among those who think seriously about language, but which he nevertheless regards as clearly correct: namely, the belief that most linguistic change is deliberate and a matter of choice, because linguistic features (he believes) depend on the conscious minds of speakers or writers, especially when they are actually changing. He contrasts this view with a diametrically opposed ‘straw man’ view which he mistakenly attributes to mainstream linguists, the idea that grammatical and other structures ‘have a life of their own’ and do not depend at all upon the minds of language users. Halpern apparently fails to discern the actual viewpoint (intermediate between these two extremes) adopted by (most) mainstream linguists, according to which linguistic features are indeed epiphenomena of human minds rather than independent entities but are mostly not accessed by the conscious minds of native speakers of the language in question in the absence of explicit study – and which are liable to systematic change without conscious decisions being made and indeed without there necessarily being any awareness of a given change while it is in progress. This mainstream viewpoint, of course, is well supported from evidence and argumentation.

Halpern exemplifies mainly with vocabulary changes, the study of which requires much less understanding of linguistic theory or descriptive techniques than that of changes at more heavily structured linguistic levels such as grammar. It is true that some vocabulary changes are deliberate or semi-deliberate, or at least readily accessible to the conscious minds of language users without study. In these respects, linguists will disagree with Halpern less than he suggests they would. But he is mistaken in extending this observation (albeit implicitly and without exemplification) to grammatical and other structural changes.

Furthermore, Halpern regards many of the vocabulary changes which he cites as very unwelcome and as constituting degradation of the language in question (in this case English). He berates linguists for refusing to accept this prescriptivist folk-linguistic stance (which of course is very widely shared).

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.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies

February 4, 2014

Note: The following essay originally appeared on Skepticality.

This is Bob Blaskiewicz from and

I’ve always wondered about the Cottingley Fairy hoax. European spiritualism and fairy folk are a little out of my realm of expertise, but what the heck, let’s give it a go. In some ways, I suppose, the stage was set for the Cottingley Fairies by Romanticism, which celebrated the common man and elevated his culture. This, in turn, led to a reappraisal of national folk traditions in Europe in the 19th century, as seen in the collection and study of folk tales by Anglo-Irish literary luminaries Lady Gregory and Jane Wilde, who was Oscar Wilde’s mother and gathered and published a collection of Irish fairy lore in 1888. This just happens to be the same period that manufactured gnomes (or gartenzwerge) were appearing in German gardens and becoming popular in Europe. Do with that factoid as you will.

If you aren’t familiar with the Cottingley Fairy story, in 1917, two girls, 9-year old Frances Griffiths and her 16-year old cousin, Elsie Wright, presented photographic evidence that they had been cavorting with fairies in the woods behind Elsie’s house in Yorkshire.



A second series of photos appeared in 1920, the year that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a credulous article about them in The Strand, brought the number of fairy photos to 5. But one photo is iconic, the image of Frances sitting in a glen with 4 fairies dancing around her as she gazes off into the distance. In reality, the fairies were copies of images from a popular children’s book, Princess Mary’s Gift Book, held up up with hatpins. The girls admitted this in the 1980s. But as often is the case with claims of the extraordinary the hoax itself is not so interesting, rather it’s the fact that people actually believed this stuff. One of the biggest questions, and the one that has always interested me, is how did someone like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote one of the most analytical, forensically minded characters in literary history, Sherlock Freaking Holmes, come to believe that these fairies were real.

However, I think that the idea that an author must share personal characteristics with their literary inventions–and the corollary belief that all fiction is somehow autobiographical– is one that often leads people to strange, insupportable conclusions. I can think of no better example of this than the notion that the key to Shakespeare’s “real” identity is somehow hidden in the plays or in the sonnets. That somehow in order to write about the nobility that one needs to have been a noble, or that to write about Italy, one would need to have travelled to Italy, or that to write a series of sonnets that one has to have had one’s own real-life dark lady and a pretty pool boy. I think that there is a tendency to think about Conan Doyle in terms of his creation Sherlock Holmes, who it is admitted by all other characters in the novels as a universal genius. People think that any mind that could create a character as clever as Sherlock Holmes must be at least as shrewd. (Honestly, if you look more closely, you realize that Holmes, much like Hannibal Lector, is simply given knowledge by his author that he otherwise could not possibly know.)

The book that came out of Conan Doyle’s exposure to the Cottingley Fairies, 1921’s The Coming of the Fairies, is, in a word, a hot mess. It’s a quick read–one night should do it for you. The book is really a collection of writings, letters, testimonials, and previously published articles about fairy folk, with special attention to the photos taken by Frances and Elsie. Despite the pretense in his introduction that he’s just laying the facts on the table for analysis, you can tell, Conan Doyle is a true believer. Throughout, when he quotes someone raising a reasonable objection, you can see Conan Doyle inventing reasons to dismiss them. But there are a couple of historical particulars that make the telling of the fairy story really interesting, especially with respect to the types of special pleading that the believers came up as well as the unstated assumptions about childhood and class that are especially jarring to the modern ear.

For instance, it seems likely that Conan Doyle harbored a highly romanticized idea of childhood that may have blinded him to the possibility that the two girls were not being completely honest. It is the very purity and innocence of children, by some mechanism as of yet unknown, that allowed the children to see the fairies. Edward Gardner, who was Conan Doyle’s proxy and collaborator on the investigation, and who was known, according to Conan Doyle, for his “reputation for sanity and character” (23), worries that the window of opportunity afforded by the girls’ abilities may be closing as it is just a matter of time before one of the girls “will ‘fall in love’ and then–hey presto!!” (25). Conan Doyle himself thought that perhaps the girls’ powers of perception would have flagged in the three years between the taking of the first photos and Gardner’s visit to them in Yorkshire, because “I was well aware that the processes of puberty are often fatal to psychic power.”

Another presupposition that seems to have blinded Conan Doyle and Gardner to the possibility of a hoax was that the girls’ artisan class precluded them from designing elaborate photographic hoaxes involving double exposures and so on. But they were not expecting something so staggeringly simple as paper dolls on a stick. Conan Doyle opens the first chapter, “The series of incidents set forth in this little volume represent either the most elaborate and ingenious hoax ever played upon the public, or else the constitute an event in human history which may in the future appear to have been epoch-making in its character” (13).

I think that most interesting for science enthusiasts is how Conan Doyle was sensible of the need to put the existence of these little creatures in a modern scientific context. Very few people had ever seen fairies while awake, and most of Conan Doyle’d experiencers claim to have been especially psychic. This worked well for Conan Doyle, who was above all a committed Spiritualist and had a great interest in seeing the claimed abilities of these sensitive people (and thereby proof of the afterlife) proved with photographic evidence. He makes a move familiar in modern new age circles of saying that perhaps the critters existed in another frequency and that perceiving them was a matter of tuning. Perhaps, he thought, some sort of fairy detecting goggles would be developed that would allow regular people to perceive fairyland.

There is nothing, strictly speaking, preventing little winged people living in your garden other than the course that evolution happens to have taken. Well, that and house cats. Nonetheless, Conan Doyle and his correspondents spend a surprising amount of time talking about how they can reconcile the existence of these little creatures with evolution. The solution is that the fairy is descended from butterflies, while the gnome “has more of the moth.” They even attempt to sketch out the biogeography of fairy folk and other ethereal critters by analyzing masses of anecdotes from around the world.

Throughout the book, fairies seem to embody a close relationship with nature, one buoyed by happiness, music, and a carefree idyllic existence. According to Gardner, “For the most part, amid the busy commercialism of modern times, the fact of [fairies’] existence has faded to a shadow, and a most delightful and charming field of nature study has too long been veiled. In this twentieth century there is promise of the world stepping out of some of its darker shadows.” We can’t avoid the immediate context of this statement, as the previous decade had seen mankind perfect mass death on the battlefields of Europe, a conflict that took Conan Doyle’s son. As the industrial engines that had powered commercialism turned to manufacturing corpses on unfathomable scales, perhaps the escapism and innocence of childhood visions seemed overpoweringly attractive to these spiritual seekers. We may be certain that the surge in interest in spiritualism during and after WWI was related to the loss of a generation of European youth in much the same way spiritualism prospered in the wake of the American Civil War. A harmonious and joyous return to nature, which just happened to confirm the powers of those who could communicate with that lost generation, was perhaps seen as restorative to a crippled Europe.

An excellent review of some of the issues raised by the Cottingley incident can be found in Carole Silver’s study, “On the Origin of Fairies: Victorians, Romanticism, and Folk Belief.”

This is Bob Blaskiewicz from and


Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 38

February 3, 2014


Hi again, everybody!  ‘Hall Of Shame’ resumes (not sure at what intervals).

In ‘Fringe Historical Linguistics 3’ (this forum, March 2012), I discussed Stan Hall’s book Savage Genesis: The Missing Page (no place, 2011), one of many non-mainstream books (etc.) which treat the Hungarian language as especially important in ‘deep-time’ linguistic history and as connected (‘genetically’ or by contact) with many languages around the world.  Hungarian is one of the ‘favourite’ languages of fringe historical linguists (with or without personal Hungarian associations) because of its uncertain ‘genetic’ provenance (it appears to be an outlying member of the Uralic language ‘family’ but this has been disputed), its arguably anomalous geographical location, and the ensuing air of ‘mystery’ which has come to surround it.  For more on these Hungarian matters, see my the relevant sections of Chapters 1-4 of my 2013 book Strange Linguistics (see below).

György Busztin, author of The Legacy of the Barang People, Equinox, Jakarta, 2006) is another author of this kind; but he differs from writers such as Hall in that a) he himself is Hungarian and b) he has an academic background in linguistics (PhD in Arabic Language and Semitic Philology from Lorand Eotvos University in Budapest).  He is thus even more relevantly qualified than Susan B. Martinez – whose book The Lost History of the Little People I have also reviewed in this forum – and might well command some respect from non-linguists.  However, Martinez’s academic background did not prevent her from making major errors; and, although Busztin’s ideas are clearly more sober than hers, his material too is suspect in important ways (see below).

Busztin is also a former Hungarian ambassador to Indonesia, where he has spent much of his life; and his specific proposal in this book involves ‘deep-time’ links between Indonesian and Hungarian.  Indonesian (aka Bahasa Indonesia) is a partly creolised language based mainly on Malay, the principal Malayo-Polynesian language of Malaysia and the region (the two languages remain very similar).  In the years after World War II Indonesian was developed and adopted as a modern national language for the newly-independent multilingual nation.

Busztin’s historical thesis (outlined in Chapter 3 and the Conclusion; pp. 63-107) is that the westward migration of the Hungarians from Central Asia in early historic times was in fact part of a more general diffusion of peoples (with ensuing linguistic differentiation) which also included the southwards movement of people who became speakers of Malayo-Polynesian.  He accepts the thesis of the geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer regarding wide-ranging links of this nature between various peoples of Eurasia (p. 99), but he thus seeks to reverse the south-to-north direction of diffusion proposed by Oppenheimer.

It has to be said that for all his academic background Busztin’s linguistics itself appears naïve and weak in places.  He does not use established linguistic conventions (italics for forms, single quotes for meanings, etc.).  And although his book is written in English he does not consistently provide English glosses for the Hungarian and Indonesian words which he cites (although in his ‘Glossary of [Hungarian and Indonesian] Wordpairs’ = Chapter 1 on pp. 17-44 he does gloss most of the items); and indeed he suggests (p. 15) that readers who do not themselves know Hungarian and/or Indonesian might not trouble to work through the Glossary in detail (which would of course entail taking his general statements on trust).

More seriously, Busztin’s comments about language and linguistic change (pp. 7, 9, 11, etc.) are often too ‘sweeping’ and indeed emotional in character; he misspells words from other languages (a Greek expression on p. 11; also the language-name Bask = Basque on p. 75); and he prescriptively and inconsistently identifies English and non-English language-names as ‘correct’ (pp. 8, 11).  There are also other ‘quirks’, as where he appears unaware (or facetiously dismissive?) of the entire sub-discipline of psycholinguistics (p. 21).

Among the established linguists whom Busztin quotes by way of background is Morris Swadesh, described on p. 11 as ‘particularly praised’ but in fact generally regarded as a ‘maverick’ much of whose work can be disregarded.  Busztin does not cite (even by way of rejection) the ideas of leading mainstream historical linguists such as Donald Ringe, presumably because these ideas would undermine his own, apparently unsystematic treatment of the data (see below).  In this context: he provides (p. 10) a brief, fairly promising discussion of the various possible explanations for similarities between words sharing meanings (common origin as ‘cognates;’, ‘loans’, accident).  However; immediately after this he refers to a ‘set, albeit small set of rules that work very much the same way in both languages’; but these ‘rules’ prove to be suspect (to say the least) in ways familiar to skeptical linguists.  Seven such ‘rules’ are rehearsed on pp. 12-15.  Six of them are grammatical in character.  Three are ‘typological’ (shared ‘agglutinative’ morphology, flexible word order, lack of grammatical gender; all of these are in fact general in Uralic) and thus (as Busztin admits) cannot be used to demonstrate relatedness between languages, because typology involves very general features which are inevitably shared by many unconnected languages.  (In fact, the grammars of Hungarian and Indonesian are not at all similar.)  Three further ‘rules’ involve a range of suffixes, prefixes and other word-terminating sequences, all of which are (as usual) very short morphemes or single syllables and could easily be shared by chance.  Busztin’s extreme confidence regarding one particular roughly similar pair of prefixes is altogether exaggerated; even the grammatical meanings are different.  His seventh ‘rule’ involves phonetic similarities and is impossibly vague.

On p. 12 Busztin admits that he finds only 150 or so ‘wordpairs’ which he believes display genuine historical links between Hungarian and Indonesian and share an origin.  This is too small a number to support a connection in terms of statistical ‘mass comparison’; and as far as the longer-established ‘comparative method’ is concerned the similarities, as set out in the Glossary (Indonesian words first), are typically superficial and unsystematic.  For example, word-initial Indonesian ar- is presented as corresponding with Hungarian ar-, ir-, ér-, etc. in different words (pp. 18-19).  No explanation is given for this lack of systematicity.  (Most such cases involve multiple Hungarian forms corresponding with the same Indonesian form, since Hungarian has a richer, more complex phonology than Indonesian; but there are cases where the reverse is true, for instance where Indonesian has ta- or te- corresponding with Hungarian te-; see pp. 40-41.)  However, as I have repeatedly explained (see now Chapter 1 of Strange Linguistics), differentiation of this kind is largely systematic, regular and indeed predictable once the patterns are known; it is not haphazard.  These proposals are thus prima facie implausible.  (As in the case of Martinez, if Busztin is in fact familiar with historical linguistics but rejects mainstream thinking on the methodology of the subject, he should state this openly and should argue for his own position.)

Busztin sometimes refers to generally accepted etymologies which he is seeking to overturn and replace with his own, but normally only to dismiss them on inadequate (often apparently subjective) grounds or to say no more about them (see for instance dorong-dorong on p. 25, lekat-lakat on p. 34, minum-innom on pp. 35-36 where he ‘reverses’ an established historical derivation, etc.).  Furthermore, many of the Hungarian and Indonesian meanings given by Busztin correspond only approximately/indirectly, if at all; special pleading often appears to be involved (see for example ‘get’ versus ‘yield’ for terima-terem on p. 41, ‘know’ versus ‘accuse’ for tuduh-tud on p. 42).  Busztin does express a measure of scholarly caution in these and some other cases (for instance some on p. 34), but by including them in his main list rather than listing them separately he is invoking them as supporting his case, and in many other cases he is far more forthright about connections than appears to be warranted even in his own terms.  And he occasionally contradicts himself in respect of the degree of conviction associated with an etymological proposal, as for instance on the Indonesian word tangan on p. 40 (‘we are left wondering…undoubtedly…’).  In still other places in his Glossary Busztin invokes specific explanations which actually conflict with his hypothesis of a link between Hungarian and Indonesian; for instance, on pp. 31 and 34 he acknowledges that both a Hungarian word and its Indonesian semantic equivalent may arise from ‘sound imitation’ (onomatopoeia), but nevertheless still asserts that the relevant words are linked.

Busztin’s summary of the Glossary (pp. 42-44) includes the general claim that the Hungarian forms, often the shorter, are therefore probably the older (but there is no such principle; in many cases involving many pairs/sets of related languages the opposite is true), and lists a range of specific types of phonological change which he has invoked in various cases, without any good explanations as to why each type of change occurred where it occurred.  This gives the impression of arbitrariness: each process is invoked only where it can conveniently be used to ‘explain’ forms.  (See also references in the Glossary itself to other such phenomena, such as ‘metathesis’, invoked – without either clarity or persuasion – on p. 19, in the case of amarah-marah-harag.)  All in all, the summary amounts only to a somewhat more detailed restatement of an inadequately supported hypothesis.

In Chapter 2 (pp.45-61) Busztin seeks to link his linguistic ‘findings’ with Hungarian-Indonesian cultural parallelisms which he proposes.  In some cases the discussion in this section adds a degree of plausibility to his equations as presented in the Glossary; but the above-mentioned problems associated with these equations per se remain outstanding.

All in all, Busztin’s equations are thus unconvincing.  Whatever the strengths of his other ideas, the specifically linguistic aspects of his thesis cannot at present be taken seriously.

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.