Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 38


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.



One Response to Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 38

  1. Pacal says:

    Hungarian along with Basque and Etruscan seems to attract much more than it’s fair share of woo nonsense.

    Both Basque and Etruscan, according to traditional linguistics are isolated languages that cannot be related to any other known language. The fact that we can read Etruscan and even pronounce much of it properly doesn’t change the fact that we understand even now very little of it. The result is massive flights of utter woo. In fact there have been repeated attempts to understand Etruscan by using Basque. Well it appears that they are to different for that to have a ghost of chance of working.

    As for Hungarian. I suspect that the fascination with it is related to the fact that it is a non Indo-European language spoken in the heart of Europe by a people, Hungarians, who were politically very important for much of the last c. 1000 years. So attempts have been made to “explain” it.

    I will admit that this is the first I’ve heard of Hungarian and Indonesian being linked. Well that definitely sounds like total woo.
    Hungarians have a interesting mythology about their past. They claim that they were one of the groups that was part of Atilla’s Hunish confederacy. In fact in Hungarian culture / folklore Atilla is a hero and in effect a Hungarian. All this fascinating in that the Hungarians didn’t enter the Hungarian plain until the late 9th century and Atilla’s empire was more than 4 centuries earlier.

    It is my understanding that certain Finno-Uralgic tribes were in fact part of the empire of Atilla, although Atilla and the Huns themselves seemed to have been a Turkic people, so the Hungarian legend of being part of the Empire of Atilla may in fact be true.

    Of course one modern day political fight is competing Romanian and Hungarian claims to Transylvania. The origins of the Romanians is one very contentious issue.

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