Shilling for Big History

March 11, 2014

Note: This essay is cross-posted at Skepticality.

Last December, a metal detectorist named Bruce Campbell was plying his retirement hobby in a tidal mud flat on Vancouver Island, when he came across a rare Edward VI shilling. The silver coin was minted between 1551 and 1553, the span of Edward’s brief reign. You’ll remember that Edward was the son of Henry VIII and the half brother of Elizabeth I. The date of the coin has recently fueled speculation about the earliest date that Westerners explored the northern Pacific and the west coast of Canada. If the deposit of the coin is roughly contemporary with the date stamped on it, say within 30 years or so, it would push back the earliest visitation of the coast by the English some 200 years.

The metal detectorist shared his find with an online hobbyist community, and when they recognized the coin, one of them contacted an independent scholar named Samuel Bawlf, who had written about the idea that perhaps Sir Francis Drake had visited the region, and perhaps even made it as far as south Alaska, in 1579, during his eventual circumnavigation of the globe. Bawlf is excited because other 2 other old coins have been found in the area, a 1571 sixpence dug up in 1930 and another coin with a similar date unearthed on Quadra Island, which is nearby. This it seems supports Bawlf’s idea.

To Bawlf.

I honestly don’t know where to begin, so let’s start with who Drake was.

Sir Francis Drake is best known for being a pirate, harassing Spanish galleons in the years before the Spanish Armada. He was extremely successful, seizing the modern equivalent of tens of millions of dollars worth of cargo from the Spanish. It is generally accepted that in the summer 1579, Drake was along the Pacific coast of what is now the United States, and there is much speculation about how far up the coast he made it. There are some fairly good indicators of the extent of his travel; he certainly made it as far as mid-California and might have even made it as far as Oregon (which seems to be about the farthest north that mainstream scholars are reasonably comfortable placing him). The method of placing him comes from ethnographic work deriving from detailed descriptions of the natives, their dress and culture stemming from the trip. During this summer sojourn, he apparently encountered flows of ice. Drake completed this journey by circumnavigating the globe.

The idea that Bawlf puts forward is that Drake was looking for a Northwest Passage on behalf of Queen Elizabeth, an endeavor which would have economic and military implications that the rival Spain could not know about. Therefore, at her order, it was a completely secret mission. While on this secret mission, however Drake deposited coins along the way to the natives in the region to show that they had been there in case some other European power showed up. On the face of, this seems incompatible with the idea that it was a super-secret mission that nobody could know about.

Also, there is the matter of how countries staked claims of new territories. While I may not have examined enough, I don’t see examples of Brits claiming territory through depositing coins in the literature–and the idea seems problematic to me as there are other ways that coins could make it to unexplored territory, such as trade. As such, coins alone would not establish a presence. As best I can tell claiming territory during this time is a messy process. It starts with discovery and landing with the intention of making claims of land. The strength of new claims is improved by establishing settlements and colonial government, extensively mapping an area and waterways, setting up commercial ties with natives, initiating exploration of the region, fortification, and active defense. Matters of territorial ownership might also be clarified through negotiation and treaties. Nothing remotely like any of these patterns appears in the historical record until the late 18th century, when Spain and England vied for control of the region and almost went to war over it. If the British staked a claim…they did absolutely nothing with it for 200 years, and they seem to not have invoked Drake’s prior claim to it in the later squabble with Spain.

So, what does the discovery of this shilling tell us? The coin by itself tells us very little. Interpreting finds like this is all about determining context. Without context, the coin tells us only that at some point a coin ended up in the tidal mud. The only hint of context that we have is that on the same outing, according to the Tribune-Review, Campbell found the shilling: “along with a rare 1891 Canadian nickel, a 1960s dime and penny from 1900.” Now, it doesn’t say that they were physically clustered together. That’s frustrating, because if so, we’d be able to say that the deposit was dropped no sooner than the 1960s, which would not require us to rewrite our understanding of the Pacific Northwest. Nonetheless, it was a grand day out for a new metal detectorist.

The hobbyist who contacted Bawlf (named Herbst) about the find speculated about the context:

“You don’t find things like that in Victoria,” Herbst told the Times Colonist. “The fact that it was found in a layer of mud on the foreshore, to me, I recognized that that was probably an ancient aboriginal village down there. … I knew it was possibly significant.”

So, it was probably an aboriginal village, said some guy on the Internet. I spent a little time looking for aboriginal archaeological sites in the region and haven’t had much luck–I know that’s because I am researching outside my area, since Canadian authorities have well established protocols for documenting and reporting finds of archaeological materials including human remains. According to the rough description of the site given in the Times Colonist, that Campbell was poking around at low tide “on the mud flats on the Gorge, just down by Curtis Point.” That seems to place him in the Victoria Harbor region, and that entire promontory of land is the aboriginal home of the Songhee people. There’s comparatively little written about this tribe, though their later history is intertwined with the growth of Victoria. This would likely have been the tribe that Drake would have encountered. I have been able to find no tradition of stories of contact with European sailors in the Songhee tradition before 1790, at which time the Spanish reached the region. The Herbst hypothesis at this point it looks like speculation that is not bolstered by anything, and certainly no evidence is offered. As best I can tell, the coin is being used to argue for the existence of an aboriginal settlement and the aboriginal settlement is being used as an argument for why the coin was there in the first place. This seems shaky.

So the coin is apparently completely out of any independent or meaningful context, at least as far as news reports are concerned. For that reason it does not clarify anything, only become fuel for speculation. An interesting side note about this part of the shore. The area that the coin was found in was a popular area for swimmers at least up until the 1930s. There might be no end to the cultural contamination of the site that might influence what one might find in the area. We should perhaps not be especially surprised if anything that a swimmer or tourist could possibly bring out there ended up there. Coins are small, portable, and completely losable. We are being asked to accept that the true context of these coins are other old coins throughout the region, occasionally on other islands, without convergent supporting evidence that that should be the case.

Another problem that the Drake hypothesis faces (or, in a turn of classic conspiracy theory benefits from) is that the original records of Drake’s travels were destroyed in a fire. But some contemporary accounts remain. None of them indicate travel to areas recognizable as Canada or Alaska. But what about the ice that appears in those early accounts? Does that not suggest that Drake was summering far further north than historians have given him credit for? Well, probably not.  Apparently, the dendrochronology of giant redwoods from the years surrounding Drake’s travels suggest that there was little growth in the trees that year, suggesting that the weather was unusually dry or cold. There is therefore apparently no pressing reason to extrapolate from the observation of ice that Drake had to be so far north.

The takeaway of all this, I think, is that the breathless reporting of a single find that overturns the entire known history of a region is to be taken with a grain of salt in much the same way we should avoid concluding that a single observation should completely overturn decades of established science. Of course, it is tempting for a journalist to report the bigger, slightly more sensational story, though it beggars belief how someone could not think that the exploits of Drake and his crew were not sensational enough to hold our interest.


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.



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.