This article first appeared in: The Skeptical Intelligencer 24:4 (2021), 5-9
Reproduced with permission
Landspeak: science, English and the languages of Canada and Ireland
In mid-March 2021 there was staged an online event with the name ‘Landspeak’, involving Canadian First Nations and Gaelic-speaking Irish representatives1. It was ‘a series of free online talks, workshops, events, and activities, seeking to build connections through explorations in culture, sport, creativity, language, and the environment’. Landspeak was presented by the Ireland-Canada University Foundation, the Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture at the University of Manitoba, and two centres at University College, Dublin.
While admirable, the event became quite ‘heavy’ from a skeptical/modernist viewpoint. The Canadian and Irish speakers were naturally very proud of their traditional languages, in which they are fluent, and eager to conserve and promote them along with the associated cultures and their relationships with their lands. No-one, least of all an erstwhile sociolinguist like me, could reasonably object to this, and indeed we linguists celebrate such enterprise. And being steeped in local language and culture need not prevent one from being also proficient in the ways of the modern world (as manifested in these people’s grasp of the technology which enabled Landspeak itself) or in languages of wider communication such as English. Almost all contemporary users of these languages are bicultural and bilingual.
But the increasing foregrounding of negative aspects of colonial history has cast English and ‘western’ activities/thought-patterns such as writing and science in a negative light. There were manifestations of this in Landspeak, notably from some in the chat who argued for instance that ‘the supremacy of the written language and especially English language separated us from the sacredness of the land and world and distorted our view of all our relationships’. In this context there were echoes of Lynne Kelly’s contentious theory (put forth in her book, which I reviewed in this forum) of the development of human society out of the long early pre-literate phase – featuring huge roles for knowledge preserved in memory and for intimate connections with the landscape – into the supposedly much less satisfactory current situation where literacy has come to dominate. Note also the extreme, confused and ill-founded notions of decriers of (alphabetic) literacy such as Leonard Shlain, which have been widely embraced by readers who know even less of these matters.
Obviously, a situation where local languages (not only speech but also in written forms, some of them recently devised) were really thriving again and providing ready links to ecological and traditional entities (less readily expressed in contemporary English, French etc.) would be welcome; but this would not have to be at the expense of international scientific (and philosophical) culture, expressed principally in writing in languages of wider communication. It would obviously be unwise to reject these latter modes of thought, as some participants appeared to consider reasonable/justified.
Even more controversially, it was also suggested during Landspeak that local superstitions, beliefs about spirits, etc., as expressed in say Irish Gaelic terminology, are actually veridical, i.e. that science is mistaken in seeing itself as having ‘moved on’ from such notions to a more accurate world-view. This position closely resembles the ‘science denial/fallism’ now being promoted in places like South Africa. One chatter referenced Vine Deloria, who (as I have previously noted) adopted an anti-science standpoint in the context of the American/Canadian Pacific-North-West (Native American origins, Kennewick Man, etc.). Deloria took a view similar to that of some Australian Aboriginal people also seen talking online who proclaim ‘we were always here’ on the basis of local ‘dreamtime’ myths, against all the scientific evidence. In contrast, as an Aboriginal elder (not expressing hostility) observed in conversation with the Australian anthropologist Josephine Flood, ‘whitefella im got no dreamin’. Rephrased in non-Aboriginal terms, this is true for most of us (white or non-white) modernist scholars, at any rate – and, while we can learn much more from traditional societies about their worlds than we once believed, traditional ‘dreaming’ is hardly what we ourselves need for our own specific scientific and other modernist purposes. See further below.
Even within England this kind of consideration can easily become one-sidedly anti-modernist. For example, the excellent Wessex folk-rock band Show Of Hands (see especially their powerful song ‘Roots’) urge the revival of English traditions and local identity (national and regional); they feel that contemporary English people lose out in this respect by comparison with ‘Celtic’ and originally migrant communities in the UK. This program in itself is by no means disturbing; but the band sometimes give the impression that they think that anything which is modern and non-local (perhaps even science, which is necessarily cross-cultural) is thereby of less significance.
Native American pre-history: facts and traditions
In September 2021, media outlets reported the discovery of evidence that human footprints in New Mexico were made 23,000 years BP – some 10,000 years earlier than many archaeologists had believed humans arrived in the New World2. (At one time dates as early as 33,000 BP had been suggested for some sites, but the evidence for these dates had ultimately been found lacking. The nature of ‘artefacts’ discovered in Mexico in 2020, allegedly involving similar very early dates, has now been disputed: the observed phenomena may be wholly natural.3) The journalist Nick Martin proclaimed that the New Mexico finding endorsed local Native American traditions, and that it was ‘an indictment of [mainstream scholarship] that this Indigenous truth was ignored by non-Indigenous archaeologists for so long’.
But what exactly do these traditions say? Well, the claim quoted by Martin is simply ‘We have been here since time immemorial’. Such statements have been made in various other Native American contexts, for example in the Pacific North-West (see above). Taken literally, they are simply false. Homo sapiens came to the Americas in a late stage of its drawn-out diaspora from its African origin. 40,000 years ago, there were, to all appearances, no people at all in the New World. And if ‘time immemorial’ here has only a general reference (‘many generations ago’) and thereby includes these new dates, why does it not also include the more recent but still ancient dates previously proposed? Understood in this sense, the claim is too vague to be assessed.
Martin states: ‘This truth – this fact – is enshrined through our stories’. But (provisional) archaeological and historical ‘truths’ are not established through local stories, which are certainly interesting and relevant in this context but are sometimes found to be mistaken – and in this instance are vague. The word fact, in particular, is being tendentiously misused here. (But is it a silver lining that Martin apparently believes in facts, unlike many these days whose postmodernism tends to out-and-out relativism? Or is this notion being introduced as a facilitator for the ‘cancelling’ of mainstream views?) And it is misleading of Martin to suggest that ‘Indigenous findings [MN: a worse than tendentious use of this word, reminiscent of the Afrocentrist use of the word philosophy to refer to local cosmological myths, etc.] and voices continue to be ignored, even when they are proved correct’. Where they are ‘proved’ correct, as may well eventuate here, the ideas involved will surely not be ignored.
In addition, modernist scholars will not be willing to accept positions such as ‘aboriginal’ world views which, as one of Martin’s sources states, ‘assume that human action [including academic study] … must be located in an ethical spiritual context as well as its physical and social situation’ or the view that ‘working in Indigenous contexts may require researchers to start from a subjective position rather than the objectivity that academia often prizes’. Understanding and respecting local traditions (and behaving ethically) is one thing; incorporating associated spiritualistic or subjective notions into scientific analysis is quite another.
All this is not to deny that some previous mainstream theories of early human settlement of the Americas may have been in part grounded in racist assumptions. Neither does it obviate the important point that Native American participation in such studies has generally been conspicuous by its (near-)absence.
It is not clear to me how the truth of any quasi-historical narrative could be demonstrated ‘through our bodies, and through our natural relatives’, as Martin suggests.
Input to these issues from my own domain of linguistics is largely speculative, because none of the ancient communities in question was literate. This also deprives us of access to ancient historical and cultural information, as opposed to current beliefs.
Austin Osman Spare, Walter Benjamin & associates: a novel ‘take’ on language
Viktor Wynd, who runs the remarkable Museum of Curiosities in Hackney, London, stages online talks on a range of mystical and mysterious topics. On 17/10/21 the speaker was Michael Staley, and the topic was the life, work and legacy of Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956), who was primarily an artist with a focus upon the occult4.
Spare developed a magico-religious philosophy called the Zos Kia Cultus. He early rejected the Christianity in which he had been raised and instead based his notions upon those of Theosophy and other oriental belief-systems. Spare used the word Zos to refer to the human body and elsewhere as a name for himself, and – although he himself wrote little about the background to his ideas and much is disputed – it appears that he was fascinated by the rarity in English of the letter Z (which is in fact readily explained in terms of Latin and Greek). He invented or adopted/adapted various other words with occult significance.
Spare was especially interested in ‘sigils’: symbols with special significance in magical paradigms, said to be non-arbitrary and often astrological or cabalistic in character. He developed the written forms of sigils by condensing letters of the alphabet into diagrammatic ‘glyphs of desire’, representing thoughts but integrated into postural practices5.
Spare’s thinking about written forms may have been influenced by Hugo Ball’s contemporary conception of words as complex magical images6. Another source may have been the German author Walter Benjamin’s highly non-standard view that ‘mediation’, as involved in the ‘magical’ immediacy of mental communication, is the fundamental problem of linguistic theory (!) and the primary ‘problem of language’7.
Benjamin held that, like artistic activity, the use of language is not predominantly a matter of communication. This is similar to the Chomskyan position that language is essentially a means of self-expression rather than communication. But according to Benjamin even the practice of translation is not essentially to do with communication with readers unschooled in the source language. He argues, indeed, that a translation should not aim at communicating the meaning of the original because the communication of its content is not essential to appreciation of the translation (eh?)8.
Benjamin also held that in every language (taken as a whole) ‘one and the same thing is meant’; he used the term ‘pure language’ to express this notion. Linguists, aware as they are of linguistic diversity, or even non-linguists who have learned languages not closely related to their first languages, will find this difficult to accept – even without taking into account cultural and conceptual differences involving words which find no precise translation-equivalents. Linguistically-aware philosophers will agree.
And where individual words are concerned Benjamin himself, in apparent self-contradiction, urged that even precise translation-equivalents ‘mean’ differently in different languages. He treated as significant even cases where the sounds (but not the meaning) of a shorter word are quite by chance contained within a longer, unrelated word in Language A but where this is not the case for the equivalent words in Language B (and of course such phenomena are almost always language-specific). Thus the English word bread includes the phonological form (but not the meaning) of the shorter word red, whereas the French equivalent pain does not contain any French form meaning ‘red’. But users of languages are not consciously aware of such points unless they are brought to their attention; and to my knowledge no linguist has reported usage or behaviour suggestive of awareness of them at any level, except where deliberate punning is in question.
Ball for his part wrote a poem called ‘Gadji beri bimba’ using a mixture of invented words, many of them apparently based (unsystematically) on words in a range of genuine languages.
Obviously all this is very far from the focus and the stances of mainstream linguistics, and it illustrates how thinkers with quite other concerns can arrive at ‘different’ notions in this area – most of which are unlikely to interest linguists proper who are not active skeptics, even where they warrant attention in other respects.
Artefacts, populations, languages, perceptions: Ancient and modern Egypt (with a glance at Australia)
The Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney offers online lectures on historical and archaeological topics. On 28/10/21 the talk was on ‘Your Ancient Egypt: Their Living Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage’; the speaker was the Egyptian archaeologist Heba Abd el Gawad.
The speaker argued forcefully not principally for the return of Ancient Egyptian artefacts from museums in ‘western’ nations (including former colonisers) – a now very familiar theme – but rather for a change to the current perceptions of ‘western’ archaeologists and Egyptologists, which she identified as still ‘colonialist’.
As has become the norm, no-one challenged any of the speaker’s claims or stances in chat. Because the base for these sessions is in Australia, the chat was initially populated with the currently more-or-less obligatory (and not altogether unreasonable) acknowledgments of Aboriginal custodianship of the parts of Australia where the organisers and prominent attenders are based. Some of these included exaggerated statements such as ‘this always was Aboriginal land’. (How can we be certain that there were no earlier human inhabitants? And at one time there were no humans at all in Australia, or indeed on Earth.) This kind of performance sets an anti-colonial tone for such sessions. In this context it would have taken some courage to dispute any statements made by the speaker. Actually, I myself might have done this, but insufficient time was allowed.
The currently ‘hot’ question of where ancient artefacts – especially those regarded as of world cultural significance – should be preserved and displayed is obviously complex, and the best solutions will differ from case to case and will alter as circumstances change. For example, some countries still lack the necessary museum infrastructure. But a factor more relevant here involves the relationship between the ancient cultures in question and the current cultures and polities in the areas where these flourished. While the speaker – in a manner typical of recent discussion – emphasised the perceptions of these matters on the part of modern Egyptian people (which she urged must be respected), the fact is that in the case of Egypt the connection between artefacts and living people is essentially only geographical. Even if some Ancient Egyptian DNA persists in the contemporary Egyptian population, and even though the artefacts are of great interest to many modern Egyptians (as they are to others), the territory has undergone repeated incursions and cultural changes over the centuries, and modern Egypt is a predominantly Muslim, predominantly Arabic-speaking country. The artefacts are thus only very indirectly relevant to the current Egyptian population. And they are not seen in ‘western’ countries as culturally associated with modern Egypt – and in particular they are (rightly) not seen as connected with Islam (whatever feelings might be aroused by perceived connections with Islam, generally or in the context of modern Egypt).
This does not mean that modern people in the countries in question can legitimately be excluded from discussions of such matters – even though in some cases (such as that of Egypt) it is tendentious to refer to ‘source communities’ as opposed to ‘source countries’. Well-informed local input should obviously be factored in.
It might also be pointed out that the section of the modern Egyptian population which shares the most with Ancient Egypt is the Christian community, through its liturgical use of the Coptic language, a form of Late Egyptian. (As a linguist will emphasise, Coptic does not resemble Arabic, and it is written in a completely different script.) But at various times, including under Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954-70 and indeed more recently, the Egyptian Christian population has suffered from discrimination practised by the Muslim Egyptian authorities.
I suggest that the Egyptian situation should be seen as similar to the situation involving pre-English artefacts and structures found in England, which are rightly not regarded by the well-informed as being English – perhaps rather ‘British’ on a very broad cross-millennial perspective understood to include the once more widespread Welsh, the now-vanished Picts, etc. Similarly, the Turks know that their ancestors arrived quite recently in what is now Turkey and, while impressed by pre-Turkish artefacts and structures in their country and very concerned to preserve them, do not attempt to claim ‘ownership’ of them.
Additional points raised by the speaker included the matter of the treatment of human remains. But, again, any human remains found in an Ancient Egyptian context are unlikely to be connected with the current Egyptian population. Compare how certain Maori groups seeking to block the archaeological study of some old graves in New Zealand have based their actions on claims to the effect that the burials are Maori, which in this case is a prima facie more plausible scenario (although fringe thinkers who believe in pre-Polynesian settlement continue to argue, claiming that the observable surface features do not look like Maori artefacts).
It was also suggested that the organisation and signage within museums in the UK (etc.) often reflect racist and inaccurate attitudes towards Ancient Egypt. For example, in the World Museum, Liverpool there is a division between ‘Ancient Egypt’ and ‘World Cultures’, which the speaker regarded as indicative of prejudice. But this division actually reflects the fact that the museum’s prized Egyptian collection is considerably larger than its collections for other ancient cultures, which are accordingly grouped together. There is no racism here, and no question of treating Egyptian material as in any way ‘different’.
Animals and language revisited
In Chapter 8 of my 2013 book Strange Linguistics I discussed many claims to the effect that some non-human animals have communication systems similar in complexity and flexibility to human language; that is to say, not merely communication systems but genuine (if very differently structured and realised) languages. Claims of this kind continue to arise. As before, not all of the researchers in question display adequate awareness of the criteria which distinguish human language from all other previously discovered communication systems – syntax, ‘double-articulation’ into morphemes and phonemes or the equivalent, reference to entities not present, etc. – but some do, at least in some respects. Karsten Brensing, while wrongly suggesting that mainstream linguistic thought identifies ‘word’-level semantics as species-specific, has more relevantly invoked Japanese findings to the effect that great tits use at least one (rudimentary) aspect of syntax: significant ‘word’-order. And Michael Bronstein and others have argued that the evidence suggests that some cetaceans meet a number of the criteria. Indeed, they look forward to a near future in which humans will be able to learn cetacean systems and converse with their users9. But even if cetaceans do have languages we will need to study their phonation and structures in much more detail first.
On another front, a new, ambitious directory of elephant behaviour and vocalisations ‘offers amazing insights into their minds and culture’. Joyce Poole and Petter Granli run a project called ‘Elephant Voices’; their ideas are available on their ‘Elephant Ethnogram’. Poole (who has a long-running, well-informed but also emotional interest in elephants) states: ‘I know they say really complicated things, and I think they “talk” a lot about us –about humans – and how they should respond to us’. But as far as hard, persuasively analysed data are concerned the elephant ‘dictionary’ presented here appears to be mainly that. The evidence for syntax and other key features, which would lead to an elephant grammar, remains marginal10.
And a team of researchers studied 165 dogs and their owners and found that the animals responded to between 15 and 215 words and (perhaps more significantly) phrases (sequences of words). But animal responses may be variously interpreted. Furthermore, phrases per se do not always manifest syntax, and in general it is not indicated that the dogs studied understood phrases other than holistically11.
2 https://daily.jstor.org/why-academic-indigenous-collaboration-is-tricky/; The White Sands discovery only confirms what Indigenous people have said all along — High Country News – Know the West (hcn.org)
6 Start from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugo_Ball
7 Start from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Benjamin