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Language on the Fringe 8 – Secret history?

Skeptical Adversaria 4 (2009), 7-8

Reproduced with permission

Laura Knight-Jadczyk is a formidably widely-read independent scholar with highly radical views on history and the nature of humanity (see The Secret History Of The World, www.cassiopaea.org, etc.). I encountered her work at the 2008 Unconvention in London and approached her with information on her linguistic claims, which do not loom especially large but are important – and display some knowledge of the subject but a (temporarily?) incomplete grasp. Most obviously, she accepts some amateur etymologising of the usual kind as support for non-standard historical claims, notably Iman Wilkens’ view that the Trojan War really occurred in Britain, France and his native Netherlands (he equates eg Cambridgeshire river names with those given in Homer!).

Knight-Jadczyk was unwilling to be corrected here (pending further reading), whereas she was (surprisingly) more amenable to my exposition of mainstream reservations about the much less fringe but seriously (and increasingly) controversial theory that Indo-European and several other language families had a common ancestor (‘Nostratic’) spoken 10-12,000 years ago. This theory would fit in with her view (quite widely shared and not altogether unsupported) that there was a world catastrophe at that time caused by minor-planet impact. (More generally, K-J regards the more extreme revisionist/catastrophist histories proposed by Velikovsky, Cremo etc as much more strongly supported by the evidence than mainstream scholars would allow. She holds that all such seriously revisionist views are systematically suppressed by the powers that be.)

On another front, K-J is strongly opposed to Judaic-Christian-Muslim monotheism, regarding it as balefully influential even on recent scientific/historical scholarship, and in fact as ‘psycho-pathological’. Saliently, she holds that it would be psycho-pathological even for a creator god to claim the right to allegiance and obedience. I myself agree that humans might legitimately resist such claims – partly because of the logical argument, best summarised by Russell, that objective ethical truths, if any exist, cannot follow from religious truths. But, despite my own atheistic views, I suggest that a creator god, if (s)he existed, would have a prima facie case here, unlike truly psycho-pathological human tyrants making similar claims.

On the other hand, K-J holds (obviously against skeptics and most scientists) that the evidence for spiritual and ‘paranormal’ entities of other kinds is overwhelming and should persuade even those who themselves have no awareness of divine or parapsychological forces in the world. But she also thinks it likely that some humans have a ‘soul’ which confers veridical awareness of these entities. Others (including skeptics) have no such awareness exactly because they have no souls. (This idea is similar to the less dramatic claim that humans have a psychic/spiritual ‘sense’ but that some are ‘blind’ in this respect.) Souls probably arose by way of mutation in the process of evolution (her version of same!). But it is not clear how such entities as souls (if they can exist at all) could arise in this way (though see eg Stephen Goldberg’s view, expounded in Anatomy Of The Soul , that important aspects of a mind can exist after the demise of the brain from which it is generated). And the fact that even members of the same family may differ in respect of such awareness surely renders K-J’s specific position dubious.

K-J is searching for a new form or aspect of linguistics which would relate to her ontology by way of being ‘hyper-dimensional’. She declined to attempt to explain this idea to me, seeing me as lacking a soul and thus being permanently unable to grasp the concepts involved. (For her, humanity is doomed to remain divided on issues of this kind, where empirical evidence does not directly apply. The soul-less have an incorrigibly impoverished world-view.) She did suggest that semiotics might be identified with her ‘hyper-dimensional linguistics’, but this notion seems to reflect either confusion or a so-far unarticulated non-standard view of semiotics (it is normally taken to be the study of symbolism, with linguistics as one of its most major sub-fields, and thus to be wider in scope than linguistics but not at a ‘different level’).

Postmodernist daemons

Another author of a broadly similar bent is Patrick Harpur, who is known for his book Daimonic Reality and had an article in Fortean Times 246 (2009). Harpur is more overtly ‘postmodernist’ than K-J, and displays the common postmodernist tension between the revisionist view that some theories which are rejected by most contemporary scholars are much closer to the truth than those espoused by the latter and the relativist view that multiple apparently mutually-contradictory theories can all be ‘true’. (As Sokal & Bricmont pointed out in commenting on Roger Anyon’s relativist stance on the clash between the scientific consensus on the Asiatic origins of the Amerindian peoples and the rival, ill-supported ‘indigenist’ claims of writers such as Vine Deloria, it is, obviously, impossible for both members of such pairs of theories to be true; and in each such case some theory must be true and others false, even if we can never be 100% sure as to the full truth.) Harpur regards evolutionary theory as merely another origin myth on a par with eg traditional mystical notions, and indeed as grounded much more in some of these very notions (reinterpreted by modernists) than in genuine science. He believes, in fact, that some of the key evidence adduced in support of evolution is faked or at least very tendentiously interpreted.

One key case involving the above Amerindian matters is that of ‘Kennewick Man’, to which I shall return – along with other such controversies.

Writing revisited!

In recent instalments I’ve discussed some issues concerning written language (spelling reform, children’s learning, etc). There are various debates here to which linguists (who often focus mainly on speech) could contribute more than they do. In February 2009 it was reported that 5.2 million British workers (many of them native speakers) are ‘functionally illiterate’ in English (they cannot read signs in railway stations or wording on medicine bottles). Even the most ‘trendy’ egalitarian sociolinguist must view this with alarm! And some are promoting measures which might render easier the task of becoming effectively literate; for instance, Birmingham City Council is eliminating the apostrophe from its official wording ( St Paul’s becomes St Pauls, etc). One might see this as another instance of ‘dumbing-down’; but larger features than this have been eliminated in other languages (notably Greek), and linguists could help by carefully analysing the impact of such moves – if their assistance were sought or encouraged!