This review article first appeared in: The Skeptical Intelligencer, 21:1 (2018)
Reproduced with permission
Review of Scranton, L. (2016) The Mystery of Skara Brae.
A genuine, genuinely mysterious inscription is known from mainland northern Scotland. The Newton Stone is a pillar found by chance in Aberdeenshire in 1804, bearing two texts. The first text, probably inscribed in Late Antiquity, is written in the Ogham script first used in Ireland in C4 CE and later transplanted from Ireland to Scotland; it consists of words which mostly seem to be personal names (there is apparently no grammar; the text is presumably an unstructured list). The second text is in a script which has never been authoritatively identified. It appears that this second text was added to the stone after the first text, according to some (see below) as recently as C18-19.
Many different decipherments and theories concerning the second text have been advanced since the discovery of the Stone, mostly by fringe writers. In mid-C19, when linguistic scholarship was still in its infancy, there was discussion of proposed links with the Phoenician abjadic script; Phoenician was again invoked as late as the 1920s by the arch-diffusionist Laurence Waddell (who was taken to task for this notion). But readings in other scripts and interpretations of the text as representing Gaelic (Scots or Irish), Greek, Latin, etc. were also offered. Even Buddhist associations were proposed, recalling Scranton’s much more recent (but equally dubious) diffusionist theories along these lines.
In 1935, Stewart McAllister (best known for his work on Shelta, the mysterious language of the Irish Travellers) declared the second text a modern forgery. However, in a series of papers and excursuses published over the next thirty years, the archaeologists W. Douglas Simpson and C.A. Gordon disputed Macalister’s claim, identifying the text as genuine – but not managing to offer decipherments. Then, in 1984, in a book on the ‘symbol stones’ of Scotland, the anthropologist Anthony Jackson urged a non-linguistic (numerical) interpretation, which would obviously obviate the need for linguistic exegesis but would hardly locate the Stone within any known local tradition. Jackson suggested Pictish provenance (not unreasonably given the location); but, as I have stated before, the known Pictish inscriptions cannot currently be reliably read, in linguistic or any other terms.
A creationist blast against linguists! (LOTF 42)
Some fringe writers who believe in a short-time depth for human languages as a group do seek to identify Proto-Indo-European with their version of the supposed single original language, the Ursprache (just as some amateur non-Indo-Europeanists such as Isaac Mozeson seek to do this with their favoured ‘family’-specific proto-language). Some go further, treating specific, apparently later languages from their favoured ‘families’ as proto-languages. For example, Nicholas De Vere, who believes in an ‘antediluvian’ civilisation ruled by the dynasty of the ‘Grail Bloodline’, bizarrely identifies early Gaelic as the same language as Proto-Indo-European and also as a pre-/proto-Sumerian general Ursprache (see his 2004 book The Dragon Legacy).
Although evolution might not be the best term in this context, it is notable that some specific changes in some languages in historic times are adaptive in a quasi-evolutionary sense. For example, where words with meanings in the same domain come to be homophonous, new words or word-meanings arise either from scratch or out of the existing word-stock to eliminate the ensuing ambiguity. Thus alternative words for the rooster came into use in rural French dialect communities where the original Latin word, gallus, came by way of a general phonological change to be pronounced the same as the word for ‘cat’, originally gattus. On a farm, ambiguity at this point obviously had to be avoided!
The status of oral traditions (LOTF 43)
A striking case where legend has been partially confirmed by archaeological discoveries (one of Alan Garner’s themes) is that of Troy. The C19 discoveries at Hisarlik in Turkey (the digs were motivated in large part by Heinrich Schliemann’s personal enthusiasm for the Homeric poems and were over-interpreted in those terms) do not themselves necessarily represent the settlement allegedly besieged and eventually sacked by the Greeks around 1200 BCE (the site is complex and multi-layered), and scholarly debate continues; but the broad outline of the story of the Trojan War does seem to have been confirmed. On my own visit in 2015 I found the Homeric associations taken for granted. A large hollow wooden horse welcomes visitors, and tour-guides tell tales of Priam, Hector, Agamemnon, Achilles, etc., sometimes humorously modernised for popular consumption (‘Achilles dragged Hector’s body around the walls of Troy tied behind his Harley-Davidson’). And Troy is now typically treated as a ‘given’ to which more controversial claims can be linked. The best-known work of this kind is that of Eberhard Zangger, who holds that Plato’s Atlantis was really Troy! On Troy, see also my review in Mark’s Bookshelf in this issue.
Language and the arts revisited (LOTF 44)
The scenario portrayed in Frank Herbert’s 1966 sf novel The Green Brain may not be too far from the truth! A recent exhibition called ‘Spare Parts’ at London’sScience Gallery (at Guy’s Hospital, near the Shard) included extracts from papers arguing that colonies of insects can be understood as closely parallel in many ways with single individually much more intelligent larger animals such as mammals.
Merlin and Arthur (The Sinclairs in America: inconsistent usage or worse? LOTF 44)
Graham Phillips, the long-standing Shropshire-based ‘alternative historian’, argues in his 2005 book Merlin and the Discovery of Avalon in the New World that ‘a site believed to be Merlin’s grave was found by the first British settlers in North America’ (specifically, in New England), and that this information is ‘preserved in the works of William Shakespeare and the coded writings of the Freemasons’. Merlin allegedly visited Iceland and Greenland en route, as the C4 BCE Greek voyager Pytheas may actually have done (without getting as far as the American continent). The combination of various apparently unrelated legends and suppositions, in this case those surrounding King Arthur and Rosslyn Chapel, is not of course unusual. Needless to say, mainstream archaeologists and historians have found nothing that confirms these ideas.
Another novel claim regarding King Arthur emanates from the Ukraine. Using the impressionistic methods which are usual on the fringe, and driven by the all-too frequent nationalistic bias, Igor Tsar has produced a book with the English-language title Ukraine is the Ancestral Home of Humanity. The contents can be imagined. A locally-produced summary states: ‘Numbers were also invented in Ukraine. From Ukraine, they came to India, and from there to Europe under the name of Arab. “Rig Veda” was written on the banks of the Dnieper. Tribes of Aryans from Ukraine founded Iran in the 4th millennium BC. Ukrainians gave rise to Sanskrit. English also originates in Ukraine’. Etc., etc. And one of this author’s allies, Sergei Dmitriev, holds that Arthur, specifically, was from a Ukrainian background!
A secret vice (review, last issue)
The recent ‘biopic’ Tolkien, while disowned by the late professor’s family, contained some interesting elements. Much to my pleasure, Joseph Wright, Tolkien’s early philological mentor, featured heavily. Wright was a born historical linguist who rose from being an illiterate teenager in a village outside Bradford to become a scholar of German/Germanic and later the Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford and the editor of the English Dialect Dictionary and Grammar. As is portrayed in the movie, he never lost his Yorkshire accent or (despite his at times fierce academic rigour) his plebeian good humour.
And, in a conversation with his sweetheart Edith, the young Tolkien is shown urging that the ‘power’ of some pieces of language – exemplified by one of his favourites, cellar door – lies wholly in their sound (compare his ideas as later set out in ‘A Secret Vice’), whereas his beloved urges that if their meaning is unknown or is ignored their significance is doubtful or diminished. Edith was no linguist, and I do not know if she ever actually espoused such opinions divergent from Tolkien’s own; but the scene is interesting and provocative. Despite family opposition, the lovers married, and eventually died in 1971 and 1973 (Edith first); they are buried together in Wolvercote Cemetery in North Oxford in a striking grave bearing the names Beren and Lúthien, those of a devoted couple in the first of Tolkien’s many posthumous Middle-Earth books, the Silmarillion (1977). (The great linguist and phonetician Henry Sweet, who was in part the model for Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, is more unobtrusively buried nearby.)
A new perspective on the Voynich Manuscript
The Voynich Manuscript is a genuinely mysterious, apparently medieval book-length work in an unfamiliar script, including illustrations; the topic may be botanical. It has been the subject of widespread discussion since the WWI years and since 1969 has been held by Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Many decipherments have been advanced, mostly by non-specialists; it is still considered possible that the work is in fact a modern fake. For a select bibliography up to 2013, see the notes to Chapter 4 of my book Strange Linguistics, published that year; see also online sources.
Gerard Cheshire is a biological scientist at Bristol University who has published on the VM in the past; in mid-2019 he announced major conclusions about the document. Cheshire is extremely forthright and indeed bombastic about his views, especially considering his lack of professional expertise in linguistics (which emerges at the outset of the new paper in his amateurish use of terms such as diphthong to refer to features of spelling rather than of phonology); he believes that he has deciphered the script, has identified the language as ‘Proto-Romance’ and can read the text. In the manner of some ‘decipherers’ of the Phaistos Disk, he castigates earlier ‘unsuccessful decipherers’ and commentators as having been misled/confused, in this instance by failure to grasp one key point: the language and script were, in his view, in normal use (at least in some areas) at the time of composition but are now extinct and (amazingly!) otherwise unrecorded. The VM is, he proclaims, a C15 treatise on herbal remedies combined with the story of an adventure which occurred in 1444.
‘Proto-Romance’ is Cheshire’s term for the varieties linking late ‘Vulgar’ Latin (which naturally came to vary considerably across Europe during the ‘Dark Ages’) with the modern Romance languages such as Italian, Spanish and French. But these modern languages had come to exist as linguistic entities separate from Latin itself and from each other long before C15. It is true that few texts in these intermediate varieties survive, chiefly because Latin remained the main language of formal writing long after it ceased to be in everyday use; but by C15 such usage would not have been normal at all. And if it had been, there would surely be many more extant samples of it. Cheshire holds that the script itself was that of Ischia, near Naples, but of course it is not otherwise attested even there.
In addition, much of the detail of Cheshire’s account of the language is obscure or confused in linguistic terms, and he (like many non-linguists) appears much more confident (even if without real justification) in dealing with orthography and vocabulary than with, say, grammar (which he largely ignores). He uses basic terms such as grammar and transliteration oddly or wrongly.
Initially, Cheshire’s academic employer proclaimed his proposal as a major achievement; but in fact his earlier work along similar lines has been severely criticised, for example by Nick Pelling. Pelling has met with heavy counter-criticism from amateur VM enthusiasts and their allies on the ‘fringe’, and he himself evinces a most peculiar negative perception of mainstream historical linguistics (very ineffectual, according to him); but his complaints about Cheshire appear very largely justified, as do those of other linguists. And in the wake of the flurry of renewed criticism, accompanied by references to the old, Bristol University speedily disavowed Cheshire’s work, pointing out that (though peer-reviewed) it lay well outside his professional remit. Cheshire reacted sharply to this change of tack: ‘It was inevitable and expected, given the passion that the manuscript arouses, that a marginal group would find it difficult to accept new evidence … Given time … the small tide of resistance will wane’. Such over-optimistic comments are typical in this area. And, given the evidence, the verdict on Cheshire’s work must currently be: at best, not proven at all!
For more on Cheshire’s claims, see Fortean Times 391 (July 2019) p. 4 and the online critical reviews cited there; further references from me on request.
Automatic writing in late C20!
Susan Hiller died at the age of 78 in January 2019; she was an American-born artist (installations, video, photography, performance, writing) who lived in London. The relevance of her work for skeptics centres upon her book Sisters of Menon, which was apparently generated by ‘automatic writing’, with Hiller acting as the ‘medium’; it was produced over the period 1972-79 as part of a collaborative telepathy experiment called ‘Drawn Together’, and was published in 1983.
Analogously to oral channelling, written channelling or ‘automatic writing’ (also known as ‘inspired writing’, ‘trance writing’, ‘spirit writing’, ‘autonography’, etc.) is regarded by ‘believers’ as generated by spirits or other paraphysical entities rather than by the physical writer, who is often in a trance-like state at the time of production. Automatic writers (or typists) typically claim to receive communication from the spirit world by way of involuntary handwriting or typing, allegedly guided by spirits. These phenomena may involve languages known to the writer (which is the most usual scenario), identifiable languages (modern or other) not known to the writer (very interesting, if genuine) or unidentified languages or ‘languages’. Writers often claim no understanding of the material where it is not in a language which they themselves know. Some cases of automatic writing are interpreted by believers as communication with deceased persons, including long-dead individuals as well as now-dead acquaintances; but there are also cases involving ‘spirit guides’, spiritual entities which were never corporeal, etc. For more on this subject, including discussion of various earlier cases, see Chapter 5 of my 2013 book Strange Linguistics.
The messages transcribed by Hiller supposedly emanated from a ‘collective’ of women (‘sisters’) from the ancient Greek city of Thebes, often repeating each other’s words or talking as a group rather than as individuals. Hiller was involved in feminist circles which took an interest in women who functioned as oracles in ancient Greece; and communication at a group level was a common practice among radical feminists in the 1970s.
If the story is accepted at face value, attempts by Hiller’s male partner to participate were rebuffed by the ‘spirits’ with the words ‘No Men!’ (see below on the language used). Hiller’s supporter and preface-writer Lucy Lippard claims in commentary that ‘when automatism is used by men, it is often ideologically validated as science, but when used by women it is denigrated as the non-productive, threatening activity of mediums’ – but this seriously exaggerates the degree to which automatic writing is accepted as valid at all outside paranormalist circles.
Lippard observes further that the phrase No Men is an anagram of Menon, the term reportedly used by the spirits for their group, and might also be read as nomen – a Latin word meaning ‘name’. But a Latin word would have been unknown to most Greek-speakers of the day (the Greek word for ‘name’ is onoma), and, if known as a foreign word, would surely not have been regarded as culturally significant. In addition, the name/word menon has no strikingly relevant meaning; it is a personal name used for males and adopted by Plato as a title for one of his dialogues (usually called Meno in English) which deals with the theory of knowledge as recollection from past lives. A character called Menon features in the dialogue but is not involved in the philosophical issues. And very many short words are homonyms/ homographs or mutual anagrams by pure chance, especially if multiple languages are involved. Lippard’s second point thus appears unlikely to be of real relevance.
Perhaps suspiciously, the material is presented in Modern English. As noted above, it is in fact quite normal for automatic writing (like allegedly channelled oral material) to manifest itself in the first or main language of the medium. Sometimes an explanation is offered for this in terms of intelligibility to the medium or to readers untutored in the spirits’ original language, but this would certainly complicate the ‘theory’ involved (how did these entities acquire competence in a language which arose long after their lifetimes?). It appears more likely that such material is generated by the medium (not necessarily consciously or by way of deliberate fraud).
One late-C20 case where languages unknown to the medium were used involved Ann Walker, who claimed that messages were channelled to her written in various ancient scripts and languages, notably Greek, Coptic (late Egyptian) and scripts which Walker identified as the demotic and hieratic Egyptian scripts. However, the characters given by Walker bear very little resemblance to genuine demotic or hieratic. And, although Walker’s versions of sequences in Greek are in genuine Greek script (readily accessible, of course), they do not correspond with Greek expressions carrying the relevant meanings; indeed, the sequences are meaningless as Greek, and some are phonologically impossible.
The onus is clearly upon all those who make claims of this nature to justify them.