Hieroglyphs from the tomb of Seti 1 (Jon Bodsworth, Copyrighted free use, via Wikimedia Commons)

LANGUAGE ON THE FRINGE 47 – Riders on recent entries and other items

This review article first appeared in:  The Skeptical Intelligencer,  20:4 (2017)

Reproduced with permission

Review of two books by the Ethiopian writer Legesse Allyn.

In mid-2019, Allyn contacted me, seeking discussion arising from my review. It became clear that I had slightly oversimplified the issue of the status of the Ge’ez language in early Ethiopia; but apart from this I found in our correspondence no reason to alter my views on Allyn’s highly implausible general claims regarding a) Egyptian hieroglyphs, which are supposedly to be read as representing the Ethiopian languages Amharic and Tigrinya, and b) a wide range of words in various modern languages which are allegedly derived from these Ethiopian languages. On all of this, see the 2017 review.

Allyn did have more to say about Ancient Greek, starting with the Rosetta Stone. Bizarrely, he believes that ‘written Greek is the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic language’ (that is to say, Amharic or Tigrinya, not Egyptian as normally conceived), that the Greek alphabet is immediately derived from hieroglyph-parts, and that the native spoken language (Greek as normally conceived) that would be heard on the streets of 5th-Century BCE Greek cities would thus have been altogether different from written ‘Greek’. If this had been so, there would necessarily have been a complex sociolinguistic relationship between the two languages, of the kind which linguists call diglossia: separate languages (or very clearly separate dialects) used in complementary functions in the same society.

But there is no reference in the vast corpus of Ancient Greek literature to such a situation. Neither is there any trace of hieroglyphic writing in classical or pre-classical Greece, or any evidence of extensive contact between classical Greece and Egypt (by then a fading power and indeed for long periods under Persian rule) until the time of ‘Ptolemaic’ Egypt (the post-classical/‘Hellenistic’ kingdom which arose after the conquests of Alexander and eventually became a Roman province when Augustus defeated Cleopatra). Furthermore, there are very few Greek words which might be derived from Egyptian or (still fewer) from Ethiopian languages. As far as the Greek alphabet is concerned, it has a clear source in the Phoenician abjad (consonantal alphabet). And Greek spelling clearly represents the sounds (and meanings) of spoken Greek as known from a range of bodies of evidence.

Crucially in context, Allyn also fails to offer any reasonable account of Coptic, the late-Egyptian language written in a Greek-derived alphabet. In addition, he cites even words found only in Modern Greek – such as the word pharma (‘farm’), an obvious loan from English and acknowledged as such in all dictionaries – as relevant to his derivation of the Ancient Greek vocabulary from Amharic/Tigrinya.

Like David Leonardi, Allyn ignores the fact that Ancient Greek is a very well-known language: part of the unbroken 3,000-year history of the Greek language, the vehicle of an enormous literature and the subject of intense study since classical times. There is no scope for extensive re-writing of its history. Here as elsewhere, his theories are driven in large part by his determination to find a) hieroglyphs or hieroglyph-parts and b) Amharic/Tigrinya wherever he can. But, as he admits, he is not a linguist; and readers should not be taken in by his self-confidence.

The Newton Stone (LOTF 46 in The Skeptical Intelligencer 22:3 (2019))

I refer in the piece cited to the anthropologist Anthony Jackson’s view about the Stone. William Arthur Cummins supported Jackson’s ideas in his 1999 book The Picts and their Symbols.

Pictish, which I have discussed more than once in this forum, surfaces at intervals as ‘flavour of the month’ in Scottish antiquarian circles. Now the controversial University of Edinburgh chemical engineering lecturer Martin Sweatman has extended his earlier theories and has allegedly decoded a system of Pictish symbols and revealed its link with other symbol systems used by ancient civilisations across the world’; the wording is from a School of Engineering post of 15/7/19. (1) (2) Like Gerard Cheshire on the Voynich Manuscript (recently discussed by me here), Sweatman is not professionally qualified in the relevant disciplines, and it may be that his academic employer will think again, as did Cheshire’s, as scholarly criticism gathers. Sweatman’s 2018/2019 book, Prehistory Decoded, follows Graham Hancock, Gordon White (whose book I reviewed here in 2016), Laird Scranton (whose book on Skara Brae I reviewed here in 2018) and other such non-mainstream archaeologists in urging the reality of a ‘lost civilisation’ and specifically in attributing vast significance to the admittedly impressive early site at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey.

The Pictish symbols in question here are not the alphabetic signs which represent the Pictish language, and the other symbol-systems involved appear to be non-linguistic as well. There is thus a sense in which this matter lies outside my own professional ambit; but see below.

Most of the online (largely positive) reviews of Sweatman’s book are by enthusiasts. But for a skeptical, professional viewpoint, see the comments of the archaeologist Rebecca Bradley. (3) Bradley, who is well-informed about language matters, includes a discussion of her exchange with Sweatman on the (relatively minor) linguistic aspects of his claims. She points out that in developing his account of cultural diversification he underestimates the speed at which languages (and cultures) can differentiate as they diffuse across the world. She herself suggests that there was probably one single proto-language at the time of the exodus of Homo sapiens from Africa, which is not universally accepted; but her general point stands even if this specific point is disputed. In particular, the Indo-European language ‘family’, to which Sweatman prominently refers, has differentiated to the huge extent that it has in less than 7,000 years. And some of the specific languages which he invokes in this context are not even members of this ‘family’. Linguistics, at any rate, does not support his thesis.

J is for Jesus (LOTF 45 in The Skeptical Intelligencer 22:2 (2019))

The issue of the adoption of ‘foreign’ spellings for personal and place-names is in fact quite complex, and the outcomes are not always either planned or transparently reasonable. Why do we a) now use local forms in calling Bombay Mumbai and Calcutta Kolkata, b) still fluctuate between Burma and Myanmar but c) show no sign of re-labelling Munich as München (in either English or French)? (It is not only a matter for English-speakers; for example, there has been no movement from Mailand to Milan/Milano in German, either!) Would readers like to offer explanations? Is the ‘awkward’ Umlaut a factor in the case of Munich (and Cologne)? Note also ‘hyper-foreignisms’ such as [mju:nɪx] for Munich, with a pseudo-German ‘guttural’ final consonant, and [beɪʒɪŋ] for Bei-Jing, with [ʒ] (not found morpheme-initially in English), for the native [beɪdʒɪŋ] with [dʒ], wholly familiar in English words such as joy or gem.

Logic and reasoning on the fringe?

Non-mainstream writers often vaunt their supposed superior grasp of logic and reasoning, claiming to have exposed flaws which professional scholars have allowed to vitiate their own theories either through bias or through sheer lack of intelligence. But in many cases the fringers themselves propose theories riddled with errors in logic and reasoning.

One such case which I encountered in correspondence involved the late non-mainstream historian Cyclone Covey, a man of vast erudition but with a limited grasp of argumentation. He refused to acknowledge the importance of statistics when dealing with patently stochastic phenomena; he urged me to apply empirical tests to proposals such as his friend John J. White’s ‘Earth Mother Sacred Language’ which are so self-indulgent with linguistic equations as to render disproof impossible (almost any sound or morpheme in any known language can supposedly be derived from a given sound/morpheme in EMSL); and he once argued seriously for deep-time links between Ancient Greek and Lakota (Sioux) on the basis of one Homeric Greek sentence which he identified as having Object-Verb-Subject word-order, as is common in Lakota. But there are 6,000 languages, and there are obviously only six possible word-orders on this parameter of linguistic variation; and although OVS is the least common of the six it is still found in many clearly unrelated languages around the world. What was that about statistics?! Furthermore, OVS is by no means the most common word-order in Greek; SVO (as in English) is usual. In poetry, however, Greek word-order is very flexible (though not as flexible as in Latin) and varies to suit the requirements of metre (hexameter in Homeric Greek); hence occasional cases of OVS or other atypical orderings. And, finally, the Greek sentence in question does not actually display OVS word-order! It is mēnin aeide, thea (the first three words of the Iliad), and thea here is a vocative form, not a nominative (Subject); the verb aeide is an imperative (command) addressed to the muse of poetry. The sentence means, literally, ‘anger sing, goddess!’ (‘Goddess, sing of the anger [of Achilles]’). No Subject is present. Covey knew Greek, and here he was being disingenuously tendentious, to say the least! He did not even acknowledge my correction.

A second case: in ‘A Big Bang Never Happened’, in Nexus (October/November 2018) (pp 47-53), David Rowland, described as a self-educated polymath, states repeatedly that the Big Bang Theory requires that the Universe be finite and that if the BBT is itself wrong (as he holds it is) the Universe must therefore be infinite; ‘there is no third possibility’. Anyone with Logic 101 under their belt will notice the fallacy here at once. There is at least one further possibility, namely that the BBT is wrong but the Universe is finite for some other reason. Rowland’s conclusion is thus invalid. Elsewhere in his article, Rowland argues that the BBT, unlike most scientific theories, must be proven correct and cannot be provisionally accepted as the best theory currently available. He does not explain why the BBT has this special status, and in the same breath he states, inconsistently, that the burden of proof is always on ‘the positive’. Etc., etc. Rowland’s poor reasoning seriously reduces any confidence non-specialists might have in his supposed wide-ranging expertise! The journal editor missed or ignored these fallacies.

A third instance involved a letter published in Skeptical Inquirer (March/April 2019) (p 63). The correspondent (one James Adams) claimed that a writer in the journal who had argued that free will is an illusion was obviously in denial of his true beliefs, since anyone who really did not believe in free will would not take any actions at all. This oversimplifies what is in fact quite a complex issue; but things then get worse! Adams makes a valid but seemingly irrelevant point that consciousness is required if illusions are to arise (free will is surely not required for consciousness to exist), and goes on to maintain that the concept of self implies free will – which is clearly false. And he concludes by asserting that even if free will is an illusion it still qualifies as free will (eh?) and that denial of free will is a ‘cop out’. I admit to being surprised that SI published this utterly incoherent letter without a rebuttal!

Returning to Cyclone Covey: another of his reasoning errors involved his view that the fringe ‘epigraphist’ & historical linguist Barry Fell’s outstanding talent as an adult foreign-language-learner qualified him to make judgments in the field of general and historical linguistics. Now some adult foreign-language-learners do achieve polyglot status partly through a grasp of linguistics (it obviously helps in coming to terms with novel sounds, structures, etc.) – but Fell himself does not seem to have learned his languages that way, and his historical linguistics in particular is strikingly amateur in character. However, I should perhaps be restrained in my comments here; I myself once failed to distinguish adequately between these two sets of skills when discussing the avoidance of excessively language-specific arguments in respect of philosophical issues!

And in fact there are various exchanges of opinion in which both parties, skeptics as well as ‘believers’, argue very badly indeed. For example, some online discussions of religion contain extremely incoherent ‘reasoning’, on both/all sides; an example is (4).

Mēnin aeide, thea, again!

In my review of the book The Discovery of Troy and its Lost History in Skeptical Intelligencer 22:3 (2019), I referred to various non-mainstream works which seek to re-assign the Homeric legends to non-Greek locations. A fictional variant on this theme is found in a novel called The File On H., by Ismail Kadare, originally published in Albanian in 1981. In the novel, an Albanian character suggests that the word mēnin as instantiated above is in fact the Albanian word meni (‘resentment’). One word from Language A (not itself attested at the date in question) in a whole text in Language B; so convincing! As a New York Times reviewer remarked: Welcome to the Balkan obsession with precedence! (5) The entire story develops from this very point.

Hebrew NOT the Ursprache!

Jeff Benner, David Leonardi, Isaac Mozeson (all discussed by me in this forum) and other non-mainstream ‘historical linguists’ of fundamentalist Jewish or Christian persuasions are still upholding the pre-scientific identification of Biblical Hebrew as Proto-World/the Ursprache. But there is increasing philological evidence that even the earliest Hebrew displayed features which can only be seen as the result of the simplification of an older language which is presumably to be identified with Proto-Semitic (the ancestor of Hebrew, Phoenician etc. as conceived by mainstream linguists). Proto-World (if there ever was one such language; see above) was obviously (much) earlier again (and not especially like Hebrew/Semitic). For a popular exposition of this point, see ‘Tower of Babel vs Linguistics – the quest for the first language’. (6)

Sirius and the Dogon revisited

The television show Ancient Aliens finally turned its attention to the ‘Star Gods of Sirius’. Unfortunately for them, Jason Colavito (see earlier instalments) was lying in wait! (7) The matter involves claims about the Dogon tribe of Mali made by Marcel Griaule and especially by Robert Temple in his 1976/1998 book The Sirius Mystery. This illiterate tribe are supposed to have traditions importing knowledge of the size, density and orbital period of the white dwarf companion of the star Sirius, Sirius B. Temple argues that the Dogon obtained this information (directly or indirectly) thousands of years ago, from intelligent space-faring aliens originating in the Sirius system who also influenced other human cultures and were indeed largely responsible for the emergence of human civilisation. (For more, see Chapter 1: Africa in my 2013 book Strange Linguistics). Subsequent anthropological work in the area failed to confirm these claims, but as usual the fringe authors involved are not discouraged. Temple’s work on the Dogon contains much of the familiar highly amateurish historical linguistics (hence my own involvement); and this new material continues along these lines, wrongly claiming that the word for ‘dragon’ is cross-linguistically shared across Eurasia, and urging that gods whose names start with Dog- or Dag-, such as the Irish divinity Dagda (‘good god’ or ‘shining god’ in Celtic/Indo-European), must be imports from Sirius – as must the English word dog, which is in fact etymologically unexplained but is attested only from the late 1st Millennium CE (as docga) and cannot (as is suggested) be a cognate of these god-names or of the word Dogon. (Dogs on planets orbiting Sirius?! It should be noted that Sirius was known in antiquity as the ‘dog star’, but not for this reason!)

Really impossible?

Arthur C. Clarke famously said that if a distinguished but elderly scholar states that something is impossible (s)he is very probably wrong. And youth does not necessarily exempt a scholar from this precept. Of late it has become common for physicists to argue that interstellar travel in what humans might deem a reasonable time-frame is impossible in principle; it is not merely infeasible by any means we can envisage at present, but really conflicts with now very well-established fundamentals of physics. Over the last few years, several pieces have appeared in the skeptical press arguing that the notion of a god (especially a god who interacts with the physical universe) is demonstrably absurd on philosophical grounds, and that religion therefore has no real basis for continuing even as one possible view of the world. Some of the arguments invoked might be regarded as over-stated even by many atheists. In the Skeptical Inquirer for July/August 2019 there was a similar piece, by Arthur Reber & James Alcock, arguing, again in philosophical (and scientific) terms, that parapsychological entities and effects cannot possibly exist, on principle.

I suggest that such pronouncements are over-weening and premature. Similar proclamations were made in the past, only to be overthrown as more was learned. Is it not more judicious to say something like ‘I currently do not see how this belief could possibly be true, for the following reasons; and I invite believers to show me I am wrong, either now or later’? Less antagonistic to believers, as well. In the November/December 2019 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, four letters were printed which were critical of Reber & Alcock in terms similar to these. Reber & Alcock replied, defending their stance; a longer article along these lines is forthcoming. They argue (among other things) that pronouncements regarding the impossibility of some other fringe claims are, in contrast, very generally accepted as valid; but it seems to me that even in these cases (all involving empirical questions) the term impossible constitutes an overstatement. (This is not to say that any of the claims mentioned are at all likely to be correct; if they were correct, they would conflict with very much else in science that is now taken to be established.)

In fact, Reber & Alcock seem almost to contradict themselves, in that they admit that they would retract their judgment regarding impossibility if genuinely persuasive evidence were produced indicating that some parapsychological effect really was veridical, however surprising this might be given other evidence about the world – assuming here, of course, that this other evidence really does appear to exclude the effect in question decisively.

I am wondering if the point here might not in fact be in part linguistic (semantic); in empirical domains, what exactly do we take the word impossible to imply? Maybe our views on this point vary. For my part, I still agree with Reber & Alcock’s critics in finding their use of the term exaggerated and misleading.


1 https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/pictish-symbols-0012310

2 https://www.eng.ed.ac.uk/about/news/20190715/dr-martin-sweatman-decodes-ancient-pictish-symbols

3 https://www.skepticink.com/lateraltruth/2019/01/25/martin-sweatmans-decoding-of-prehistory-incoherent-catastrophe/

4 https://www.nyasatimes.com/on-gods-existence-malawian-atheist-thindwa-vs-pastor-masikamu/

5 https://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/01/books/balkanizing-homer.html.

6 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YS-QNKYYSTw&frags=pl,wn

7 http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/review-of-ancient-aliens-s14e04-the-star-gods-of-sirius

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