Sunday, October 7, 2012

On the Misuse of Linguistics

On the Misuse of Linguistics 

Due to Acharya's sometimes shoddy referencing when making claims, I've decided not to give the exact page number anywhere in The Christ Conspiracy. People responding to this criticism will have to be satisfied with knowing what chapter I am quoting. I do this to demonstrate how frustrating it is when a source is not given. This far, I am only providing fabrications, mistaken data, or whatever it is along those lines. This post does not demonstrate that even her more general methods are pseudoscience, this just shows that even if she were using some kind of reasonable method to analyze her data, the results would still be worthless since she doesn't do fact checking one bit.
Like all other sciences, etymology is not exact or perfect, and etymological speculation at times may be faulty. Nevertheless, the theme demonstrated is too overwhelming to be dismissed. [1, c. ETtS]
Indeed. Here we have quite a straight admission about etymology: to some extent, it is speculation and can be downright wrong. However, there are methods to decrease the risk of mistaken etymologies. Some of these may seem obvious even to readers not versed in linguistics. For a linguist to fail to apply some of them is pretty bad - and I do not doubt the average reader will understand why. Others may seem obvious once pointed out, and some may not be that obvious even in retrospect. I leave it to the reader to evaluate them, if there are questions, there is always the option of leaving comments.

Does the word in question even exist?

First, when using a source that is not written by an expert in the specific language under consideration, it can be worth checking that the word actually does exist - and that it means what is being claimed. This one is fairly obvious, and a good fact-checker would have the easiest possible tool at his or her use: dictionaries. She does provide sources for some of her claims - I have in fact looked these sources up and checked the expertise of the relevant scholars, and none of them are linguists. Sometimes, Acharya herself makes claims that are impossible (or pretty close to impossible) to verify:
As another example, natives of British Columbia called the sun/sky-god "Sin," like the Old World god, and represented Sin's mother as being married to a carpenter who teaches his solar son his trade.[1, ch. 24]
As usual, the source given is no linguist, but that is not the major problem here: in British Columbia dozens of native American languages are spoken[2]. Dictionaries for these languages are not exactly easy to come by, hence, if she had mentioned which one of them it was, it could have helped quite a bit in either verifying or rejecting her claim - this way, whoever decides to go to the effort of checking her claims can only, again, throw his hands in the air in exasperation. Guess I have to order 25 dictionaries from who knows which libraries in what countries. [A later addendum: I did find her source for this claim, and that source at the very least did specify which particular language was in question. The source's claim has been slightly exaggerated by Murdock.]

However, dictionaries that were reasonably easily available for me gave the following information: In Chinook jargon, the word for the sun is, in fact, "sun", but due to the large number of loans in Chinook, it is most likely a loan from English [3]. In other languages in the area, you find words like Salish: spqni [4], Thompson (a language spoken along the Thompson river): sk'wák'wes  [3], and from my perusal of dictionaries available online[6], a lot of them had words along the lines of sqwqws and such. Salishan languages - to which Thompson belongs - are famed for their long strings of consonants[5] - something that may have boggled 19th century scholars and made them introduce superfluous vowels in their transliterations.

Further, at least two non-existent Old Irish words are claimed: budh (sun, universe, fire) and krishna (sun). First of all, krishna is not possible as a word in either the orthography of modern or Old Irish - as the letter <k> was not used at all [7]. If Krishna as a word existed in Old Irish, it would be Cris?na - I do not know OI orthography well enough to know how a voiceless postalveolar or palatalized fricative is spelled, except that it isn't <sh>. When it comes to things such as this, it is important to use either a standard transliteration, the native orthography or explain what principles of transliteration are being used in the work. Acharya does not provide anything of the kind in any of the books I have read. This makes debunking or verifying claims of this nature tedious and frustrating.

Straight from her book, we have this little nugget of untruth:
In Old Irish, the word "budh," as in Buddha, means sun, fire and the universe.[1, EttS, a bit after J] 
She does provide a source - surprise enough, a non-linguist not knowledgeable about Old Irish whatsoever. The source, Godfrey Higgins, was an 18th and 19th century general esotericist. He provides a source: Vallancey - who has written a grammar of Old Irish, but who seems to have been rather unreliable as to the veracity of any claims he made.  My sources on the matter, on the other hand, include actual dictionaries. Since entries in dictionaries are ordered, I will not provide page numbers for them - the interested debunker-of-debunkage can easily find what he or she is looking for. [8, 9, 10]
As noted, in Greek Krishna is also Christos, and the word "Christ" comes from the Hindi word "Kris," which is a word for the sun, as is evidently "Krishna" in ancient Irish. [1, EttS: JC]
She does not provide a source for this. No such word is to be found in any dictionaries. K, as already stated, as a letter, does not occur in Old Irish, so if this word did exist, it would be cris... Sh is not used as a digraph either [7], so the word is twice malformed by Old Irish orthography. We do find griensna or something like that in reconstructed proto-Celtic, but this meant "hot"[11], whereas krishna means "black" in Sanskrit - a thing Acharya herself accepts [12, p. 190]. Nowhere does she mention what transliteration scheme she uses, and I will not search through all potential candidates for what the original form was.
Sun in Old Irish and Modern Irish is a word along the lines of griena.

Finally, Hindi is the name for a language spoken from roughly medieval times onwards, with earlier forms being called by other names[*]. If Hindi "Kris" is the source of Christ, some Hindu has mastered the art of time travel, apparently. It is impossible to guess what languages she claims kris to originate in. A philologist should get these things right when making as outrageous claims as Acharya does, or expect to be taken to task for it.

In addition, this claim is made:
In addition, the Scandinavians purportedly called the sun "John," and in Persian the sun is Jawnah. [1, ETts, a bit after Jonah]
I figure what has happened here is she (or some source) has interpreted a fact - viz. the midsummer eve being called Johanni-afton or somesuch in some dialects as evidence that the sun is called John, and reported this interpretation of facts as a fact all to itself. That would be deceptive - especially as naming that particular day for John the Baptist is a practice Christianity brought with it. So I will assume what has happened is that she has - again - bad sources. If there is some source for this statement, I do ask that she provide it so the source's quality can be scrutinized. Ancient Scandinavian, for that matter, does not permit "hn" except syllable-initially[*]. Also, I am being a bit lazy with this, but the only words for sun I find in Persian are more along the lines of khorshid. (A friend who speaks Persian natively tells me aftab does not mean sun, but rather something along the lines of light, "the opposite of shade".)

She goes on quoting spurious sources:
As it was with Dionysus, the name "Jes" was also an epiteth of the Hindu avatar Vishnu, as well as the Slavic sun god:
Jes Christna was the name of the ninth incarnation of Jesnu, or Vishnu, whose animal is the fish, as in the case of Joshua, the son of the fish Nun... Jes is a title of the sun. Jesse was the name of the sun-god of the southern Slavs.[12, p.103]
The quote is from Arthur Drews' Witnesses to the Historicity of Christ. He was no linguist, but a philosopher. The knowledge we have of Slavic pagan beliefs is minuscule at best (e.g. one of the gods posited to be the most important is only known because there is a number of places with names such as Beloboznice, toponyms including 'belo bog' or somesuch as well as two idioms, and no other sources at all. Hence, lists of attested slavic deities can be made fairly complete, yet no list of slavic gods I have come across includes an entry even somewhat like that - and I would accept gods whose names were some edit-distance away from Jesse ...

Common Slavic did not permit syllables ending in consonants, and neither were geminate consonants permitted[*]. Hence the word, if it indeed does exist, must have been intensely mangled along the way it took to end up in Acharya's book, which returns us to this important point: use a reasonable transliteration and be explicit about what transliteration you are using (and also, don't use long chains of sources).

Some languages do lack standardized transliteration, and in that case it is good to use some kind of phoneme-based IPA transliteration. There are some conventions regarding how to transliterate things in papers, where e.g. phonetical issues may require different transliterations than syntactical analysis would require (hence, many papers on syntax actually do not care that much about any kind of accurate transliteration even for languages that lack an orthography). In the cases of Old Irish, Old Norse, Sanskrit and Hindi, these are not problems though, and the form one would use to look a word up in a dictionary should be readily available from the form she provides in the text given the transliteration scheme. Not adhering to this praxis makes fact checking tedious.

It is clear neither I nor Acharya really know Old Irish - and therefore, we both have to rely on others. It turns out, if we look at her sources this far, that she relies on 19th century pundits, who wanted to prove the Irish to be the origin of Buddhism, or that all religions are one and the same, and so on. In some instances, when no source is provided, I guess she relies on herself.

I, however, rely on linguists. It is obvious that mistakes will happen when compiling a dictionary, and it is also obvious with extinct languages that words will be lost along the way - words that never were recorded will never enter into the dictionary. Here, this should be obvious to everyone: saying that an unattested word of a certain 'permissible shape' never has existed in the language is always a slight gamble.

However, saying that not only has it existed, but it also has had this particular meaning requires some backup. The comparative method is a method that is accepted for this: if several languages share similar words, and probably have diverged from the same root, it may be possible to posit what form the origin for these similar words were, by looking at the sound changes that likely have produced the extant languages.
Acharya never provides such backup, but does provide circular arguments: Osiris is the sun, hence the name Osiris contains a Sanskrit word that means the sun, and this is also proof that Osiris is the sun.

Of course, maybe the compilers of dictionaries are conspiring to keep things hidden. However, if we are going to believe that everyone conspires behind our backs, why not believe Acharya is in on a conspiracy too? Why not believe maths is a conspiracy? Why not believe the English language is a conspiracy? When it comes to matters of a linguistic nature, the only reasonable method is to trust the consensus of the linguists who have specialized on a specific language or a specific linguistic phenomenon. Of course, if there only is one expert in the whole world on a specific language, we may be slightly more suspicious that personal bias has entered the research results.

On some things we do need to trust linguists even over native speakers - native speakers do not always understand the conceptual apparatus used to describe what is going on in a language, and hence asking whether what a linguist says is accurate may easily not go down well. However, when it comes to claims regarding a language, there are still only really two reasonable sources: native speakers and linguists.

A book I often hear cited in discussions on linguistics is Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue. In it, he claims Finnish lacks curse-words, and therefore has adopted the word "ravintolassa" - "in the restaurant" - for cursing. This is a claim made by a non-linguist non-native of Finnish, and it is entirely wrong. Finnish has a rich vocabulary of curses, and you can hear them on a daily basis anywhere in Finland. Trust me, I have grown up here. I know this language. Using Acharya's approach, we would have to accept that Bill Bryson is right.

Does the language provide better options for analysis? Are we looking at the right language?

Another good thing to check is whether the word can be broken down into meaningful pieces in some language along the line - e.g. in Muhammad Ahmaz Mazhar's "Dutch and Swedish Traced to Arabic"[15], many of the proposed cognates suffer from this (however, even discounting those that suffer from it, nearly all the others are spurious too, with just a few that actually are cognates by way of loan one way or other, and maybe one might go back to some kind of proto-Nostratic, if that theory turns out to be right). For instance an Arabic etymology is proposed for uteliggare (hobo, literally out-lier, one who sleeps in the outdoors). Mazhar relates it to some arabic word for shelter, the root of which is l-g.

It makes much more sense to look at the word from a Swedish point of view, and notice that ute means out, ligga means lie, and -are is usually used to turn verbs into agents - e.g. löpare = runner, from löpa = run, åkare = driver, from åka = drive, go by some vessel, rökare = smoker, from röka = to smoke.

At times we do have external evidence that a word is a loan - this is especially common with names. Things that may give it away includes unusual combinations of sounds. Loans sometimes are adapted to fit the morphology or phonology of the recipient language - Finnish sometimes has done this very slow, as an example, where the original loan may have remained reasonably unchanged for generations, with an increasing number of worn down examples appearing over time. These days, "residentti" appears instead of "presidentti" on occasion, for instance, lining it up with the Finnish avoidance of initial consonant clusters.

This introduction might seem a bit boring and such, but it is relevant to some of her other crackpot claims.
The "great" king Solomon, ... in fact, "Sol-om-on" refers to the sun in three languages: "Sol" is Latin, "om" is Eastern, and "on" is Egyptian. "On" means both "sun" and "lord," reflecting an association found in countless cultures. [1, ETtS, Solomon]
In the case of the name Solomon, we have some reason to think it was loaned into English - that in fact, Solomon as we know the name is in fact not its original form. In fact, two good candidates exist for whence it came into English: Latin and Greek, viz. how the Latin Bible for the longest time was used in preaching in England, but also how the Greek Bible gained ground as a source for translation at the protestant reformation. However, even the Greeks and Romans got this name from somewhere, and it is easy to trace it back to the Hebrew Bible. The fact that the Hebrew texts are likely to predate the Greek ones, and the Greek texts are telling the same narrative as the Hebrew ones- with some minor differences - should also indicate that we are dealing with a loan.

We find that we have:
שְׁלֹמֹֽה (masoretic text) (ʃəlomo, roughly sheh-lomo)
Σαλωμων (lxx) (Salomon)
Σολομών (textus receptus) (Solomon)
Salomon (vulgate) (Salomon)

The earliest Greek source we have for it - LXX - does not use the syllable Sol at all, nor does the Latin one (the same Latin language whose Sol apparently is encoded in the name). -ων, it turns out, is a rather common nominative marker used in male names, e.g. Plato - Πλάτων, Agathon -  Ἀγάθων,  Ἀπελλικῶν, Ἀλκμαίων, ... that's just the ones that can be found early in the alphabet. -ων is a trivially common ending in Greek male names. There is no reason whatsoever to mystify its appearance in the Greek rendering of a Hebrew name. In many European languages, by the way, the Vulgate/LXX version of the name is favoured - Swedish, German, French, Spanish, Italian ... 

But, as I earlier have indicated, Acharya seems to think English is a language that somehow is almost magical in what it can tell us about things (so, it's really sad it never was available to mankind until just about a dozen centuries ago, depending on where we draw the line for what we count as English - just imagine what Plato or Socrates could have achieved, had English opened their eyes).

Further, the claim that "eastern" "om" (yes, there's apparently an "eastern" language, I will grant that much) is present in it, and that "om" means sun in the first place - no source is provided for that claim, and a claim that it means "heat" is provided later on - that too looks suspect, and the source is an astrologer of the 19th century, John Hazelrigg, not a linguist. No dictionary I have consulted has provided any actual indication as to om signifying the sun.

In Hebrew, about 7% of the letters in a text are mem[14] - the m letter. Biblical Hebrew had /e i a u o ə/ for its vowels, ignoring vowel length. Now, it doesn't take a very long text for "om" to work its way into it - in fact, I would be surprised if you cannot find it in at least eight other biblical names after a cursory glance. Maybe Acharya thinks it justified to read such things into any such sequence of sounds, but that is called eisegesis, not exegesis.

Finally, if the word they were going for is Sol, there are ways of rendering it in Biblical Hebrew that are less far off than shəl - a half-syllable, essentially, where the ə-vowel only serves to break up an initial cluster, which Biblical Hebrew avoided as best it could. Why the Hebrews would include a Latin word in a story written at about the time we have reason to think the narratives about Solomon were written is also left unexplained - the Roman empire still had not even left Italy.

A final nail in the coffin is the fact that there is a very easy Hebrew etymology for it, related to the word Shalom. Occam's razor cuts off pretty much all speculation at this point.

I fully agree that Solomon probably did not exist, and if he did, the narrative about his life has greatly been exaggerated. However, this doesn't justify making shit up in return. Nor does it really justify shoddy thinking - Acharya wants us to accept that the ancient Hebrew religion was solar worship influenced by hinduism - and as evidence of this, she provides puns like these. These puns, in her view, further provide evidence of the connection to hinduism - this is circular thinking hidden in plain sight. 

Minor problems

There is yet another problem her etymologies have: the lack of a reasonable transmission vector, and bad timing: her claim that the Egyptian God Ptah is the same as the Indo-European word father (and Deys Pitar) assumes the Indo-Europeans were far spread at the time Ptah appears in the Egyptian record.[1, ETtS] Alas, the most credible theory as to the spread of the Indo-Europeans seem to have them just on the edge of the Balkans at that time, also having a small foothold in North Anatolia. They had not even spread from Central Asia to India. A word from such a minor, inconsequential, unorganized tribe of people whose only advantage over their neighbours appears to have been the taming of the horse is unlikely to carry much currency in the early Egyptian civilization.[*] 

She further claims the Greek Zeus Pateras (Zeus the father) derives from Sanskrit Dyaus Pitar. No, we cannot derive Greek names reliably from Sanskrit using the same rules for all words. In the case of Zeus Pateras and Dyaus Pitar, both can be derived from a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language that is distinct from them both, and the same goes for Jupiter - it does not derive from Dyaus Pitar, The form they all originate in was likely something along the lines of *dyew-  ph₂tḗr - reconstructed proto-Indo-European forms from which related words can be regularly derived in many, many more branches of Indo-European than can be regularly derived from any Sanskrit. In addition, in Suns of God, Acharya accepts the standard etymology of Jupiter, so maybe she has accepted standard Indo-European etymologies these days. Who knows? If so, it would be nice of her to admit to having fairly bad etymologies in her previous works.

For an etymology that posits loans as an explanation, there has to be some kind of contact between the source and recipient languages - and if we want to use this etymology as evidence of contact, we should either have an impressive amount of very obvious loans or archeological evidence of contact. Acharya has neither. I previously wrote a list of words that show how English derives from Finnish. The quality there is comparable to the quality in Acharya's etymologies. There is a damning lack of any actual evidence (and the etymologies are not consistent, making them even less credible).

The lack of any kind of weeding methodology apparent in Acharya's reckless etymologizing carries great risks of false positives: she will find etymologies wherever she is looking for them. There is even maths on why this is a bad idea. But to Acharya, any two words that look even remotely similar are fair game to build a theory on. Even the non-existence of a word does not stop her, as evident from my quotes from her books. There is more of this stuff literally filling her books, and I will provide boring lists of them on occasion - just to showcase that these are not isolated accidents of the trade, but seem more to be one of her favourite ways of misleading her audience (and herself?). 

The few times she gets an etymology right, she seems to misunderstand the significance of the correct etymology, which is even sadder. However, I fear most readers of her books will also lack the ability to properly understand this insignificance, and that is why I am so harsh on her: she teaches shoddy thinking. Is it not better to reject Christianity based on rational thinking rather than shoddy thinking and fabrications?

[1] Acharya S, The Christ Conspiracy 1999. Chapter abbreviations as follow: ETtS = Etymology tells the story, JC = Jesus Christ, Duly note that the non-academic referencing manner is necessary to make a point about her use of sources. This usage still is dozens of times less time-consuming for someone who wants to check whether I am misrepresenting her, than a lot of her outlandish claims are.
[3] Sketch of Thompson, a Salishan Language by Laurence C Thompson, M Terry Thompson, and Steven M Egesdal. in Ives Goddard ed. "Handbook of North American Indians 17: Languages", a similar entry with older orthography can be found in  A Vocabulary and Outlines of Grammar of the Nitlakapamuk or Thompson Language Together with a Phonetic Chinook Dictionary, Adapted for Use in the Province of BRITISH COLUMBIA; Good, J.B., 1880.
[5] - I know this is but a short introduction to a paper, but couldn't be arsed to find the papers I've read a few years ago on the intense consonant clusters these languages tend to permit.
[6] A variety of dictionaries can be found after a click-athon from . Not all links have dictionaries waiting at the end.
[7] Any Old Irish grammar you can imagine. Say, Pokorny, A Concise Old Irish Grammar and Reader, p 5, or McCone, A First Old Irish Grammar and Reader, p. 12-13. Stifter's Sengoidelc - Old Irish for Beginners does mention /k/ as a phoneme, but this does not contradict it, as he is doing a phonemic transliteration of the phoneme presented orthographically as <c> (which is /k/) in Old Irish. (The cumbersomeness of the phrasing there is because due to interactions with Murdock's fans, I get the impression that they are genuine retards who have to be lead to the water and submerged in it in order to drink.)
[8] Macbain, Old Irish Dictionary, available online at
[9] Not at either
[10] Nor in the physical Dictionary of the Irish Language: Based Mainly on Old and Middle Irish Materials 
[11] Matasovic, Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic, Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series, 2009
[12] Acharya S, Suns of God.
[*] These are claims for which I am currently looking for sources. I know them from students of the relevant languages, but have not come across them in grammars or reference works yet. 
[15]  Muhammad Ahmad Mazhar, Dutch and Swedish Traced to Arabic, available from here with other, similar spurious proofs that Arabic is the mother of all languages.

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