Monday, November 5, 2012

Quality of Sources: Godfrey Higgins, pt 1

Edit: as usual, I published this before proof-reading. Good job, again ..! So, this is the text, a few edits later:

Quality of Sources: Godfrey Higgins

Acharya S uses a lot of sources. Some of these are quality research, but a large number are written by less knowledgeable people. 

Let us consider Godfrey Higgins. Acharya S relies very strongly on his works, referring to them more than a hundred times in The Christ Conspiracy (I counted 119, I may have missed some), and a significant number of times in Suns of God. Considering that the total number of references given in The Christ Conspiracy is 1124, Higgins is the source given in about 11% of the full number of sourced statements. That does tell us something about her views of Higgins: she does think he is a credible source, worth taking seriously. (Further, some of Murdock's other references refer to Higgins, thus increasing his importance to her work even more.)

Godfrey Higgins' main written work is titled Anacalypsis; An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis; or an Inquiry into the Origin of languages, Nations and Religions. It was published in two volumes, each available at nowadays: Vol I, Vol II. It is an illogical, outdated work based on faulty evidence, flawed reasoning, naive misunderstandings and wishful thinking. 

It seems clear Higgins considered Anacalypsis his main work, but he wrote an earlier work which it seems he considered a preparatory work, and he refers to it a fair bit in Anacalypsis as well. This work goes by the name The Celtic Druids. Trying to trace some of his thinking, I have been led to read bits and pieces of both, and even considered taking a pause from Acharya's books to properly debunk this source first. Considering what an importance she attributes to this work, it is worthwhile evaluating its quality.

In the first pages of The Celtic Druids - duly note, not Anacalypsis, we find a staggering example of just how much of an ignorant man he was. 
I am convinced that the unlearned reader will be satisfied that the Hebrew is essentially the same as the Greek and Latin - having, like them, its five vowels. The learned Hebraist,  whose mind has been poisoned by the craft of the synagogue, I do not expect readily to give up his prejudice in favour of unlearned simplicity. But if the old men will not give up their nonsense, it will be exploded, because the young ones will not admit it. Perhaps it will be like Mr. Frend's algebra. Some years ago, he pointed out to the learned of Cambridge, that their negative quantities in algebra were not only nonsensical and useless, but that they were actually prejudicial to science. Of course the learned old gentlemen would not consent to be untaught, to unlearn, but I understand that at the Mechanics' Institutes, algebra is now taught without negative quantities. [1, pp. iii,iv]
Of course, he was a man of his time, and did not have access to knowledge as easily as we do today. This ignorance is but what can be expected of him, so I hold no grudge against him. However, whether his findings are worth taking seriously still has to be investigated reasonably, and it has to be pointed out that he is wrong, misled and misleading, and not up to the task of figuring these things out. Further, it is clear that less was known in general in his time, and so it was less easy for him to obtain accurate information, and the information he did obtain is likely to be riddled with problems. 

If negative numbers are prejudicial to science, I wonder what this fool would have thought of modern science, which even takes square roots of negative quantities, and posits that such numbers have marvellous meaningful use in quantum physics, electrical engineering, multi-variable calculus and so on! 

However, another mistake has crept in into the same short text. It is true that in a relatively late stage of Hebrew, it had five vowels. If we ignore the length distinction Proto-Hebrew in fact had four vowels, i, a, o, u. Proto-Semitic, in fact had three monophthongs and two lengths, /i i: a a: u u:/. Typologically, that is not unusual. Nor did Greek have five vowels, it had five short and seven long ones! (The reason many languages do have more long vowels than short ones has to do with the time it takes for the listener to recognize the difference between two similar vowel sounds: it is likely some short sound will be realized with a quality that can vary between the qualities of two distinct long vowels. It takes more acoustic cues to be able to determine whether the sound heard is /o/ or /u/, than whether it's /i/ or /a/, hence, fewer distinct sounds in the short vowels is a reasonable and common occurence.)

It is difficult to discuss the sounds of a language with anyone who does not have a clear understanding of the concepts of phonemes, allophones and related concepts. I may write a separate post on these concepts, but for now, I will try and trample that minefield with you, hoping to get the point across without having to provide an introduction to the theory of phonemes, problems with the theory itself, what kind of mistakes people tend to do as far as reasoning about phonemes of other languages go, etc. 

A further indication that this guy is completely ignorant about everything that is relevant in comparative linguistics, can be found just a bit earlier on the same page:
The reader will find in the ensuing work that the Hebrew language, which is of the first importance, is treated as a language of great simplicity,*- that its vowels are considered precisely the same as those of the English, and of all the other languages in the Western part of the world. [1, pp. iii]
I am astounded by this. Which languages of the western part of the world have the same vowels as English? Which have the same vowels as those of ancient Hebrew? Which vowels of English does he even mean - some dialects have merged or split vowels in all kinds of strange manner in English. It seems as though he is thinking exclusively of the five orthographic vowels of English, viz. a e i o u - which are but five symbols used in written English to convey more than a dozen different vowels. These do not correlate very well with the vowels of Biblical Hebrew - /a, e, i, o, u, ɛ, ɔ, ă, ɔ̆, (ɛ̆), ə/ - but of course, maybe I am poisoned by the craft of the synagogue. Who knows. Just like any language, there is dialectal variation in English pronunciation, and as a representative I pick Received Pronunciation here. Its vowels are as follows, /iː, ɪ, uː, ʊ, e, ɜː, ə, ɔː, æ, ʌ, ɑː, ɒ/. These systems are not remarkably similar whatsoever. (Of course, Biblical Hebrew had dialects as well, and we know there to have been at least three different main later developments of how the vowels merged into smaller sets of vowels later on. However, if we permit matching it up that way we can match up the number of vowels to any number between 5 and 10, a significant leeway, and a match-up signifies nothing whatsoever, as the majority of human languages have between 5 and 10 vowels.[3]) 

Nor do the languages of the western part of the world have, by and large, the same vowels as does English - German has a system with 16-17 different vowels, in part distinguished by a tense-lax contrast, in part by a length contrast, in part by lip-rounding and so on. French, likewise, distinguishes some front vowels by rounding, and also adds some nasal vowels to the mix for a total of more than a dozen distinct vowels.

The conceptual confusion this writer shows is immense, and any modern linguist would recognize the flawed understanding underlying it. I am afraid I will get into typology and lose the reader entirely here, but I can confidently say that there is a significant number of languages that do have five vowels, just like Latin. The reason for this seems to be as follows: over time, speakers are likely to converge on vowel qualities that maximize the aural distinction between different vowels. A three-vowel system is the most remarkably distinct one : [i ɑ u] are the three "extremes" of how we can shape the mouth when producing vowels, [i] having a long and narrow passageway for resonance, [u] having a short and narrow passageway, and [ɑ] having a wide passageway. 

Now, having only three vowels comes at a cost: the number of distinct syllables becomes low, especially if there's few permitted consonant clusters (which is a common thing in most languages, even English is at the cluster-heavier part of the spectrum of human language, although there are notably cluster-richer languages as well, such as Georgian or the Salishan languages). Hence, a five vowel system apparently strikes a good balance between acoustically distinct and permitting good succinctness in how to shape words. Four is also popular, but it seems five also provides a nice kind of symmetry (two back vowels, two front vowels, and one central open vowel, the back and front vowels divided into two mid and two closed vowels).

Changes from three to four or five vowels, or from seven to three or whatever are not intentional things, generally: they are things that happen over time, and without planning. Explaining how this happens is beyond the scope of this post, but linguists do have a fair idea about it. 

Anyways, he rants about the sad state Hebrew is in with unwritten vowels, and claims that this is due to the loss of vowel symbols - a thing that we know for sure was not the case: alphabets, that is, writing systems where vowels are written as separate independent letters have been invented but once, and this invention happened roughly when the Greeks adapted Phoenician writing to Greek [a correction to this claim has been added towards the end of the post; the main point still stands]. Since then, all "proper" alphabets have been inspired by the Greek alphabet, or a derivative thereof (e.g. Latin, Cyrillic, the Georgian alphabets ...) For some reason, alphabetic writing does not seem very popular among populations only now putting their languages to writing - syllabic writing systems seem to be favored by many such groups, and we can find examples of such a trend already beginning with the Cree syllabary, popular among some native American tribes in the US. 

He rants about the Hebrews not having restored the vowel letters after their national disaster, and attributes this to followers of modern cabala not being happy with anything that is simple. Such stupid reasoning baffles any reader even half knowledgeable about these matters. If even a sliver of his reasoning were consistent, he would notice that Sanskrit likewise encodes its vowels not as letters, but as diacritics. Yet, this language that has no proper vowel letters, he calls "the beautiful and almost perfect Sanscrit" [2, p. x].

He ends the foreword of The Celtic Druids with a very reasonable sentiment, promising us great intellectual humility:
To certain persons who permit their bigotry to mislead their judgment, this book will be gall and wormwood, because I have not thought proper to pander to their base passions. ...[1, v].

Yeah, the source of disagreement with his conclusions can only be bigotry - I already see where this book will take me. He also warns that criticizing him without informing him thereof is the act of the midnight assassin. Now, I do not intend to harm him - and he being dead, any harm come to him would be rather odd indeed - I only intend to show that we now know more than he did, and we have better ways of being sure of what we know, and that which we know shows him wrong. There's no shame in being wrong if one is willing to test one's beliefs, and for us modern people, we should not shame those of the past, if their being wrong was a result of the lesser availability of quality research and knowledge in those times. By now, the only thing we really should care about is whether he is reliable. No shame (or just a little) on him for being wrong, a lot of shame on any modern reader who thinks he is reliable and uses him as a source. Anyone who does so only perpetuates ignorance in the world.

I have not read much in The Celtic Druids this far, but have read a fair bit of Anacalypsis. There is sufficient foolishness there to write a hundred posts on it, but I will refrain from going through it entirely and only give a handful examples of severe ignorance in his book. This post thus introduces a small diversion - a series of posts will occur in parallel with the posts that directly focus on Acharya's work. This is especially reasonable, as sometimes it takes time finding and obtaining copies of sources that are relevant for debunking Acharya, whereas it would seem the sources needed to debunk Higgins are easier to obtain.

A correction regarding the development of alphabets proper in the world

Seems Old Uighur and Korean are independently invented alphabets, so my statement that alphabets proper only have been invented once is in error (I don't recall where I read that, going to try and find my source for it), although the main contention still stands - Higgins berates the Jews for not returning to a thing they hadn't even had, and which by then only had been invented once at the time (and which then was adopted for Latin and some other languages in close contact with the Greeks). Since this is the case regarding alphabets, alphasyllabaries of the Semitic and Brahmic kinds thrice have inspired the invention of alphabets, once with the invention of the Greek alphabet in antiquity, then in the 8th century in Chinese Turkestan, and in the 15th century in Korea. Old Uighur derives from Sogdian, which derives from Syriac, which derives from Aramaic, and Korean Hangul derives from Phagspa, which derives from Brahmic through Tibetan. No sources for this yet.

[1] Godfrey Higgins, The Celtic Druids, 1827-1829, originally in three parts.
[2] Godfrey Higgins, Anacalypsis, vol I, 1836


  1. all your critiques carry one mode or fault...that is the injurous nature your belief system has felt....he may be found in fault but never was the faith....?says god to the contrary.

  2. he speaks about the language of the scribes in babylon and how they compressed for whatever reason the language of the pentatuech and other writings that may have been concealed in mimum form or for lack or resources,abbreviated.//it is no's an observation and possibly correct....he expresses that at the time of the great punishment they left out vowel and didnot include itallics....boy he was right about religious bigotry but I carried on.....not got stuck in the preface.

    1. oh my, you're a thick idiot, aren't you?

    2. Seriously, I've already fucking provided sources for my statements regarding that thing, and someone like you coming and making a drive-by comment that just pretends I didn't do research is fucking insulting and I won't stand for your kind of bullshit.