Thursday, November 14, 2013

A review of Strange Linguistics (Mark Newbrook)

A review of Strange Linguistics - a skeptical linguist looks at non-mainstream ideas about language. 

I have for a while tried writing a review of Strange Linguistics (Mark Newbrook with Jane Curtain and Alan Libert). As a relative newbie to writing reviews, this is somewhat of a challenge, especially as it is a somewhat difficult book to provide a summary of. It does not set out to prove or discuss any one specific hypothesis - it is rather an overview of a large number of pseudoscientific theories, complete with short explanations why these theories are pseudoscience in the first place. Thus, it is difficult to conclude whether it provides a sufficient argument in favor of some hypothesis - as no such intention is set out. This lack of focus does not detract from the work, but does make the life of the reviewer somewhat more difficult.

Newbrook do give the claims, in general, a fair hearing, and proceed to explain why these claims do not cut it. In the introductory chapter, he dutifully explains how some of these mistaken views probably are entirely harmless, but how others easily can be used to inflame ethnic conflict and just generally trick people - I especially find the claims made by the likes of David Oates to be likely to make people ruin other people's lives over badly justified claims:
Oates and his followers have applied the analysis of RS [reverse speech] in various practical domains, some of them involving matters of great sensitivity and potential harm. If RS is not genuine, this work is valueless at best and quite possibly extremely damaging. The areas in question include child psychology, alleged cases of child molestation, other alleged criminal offences (this includes the 'O.J Simpson' case) and the analysis and treatment of sexual and other personal problems more generally. [1, p. 168] 
As for the fairness Newbrook grants, it is well worth noting that he has led a research project into linguistic material provided by alleged alien abductees, with entirely inconclusive results, which he in some details elaborates on in the chapter on language from mysterious sources. (By 'inconclusive', take this to mean that Occam's razor justifies rejecting the claims of alien origin for these allegedly alien linguistic snippets, which indeed is the conclusion Newbrook draws from his research.)

For some claims the authors investigate, there could be some justification in providing a somewhat more detailed explanation as to why they are wrong. If it had overviews of topics such as the statistical likelihood of chance resemblances between languages, the comparative method, and some other relevant parts of linguistics, it could be very useful indeed.

It is definitely a good book if you already have some background in linguistics. It would also be a worthwhile addition to the library of any scholar or journalist who is not well-versed in linguistics but on occasion has to evaluate the value of claims that deal with linguistics - if they are willing to do some extra research on their own, alternatively, accept the claims of a bona fide linguist without looking closer at the evidence in his favor. As for journalists, I would even say the relevant chapters of this book should be relevant reading before writing any article on linguistic matters whatsoever. Alas, the lack of clearer elaboration on linguistic methodology might make it a bit too inconclusive to those unfamiliar with the field.

Linguists themselves probably can figure out the problems with various claims such as those presented in this book - and doing so could be a good exercise for a course in skepticism for undergraduate linguists (and even more so students of philology, whose understanding of linguistics sometimes may leave some room for improvement). Ultimately though, the book presents little new for the linguist - except maybe as a convenient source to refer to when there is no time to devote to the proper debunkage of some claim, or as an overview of exactly what kinds of weird beliefs about language are being peddled on the marketplace of ideas (which can be a bit of a shock even to seasoned skeptics).

If the book ever is translated, local crackpot linguistic theories should probably be given a more in-depth treatment: Swedish or Finnish translations probably should include more detailed investigations into both Ior Bock and Paula Wilson's claims (quite distinct types of claim, even if both are wildly wrong; Ior Bock's claims are described and rejected for the same reasons any number of other claims are, Paula Wilson is not mentioned at all which for a non-Scandinavian audience is an entirely justified omission), any Indian edition should probably debunk the various notions regarding Sanskrit that are popular there, Hungarian editions need to elaborate on why it is unlikely that Hungarian is related to the Turkic languages, etc. How such supplementary chapters would be written and incorporated into the book would probably be a challenge though.

There is a certain morbid humor to reading it, the endless amount of bullshit that humans have come up with is as fascinating as any good supernatural thriller. Newbrook in a way comes off as the straight man in a comedy, granting much leeway to the strange antics of a weird coterie of peculiar thinkers and crackpots. The amount of leeway he grants may seem excessive at times, but many of these weird theories are so wrong that even the loosest criteria are enough to debunk them.

There are two chapters whose inclusion at first may seem odd - one chapter on skepticism of mainstream linguistics, which does present some reasonable objections to Chomskyan (and related) linguistics, and another chapter on constructed languages. Some people that have constructed languages indeed base their hobby on pseudo-scientific notions of how language works - this is especially prevalent among those who wish their languages to have an actual population of speakers, oddly enough. However, the inclusion of languages that are framed as fiction or part of fictional worlds would be decidedly odd if it were not for the fact that non-practitioners of that particular hobby may misunderstand it. Here, the treatment could have made it clearer that hobbyists often do not see their hobby as any kind of scientific statement or claim, but rather as works of 'art' or similar. That chapter could have done with somewhat better research, but at the same time it might be the least important chapter, and therefore, not investing that much on getting a detailed picture of the constructed languages-scene is very justified.

The main drawback as far as I can tell is the lack of an index, making it difficult to find things quickly. An index would improve its usability especially for journalists, who often write with very strict deadlines looming. Some of the particular claims listed could fit in several different chapters according to the classification (and some are, indeed, mentioned in several places, often with a mention of where the main treatment of the claims occurs). I imagine a more lexicon-like layout could have fit, and would have provided an easy way of expanding the book in the future, but on the other hand that would separate the description of individual claims from the description of the main types of problems that mainly accompany specific kinds of claims.

In conclusion, it is a book that should probably be consulted by any number of people - especially non-linguists and journalists whose work at times intersect linguistics, but there is some room for improvement. On the other hand, it is possible an edition incorporating the improvements I would suggest would get unwieldy in size, and thus a complementary volume could maybe be justified. However, to some extent such a volume would be your basic introduction to linguistics anyway, the contents of (the relevant parts of) which should probably be learned by anyone before consulting this book anyway.

[1] Mark Newbrook with Jane Curtain and Alan Libert. Strange Linguistics - a skeptical linguist looks at non-mainstream ideas about language. Lincom Europa, 2013.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Christ Conspiracy: Chapter 15, pt II

The fifteenth chapter, The Patriarchs and the Saints are the Gods of other Cultures contains several more problems than the ones listed in the previous post. I have been trying to list only the significant problems I run into, as otherwise, this review would take forever.

The chapter presents the following Biblical characters and post-Biblical Christian saints, with some associated characters:

  • Noah
  • Abraham and Sarah
  • Moses
  • Joshua
  • David
  • Joseph (Jesus' father)
  • Mary
  • St. Josaphat
  • St. Christopher

I have already covered the (main) problems of the Noah subchapter, and one problem with the Abraham subchapter. There are more problems with the Abraham subchapter, so I will return to that chapter further down. By and large, most of these characters probably indeed did not exist - and that is a significant fact that does lend some credibility to the thesis that Jesus might not have existed either.

Regarding Abraham - who very probably is mythical, of course - Murdock states:
Although Abraham and Sarah are held up as the patriarch of the Hebrews and Arabs, the original Abraham and Sarah were the same as the Indian God Brahma and goddess Sarasvati, the "Queen of Heaven," and the story of Abraham's migration is reflective of a Brahmanical tribe leaving India at the end of the Age of Taurus. This identification of Abraham and Sarah as Indian gods did not escape the notice of the Jesuit missionaries in India; indeed, it was they who first pointed it out. [1, p. 239]
The claim that Jesuit missionaries were the first to point it out is supported by a source, but the rather more remarkable claim about Brahmanical tribal migrations more than 4000 years ago is given no supporting sources. Is there any evidence for this claim? Good form would be to provide some kind of references, so that the reader is able to assess the weight of the evidence. Again, Murdock fails at this.

She further emphasizes some kind of connection between Abraham and Brahma, but the only piece of evidence ever given is the similarity of the names - no thematical similarities, no shared qualities, no shared narratives are given.
Brahma and Sarasvati were apparently also turned into the Indian patriarch Adjigarta and his wife Parvati. Like Abram/Abraham, in the Indian version Adjigarta beseeches the Lord for an heir and eventually takes a young red goat to sacrifice on the mountain, where the Lord speaks to him. As in the biblical tale, a stranger approaches Parvati, who gives him refreshments, and tells her that she will bring forth a son named Viashagagana (Isaac), "the reward of Alms." When the child is 12, the Lord commands Adjigarta to sacrifice him, which the father faithfully begins to do, until the Lord stops him and blesses him as the progenitor of a virgin who will be divinely impregnated. [...] Of the near-sacrifice by Abraham, Graham says, "This too is an old story and like so many others in the Bible, originated in India."[1, p. 239]
The source given for these statements is Lloyd Graham's Deceptions and Myths of the Bible, a book that provides no primary sources for any claims given in it. Graham's shoddy understanding of linguistics - showcased in the previous post I made - is so bad as to be funny:
In Persia the name was originally Abriman, which also acquired an h and became Ahriman-- an "evil deity; the ruler over the kingdom of darkness." the[sic] Babylonians also had their Abraham, only they spelt it Abarama. He was a farmer and mythologically contemporary with the Hebrew Abraham. [...] Now to form an earth every Creator, except the Jews' and Christians' must have a female consort, matter. In the Greek myth the Creator marries his sister, shocking indeed; in the Hebrew he marries his half-sister, which is quite all right. To our Bible students these little touches are called "Jewish refinements." Here the consort was Sarai, and as with Abram and Brama, an h was added and she became Sarah. But it so happens that Brahma had another name, Ishvara, and his wife was Shri. And when you take the vowels out of Sarai, as the Hebrews did, and add the h, you have Shri. The letter h signifies life, and thus did Brama, Abram and Sarai in due time receive life, or being, which implies that in the beginning they did not have it. [2, p 111-112]
Although in some languages - particularly western European ones - the first consonant in Shri is written using the sequence sh, this does not signify any particular "aitchiness" to that sound. In the languages where Shri was spoken of, the first consonant of the name was written with a single letter. This addition of aitches to signify something simply does not work like Graham thinks it does. He was an ignorant fool, and one that didn't care to provide sources for his oftentimes outrageously outlandish notions. Similar conceptual confusion as the one pointed out above can be found everywhere throughout his terrible polemic. Using such sources does not inspire confidence either in the value of the thesis that refers to them or in the author's ability to assess the credibility of sources. There are credible sources that help establish that Abraham was not historical. This wild goose chase for an Indian connection is weird and weak.

As for Moses, she claims a Syrian parallel in 'Mises', an Egyptian 'Manes', Cretan 'Minos', Indian 'Manou', Bacchus as 'Misem' [1, p. 241, p. 243] - these claims mainly resting on the authority of the ever so reliable Lloyd Graham, meanwhile accurately noting the parallel basket-in-a-river theme appearing in stories regarding Sargon and several others.

Were it not for the shoddy scholarship showcased in the chapter - it mainly calls for better sources and less far-out speculation - it could actually be fairly good. Far-fetched and sometimes probably fabricated (by her sources or by the sources' sources) claims recur throughout the text. Meanwhile, she has the gall to accuse (admittedly, accurately so) others of salting excavation sites - her use of charlatan scholars as sources is no more excusable a behavior.

Indeed, a sufficient argument against Moses' historicity would have been the lack of archaeological evidence for the exodus ever having taken place, and the impossibility for such a sizable operation to have been carried out during that time. As for Abraham, anyone claiming historicity definitely bears the burden of proof on their shoulders. As for David, it is slightly less clear cut, but the lack of evidence for a powerful Israel at the time he was supposed to have lived, and the lack of any clear references anywhere else to him are problems for the claim of historicity. One steele mentioning the House of David (as a dynasty) does apparently exist, but that is probably not sufficient evidence per se. If Murdock only had picked that low-hanging fruit, this chapter would have been good. Not revolutionary, though - as seems to be her objective, even if she has to throw scholarly care and scientific caution to the wind in order to attain revolutionary results.

At times, she seems to descend into pure obscurity:
The Exodus is indeed not a historical event but constitutes a motif found in other myths. As Pike says, "And when Bacchus and his army had long marched in burning deserts, they were led by a Lamb or Ram into beautiful meadows, and to the Springs that watered the Temple of Jupiter Ammon." And Churchward relates, "Traditions of the Exodus are found in various parts of the world and amonst people of different states of evolution, and these traditions can be explained by the Kamite [Egyptian] rendering only." indeed, as Massey states, "'Coming out of Egypt' is a Kamite expression for ascending from the lower to the upper heavens." [1, p. 243]
What about these traditions can be explained by "the Kamite rendering only"? What does the Kamite rendering even entail? As for Massey, she gives the wrong source - The Historical Jesus and Mythical Christ - when in fact this statement can be found in The Natural Genesis vol II, p. 395, which again probably wasted quite an amount of time on my part. The Natural Genesis is not even mentioned in the bibliography. The source that Massey in turn gives is "Great Mendes Stele, Museum at Boolak, Records, viii. 92." Needless to say, I have been unable to locate any copy of Records, viii. 92. I have, however, found a translation[3] of the Great Mendes Stele, which does not confirm his statement. Due to his phrasing, it is unclear whether his source is supposed to support that claim or the next claim:
'Coming out of Egypt' is a Kamite expression for ascending from the lower to the upper heavens, which were divided in the equinoctial signs². [4, p. 395]
Even if 'coming out of Egypt' had such a significance in some religion, the fact that Egypt was a hugely influential power at times means people would come and go out of it. Thus, at times we must accept that people used phrases signifying leaving Egypt in a literal sense, and that probably not all uses of such a phrase is ancient religious  thing code for something. However, it does appear undeniable by now that Massey made shit up.

In some fairness, some parallels presented between Jesus and Joshua are intriguing, and the two saints presented are clearly mythical. These details do support her thesis more than most evemerists would admit,  but are not sufficient.

The problems in this chapter to a great extent reinforce my suspicion that Murdock has not understood that A implies B does not imply B implies A. That is, if a claim is true ('B'), it does not follow that every claim that supports B is also true. This is a very important thing to realize if you want to reason about things, it is downright trivial to make up untrue claims that support true ones - yet it seems to Murdock, no matter how outlandish a claim ('A') that supports her thesis ('B') is, if it ('A' )supports her thesis ('B'), it ('A') must also be true. This creates a circular structure to her argument: we are supposed to know her thesis is true based on the evidence, and we know the evidence is accurate because her thesis, which they support, is true.

With this, I conclude my review of chapter 15.

[1] D.M. Murdock. The Christ Conspiracy, Adventures Unlimited 1999
[2] Graham, Lloyd. Deceptions and Myths of the Bible, Bell Publications, 1979
[3] Birch, S. 'The Great Mendes Stela', retrieved on November 9, 2013
[4] Massey, Gerald. The Natural Genesis, pt II. Black Classic Press, 1998, originally published 1883.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Christ Conspiracy, ch 17: The Meaning of Revelation, pt 1

Chapter 17 is devoted to "deciphering" the Book of Revelation. In the very first subchapter, the following very problematic paragraph appears.
Based on its astrological imagery, Massey evinced that Revelation, rather than having been written by any apostle called John during the 1st century CE, was an ancient text dating to 4,000 years ago and relating the Mithraic legend of one of the early Zoroasters. The text has also been attributed pseudepigraphically to Horus's scribe, Aan, whose name has been passed down as "John." Jacolliot claimed that the Apocalypse/Revelation material was gleaned from the story of Krishna/Christna, an opinion concurred with by Hotema, who averred that the book was a text of Hindu mysteries given to Apollonius. In fact, the words "Jesus" and "Christ," and the phrase "Jesus Christ" in particular, are used sparingly in Revelation, revealing they were interpolated (long) after the book was written, as were the Judaizing elements. [1, p. 266]
 Although "John" and "Aan" may look somewhat similar, this only really happens in languages where the name has been significantly reduced over time. In Hebrew, John was Yochanon, Yochana in Aramaic, in Greek it was Ἰωάννης (Iohannes). Murdock, again, utilizes the argument known as very short words, by picking a form that conveniently enough is so short it is easy to fit to Aan (compare Swedish or German Johannes, Latin Ioannes). Aan is short enough to be similar to very many unrelated words, any of the following Biblical names really: Eneas, Enoch, Enosh, On, Ono, Janna, Janoah, Javan ( יָוָן, thus not significantly unlike YWN or somesuch), Achan, Anah, ... This is a thing I keep harping on about, but Murdock has to learn linguistics if she is going to use arguments like these. 

Murdock of course also keeps doing that silly "Christna" thing. On what basis we can conclude that words are later additions to a text if they are used sparingly is never made clear.

Finally, no source is provided for the claim that the text has been attributed pseudepigraphically to Horus's scribe, Aan. As far as Aan/Anup goes, she seems to rely quite a bit on Massey, and I can find no such claim in his material. Who has attributed this text to Aan/Anup? When? There is a reason even Wikipedia disdains weasel-words. In this case, there is no single weasel word, but the use of a passive without an explicit demoted subject (and no source given) amounts to about the same effect. Who passed Aan's name down as John? Without sources - which she does not provide - we do not know, so we cannot check whether this really is an accurate statement. Not even when she mentions Jacolliot or Massey does she provide any references for her reader - these have all written significant amounts of text, making it quite difficult to locate the arguments they present for these claims, and thus making it difficult to evaluate the claim.

This, per se, should be sufficient to show that Murdock's grasp of things is shoddy at best. The chapter mainly conforms to the same pattern, being nothing but a huge bunch of pareidolia. More of that in a later post.

[1] Murdock, D.M.. The Christ Conspiracy, 1999, Adventures Unlimited.