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.

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