Andreas Ammann and Anatol Stefanowitsch of the University of Bremen started the Bremer Sprachblog back in January and Andreas wrote me about it in February, but I didn’t have time to investigate it then and it got lost in the shuffle. Fortunately, I just ran across his e-mail again and am finally able to wholeheartedly recommend the blog to any German speakers interested in linguistic topics: it’s knowledgeable and fun! I particularly enjoyed their April Fools post, which asked readers to decide, without googling, which of these four “facts” is actually a joke (I’ve abbreviated the items here):
1) The Mapuche Indians of Chile have sued Microsoft for releasing a version of its Windows XP operating system in their language without their authorization.
2) Noam Chomsky believes that children come preprogrammed with the rules for all human languages.
3) The language of the Bhutija of Tibet corresponds so well with the categories of formal logic, with a notable absence of ambiguity, that it is of interest to specialists in computer linguistics.
4) The Belgian linguist Johannes Goropius Becanus announced that Flemish is the oldest language in the world, basing his argument on its simplicity (e.g., short words).
Regular readers of LH should be able to handle this one; the answer is in the extended entry. Anyway, a belated thanks for letting me know about the blog, Andreas, and I’m adding it to the blogroll forthwith.

The fake item is #3. Like one of the commenters on the original post, I’m particularly delighted by the fact that Chomsky’s crackpot theory seems perfectly at home in this context! (LH: Mapuche, Chomsky, Goropius.)


  1. Well, Minimalism isn’t rule based, so (2) is not actually true.

  2. michael farris says:

    I quickly ruled out 1 and 2 and was left to guess between 3 and 4.
    I should have guessed 3 since it was too close to crackpot claims made for Aymara (which I once studied).
    But Johannes Goropius Becanus seemed too perfect a name for a crackpot to be true.

  3. Many thanks, Steve! I would probably never have started blogging if Language Hat wasn’t the success it is – deservedly so! – and something I look forward to reading every day.
    For those who read German: there is also a monthly quiz (link on the right under “Sprachquiz”).

  4. One of these days I’m going to hunt down a copy of Goropius’ Origines Antwerpianae and read it for myself. It’s one of those great lost books, like Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus, which claims to decode hieroglyphics 200 years before Champollion, and connects it to Chinese.
    Goropius was a cool guy, though. And he did own the Codex Argenteus, aka. the Gothic Bible.

  5. Goropius Becanus may have spent a large part of his life in current Belgium, I still would not call him Belgian. He was born in Holland and is buried there. He referred to a dialect spoken both in Holland and Belgium.
    Here are some pictures of the Origines Antwerpianae.

  6. A mention on my favorite language-related blog, what an honor!
    @Claire: “Well, Minimalism isn’t rule based, so (2) is not actually true” — well, even if we had intended to refer specifically to the minimalist program, that would still depend on one’s definition of “rule”, I guess. Things like merge and move look like rules to me, whatever Chomsky might choose to call them.
    @Bertil: You’re absolutely right. I thought for a while about whether I should call Goropius “Dutch” or “Belgian” and then mentally settled on “Dutch”. I don’t know which part of my subconscious then prompted me to write “Belgian”. I have linguist friends in both countries and wouldn’t want any of them to be associated with Goropius’s claims… You’re also right about the dialect, Brabantic, which I generalized to Flemish for simplicity.

  7. I had it nailed to #2 right away and would have said so. Only I just started reading Jackendoff’s “Foundations of Language” where he vehemently insists that it’s not true and that Chomsky was misunderstood, so I was a bit uncertain.

  8. Goropius is my hero too. Maybe we should form a fan club, then we could promote 16th century Brabantic as the ultimate international language.
    I had a look for Origines Antwerpiae at Abebooks. They have a copy of the “rare first and only edition” for £3154.56/ $6,198.11 (a snip – linguistic wisdom like this is priceless). The bookseller’s description reads:

    Born Jan Gerartsen in the town of Gorp, situated in the municipality of Hilvarenbeek (hence the Latinized surname Goropius Becanus), he studied medicine in Leuven, and became physician to two sisters of Charles V: Marie and Eleonore, who lived in Brussels. Philip II, the son of Charles V, wanted him also as his doctor and offered him a rich income. Goropius refused and established himself as medicus (town doctor) of Antwerp in 1554. Here, free of courtly intrigues, Goropius dedicated himself completely to the study of languages and antiquity, and became fluent in many languages. In the present work on the history and antiquities of Antwerp, Becanus theorized that Antwerpian Flemish, or Brabantic, as spoken in the region between the Scheldt and Meuse Rivers, was closest to the original language spoken in Paradise, challenging for the first time the supremacy of the Hebrew language as the oldest language in the world. He believed that the most ancient language on Earth would be the simplest language, and that the simplest language would contain mostly short words. Since the number of short words is higher in Brabantic than it is in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, Becanus reasoned that Flemish was the older language.A corollary of this theory was that all languages derived ultimately from Brabantic. The Latin word for “oak,” quercus, for example, Becanus derived from werd-cou (“keeps out cold”); the Hebrew name “Noah” he derived from nood (“need”). He also believed that Adam and Eve were Brabantic names (from Hath-Dam, or “dam against hate”; and Eu-Vat, “barrel from which people originated,” or from Eet-Vat, “oath-barrel,” respectively). Another corollary was the placement of the Garden of Eden itself in the Brabant region. Antwerp had newly rebuilt its walls, and in doing so abundant specimens of fossil Pliocene shells and fossil bones of whales were dug up. They were commonly considered as relics of the deluge. Becanus, however, studied the fossils, as an archaeologist would do nowadays, because he was eager to present Antwerp as the centre of the world trying to prove that Brabant was the original site of biblical Paradise, and that Brabant language was spoken by Adam and Eve and even by God himself.In spite of his extensive travels in Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Britain, Becanus remained attached to his homeland, and reported in his Origines Antwerpianae, various curiosities, among them that a youth almost nine feet tall and a woman about ten feet tall lived near his home and that a certain Ters, a deity who seems to have been an equivalent of Priapus, was invoked by Antwerpian women when they were taken by surprise or sudden fear.Although Becanus has been considered to have given Dutch linguistics, and Gothic philology in general, a bad name, and his etymologies have been considered “linguistic chauvinism” – Leibniz even coined the term “goropism” to mean ‘absurd etymology’ -, Becanus had also admirers, among them Abraham Ortelius and Richard Haykluyt and also the famous printer/publisher Christoph Plantin who gladly published his Origines.And certainly Becanus’s work precedes that of William Jones, the ‘discoverer’ of the Indo-European language family, and though replete with eccentric and ridiculous etymologies, nevertheless he can be considered the founding father.

    I want this book badly!

  9. marie-lucie says:

    Sir William Jones is not literally “the discoverer of the Indo-European family” but the first one to suggest that languages such as Latin, Greek, Persian and Sanskrit must have had a common ancestor “which, perhaps, no longer exists”. Until that time the oldest language was thought to be one of the known ones: for a long time Hebrew was the favourite because of the Bible, but later a variety of others were suggested, such as Brabantic. After Jones scholars turned to attempting to reconstruct the long-lost language rather than searching for it somewhere on the earth. There is a very good summary of this history at the beginning of In search of the Indo-Europeans by James Mallory, an archeologist.

  10. Brabantic is merely one member of the Wetsern branch of the Dravidian language family, and does not have the importance that Mr. Gorp claimed for it. Gorp was just a crank.

  11. Brabantic is merely one member of the Western branch of the Dravidian language family
    Completely the wrong way round. The Dravidian languages are obviously just dialects of East Brabantic. The name Telugu clearly comes from Tilburg.

  12. I don’t have time to explain how many ways you are wrong about that.

  13. Gentlemen, gentlemen, please cease this fruitless squabbling. Brabantic and Dravidian are both offshoots of Basque.

  14. I’ve often asked myself whether Nivkh might have precedence over Dravidian. But I never tell anyone that. I actually heard someone reporting on the present state of Nivkh at U Washington at a conference, and he said that Nivkh is becoming even more complicated and difficult than before. I floated my theory that maybe that’s because Nivkh is going through the reverse of pidginization or creole-ization, since it has never been a second language for anyone for generations. The guy actually seemed interested.

  15. “Gentlemen, gentlemen, please cease this fruitless squabbling. Brabantic and Dravidian are both offshoots of Basque.”
    So where does Esperanto fit into it?

    Marie-Lucie: “Sir William Jones is not literally “the discoverer of the Indo-European family” but the first one to suggest that languages such as Latin, Greek, Persian and Sanskrit must have had a common ancestor “which, perhaps, no longer exists”.”
    Wrong. Compare Andreas Jaeger, 1686: “An ancient language, once spoken in the distant past in the area of the Caucasus mountains and spreading by waves of migration throughout Europe and Asia, had itself ceased to be spoken and had left no linguistic monuments behind, but had as a “mother” generated a host of “daughter languages,” many of which in turn had become “mothers” to further “daughters.” (For a language tends to develop dialects, and these dialects in the course of time become independent, mutually unintelligible languages.) Descendants of the ancestral languages include Persian, Greek, Italic (whence Latin and in time the modern Romance tongues), the Slavonic languages, Celtic, and finally Gothic and the other Germanic tongues.”
    More Jones debunking here.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you for the link to the Campbell article. There was much in it that I didn’t know about the background of Jones’s studies and the work of other scholars.
    It is interesting to see that even though Jones might have been in touch with other people’s ideas, and was wrong on many details, still, it was his “sprung from a common source, which perhaps no longer exists”, which seems to have given considerable impetus to other scholars and led them eventually to attempt to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European. There must be a reason why he is so well-known, and others much less so: perhaps his position and overall reputation gave him more influence than others? Perhaps it was his style, and also the way his ideas were disseminated? (Jaeger stated the linguistic relationships more correctly than Jones did, but he did not, in the paragraph you quote, give any reasons for his conclusions). Obviously the idea that Jones “discovered the comparative method” is a gross exaggeration – the comparative method is a method for reconstruction of a proto-language, which Jones was not trying to do, and it was developed slowly in the first half of the 19th century.
    Campbell seems to specialize in pointing the finger at other people’s errors – here he was trying to build a case against Jones’ reputation by pointing out his lack of complete originality (which Jones did not claim) and his many errors of detail but ended up acknowledging that his basic intuitions, expressed in 5 pieces of advice to linguists, were completely sound and still need to be emphasized today. I think that it is exaggerated claims about Jones’s influence on linguistics that need debunking, not Jones himself.

  17. ML, I absolutely agree, which is what I meant by the too-compressed phrase ‘Jones debunking’. As for the reasons why Jones is cited in every history of linguistics book as a progenitor, I don’t really know. Offhand I don’t recall testimonies of his influence from the time, though I have a vague feeling that Grimm says something about him. An intriguing problem–though the Jones myth is perhaps not as pervasive as, say, the notion that Saussure invented the signifier / signified distinction.

  18. Speaking of rare book sales and the history of the comparative method, there’s a copy of Vejledning til det Islandske eller gamle Nordiske Sprog coming up for sale in New York later this month.

  19. Here’s one more vote for Antwerpian Flemish, without which the world wouldn’t have Homer, Virgil or the Upanisads.
    Coming out of the Centraal Station once, I caught a glimpse of the Euphrates river, beyond which stood the Tree of Life. That was the day I became a believer.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    Taking advantage of the extra-long Easter week-end observed by my employer, I was roaming idly from link to link and came across an LH post from Nov. 11, 2005 titled YEHUDAH IBN QURAYSH. Searching for this title leads to a paragraph from Jabal al-Lughat about this “10th-century comparativist”, who correctly listed the sound correspondences between Arabic and Hebrew and made other pertinent remarks about the origins of these languages. “Mr. Jabal” (Lameen Souag) notes that “this is something to think about” when referring to “Sir William Jones as the founder of comparative linguistics”.
    So did Y. ibn Q. found comparative linguistics? It often happens that someone discovers that a founding idea or principle in a branch of knowledge has been independenly anticipated much earlier and/or in a quite different place. An example I read about was a work written by a French doctor perhaps 300 years ago about the incompatibility between molds and bacteria (the latter is a modern word, but he noted that molds and infections were incompatible, so molds could be used to prevent wound from getting infected): this fact is the foundation of modern antibiotics, but the doctor cannot be considered to have “founded” the science since nothing came out of his brilliant insight – the science paradigm of the time did not include a model in which such phenomena could have fitted and been made use of, he was not well-known in his profession (for instance, he was not a professor of medicine), and no one picked up on his work. Similarly, modern linguistics in mid-20th century “discovered” the work of the very ancient Indian grammarian known as Panini (omitting a few diacritics), which was well-known to Sanskritists, but Panini cannot be considered the father of modern Western morphophonemic theory as up to then he (or the Sanskrit tradition) had had no influence on it – some modern linguists were just amazed to find out that, unknown to them, he had been using a very similar approach to the one they were developing.
    I don’t mean to imply that people like Y. ibn Quraysh and Panini were less worthy of admiration than the “founders” of a later tradition or discipline – by all means, they should be recognized as “precursors”. You can only be said to “found” a continuing tradition (whether in science or religion or any other field) if other people not only accept but develop your insights – it is not always the fault of the originator if the Zeitgeist is not favourable to even the most brilliant idea, which might later occurindependently to someone else at another time and place when/where the intellectual climate is more ready to accept it. Sometimes too the brilliant idea is buried in a place where no one in a position to appreciate it is likely to look for it, or hidden under a mass of other material such that the reader will not notice it. All these things do happen and interfere with the recognition and development of interesting ideas. Jones probably combined the right mixture of erudition compatible with the interests of his time, social position allowing him to disseminate his ideas (and have access to those of others), and a very clear presentation of some of the key points, as well as being born in the right century.
    The same LH post also links to another posting on the same blog, regarding the article in Semitic and other languages, including Romance, which fans of the definite article (discussed in another LH thread more recently) might be interested in.

  21. I think it’s the difference between history of the discipline and biography. Biographically Ibn Quraysh and Panini’s accomplishments might match Jones’es (or whoever’s), but the traditions they belonged towent only so far.
    I suspect Panini and his peers were responsible for the fact that a lot of Buddhist alphabets are phonetically extremely sophisticated, notably the Korean and the Phagspa.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    Very good points, John. Panini is an important figure in the Sanskrit linguistic tradition but was not known in the West until people there started learning Sanskrit, and a lot of that study was for the purpose of historical comparison with Greek, Latin etc., not for theoretical insights. Those came much later, and the linguists who realized what Panini was about did not come from from the historical tradition. Given the sophistication of the Indian linguistic tradition, it is not surprising that it should have influenced language study and budding literacy in other cultures who had adopted a religion originating in India.

  23. Breal claims that Bopp was directly influenced by studying the theoretical work of the Indians (or at least by exposure to that tradition), eg. their concepts of root and ablaut, etc.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Conrad, you are referring to the context of 19th-century historical linguistics, which dealt primarily with Indo-European where Sanskrit has a prominent place, so of course the work of ancient scholars was of great help in elucidating the probable structure of the parent language. When I referred to theory I meant something else, in the modern context of phonological theory of the 60′s and 70′s, which was not primarily concerned with historical matters.

  25. In terms of what I said, though, it does but the Sanskrit grammarians in the genealogy of W. European historical linguistics and phonetics.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    John, I am not sure I understand your sentence – is a word missing?
    I don’t think anyone denies the role of Sanskrit grammarians for Western linguistics, but most 20th century leaders in the field of linguistics have deliberately ignored language history to concentrate on “synchronic” or contemporary aspects – after all, children acquiring their first language have no need to learn its history in order to do so. A few people have recently suggested that perhaps some irregularities of languages should be attributed to historical factors, and those factors should be recognized by modern theory – an idea which is absolutely obvious to language historians but was anathema to modern theorists: what Panini was praised for was his elegant and economical formulation of the rules of Sanskrit phonetics, as phonologists were attempting to do the same in modern languages, especially in English.
    Of course a few theorists had studied Sanskrit and Indo-European during their studies (hence they had learned about Panini), but if they wanted to be leaders at the cutting edge of the field they could not make this their specialty – this is still true today, even though the direction of phonological theory has taken a different turn since the period I was referring to.

  27. John, I am not sure I understand your sentence – is a word missing?
    For “but” read “put” (I’m pretty sure).

  28. marie-lucie says:

    the role of Sanskrit grammarians for Western linguistics
    My turn to miss a word: I meant “Western
    historical linguistics”. Somehow the word “historical” disappeared when I tried to put in italics.

  29. Linguists aren’t especially engaged in the history of their firld, and contemporary cutting edge linguists probably don’t read anything earlier than Bloomfield or maybe Saussure (if them), but if what Roth cites is accurate, then Panini et al are indeed functionally, historically part of the Western tradition of linguistics, just like other early linguists.
    The people who read Panini et al were historical linguists studying Sanskrit, but the influence of Sanskrit grammar probably was on early phoneticists.

  30. From what I understand even Bloomfield and especially Saussure are now considered merely historical curiosities, objets d’art relics from before the Great Purge of ’55 (or was it ’59?).

  31. marie-lucie says:

    John, I think that we are not talking about the same thing: I am referring to what is usually called “modern linguistics”, for which you are right that Saussure and Bloomfield are considered really old-fashioned, although they were among the pioneers of “synchronic’ and “structural” linguistics which has dominated the 20th century, especially in America. Throughout the 19th C historical linguistics was THE major field, and towards the end phonetics came on as a more technically oriented sidetrack. But since the break by Saussure and others (from “diachronic” to “synchronic”), linguistics has split into two, with “synchronic” considered the modern, creative, cutting edge of the field. I think historical linguistics has remained largely on the sidelines (which does not mean that individual linguists are not doing good work in that branch!). But just look at the list of job offers in linguistics – probably half of them have to do with computers, and among the academic jobs, the few historically oriented positions are practically all in Germany, the Netherlands or Scandinavia. Specializing in history is a risky business if you want a job in linguistics.
    Conrad, by the Great Purge you must mean the advent of Chomsky – Syntactic Structures was published in 1957, if I am not mistaken. When Chomsky was pressed to find in history some precursors of his theories, he went to Descartes, a philosopher, and to the rationalist Port-Royal group – not to Panini or anyone from the tradition of historical linguistics. The “purge” did not start until after Chomsky’s students got academic jobs – but “purges” of non-Chomskyans did occur.

  32. “John, I think that we are not talking about the same thing: I am referring to what is usually called “modern linguistics”,”
    I think John is merely pointing out that there is a continuum or tradition, not that Bopp or Saussure or Bloomfield are modern linguists. For all the schisms there has been a continuum, and it strikes me that what Chomsky and others do on a synchronic level has its roots in what Bopp was doing on a diachronic level: the ‘inwired’ language-capability is sort of an ontogenic recapitulation of the phylogenic Ursprache, if you’ll forgive my florid analogy.
    “he went to Descartes, a philosopher, and to the rationalist Port-Royal group”
    His book on the subject is laughable. Many scholars pointed out what was clear to me–that the historical antecedents of his theories are really the modist grammars of the 14th century, and their successors (eg. Sanctius) in the 16th.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    Conrad, obviously you are well-versed in the history of language studies, but Chomsky reading Bopp? and also the Modistae? As I said before, ideas can come up and be forgotten, or just not be picked up.
    I was not commenting on the merits or non-merits of Chomsky’s book Cartesian Linguistics, since I have not even read it (but I know that others have been quite critical), but the fact that he picked a word referring to a philosopher, not a linguist, shows something about his attitude to earlier linguistic traditions. This attitude (“we invented it”) is not peculiar to Chomsky but pervades most of 20th-century theoretical linguistics (which most North American linguists would date as starting with Saussure, if not – in some quarters – with Chomsky himself). Bopp is well-known among historical linguists for his work in Indo-European, which is not a subject of much interest to Chomsky and his followers (and neither are Saussure and Bloomfield).
    I hope I have not given the impression that I was somehow promoting or defending Chomsky, someone whose linguistic work is irrelevant to my own interests – it is just that he is so well-known that one can’t ignore his presence.

  34. I was making an analogy between Chomsky and Bopp, not claiming that Bopp had any explicit influence on Chomsky. (Same goes for the modists etc.) Western language-thought in all its forms, for all its manifold differences, revolves around a set of themes and ideas, so it is not surprising to find interesting and worthwhile analogies. Chomsky’s idea of inwired language capabilities would have seemed far-fetched in 1930, but not in 1400.
    In terms of philosophy / linguistics, these of course were not categorised or separated as such until the 19th century. Descartes was not a linguist (and shows remarkably little interest in language) but then neither were the modists. There have been some interesting articles on Chomsky’s debt to the philosophical work of Carnap etc. earlier in the 20th century (the tradition in which he was trained), which I suspect would be an influence he’s much more likely to acknowledge.
    Still, he’s notoriously happy to answer emails, so we could always ask him. Of course, he’ll dismiss everything you or I say right off the bat. He doesn’t seem to think much of his critics.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    OK, Conrad, I guess I misunderstood what you said earlier. And I am not about to email Chomsky!

  36. David Marjanović says:

    I actually heard someone reporting on the present state of Nivkh at U Washington at a conference

    Can you tell me more?

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