Talking Gibberish.

Gaston Dorren asks a very good question in Aeon: Why is linguistics such a magnet for dilettantes and crackpots? He describes the various attempts to pin down mankind’s original language (“German was a popular candidate, but the 17th-century Swedish scholar Olof Rudbeck favoured his own mother tongue, for a reason that was nothing if not creative: Sweden, he argued, was Atlantis, and thus the cradle of human civilisation”), citing LH’s own founding father, the Flemish author Johannes Goropius Becanus:

He claimed that the Dutch language, and the Flemish dialect of Antwerp in particular, was the direct descendant of the original language and the source of all others. His evidence was of an etymological nature. The name Adam, for instance, was derived from haat-dam (‘hate dam, dam against hate’), while Diets or Dutch was synonymous with d’oudste (‘th’oldest’). In the Low Countries, Goropius would enjoy some support for centuries to come; abroad, his name literally became a byword for fanciful etymologising: the eminent German scholar Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz called the activity ‘goropising’. Even today, the hypothesis of Dutch as the oldest language is kept alive by at least one linguist and one poet, both of whom seem to be embarrassingly serious about it.

He then talks about William Jones’s famous 1784 lecture in which he proposed the Indo-European language family, and continues:

Given the extensive body of historical knowledge they’ve collected since, especially about Europe and Asia, one would expect that claims of Goropian and Rudbeckian absurdity would be a thing of the past. They aren’t, however. To this day, dissidents seriously assert that mainstream linguistics has it spectacularly wrong. Science is not above errors, of course, some of them collective and persistent – think phrenology, think behaviourism – and linguistics is no exception.

He proceeds to Lemuria, the Sun-language theory, Saharan (“a close relative of Basque”), climate theory, and Marrism; he concludes:

The tricky thing about history is that so much has happened; about languages, that there are so many of them. […] The fantasists and dilettantes trawl through source after source in the hope of pulling aboard what seem to be relations and other connections. But in fact, the more documents they sift through, the more likely they are to find chance similarities and connections and draw spurious conclusions. And if established scholars disagree with them, they will typically respond in a petulant manner, rather than take their criticism seriously. […]

If you enjoy crackpottery, click the link; you’ll have a good time. (Thanks, Bathrobe!)


  1. To think of all the books that one can’t read for free online, but that we have unlimited access to L’annamite, mère des langues!

    The title has me wondering about the père des langues.

  2. The null hypothesis is that all fields are magnets for crackpots, but we tend to notice the ones in our own field more.

  3. Even setting aside the obvious crackpots, there’s the pervasive problem of journalists and assorted intellectuals making ridiculous claims about language, with their educated readership nodding along (well documented on the Log). This can happen with other topics too, of course – but since we all use language all the time, I think it’s uniquely tempting for any “informed” person to fancy themself an expert on it.

  4. David Marjanović says

    “Lots of people believe they’re experts on language, because after all they speak one.”
    – Justin B. Rye

    The title has me wondering about the père des langues.

    The trick is that la langue is a she.

  5. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    David, isn’t it la langue vietnamienne but le vietnamien? I’d expect l’annamite to be masculine too.

  6. David Marjanović says

    You’re right. I don’t know which one is expected to win directly in front of des langues.

    No contest in German, where le vietnamien is das Vietnamesische, neuter.

  7. Every field has its own ‘special’ theories and its own flavors of crackpots.

  8. It seems rather mean to lump in all of us dilettantes with the crackpots and fantasists …

  9. BTW Dorren’s book “Lingo” is one of those lightweight/popularizing tomes that I wouldn’t have bought for myself but that someone gave me as a gift because of the “oh, he likes linguistics stuff” perception and it was I thought better than average than what you might expect in that context. It has 60 (or whatever) quite short freestanding chapters, so if a particular one is “meh” you can just keep going and maybe the next one will be better.

    I am intrigued to learn that he lives in Amersfoort. It is to be regretted that the rather remote section of present-day Brooklyn that was originally settled in the 17th C. as Nieuw Amersfoort lost that name somewhere along the way.

  10. Re mère v. père (des langues), I am reminded of a colorful personality in the jazz department of the radio station I labored at many decades ago who once asked “If Coleman Hawkins was the ‘Father of the Tenor Saxophone’ [a reasonably common cliche/sobriquet in jazz discourse], what did the mother look like?”

  11. In Christianity there is God the Father, part of the Trinity which includes God the Son, but there is no Mother. The Virgin Mary was a human woman, not a goddess.

  12. Who is nevertheless theotokos.

  13. Or (just) Christotokos, depending on your Mariology.

  14. Relevant to the “Oxford on diacritics” thread: I typed the French words for “mother” and “father” in a comment above without attempting to add accents, but they were apparently then added w/o my knowledge or consent via some sort of damn-you-autocorrect process, possibly rooted in the computer I am using rather than whatever songdog has or hasn’t done. (Every now and again I try to disable all autocorrect features on a given computer I use, but inevitably the next random software update/upgrade undisables them and I’m back where I started.)

  15. No, that was me! I just couldn’t stand seeing them bare-naked that way, so I snuck in and added them. If you dislike them I’ll remove them.

  16. “Feminism has many mothers, but only one father.” —Richard Reeves in John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand.

    The Subjection of Women. Worth reading to see what has changed in a century and a half — and what has not.

  17. Medieval Islamic writers, based on what Arabian visitors actually saw when they visited Christian churches, identified the Christian trinity as God, Jesus, and Mary.

  18. From time to time I will still get eccentric email excoriating me for not announcing to the world this or that bizarre theory of Greek on my own web sites.

  19. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Why is linguistics such a magnet for dilettantes and crackpots?

    Biological evolution can give linguistics a run for its money as a magnet for crackpots.

  20. I can recommend “The Trisectors” by Underwood Dudley as a nice survey of a particular class of mathematical crank.

  21. Muddy Waters sang, “the blues had a baby and they named the baby Rock & Roll”. It doesn’t mention who the father is, and now that I think about it, you can’t tell whether “they” means “the blues” or “the parents”.

    Anyway, with languages, music, or other poetic entities, pargthenogenesis is perfectly OK.

  22. Fomenko, Davis, Hapgood, von Daniken, and Velikovsky each contradict multiple fields.

  23. David Marjanović says

    this or that bizarre theory of Greek

    What does a theory of Greek look like?

  24. θεωρία

  25. David Marjanović says


  26. @Y: My father likes to say that the first kind of music was rock music.

  27. It is I suppose a sufficient honor to be copy-edited by Hat-His-Own-Self that I will acquiesce in the diacritics he added to my prose.

  28. Muddy Waters sang, “the blues had a baby and they named the baby Rock & Roll”. It doesn’t mention who the father is, and now that I think about it, you can’t tell whether “they” means “the blues” or “the parents”.
    I’d assume that “they” here is not referring to any of the antecedents but means “(some / all) people”.

  29. the blues had a baby and they named the baby Rock & Roll

    Consider: “The X’s had a baby and they named the baby Y”, in which “they” obviously refers to the parents. Muddy Waters’ sentence uses a metaphor, a pun, so there is no need to seek exact equivalents to human reproduction such as “who the father is”.

  30. @David Marjanović: There’s a wikivandal who was pushing a bizarre theory of the Greek alphabet, apparently based on notions of notions of analogy and uniformity:

    Also, I’m surprised that the Aeon article didn’t mention the Voynich manuscript or other ciphers; those are definitely crackpot magnets and there’s often a pretense of linguistic knowledge (e.g. the recent theory that the Voynich is in Latin abbreviations).

  31. There’s a wikivandal who was pushing a bizarre theory of the Greek alphabet, apparently based on notions of notions of analogy and uniformity

    Wow, there’s no end to the crackpottery!

  32. Because the Voynich manuscript is not deciphered yet, we might apply Bohr’s maxim “It’s crackpottery, but is it crackpottery enough to be the truth?”

  33. David Marjanović says

    Edit-warring against his own sockpuppets in order to appear legitimate… I sit in awe.

  34. “tries to unify naming and presentation schemes for Greek characters across all wikipedias, based on mistaken notions of analogy between them, often using one Wikipedia as an alleged source for justifying his edits on another”

    “All Greek alphabet pages on enwiki are currently semiprotected indefinitely because of him. Disruption on other wikis continues.”

    Determined if nothing else.

  35. Charles Perry says

    I use to have a dotty little book, named something like Tamil and Language Origin, that provided ad hoc Tamil etymologies for every word you can think of. It has disappeared, along with a pamphlet on Lysenkoism (which was technically called Michurin biology, as I recall).

  36. Is it Samuel Livingstone’s Tamil Origin of the English Language: Letters of a Tamil Father to His Son? The same author also published The Sinhalese of Ceylon and the Aryan Theory: Letters of a Tamil Father to His Son.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    “Hebrew is Greek” is a snip on Amazon at $754.61.

    I recall idly looking at a copy in an actual bookshop years ago. The author means exactly what the title says and is deadly serious.

    One hopes Wikinger is unaware of this unity; otherwise his activities may be extended to other alphabets …

  38. I read Emily’s link up to the phrase “Abuses his own socks” and then came down with a nasty dose of future shock.

  39. Reading the case histories of serial Wikipedia abusers was kind of entertaining. “Engages in good hand/bad hand behavior.”

  40. S. Valkemirer says

    @ Charles Perry. This is probably not the publication you had in mind, but it is identical in tenor:

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    The offending M Karunanidhi would, I suspect, have been genuinely mystified by attempts to point out that his statements are factually erroneous. They are put forward without any consideration of truth or falsehood, simply on account of their rhetorical beauty.

    In other words, they are bullshit (in the strict technical sense.)'s_concept

  42. That’s akin to, or maybe the same, as what I’ve heard called “proof by intimidation.”

    Oh. There’s a WP page.

  43. Stu Clayton says

    # Root Tamil words exist in many languages of the world in various modifications but retaining the semantic meaning. In the world languages, it is difficult to find a basic word that does not have some link with the Tamil word. Hence, Tamil has the status of the mother tongue in the world,” the CM said. #

    Or Tamil is completely parasitic on all other world languages, having borrowed all its words and then tamilated them.

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