historical linguistics: what’s wrong with it?

historical linguistics: what’s wrong with it.

current notions about the linguistic situations in renaissance and pre-renaissance times are not academically sustainable, based as they are on translations of the texts that came to light in extinct languages which were being reconstructed without much accuracy during the renaissance, e.g., the classics, sanskrit, hebrew, etc, the languages of the so-called sacred texts. these translations were usually distorted in support of or to reflect religious dogmas, racist politics and the ulterior motives of the publisher, and the naïve, inaccurate, fanciful and sometimes fraudulent lexicography resulting from it still dominates the database.

our earliest mss came to light during the renaissance, when old libraries were ransacked and some books saved and others burnt according to the whims of the ransackers. see for example in cervantes don quixote, the capture of a knight’s house and the associated book-burning and witness the criteria for saving some and not others, and note what the arrest of don quixote, his torture and horrific fate says about the dominant culture: to get some idea of the political, intellectual and cultural climate, read the whole book.

belief in the accuracy of the biblical chronology, such that the events recorded in all other texts and indeed the chronologies of the texts themselves are arranged to fit around it, with archaeological interpretations distorted to accord, is not academically sustainable. from academic perspectives, it is going beyond any humanly accessible evidence to believe that ‘god’ wrote it and would not err, and so has no place in the dogma. yet like a sleeping metaphor, this submerged bible dogma is often unnoticed even by scrupulous academics.

the bible is known to have been put together from older texts and fragments of unknown origin, translated from we know not what language or languages and promoted over other versions by force. the bible makers’ qualifications for the task, their ethicalness, freedom from pressure, freedom from bias, etc, can’t now be assessed, and their sources of chronological information are not now known. peer review is entirely lacking. at the time it was a heinous sin and you could be tortured for it or burned at the stake. the period was not noted for advanced ethics, enlightened attitudes to unorthodoxy of opinion and pure-spirited enquiry.

that they were wrong about the date of the creation of the earth is generally acknowledged, and yes, adam and eve are conceded to be mythical, and the garden of eden too, yet a firm belief in the rest of the bible chronology, which surely is equally fictitious, from the miracle-attended flood of noah, through the receipt of the ten commandments by moses to the magical conception of god in human form and beyond, is still an unrecognised deformer of the chronologies still in use by 21st century historians, and historical linguists.

this seriously distorts the early comparative philology, which retains work first done while darwin’s theory was still being ridiculed, and the world was believed to be only a few thousand years old and adam the first man. comparative philology, nipped in its humanistic bud by ecclesiastica, which had an even more oppressive presence in the cloisters then than now, was constrained to biblical dogmatism in the extremely coonservative (hidebound?) academic climate of the time.

the earliest theoretic on the so-called (and since renamed as indo-european) indo-germanic language proposed the totally unsupported and ostensibly rejected yet still pervasive theory that old high german was a noble, inflected language, with english belonging to a group called low german, a lesser, less pure branch of it. this is leading them to ignore compelling evidence that english was the source from which german derived so many of its words which are ‘cognates’ of english words during the time of alcuin.

current models are based heavily on ‘corpus etymologies’; and the early scholars’ intention to find the first language ever spoken, though now abandoned, still distorts current interpretations of the data.

corpus etymologies are those which use textual evidence only to trace the history of the word as it appears in texts without acknowledging that when few people could write, the written language of the texts was a-typical and didn’t much reflect natural speech in the real world. and we have saved too few of them even to get an overview.

in addition to accepting unsustainable chronologies, corpus etymologists tend to assume that older forms of words are direct ancestors. for example if a word occurs in a recentish text and a slightly different form occurs in another text believed to be older, they go beyond the evidence to say that therefore the more recent came from the older, even if they’re from foreign lands where word-exchanges of the kind implied would be most unlikely to occur. it is liberating to discard the vectoring and just allow the accumulation of data to manifest as a kind of cloud, within which evidence of the direction and kind of movement of words from one language to another will be easier to assess as the gaps in our knowledge are filled in.

current reconstructions of the proto-indo-european language are still distorted by a belief, unsupported by any evidence, in the antiquity of the inflected languages, with tacit assent to the antiquated notion that these were nobler and we’ve degenerated from a ‘golden’ age. the evidence supporting claims for the antiquity of monuments is flimsy to say the least.

the most prestigious languages of the renaissance and pre-renaissance periods were written languages. when they emerge into reliable history, even up to the mid-20th century in the case of latin in australian high-schools, where until the late 1960s it was still a prerequisite for university entrance, they were still being learnt by the chanting of paradigms as a school language only. there is no evidence that this was not always the case. latin has all the earmarks of a school language potted up for easy learning to preserve older writings perhaps now lost whose age can’t now be guessed at, and then used for new writing by scholars and monks.

the oldest romances and literary tales show latin as a highly respected badge of education, possessed by only an elite all but invisible to the general population. consider the high respect accorded d’artagnon in the three musketeers for his punctilious knowledge of latin grammar. and if you knew no latin, but were good at pretending to, you could get away with it in most genteel, half-educated company, and a good con-artist could use the exaggerated respect for it to good advantage. one of goldsmith’s most vivid characters was such a con-artist. thomas more’s famous experiment with teaching his daughters latin from infancy was considered a bit of a marvel.

traditional textbook dogma about ‘ancient’ greek is as flimsily supported by evidence, and vast amounts of evidence are being ignored because they don’t fit the current text-book models.

pre-literate is still seen as pre-civilised – some writers of textbooks still seem to think that barbarian meant primitive. but it was the name of a people.

the literati knew what they knew from books and from the civilisation centred around them. the children’s education systems were cumbersome, expensive and demanding, so the literati was an elite. most school children soon forgot their learning in pursuit of their vocation, as merchants, miltitia and servants of the great. a small proportion of these, very often women who had little else to do, remained literate, as teachers, clerks and record keepers. an international cosmopolitan intellectual elite wrote and copied and translated and distributed vast numbers of books. much of what little remains from this literature was spared from burning because it presented no threat to the image of a conquering force vaunting its own glory at the expense of that of its hated and despised enemies, which they disparaged and downsized wherever possible.

this conquering force seems to have been exeedingly racist. the celts described themselves in their detailed and vividly descriptive texts as a highly advanced civilisation, with very high moral standards, a highly prestigious education system and anti-racism policies in place. the romans called them barbaric and gave few details, though they employed them to teach their children. but historians have always treated the celtic claims unjustifiably lightly, and while the current celtic revival is changing that, we still see the gauls, who are the not such long-ago ancestors of millions of now-living people, misrepresented in academic and popular literature as easily enraged primitives through howlingly mistranslated texts from their own literature based on the academically unsustainable lexicography of the 19th and early 20th centuries and earlier. this still drives some of the worst, most racist politics we’ve got happening on this planet, not just in ireland but in many other countries also – so it matters.

the indo-european language group is not a real entity, but an artificial construction based on data limited by the assumption, despite vast amounts of evidence to the contrary, that racial borders coincide with linguistic borders.

including the languages of pantheistic, turbaned and loin-clothed hindus in the same group as those of white-ish genteel europeans was so shocking to the repressive christianity that constrained early comparative philologists that they hyphenated it off as if to keep it at a distance – not a near relation – although there is no distinct cultural cut-off and no linguistic reason to place any border between the two. there is similarly no such cut-off between the mediterranian languages and their southern neighbours in africa etc. even maori and australian aboriginal languages have a heavy indo-european component, and chinese place-names and other key words indicate not cut-off but continuity from england to japan and right on round the world, and the same in the southern hemisphere. there’s no need for the location-related name for the language currently called by the ill-fitting name proto-indo-european. the thresholds between languages are being studied and great work was done during the latter half of the 20th century, and also in the study of unstable language melanges such as those in illiterate hindu and semi-literate mexican communities, for example, where change is constant and continuous and not considered a problem.

further chronological errors are made and maintained by comparative studies of the texts that turned up in a location after the renaissance, when, without any evidence at all, recency is attributed to those most like current languages and antiquity to those most unlike them. also, although it is well known that famous books might be translated in many languages and distributed far and near, it seems also to be generally and unsustainably assumed that histories found in a particular location are histories of that location’s current or former peoples, and of course, dates of a copy may be mistaken for the date of writing, and considered almost contemporaneous with the events described within.

generally speaking, the language closest to the one still spoken locally is considered to be the most recent. thus, the faerie queen is still believed to be a recent, post-chaucerian, original poem by the well-known english poet edmund spenser who wrote it in very quaint, very old-fashioned, yet still fairly comprehensible english for poetic effect. there’s no reason to believe that claim. it is later therefore, they say, than chaucer, whose work is later than say, wace’s and so on . this seems to some so obvious that they don’t realise it is going way beyond the evidence. all dates from before the general acceptance of the gregorian calendar are dubious and the reasons for attributing the date should be closely examined. if the truth is that the true date is unknown that should be stated. the fact is that we have many pre-gregorian texts in old-fashioned english all of unknown date and no one knows why the language differs from one to another. (yet if we do that, as surely we must, bang goes a thousand and a half years or so of false history, from 0/0/00 when the god was born, till king james of england had the english language bible authorised, and it was published in other languages as well. even that date is uncertain, having been ‘worked out’ retrospectively by the best-informed guessers using unacademic techniques, after the gregorian calendar came into being.

with all this guesswork and room for error, you’d expect a plethora of theories, but we find the discourse quite constrained to a body of more or less consistent opinion. while this purports to be a proof that all reasonable people agree, great minds think alike etc, in reality, where conflicts of opinion occur, they are usually settled by might against right. prestigious, highly charismatic universities wielding enormous power over the popular imagination, with almost a monopoly on text-book opinion, if not text-books themselves, promote only the carriers of established dogmas with the core of mainstream opinion based upon them, and they have no difficulty curtailing or channeling into oblivion the careers of anyone who proposes alternatives.

this method of steering university based opinion is built into the system. students cannot pass in an examination or essay at the undergraduate level at a university with any credibility if they do not confine themselves to talking from the established dogmas as if they were facts. they must acquire more and more of the textbook view and must seem to accept it all. as they advance towards their degree they may criticise, but not too deeply, and must seem to stand corrected after the patient explanations of their teachers. you get on better if you can enter into the affection they have for one another, so social ostracism is a real threat and can stop dead a line of inconvenient enquiry.

post-graduates tear each other to pieces over their disputes, and the casualties are in my opinion, in terms of human suffering, unsustainable. too many ambitious, brilliant young intellects get demoted to positions teaching undergraduates dogmas they don’t believe as a result of probing too deep. i’m not talking about consiracy, just human nature fearing the critical lens. the ill-treatment of heretics is public and cruel, with flaming, defamation of character, public derision, and on-line persecution common. it is easiest for those in it for the livelihood and the love of language to just toe the hegemonic line and smile blandly through the falsehoods they have to learn and then perhaps teach. many are encouraged to be quite passionate about it, and these are often most active in flaming and ridiculing the others, as they get reflected glory from doing so.

theory about language change is based on masculist world-views that see only men doing politics and commerce and men at work or war, with women only rarely doing a man’s (i.e., a noteworthy) job – marriage and children’s education are not taken into account. educated children and older people are often assumed without evidence to be men.

advances in sexism-sensitive reading of history have not been taken on board enough at current historical linguistics text-book levels, and the intelligent lay reader is likewise still getting images of the past which are distorted by sexism. tirant lo blanc, for example, is written in english by joan martel and now lost, but not before being translated through portuguese and catalan before finding its way into english again. it comes with an incomplete potted history, with some genealogy, of the author, asserting that joan martel was a man – and you can see all sorts of ways in which such an error would arise. the head of the author of this novel is as full of the details of military splendour and valour as a contemporary man’s might have been – but so was that of any of the dizzy girls of jane austen’s time only a few centuries later, and yet of a piece with it. joan martel shows a completely feminine, deeply intimate knowledge of and interest in love letters, the duties of duennas and the moral up-bringing of young ladies, and the heady secret conversations and forbidden intrigues that happen in a young and nubile medieval teenage girl’s boudoir such as no man of the time could or would aspire to. close reading of this text and a consideration of all it implies throws the whole study of historical linguistics into another cast, where women’s ambition for their children is driving politics and childrens’ education, and the competition for the best education for children who are sent to foreign lands to learn artificial languages for international roles is driving language change, complete with lisping, creative use of restricted vocabulary and broken grammar, all becoming idiomatic as the resultant patois come into being. being too weak for war or hard labour, women often did the writing.

the etymological techniques used in the past were based on a belief that language evolution was mainly dendriform, with many branches (of modern languages) going back to a single origin (one or other of the inflected languages) which in turn went back to a common origin with all the other inflected languages, which go back to the earliest languages which were originally thought to be much more perfect, later thought to be very simple and primitive, and now under review as palaeontology reports on the modernness of very ancient peoples and archaeology reveals more about the rising and falling levels of sophistication over the past few thousand years, when one might presume that all people spoke proto-indo-european. this would no doubt go back to a common origin with non-indo-european languages not too much earlier. the cradle of civilisation/garden of eden was prolly mesopotamia, hem hem.

the old texts tell us some of the history of the medieval literati, though they include histories they thought ancient too. they tell us of an international trade route, the silk road. they tell us of ships that sailed the seven seas and colonised the seven continents. place names and comparative linguistics show that the hiatus in world colonisation and trade after the fall of the celtic empire and until the rise of the roman catholic one which restored contact between spain and the americas was largely fictitious, with spanish, irish, moorish, arabic, hindu, african, asian, pacific, american, australian, and other sailors doing it all the time.

quixote’s account of a sea voyage is ridiculed by cervantes, and is still presented as satirical, though it’s surely as true an old text as ever you’d find, to this day. the semi-mythic columbus only proved to an incredulous court that this everyday event was at all possible by circumnavigating the world as he and others were in the habit of doing. languages under these conditions do not just branch simplistically. all manner of events change language that are only just beginning to be studied, and the ones that occur in ancient literature are different from those that occur in the free and easy speech of the medieval illiterate and semi-literate cosmopolitan people, and in the speech of farms and villages. much of what has been learned recently has not yet been taken on board by scholars responsible for the hermeneutics of the renaissance texts.

the education system militates against easy liberation from out-moded constructs. it assumes that the story so far is right in the main and apart from small adjustments, what we should do is build upon it, fill in detail, and ‘flesh it out’. this makes the inevitable knowledge revolutions painful and expensive and damaging to careers, so they are neurotically warded off till the last minute, against all academic reason. this is personally painful for those caught up in it and makes it difficult to reason with them. it’s about at that level of fear that they begin flaming insightful ‘heretics’.

it isn’t just that text-books are expensive and difficult to up-date. the history of language describes the history of that which maintains and communicates history – the language is inextricable from the texts. the stories from the texts as they are known and loved and taught to small children along with their religion, laws and folk traditions, are part of the cultural identity of the folk of the land, lending them some of the glamour of literacy or better, and they are cherished in the form in which they were learnt. older people who have encountered the legends and myths of their culture in childhood and might never get nearer to the texts and scholars’ translations they were retold from, tend to feel empowered, encultured, and stalwart and true, and everything else commendable on the basis of their knowledge, and they resist any change in the details.

in australia for example, university trained scholars have a hard time debriefing the high-school informed public about changes to the dogma in any field, but more so in history, because the so-called sacred texts are protected from realistic academic scrutiny, ie., revision in the light of updates in thinking and reasoning since the fictitious year of our mythic lord. in many subtle and not so subtle ways, reasoning that leads to an awareness of the unsustainability of current scripture-distorted chronologies and current dendriform models of language evolution is quelled, or anyway it tends not to happen anywhere near enough. the reason truly academic reasoning is not being used much is that it does lead to positions from which it can be plainly seen and can’t be easily denied that current models are not sustainable and undue deference to the superstitions of the religious traditions are holding us up.

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