Archive for the ‘Language and Linguistics’ Category

I recently finished reading The Origin of Speeches: Intelligent Design in Language, a fascinating book by Edenics scholar Isaac E. Mozeson.

Edenics is a linguistics project undertaken to study the original human mother tongue called Edenic, the language given to Adam in the garden of Eden. Mozeson is the leader of a group of scholars working on Edenics.

Wikipedia entries related to this idea include “Adamic Language‘” “Proto-World Language,” and “Monogenesis.”

Whereas Mozeson is an independent scholar, Merritt Ruhlen is a more credentialed linguist, a Stanford professor who advocates a monogenetic view of human language. I previously reviewed his book The Origin of Languages: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue — also a fascinating book — see my previous entry, “Ruhlen’s ‘The Origin of Language’ Points to Common Source for All Tongues.”

Mozeson is one of those investigators unlikely to receive much credence from mainstream academia. For one thing, the use of the phrase “intelligent design” in his title is likely to turn away all but the most open-minded of academics.

However, on a more substantive level, one of Mozeson’s key premises flies in the face of conventional linguistic theory, which maintains that words are for the most part arbitrary. Most linguists recognize that humans are innately programmed for language, but they maintain that the words themselves are essentially arbitrary sounds that have arisen and developed over time.

Mozeson, however, asserts that the Edenic program in the human brain naturally inclines humans to assign certain meanings to certain sounds. Humans now speak different languages because of the confusion and dispersion that took place at Babel as describe at Genesis 11:1-9 — go here to see those verses in the King James Version; here you can look them up in the modern New World Translation.

Another departure from mainstream linguistics — although a more subtle departure — is Mozeson’s reconstruction of Edenics by comparison of cognates (similar word forms found in different languages) in many languages at once. Such a method is not unknown in linguistics — this is the kind of method Ruhlen uses, as did his predecessor Joseph Greenberg, also of Stanford.

On page 50, Mozeson points to the obvious cognation of English eye with Hebrew ayin, supported by Chinese yan and Eskimo iye. However, to mainstream scholars any relation between Hebrew and non-semitic languages is anathema. Mozeson writes about such words,

They ought to be called cognates, but linguists would never concede that the English and Hebrew words share a common ancestry.

Admitting such a relationship would take academics in an uncomfortably non-atheistic direction.

Mozeson’s book provides many interesting examples of global cognates and shows their potential relationship to Biblical Hebrew, which he believes is the surviving language closest to the original Edenic. That makes sense, as Noah’s son Shem and other faithful descendants would not have joined in the rebellion at Babel and would not have had their languages confused.

On page 108, Mozeson makes a good case for an Edenic source for the English word market and its cognates in other modern languages: commerce, market, mart, mercantile, mercenary, mercer, merchant, mercury, and merchandise.

Mozeson connects all these cognates with Edenic Mem-Khaf-Resh, meaning to sell.

As another example, he asserts that

The Edenic SHOR (bull) became the Aramaic TOR (bull). This is how Latin and Spanish got words like TAURUS and toro.

While Mozeson’s ideas are interesting and worth considering, I wonder if he is too liberal in defining cognates. Is he cherry-picking?

Mozeson often connects words as cognates even if their consonants appear in a different order.

So, for example, the Edenic for word, Da[V]aR, (Daled-Bhet-Resh in Hebrew), is a permissible cognate to English WORD. Consonants have shifted through a process called metathesis so that D-V-R has become V-R-D (or WoRD).

Maybe calling on metathesis in this manner is not outside the bounds of accepted linguistic methods, but I suspect that Mozeson will be subject to criticism on this front. Critics will say he is playing fast-and-loose with the methods of comparative linguistics.

Regardless of his potential vulnerabilities, Mozeson’s work is intriguing and worthy of consideration. I do have one larger criticism, though — or perhaps it’s more of a question for consideration:

Is Edenics as currently practiced too narrow in scope?

Mozeson’s arguments seem limited to lexical issues — the words themselves and how they were changed among the different human families present at Babel and their descendants.

But should we assume that, when human languages were confused during the late third millennium BCE, only the human lexicon was involved? Could other aspects of human speech have been affected as well — grammar, modality, semantics?

ARK — 24 Oct. 2009

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From what I understand, Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is just a hypothetical construct — hypothetical because no writings in PIE exist and no scripts are known that were used to write it. PIE is reconstructed based on its supposed daughter languages.

My question is whether some of the hypothetical daughter language groups — Proto-Germanic, Anatolian, Romance, Celtic, etc., might actually be remnants of the breakup at Babel around 2,000 BCE. How that breakup looked at the time is not specified in the Bible account.

PIE might have been one of the languages that emerged from the confusion. Then its speakers might have migrated north into Anatolia, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, Western Asia, etc.

Or PIE might just represent similarities among various split-up language groups that came out of the confusion.

Just thinking out loud.

ARK — 28 Sept. 2009

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I recently finished reading The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue, by Stanford linguist Merritt Ruhlen.

Ruhlen’s approach to language classification and historical linguistics is controversial. Ruhlen believes there is good evidence for a “Proto-Sapiens” language that existed 30,000 or more years ago and that it is possible to identify some lexical characteristics of that language through comparative analysis of today’s language families.

Ruhlen has drawn fire in part because most historical linguists think it is impossible to reconstruct any language older than about 6,000-8,000 years. Ruhlen believes his comparative method is able to reconstruct language much older than that.

One of the most exciting aspects of The Origin of Language is that Ruhlen allows the reader to do some exercises in comparative linguistics for himself. Ruhlen provides tables of words from various languages and language families and lets you do comparisions between words to identify cognates across language groups. For example, by giving you word tables to solve, he helps you to learn experientially that the word AK’WA or something very like it is actually a global cognate and possibly a part of what Ruhlen believes was humanity’s mother tongue.

This multilateral comparative approach to historical linguistics is controversial because mainstream historical linguists traditionally use vertical reconstruction to reconstruct proto-languages. I gather that Indo-Europeanists are especially annoyed with Ruhlen because they would like to claim that Proto-Indo-European can’t be shown to be related to any other language family.

ARK — 6 July 2009

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An article in NewScientist Thursday alerted me to a recent controversy over the Indus script, a set of symbols associated with the Indus Valley civilization of eastern Pakistan and western India. The Indus valley civilization is dated in the timeframe of 2500 to 1900 BCE, according to writer Ewen Callaway (see “Scholars at odds over mysterious Indus script.”)

The basic controversy is over whether the Indus script really represents a language or is merely a set of religious or political symbols. Advocates on both sides have used computational analysis to support their conclusions.

The viewpoint that Indus script is not a language in part rests on the observation that “most of the inscriptions contain fewer than five characters, few of the characters repeat, and many of the symbols occur very infrequently,” writes Callaway.

This viewpoint is put forward in a 2004 article for the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies by Steve Farmer and colleagues — see “The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization.”

Farmer notes that there were other “nonlinguistic symbol systems in the Near East that served key religious, political, and social functions without encoding speech or serving as formal memory aids.” His paper points to evidence “that the Harappans’ lack of a true script may have been tied to the role played by their symbols in controlling large multilinguistic populations.” (The Indus civilization is sometimes called Harappan, referring to one of the key archaeological sites associated with the culture.)

However, the cocksureness of Farmer’s tone (just consider the title of his article, referring to the “collapse” of the opposite viewpoint and his calling it a “myth”) sets off my “expertitis” meter. The readings are high in this case, so I am interested to find recent research that argues in favor of the Indus-Script thesis that in fact “Indus inscriptions were tightly bound to language,” in Farmer’s words.

Finnish professor of Indology Asko Parpola of the University of Helsinki analyzes and critiques Farmer’s work in “Study of the Indus Script.” It’s worth noting what he has to say, as his work is a key target of Farmer.

Rajesh Rao, a University of Washington computer scientist, has more recently published research based on use of artificial-intelligence pattern-analysis software to study the Indus script.

A writeup in Wired describes Rao’s findings (see “Artificial Intelligence Cracks 4,000-Year-Old Mystery“):

[Rao’s team] fed the program sequences of four spoken languages: ancient Sumerian, Sanskrit and Old Tamil, as well as modern English. Then they gave it samples of four non-spoken communication systems: human DNA, Fortran, bacterial protein sequences and an artificial language.

The program calculated the level of order present in each language. Non-spoken languages were either highly ordered, with symbols and structures following each other in unvarying ways, or utterly chaotic. Spoken languages fell in the middle.

When they seeded the program with fragments of Indus script, it returned with grammatical rules based on patterns of symbol arrangement. These proved to be moderately ordered, just like spoken languages.

Wikipedia offers some useful articles related to this question of the Indus script — see “Indus script,” “Undeciphered writing systems,” and “Decipherment.”

A refreshingly readable discussion of why decipherment is so hard is available from Cecil Adams at The Straight Dope — see his article “How come we can’t decipher the Indus script?” This is the first time I have encountered Cecil Adams, and I am pleased to be able to start following the work of a fellow know-it-all.

AB — 25 April 2009

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Spading Up Ancient Words, a book written in 1984 by Dr. Erich A. von Fange is available in its entirety at this web location.

Von Fange was a professor of psychology and statistics at Concordia University, in Ann Arbor, Michigan from 1962 to 1987. He studied archaeology, ancient history, geology, and paleontology from a Biblical framework, and apparently Spading Up Ancient Words is based on some of his research.

Von Fange’s book appears to be related to Edenics (see “Does all language have a common origin?”), which makes it interesting as a resource for our purposes.

Chapter 2 contains an interesting analysis of the names used in the pre-flood world.

ARK — 19 March 2009

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As I understand it, mainstream scholarship contends that the Hebrew alphabet descended from Phoenician, which descended from a script known as Proto-Canaanite (see the Wikipedia entry for that).

Isaac E. Mozeson in The Origin of Speeches: Intelligent Design in Language argues that the Hebrew alphabet predates and is actually the source for the others. Sometimes Mozeson’s reasoning can be hard to follow, but in chapter 3, “The Aleph-Bet as Keyboard of Creation,” he presents a cogent argument as to why the Hebrew might seem to have come later: the boxy-shaped Torah letters simply were not used as much and were used for the most part by a relatively small number of scholar-scribes:

… Judean kings and most commoners could only read Hebrew from a variety of nonsacred Semitic scripts. However poor the Hebrew literacy level was in the Judean kingdom’s time, it was far worse for the non-scholars in subsequent centuries. It is not conjectured that few Judeans could read or write, but that popular Semitic scripts had replaced the Edenic Aleph-Bet for a long time. For a long enough time, apparently, for scholars to assume that Ezra’s prehistoric Aleph-Bet was new and the result of “evolution.”

The miracle of Hebrew’s survival over the millenia, with relatively minor changes, owes much to the fact that it became only a language of prayer and textual study, and not one of daily conversation. Nobody wrote love letters or laundry lists in the sacred Hebrew Aleph-Bet. The scholars who copied Scriptural scrolls and other apocryphal documents became a small, esoteric group who were charged with maintaining the authentic, boxy Aleph-Bet.

ARK — 3 March 2009

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Did humankind have a common language in ancient times? Did that language include a written form?

Relevant to that question, an article from today in the Daily Galaxy got my attention: “Ancient Language of Universal Symbols Discovered.”

The article connects ancient petroglyphs discovered around the world and claims that they all represent a common ancient script sometimes called Old Negev (see here for a discussion of Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, including Old Negev) and apparently called First Tongue by some (here is an unattributed article on that topic).

Here’s an interesting chart comparing glyphs found in Colorado with Hebrew. Here’s a map showing locations of petroglyphs around the world.

The Daily Galaxy and First Tongue articles seem to be written more by “fringe” researchers, but that doesn’t mean their ideas should be automatically discounted.

For a more mainstream academic approach to Petroglyphs, see the Wikipedia entry. See also the Rock Art Research Institute, which focuses primarily on African petroglyphs.

ARK — 3 March 2009

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AncientScripts.com is more or less a hobby site by a non-linguist, but useful as an introduction to ancient writing systems.

ARK — 26 February 2009

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Word2Word is a great online language resource. It provides links to language resources in many interesting topics, including:

  • Online dictionaries and translators
  • Language learning on YouTube
  • Machine translation software
  • Alphabets of the world
  • Typing foreign characters
  • English as a second language
  • Educational language software
  • Tools for translators
  • Foreign language newspapers
  • Ancient language resources
  • And much more

ARK — 26 February 2009

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Here is a set of beginning Hebrew lessons on video from B’nai Or in Pueblo, Colorado.

ARK — 26 February 2009

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