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Pseudolinguistics is the study of language in a way that falls short of academic rigor. It is the linguistic cousin of the pseudoscientific family. Of course, pseudolinguistics has ties with other fields such as pseudohistory and pseudoarcheology.
Basics of linguistics
In linguistics, the comparative method is the accepted method to show that languages are related. Related languages should descend from a definite proto-language, and the daughter languages should have words that transform according to definite sound laws from this proto-language. For example, in Uralic languages, the Proto-Uralic language split into at least two subgroups called Finnic and Ugric, where each 'p' in Finnic is replaced by 'f' in Ugric, e.g. Finnish pata corresponds to Hungarian fazék.
In contrast, pseudolinguists usually fail to use the comparative method, relying on false or folk etymologies, spurious similarities or various other kinds of pseudoscience, such as racialist arguments.
Types of pseudolinguistics
Nationalists of various stripes are especially proficient abusers of linguistics. Many like to make up family relationships between languages or language families and then claim the newly discovered kin as a part of their nation. For example, a Turkish linguist might claim that the Finno-Ugric languages are related to Turkish and that therefore the Finns are actually Turks (for some reason you'll never hear it the other way around, that my language is related to your language and therefore my people don't exist but are members of your people[note 1]). Language isolates (i.e. languages not demonstrably related to any others, such as Basque, Ainu or many Native American languages) seem to be particularly popular choices for such theories, as well as any ancient language of some long-gone civilization (Sumerian, Egyptian, etc.). A typical pseudolinguistic language family claim will show a list of similar words with similar meanings in both languages. As the Zompist has already eloquently torn apart such claims, there is no need for debunking them here.
If mixed with an unhealthy dose of religious whackery you might find pseudolinguists looking for an 'Adamic language', which was spoken by all of mankind before the Tower of Babel. In the Middle Ages, Basque was believed by many to be the Adamic language, as it was one of the few known languages clearly not related to any other language. (The search for the Adamic languages should not be confused with the Proto-Human language theory, which is a legitimate though controversial hypothesis of all languages in the world having one origin.)
- Theories about any given (known) language being the original language of mankind. (See also Lemuria below.) Although humanity may have had an original language, it would have evolved beyond all recognition over thousands of years.
- Any theory involving ancient astronauts which claims aliens taught us writing or that dead languages such as Egyptian are in fact descended from alien tongues. (Note: aliens have in all likelihood never visited Earth for much the same reasons that we have not visited them, and if they did, it is highly unlikely their languages would be pronounceable by humans. Think Chewbacca.)
- Any form of goropism; theories that Sanskrit, Hebrew, Romanian, or some other historical attested language is the original language of mankind and all others are derived from them.
- Chief among these is the Sun Language Theory, claiming that language was invented by the Turks as a way to convert ritual blathering into a means of meaningful communication. The Sun Language Theory was promoted by the Turkish government under Atatürk in the 1930s.
- A pile of Tower of Babel-related apophenia by Isaac Mozeson that he calls Edenics, which purports to trace all languages to old Hebrew by ignoring vowels and permuting consonants.
- The idea that Chinese characters prove the veracity of the Biblical account of creation.
- Anything invoking the lost continents of Atlantis, Mu or Lemuria (or indeed mythology) in any way is immediately suspect (see e.g. Lewis Spence).
- The Lemurian theory, invented by Tamil author Devaneya Pavanar which claimed that Tamil was the mother of all languages.
- Pseudoscientific attempts to group unrelated languages into a single family, which are protoscience at best:
- Some Hungarian nationalists believe that the Hungarian language is actually related to various non-Uralic languages, such as Hunnic or Sumerian. Usually mixed with conspiracy theories (e.g. "the Finno-Ugric theory was pushed by the Hapsburgs"), wishful thinking, national mysticism. Usually predicated by charlatans with expensive books. What is preserved of the Hunnic language are some proper names and three common words, all three believed to be Indo-European borrowings. That theory is therefore absolutely untestable on linguistic grounds.
- A large number of speculations linking the Basque language to other languages. This is particularly common with apparent linguistic isolates.
- Claims that certain Native American tribes speak or spoke Welsh, Chinese, or Hungarian. Proponents of these ideas may appeal to assertions in historical documents, avoiding the more obvious route of juxtaposing texts in the supposedly identical languages in question, even if the languages are still alive or at least have reasonably sized bodies of texts available for comparison.
- Claims that certain Native American languages have countless words from Old Norse.
- Claims by Mormon apologists that Mesoamerican Uto-Aztecan languages are linked to Semitic languages, a supposed ground-breaking discovery that has attracted little attention in the wider linguistics sphere.
- Some theories regarding the Voynich Manuscript.
- Neurolinguistic programming incorporates some pseudo-linguistic claims.
- Until a few decades ago, the French claimed the regional languages of France were dialects of French in the Vergonha in an effort to discredit them and weed them out from daily use. The French were mostly successful in that effort, as the minority languages (Occitan, Arpitan, Gallo, etc.) are almost extinct today and are kept going only by a special effort of their respective provinces.
- The idea that somehow, Celtic and Berber languages are related (quite popular in some circles in France). There is some speculation suggesting a Celto-Semitic Sprachbund, but not much more.
- The idea that some dialects are inferior to others.
- The idea that the Romance languages are not descended from Latin.
- Anything specific about extraterrestrial languages, i.e. astrolinguistics... since it's all protoscience and speculation in reality.
- Channelled languages, xenoglossy and glossolalia.
- Valery Chudinov concluded that Russians are more ancient than most civilizations by "noticing" monosyllabic Russian words enscribed on ancient artifacts, the ocean floor, the sun's surface and drying plaster.
- Claims that modern Hebrew is not a Semitic language, that it's a Yiddish based creole of some sort, or a constructed language.
- The Gaelic language (ancestor of Irish and Scots Gaelic) was invented by Gaithelus out of the best bits of the 72 languages created following the fall of the Tower of Babel. This makes it in a sense the original and best world language. Gaithelus was in legend a Scythian prince and father or husband of Scota, eponym of the Scots.
- Attempts to study "Reformed Egyptian", the supposed language of the Book of Mormon (considered by non-Mormons to be a fabrication).
- Then there's this guy:
Milder examples and borderline cases
- Weak interpretations of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the concept that language has an effect on how we interpret the world) are considered to be a part of legitimate linguistics. However, many linguists now regard the original proposition of the hypothesis, and stronger interpretations (suggesting that language defines and constrains our thoughts) as pseudolinguistics. (Modern linguistics regards the thought-control through language in Nineteen Eighty-Four as impossible.) Related to this are linguistic myths such as the claim that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow, supposedly reflecting their deep interest in the subject.
- Some claims used by proponents of international auxiliary languages (such as Esperanto) can be classified as pseudolinguistics.
- Attempts to reconstruct "Proto-Human" without the comparative method. The multilateral comparison methods espoused by Joseph Greenberg, John Bengtson and Merritt Ruhlen arguably fall into this category.
- Various theories about Pictish, now generally considered P-Celtic (or Gallo-Brittonic).
- Decipherment of various obscure scripts including Linear A from Crete in Greece or Rongorongo from Easter Island.
- Now widely discredited, but earlier accepted hypotheses of language groups may retain some support, often for other than scientific reasons. The proposed Ural-Altaic language family ("Turanian") is a typical example. Uralic and Altaic languages are typologically similar, which has been interpreted as evidence for relatedness, but typological similarity alone proves nothing. The comparative method has drawn a blank: similarities between words are poorly demonstrated, and no sound laws have been reconstructed. Thus, the Ural-Altaic proposal is today considered discredited. Even better, the Altaic family is nowadays widely discredited. Nevertheless, the Ural-Altaic hypothesis was widely accepted in the 19th and early 20th century, with many prominent Uralicists, such as Gustaf Ramstedt, journeying to Mongolia to look for ethnological and linguistic evidence for a relationship. The reason why such an utterly discredited theory retains support is the legacy of scientific racism. There was an attempt, mainly fueled by racism, to prove that Uralic-speaking peoples were related to Mongols, and thus belonged to a different race than Indo-European speaking peoples. This would justify policies of colonization, integration and racialist eugenics against peoples such as the Sámi. "Data" such as craniometry was used to support the hypothesis. None of this carries any scientific merit, but amazingly enough, the hypothesis is still cited as a fact in nationalist pseudohistory, particularly by neo-Nazis and similar groups.
- Some claims about the original homeland of Proto Indo-Europeans: the language family probably originated somewhere in western Asia but it's popular for nationalists across much of Eurasia to claim their country or region was the PIE urheimat.
Real linguistics is about understanding how real people use language, and the chief reference is the language as it is really spoken. In contrast, prescriptivists want to tell people how language should be used, based not on real-life examples but on a variety of bizarre and illogical arguments, including historical arguments, comparison with other languages (usually Latin for English-language prescriptivists), and other logical fallacies. Oxford Bibliographies Online says of linguistic prescriptivism: "this ideology and its practices are now usually ascribed to nonlinguists or nonacademic linguists, whereas modern academic linguists ... restrict themselves to the study and description of the structure of language and its natural use."
One common example is the so-called ban on splitting infinitives in English, such as in the phrase "to boldly go" which is considered bad writing by some. These have existed in English at least since the 14th century, but have been criticised by pedants since the Victorian age. Some people say this is based on a comparison with Latin because there is no such thing as a split infinitive in Latin: an infinitive in Latin is a single word, while in English it is two words ("to go"), so it is impossible to split an infinitive in Latin but easy in English. On the other hand, others point out that "go", not "to go", is actually the infinitive in English, and therefore suggest that there's no logic behind the prohibition: most of the infinitive police think it's uneducated or just don't like it.
Pseudolinguistics on Conservapedia
This section is for people who don't like Conservapedia. Most of these links include side by side commentary.
- Conservapedia:Devolution of language, which talks about the degeneration of English.
- Conservapedia:History of the English Language includes a number of misinterpretations and SNAFUs about the English language.
- Conservapedia:Linguistic determinism, on how American English is superior, because that wiki is written in it.
- Occam's razor — the majority of nationalist pseudolinguistics is based around the notion that this doesn't exist
- Why is linguistics such a magnet for dilettantes and crackpots?, Gaston Dorren
- Folk linguistics on Wikipedia
- Of the Antiquity of the English Tongue, a satirical piece by Jonathan Swift
- It's egocentrism. To combat them, just ask them if they believe Germans are Iranian.
- Everything You Need To Know About Lemuria, The Lost Continent Of Lemurs
- The Hungarian Horseradish
- Orin Gensler. A Typological Evaluation of Celtic/Hamito-Semitic Parallels. Berkeley, 1993. Via Librik. "https://linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/335/are-there-other-pairs-of-languages-that-are-as-close-grammatically-despite-not-b/346#346 Answer to Are there other pairs of languages that are as close grammatically despite not being in the same language family as Korean and Japanese?]". Linguistics Stack Exchange, 2011-09-21. Accessed 2014-02-02.
- Steve Hewitt. "Remarks on the Insular Celtic / Hamito-Semitic question". Academia.edu. Accessed 2014-03-25. Believed to be preprint of Hewitt, S. (2009), The Question of a Hamito-Semitic Substratum in Insular Celtic. Language and Linguistics Compass, 3: 972–995. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-818X.2009.00141.x.
- See the Wikipedia article on Goídel Glas.
- The Who, What, and Why of “Reformed Egyptian” in the Book of Mormon, Book of Mormon Central, May 13, 2019
- The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax, Geoffrey Pullum
- As mocked here
- See the Wikipedia article on Proto-Indo-Europeans.
- Linguistic Prescriptivism, Robin Straaijer, Oxford Bibliographies Online, 23 Aug 2017
- To Boldly Split Infinitives, Arrant Pedantry, Sep 8, 2016
- See the Wikipedia article on Split infinitive.
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