Pseudoscientific language comparison
Pseudoscientific language comparison is a form of pseudo-scholarship that has the objective of establishing historical associations between languages by naive postulations of similarities between them.
While comparative linguistics also studies the historical relationships of languages, linguistic comparisons are considered pseudoscientific by linguists when they are not based on the established practices of comparative linguistics, or on the more general principles of the scientific method. Pseudoscientific language comparison is usually performed by persons with little or no specialization in the field of comparative linguistics. It is a widespread type of linguistic pseudoscience (another example being false etymology).
The most common method applied in pseudoscientific language comparisons is to search two or more languages for words that seem similar in their sound and meaning. While similarities of this kind often seem convincing to laypersons, linguistic scientists consider this kind of comparison to be unreliable for two primary reasons. First, the method applied is not well-defined: the criterion of similarity is subjective and thus not subject to verification or falsification, which is contrary to the principles of the scientific method. Second, the large size of all languages' vocabulary makes it easy to find coincidentally similar words between languages.
Because of its unreliability, the method of searching for isolated similarities is rejected by nearly all comparative linguists (however, see mass comparison for a controversial method that operates by similarity). Instead of noting isolated similarities, comparative linguists use a technique called the comparative method to search for regular (i.e. recurring) correspondences between the languages’ phonology, grammar and core vocabulary in order to test hypotheses of relatedness.
Certain types of languages seem to attract much more attention in pseudoscientific comparisons than others. These include languages of ancient civilizations such as Egyptian, Etruscan or Sumerian; language isolates or near-isolates such as Basque, Japanese and Ainu; and languages that are unrelated to their geographical neighbors such as Hungarian.
Political or religious implications
There may also be political or religious reasons to associate languages in ways that most linguists would dispute.
For example, it has been suggested that the Turanian or Ural-Altaic language group, which relates Sami and other languages to the Mongolian language, was used to justify racism towards the Sami in particular. There are also strong, albeit areal not genetic, similarities between the Uralic and Altaic languages which provided an innocent basis for this theory.
Some believers in Abrahamic religions try to derive their native languages from Classical Hebrew, as Herbert W. Armstrong, a proponent of British Israelism, who said that the word 'British' comes from Hebrew brit meaning 'covenant' and ish meaning 'man', supposedly proving that the British people are the 'covenant people' of God.
The Lithuanian–American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas argued during the mid-1900s that Basque is clearly related to the extinct Pictish and Etruscan languages, even though at least the comparison had earlier been rejected within a decade of being proposed in 1892 by Sir John Rhys. Her motivation was to show Basque was a remnant of an "Old European culture".
Traits and characteristics
There is no universal way to identify pseudoscientific language comparisons; indeed, it is not clear that all pseudoscientific language comparisons form a single group. However, the following characteristics tend to be more common among pseudoscientific theories (and their advocates) than among scientific ones:
- Failure to apply an accepted, or at least systematic, method to demonstrate regular correspondences between the languages. Unsystematic comparisons are effectively unfalsifiable.
- Failure to present grammatical evidence for relatedness: claims are based exclusively on word comparisons, even though in comparative linguistics grammatical evidence is also required to confirm relatedness.
- Arbitrary segmentation of compared forms: comparisons are based on the similarity of only a part of the words compared (usually the first syllable), whereas the rest of the word is ignored.
- Disregard for the effects of morphology on word structure: uninflected root forms may be compared with fully inflected forms, or marked forms may be used in preference to lesser- or unmarked forms.
- Severe lack of diligence, or competence in at least one of the languages compared, or in their historical development. For example, assigning of incorrect meanings, quoting of rare or even spurious lexemes, morphs or meanings or of obscure dialect forms, misinterpretation of explanations in linguistic literature, or failure to use well-known developments or facts into account. When forms and meanings are simply compiled and quoted from dictionaries (or even only a single source), inaccuracies creep in very easily. Even linguistically trained native speakers are not automatically experts in their own language, its dialectology and its history, and even professional linguists can impossibly be experts in large numbers of diverse languages and families, so consulting experts in the languages in question to help detect errors is urgently recommended.
- Failure to consider the possibility of borrowing. Neighboring languages may share much vocabulary and many grammatical features as a result of language contact, and adequate application of the comparative method is required to determine whether the similarities result from contact or from relatedness.
- Relying on typological similarities between languages: the morphological type of the language is claimed to provide evidence for relatedness, but in comparative linguistics only material parallels are accepted as evidence of a historical connection.
- Neglect of known history: present-day forms of words are used in comparisons, neglecting either the attested or the reconstructed history of the language in question, or words of varying time depths (such as current, archaic, and reconstructed words) and reliability of reconstruction are used interchangeably.
- Advocation of geographically far-fetched connections, such as comparing Finnish (in Finland) to Quechua (in Peru), or Basque (in Spain and France) to Ainu (in Japan), or Spanish (in Spain) to Japanese (in Japan). This criterion is only suggestive, though, as a long distance does not exclude the possibility of a relationship: English is demonstrably related to Hindi (in India), and Hawaiian to Malagasy (on Madagascar).
- Advocation of fanciful historical scenarios on the basis of the purported linguistic findings, e.g. claims of unknown civilizations or ancient migrations across oceans.
- Claims that the purported remote linguistic relationship is obvious and easy to perceive. A distant relationship between languages is usually not obvious on a superficial examination, and can only be uncovered via a successful application of the comparative method.
- Failure to submit results to peer reviewed linguistic journals.
- Assertion that criticism towards the theory is motivated by traditionalism, ideological factors or conspiracy on behalf of the linguistic community.
- (Swedish) Niclas Wahlgren. Något om rastänkandet i Sverige.
- See Gimbutas, Marija, The Living Goddesses pp. 122 and 171-175 ISBN 0-520-22915-0
- Trask, p.395
- Campbell, p.322
- Campbell, pp.323-324
- Hock and Joseph, p.460
- Campbell, pp.325-326
- Campbell, pp.318-319
- Hock and Joseph, pp.462-464
- Hock and Joseph, pp.463-464
- Campbell, p.325
- Trask, p.395
- Campbell, Lyle (1998). Historical Linguistics: An Introduction. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-53159-3.
- Trask, R. L. (1996). Historical Linguistics. London: Arnold. ISBN 0-340-60758-0.
- Hock, Hans Henrich; Brian D. Joseph (1996). Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-014784-X.