March 02, 2007


Ed Brayton's post at Dispatches From the Culture Wars alerted me to the existence of Conservapedia, an attempt by right-wing fundamentalist Christians to produce their own version of Wikipedia, one without what they consider "liberal bias". His post and various others provide entertaining critiques of the site, but I thought I'd see how it is doing on linguistics, which unlike biology and American history is not a point of contention for right-wing Christians.

I couldn't find anything on linguistics per se: there is no article on "syntax" or "historical linguistics" or "phonetics" or "phoneme" or anything like that. Indeed, somewhat to my surprise, there isn't even an article on "grammar" or "spelling" (though they have an axe to grind about British spellings on Wikipedia). The closest I could find is information about various languages.

The funniest thing I found is about Mycenean:

The Mycenaean language existed in the eastern Mediterranean region among the Mycenae people, from about 1400 to 100 B.C. (during the Bronze Age). The language has been lost and is no longer spoken, except in certain regions of southeastern France. Franco-Mycenaean irrendentism was a somewhat notable political and ideological force during parts of the 18th century.

The edit history shows that the last sentence and the second half of the previous sentence were added to the original article, in two stages, probably by pranksters, so we shouldn't count this one against Conservapedia. The end date of 100 B.C.E. though is way too late and is in the original article.

The Akkadian Language was the language developed and used by the people of Akkad. It is unusual because it has no tense forms. The verbs expressed the manner of action rather than its time.

I suspect that what they mean by "manner of action" is what linguists call "aspect". Lots of languages lack tense systems. This isn't that remarkable.

The Egyptian language is a member of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages and is related to Berber and Semitic. Egyptian has been spoken since 2600B.C. and still survives today as Egyptian Arabic.

Actually, Egyptian, in its latest form of Coptic, was replaced as the dominant language shortly after the Arab conquest in 639 C.E. and came to be restricted to the Christian minority. Although it is still used for liturgical purposes, it ceased to be spoken in the 16th century. Egyptian Arabic is not a descendant of Egyptian. It is a variety of Arabic and is only distantly related to Egyptian.

Egyptian's basic word order is "Subject, Noun, Object."

Hunh? Actually, it is "Verb, Subject, Object".

While Archaic, Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian were written with hieroglyphs, Demotic was written with an alphabet similar to modern Arabic script.

The article confuses "Demotic" as a term for the Egyptian language in the stage transitional between Late Egyptian and Coptic and "Demotic" as a term for a writing system descended from hieratic. Egyptian at all stages could be written in either of two related writing systems, hieroglyphic and hieratic. Demotic script came into existence in the late 25th dynatasy, c. 650 B.C.E. It has no particular similarity to Arabic script and is no more alphabetic than hieroglyphic or hieratic. All three writing systems are alphabetic in that, insofar as they are phonological writing systems, they are based on an analysis of the speech into segments, but all three also make use of non-phonological characters representing words or morphemes.

Egypt's complex, picture-based language probably hindered its growth. The picture-based language was not as easy to use as the alphabet-based Phoenician language later adopted by the Greeks and Romans. How would one express Christian concepts like salvation, faith, hope and redemption? It seems impossible.

This confuses language and writing. Even if the writing system could not express something, there is no reason to believe that the language could not. In any case, it is simply not true that Egyptians could not write about abstract concepts. Not only is it possible to create symbols for abstract concepts, but Egyptian writing had a phonological component, so words could be written phonologically if there was no suitable logogram. The author of this article has obviously never bothered to read even an elementary presentation of the Egyptian writing system or looked at a dictionary or textbook of Egyptian to see whether words denoting abstracting concepts were written.

Although Egyptian is one of the oldest languages, it is certainly not obsolete. Egyptian has been spoken for more than four thousand years, outlasting the majority of languages. It is a piece of history, to be preserved for years to come.

A language not spoken for four hundred years can reasonably be described as obsolete. In any case, what is meant by "oldest language" here? And how can Egyptian be said to have outlasted the majority of languages if the great majority of languages known to us are still spoken and nearly all of them go indefinitely far back into the past?

"[The Mayans'] use of their own pictographic language."

Languages aren't pictographic. Writing systems may be.

The Hittites were a northern Indo-European people...

I'm not sure if this is intended to mean that they belonged to a putative Northern branch of the Indo-European language family or that they lived in Northern Europe or in the northern part of the area occupied by Indo-Europeans, but no matter how you cut it, its wrong. There is no Northern branch of Indo-European to which Hittite belonged, and the Hittites lived in Anatolia, which is not in Europe at all and is in the southern part of the range of Indo-European languages.

I don't think I'll be referring anybody to Conservapedia, much less consulting it myself.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 2, 2007 02:19 AM