August 29, 2005

Encounters with Silliness

I've been catching up on Language Log and various other things. Mark's post about silly things people say about linguistics reminded me of a visit I had from a student some years ago when I was teaching at the University of Northern British Columbia. She came to discuss with me the topic on which she wanted to write her term paper for someone else's course, namely her idea that the Gitksan-Witsuwit'en are the Lost Tribes of Israel.

I began by objecting to the idea that the Gitkwan-Witsuwit'en could be the Lost Tribes of anywhere, on the grounds that they aren't a unitary group at all. The Gitksan speak a Tsimshianic language, closely related to Nisga'a, whereas the Witsuwit'en speak an entirely different Athabaskan language, whose closest relative is Carrier, which I have mentioned here from time to time. Their languages are no more similar to each other than English and Navajo. The reason that the term Gitksan-Witsuwit'en exists is that the two were for a time allied for political and legal purposes in the form of the Office of the Gitksan-Witsuwit'en Hereditary Chiefs. This is the organization behind Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, the lawsuit that ultimately led the Supreme Court of Canada, in 1997, to rule that aboriginal title still exists in British Columbia as a burden on the title of the Crown. The fact that these two quite different groups formed an alliance no more means that they shared a common history than does the fact that Turkey and Germany were allied in the First World War. We do not draw from this fact the inference that there is a Turco-Germanic people.

In addition to pointing out, with no evident impact, the fact that there is no such tribe as the Gitksan-Witsuwit'en, I enquired as to what precisely the evidence was, in her view, that the Gitkwan-Witsuwit'en were the Lost Tribes of Israel. I was pretty certain that they were not mentioned in the Bible. Was there some other evidence she had in mind?

She immediately demanded to know whether I believed in the Bible. I responded that my view of the truth of the Bible was irrelevant since the Bible had nothing to say about the matter. We went back and forth on this briefly. Then she stalked off, convinced that I was yet another unbeliever whose denial of the truth of the Bible led him to reject her hypothesis about the Gitksan-Witsuwit'en. There's no point in arguing with some people.

Posted by Bill Poser at August 29, 2005 11:10 PM