February 17, 2008

More on Harper

M.J. Harper's publisher sent me a copy of The Secret History of the English Language. After reading about half of it, I put it away with a sigh. But since Sally Thomason has brought it up -- and revealed that Borders is featuring this little tract prominently on its New Books tables -- I guess I'll trot out a few of the more outrageous passages that I noted before giving up on it.

Harper finds the idea that Latin developed into the modern Romance languages too implausible to believe. But (p. 130)

Fortunately, there's a much more reasonable explanation that meets all the facts: Latin is not a natural language. When written, Latin takes up approximately half the space of written Italian or written French (or written English, German, or any natural European language). Since Latin appears to have come into existence in the first half of the first millennium BC, which was the time when alphabets were first spreading through the Mediterranean basin, it seems a reasonable working hypothesis to assume that Latin was originally a shorthand compiled by Italian speakers for the purposes of written (confidential? commercial?) communication.

So the history, according to Harper, is that English developed into French, which developed into Provençal, which developed into Italian; and then at some point, say around 400 B.C., some Italian merchants invented Latin as a form of shorthand. (Yes, this is really the historical sequence that he suggests.)

But wait, you might be saying to yourself, what about Plautus? Popular plays in shorthand? Fabulae! Mihi quidem hercle non fit verisimile.

Don't worry, though, Harper has a story to tell about that as well:

Does this not conjure up visions of shorthand-typists, left for several generations on a desert island, eventually beginning to converse in Pitman's? It would indeed be a ludicrous proposition, except that we actually possess historical records of a Mediterranean people learning to converse in a hitherto written language and managing to do so without difficulty in a single generation: the Israelis, with Hebrew, in the middle of the 20th century. Both the Ancient Romans and the modern Israelis were able to develop cohesive, aggressive and expansionist new states amidst a sea of hostile neighbours, and it must be assumed that the unique language played some part in this.

I think that Harper misses an obvious generalization here. Perhaps Romulus and Remus were actually Giudeeschi (Italian-speaking Jews), already familiar with the idea of passing a commercial shorthand off as an ancient language. Thus the whole Roman empire was really a Zionist false-flag operation that got out of hand!

You probably won't be surprised to learn that Harper is just as skeptical about biological evolution as about linguistic evolution:

.. one cannot demolish modern creation myths by direct methods of refutation because creation myths -- and academic paradigm theories in general -- are almost invariably, in the jargon, 'not falsifiable'. In essence they always contain some combination of circular argument and untestable assumption that renders them unassailable to normal evidential methods. [...]

Take the exemplar of all modern academic paradigms, the Theory of Evolution. There's no question that the theory is valuable in so far as it has led more or less directly to the creation of the modern Life Sciences, but, true or false, the theory no less certainly contains the seeds of its own infinite survival. Having adopted a properly scientific root-and-branch model of speciation in which ex hypothesi all species must be demonstrably linked to other species, it permits the indefinite opening of new categories whenever a species cannot be demonstrably linked to other species. This has the unavoidable corollary that nothing can ever discovered from now until the end of time that can ever call the model into question.

But in fact, I think, this is not true. Some particular model-instantiations can be shown to be almost certainly false -- that humans are not primates but lagomorphs, for example, or that French arose historically from English, or that Latin was originally a shorthand form of Italian.

The fact that many educated people apparently take this little tome somewhat seriously is an indication of the depth of my profession's failure to provide the public with a basic background in linguistics. And it's not only the the management at Borders -- Helen Gordon, who seems to be an intellectual of sorts, wrote a review of the British edition of this book ("Dons divided" New Statesman 9/4/2006) that ends as follows:

Unusual, funny and provocative, Harper wears his learning lightly, but has a serious point to make. While admitting that his own theories about the early Brits "may or may not be acceptable", he warns that historical anomalies are routinely ignored by the academics we rely on to explain our past. Whatever your stance on the Anglo-Saxons (and Harper's suggestions are rather seductive), this fascinating book is a useful investigation into the ways in which history is constructed and the dangers of "unassailable" academic truths.

My only comment is that anyone who thinks that linguists are in the business of constructing "unassailable" truths can't have spent much time in their company.

The reviews of the British edition on the amazon.co.uk site are more numerous than those on the American site -- since the book has been out there for a couple of years -- and generally more interesting, so far.

The review by Greg Kochanski (a physicist turned linguist, and a very smart guy who has done interesting work) gives the lie to Harper's view of academics by signaling considerable open-mindedness:

... while there are forces for conformity in academia, there are also forces for revolution. If an academic discipline slides into slothful conformity, you can be sure it is because real proof is unobtainable, not because people are too blind to see it. If there were clear evidence, some ambitious junior lecturer would grab it, and use it.

So, don't take the book too seriously. It's probably wrong. There's certainly no known way to prove it right. Still, it has an interesting idea or two in there.

I think that Greg is too hopeful about the possibility that Harper might be on to something. After all, most theories turn out to be wrong, eventually, so if you just insist that everything everyone believes is complete nonsense, you will probably turn out to be partly right -- even if your own suggestions are even more preposterous.

The review by H.J. Lomax is less kind:

Whilst reading this stupid, stupid book, it became clear within the first few paragraphs that M. J. Harper must at some time have been dreadfully wronged by academe and borne a grudge ever since. I can only imagine that historians ran over his childhood pet, or that his father abandoned his family to become an etymologist. Whatever its cause, the deep and burning resentment this man feels is palpable. One could almost feel sorry for him if it wasn't for the overwhelming torrents of smug self-satisfaction that cascade from every page.

Let me note in passing that it's far from clear that M.J. Harper is male. The book's "about the author" blurb reads, in its entirety: "MJ Harper lives in London". (The amazon.co.uk site identifies the author as "Michael John Harper", but I can't find anything in the book or on the publisher's web site to indicate that this is true.)

I also wonder whether Lomax might be wrong about the author's motivation. My own hypothesis is that the whole thing was written over a drunken weekend, to win a bar bet:

Harper: It's unbelievable, my friend. No one knows anything anymore. Not anything worth knowing.
Drinking buddy: Oh come now. The general level of education has never been higher.
Harper: Not among the so-called intellectual classes, the idiots that publish and review and buy books. Why, I bet I could write a little tract arguing that French is historically derived from English, and not only get it published, but sell ten times more copies than your last laboriously-researched academic tome.
DB: French derived from English? You're not serious. You might as well argue that Latin was derived from Italian. Everyone knows that's impossible.
Harper: You don't understand -- no one knows anything, not anything that'll stand up to an authoritative poke in an anti-authoritarian voice. Hell, give me a typical modern humanist, and I can make her believe that Latin was invented by Italian speakers as a form of commercial shorthand. Or at least make her accept the idea as an interesting hypothesis.
DB: Latin a shorthand form of Italian? A hundred pounds says no reputable publisher will put it out, unless you frame it as a burlesque.
Harper: Oh, it'll be serious, believe me. You're on for that hundred quid. And how about a side bet on how many copies I sell?


[Update -- Sally Thomason writes:

I'm as sure as I can be without meeting Harper that he's a man: Mark Newbrook knows him, and also he's known as Mick Harper to his friends and/or correspondents.

Sally also believes that Harper's book is meant seriously. I'm disappointed -- it works much better as an academic version of Stephen Colbert, in my opinion. Here's hoping that the evidence of Harper's seriousness is just him staying in character. ]

[David Eddyshaw writes:

The mother of all bizarre linguistic books ever to find a publisher must surely be "Hebrew is Greek" by Joseph Yahuda. I came across this years ago in Arthur Probsthain's deeply respectable academic and Orientalist bookshop opposite the British Museum. I picked it up expecting a humorous book or spoof and was astonished to find that it does - or tries to do - exactly what it says on the tin. The readers ' comments on Amazon are enough to make you lose all faith in democracy.

Well, on the American amazon site ( link), there are only six comments. Four of them were written by "A Customer" who sounds suspiciously likely to be the author. One was written by "Aristotelis Ellinas", who has never reviewed anything else, and might also be the author, if he's not Gus Portokalos from My Big Fat Greek Wedding:

Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek."
"Kimono, kimono, kimono. Ha! Of course! Kimono is come from the Greek word himona, is mean winter. So, what do you wear in the wintertime to stay warm? A robe. You see: robe, kimono. There you go!"
"The root of the word Miller come from a Greek word, millah, meaning apple, so there you go. And our name, Portokalos, is come from the word meaning orange. So today here, we have, apples and oranges. We all different now, but in the end, we're all fruit."

The remaining comment is by someone from Cyprus -- also his only review on amazon -- who writes only that "This is the almost impossible book to get hold of i have a copy if you are interested".

I'd say that democracy comes off pretty well, actually.]

[By the way, Harper's estimate of the relative compactness of Latin prose seems exaggerated to me. Looking on the web, I found a copy of Caesar's De Bello Gallico in Latin, and a copy of W. A. MacDevitt's rather ponderous English translation. After stripping formatting and other extraneous material from the copies in both languages, the English translation, far from being twice as long, contains about 28% more characters.

In general, responsible translation among modern languages results in an increase in length, because of the translator's attempt to render foreign nuances; and MacDevitt's translation is full of needless words ("at all times" instead of "always", "from that place" instead of "from there", etc.) so I think this overstates the expected degree of compression.]

[Ray Girvan writes:

This looks to be the same Mick Harper who's a prominent member of the Applied Epistemology Library (http://www.applied-epistemology.org), a forum site for the discussion of off-the-wall theories, with a notable focus on Harper's book in its older incarnation, "The History of Britain Revealed: the shocking truth about the English language". The forums are secret in the sense that they demand a confidentiality agreement to sign up.

Given the prominent role of Applied Epistemology™ in Harper's book, it seems plausible that he's in fact the proprietor of that site (though I've never visited it and have no other information about it).

If Mr. Harper can raise one eyebrow at a time, and has a sense of humor, I could see a future for him as the host of a sort of intellectual Colbert Report, proving that Britain was originally colonized from North America, that disease causes germs, that cancer leads to smoking, that the North Pole is actually the South Pole, etc., and generally slaying sacred cows right and left. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 17, 2008 03:24 PM