March 06, 2007

Nutty Journalists' (and Others') Language Theories

Today's New York Times has another entry in the sweepstakes for least appealing claims about language. Nicholas Wade, the Times reporter who never heard a dumb claim about language that he didn't like, reports that Stephen Oppenheimer, an Oxford geneticist, claims in a new book that "the principal ancestors of today's British and Irish populations arrived from Spain about 16,000 years ago, speaking a language related to Basque."

Oh, really? Did they bring along papyri or pots containing Basque writing that has survived until modern times, to be somehow discovered by a medical geneticist in his Oxford lab? Or has Oppenheimer perhaps found genetic links between Basque and some people in Britain and Ireland? Or is he just guessing? Or -- something that must be considered, with Nicholas Wade reporting -- is the Basque theory not Oppenheimer's but Wade's? Even genetic links wouldn't provide terrific evidence that prehistoric non-Celtic, non-Germanic, non-Italic speakers in the British Isles were speaking Basque: language shift is a fact of life throughout the world, at all periods of history (reported for instance by Herodotus), and genes and language often don't match.

The article gets even weirder when Wade turns to another geneticist, Peter Forster, whose name may be recognized by faithful Language Log readers as the proponent of a linguistically untenable theory of the origins of Celtic . According to Wade, Oppenheimer

"has relied on work by Peter Forster, a geneticist..., to argue that Celtic is a much more ancient language than supposed....He also adopts Dr. Forster's argument, based on a statistical analysis of vocabulary, that English is an ancient, fourth branch of the Germanic language tree, and was spoken in England before the Roman invasion.

"English is usually assumed to have developed in England, from the language of the Angles and Saxons, about 1,500 years ago. But Dr. Forster argues that the Angles and the Saxons were both really Viking peoples who began raiding Britain ahead of the accepted historical schedule. They did not bring their language to England because English, in his view, was already spoken there, probably introduced before the arrival of the Romans by tribes such as the Belgae, whom Julius Caesar describes as being present on both sides of the Channel."

And so it continues. Wade reports Forster's claim that English is not West Germanic but an independent fourth branch of Germanic -- which (of course, given his enthusiasm for pushing splits in branches of Indo-European back into the more distant past) means that Proto-Germanic must have "split into its four branches some 2,000 to 6,000 years ago".

Oops. There are a lot of things wrong with this picture. First, about those 2,000 years: English is attested, as Old English, from about 800 C.E.; Gothic, the only East Germanic language, is attested from the 4th century C.E.; Old Norse (North Germanic, the language of the real Vikings) is attested starting in 700 C.E.; and Old High German, like English a West Germanic language, is attested from the 8th century C.E. All these attestations are much too early to leave time for differentiation (as Forster claims) starting a mere few hundred years earlier. Forster would presumably prefer his 6,000-year estimate, but the 2,000-year estimate shows how little he knows, or understands, about Germanic languages.

Second, the idea that 150 years of careful research in Germanic languages can be overthrown by a statistical analysis of vocabulary (which is Forster's sole technique) makes no sense: it might be relevant if languages were all vocabulary and if Forster understood enough about language to construct a useful sample, but the linkage of English with West Germanic -- through its closest relation, Frisian, and then the also closely-related Dutch and Low German -- is absolutely solid. These languages, together with (High) German, share significant innovations in phonology and morphology as well as in the lexicon; it is those innovations that provide the evidence for the usually accepted -- not "assumed"! -- subgrouping of the Germanic branch of Indo-European.

I have no expertise whatsoever in genetics and I therefore have no comment on Dr. Oppenheimer's proposals in this highly technical and well-developed field of inquiry. It would be nice if geneticists like Forster (and reporters like Wade) would reciprocate -- if they would somehow manage to arrive at an understanding of the fact that historical linguistics is a highly technical and well-developed field of inquiry in which expert knowledge is needed to support hypotheses.

Posted by Sally Thomason at March 6, 2007 09:48 AM