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Matters Arising (The History of Britain Revealed)
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Mick Harper
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... that two diachronically related languages could equally well be related in either order. This is simply false: it is easy to show, by demonstrable and largely predictable cross-linguistic evidence on the nature of linguistic change

I feel a bogus list coming on
that (for instance) Italian is descended from (Vulgar) Latin rather than vice versa.

Yup, it's a list of one and the one they have chosen (out of thousands available) is the very one that is the bone of contention. They really are shameless. Still, now they've got the bit between their teeths, we can look forward to more technical objections

Romance is also the locus of one of Harper’s most telling errors of fact.

Before we get onto it, I should remind you (again) this review is being written for a generalist audience, not linguists. Just to baldly state 'Romance' is not a kind way of treating them. Nor is 'locus' but I will let that pass. They begin by conceding I do know a bit about linguistics

He argues correctly that it would be strange if a whole raft of identical grammatical changes were to occur independently in languages which are descended from a common ancestor but which are not currently in contact.

So what is my 'error of fact'? You can't argue with them. I must have been a very naughty boy...
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Wile E. Coyote


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Because of his limited knowledge of linguistics, including the crucially relevant historical and social branches of linguistics,


Linguistics is crucially relevant, if only more folks adopted the historical and social branches. I had missed this. I wonder if Mark could tell us of any linguist with a speciality in these crucial branches. They certainly warrant much more funding.
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Mick Harper
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Under such circumstances, some identical and numerous similar changes would actually be expected, thanks to shared structural pressures among the related languages,

Are we to have some examples? No.
but we would not expect globally identical changes.

I think they are conceding I was right. I thought we were supposed to be hearing about me being 'factually in error'.

He uses this point to attack the standard model of Romance.

I do indeed.

But in fact most of the features that distinguish early Romance from Classical Latin were already found in Vulgar Latin, among them the reduction of the case system and the collapse of the neuter gender. There is no mystery here, contrary to Harper’s impression.

Yes, poppets, except that (a) there is no firm evidence of the existence of 'Vulgar Latin' and (b) insofar as there is, I argue it is Common Italian rather than Vulgar Latin. I don't mind you arguing with me about that but don't call it an 'error of fact'. What else ya got in the locker?

Harper has a weak understanding of language history and language contact, including language replacements. We will give a few examples. On page 8 he asserts that, on the mainstream view, ‘the Anglo-Saxons were [supplanted] by the Normans in the eleventh century’. Not so: there were perhaps 20,000 Norman French speakers versus about 1.5-2 million English speakers (Thomason & Kaufman, 1988:268),

They need locking up. I said the Anglo-Saxon written language was supplanted by the Normans. I may be guilty of making factual errors but supposing that the Norman-French supplanted the English is not one of them. I'm sure I would have noticed if they had. Don't worry, it gets worse.
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Mick Harper
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Just to make your card, Mark'n'Sarah are embarked on a list of my factual errors and the subject is language replacement.

There is contemporary evidence that many or most of the Normans were bilingual in French and English within a generation or two after the Conquest (Mellinkoff, 1963:68).

This is news to me and I doubt there is much evidence on the question but OK, if they say so. What's it got to do with lexical change?

The Normans did not supplant the English, except in government, and they did not suppress the English language.

I knew -- everyone knows -- about the government bit. I didn't know -- and nobody knows -- about the language bit because it is impossible to suppress a language being spoken by 99.9% (their figures) of the population.

On page 9: ‘“Persuading” the natives to speak the invaders’ language normally happens when the invaders are culturally in advance of the natives...’.

This is very cute. Without mentioning it to the reader M & S have switched over to me discussing the Anglo-Saxons and the supposedly Celtic-speaking British of Roman and post-Roman times. But it sure makes me look a fool. Ironically, it is their theory that they did, I say they didn't because they weren't Celtic-speakers.

This too is false. The Sumerians all shifted to the language of invaders who did not possess the glory of inventing writing;

They might have done but since we don't know what the Sumerians were speaking at the time (only that some of them were writing in a Sumerian script), who can say? Mark & Sarah apparently.

almost all of their Akkadian successors shifted to the language of their successors

I refer you to my previous comment

the Egyptians all shifted from Egyptian to Arabic

I refer you to my previous comment

almost all the Greeks in Turkey shifted to Turkish within a few centuries of the Turkish invasion of Asia Minor

I refer you to my previous comment.

and so forth. Military superiority is not always accompanied by cultural superiority.

I never said it did. I was referring to cases like Europeans invading the Americas and Australasia where the disparity in culture is so great that it is not a question of one population adopting the language of the invader as being wiped out by the invader.
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Mick Harper
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Harper’s lack of knowledge of linguistic issues is most revealingly indicated by two general claims about language change (page 30):
"The languages we speak today, and can study in detail, have not been written down for very long and therefore cannot be studied in much historical depth...We know almost nothing about how unwritten languages change over time."

I really didn't think I was saying anything controversial here:

(1) The languages we speak today have only been written down for a few hundred years (Correct)
(2) By definition we don't know how unwritten languages change at all. How can we? (Correct)

Part of the problem here is factual: the Indo-European language family has in fact been written for over 3,000 years

This is breathtaking. I never mentioned language families, only 'the languages we speak today'. They can't have forgotten so soon, can they? It's in their previous sentence.

both Greek and Hittite are attested in the second millennium BCE

Botheration! I'd forgotten about the Hittites. I can't remember where they live now... is it southern Armenia? Al-Jazeera were talking to them the other day about something or other.

so Greek is one language spoken today that has quite a long written history.

(1) Classical Greek has a long written history and hasn't changed a bit but is not spoken today (one for M J Harper).
(2) Demotic Greek is spoken today but cannot be studied in any historic depth (one for M J Harper).

In fact, Harper argues elsewhere that, once established, written languages actually change very little over time in any case, and that no case is known – as opposed to hypothesised – of one such language developing into another. Here he ignores ...

Oh well, we'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what I've been ignoring. Whatever it is, Sam and Dave will be on it like hawks. [One for Wylie there.]
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Mick Harper
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Here he ignores the fact that the concept of ‘Language X being descended from Language Y’ is really only the concept of ‘Language Y having changed’ writ large.

Apart from writing a book about it.
Sudden large sets of changes are rare

They've just sold the paradigm pass! The whole book is dedicated to the proposition because linguists keep insisting on finding them.

but after a while the accumulated changes are sufficiently large and numerous for a new identity to emerge

You don't say. What, by the way, happened to your 'rare' argument?

especially where the original language diversifies markedly, as in the case of Romance

I would have thought then that this is a good reason to be suspicious of the Romance case. But our duo don't stop there, they've got some science to back them up.

And, contrary to his claims, in very many cases change within a language – written as well as spoken – can indeed be observed in the data and can be systematically analysed and described.

But with this pair you may be sure, out of the thousands available, they will unerringly choose the very one that is at issue

See for instance the case of Greek, mentioned just above.

We are now given chapter and verse hot from researchers in the field

Nowadays, ongoing changes can actually be tracked in real time, by repeating sociolinguistically-informed surveys of spoken or written usage at suitable intervals.

I wonder if any of these surveys demonstrated 'large sets of changes' which is what we were promised so long ago. We shall never know because they don't say. They daren't say because all of them show the usual slow incremental change of all spoken languages. I know this because if one of them didn't I would have heard all about it. They prefer a return to Get Harper...
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Mick Harper
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Actually, given that Harper does accept the notion of two or more languages being ‘genetically’ related, he is in fact committed to accepting that one language can change enough, given enough time, to be regarded as now being another language. The former implies the latter.

Honestly, they really said this. I'm not making it up.

Further examples of Harper’s factual errors include the assertion that ‘languages persist with quite extraordinary tenacity so that even today, in the face of the fiercest cultural pressure from the “majors”, quite tiny language groups hang around and even modestly flourish’ (page 23).

Blimey O'Reilly, surely they can't take issue with this?

This confident statement will surprise experts on language endangerment, who know that minority languages all over the world have been vanishing at such a horrific rate that even conservative estimates predict the demise of 50% of the world’s 6,000 or so languages by the end of this century.

I certainly wouldn't take issue with this. It's a fact. That's why I pointed out -- and then go on to discuss at considerable length -- examples of when it doesn't happen! Because it's damned important that we try to save what we can and we're not being helped by linguists offering up their potty theories about wholesale language changes taking place all the time.

More tomorrow when I have regained my equilibrium.
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Mick Harper
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I have to break off for a moment for a diatribe. Mark and Sarah are, as far as I know, respected academics so we can take them as a benchmark. Certainly their piece is sui generis. The baffling things are these:

1. They appear not to possess the rudiments of argument. Even allowing for polemic they do not understand the difference between the particular and the general. They constantly make generalised (and linguistically orthodox) claims but then cite not just a very few examples, not just the same examples, but examples that shouldn't have been included in the first place.

2. They have no appreciation of scale. For example, when they talk about language change they treat the ordinary lexical variation that is part and parcel as the same as Anglo-Saxon to English or Latin to French.

3. A total lack of curiosity. This is their life, you would think that one or two novel arguments in my book -- and there are a vast number of them -- would arrest their attention. But they (and all academics) treat new ideas (not something academics excel in producing) as a foreign body that has landed on their petri dish and must be enveloped immediately and by every defence mechanism that is to hand (or not to hand, anything will do).

4. Stupidity. And this really does apply to all academics. I know I'm a superstar and all that but I never even get a run for my money from academics. I think I'm right in saying -- and Hatty will wade in if I'm not -- but after a lifetime of writing all sorts the only valid criticism I have ever received is getting St Ann wrong as the mother of John the Baptist. (I think I may have got it wrong again.) One academic said I'd made an error on practically every page of some book I had written (without instancing any). What's the largest number of errors you've ever spotted in a single book? For me, it's maybe three. For this particular reviewer it was something close to a hundred and seventy eight.

5. But here's the weirdest bit of all. Mark and Sarah (and I've no doubt the editors of Skeptical Enquirer if they take an interest) think it's the other way round. It's me that's been routed. Yes, I know, such wholesale projective identification may mean it is me that should be heading for the funny farm but I find it difficult to believe. But then nutters always do so that's not a great comfort. Academics always have the comfort of knowing, at the very least, they are not clinically insane. I'm not sure, given the choice...
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Mick Harper
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On Harper’s claim that Language A cannot be ‘grammatically and syntactically distant from Language Band yet share a vocabulary with it’ (page 92): yes, it can. To give just one of many possible examples, Tok Pisin, in origin a pidgin language and now one of the official national languages of Papua New Guinea, shares almost its entire vocabulary with English, but its grammar is wildly different from English grammar.

Glorious! They have chosen Tok Pisin (an artificial language) out of 'many possible examples' (i.e. ordinary languages) to put the boot in. But there's more on this in the Applied Epistemology section so I'll say no more here.

On the question of loanwords in English (page 95): the vast majority of them cluster in the non-basic vocabulary; the basic vocabulary contains only about 7% loanwords, some from French and some from Old Norse.

This is at least technical. Irrelevant (I wasn't dealing with loanwords), unevidenced (no-one knows the source of most of them) and poorly argued (what is the percentage of loanwords in other basic vocabularies?) but it is at least technical. Mark and Sarah are done with technical arguments for the moment.

Much of the difficulty with Harper’s claims, however ,is conceptual rather than merely factual. It is true that historical linguistics is an arcane field that is not easily accessible to non-specialists, but even a modest amount of research should have disabused Harper of some of his notions (see any standard textbook account, e.g. Campbell, 1998).

A bit pompous, severely patronising but fair enough. What are they? Oh no!

For instance, returning to his two erroneous general claims about language change
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Mick Harper
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Historical linguistics, in roughly its modern form, was developed in the nineteenth century.

They consider this a good thing.
Darwin drew on our methods and results in The Descent of Man

Another good thing.
and the anthropologists’ cladistic approach is again based on our methods.

And another good thing. What it's got to do with me is not yet clear.

The comparative method used by historical linguists is powerful and reliable

Now it's clear. I have written a book about it, saying it's a bunch of bollocks.

as shown by tests of various kinds

You mean tests thought up by historical linguists to test the efficacy of historical linguistics? I'll be fascinated to hear about them (and a bit nervous to be honest)
and it applies equally well to written and unwritten languages

Not any more I'm not. How do you apply tests to unwritten languages? We don't know anything about them. Unless there were tape recorders in ye olden days, the written record is the only source that is testable.

Using this and other extremely successful methods, historical linguists have established dozens of language families all over the world

So you have. I use them frequently in my book.

reconstructed sizable chunks of undocumented parent languages

So you have. I mock them frequently in my book since these are nothing more than linguists sitting around playing 'what if'. By applying their own assumptions about language change to their own model of language families they have come up with parent languages that exist nowhere outside linguistic textbooks. Do you know the Indic for 'oxcarts'? They do.

and developed detailed accounts of enormous numbers of linguistic changes (including changes involving languages in contact), with results that extend back in time to at least 6,000 years BP.

I don't know quite how to convey the sheer effrontery of this. So I won't. We've got an entire corpus of threads dealing with it. We are nearing the end ("Hooray!") but there is still time for the very worst of their charges against me. ("Hooray, can't wait.")
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Mick Harper
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There are also problems with Harper’s reasoning. For instance, on the relationship between the origin of a language and its first date of attestation (page 92): the fact that Latin is not recorded until the first millennium BCE does not mean that it did not exist until then

This is absolutely disgusting. Mark & Sarah know the reason I am saying this is because I regard Latin as an invented scribal language and that therefore the date of its origin will also be the date of first attestation. They have not burdened their readers with this information so it looks for all the world as if I don't know you can't attest to something unless it already exists. That would make me completely off my trolley but Mark & Sarah are not satisfied with this

any more than the fact that Navajo was not written until after European contact means that the language itself sprang into existence at the moment Europeans discovered it.

Where have the Navajo's sprung from? Remember that crack about me wanting the death of small languages? Well, this just reminds the reader that I'm a fascist beast as well as being a looney-tune. They are now in a position to wrap things up and so are we...
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Mick Harper
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There are many other errors in Harper’s book, both major and minor.

When they find one, we'll decide whether it is major or minor. Disagreeing with me doesn't count as an error.

He attacks straw men

I attack academics so I'd probably plead guilt to this

and throughout the book he ignores scholarly traditions, for instance the entire body of linguistic work on Old and Middle English.

I thought I had written a whole book on it. Back to the drawing board!

Elsewhere, apparently randomly, he assumes the validity of outdated positions, and he refers to contentious nonstandard accounts of the past as if they were facts.

I will be happy to amend the next edition if they let me know what they are.

Harper posts frequently about these and other partly linguistic issues to historically-oriented web discussion groups, and these posts reveal that his ideas are highly dubious on a broader front.

I think this is the fascist angle.

He has more publications planned, dealing with the wider history of languages; but on the evidence before us these are likely to be vitiated by similar errors.

What a right couple of crystal ball gazers they turned out to be.

Most historical linguists who are not active skeptics will probably not hear of Harper’s work

I thought all academics are supposed to be active skeptics but I suppose they mean über-skeptics like themselves.

and if they do hear of it, they will not think it worthy of a response. To earn a hearing from experts on the history of English, Harper would need to offer much better reasons to accept his linguistic case and also take the counter-evidence to his proposals seriously enough to address it in a more scholarly manner.

I can assure you, dear Sarah, dear Mark, there are not enough reasons in the known universe that will get non-academic proposals a hearing in the academy. I think you have demonstrated pretty convincingly why that is.
/end of
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Wile E. Coyote


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Is it the case that that the less scientific the academic subject, the more academic whingeing you get about the supposed technical shortcoming of outsiders?

If it was a natural science and they thought you were wrong, they would have just suggested a double blind trial for the Miracle Snakeoil?
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Mick Harper
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I don't have enough contact with or knowledge of the sciences to answer the question directly (though I deprecate the use of both pure and natural when categorising them on AE grounds) but

(a) great wodges of both the earth and life sciences are not sciences at all and certainly don't go in for scientific method as per double blind trials. But they're always going on about how scientific they are
(b) wodges of the social sciences (and great wodges of medicine) are actually more scientific than either of the above
(c) when it comes to the humanities in general (minus the above) the whole thing becomes a joke. They are all illiterate about statistics and think making lists is sort of the same thing. In my experience, linguistics is the worst offender.

But this is too big a subject for more than vapourings at this time but I'll post up a couple of vapours from my book.
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Mick Harper
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From 650 BC onwards both Athenian pottery and Egyptian scarabs dated everything securely. For earlier periods a statistical method could be employed using local pottery and not an absolute chronology to date the start of the Iron Age which could not be pushed back as early as Mycenaean scholars required at that time ie 1150 BC (Einer Gjerstad)

I should warn you, Einar, the one quality both archaeologists and historians share is a distaste for, and an invincible ignorance of, statistics. Though they will be giving your idea about non-absolute chronologies a warm welcome.

Arne Furumark, of Uppsala University, the leading authority on Mycenaean pottery chronology argued that Cypro-Geometric could not have started later than 1150 BC

But Gjerstad showed off the power of non-absolute chronology

Feeling intuitively that this date was too high, Gjerstad arbitrarily reduced it by a century, to 1050 BC and launched a lengthy attack on Furumark. Although the arguments were unconvincing ... Furumark felt inclined to accept most of them, evidently in view of his opponent's superior grasp of Cypriot matters.

Thanks to Gjerstad, the Cyprus tail was now wagging the Greek dog

This acceptance had the drastic result that the later part of Mycenaean chronology was now dated by Cyprus, against all previous expectations.
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