LINGUIST List 25.2689

Tue Jun 24 2014

Review: General linguistics: Newbrook (2013)

Editor for this issue: Mateja Schuck <>

Date: 20-Jan-2014
From: Alexander Droege <>
Subject: Strange Linguistics
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Mark Newbrook
AUTHOR: Jane Curtain
AUTHOR: Alan Reed Libert
TITLE: Strange Linguistics
SERIES TITLE: Linguistics Edition 93
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Alexander Droege, Philipps-Universit├Ąt Marburg

Mark Newbrook's book ''Strange Linguistics'' presents a critical survey of
recent non-mainstream linguistic theories brought forward mostly by
non-professionals, but sometimes by trained linguists. The topics in
Newbrook's collection cover various linguistic areas with a focus on
historical linguistics and writing systems, but also artificial languages and
language-like animal communication. Newbrook has collected a great number of
non-mainstream theories, ranging from controversial to truly bizarre, which he
comments on in an objective way while providing linguistic background
information where necessary.

The book consists of an introduction and twelve chapters preceded by a preface
and a glossary of linguistic terms, and followed by a coda and references. All
chapters were written by Mark Newbrook, with some sections co-authored with
Jane Curtain (in Chapter 6), and Alan Libert (in Chapters 9 and 11).

The first four chapters are dedicated to historical linguistics. Chapter 1,
''Language origins and language change'' (pp. 25-86), deals with theories on
the origins of language and language change. The first sections present
generally accepted ideas and concepts about historical linguistics,
introducing some key terms such as ''diffusion'' (p. 26) and ''borrowing'' (p.
29) that are crucial for understanding non-mainstream theories. Many of the
non-mainstream approaches discussed here apply the concept of diffusion in an
extreme way, claiming that languages that are commonly assumed unrelated or
even that all languages descend from one single ancestor language, the
''Ursprache'' (p. 31). Newbrook observes that such claims are often motivated
by nationalistic or religious convictions, and they fail to meet scientific
standards due to flawed methodology. Newbrook sketches the ''comparative
method'' as applied by professional linguists (p. 29), relying on systematic
correspondences across the lexicon, and shows how many amateurs fail in their
attempts of establishing links between languages not known to be related. The
critical problem is often misguided etymologies, based on superficial
resemblances in small samples of words rather than systematic sound
correspondences. The remainder of this chapter is organized into sections
dealing with theories of languages in a particular geographical region,
covering Africa, the Americas, West and East Asia, India, Europe, and the
Pacific, with special sections on Egypt, and various languages in Europe such
as Greek, Latin, Hungarian, and Basque.

In Chapter 2, '''Concocted' languages and very short words'' (pp. 87-103), we
learn about linguistic 'concoction'. Most authors suggesting theories of this
sort assume that languages are constituted of very short morphemes that are
said to prove alleged linguistic relationships, for example between English
and Hebrew because of the re-analysis of the word ''Saxons'' supposedly
originating from ''Isaac's sons'' (p. 100).

Chapter 3, ''The origins of human language as a phenomenon'' (pp. 105-118), is
concerned with theories of the very emergence of language in ancient times.
Many accounts of particular proto-languages must be regarded as speculation
about the prehistory of language with methodologically flawed linguistic
reconstruction and no adequate archaeological evidence. On a related note,
Newbrook discusses ''intelligent design'', proposed by creationist linguists,
many professional linguists (p. 115). Creationist linguists believe that God
created the world's languages as described in the story of the Tower of Babel,
and they disregard well-established linguistic theories that are generally
accepted by most historical linguists.

In Chapter 4, ''Mysterious writing systems, inscriptions and other texts''
(pp. 119-144), non-mainstream theories about the history of writing and the
development of various scripts are presented, including accounts of
deciphering the Phaistos Disk or the Indus Valley Script. Among other strange
theories, we learn of the claim that the Hungarians used runic writing about
6,500 years ago (p. 137), which would make runes far older than Egyptian
hieroglyphs or Sumerian cuneiform, contrary to generally accepted views. As in
Chapter 1, the sections here are thematically divided into geographical
regions (Africa, Egypt, the Americas, West and East Asia, India, Europe, and
the Pacific, with additional sections on particular languages).

Chapter 5, ''Language (itself sometimes mysterious) from mysterious sources''
(pp. 145-166), touches upon paranormal issues related to language, such as
''glossolalia'' (p. 145), ''channelling'' (p. 146), or ''xenoglossia'' (p.
152). A major part of this chapter is dedicated to extraterrestrial language.
Newbrook hypothesizes that aliens from outer space would probably differ from
human beings considerably, suggesting that their type of language might show
dramatic differences: If aliens used the oral modality at all, it might be
that their frequency range is imperceptible to human hearing. Luckily, aliens
appear to be able to use telepathy and communicate in a holistic way, as some
individuals who have allegedly had contact with alien language report (p.

In Chapter 6, ''Reversals and other alleged mysterious features'' (pp.
167-173), reversed speech is discussed. Many popular songs, especially in rock
music, are said to contain hidden, mainly sinister messages when played
backwards. There is even a theory developed by David Oates and colleagues
(Oates 1996, and related work) that these messages are present in everyday
speech, produced unconsciously during conversation. Newbrook and Jane Curtain
examine this proposal critically and provide results of their own experiments
(Newbrook & Curtain 1997) questioning claims of reversed speech.

Chapter 7, ''Allegedly mysterious scripts, texts, etc. (non-historical
issues)'' (pp. 175-186), again deals with non-mainstream ideas about scripts
and texts, but now with a focus on non-historical aspects. A number of
theories address religious texts. For example, Newbrook cites several claims
that there exist hidden messages or numerical patterns in the Bible, possibly
even created by alien life-forms, as suggested by Michael Drosnin (2002) (p.

Chapter 8, ''Alleged animal 'languages' and language-learning abilities'' (pp.
187-194), is concerned with language-like animal communication. Newbrook
discusses the difference between using language and mere articulation of
speech-like sounds. Some interesting cases of animals are reported that were
capable of learning words and even using some form of syntax. However, claims
about languages of the Yeti and the Sasquatch suffer from a lack of sufficient
evidence (p. 194).

In Chapter 9, ''Non-mainstream theories of language and the mind'' (pp.
195-208), Newbrook treats a variety of topics that include ''teaching and
learning'' (p. 197), ''Neuro-Linguistic Programming'' (p. 203), and ''feminism
and language'' (p. 205), among other topics. The last section on
''graphology'' (p. 207), co-authored by Alan Libert, discusses how handwriting
and personality are possibly related. The theories in this chapter are
thematically rather diverse, linking language to psychological and biological
processes in one way or another.

In Chapter 10, ''Non-mainstream general theories of language'' (pp. 209-218),
Newbrook presents non-mainstream theories of a more general nature proposed by
mostly non-professionals. The chapter is organized into sections on the
authors of the respective theories, for example John Trotter's (1995/1996)
idea that the phoneme-allophone relationship should be replaced by a general
type-token relationship, a claim based upon his philosophical views. Newbrook
rejects Trotter's criticism of well-accepted linguistic terminology, and he
explains that an allophone cannot be considered a token of a phoneme, but that
''it is itself a type'' (p. 210).

The main topics of Chapter 11, ''Language reform and language invention'' (pp.
219-237), are suggestions for language reforms and invented languages. A
number of reform proposals have been brought forward by amateurs suggesting
that we standardize English spelling by establishing a regular correspondence
between graphemes and phonemes. Newbrook explains why making English spelling
more phonemic may not be a good idea to start with, given that different
varieties of English may have different phonological inventories. To make
things worse, many reform proposals confuse phonemic and phonetic differences.
The second half of the chapter, co-authored by Alan Libert, deals with
invented languages, both those intended for actual communication like
Esperanto, and those used in fiction like Elvish created by J.R.R. Tolkien, or
Klingon created by Marc Okrand (p. 235f.).

Chapter 12 ''Skepticism about mainstream linguistics'' (pp. 239-250) stands
out from the previous discussion because in this final chapter, Newbrook takes
a skeptical look at well-known mainstream linguistic theories. Newbrook notes
that it is usually the non-mainstream ideas that are subject to skepticism,
but he also sees the need for adopting a more critical attitude toward
mainstream theories. He argues, for example, that there are a number of
different frameworks within linguistics, but some linguistics departments
focus on only one particular paradigm or theory. Partly due to the growing
complexity of certain linguistic paradigms, it seems to have become difficult
to challenge theories in-depth in teaching (p. 242). In the first section of
this chapter, some widely used linguistic concepts such as the Chomskyan
notion of Universal Grammar are examined (Chomsky 1975, and related work), and
comments by other professional linguists are discussed. The following section
presents controversial objections to linguistic theories brought forward by
amateurs, including, for example, Amorey Gethin's (1990) attempt to account
for all linguistic phenomena in terms of semantics only, disregarding
morphological or syntactic structures completely. According to Newbrook,
Gethin claims ''that the entire discipline of linguistics is essentially
nonsense'' (p. 246).

''Strange Linguistics'' provides an essential resource for the trained
linguist who might before have been completely unaware of some of the
non-mainstream theories, for instance Le Plongeon's (1896) analysis that
''Jesus spoke Mayan on the Cross'' (p. 50). If you read this book but do not
find those approaches convincing -- whether due to the questionable evidence,
inappropriate methods, or absurd claims -- you might well appreciate
Newbrook's extensive and well-founded critiques, as he unmasks their
theoretical shortcomings and methodological pitfalls.

Readers interested in language theories but not professional linguists
themselves may also enjoy ''Strange Linguistics''. Newbrook aids this by
making an effort to explain linguistic concepts and terminology where needed,
and includes a glossary with the most important definitions.

Some issues that limit the book's usability are the coarse-grained table of
contents, the lack of a keyword index, and the non-alphabetical references.
Newbrook acknowledges the missing index in the preface (p. 9), and as an
alternative he uses cross-referencing in the chapters. This might establish
links between related topics while reading through the book, but it still
precludes looking up a specific keyword later. The reference section is
designed as a list of endnotes, which give the references to the works cited
in the text. That the endnotes are numerically listed in the order of
appearance in the respective chapters allows for a unidirectional access to
the references. However, an alphabetic bibliography would have been preferable
to allow readers to look up specific authors.

In this book Newbrook tells us to be skeptical, and the reader may well be
skeptical toward some of Newbrook's own views. Possibly not everybody will
sympathize with each of his critiques, but this book provides an informative
and entertaining survey of non-mainstream theories, some controversial and
others just bizarre. We can take home the message that we should remain
skeptical, even toward established mainstream linguistic theories.

Chomsky, Noam (1975). Reflections on Language. New York: Pantheon Books.

Drosnin, Michael (2002). The Bible Code 2: The Countdown. London: Weidenfeld &

Gethin, Amorey (1990). Antilinguistics: A Critical Assessment of Modern
Linguistic Theory and Practice. Oxford: Intellect Books.

Newbrook, Mark and Curtain, Jane (1997). Oates' theory of Reverse Speech: a
critical examination. In: The Skeptic (Australia), XVII/3, pp. 40-44.

Le Plongeon, Augustus (1896). Queen Moo and the Egyptian Sphinx. New York: The

Oates, David J. (1996). Reverse Speech: Voices from the Unconscious. San
Diego: International Promotions.

Trotter, John (1995/1996). System of Rational Discourse (Several Volumes).
Aranda, ACT: Just Talk.

Alexander Droege holds an M.A. in German linguistics from the University of
Marburg, Germany. He currently works as a research assistant at the department
of Germanic Linguistics at the University of Marburg. His main focus is on EEG
research on syntax/semantics processing in different languages (German,
Italian, Welsh). But he is also interested in syntactic theories, Asian
languages (Japanese, Thai), bilingualism, SLA, and writing systems.

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