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Review of  Strange Linguistics

Reviewer: Alexander Droege
Book Title: Strange Linguistics
Book Author: Mark Newbrook Jane Curtain Alan Reed Libert
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 25.2689

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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. 159).

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. 175).

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 & Nicolson.

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 Author.

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.