Teaching Historical Linguistics:
A Program of Much-Needed Reform
by Lea Kim Shopmont
Assistant Professor of Communication
Ancilla College, Indiana
Linguistics is a branch of the humanities that prides itself on its scientific character in much the same way as phrenology, astrology, and eugenics did. Perhaps the most pernicious branch of linguistics is historical linguistics, which, regardless of its protestations of studying the history of any language, in fact concerns itself for the most part with dead white male speakers of the ludicrously misnamed “Indo-European” family of languages—even by its own testimony, neither all Europeans nor all Indians speak these languages, and thus the field lies through its teeth in the same way that people from the United States ludicrously claim in their name to subsume both American continents.
The practitioners of historical linguistics retort tough noogies, because the truth is the truth whether we like it or not. However, this sets up the tacit claim that they are the arbiters of truth, which makes one wonder who died and made them arbiters, and the answer of course is a bunch of white males, who are of course dead. In the absence of a binding referendum, there’s no need to abide by their decision, so we must instead take a fresh look at their evidence and enterprise. When we do so, the first thing we notice is they sure seem to have pissed off a lot of intelligent people, all of whom make similar charges. For example, one brave soul, Archilochus Aspidos, Usenet name Hercules, writes, “You pestly illegitimate issue of German and sub-German burghers and traders trying to steal the glory of Greece from her rightful heirs make me sick. Indo-European swine-guistics is nothing but a transparent attempt by envy-ridden thin-blooded weak-livered forest barbarians who used to smear rancid butter in their hair to ride the coattails of their betters to a glory they never earned and never could earn.”1
Similarly, another forthright deep thinker who writes under the name Boss Phorus has pointed out, “Indo-European linguistics is a typical piece of European racist bigotry that seeks to fracture the unity of humanity by invidiously splintering people into supposedly unrelated linguistic groups when we should all be intoning the primordial name of the Sun in the light of science and wisdom. It is simply a first step to imperialist conquest of all of us, one by one by lonely one.”2
Yet another trenchant observer of the academic scene, HindutvaForLife, writes, “Indo-European linguistics started out as nothing more than a pathetic ideological cover for English conquest of India, as if barbarians unable to speak Sanskrit were justified in ruling India, and it currently serves as a laughable and insulting cover for American neo-colonialism.”3 (In this, of course, he is merely expanding on the signal efforts of Edward Said, who showed in Orientalism that the whole idea of Sanskrit being related to Greek and Latin was an envy-ridden, unscientific idea put forward by a judge whose whole career consisted of fastening British imperialism on the Indian others and seized upon by generations of Euro-imperialist running dogs.4)
All three of these writers have amassed extensive evidence in support of their claims.5 Even more damningly, their examples can be multiplied by native scholars of Basque, Hungarian, Nahuatl,6 Georgian, Japanese, and Telugu. Other brilliant scholars shut out of the academy have pointed out that contrary to the usual hegemonic claims of biased English speakers, Frisian is not at all the closest Germanic language to English but is in fact closely related to Phrygian, and is thus a non-Indo-European language probably closely related to Gaelic, and that Sino-Tibetan linguistics got its start very soon after the PRC’s invasion of Tibet, and thus is also a form of imperialism, though somewhat more defensible because it is not European imperialism.
Indeed, if you lurk around the edges of the mainstream historical linguistic community, or at least its shallower back waters stinking in the midday sun, you will find that the denizens of the swamp freely admit all the evidence of the same hypotheses they dismiss as unscientific in public. Thus, one such lying hypocrite pointed out that contrary to his claims elsewhere, English is closely related to Mongolian, and gave scads of evidence he has concealed from the public he despises while deceiving: (1) English diminutive -le, Mongolian clitic -l ‘only’. (2) English diminutive -kin, Literary Mongolian diminutive -ken. (3) Mongolian xand- ‘to handle’. (4) Mongolian gard- ‘to deal with’, which in certain circumstances might (this needs checking) mean ‘to guard’. (5) Literary Mongolian auli ‘owl’. (6) Mongolian manuul ‘(night) guard’ = English man-owl. (7) Mongolian gedes ‘guts’ (M. Thompson, personal communication).7
Similarly, many brilliant feminist scholars have pointed out the irremediable sexism of Indo-European linguistics. Besides the fact that Mary Daly’s Wickedary knocks all the fraudulent fruits of 19th century philology into the dust heap of history where they expect women to sweep it up with the brooms that book has emancipated them to ride, Marilyn Frye’s Politics of Reality makes the unanswerable point that “real” refers to the king and thus to patriarchal power, as in Teatro Real and real estate, as well as to reality and what is supposedly real, and thus shows the way modern science is a conspiracy to keep women subject to men by blinding them to their own truths. Similarly, she points out that “woman” is a compound, “womb” plus “man,” which needs no further explanation. (The best the wanna-be-Indo-wanna-be-Europeanists can come up with is that it’s actually a compound of “wife” plus “man.” Besides the fact that this is clearly stupid, they admit when pressed that “wife” comes from a PIE root also reflected in a Tocharian word for “shameful” and therefore probably referred to the vulva, which is just what you’d expect from misogynists just making crap up in the hope it will stick.)
When pressed, certain historical linguists respond with too many pages of specious mathematical arguments about probabilistic models of chance resemblances among languages and calculations of the incredible unlikelihood of the regular recurrent sound correspondences they bore everyone but themselves by nattering on about. The basic fallacy is to assume that mathematics proves anything. Mathematicians themselves freely admit that the validity of the results has nothing to do with the truth of the postulates, and thus you can prove anything—and something that can prove everything proves nothing. Moreover, the postulates of modern mathematics are irremediably masculinist and patriarchal. The basic branches of mathematics, which serve as the foundation of modern mathematical education, are algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and calculus. Algebra comes from Arabic al-jabr, meaning “union of broken parts,” which is related to words referring to the male erection. Trigonometry is the study of triangles, and we know what that means. Geometry is the measurement of round things, and calculus referred originally to small pebbles. (M. Thompson, personal communication.)8 The entire edifice of modern mathematics is founded on the male genitalia, and starting from such postulates cannot yield woman-friendly results. (We note in passing that this gives a new sense to expressions about the “master’s tools.”)
It is well known that Francis Bacon likened science to torturing Mother Nature on the rack so as to make her give up her secrets; it really is no excuse to respond, as some losers do (M. Thompson, personal communication),9 that as Bacon was both the Attorney General and the Lord Chancellor, it was a natural metaphor for him as a jurist to use, as if that excused anything, while studiously ignoring that those techniques were used on accused witches,10 which tells us all we really need to know about the origins of the much-vaunted Scientific Revolution. However, that’s actually not all you or your students need to know about its origins and how those origins irremediably taint historical linguistics as it is currently practiced. Sandra Harding, for example, pointed out that Newton’s Principia Mathematica is a rape manual, which by starting from algebra and geometry and setting up a Divine Trinity of laws is (we add) all that it can be. This is also the basic reason for the inability that Luce Iragaray pointed out of mathematics to handle fluidity and turbulent flow, and we should keep it clearly in mind when we teach our students about rigid linguistic family trees, rigidly exceptionless sound laws, and rigidly defined affiliation from mother to daughter (as if each language has only one father or husband and the women are so cowed and sexless that they don’t fool around on the side and pick up a wide range of experiences and the words that go with them here and there, which, given the fundamental metaphor of languages as mothers and daughters without a father or brother anywhere, simply reveals a massive hidden history of healthy lesbian sexuality simmering under the covers). More than that, it serves as a crucial point to make when pointing out the failure of rigid trees and rigid laws to account for most of the facts of language change, which are much better explained by the feminine fluidity of the wave model.
The important thing that must first be conveyed to your students is that current historical linguistics is an internally contradictory fraud. For example, “Indo”-“Europeanists” try to dazzle their audiences with the regular recurrent sound correspondences on the cards in the deck they stack, hoping you won’t look at all the cards they have up their sleeves and the forest of dead trees of cards they hid out behind the empty gaping barn of the whole enterprise. For example, they gleefully point out that English father is cognate with Latin pater and Greek πατήρ, while studiously ducking such obvious questions as why English path is supposedly cognate with Latin pont- and Russian путь and then later lamely talk about likely prehistoric borrowing from Indo-Iranian or some such soft-stool sidestep shuffle. (And the fact that they see fit to equate “path” and the Latin for “bridge” with the word that gave us Putin and Rasputin tells you all you need to know about the political ramifications of Indo-European theory—it’s a reflection in the distant past of the “road,” “bridge,” “path,” and “breaking of norms” leading to the imperialist future that they wish to inflict upon all of us very very soon.)
The second thing that you must convey to your students is that the most advanced contemporary philosophy of science scuttles their enterprise from the get-go. As Sandra Harding pointed out, the infinitude of integers was only accepted very recently,11 and this was due to the fact that mathematicians replaced “the social image of numbers as counting units with the social image of numbers as divisions of a line.” Similarly, we need only replace the current (anti-)social image of historical linguistics with a more social, indeed, sociolinguistic image of the field of study to make many of the first steps necessary to recover the hidden history of language. Do not be fooled by their protestations of scientific objectivity! They claim to explore the nearly trackless reaches of the past to recover the voices of our ancestors, but all they do is channel the seductive yet ultimately Mordorian voices in their twisted bicameral minds. Such explorers into the secrets of humanity are left one-armed by their acceptance of exploitative ideologies, like the excrescence of acquisitive American imperialism John Wesley Powell.12 It does no good to copy losers trying to defend the indefensible by saying he was differently abled (M. Thompson, personal communication),13 for that only applies to the non-evil; you can’t win a judo argument with only one arm and no legs to stand on. You must stand fast against the klaxon they mishear as a siren song as they urge us to board their bandwagon of progress or be run over by it, like a garbage truck playing tinkly Muzak, a fetor-oozing music box to darken the hearts of every little girl.
After this ground-clearing, you are now in the position to teach the up and coming generation responsibly. The first principle of a proper approach to the historical sciences is to never forget that the victor writes the history books. Similarly, the language of the victor replaces the language of the conquered. The human race has been around for a long long time and has been sinking ever further into patriarchal devastation of the past for all that time. Thus, none of the current languages should be considered as indicating anything about the original language spoken by our matriarchal forebears. The reason for mentioning the opposition to Indo-European by less privileged peoples mentioned above is only that because they are less privileged, the erasure of historical truth has gone a little less toward completion in them, but it’s not like the Greeks, Indians, or Turks are any closer to matriarchal purity than the Indo-Europeanists are. (Granted, in certain Turkic cultures like the Uzbeks, it is considered auspicious for an engaged couple to wrestle, with the ideal outcome being a draw, indicating that they are well suited. However, if a draw is all the woman can expect, then it hardly says much for the culture, does it?)
However, traces of the actual facts do remain buried even within the mass of pottage the Indo-Europeanists want to ladle out like bigshots at the soup kitchen. Let us return to the matter of reconstructed kinship terminology. You will notice that introductory Indo-European lectures always mention the English, Latin, and Greek words for ‘father’ but never the Russian. That is because the Russian word отец is not cognate, reflecting the original matriarchal character even of the society, if it can be called such, of the rapacious barrow-wightish kurgan-worshipping woman-hating hordes of steppe invaders who gave us such depravity as the Indian caste system, Aristotle, and jus primae noctis. Similarly, if you look at the words for ‘mother’ and ‘sister’, they’re attested everywhere, whereas in Latin the word for ‘son’, filius, comes from the root for suckling, and the Greek word for ‘brother’, ἀδελφός, is reconstructed even by “Indo”-“Europeanists” as coming from a phrase meaning “from one womb,” which tells you all you need to know about the malign intentions of Aristotle’s silliness about the active and passive factors in conception. Thus, husbands could be changed as needed, like diapers and for the same reasons, and unlike diapers politicians didn’t need changing because there weren’t any, sons respected their mothers, sisterhood was permanent, and society was originally matriarchal, matrilineal, and not as bad as it is now.
Finally, you must make it clear to your students that all progress in historical linguistics can only be made by taking to heart the methodological principles above and seeking the absolute antithesis of language as it now is spoken. In this respect and only in this respect is the Chomskyan Revolution of lasting significance: By laying bare the lineaments of patriarchal language in the most patriarchal, imperialist languages of the modern world (English, French, and German, and to a lesser extent as you move down the imperialist-capitalist totem pole of the languages of the world), it allows us to see, as if in a negative image, though in this case what we usually see is negative and the original positive, what the original matriarchal language of humanity was not like, and thus by inference what it was like. The only difficulty is that the positive-negative metaphor stems from black and white photography and is thus irremediably heterosexist, so to make further progress we must broaden the spectrum of who we listen to throughout the rainbow while excluding the ultra-violent and infra-dead of the Indo-Europeanist enterprise to meet and proper invisibility.
1 Eds: Unfortunately, Ms Shopmont is not overfond of citations, which we had to track down in review, a task made more difficult by her irritating schoolmarm insistence on regularizing the orthography and grammar of her sources. The posting continues, “Your as bad as the Turks and dont evin got there excuse of conjinital moral infeariority that’d explain your hatered of Greece. Or may be you do.” (soc.culture.greek, 27 May 1997, in the thread “The latest Turko-Slavic atrocities and the corrupt American kaka-dummy.”) He then continued with a condemnation of hegemonic American foreign policy that refused to gift Athens with several thousand neutron bombs to reconquer Anatolia and the Balkans and re-establish the Byzantine Empire.
2 Eds: The Boss continues, “It has been long established that all languages are descended from Proto-Turkic, the original, unchanged language of mankind, and Indo-European linguistics is only one front in the ongoing battle to bury the fact that just as Sumerian, which has been shown to be virtually identical to Proto-Turkic, and Akkadian, a more bastardized and debased form of Proto-Turkic, are continuous with Turkish today, so the cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mycenae, and Rome are all degraded forms of Proto-Turkic culture full of the mythology of the ancient Turkic culture heroes. Mind you, we cannot stop there, but must recognize and properly punish the fact that the Germans and English who founded European cultural imperialism in the 19th century were too stupid to come up with it themselves, but rather were the unwitting tools of the Greeks.” (soc.culture.turkish, 14 December 2006, in the thread “TuRK = eTRusKan = TuRKana = KReTe = TRuKese = TeLuGu = CHeRoKee = TaRoK = TaRoKo = ThaRaKa = TiGRe = TusCaRora = KaRTvelian, the great histling rug-sweeping they don’t want us to know!”)
3 Eds: Continued: “The Aryan Invasion Theory is a deliberate and insultingly crude reversal of the actual facts: The Brahmins were created in India by the gods, who gave us the divine language of Sanskrit to allow us to properly pay them tribute. It has been shown that all other languages are degraded versions of Sanskrit spoken by the descendants of Brahmins who fell so far from true humanity as to interbreed with the lower primates, and the extent of their decline from Sanskrit faithfully reflects their speakers’ level of ancestral intermixture with sub-humans. There is a reason English grammar is so debased, and it’s not communicative efficiency.” (soc.culture.indian, 3 March 2001, in the thread “Should Clackson be strangled with Fortson’s entrails on Witzel’s funeral pyre, or vice versa?”)
4 Eds: While one might quibble about the author’s inability to distinguish what she read from what she read into it, the basic citation is actually not so far off, so we’ll let it stand.
5 Eds: When pressed for documentation, Ms Shopmont sent us three dozen links to Geocities sites. However, editorial policy forbids Geocitation, so Gentle Reader, you’re on your own.
6 Eds: For example, when asked about this, Ms Shopmont reliably informed us that the name Michigan is from Nahuatl michi-can ‘place with fish’, reflecting (quoth she) ancient ties of trade and sororal friendship between the peoples of the Great Lakes and Meso-America. Further research found that the claim is actually, natch, usually associated with neo-Aztec visions of prehistoric pan-American rule by Nahuatl speakers.
7 Eds: Our anonymous reviewer, Mikael Thompson, called us about the time he reached this part:
“I was joking. I was chatting after a departmental talk.”
“We’ve warned you several times already about the trouble you can get into slumming like that.”
“Yeah, whatever. I wasn’t talking to her. She must have been eavesdropping.”
“So someone actually wanted to listen to you for once. Why the hell are you complaining? It’s everyone else who should be for encouraging you like that.”
“I’m just saying that it’s imprecise as hell and reflects badly on me to cite that as a personal communication. She was eavesdropping! The communication was entirely impersonal.”
“If she was willing to admit to listening to you, we’re more than happy to let her discredit herself in public like that.” We suspect the ensuing click was mutual.
8 Eds: As expected, the phone soon rang again. We answered, “Clearly your departmental talks are more interesting than we would ever have suspected of you.”
“I don’t give departmental talks.”
“Lucky them. So what were you doing talking nonsense to a bunch of syntacticians? Turnabout?”
“I was drinking beers with some mathematicians.”
“They let you?”
“They were interested in the history of mathematics.”
“Then they’re not real mathematicians. They tricked you and you have no one to blame but yourself.”
“Yeah, whatever. Listen, she must have been eavesdropping again.”
“Then she has no one to blame but herself.” We think his click preceded ours.
9 Eds: The phone rang about a minute later: “I don’t even know where she might have heard me say that.”
“Thereby confirming you frequently open your mouth and pay no attention to what comes out.”
“Only when I’m dictating your editorials.”
“What did you say?”
“So not only then.” We think our click was first.
10 We didn’t even bother moving away from the phone and right at the time predicted, 12 seconds later, it rang again. “What the hell, dude. I said that. I made exactly that point.”
“So you actually take credit for some of this? Interesting.”
“No. No. I’m taking credit for none of this, and if you print it, I’m resigning from the board. It’s an insult to the reader’s intelligence, an insult to me as a scholar, and the opposite of everything I stand for.”
“Well, we had been waffling on running it, but with such a glowing recommendation we have to print it now. Funny, it seemed really fishy, but if you say it’s so reliable...” The click was very loud, and no doubt equally satisfying on both sides.
11 Eds: Our other anonymous reviewer responded, “(1) Euclid is recent?!? (2) Checked the original book, and she conflates the infinitude of integers with the countability of rational and irrational numbers. Oh well, what’s a few esimals between friends, eh?” and then sent us an invoice for blood pressure medicine, regarding which, if she would only bother looking at her contract, it would show that we are absolved of any responsibility for workplace injuries because reasons.
12 Eds: We suspect that Ms Shopmont would have provided a citation here if W.S. Merwin were a woman.
13 Eds: Contrary to expectations, the phone didn’t ring. Perhaps someone should notify the authorities that our first anonymous reviewer might have had a stroke recently. You know, if you’re not busy doing something important like waiting to hear back from anonymous reviewers or anything.