The Sunken Synagogue
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Friday, April 07, 2006
Arutz Sheva and The Great Hebraic Hoax

Now, I love Arutz Sheva Radio as much as the next hot-headed right-wing extremist settler wannabe, but some of the guests they invite on, well, make my orange ribbons pale.

The perpetrator of the hour is one Jim Long, who came on the Tamar Yonah show as a representative of Isaac Mozeson, author of the new book The Origin of Speeches: Intelligent Design in Language, and an older one, The Word: The Dictionary That Reveals The Hebrew Source of English. Listen to the interview (ASX / MP3 / main audio page) [no longer available], if you want to be taken for fool. Otherwise, don't listen, unless you're definitely going to read the rest of this post. If you've already had the misfortune of hearing it, please read on.

Before I comment, I'll briefly disclaim: I have not read the new book, or even glanced at it. But I did hear the interview, and I did once or twice have the displeasure of perusing The Word, and I heard nothing in the interview that was qualitatively different from what I read there. And, for my own credibility, I'll mention here that I have a degree in linguistics.

Here is the essential background information you need to know:
Mozeson has set out to prove that all languages are descended from Hebrew, and so he points out one pair after another of Hebrew and English words (and occasionally words from other languages) that are similar in form and in meaning. Like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat, he produces Hebrew ארץ/eretz and English earth, שקל/shekel and scale, הר/har and hill. He's got tons of these, and we're supposed to gasp at the obvious correspondences, still intact after 6000 years.

If you talk to a linguist though, you'll get a very different picture. Hebrew is a member of the Semitic family, and by extension the larger Afroasiatic family. It's related as a sister or a cousin to languages like Aramaic, Arabic, and Amharic. Hebrew shares with these a common ancestor, and there's no other language that's said to be a descendant of Hebrew in the sense I described above (Yiddish, Ladino, etc. merely have loanwords from Hebrew). Then there are numerous other families of languages, with no known relationship to Semitic. English is part of Germanic, which itself belongs to a larger family called Indo-European.

What's going on here? Is the academic world set to be turned on its head? Has Mozeson discovered in his straightforward pairings something that generations of trained linguists, who spend sleepless nights absorbed in works with titles like Graded Effects of Verb Subcategory Preferences on Parsing: Support for Constraint-satisfaction Models and Excrescent schwa and vowel laxing: Cross-linguistic responses to conflicting articulatory targets, have somehow overlooked?

Why the answer is no is largely explained in the classic article How likely are chance resemblances between languages? by Mark Rosenfelder. Chance resemblances between languages are very likely, and so Mozeson-type similarities don't really tell us anything. Read the article. Even if your eyes glaze over at some of the linguistic terminology as mine do at some of the math, he's a good writer and you'll get the point, and you'll learn a lesson in caution that can apply to many areas in life.

Exactly how likely chance resemblances are depends not only on the languages being compared, but also on how careful or lax the investigator is. And Mozeson takes all the shortcuts he can find:
Anyone one of these methods is liable to lead one's research astray. Employing all of them together, indiscriminately, is a surefire way to get a false positive.

But the carelessness and confusion run much deeper: not only is Mozeson too forgiving with his evidence, he is looking for the wrong kind of evidence, and in all the wrong places.

When sounds in a language change, they change systematically (most of the time). For example, every [h] sound in Latin disappeared along the road to becoming Spanish (that it's still written is irrelevant); today in many varieties of Spanish [s] is turning into [h] whenever it occurs at the end of a syllable, but not at the beginning. If you find that a [g] sound in Language A corresponds randomly to a [k], [h], or [g] in Language B, you haven't proven anything. But if [g] corresponds to [k] at the end of a word, [h] before a vowel, and [g] elsewhere, then it's systematic and you may be on the way to establishing a relationship. From correspondences like that you can posit rules to describe the changes that likely took place between the source language and the daughters, e.g., "[g] becomes [k] at the end of a word."

Of course, the longer the time gap you're looking at, the more opportunity the languages have to change, and change again, until they look extremely different. Even the correspondences are obscured eventually, because the conditions that are necessary to accurately describe them (such as [g] corresponding to [h] only before a vowel) may themselves change or disappear (say, if some vowels are later dropped).

A couple of examples should suffice to illustrate this: Spanish hoja and French feuille ('leaf, sheet') have not one sound in common, but both come to us from the same Latin folium. Similarly, we have Spanish hecho and Romanian fapt ('done'), both from Latin factum. These forms can be derived through regular, language-wide changes, and though they're very different, this is just what we'd expect after two thousand years.

Finally, one mustn't forget that as sound changes are taking place, words are constantly being coined, borrowed, abandoned, and can easily change their meaning beyond recognition; thus the pool of words that we can use to prove relationships grows ever shallower. For all these reasons, historical linguists focus on the oldest varieties of language available, those least altered from the source in question.

Contrast them to Mozeson, who doesn't even deign to use Old English for his comparisons, let alone Greek, Latin, or Hittite, but chooses English as it is currently spoken. By comparing two languages so far apart in time, one of which is known to be singularly infested with loanwords and recent sound changes, Mozeson is setting himself up for failure.

Mozeson never posits any sound laws with which one could derive English from Hebrew, nor do his examples differ to the degree we'd expect after so many millennia. Neither do his linkages imply any sort of directionality; even if they were completely valid, they don't favor English as a descendant of Hebrew, or Hebrew as a descendant of English, or both as descendants of a common source. We can at least rule out the second option because we happen to know that English did not exist in anything like its current form until recent times, but he'd have no such luxury if he'd chosen an older tongue.

What Mozeson has done, then, is no more and no less than to tell us that 1 plus 1 equals 11. To the untrained eye it's compelling, but it's true only in the most cosmetic and uninteresting sense. Using the same methods he could have shown German to be descended from Hawaiian, Russian from Klingon, or Hebrew from !Kung. And it should surprise no one that claims like these are regularly made for many a language, by many a well-intentioned naif.

The reason I felt the need to write this post is that unlike math, science, music, or politics, very few people study even the most basic principles of linguistics. People are often not even aware that linguistics exists as a discipline distinct from language learning, or else fail to grasp the depth of it. Many will spin off pseudo-linguistic theories as a child would paint a scene, unaware of the importance of perspective or subtlety, and many others will swallow whatever linguistic tomfoolery they are told to, with neither question nor dissent.

It both offends and saddens me particularly when I see such erroneous thinking in a Jewish context, because my own and many other people's religiosity is the result of a long and taxing search for the truth, and so much of Judaism is the very process of rational thought and debate. Yet, theories like Mozeson's have few challengers within Judaism, not only because people are ignorant but because everyone wants them to be true, and when I see how easily and willingly people are misled it makes wonder how exceptional this really is.

Before I close, I want to make clear that I have no personal resentment towards Arutz Sheva, Tamar Yonah, Jim Long, or even Isaac Mozeson. I'm sure the latter has no intent to mislead or deceive, and he probably even thinks he's doing a great mitzvah. I believe, though, that he is unwittingly doing Jews a great disservice by enticing them to greater faith through falsehood, and it's that falsehood that I am opposing here, despite the repeated mentions of his name above.

For more on this topic, have a look at Maven Yavin: Edenics--was Hebrew the original language?, and the negative reviews for The Word on Amazon.

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Thanks so much for this post!
Next time i have to explain to someone why, as a linguist, all this "The Word" nonsense bothers me, i can send them straight here for a great explanation.
Thank you Steg! I was afraid no one would even read through the whole thing.
some science is premised on faulty rules or has researchrers that are unaware of all the rules, some of which will only be learnt from Das torah, or additional research and technological advancement.
when the rules are upgraded to rules that give accurate readings, or the researcher is humble eniough to admit they did not know and do not try to bury the new rules because the findings might imped the researcher's desired lifestyle.
also science is limited to observable and verifiable facts so at times one needs common sence or a tradition to know the truth. This is the case today with string theory. Perhaps in the years to come we will have the tech to see the strings comprise of the letters of the Aleph beis from the 10 utterences of Creation as is our tradition.

Please try not to be defensive or selectivley biased.
you claim 'The article does not name-call.' Yet you accuse me of doing so using the same basic word. The term foolish is from the article you claimed to have read.
I simply deflected it back on the false accuser.

Also I find it incredible a serious independent thinking Torah Jew can agree with Hillary who bases her 'absolutely correct' support for your position on a researcher so arrogant, sloppy and lazy as to write a article on a work they have not even read, never mind studied. While stupid to admit he had not even read you have to give him credit for trying to be honest. Yet lashon Harah can be wrong even when one knows what they are talking about. Here the Lashon Harah is based on speculation and ignorance.

From the article:
'Arutz Sheva and The Great Hebraic Hoax

The perpetrator of the hour is one Jim Long, who came on the Tamar Yonah show as a representative of Isaac Mozeson, author of the new book The Origin of Speeches: Intelligent Design in Language, and an older one, The Word: The Dictionary That Reveals The Hebrew Source of English. Listen to the interview (ASX / MP3 / main audio page) [no longer available], if you want to be taken for fool.

I read the article. I did not read the new book, but I did read parts of The Word, years ago. ---

As Aryeh points out, 'Linguistics is a discipline. They use evidence, and painstakingly work out rules according to which one language diverged from another. '
If you study the origin of speeches you will see Isaac Mozeson knows the existing rules and is able to take them to a higher level. How they teach today is like a group of astronomers using pen and paper as opposed to having access to supercomputers, telescopes and satellites.

Those who teach lingustics and think language evolved from grunts are foolish. There students victims.

It is that all human beings have built-in rules for language. As Onkelos says in B'reishit, nefesh chaya = nefesh memallelet. All linguists do is attempt to understand these rules. Yes Kira, that is why they are cheating themselves by not learning what the real rules are and how they work as documented in the origin of speeches by isaac mozeson.

In the section on animal names another nail in the coffin of non believers:
The fact we find primarily in Biblical Hebrew/Edenic language animal names of the base speecies but not breeds demonstrates:
-Adam was there from the first season animals were created.
-Edenics was the first language.
-Animal life started 5767 years ago. (As we have unbroken time line to when Adam was formed.)

When Hashem brought the animals to Adam to name it was before the animals began to diversify which should have started with the first offspring. Animals and man were designed to adapt to various environments which they/we did before the mabul. This includes the dinosaur ages when mammals (scientists now admit) and man (most scientists not ready for this yet) coexisted. After the Mabul we again rapidly diversified from those saved on the Ark.

From The Tower of Babel the languages diversified.

To understand the rules and patterns you can study Rashi and other Torah commentators who understood long before the Grims et al, or read 'the origin of speeches, intelligent design in language', by isaac mozeson, lightcatcher publishing.
Your comment is not completely coherent. I see you're cutting and pasting things from different authors on another forum without noting where one piece ends and the next begins, or who said what, and you're addressing another person who has not commented on this site. Why?

You don't like that I wrote an article on a book I haven't read. I thought I had made it clear here though that I was not writing a book review, but a response to a theory as it was presented in a book I had read (enough to get the point, anyway - The Word is arranged like a dictionary; you don't have to read it cover-to-cover to get the point) and in an interview. So where would speculation and ignorance come in? Only if you're going to say I was writing about things that I was not. If there are signicant changes in the theory that are only mentioned in the book, I was not writing about them. Though, as I said, the interview in fact did not contain mention anything from the new book that was qualitatively different from what was in the first book. Not one of the gross errors of The Word was recanted, and the same gobbeldy-gook was even repeated. So why should I expect anything better from the new book? Not only did I not read it, I have no desire to read it either.

As for language having evolved from grunts, THAT is speculation, my friend, and most linguists stay away from it, leaving the origins of language as an open question. (For you to even make this claim about linguistics shows that you don't know much about it, and just as I wrote in the article, people who have not studied it not only don't know it, but for some reason think that they do nonetheless. It's an odd thing, and the very source of Mozeson's problems!) In the same way, most linguists don't believe we can prove language relations beyond a certain point in the past, because it's too far removed and there's not enough evidence. Joseph Greenberg's far-reaching theories on the relationships of African languages are accepted, but similar ones on Native American languages are not. Don't these facts suggest that linguists are open-mind, critical, and honest? Being a linguist does not mean you're an evil-academic-non-believer-anti-semite with an agenda. It just means you dedicate a lot of your time to studying language. Why is that so contemptible to you? The fact that Mozeson had some religious education does not mean that every, or any, claim of his in a field which is never covered in religious education is correct. That he took one course in real linguistics before deciding to spurn it doesn't help either.

And BTW, that all humans have built-in rules for langauge is not the basis of linguistics either. It's one theory by Noam Chomsky that many people accept, and many people don't, and most linguistic analysis does not depend on it.

This is my suggestion for Mozeson. It's the most logical thing to do and the fact that he hasn't done it can only be labeled "suspicious". Forget about English. Just prove that Aramaic or Phoenician or Ugaritic, or even Arabic, comes from Hebrew. These languages are so similar to each other that if one of them were the source of the others, it should be a cinch to demonstrate. If he could show that every linguist had gotten such a basic relationship wrong, that alone would turn the field on its head, and then he'd have a basis to go on to greater claims. But instead of attempting this, he's chosen to work with English, which is probably the easiest language with which to get a false positive. Why?

Various commentators may have alluded to Hebrew being the source of other languages but I don't think they've ever shown the mechanics of it, or explained why when you look closer it doesn't seem to be the case. If they have, please tell me where I can read about it. All Mozeson's efforts, in their simplicity and glaring disregard for what's already been discovered, amount to a post-modern painter throwing paint at a canvas behind his back and then sneering at the establishment of Rembrandts and Da Vincis. It may be deep, different, and existential, but can the guy draw a simple chair? And can't everyone else make similar splotches of paint? Myself, I'm going to keep looking at languages logically and realistically, and not abandon reason when there's a discord with Judaism. I'm more content to say that Hashem disguised the evidence. Not everything was meant to be clear in this world. And if one day someone will bring evidence that actually does turn linguistics on its head, I'll be happy to see it. But Mozeson's hasn't done it.
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