Old-time religion, old-time language:
links between anomalous claims in the two domains

Mark Newbrook

Originally published in Skeptical Inquirer 31:2 (2007), pp 58-63; re-published here with the kind permission of CSI (with small alterations)

(Investigator 184, 2019 January)

In the context of nonstandard claims about the remote past, the fields of religion and language are both highly significant but might superficially appear largely unconnected. However, there are a number of cases in which religious and linguistic issues are intertwined. This is not entirely surprising, since both religion and language are core elements in human culture and thought. Language is both a determining factor for human thought and its most articulated vehicle of expression. Many human groups regard their language as an identifying characteristic. Folk-linguistic beliefs often centre on the origin of the language, treated as a key aspect of mythological/religious accounts of the origin of the group and its world. Positions on the two fronts are thus frequently connected.
One instance of this phenomenon that is well known in the West is the Tower of Babel story in Genesis. This Hebrew myth explains the diversity of human languages in terms of an initial state involving a single language being ended by divine intervention in the relatively recent past. Of course, this is quite contrary to the modern scientific/linguistic position that humans have had language for at least 70,000 years and that diversification (and convergence) of languages have proceeded by way of 'cultural evolution' throughout this period. As one might expect, those who still accept the story as literally true are motivated by fundamentalist Jewish or Christian belief in the literal inerrancy of Genesis, i.e., they are 'creationists'.

More surprisingly, some of these modern believers in the Tower of Babel are trained in linguistics. There are various branches of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) located around the world. SIL trains linguists in fieldwork methods, so that they can analyse unwritten languages worldwide, develop writing systems, prepare dictionaries and grammars — and translate the Bible into each such language, for this otherwise worthy enterprise is linked with Wycliffe Bible Translators, an arm of fundamentalist Christianity. Indeed, some of its qualified linguists and instructors are creationists. An example of their work is an article by Kevin May (2001), which essentially upholds the Babel story. For a qualified linguist, May is remarkably ill-informed on historical linguistics, and his summaries of orthodox views are wildly outdated. (This is, of course, often true of scientifically trained creationists.)
At a time when Genesis was generally interpreted as historical (which was before the development of historical linguistics), it was often assumed that the single pre-Babel language was Hebrew, the language of the Pentateuch. This idea is, in fact, far from dead. One current manifestation of it is the work of the Jewish creationist writer Isaac Mozeson (see Mozeson 2000 and his later publications). Mozeson claims that virtually all the words of all languages derive from 'Edenic', which is basically early Hebrew with some (Proto-) Semitic roots not attested in Hebrew itself. (Hebrew is a member of the Semitic language family.) As is very common in such cases, the main problem with Mozeson's proposal involves the methods of comparative linguistics that he adopts. These are long outdated and are now used only by fringe amateurs. The probability of pairs of superficially similar words in apparently unrelated languages having very similar or the same senses by chance is in fact much higher than Mozeson suggests. In this particular case, most of the alleged correspondences between phonemes are unsystematic and arbitrary; each correspondence is invoked as it is needed to 'explain' specific forms, but there is typically no good explanation for why different correspondences apply in different cases, or even an admission that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. It has long been known that language change does not occur in this unsystematic way: there are often exceptions to a given pattern of correspondences, but these are relatively few; and, where information is available, they can generally be explained. Using the methods adopted by Mozeson and other amateurs, one can 'prove' (spuriously) that almost any two languages share large amounts of vocabulary. The statistics involved here have been formalised by Ringe (1992) and other historical linguists, and, while there is some debate about specifics, the overall case is overwhelming.

In addition, in many of the cases cited by Mozeson, other etymologies are already known or proposed with good evidence. His theory also contradicts a large amount of well-grounded information about the 'genetic' relationships of entire languages (in language families). Further, the analysis ignores the fact that 'genetic' relatedness (as opposed to influential contact) always involves specific elements of grammar and phonology as well as shared vocabulary. In fact, it is clear from a range of major errors that Mozeson simply does not understand historical linguistics.
Jeff Benner (2004) argues (implausibly) that Hebrew script, which was clearly partly pictographic in origin, kept its pictographic function even after it became alphabetic and that the Hebrew language and its script must have appeared simultaneously when God created Adam with a mature knowledge of the spoken and written language (he is another creationist). In support of the former claim, he cites some fringe and semi-fringe writers, notably Fano (1992), who was one of the members of a mid-twentieth-century breakaway Italian school of nonscientific linguists influenced by the idealist philosophy of Croce (1902). Fano, in fact, rejected Croce's more extreme ideas but remained conspicuously nonmainstream in international terms.

Another fairly similar project is that of Brit-Am, a British-Israelite-like group founded by Yair Davidy. But this group (naturally) focuses on alleged linguistic parallels between Hebrew and the Celtic languages. The parallels presented lack conviction for the same reasons noted above and also because of their reliance on outdated sources. (See, e.g., Davidy n.d., Brit-Am's quarterly journal Tribesman, works such as 'Britam' 2001 and the Brit-Am Web site http://www.britam.org/.) In the same way, the British Israelites proper implausibly proclaim linguistic connections between Hebrew, on the one hand, and both English and Welsh, on the other (see, e.g., J.C. James n.d., and S. Evans n.d.). British Israelite philology is especially bizarre. In recent times, the professional linguist Theo Vennemann (2001) and some relatively well-informed amateurs have actually argued seriously for early Semitic influence on Celtic, with better evidence; but even Vennemann's case is regarded as dubious.

Another, perhaps more arguable proposal is that of Blodgett (1981). Blodgett, a lecturer on German and Hebrew, argues that Hebrew exerted major influence on Germanic languages in antiquity through the dispersion of the 'Lost Tribes' of Israel into central Europe. He knows some historical linguistics (although he makes several undergraduate-level errors that are quite damaging). But even his case for this relatively modest revision of history simply does not have strong linguistic evidence.

A different revisionist approach to the Old or New Testament involves the relocation of the events described there away from Palestine to some other quite distant area, or the suggestion that biblical figures lived at times in remote places. For example, Jesus is said to have survived his crucifixion and to have relocated to Kashmir or Japan, eventually dying in one or the other. There is a linguistic aspect to the version involving Japan, centring on a temple chant used at Herai in northern Honshu, where the 'Grave of Jesus' is exhibited; see also Mazza and Kardy (1998); Desmarquet (1993). Bergman (see http://emol.org/nihongo/japanlinks/japanesejewish.html) claims that this chant is in fact in Hebrew, modified to fit Japanese phonology. It is also claimed that a document dating from around 100 A.D. and written in the kana syllabary (a series of simple symbols originally derived from Chinese characters that each now represent a specific Japanese syllable, regardless of meaning) is said to exist in the area, though this is several hundred years before kana are known to have existed. This text allegedly shows that Jesus is indeed buried in Herai and contains his will. But Bergman's reading of the chant can be made to seem plausible only by very special pleading. In twenty minutes, I myself devised a Latin reading that is closer to the Japanese phonetics than Bergman's Hebrew is and also fits the situation better (the presence of 'Dark Age' missionaries in Japan). The most plausible analysis is still that this is a normal Japanese folk-chant with some sequences that display accidental, and only rather approximate, similarities to Hebrew words. And the key document is probably a nineteenth- or twentieth-century forgery

There is a long nonmainstream tradition of reinterpreting the events related in Exodus. Notably, Akhenaten, the pharaoh who converted the religion of ancient Egypt to a monotheistic form, and Moses are often linked or even identified as the same person or as closely related. Akhenaten's dynastic (non-immediate) successor Tutankhamun is also involved. The main relevant work with a linguistic element is Sabbah and Sabbah (2002), which argues that the 'chosen people' were in fact the Egyptians, who were conquered by the Hebrews and suffered under the rewriting of history by the victors (a common tale and not an entirely untrue one, albeit over-used by postmodernists and 'fringers'). In this version, Moses was not Akhenaten but another pharaoh, Rameses I (while Akhenaten was Abraham). Predictably, there are many problems here, but the linguistics is especially weak. The Sabbahs write as if the origin and development of the Hebrew abjad (consonantal alphabet) and other related Semitic scripts were only very sketchily known, with large gaps waiting to be filled by researchers such as them. They derive the abjad from key parts of hieroglyphs, each retaining much of its Egyptian pictographic significance (compare Benner as cited above).

However, by dynastic times, the relevant Egyptian hieroglyphs had already lost this significance. The script was predominantly phonological, meaning that each symbol, even if pictorial, now usually represented a consonant or longer sequence of phonemes, regardless of meaning. And the Semitic abjad scripts are undoubtedly closely connected with each other. There may well be an older Egyptian source for some of the Semitic letters; but if there is it involves this whole family of scripts, not just Hebrew. In fact, the evidence for the specific connections proposed – even where the words themselves are or may be related – is mostly impressionistic. Many cases involve special pleading or outright contrivance. It is easy to find accidental parallels between Hebrew letters and hieroglyph parts.

Another issue in this area is that of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) sources – Larson (1992), Nibley (1988), etc. – continuing to promote the veracity of the 'Reformed Egyptian' in their Book of Abraham and other texts associated with The Pearl of Great Price. See Smith (n.d.) for the original account on this otherwise unknown language. When the early LDS leaders claimed that this was the language on the plates the angel lent them to be mystically translated, very little was known about Egyptian, but nothing learned since has confirmed LDS ideas on this front. The small pieces of genuine Egyptian text presented in LDS sources were already known at the time and have subsequently been interpreted quite differently. There are also LDS works that seek to demonstrate the presence of languages and scripts used in ancient Israel in 'inscriptions' found in the Americas and to relate known languages of the Americas to Hebrew; one such book is Harris (1998).

In quite a different vein, Lucas and Washburn (1979) was something of a precursor to Michael Drosnin's The Bible Code (1997); in fact, there have been many such efforts to prove that the Bible or some other religious text is reliable by finding numerical or verbal patterns in the text which allegedly could not have come to be there by chance and which often carry important messages (prophecies, etc.). The cases for these claims are typically much weaker in statistical terms than their proponents suggest. But what has not always been made clear is that, in many cases, their linguistics is also less than competent. For instance, Lucas and Washburn – misinterpreting a reference work – falsely claim that there are no rules at all for the use or non-use of the Greek definite article, the equivalent of the English word the. (They therefore claim that God was free to include the article or not in each relevant New Testament phrase, in order to make their numbers add up.)

Another writer who found hidden messages in the Bible was Max Freedom Long (1983). Long met Hawaiian kahunas with supposed psychic powers and came to believe that Jesus had studied in an ancient Polynesian mystical tradition called Huna, which had once prevailed in Egypt (he has some novel interpretations of hieroglyphs) and elsewhere in the ancient world. Jesus and his apostles accordingly inserted secret messages in the texts of the Gospels, which are much more important than the overt message of the texts. These messages are in a secret language or 'code' which is the ancestor of Polynesian (and is still allegedly spoken by a tribe in Morocco). Confusingly, Long's specific claims often seem to involve current Hawaiian, not early Polynesian. He clearly did not know linguistics, and his interpretations require large amounts of special pleading if they are to be deemed remotely plausible.

Again in a different vein, the work of Maxwell et al. (2000) is inspired by the late-nineteenth-century diffusionist writer Gerald Massey (1998 re-print), who believed he could trace all religions back to a small number of linked cults (stellar, lunar, and solar). Massey merged the genuine knowledge that was emerging from Egypt with the early modern fantasies – now largely debunked – about Egyptian mystery religions.

Maxwell et al. focus mainly on the religious issues in the usual historical revisionist manner, finding a huge number of possible links but arguing persuasively for very few. However, they also present linguistic ideas taken from a three-volume work published around 1940, apparently anonymously (adding more examples of their own). This book has the overall title Priesthood of the Ills and contains a large amount of nonstandard philology, adduced as support for these diffusionist theories of religion. The author believes that there is a language conspiracy, which involves (a) keeping humanity divided by enforcing the use of many mutually unintelligible languages; and (b) blocking humanity from discovering the original ('true') meanings of words. This suggests that all changes in the meanings of words are illegitimate – which, of course, is nonsense. However, the author believes that the meanings of some of the key words in ancient languages were very different indeed from those of the English words normally used to translate them, and that this has been deliberately concealed by the forces of Evil. These 'true' meanings are implicated in huge numbers of unrecognised links between languages. These writers (ludicrously) suggest that simply focusing on current pronunciations rather than on spelling or on etymology will enable one to hear which words are really connected, because they sound similar. Once again, the last 200 years of historical linguistic scholarship is simply ignored.
As well as members of the Judeo-Christian tradition, some Hindu believers also adopt nonstandard views on language that relate closely to their fundamentalist religious views. These latter involve 'Vedantic creationism', including the belief that modern humans have existed for hundreds of millions of years (almost the reverse of the best-known brand of Judeo-Christian creationism with its very short chronology). The most familiar manifestation of Vedantic creationism is Cremo and Thompson (1996) on archaeology and palaeoanthropology; for a critical review, see Brass (2003). Books in this tradition that deal with more recent history uphold the traditional Hindu belief that India was the centre of Asia's (or the Earth's) oldest civilisation, with culture diffusing from there in early historic times. These notions have a nationalistic and religious appeal for some Indians.

A common theme in this tradition involves the Sanskrit language, in which the Vedas (the most venerated Hindu scriptures) were written. The orthodox position is that Sanskrit was brought into India around 3,500 years ago, as part of the European/West-Asiatic diffusion of the Indo-European language family from a base somewhere near the Black and the Caspian Seas (which occurred around 5,000-6,000 years ago). There is a case for the contrary view that the language was in India rather earlier and is perhaps represented by the undeciphered Indus Valley Script – see, e.g., Bryant (2001) – but most of the linguistic evidence supports the standard view. (A generally accepted decipherment of this script – as representing Dravidian, Indo-European, or another language family again – would be a very important factor in the resolution of this issue.) However, there is also a more extreme Indian tradition – see, e.g., Sethna (1992) – upholding the truth of legends interpreted as placing Sanskrit in India much earlier (7,000-8,000 years ago, sometimes still earlier). Indeed, Sanskrit is said to be much closer to Proto-Indo-European than is thought by modern historical linguists, and, in fact, the usual fringe Indian claim is that Indo-European actually originated in India and spread westward. This extreme view is almost certainly wrong: it is clear that Sanskrit had undergone major changes of its own vis-a-vis Proto-Indo-European, and was especially close to it only in some respects.
One recent manifestation of this belief system is seen in Knapp (2000), a book which is considerably less scholarly than Sethna's and is also more accessible outside India. Knapp himself is a convert to Hinduism and a fervent promoter of all these ideas. He argues that Vedic ideas, together with the Sanskrit language, were once spread all over the earth by a technologically advanced Hindu civilisation that provided the impetus for civilisations from China to Peru. Proto-Indo-European — as distinct from Sanskrit — never existed. Indeed, Sanskrit is the ancestor not only of Indo-European but of all languages. At a detailed level, Knapp and his sources make extensive use of language data by way of support for their historical claims.
However, most of Knapp's linguistic claims are simply wrong. Like Mozeson, he proceeds by identifying superficial similarities between Sanskrit words on the one hand and words in other languages on the other, and deduces that the non-Sanskrit words are adapted from the Sanskrit words (a process which he deplores; corrupted and perverted are among the terms he uses). Most of these equations are simply asserted as facts, with no supporting evidence. But, as with Mozeson, there is, in general, no reason to accept them. At best, they are undemonstrated and not especially plausible. And most of them are actually known to be invalid; the words in question are simply not connected and have established, unrelated etymologies. One example involves the name Australia, which is a known modern coining transparently based on Latin, where it would mean 'southern' (land, etc.). Knapp states that it is from Sanskrit Astralaya, meaning 'land of missiles'; he suggests that the pilots of vimanas (flying vehicles reportedly used by Hindu gods, here interpreted as actual aircraft) practiced firing their missiles in Australia, thus creating the deserts. Once again, Knapp is proceeding as if the tradition of serious historical linguistic scholarship did not exist.

Knapp's work is not the most extreme manifestation of this fringe tradition; that distinction belongs to the work of G.D. Matlock. Matlock's main relevant book (2000) is about the diffusion of Hindu culture, the 'true' basis of Hinduism, and many features of the Sanskrit language to groups such as the biblical Israelites, early Europeans (including the inhabitants of the British Isles), and Amerindians (especially those in the Southwest of the modern United States and in Mexico). His procedures are similar to Knapp's but even more extreme and unreliable. He knows virtually no linguistics and shows himself to be a believer in various non-linguistic fringe ideas.  See Newbrook (2001) for a review of Matlock's material.
Knapp and Matlock draw much inspiration and many examples from P.N. Oak, a now deceased writer from Pune, India. Oak (1992, 1995) attacks the accepted etymologies for hundreds of English and other non-Indian words, place names, etc., and proposes new Sanskrit etymologies –  most of them ludicrous, both linguistically and historically. Like Knapp and Matlock, he gives no evidence for most of his etymologies, but merely invites readers to agree that they are obviously correct. Oak simply does not know enough about the subject or about the history of any language other than Sanskrit. Even for Sanskrit, he uncritically adopts Vedic ideas about its vast antiquity: he thinks it was used in happy Hindu communities worldwide for '2,000 million years' [sic] until wicked Christians, Muslims, scientists and such subverted all this and rewrote history.
Other religious/quasi-religious groups with links to Hinduism, including some based in the West, also focus on Sanskrit. With aid from its supposed spiritual allies, the Aetherius Society (see https://www.aetherius.org/) still forges ahead on its mission to save Earth from its extrasolar foes. It regards Sanskrit not merely as the ancestor of all human speech but as vastly ancient and the main lingua franca of a whole swathe of inhabited planets. Naturally, the Theosophical Society also focuses on Sanskrit; Helena Blavatsky's ideas (1982 re-print) on the language and on linguistics, which were strange and dated even in her own time, continue to command some respect in these circles.
There are also nonstandard linguistic ideas associated with other traditional religions, such as Australian Aboriginal and New Zealand Maori spirituality. In addition, there are further implausible claims along lines similar to those made in Priesthood of the Ills regarding the role of religious organisations in distorting the truth about linguistic history, e.g., the theory, promoted in Nyland (2001), that during the 'Dark Ages' the Roman Catholic Church deliberately concocted most modern languages by distorting the Basque lexicon. But this is by no means the only way in which such nonstandard fringe claims can involve linguistics. Even as far as historical linguistics specifically is concerned, this article has done no more than scratch the surface.
 The fringe literature is replete with weird claims about ancient languages and scripts, whether religion is involved or not. And there are also many books on the market which display misconceptions or errors of quite other kinds concerning language or particular languages, or which make implausible linguistic claims of many types. Elsewhere (notably in the British skeptical press), I have discussed topics as varied as performances claimed to represent parts of channelled languages associated with UFO abductions, the view that almost all normal everyday speech contains unplanned linguistic reversals (as in 'backward masking') that supposedly reveal speakers' inner thoughts, the alleged speech of 'cryptids' such as Bigfoot/Sasquatch and many more. There is scope for much more investigative work on a plethora of such topics.  For a book-length survey (including discussion of many post-2007 works), see now Newbrook (2013).

Benner, Jeff A. 2004.  The Ancient Hebrew Language and Alphabet: Understanding the Ancient Hebrew Language of the Bible Based on the Ancient Hebrew Culture and Thought, College Station, TX: Virtualbookworm.com.

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Brass, M. 2003. The Antiquity of Man: Artifactual, Fossils, and Gene Records Explored. Baltimore: AmErica House.
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