Re: [tied] Re: NWB

From: Rick McCallister
Message: 49976
Date: 2007-09-18

OK, I found this remarking on Forster. What do you
guys think?

March 06, 2007

Nutty Journalists' (and Others') Language Theories
"Today's New York Times has another entry in the
sweepstakes for least appealing claims about language.
Nicholas Wade, the Times reporter who never heard a
dumb claim about language that he didn't like, reports
that Stephen Oppenheimer, an Oxford geneticist, claims
in a new book that "the principal ancestors of today's
British and Irish populations arrived from Spain about
16,000 years ago, speaking a language related to

Oh, really? Did they bring along papyri or pots
containing Basque writing that has survived until
modern times, to be somehow discovered by a medical
geneticist in his Oxford lab? Or has Oppenheimer
perhaps found genetic links between Basque and some
people in Britain and Ireland? Or is he just guessing?
Or -- something that must be considered, with Nicholas
Wade reporting -- is the Basque theory not
Oppenheimer's but Wade's? Even genetic links wouldn't
provide terrific evidence that prehistoric non-Celtic,
non-Germanic, non-Italic speakers in the British Isles
were speaking Basque: language shift is a fact of life
throughout the world, at all periods of history
(reported for instance by Herodotus), and genes and
language often don't match.

The article gets even weirder when Wade turns to
another geneticist, Peter Forster, whose name may be
recognized by faithful Language Log readers as the
proponent of a linguistically untenable theory of the
origins of Celtic . According to Wade, Oppenheimer

"has relied on work by Peter Forster, a geneticist...,
to argue that Celtic is a much more ancient language
than supposed....He also adopts Dr. Forster's
argument, based on a statistical analysis of
vocabulary, that English is an ancient, fourth branch
of the Germanic language tree, and was spoken in
England before the Roman invasion.

"English is usually assumed to have developed in
England, from the language of the Angles and Saxons,
about 1,500 years ago. But Dr. Forster argues that the
Angles and the Saxons were both really Viking peoples
who began raiding Britain ahead of the accepted
historical schedule. They did not bring their language
to England because English, in his view, was already
spoken there, probably introduced before the arrival
of the Romans by tribes such as the Belgae, whom
Julius Caesar describes as being present on both sides
of the Channel."

And so it continues. Wade reports Forster's claim that
English is not West Germanic but an independent fourth
branch of Germanic -- which (of course, given his
enthusiasm for pushing splits in branches of
Indo-European back into the more distant past) means
that Proto-Germanic must have "split into its four
branches some 2,000 to 6,000 years ago".

Oops. There are a lot of things wrong with this
picture. First, about those 2,000 years: English is
attested, as Old English, from about 800 C.E.; Gothic,
the only East Germanic language, is attested from the
4th century C.E.; Old Norse (North Germanic, the
language of the real Vikings) is attested starting in
700 C.E.; and Old High German, like English a West
Germanic language, is attested from the 8th century
C.E. All these attestations are much too early to
leave time for differentiation (as Forster claims)
starting a mere few hundred years earlier. Forster
would presumably prefer his 6,000-year estimate, but
the 2,000-year estimate shows how little he knows, or
understands, about Germanic languages.

Second, the idea that 150 years of careful research in
Germanic languages can be overthrown by a statistical
analysis of vocabulary (which is Forster's sole
technique) makes no sense: it might be relevant if
languages were all vocabulary and if Forster
understood enough about language to construct a useful
sample, but the linkage of English with West Germanic
-- through its closest relation, Frisian, and then the
also closely-related Dutch and Low German -- is
absolutely solid. These languages, together with
(High) German, share significant innovations in
phonology and morphology as well as in the lexicon; it
is those innovations that provide the evidence for the
usually accepted -- not "assumed"! -- subgrouping of
the Germanic branch of Indo-European.

I have no expertise whatsoever in genetics and I
therefore have no comment on Dr. Oppenheimer's
proposals in this highly technical and well-developed
field of inquiry. It would be nice if geneticists like
Forster (and reporters like Wade) would reciprocate --
if they would somehow manage to arrive at an
understanding of the fact that historical linguistics
is a highly technical and well-developed field of
inquiry in which expert knowledge is needed to support

Posted by Sally Thomason at March 6, 2007 09:48 AM

Building a website is a piece of cake. Yahoo! Small Business gives you all the tools to get online.