Old-time religion, old-time language:
links between anomalous claims in the two domains
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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Blodgett, T. 1981. Phonological Similarities in Germanic and Hebrew. University of Utah doctoral dissertation.
Brass, M. 2003. The Antiquity of Man: Artifactual, Fossils, and Gene Records Explored. Baltimore: AmErica House.
'Britam.' 2001. The United States and Britain in Biblical Prophecy. Cincinnati: United Church of God.
Bryant, E. 2001. The Quest far the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press.
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Newbrook, M. 2013. Strange Linguistics. Munich: Lincom-Europa.
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