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Essay/Cultures & Languages

Talking gibberish

The study of languages has long been prone to nonsense. Why is linguistics such a magnet for dilettantes and crackpots?

Gaston Dorren

Photo by the Hulton Archive/Getty

Gaston Dorren

is a journalist and linguist. His latest book is Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages (2015). He lives in Amersfoort in the Netherlands.

3,200 words

Edited by Sam Dresser

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Ah, for the days of fact-free linguistics! The pre-scientific era might have produced a lot of codswallop and hogwash, but how entertaining it is to look back upon. Scholars erred in ways that few modern linguists ever would. Today, their field of study is a respectable social science, exacting in its methods, broad in its scope and generous in its harvest. Without phoneticians, computers wouldn’t be able to process spoken English. Without sociolinguists, prejudice against dialects and non-Western languages would still be rife – or rather, rifer still. Forensic linguists help to solve crimes, clinical linguists treat people with language impairments, historical linguists shed light on language change and even on prehistoric culture and migration – the list goes on and on. As in other disciplines, pertinent questions and rigorous methods to answer them have been at the root of success.

When natural philosophy began to slowly develop into physics and other natural sciences, learned speculation in the human domain did not immediately follow suit. But it too gradually developed into what we now call the social sciences, and the study of language was one of the earliest adopters of the new methods. Its practitioners would pore over ancient texts written in long-dead languages and long-forgotten scripts, and compare them ever more systematically. This led to a breakthrough in the late 18th century, when there emerged new ideas about the historical origins of modern languages. Most of these ideas have stood the test of time.

But the budding discipline did not merely come up with new answers, it also changed the questions. Scholars of yore, when reflecting upon language, would wonder things such as: which of the contemporary languages was spoken by the first man? Which one is superior to the rest? And which of the human tongues deserves the label ‘divine’? Modern linguists will not touch those with a 10-foot pole. The oldest language is unknowable, but it was certainly different from anything spoken today. The ‘best’ language is impossible to define in any meaningful way. And as for ‘divine’ – the very word is meaningless in relation to languages, except in a cultural sense.

Not so in the olden days. Indeed, the answers seemed pretty obvious to many thinkers, if only thanks to that most anti-scientific habit of mind known as ethnocentrism. To the ancient Greeks, determining the world’s most excellent language was a perfect no-brainer: it could only be theirs. People who spoke differently were ‘barbarians’ or babblers. The Romans were only slightly more broad-minded. Their appreciation extended beyond Latin to other languages with a tradition of writing, especially Greek (which might conceivably even be superior), but also Punic, spoken by the Carthaginians, and Etruscan. All scriptless languages, however, were sneered at. Even in the late 5th century, with Rome’s power gone, the Roman aristocrat Sidonius Apollinaris called the Germanic language of the new rulers ‘an instrument of but three strings’.

Other cultures were equally self-complacent. In the last centuries BCE, the people of North India felt that their Sanskrit was nothing less than divine, and 1,000 years later the Arabs would feel likewise about the language of the Quran. For the Chinese, civilising the neighbouring peoples was practically tantamount to familiarising them with the only great language. The French of the Enlightenment, not to be outdone, deemed their language better than divine – it was logical.

This claim was perhaps most famously defended by the 18th-century writer Antoine de Rivarol on grounds that were both illogical and plain wrong. He argued that the French word order (subject first, followed by verb and then object) is both unique and more logical than any other. But not only is it extremely common among the world’s languages, it’s also an order that French itself very often does not respect – and these are only some of the more obvious objections.

As silly as it is, the notion of ‘French as the pinnacle of logic’ became an idée reçue. The cover of my first French dictionary, published in the 1950s (and not even in France!) claimed that the language was ‘an unsurpassed creation as a vehicle for the mind’. The Arabs, Chinese and Greeks would beg to differ.

Today, the language of choice is English, especially in most of the Western world. And sure enough, it has inherited French’s status as the allegedly superior language. How rich in vocabulary it is, how suitable for song and science, how clear, concise and, in a word, cool. And how this makes me – as a non-English speaker – chuckle. English is not a bad language as languages go but, a century from now, all the exultant praise will sound as silly as it would have sounded less than a century ago, before its rise to dominance.

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Speakers of big languages are not the only ones to get carried away by love for their lingo. Quite a few people in Tamil Nadu in South India used quite literally to consider the Tamil language a goddess, and some still do. And early medieval Irish monks spun this elaborate yarn to prove that Irish Gaelic stood alone: after God had destroyed the Tower of Babel and confused the tongues of man, King Phenius of Scythia travelled thither with his son and 72 scholars. Out of the best elements of all the confused languages they found there, they created a new one: Irish.

As for the oldest language, this was Hebrew. At least, this is something that Christians commonly believed for more than 1,000 years. (Only Saint Ephrem the Syrian held that his own Syriac was older.) The Church Father Augustine, for instance, wrote in the 5th century:

so when the nations, by a prouder godlessness, earned the punishment of the dispersion and the confusion of tongues, … there was still the house of Heber in which the primitive language of the race survived. … His family preserved that language which is not unreasonably believed to have been the common language of the race, it was on this account thenceforth named Hebrew.

For a long time, it was considered heresy to doubt that the Hebrew language and script of the Bible were inspired by God – including the so-called vowel points, which were actually added by rabbis several centuries after the beginning of our era.

Even today, Christians who take the Bible literally adhere to the traditional view. In 2011, the Dutchman Willem Westerbeke published a theological tract titled ‘God Spoke Hebrew’. And as in Christianity, so elsewhere: one Thakur Prasad Verma in 2005 claimed not only that Sanskrit was the original language of all humankind, but that it was a direct gift from above: ‘Vedas are verbal transformations of God.’ And in a scholarly tome, too.

Outside the churches, the consensus slowly began to crack and crumble from the Renaissance on and, between the 16th and 18th centuries, one scholar after another came up with other ‘first languages’ (see table below). German was a popular candidate, but the 17th-century Swedish scholar Olof Rudbeck favoured his own mother tongue, for a reason that was nothing if not creative: Sweden, he argued, was Atlantis, and thus the cradle of human civilisation.

Christian Europe used to consider Hebrew as the language of Adam and Eve, the first humans. But after the Middle Ages, many alternatives were suggested. This is an incomplete list of ‘first languages’.

Perhaps most famous was the Flemish author Johannes Goropius Becanus. He claimed that the Dutch language, and the Flemish dialect of Antwerp in particular, was the direct descendant of the original language and the source of all others. His evidence was of an etymological nature. The name Adam, for instance, was derived from haat-dam (‘hate dam, dam against hate’), while Diets or Dutch was synonymous with d’oudste (‘th’oldest’). In the Low Countries, Goropius would enjoy some support for centuries to come; abroad, his name literally became a byword for fanciful etymologising: the eminent German scholar Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz called the activity ‘goropising’. Even today, the hypothesis of Dutch as the oldest language is kept alive by at least one linguist and one poet, both of whom seem to be embarrassingly serious about it.

It was merely a matter of time for the Turks to proclaim, just as rightfully, that their language was oldest

It wasn’t just Germanic tongues such as German, Swedish and Antwerp Dutch that were declared to be the origin of all human language. (English, it seems, was too obvious a hybrid to make such a claim remotely plausible.) Greek and Polish were nominated by German scholars, Hungarian by a Hungarian, and three Celtic languages – Welsh, Breton and Gaelic – had their champions as well. The English antiquarian John Webb suggested Chinese.

Even at the time, many right-thinking men and women did not take these flights of fancy seriously. In the early 18th century, the Swedish historian and satirist Olof von Dalin poked fun at Rudbeck and his way of thinking. To Rudbeck, he said, the name ‘Adam’ was probably a corruption of av damm, Swedish for ‘(made) of dust’. While funny and incorrect, this reference to God’s creation of the first man is less far-fetched than Goropius’s ‘hate dam’.

Another Swede, Anders Kempe, suggested ironically that God in paradise had undoubtedly spoken Swedish, with Adam speaking Danish and the snake French. And Leibniz wrote in 1699 that it was merely a matter of time for the Turks to proclaim, just as rightfully, that their language was oldest. History would bear him out.

If we can feel smugly superior to all these learned men with their embarrassing theories, that’s merely because we live after 1784. An iconic event in that year marks the break between old-fashioned speculation about language and modern linguistic science: an address given in Calcutta by the British philologist William Jones, in which he proposed the Indo-European language family (which encompasses most languages of Europe, India and Iran). As with many icons, the choice is somewhat arbitrary. Jones was not the first to float the idea, as scholars had first noticed the similarities between Latin, Greek, Slavic, Germanic, Celtic and some Asian languages more than a century before. Neither was Jones the first to identify the historical processes of language change that have cemented the idea since, for that task would fall mostly to 19th-century German and Danish scholars, including the Grimm brothers of fairytale fame.

They, more than Jones, have set linguistics on the path to scientific rigour. They worked out methods to identify and laws to describe the changes that languages have undergone over thousands of years. They discovered how the Germanic languages were not just intuitively similar, but also systematically different: how an initial s pronounced ‘s’ in English would be an initial s pronounced ‘z’ in German and an initial z in Dutch: seven, sieben, zeven. They also showed how certain sound changes, for instance from a ‘k’ sound to a ‘ch’ or ‘s’ sound (compare Scots kirk to English church) would occur again and again throughout Europe (in Frisian and Swedish, in late Latin and in Slavic) and beyond. Later still, scholars would study a much wider range of linguistic phenomena, analysing language in increasingly abstract ways and focusing more and more on speech. But studying linguistic history by systematically comparing written languages is what got the discipline going.

Given the extensive body of historical knowledge they’ve collected since, especially about Europe and Asia, one would expect that claims of Goropian and Rudbeckian absurdity would be a thing of the past. They aren’t, however. To this day, dissidents seriously assert that mainstream linguistics has it spectacularly wrong. Science is not above errors, of course, some of them collective and persistent – think phrenology, think behaviourism – and linguistics is no exception. But if correcting the errors is a tall order, many dissidents believe it is best met with tall stories.

One such unlikely tale centred on ‘Lemuria’. In the late 19th century, biologists and geologists suspected the prehistoric existence of a large continent that had later sunk into the Indian Ocean – a kind of Atlantis of the East. Scholars in the region were quick to deduce that the world’s oldest language must be sought here. Tamil of India and Sri Lanka was suggested, as was Malagasy of Madagascar. In the mid-20th century, the new theory of plate tectonics killed the idea of Lemuria.

In 1935, Leibniz’s playful prophecy came true when a congress in Turkey launched and officially accepted the so-called Sun-language theory. It was advanced by Hermann Feodor Kvergić, an obscure Austrian linguist, who saw the origin of all language in some prehistoric person looking up at the Sun and exclaiming: ‘Ah!’ Wielding a logic all his own, Kvergić argued that this first utterance developed into Turkish, and from there into all other languages. For three years, the theory was in vogue, though exclusively in Turkey, only to fall from favour as swiftly as it had risen.

So, the word doctor derives from the Basque ‘a bloody injury, come right now’ – dishwater could not be clearer

The year 1935 was an auspicious one for pseudolinguistics. A book published in Germany backed a hitherto overlooked candidate for the status of oldest language: Finnish. But rather than swell with nationalist pride, the Finns merely chuckled. They knew the author, Sigurd Wettenhovi-Aspa, to be an eccentric artist whose musings about life, the universe and everything failed to meet the standards for serious scholarship, however forgiving.

Even in this highly competitive field of linguistic fantasists, pride of place undoubtedly goes to the late Edo Nyland. A Canadian forester by training, he found his calling after retiring in 1982, aged 55, when he began to develop a new and original branch of historical linguistics. First, he reinterpreted Homer’s Odyssey, arguing that it was set not in the Mediterranean, but in and around Ireland and Scotland. The language spoken there at the time was, still according to Nyland, a close relative of Basque, which he named ‘Saharan’. He drew this conclusion from toponymical evidence: many regional place-names became meaningful when considered as Basque, or so Nyland believed.

Perhaps most distinctively, Basque in his theory has not gradually branched into the world’s many known languages today. Instead, Nyland posited that Benedictine monks, for obscure reasons, designed one new language after another, and somehow surreptitiously introduced these into as many communities. To illustrate, let’s take the English word ‘doctor’. This consists of the elements .do, ok., .to and or., or in their full forms: odo, oke, eto and ora, short for the Basque words odoldun (‘bloody’), okerkeria (‘injury’), etorri (‘come!’) and orain (right now). So, the word doctor derives from the Basque sentence ‘a bloody injury, come right now’ – dishwater could not be clearer. Not that this is proper Basque grammar (Nyland, who doesn’t seem to have spoken the language, pieced his ‘etymologies’ together with the aid of a Basque dictionary), but in the grander scheme of things, these are mere trifles.

Not all bizarre linguistic theories are about the oldest language. Take climate theory. In 18th- and 19th-century France and Germany, there was a strong current of thought to the effect that climate determines how people speak. ‘The temperate, milder climes are the most favourable for the formation of pure languages,’ wrote the German Romanticist August Wilhelm Schlegel, and the rough, guttural sounds of the north were inextricably linked to its bracing cold and rugged rocks. And Rivarol, of ‘logical French’ fame, wrote that languages are ‘melodious and voluptuous in mild climes, harsh and dull under a sad sky’. Remarkably enough, modern science has actually found one correlation between climate and language: tonal languages, such as Chinese, in which the pitch of every syllable matters, occur significantly more often in humid than in dry regions.

Another offbeat theory was linguistic Marxism or Marrism, so named after the Georgian linguist Nicholas Yakovlevich Marr, who ventured a class analysis of Europe’s languages. To his mind, there was no such thing as language families, only stages of development. If the Indo-European languages seemed similar, it was because they were spoken in class societies. Those spoken in the Caucasus region, on the other hand, including his own Georgian, were typical of an earlier stage in history, that of classless societies. The notion of ‘national languages’ was a figment of false class consciousness. (If you feel you’re not quite getting this, try to keep it that way.) Marr became the leading light of Soviet linguistics and was awarded the Order of Lenin just before his death in 1934. In 1950, however, Stalin announced that Marrism was a mistake, thereby obviating the need for further discussion. With Stalin being who he was, Marr was probably lucky to be dead.

A common thread running through these theories is that the theorists want them to be true

While all disciplines attract the occasional eccentric, it seems that two fields exert a particularly strong pull: historiography and linguistics. Two reasons spring to mind. One is that the history and language of one’s own group – whether it be nation, region, minority or faith – are tied up closely with its identity. (With some students of language, it’s not their own group they deeply care about, but some fascinating minority; Basque and the Celtic languages are the favourites.) The prestige that comes with a noble past and an ancient pedigree is an irresistible lure, so no effort is spared in the search for supporting facts – or, failing those, near-facts. Rudbeck would have liked his Swedish to be the oldest tongue, Rivarol would have preferred French to be of exemplary logic, Marr would have loved the workers of the world to speak one global class language. That seems to be a common thread running through the theories mentioned above: the theorists want them to be true.

The tricky thing about history is that so much has happened; about languages, that there are so many of them. And there’s the second reason why linguistics and historiography provide such fertile ground for bizarre theories. The fantasists and dilettantes trawl through source after source in the hope of pulling aboard what seem to be relations and other connections. But in fact, the more documents they sift through, the more likely they are to find chance similarities and connections and draw spurious conclusions. And if established scholars disagree with them, they will typically respond in a petulant manner, rather than take their criticism seriously. Of course, no scholar is quite above such all-too-human reactions, but in academia there’s nothing for it but to try to convince one’s peers by answering the opponent. But those who accuse mainstream science of being blinkered often can’t see the beam in their own eye: a poor grasp of methodology. As a result, their patient labour typically produces patent nonsense.

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