6 Mar 2007

Nostratic and the curse of the online forum

It's a strange fact that comparative linguists get a nasty rash when talking about reconstructing languages older than 6000 years. Why 6000? No one can say for sure but people use this voodoo number far too often. Far be it from me to think that the imposed time limit smells too much like the biblical creationists of yore who would snuff out any debate that implied that the earth was older than 6000 years... And look who has egg on their faces now.

Sadly, if you want a serious discussion and inspection of "long-range reconstruction" of any of the hypothesized proto-languages, such as Nostratic, you're probably going to have to wait a few centuries when an intellectual renaissance finally happens. Some noteworthy books and articles have been published by scholars such as Allan Bomhard, John C. Kerns, Aaron Dolgopolsky, etc. but nothing I would call terribly "meaty" since much of it are simply educated opinions that lack sturdy evidence as yet.

For now, most people gladly put themselves into one extremist slot or the other. Chances are, either you're a staunch, Nostraticist-reviling academic or you're the anything-goes type that just can't stop talking about how the government is conspiring to hide the truth about Atlantis and UFOs. People like me sit uncomfortably in the middle of this intellectual jihad, daring to suggest that the theory of Nostratic does not have to be the domain of the undisciplined and that a heap of work needs yet to be done before we can call anything conclusive on the subject. I know that a lot can be gained through the *careful* inspection and comparison of language groups. While its scholarship so far might leave a bad taste in our mouths, we have to admit that the basic premise of long-range theories -- that certain language groups are closely related and groupable into even larger and more ancient groups -- is not silly at all anymore than the idea that we're related to monkeys. Certainly, no one can logically proclaim that long-range reconstruction is forever beyond our capacity without falling into the old paradox of pretending to be knowledgeable enough to know what we cannot know.

It's not likely though that mainstream academia will dare touch these subjects with a ten-foot pole anytime soon. People with doctorates are usually worried about their reputation so they stick to safer subjects with lower levels of controversy, fields that are not dominated by kooks. We don't have to look far to find the undisciplined amateur with an itching for a published book or website in their name flocking to it like sweet candy. Look at the cornucopia of crazies online and you'll understand why academics fear to dabble in the subject, lest they be put into the same category:
  • Hunmagyar.org
    (An Ethnocentrist's pet website devoted to proving that Hungarian is the one and only source of all mysteries.)
  • Proto-Language
    (Patrick Ryan asserts that all language comes from a syllabic googoo language 100,000 years ago and seeks to prove it through a manic use of superlarge fonts, distracting graphics and an odd selection of music.)
It's because of the "crazy label" that Nostratic curses every mailing list or forum dedicated to its name. This has gone on for years so it can't just be a fluke. The last Nostratic forum moderated by Andy Howey called Nostratic-L was what must have been the third in a line of groups in which I had tried to participate on the subject, devoted to Nostratic. All would be doomed to die.

As I mention above, subjects like these, and thus the forums that cover them, involve an unsaid jihad between the crazies and the conservatives. Without moderators realizing this, one extreme or the other tends to forever destroy the unstable balance. Either trolls get on and start talking nonsense that educated people find too inane to comment on (eg: [1], [2]) or conservativism dominates so strongly that no one deigns speak to other members at all.

Proper moderation of these forums must involve an active and continuing desire to bring everyone to the middle, and whenever possible, to expel the most extremist members from the forum that harm rather than trigger fertile debate.


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