29 Aug 2007

Minoan, Cyrus Gordon and academic politics

First off, I need to clarify for readers that I am in no way related to Cyrus Gordon despite our common last name and interest for ancient languages. He was a linguist (or purported linguist) on a fruitless mission to prove that the Minoan language was a Semitic one by completely ignoring sensible linguistic methodology. He is a perfect example of how to misuse your doctorate.

However when famed linguists pass away such as Cyrus Gordon, academic institutions and the bureaucratic clones that they spawn enforce an unsaid "taboo" that lasts anywhere from many months to several years. Rather than allowing science to prevail, it is customary practice amongst career-loving opportunists to keep hush-hush on logical criticisms, exploiting human mores like "respect for the dead" and "civility" to elevate one's status in the anthill. Behold Exhibit A, a painfully emotive eulogy in honour of the well-intentioned nonagenarian published by The Jewish Quarterly Review (2001), a clear example of science laced with personal politics, even possibly ethnopolitics. It's a kind of "reverse ad hominem", just as reprehensible to logic as its mirror twin, meant to attribute heroic grandeur to failed theories that were senseless even when they were first published. I am openly a militant logician. Reasoning stops for no man, woman or child. I believe that all sacred cows should have their entrails ripped from their frames, to be eaten raw by true priests of logical stoicism. The remaining bovine carcasses should then be burned before the altar of Minerva Veritatis, in honour of the beautiful Warrioress of Truth, Eliminator of Human Drama and Politics. I look at Cyrus Gordon's work as yet another quadrupedal to slay for the altar.

Throughout his entire book Evidence for the Minoan Language, Cyrus Gordon used the typical slice-'n-dice methods of an amateur hack. He evoked ancient words that weren't even attested in order to desperately connect them with any and every Semitic language by pure random whim, whether it be Hebrew, Phoenician, Arabic, Ugaritic, Akkadian or some obscure idiom in an obscure dialect of Old Aramaic. He had gone to every length to find any connection no matter how pathetically incorrect. Here is a few of some of his imaginary "facts" that should have expelled him from the scholarly community long ago:
  1. Minoan (y)a-ta-no- = Phoenician yatan- 'he has donated' (page 28)
    No such Minoan word. He concocted this from his misreading of the symbol for 'i' as 'no'. It's properly read a-ta-i (see here) and written on stone libation tables. In fact, Minoan doesn't appear to have initial y- because 'ya' far too often alternates with 'a' in initial position. He chose to misread it here and insisted on initial y- in this one case to supply pretend evidence for his nonsense. Yet he contradicted himself on page 42 by acknowledging pa-i-to written with the same character 'i' that he thought was 'no' in the former word! Applying inconsistent phonetic values to symbols is ad hoc garbage, as you can plainly see.
  2. Eteo-Cretan isalabr = Hebrew ʔišša lə-ḫābēr 'woman to companion' (page 9)
    No such Eteo-Cretan word. The Cretan artifact in question is Dreros #1 (see here with picture) and as you can see Cyrus Gordon takes advantage of his readers by not supplying honest pictures of the artifacts he warped to suit his agenda.
  3. One can prove linguistic relationships with random connections to random languages
    While everyone else might recognize Cyrus Gordon as a valid linguist, I just can't bring myself to believe that. The very fact that he published Evidence for the Minoan Language based on this naive principle of folk etymology shows that he didn't understand the very basics of linguistic science. Perhaps if he had read Mark Rosenfelder's excellent primer How likely are chance resemblances between languages?, Cyrus Gordon could have made a far more informed book and I wouldn't be so annoyed.
So in light of this, I share with you yet another irritating eulogy by his own alma mater, University of Pennsylvania, which was featured also in Almanac. The article leaves the reader with the impression that Minoan is already solved and even a Semitic language. This is as senseless as Anti-Evolutionary Creationism which some loons still want pushed like crack coccaine to kids in schools in nearby Kansas.

Do universities truly have a monopoly on critical thinking and competence, or are they just groupThink institutions that obstruct progress with empty speeches about celebrities with false accolades? Are we rational human beings or are we controlled by superstitious fears of the otherworld that prevent us from pointing out bad scholarship when we see it, simply because the intellectual maverick in question had just passed away? Can we not distinguish between an empty personal attack and the healthy dismantling of a dead man's irrational pet theory?


  1. It is indeed, incredibly frustrating how some 'linguists' can get so much fame by babbling about absolutely nothing.

    In my Tangut studies I have also come across some of the most ridiculous nonsense.

    LaPolla claimed that the Tangut verbal agreement was clearly based upon the pronouns. He based this on the homophony and homography of the first singular, and 'homophony' of the 2nd singular pronoun. This claim is so incredibly short sighted, but sounds so plausible that I missed it at first. Luckily I'm not the only one who has noticed this terrible mistake. There is actually quite a bit of reason to think that the 2nd singular 'homophone' wasn't even a homophone, after all they didn't match in rhyme class.

    And it goes on and on. We'll have to use our critical minds to find our way through all the crap that is thrown at us in this day and age. Especially now that most people have become dependant on 'sources' like Wikipedia. We're in the jungle!

  2. Yes, it's a jungle. But I wonder... has it always been a jungle? What about that ol' Anaximenes who thought that stars were nails hammered into a sky made of crystal? Crazies have always been among us, methinks. They are part of the food chain.

    Mistakes made by these (supposed) specialists of obscure languages are one thing. Not to downplay what you're saying, however, what I'm talking about here concerning Cyrus Gordon is much worse, involving the most basic misunderstanding of linguistics - the belief that you can translate a language or prove its genetic affiliation by randomly connecting it to whatever language suits your fancy. Cyrus Gordon is well beyond the mistakes you're talking about with Tangut. He's, how do I put this mildly, a flake masquerading as a linguist, similar to flops like Marco Alinei or Zacharie Mayani in Etruscan studies. And what really sticks in my craw is how these people can even be put on a pedestal for whatever reasons by universities as "scholars". It's empty drivel. My definition of scholar is someone who lets go of ideas that can't stand up to known facts. Mystics are not scholars.

  3. Sorry that should be "Mario Alinei". I called him Marco, which is just my little pet love name for him, hahaha ;) Okay, so what, I'm a little dyslexic, haha.

  4. Yeah, I understand what you're trying to say. His theories were absolutely nutty.

    Reminds me a bit of Edo Nyland, who has tried to claim that all languages are actually constructed languages created by Benedictine monks, and that all words of all languages are actually complex encodings of Basque sentences and words, and that thus the original language that everybody spoke was Basque, and that languages based on Basque for some unclear obscure mysterious reason.

    Hmm, maybe he wasn't that bad, but randomly linking up words to force your 'hunch' rather than trying to disprove it with facts, is bad science. Luckily though, Nyland isn't taken seriously unlike Cyrus Gordon.

    A little example of Nyland's insanity is to be seen here:

  5. Edo Nyland is famous (for all the wrong reasons), but even he managed to publish a book called Linguistic Archaeology. I forsee it will make its way to a public library pretty soon. One of the sections is entitled The Beginning of My Linguistic Odyssey so you know it's gotta be jampacked with exciting adventures of the mind. Edo's unnatural suspicion towards monks may or may not be the product of childhood trauma.

    Meanwhile somewhere in Kansas:
    Little Johnny: "Where do languages come from?"
    Teacher: "Well, it was all a biiiiiiig mystery until the reknowned expert Edo Nyland single-handedly discovered that it was all a hoax made by Benedictine monks."
    Little Johnny: "Gee, those monks are tricksters."
    Teacher: "Yes, they are, Johnny, just like all those evil scientists who spin their lies about Evolution, Global Warming and Science. Now pick up your Bibles and turn to Revelation 16:16. The End is Nigh!"

    My experience has been that when you suspect it's bad, it's usually much much worse. Maybe if monkeys had learned to think rationally before learning how to walk upright, the course of history would have been much different.