I’ve written previously about the likelihood or otherwise of particular patterns of stars appearing in the night sky. For instance, the Cross, the Square, the Crosshairs and the Triangle and Southern Triangle are all quite likely arrangements, and consequently it can be expected that across the Universe, many star systems will have worlds whose night skies also include a Cross, Crosshairs and Triangle. There are other constellations and asterisms which initially seem less probable but can undoubtedly be picked out as patterns. In particular it seems an odd coincidence to me that the Great and Lesser Bears both have a similar arrangement of a rectangle of stars with a line of other stars stretching diagonally from one corner. In this case it’s possible that it’s more than coincidence and that the stars form an arrangement in the sky stemming from their similar history of formation, although I couldn’t swear to that.
I will get to politics, believe me.
Sometimes there are quite remarkable constellations and asterisms which one would think are in fact structures of nearby stars and other objects in the sky. Sometimes they even are. For instance, the Pleiades, Hyades and the Beehive Cluster are all open clusters of stars in the process of dispersing after a fairly recent formation from the same cloud. However, there’s also Berenice’s Hair, which you can see at the top of the above illustration. Although there is a star cluster in Coma, as it’s known, many of the brighter stars in the constellation are nowhere near it, so when we look at Berenice’s Hair we are half seeing something “real”, i.e. a cohesive structure in the sky, and half seeing stars which are just between us and the cluster. The Beehive, Pleiades and Hyades, though, are genuine clusters.
A similar astronomical phenomenon is the existence of optical double stars as opposed to binary stars. Optical doubles are stars which look like they’re next to each other when they have no real connection and just happen to be in the same direction from our viewpoint. Binary stars orbit each other. One example of a binary star system is Sirius – a star 2.5 times the mass of the Sun is orbited by a white dwarf of the Sun’s mass. On the other hand, Sarin, a quadruple star system in the constellation of Hercules, is in fact no longer called that because it turns out that one of the stars is just in the same direction. They were within nine arcseconds of each other in 1960 and since then have been moving away from each other at a right angle, meaning they can’t possibly be orbiting each other but are just in the neighbourhood.
It’s a fairly common mistake, mentioned here before, to assume that random distributions are smooth. In fact, if a distribution of dots, such as stars in the sky, is smooth, above a certain number, it means it isn’t random because the distances, in this case angular distances, are similar. If there were only two stars in the sky, A and B, it would be unsurprising if one was in the Northern and the other in the Southern hemisphere. If there were three, it would then be a toss-up whether the extra one was in the same hemisphere as the other. The two stars in the same hemisphere could be, almost infinitely liberally, described as a cluster, and maybe there would be legends among the Southerners of such a planet (probably in one of the Maffei galaxies where only three stars are likely to be visible in the sky of a random planet there because they’re so diffuse) which claimed that God has two eyes, one to rule the day and the other the night, but that God sleeps at night, so her eye is dimmer, and among the Northerners that God has two eyes which are both visible at night, and there could then be a religious war between the two factions. Then again, maybe this planet is in a ternary star system and the other two stars are companions to the planet’s sun.
On the other hand, imagine a sky where the stars are all equidistant from each other, perhaps at the intersections of the lines of right ascension and declination (longitude and latitude) at fifteen degree intervals. This would be a smooth distribution of stars but it would definitely not be random. It would be a bit like being inside a colander at night, with approximately square patterns of stars tapering to each celestial pole. There would be a total of two gross stars in that sky, although only half would be visible at any one time. Or maybe it could be a bit more random but with a strong tendency for stars to be separated by about fifteen degrees. Confronted with this, one could probably conclude that space was previously filled with an extremely diffuse gas, evenly distributed, which collapsed to form stars at fairly regular intervals. In other words, the rational line of argument would be that there’s a mechanism involved which has led to that regularity.
What we in fact have in the sky is a mixture of apparent randomness, which is therefore clustered, and orderly processes, and because we’re genetically programmed to see patterns, we do, and we didn’t realise how arbitrary the distribution of objects in space in fact is.
Now for politics. I recently saw a viral video in which someone was describing how her mother had recently died in connection with neglect in a care home, and that in the process of arranging the funeral she had met someone who was being evicted from their home due to an aspect of government policy which meant she could no longer afford to stay there, and a third person had also suffered as a result of government policy in some major way. Clearly this does evoke considerable sympathy, and rightly so. It’s not merely emotional manipulation. However, from the viewpoint of political theory, one interesting response was that Conservatives don’t “join up the dots”, that is, they see the individual examples of neglect and apparent callousness and don’t see it as part of a systematic attack on the disadvantaged. I have to confess at this point that I’m left wing and therefore do believe there’s a sociopolitical model which explains what’s going on, although I don’t see it as malevolent, so in that sense it’s arbitrary. That would be me picking out a pattern in society. A Conservative, though, might say there is no pattern to be seen here and that the situation of someone whose mother has just died encountering two other people with major calamities connected to government policy as she sees it is a random cluster, as it were. After all, there may have been millions of other people in this country who didn’t have that experience but didn’t come to public attention, or even their own. A left-wing approach to that, though, might say that many people did experience some kind of catastrophe at the hands of public policy but failed to recognise its political significance.
There are other factors here. For instance, in each situation it could be claimed that people are not taking personal responsibility for something which led to a disaster but are free to do so. The counter-argument there would be along the lines of too much personal responsibility being placed on people, thereby reducing their opportunity to do much about it. For instance, the increase in house prices often leads to both partners in a relationship going out to work for money, leaving little time to care for dependents, resulting in those dependents being farmed out to third parties, which are privatised and profit-driven, and therefore neglectful. This would accord with the opinion that far from us not being good enough for socialism, we’re actually not good enough for capitalism, which I’ve once again said before.
There’s also the question of free will. This would come into other less socially liberal forms of conservatism, where for example sexual orientation is seen as a choice, or at least something mutable. It’s hard to know how far to take this. Most people would see paedophilia as problematic, but probably not mutable, although in fact the focus on paedophilia obscures the reality that most adults who sexually abuse children are not paedophiles and the number of paedophiles who don’t act on their desires is unknown. Nowadays the view that acting on sexual orientation is under one’s control and should be controlled if not heterosexual has become somewhat uncoupled from political conservatism more generally in Britain, though not necessarily in other countries. However, the idea that some people can’t control their impulses as well as others would tend to give weight to a more left-wing approach generally, such as to crime and “punishment”.
This idea of the ability to exercise self-control and scepticism about free will does have a scientific basis. The intention to do something is detectable in the brain around a second before the conscious decision is made, among other things. In fact, and this is rather more controversial because it supports the view of social science referred to as positivism, I see socialism, and a Marxist-like analysis of social and economic relations, as similarly rational, if not scientific. In fact, of course, Marxism is not specifically scientific, although in theory the study of politics and sociology is akin to astronomy – it could be a science but it would involve the study of pre-existing situations rather than experimentation, although many would say that experiments are exactly what socialist governments are doing with societies, and that they firmly refute the idea that socialism can work. A post hoc rebuttal of this often involves the notion that these social orders are not allowed to succeed due to sabotage by international capitalism. At this point, it starts to look like an argument between football supporters – “we was robbed”. Having said that, I still believe that the logical conclusion of evidence-based government policy is socialism.
Against this might be said the following. Conservatism seems to see itself as based on pragmatism and common sense rather than ideology. It often sees, for example, the free market as something which evolves organically and naturally from a situation where people have some resources and lack others, and others have a surplus of the ones they lack but a deficit of the ones they don’t, so trade develops and the system is self-regulating. I’ve said previously that I think the problem with this is that there seems to be an inevitable drift towards monopoly in an unregulated market, so we end up with a similar situation economically to old-school socialism with multinational corporations in the place of state-controlled monopolies, neither of which are democratically controlled. It’s also argued that consumers and shareholders constitute a form of democracy regarding companies, but as with politics the choices can be limited and this also assumes that people act rationally in economic terms. Also, it’s like rich people having more votes than poor people.
An alternate approach might be to see academia as biassed towards the Left, with the corollary that most intellectual thought about politics is more clearly articulated by left wing academics who may lack the experience of most people who work in the private sector, or for that matter are unemployed or work without being paid. This is probably less true than it was though, because of the influence neoliberalism has recently had on academia. There are, though, things to be said for people working in areas of their own expertise being allowed to self-determine and use their own acquired wisdom relevant to those fields. A similar criticism can be levelled at class-based societies in that the slaves, serfs or proletariat have direct experience of the problems which need addressing but lack the power to communicate or address them, making society inefficient and holding back technological progress.
Positivism is criticised as science as ideology, and we may all lack the detachment to pursue the “proper study of man”, meaning that we will introduce our own bias to such a degree that the project is futile. There is also a general problem, seen for example in psychology of a certain bent, of descending into platitudes and a general air of “I could’ve told you that”, so in fact it kind of turns into common sense, and not in a good way, which ironically is how conservatism often portrays itself. However, if my version of positivism was applied, i.e. something which to some extent resembles Marxism, that would appear to contradict conservatism. Except it doesn’t, because it’s entirely feasible for a right wing party to use ideas such as class conflict to support the status quo.
Getting back to the astronomical analogy, we can look at society and see patterns which aren’t there, but also patterns which are there. The questions are, then, is and should politics be more like astronomy or astrology? Or, is one wing of politics more astrological or more astronomical? Are we seeing things which aren’t there or not seeing things which are? Do any of us have a monopoly on that?
If you’re a Gen-X British SF fan, chances are you’ll be familiar with a certain set of authors from your childhood. These will include John Christopher, Terrence Dicks, Terry Nation, John Wyndham and of course Nicholas Fisk. Fisk specialised in writing for children and possibly his best known novel is ‘Grinny’, which is about an alien gynoid disguising itself as Great Aunt Emma and trying to take over the world as part of an alien plot. I wasn’t particularly taken by that, although one point in its favour is that for once the gynoid is not remotely sexualised. I also started to read ‘Wheelie In The Stars’ but since it was about motorbikes it didn’t grab me at all, although the name of the planet, Terramare III, sticks in my mind and there’s something very redolent of the time it was published in the theme.
The two books I’m reviewing here are the 1967 ‘Space Hostages’ and the 1971 ‘Trillions’. There’s quite a contrast between the basic ideas behind them although the approach is similar in other ways, to my recollection anyway.
SPOILER ALERT FOR THE ABOVE-MENTIONED TITLES
‘Space Hostages’, Fisk’s first novel as far as I can remember, is about nine village children who are abducted by an Flight Lieutenant who has stolen an RAF flying saucer, actually a secret military spacecraft, because he’s expecting an imminent nuclear holocaust and wants to preserve the human race. Because the flying saucer’s engines are nuclear-powered, he has ended up giving himself radiation sickness and dies a few days after the abduction, leaving the children to their own devices. Tony, a juvenile delinquent, declares himself captain but Brylo, a nerdish black teenager in an otherwise all-white community, is the brains of the operation and has eventually to be trained via radio from Earth to pilot the spaceship, which via a detour near Cynthia (groan, “the Moon”) lands back on Earth.
I seem to have read this in about 1974, as the images it conjures up in my mind as I re-read it are of Shalmsford, which I left in 1975. In particular I recall seeing Venus out of a window in the house I used to live in back then, the book comparing the first sight of the saucer to the appearance of the planet in Earth’s sky. The milieu of the novel seems very much to capitalise on the still relatively new youth culture of the ’60s, and it also felt like it was the beginning of the Ziggy Stardust/Glam Rock kind of sensibility which this became a few years later. It mentions the Beatles once, and I got the impression that the protagonists were very much swinging youth, with the sense of naive optimism which had died by the time I was a teenager. It also reminded me that I was within a hairsbreadth of experiencing the ’60s myself, which have a kind of hinterlandisch quality to me of being almost my time but not quite, and also having a sort of stasis to them because just as time speeds up as you get older, so does the subjective passage of time initiate from a kind of standstill at the beginning of your consciousness.
There was a clear contrast between the girls and boys. The girls were involved in cooking and caring for the youngest child and had a sort of nurturing role to the boys, who were clearly the central characters and heroes or villains of the piece. Although this is plainly sexist, it’s also interesting because it may still be true to life in terms of how children from a small village in Southern England in the 1960s would in fact have behaved. Hence I was a little torn between the sexist depiction of a division of gender roles and the likelihood that it very probably reflected real life at the time quite accurately. It should also be said that much of that stereotypically feminine role does in fact appeal to me quite strongly as something to aspire to even though my social conditioning tried to push me the other way. In the end, regardless of gender, there isn’t actually anything wrong with trying to take care of a little boy who misses his mummy because he’s been kidnapped and is lost in space, or most of the other stuff the girls did. There was a kind of allegiance and attraction between one of the girls, Di, and the “yob” Tony, as the self-proclaimed captain is described on the blurb, which made me feel that she was looking for his protection, a common dynamic which often leads to being subjected to domestic abuse.
To be fair to Fisk, although he seems to have been largely oblivious of the questionable nature of the sexual politics he portrayed, he did provide a very non-stereotypical black male character in the person of Brylo and racism was made an issue in this story. Brylo is the nerd, and although this has been done many times since, for example by Terry Pratchett in his Johnny Maxwell series, this is an early example. It’s the black boy who is the square and the intellectual as opposed to all the hip characters around him, and he saves the day. There are many pejorative references to the colour of his skin by Tony. This moves the book several places up in the “right on” league for me, and also illustrates how, although the sexual revolution was ongoing at the time and there were some elements of feminism in wider society, many people were largely oblivious of their sexism, yet racism was front and centre, which considering Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech was made in 1968 and Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination that same year, was highly topical and in the public consciousness.
Other reviewers on Goodreads have said that the depiction of space travel is very dated and of its time. I don’t find it so. To me, it’s refreshing that the setting is “human’s only”. It would’ve been very easy to churn out a story where extraterrestrials abducted children and took them away in their flying saucer, but this particular UFO is emphatically not like that but a secret military spacecraft, and this fact made me wonder whether the story subconsciously influenced me into my current belief that although there are UFOs they are probably just secret military aircraft. It’s certainly a parsimonious and conservative belief which assumes the least, and in science the most boring explanations are likely to be the true ones. One thing which niggled me a little was the fact that there seemed to be normal Earth-type gravity all the time they were in space, and that the spacecraft retained a top and bottom consistent with the position it had landed on in the village. The nuclear engines were at the bottom of the craft and were still thus perceived all the time they were in space, and no explanation was given for this even though at the time, zero gee conditions were very familiar to the general public. Acceleration would have provided a mechanism for this to happen but would have meant the engines were always on and thrusting hard, which didn’t seem to be the case. The layout of the interior of the craft reminded me a little of the USS Enterprise, and of course at the time of writing ‘Star Trek’ would’ve been in its first season, but I think this is more because this is the general way the interiors of spacecraft were supposed to be at the time in other science fiction, particularly military SF. We kind of know that spaceships are supposed to be a bit like submarines in fiction, and as I’ve mentioned previously on this blog there’s even an episode of ‘Star Trek’ which is essentially a submarine story.
The all-pervading fear of nuclear holocaust, in this case linked to a proxy war in a thinly disguised Vietnam, is present in this novel, which dates it a little, though of course that particular threat may well come back and is, in my opinion, always present in any case while we still have nuclear weapons. The original idea behind the saucer was to rescue the rich and powerful from the conflagration if the balloon went up, to which the Flight Lieutenant took exception. This is quite a common idea and is also the central theme of Ben Elton’s ‘Stark’ three decades later, though in that case the threat was different. The nuclear rocket, perhaps surprisingly, is an entirely practical space drive which was being developed at the time. The principle behind it is that a relatively inert propellant is heated by a nuclear reactor before being ejected through a nozzle. All of this is profoundly hard science.
Several aspects of the setting are kept vague. The village seems to be somewhere in Southern England, although I’m not sure its location is more precisely specified. As to time, well, the Beatles seem to be together still, but they were probably not expected to split at the time of writing, and in fact maybe the idea of bands splitting at all was quite foreign at that point. There is, however, a moonbase and there are negotiations in progress for building the Channel Tunnel, showing the prevailing optimism about human space exploration at the time, which was three years before Apollo XI, and the seemingly endless wranglings over the Channel Tunnel which had been going on intermittently since, I think, before Victorian times. In reality this would place it in the mid-1980s of course.
Finally, three relatively trivial points. The font used for the cover is that “futuristic” one known as Westminster, designed for magnetic ink and computer character recognition and associated with computers in the ’60s and ’70s. At the time it would have looked extremely fresh. The general idea behind is is that each character uses a different quantity of ink, enabling the scanning device to differentiate between them, and it’s called Westminster because of being used to print the numbers at the bottom of cheques (National Westminster Bank). Also, this was the source from which I learned the Morse code for “H”, found in it in the word “EARTH”, being used as a call sign in the rescue effort. This was almost the last Morse code I learnt, which puts things in perspective a bit – I haven’t made any progress in Morse since 1974 apparently!
My third point is a mysteriously topical reference for 2019. At one point, one of the girls calls Tony “Captain Marvel”. This reference makes little sense to me because it seems that Captain Marvel was retired after Fawcett Comics, who allegèdly created the character, were sued because he was too similar to Superman in 1953. Marvel then used the name again in a comic book published in December 1967, which is a few months too late for this reference to make sense to readers as far as Fisk is concerned, but the earlier character is too old-fashioned to be contemporary for them. This has really puzzled me.
This short 1971 work is Fisk’s second published novel and bears some similarities to its predecessor. Mysterious blue grains fall from space onto a seaside town, and then the rest of the planet, where the children play with them and call them “trillions”. Two nerdy boys named Scott and Bem (for Bug-Eyed Monster) discover that they’re microscopic gears and their girl friend Panda finds that they’re able to organise themselves intelligently into patterns. There’s a media frenzy and divers discover that they have formed into a giant “fort” on the nearby sea bed. The military move in while Scott befriends a world-weary astronaut who was badly burned on a space mission and is now a professor. Scott manages to establish communication with the Trillions via writing, getting them to form letter shapes and they tell him they originate from a planet which exploded where their job was to maintain the environment. Their purpose on Earth is to be hated. Meanwhile the world’s military have unified against them after a mysterious death and it becomes clear that they constitute an “enemy” which is in reality no threat but gives the belligerent mindset of humankind something to oppose and unite against. Scott asks the Trillions more questions, then after falling asleep seems to have an out of body experience instigated by them where he visits their planet as it’s disintegrating. When he wakes up two days later, his knees are seriously injured, suggesting that he actually did physically go there somehow. He finds himself capable of controlling their movements all over Earth and defeats the military by piling them up next to installations and headquarters of the powers themselves, before finally commanding them to leave the planet. However, he now has the upper hand because he can bid them return at any time.
Taking the ending first, it occurs to me that power corrupts and therefore that Scott may in fact have too much power by the end of the book, suggesting a sequel, or it may just be that he won’t know what to do with that power. Having said that, he’s portrayed as wise beyond his years and uncorrupted by adult influence.
The story immediately gets the reader onto the children’s side and tells everything from their point of view, mainly Scott’s. The children have named the grains in the first place – “Trillions” – and the writing segues neatly into introducing the children by their nicknames, mainly Bem – Bug-Eyed Monster – Scott’s friend and collaborator in research into the Trillions – Panda – the girl who seems to have named the aliens – and Mina – her real name – an half-Italian girl whose femininity is strongly emphasised at the start via her experience, and which she later uses to help the others. This is mainly a boys’ story, although a British astronaut nicknamed Icarus because of being disfigured in a fire on a space mission, is Scott’s world-weary and cynical adult analogue who works with him. Panda is the first to discover that the Trillions can imitate drawn shapes when she makes a bracelet out of them and draws an S which they copy. Hence her “feminine” playfulness and urge to decorate is key to the discovery. Later, while the military are trying to bomb the Trillions out of existence, Panda says something which is absolutely key to my world view and responsible for planting a seed which eventually led to my interest in Heidegger, a hugely influential figure in my life whose philosophy also keys crucially into my views on gender identity. Nuclear fallout is killing wildlife right, left and centre while the human race, or rather its military faction, is trying to wipe the Trillions off the face of the planet, and Panda finds a dead bird. Scott says “it’s not the end of the world”, and Panda replies, “it’s the end of its world.” In other words, and I admit I took this a long way but the implication is there, the world for us is in a sense only for us, so when one being ceases to be, the world does too. Also in this incident is care for a relatively small animal, and possibly an allusion to Matthew 10:29 – “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.”, and this too chimed with me and my later concern for animal liberation. It’s almost a throwaway line, and also given to a girl to emphasise her empathy for all life as a stereotypically female character trait, but it was nonetheless quite an influence on me.
Speaking of influences, just as I learnt the Morse for the letter H from ‘Space Hostages’, so also I learnt the Russian «да» (“yes”) from ‘Trillions’, when a Soviet general uses it.
Scott is definitely a boy. He’s also a boy genius, having invented various gadgets in a kind of self-effacing way. He’s probably got a Halfbakery account now. One way in which his masculinity is emphasised is that when Icarus offers to give him polarising filters for his microscope he dismisses them as “to make pretty coloured pictures”, which is unfair because considering that it’s used a lot in mineralogy would seem to be entirely appropriate, given that at this point the Trillions are apparently like grains of sand. I actually think this is a brief and mild example of policing masculinity. The pair go on to focus literally on the task in hand, using a microscope, Icarus having just been similarly dismissive of Scott’s father’s advice on focussing, which establishes his irascibility and expertise but is also stereotypically male. Bem and Scott also generally work together quietly, again emphasising the completely false stereotype of girls chattering meaninglessly or trivially compared to the apparently functional and more taciturn use of language between boys.
A depiction I find more sympathetic was the vapidity and sensationalism of the journalists, although again Fisk couldn’t avoid getting in a dig at the “painted” appearance of a woman reporter. This however I can forgive him because he uses it as a way of showing journalism in general as a way of putting a particular spin on things, with the children not being at all taken in by this. He returns to this theme several times, with the creation by the Trillions of a wall in a back garden leading to the death from a heart attack of the elderly gentleman who discovers it in the middle of the night. This the mass media present as sneaky on the part of the aliens. They are clearly trying to present a story of their own with the Trillions as a threat. Later still, the triumphant and stentorian tone of the media as they report the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the Trillions reminded me of the attitude of the BBC during the 1991 Gulf War. This is considerably before the work of the cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard became popular, but much could be made of the Trillions being able to imitate almost any artifact perfectly in form but not in function, including an ICBM at one point.
One thing which wasn’t entirely clear to me was whether a coup was supposed to have taken place. That’s consistent with what the children notice about the behaviour of the army and media, and the point comes at which the soldiers, previously friendly, become a whole lot more serious, which reminds me of the Troubles and Bloody Sunday, where the initially welcome “peace keeping” troops were later many understood as a hostile occupying force. Fisk is, though, quite fair on the General, who incidentally is not given a personal name by contrast with Icarus, who rejects his military and academic titles and accepts his nickname, seeing him and the rest of the international forces as responding as they know how. There is a tendency, of course, for our vocations to lead us to see everything in terms of those professions, such as my tendency to medicalise behaviour by contrast with someone working in law enforcement seeing it more in terms of culpability and in relation to the law. The General sees everything as a potential threat because he’s been trained to do so. Like ‘Space Hostages’, the spectre of the Cold War hangs over this story, this time in the form of neutron bombs.
Scott’s astral travel is like an acid trip, and brings to mind a number of cinematic scenes prevalent at the time, such as the boat journey in ‘Willy Wonka’, the motorbike trip in ‘Charly’ and of course ‘2001”s Ultimate Trip. The world of the Trillions, and in fact that of their “Masters”, is ravaged by destructive winds which have forced most life underground. Scott sees his and Icarus’s hypothesis confirmed, namely that the function of the Trillions is to repair the world, a task which he sees fail as the planet is destroyed. There is no sense of hospitality or comfort on their world, nowhere to settle above ground level and few havens from the devastating power of the atmosphere. This incident is the only non-naturalistic element of the story, and it isn’t clear how Scott is physically injured. It’s not explained, and that’s fine by me. It also serves as a rite of passage, with Scott almost becoming a man through this wounding journey which leads to him taking control of the Trillions, and through them the adult world.
The Trillions have an explicit purpose for humanity here in the form of being a “punch bag”, as Icarus puts it, for our belligerent urges. This doesn’t work entirely, since there is still personal violence, but while they’re with us, the attention of the Powers That Be is directed against them alone as a perceived threat rather than internecine conflict. Unfortunately, whereas they aim to achieve world peace and repair the damage we do as a species, they unintentionally cause the use of nuclear weapons against them, which since they’re almost indestructible is futile but continues to damage the biosphere and human relationships.
Mina manages to infiltrate the international conference by finding a boyfriend who is a private in the British army. This gets Scott into the conference, and is of course an example of women being portrayed as manipulative and femmes fatales although this is deployed to positive ends. This raises the same question in my mind as the behaviour of the female protagonists in ‘Space Hostages’. It may or may not be a realistic depiction of the social situation of the time. If it is, though, maybe it would’ve been better to subvert it a bit more? Or is it already subversive given the attitudes of the time?
As I got further into the book, I began increasingly feel that it could be an episode of ‘Doomwatch’ or ‘Doctor Who’, perhaps with Icarus as the Doctor. On the whole it’s more like the former. The aliens are nanotechnology, and I wondered if they had become a subconscious influence on the second chapter of my novel ‘Unspeakable’ (read it and you might see what I mean!). I can’t bring to mind an earlier example of the use of nanotechnology in science fiction but probably there is one, and ‘Fantastic Voyage’ with its literal miniaturisation is similar to some extent. The Trillions are utterly alien. There is nothing of the BEM about them, though they are socially like ants, bees and wasps to some extent.
I haven’t read it but Fisk’s later novel ‘You Remember Me’ seems to be about a gynoid TV presenter who tries to use her hypnotic powers to subdue the human race before an alien invasion, which brings John Christopher’s Tripods Trilogy to mind with its hypnosis by television used by aliens to cow our planet into placid submission. However, I have yet to read it so I may be wrong. Certainly I would expect the gender roles to be interesting in that novel.
Finally, it’s interesting to uncover the influences of children’s literature on my young mind and this emphasises the importance of children’s authors in the lives of us all as adults. I was surprised how many elements of these two books proved to be seminal for me, particularly the issue of “its world” as uttered by, thank God, a female protagonist, and also such relatively trivial tidbits of information as Morse code and Russian language. Moreover, the possible subconscious influence of the books on my own work suggests that what we read as children can have untold and obscure influences on us throughout our lives.
Once I start going on about this stuff, it gets very hard to stop. Okay, so I presume you know Matrjoška dolls are Russian dolls, with smaller dolls inside bigger ones. Well, that’s what my attitude towards morality is like, or if you prefer, ethics. There’s a series of world-views, each dependent on the last, and they interact. If something is wrong according to the “larger” principle, it doesn’t matter what the “smaller” principle says, it’s just wrong. This is useful because it gives me access to things I would otherwise feel I’m not entitled to.
It goes in the following order: veganism, feminism, anarchism, pacifism, socialism. That’s it, more or less, I think, although Christianity might be outside all of these. I’ve mentioned previously how ethics itself works for me to some extent, so that principle might be seen to be on the outside of even that, although it’s more the foundation of it. Since the ethics of the face, or ethics as first philosophy as it’s usually known, has an explicitly Jewish and therefore Abrahamic source, I’m comfortable with the idea that Christianity as I understand it is the biggest doll, with the bottom and the sides both being made of it. It’s a bit sloppy and wet here because the basis of this is in fact love, so my real name is appropriate for it.
Inside that is veganism. It might be a bit confusing to call it veganism because people tend to think veganism is a diet. It isn’t, and it’s more akin to pacifism than vegetarianism, or perhaps to ahimsa, as the Sanskrit word has it and as the Dharmic religions call it. I would define veganism as the attempt to minimise intentional and avoidable suffering and death, although that doesn’t quite capture it because euthanasia could be an example of that. One of my dissertations goes into this in greater depth but it’s rubbish and I wouldn’t bother tracking it down even if you can. I’m not talking about it further here. Veganism does of course include the idea that you shouldn’t eat or use animal products. To some extent this is practically unavoidable because food very often has insect fragments in it, and there’s also the problem of animal parasites and what, if anything, you should do about them. Unlike some vegans, I believe that all living things are conscious, so not for me the let-out that I am not causing suffering to any organism. However, because of tropic levels, the biomasse required to feed livestock is of the order of ten units of mass to one, so it still makes sense to do it this way. Oddly, counted that way, the most humane form of animal consumption would actually be whaling, so utilitarianism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
But there’s another very important point here. The way many of us perceive the world, it consists largely of inanimate objects plus humans. There are representatives of other species which are often significant to us, but because we’re human, who are social animals, we mainly perceive ourselves as being people with relationships and interactions with each other. Consequently, although it’s very important that we care what happens to other species as a result of our conduct, on the whole, veganism is not about them, but about us, in two different ways. If I buy a vegetable which has been grown on a farm using trafficked human labour, that vegetable is not vegan and if I eat it, nor am I. This makes it sound like veganism is a form of consumerism as well, but that’s only a minor part of it. Since our relationships are primarily with other humans, veganism is primarily about how we interact with other humans and not how we interact with other species. If we don’t care about the interests of humans, or their rights, we’re not truly vegan, because humans are animals and the biggest difference we can make to the world is probably via how we treat other humans.
There’s another sense in which veganism is primarily about humans. We have our own ethics and self-control, so we can often make choices based on our conscience. That conscience is substantially a human prerogative. We are in fact surrounded by carnage, in the sense that spiders are eating flies, our immune systems are killing bacteria and the flow of energy and matter through the ecosystem generally is achieved via death and the infliction of pain. Consequently anything we can realistically do to prevent and avoid causing suffering and killing is a minuscule proportion of the total amount of suffering in the world, but veganism is not about that but about how we can minimise our culpability in that wrongdoing. However, because there’s such a huge cosmic-scale universe of violence all around us and within us, some of which we are ourselves doing through the likes of antibodies, stomach acid and phagocytes, it doesn’t really make sense to criticise other people for eating meat. They shouldn’t, of course, but in the end they too are only a tiny part of this world of pain and murder, so the way I feel about it is, it’s absurd to judge them. As to why they do it and are able to reconcile it with the belief that other species are conscious I have no idea, but there you go. Having said that, because this involves humans this is also substantially the realm of politics, and because it involves other species as well, that politics is effectively Green, because the ecosystem is alive and capable of dying and feeling pain.
The next one in is feminism. It can be trumped by veganism because veganism is substantially to do with speaking on behalf of the voiceless, or rather, those who do not use language and are far more marginalised than most categories of human. Hence a claim that veganism is anti-feminist must be rejected because it’s likely to lead to suffering and death rather than liberation. Veganism is also a good indicator that someone’s motives are pure rather than self-serving. However, aside from the fact that we live in a non-vegan society, the primary source of social problems is the fact that global human society is patriarchal, and this is in fact linked to a widespread human willingness to kill and inflict pain on others if they aren’t human. Therefore I do feel qualified to judge belief or behaviour claimed as feminist if it’s also anti-vegan. Aside from that, I probably can’t, because I’m not a cis woman, and this leads to a problem because there is no one feminism and I can’t be feminist, only pro-feminist. This means I have to try to take on board the positions of feminists when there can be several. I deal with this by trying to find the position which gives me the least advantage, in order to avoid the possibility that I’m just going along with something because it makes my life easy, which is potentially selfish. It’s partly for this reason that I claim that cis men and trans women can’t be feminist. Having said that, if I compare my beliefs on other matters with women who agree with me on other matters, I can in a sense access a window into feminism and perhaps work out what a cis woman who was otherwise in agreement with me is likely to think. I find, for example, that on the whole cis women who agree with me on other matters are usually pro-choice, and given “no vagina=no opinion” (which doesn’t work literally unless trans women don’t ever have vaginas), this means I believe I can safely adopt a pro-choice position. This is not, however, about arguments in favour or against it, and is separate from either a legal or a spiritual position on it. Legally, assuming the existence of government, it will as far as I can tell always be more ethical for abortion on demand to be legal than illegal, because making things illegal forces them underground and is likely to lead to more death and suffering than them being legal. This is not a feminist position as such. Spiritually, Scripture is very clearly in favour of abortion in many circumstances, although it’s also very patriarchal as I read it and only in favour of abortion because it regards women and their fetuses as the property of men, which is clearly completely anti-feminist and therefore to be discounted completely. There’s an obvious hermeneutic problem here which I haven’t got time to go into today.
Inside feminism is anarchism, which sits awkwardly with me. What it comes down to is a fairly libertarian position that there is no obligation to obey the law as such, morally speaking. Most of the time this makes no difference because the law tends to coincide with morality, so on the whole murder, theft and the like are still wrong, but they’re not wrong because they’re illegal. There are also unjust laws which it’s one’s duty to break, but as with feminism, it’s probably better to break a law which will not be to your advantage if you do break it (and get away with it) because then the temptation to be selfish becomes too strong. The theoretical basis of my anarchism is that the state and large organisations such as multinationals are inherently destructive, violent and hazardous to the well-being of the human species and the ecosystem, and that there is rarely a truly free choice to obey the state because there’s no realistic way of opting out of it. The state and multinationals are in fact even self-destructive and to the disadvantage of every individual, no matter how powerful or wealthy they may appear to be.
The next doll in is pacifism, which is quite similar to veganism. The reason this is “inside” anarchism is that whereas I can’t think of a situation where it would be okay for me to commit violence unprovoked, this may reflect my privilege as a white English speaking Christian from a middle-class background and this may mean I lack the relevant experience of the poor in more oppressive regimes. Therefore my pacifism is largely personal, although of course I’m against weapons of mass destruction being developed and owned by states or other wealthy organisations.
Finally, in the centre of the nest lies socialism, which sits uneasily with anarchism. I see this primarily as abundance-based economics, that is, economics which does not manufacture scarcity. We are conditioned to believe that there are scarce resources. In a very broad sense this is true, because of the laws of thermodynamics and the fact that we live on the surface of a small planet, but given the size of the Universe and the fact that capitalism needs us to need material things to function, it isn’t true in detail. The world has enough for everyone, and there are gatekeepers who make their living by restricting supply, which maintains a hierarchy based on the distribution of these apparently scarce resources. The real situation, politically speaking, is that the means of production should be “owned” and controlled by the community as a whole, and the reason people don’t think this is the obvious, rational way to run the world is that we are subject to an enormously powerful propaganda machine akin to those which attempt to persuade people that evolution isn’t true, the Earth is young or that climate change is not really happening. Unlike those beliefs, the belief that capitalism is a viable system is pushed almost universally and much more strongly than the others because of the resources behind it. One reason capitalism doesn’t work is that there’s a law of nature like tendency for monopolies to develop. Though it may not be obvious, capitalism works to the disadvantage of everyone living in such a system, and overthrowing it would even help the richest. I don’t say “most powerful” because I see power in a political, individual sense as illusory. No individual is in political terms more than the pawn of vast, impersonal economic and social forces, which may sometimes appear to manifest through a person who happens to be in the right situation at a particular time. All our leaders and politicians are arbitrary and unimportant as individuals, although this is absolutely not the case in terms of their deserts, because everyone deserves respect, compassion and love.
So that’s basically it. My biggest issue with all of this is the tension between anarchism and socialism, and I have no answer to that.
This comes out of my recent decision to leave the Labour Party, so in a way it belongs somewhere else. I explained my choice here, but it touches on wider issues so I’m going to cover them on this blog instead.
“You can’t get an ought from an is” is a common adage in moral philosophy. It means roughly that no matter how much logic you deploy to matters of fact, you can’t derive matters of value from them. The classic example is the naturalistic fallacy found in utilitarianism, which attempts to prove the principle of utility – actions are right in proportion to their promotion of the greatest happiness of the greatest number – by saying that the desirable is good because it’s desired. Esperanto would’ve helped here, along with, for all I know, plenty of other languages – dezirinda is its word for “desirable”, meaning “worthy of being desired” rather than “able to be desired”, which is dezirebla , so someone speaking it as a first language would never have made that mistake. John Stuart Mill, however, did, and was picked up a century later by G E Moore, which began the long ding-dong of twentieth century analytical metaëthics involving intuitionism, the two schools of emotivism and prescriptivism before a return to virtue-based ethics as proposed by Alasdair Macintyre. I won’t bore you with all that, but I will note that the general idea is that any description of a state of affairs cannot automatically evoke moral facts or beliefs. One solution to this is supervenience, and since I wrote my Masters thesis on that, if I go there you’re just going to get slabs of gobbledegook, so I won’t.
That said, my solution to the is-ought problem is that it’s arse-about-face. The reason you can’t get from is to ought is that it’s a one way street going in the opposite direction. On the whole, it’s popularly assumed that when you describe a situation, and then go on to describe the rights and wrongs of that situation, you are adding something extra to the description of matters of fact. By contrast, I believe that the ethical description of a situation is fundamental, and that matters of fact are secondary and follow from the ethical description. I’m not alone in this, although it’s not generally found in analytical philosophy but in continental. More specifically, it arises from the work of Immanuel Levinas and also connects to the theologian Martin Buber, whose thought on this matter is quite similar. The idea is summed up as “ethics as first philosophy”. That is, metaphysics – the nature of things – or epistemology – the nature of knowledge – is beside the point and not fundamental to our understanding of reality. What really matters, and ought (note the word) to be the foundation of everything we think, is ethics. Levinas uses the vignette of being confronted face to face with the other and becoming aware of the demand of one’s duty towards that other as the basis of all morality, and beyond that, all of reality. I do have a problem with that, partly because it reminds me of the idea of “never eat anything with a face”, which kind of suggests it’s okay to eat something without a face such as a worm, which it clearly isn’t, but in general he does make a very good point.
Now to what I’ve done with this idea, and honestly, I will get to my resignation in the end. It’s probably best introduced with a number of examples of how a particular view of the world can lead to negative consequences. There’s an apocryphal story that in the Middle Ages, scholastic philosophers maintained that women had no souls and men had. Although this is a mythical view which was actually proposed sarcastically and rhetorically and not meant to be taken literally, if we were of a mindset which accepted that souls existed and that they were the property of men and not women, well, for a start it starts to look like this blog entry is being typed by a robot, but also it would probably lead to women being mistreated relative to men, assuming also that we believe only souls confer consciousness. If so, this is necessarily an impossible belief for a woman to have.
Another example is the rather similar advanced form of the Melanin Theory, which is a black supremacist view. Melanin is found in various places in the brain, notably in the substantia nigra, nucleus coeruleus and the pineal gland. Its function is unknown, but there’s a Black theory that it’s melanin which is responsible for consciousness and the soul, so that only Black people can be said to be fully conscious. In a way this makes a lot of sense as a functional belief which counters white racism, but white people can be more or less certain that it isn’t true.
Finally, there’s the real clincher, related to veganism, which to me is an overarching world view able to trump almost any other. It used to be common to assert that fish can’t feel pain, and a more sophisticated similar belief is that only humans are able to suffer and therefore there’s no reason not to kill and eat other species. This to me is a suspiciously convenient view, and consequently I hold the reverse view: that everything is conscious, because consciousness is an intrinsic property of matter. The human difference is simply there because we can relate more easily to our own species and empathy is built-in in that situation, but even plants and inanimate objects are in fact conscious. This view is referred to as panpsychism.
The point in holding panpsychism to be true is that it doesn’t allow any kind of prejudice about those who are less like myself regarding their capacity for suffering or consciousness to creep in. There are no excuses and there’s always the benefit of the doubt.
When we believe certain things about the world, we often think we have logical reasons for believing them. Very often, however, we just believe them because, for example, our friends, family, loved ones or compatriots do, or because we have an emotional need to do so, or as a coping mechanism. I think that on the whole that’s the initial motivation in believing most things and only later do we come up with arguments for our views. This happens, incidentally, to contradict another of Levinas’s beliefs, that all ideology is coercive, because it means there’s always ideology, either implicit or explicit, and therefore it’s better to examine one’s political beliefs and make sure one’s at peace with them than simply to assume one is being neutral. Levinas very much appears to fail to do this with respect to Zionism, and is well-known for refusing to condemn the Israeli government for its apparent complicity in the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982. Nonetheless, his view of the ethics of the face is still valuable and to me seminal, even though he seems to be a fundamentally conservative thinker.
What all this amounts to is summed up by that contemporary phrase “check your privilege”, and this is, you’ll be relieved to hear, where I start to get closer to my reasons for resigning from the Labour Party. Subjectively, I feel that I am privileged in almost every way. I was assigned male at birth, am human, white, middle-class, able-bodied, speak English as a first language and probably a lot of other things I’m not even aware of because one of the things privilege confers is the ability to be oblivious of it. Consequently, whether or not ethics as first philosophy is a good idea for other less privileged people to adopt, it seems to be the right position for me, because for me it’s anti-sexist, anti-racist, vegan and so forth – I always feel insecure at listing things like that in case the order or failure to mention certain things is unfair. Consequently, and this doesn’t follow exactly but I still feel it’s a good thing, I would support such things as affirmative action, plant-based meals by default in public places, all-women shortlists and buildings accessible to physically disabled people.
The penultimate item in that list is where the problem arises because of the attribute which people tend to claim is not part of my privilege: I’m trans. My dominant understanding of gender dysphoria for many years, and I felt also the one most compatible with feminism as an outsider to that belief system though nonetheless a supporter, was that it was a metaphorical rape and insult to the entire female gender and that transition was an appalling assault and supported the patriarchy. Even now, when I hear someone claiming to be feminist expressing an idea such as the claim that trans people have rights, it becomes hard for me to take their support for feminism or other opinions seriously, because for me the expression of gender incongruence seems oppressive and insulting. This arises, of course, from my general position, which I think usually works quite well, that I should check my privilege and that most of the attributes I’m aware of in myself which can be categorised in some kind of hierarchy of oppression (not a league table – this is simply about whether I’m oppressed or complicit in oppression due to privilege or the lack thereof), I am the oppressor, being white, Anglo-Saxon and so forth. If I make the concession that I might be oppressed in the area of gender identity, it feels like the thin end of the wedge which ends in something which many people would lazily call fascism.
Therefore, whereas I can intellectually accept that it’s a viable opinion that trans women (and we are women but I don’t want to get into that now) belong on all-women shortlists, it’s a real struggle for me to cope with the idea that that’s not extremely sexist and anti-feminist.
What would the first human language have been like? Were there countless languages in the Palaeolithic or just one? Are all languages ultimately related? Can we learn anything about politics from all this?
A couple of days ago I vaguely sketched an overview of the Indo-European language family, and realised to my surprise that all that stuff wasn’t widely known, at least among my friends. Today I want to talk about the situation of language distribution in a wider context in space and time, because it’s remarkably uneven and I think that unevenness probably has something to teach us about neoliberalism and global capitalism.
If you didn’t know anything about language distribution, you might think that languages were fairly evenly distributed in terms of population and area. Since there were said to be about three thousand spoken human languages in around 1970, when the world population was around 3 500 million, the mean number of speakers of each language would be something over a million, and if that was evenly distributed you could expect the number of indigenous languages spoken in Great Britain today to be around forty. This is of course not so at all. The most widely spoken languages are in fact Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and English, and at a stretch there are only six indigenous languages in Great Britain if you count Cornish and Romany and regard Scots as separate (which it is).
Before I get further into this, I want to give you a general impression of the language families and language isolates of the human world, starting with Europe, and before I get into that I should probably explain what the difference between them is. Most languages have identifiable relatives and can be organised into families. Above that level, they can be organised into what are referred to as “phyla” – it’s thought for example that Indo-European and Uralic, which is the family Finnish and Hungarian are in, constitute a phylum. However, not all languages can be slotted into this scheme. Some have no known relatives, and these are known as “language isolates”.
Back to Europe. The situation here, today, is that there are eight spoken language families on this peninsula. By area, number of speakers and number of languages, Indo-European is by far the largest. Of the others, some are found only in Europe and some have representatives here and are also found elsewhere, and of course the latter applies to Indo-European itself, which is nowadays found globally but has for millennia included varieties all over Eurasia and to a limited extent Africa, and controversially possibly North America. The second most widespread family in Europe is Uralic, which includes two main subgroups here, namely Hungarian on the one hand and Finnish, Estonian and Saami on the other. The latter group spreads across Siberia in lots of tiny communities eastward across most of the rest of Eurasia. Hungarian is part of a smaller group which if I remember rightly just includes a language spoken at quite a distance into Russia called Mansi and a couple of others. Although Finnish and Hungarian are in the same family, they’re only very distantly related. They seem to be about as similar as Bengali and English, and in fact their point of divergence is probably even further back. Finnish has been described as like Japanese spoken with an Italian accent, which I thought sounded accurate until the other day when I actually heard exactly that and in fact it doesn’t really at all. The Karelian dialect of Finnish is sometimes regarded as a separate language. Estonian is somewhat like Finnish but has somewhat more complex grammar. It holds the record of being the only language with a word with four consecutive identical vowels in it: jäääärne – “the edge of the ice”. Saami is a group of languages spoken in Lapland by the people who prefer not to be called Lapps, most of which are seriously endangered and spoken by fewer than a thousand people. They tend to be spelt very differently from each other, some looking more stereotypically Scandi and others more Slavic, and some have borrowed a lot from their unrelated neighbours. Saami languages are of indigenous people living in Europe, so it’s unsurprising they’re faring so badly.
Uralic languages were once thought to form a family with Altaic languages, which include Turkish, but although they have similar features they don’t seem to be close to each other and some say that even the Altaic family is illusory. Turkish has the distinction of having only one irregular verb, and whether or not the Altaic family exists, there is definitely a group of Turkic languages, spoken in a strip parallel to the Uralic ones across Eurasia towards China in a linguistic continuum all of whose neighbours understand each other. Stalin responded to this situation by giving them different alphabets in order to prevent solidarity between them. The Caucasus has a number of Turkic languages spoken in it.
I’ve talked about the Caucasus before, but to recap briefly there are three complete language families spoken only there. The languages are highly idiosycratic and characterised by complex grammar, huge consonantal inventories, unexpected consonantal clusters and as few as two vowels per language in some cases. They may in fact be highly significant because some of them come out as closest to Nostratic, which I’ll come back to, and some linguists have claimed that Basque is related to some of them. Another unusual lineage is suggested by the claim that Caucasian languages are related to some First Nation and Native American languages, namely the Na-Dene family spoken over an enormous area of Canada, down the Pacific coast and in another fairly large area near the Mexican border. Tlingit, for example, is a member of this family. It’s also been suggested that some Siberian languages are related, and that their ancestors were spoken in Beringia, the land bridge linking Alaska and eastern Siberia during the last Ice Age. This is the only proposition of a language phylum linking the New and Old Worlds which is even remotely respectable in linguistic circles. Well, there is one other but it’s a bit of a no-brainer so I’ll mention that later.
Basque, the language spoken in the western Pyrenees and adjoining areas, is as far as anyone can tell, a linguistic isolate. It seems to have been there since the Palaeolithic, and its conservatism shows, for example, in Latin loanwords which have stayed the same for two millennia. Its grammar is once again highly complex, in this case reminiscent of Georgian in that it has a relatively straightforward noun, pronoun and adjectival system but a very complex verbal system. There is a general trend in language development where earlier languages are more complex than their descendants. Basque is just plain complex. Like some Caucasian languages, Basque is ergative-absolutive, meaning that the subject of an intransitive verb is in the same case as the direct object of a transitive one. This roughly means that if they say “I eat”, a close-to-literal translation of a phrase meaning “she hit me” would be “I hit her”. Also, whereas Indo-European and many other languages conjugate the verb according to the subject – amo, amas, amat etc – Basque follows another common pattern where it’s also conjugated according to the direct and indirect object. This is also found, for example, in Swahili, and this kind of complexity suggests that Basque is ancient.
The final family represented in Europe is Maltese, spoken by half a million people in, well, Malta. Maltese is Afro-Asiatic, and more specifically, a Semitic language, closely related to Arabic but with extensive borrowing from Italian. It’s the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet and is also a relic of Siculo-Arabic, the dialect of Arabic spoken in southern Italy before the Emirate of Sicily was conquered by the Normans in 1091. Arabic generally has literary and colloquial registers, but because Maltese is cut off from the rest of Arabic by such factors as its script, political allegiances and culture, it makes more sense to count it as a language in itself. Arabic generally varies colloquially about as much as Spanish dialects do from Italian, but is united by the prestige dialect and the language of the Qur’an.
A similar situation obtained in southern Spain in the northern European Middle Ages until 1492, where the main spoken language, and the official one, was Arabic, and the influence can be seen on modern Castilian and Portuguese. Consequently, much of modern Spanish is descended from dialects which are somewhat more northerly than might be expected, although there is still a southern influence on other dialects such as Andalucian. However, this is not about Indo-European languages as such.
Before Indo-European speech dominated Europe, a number of other languages were spoken here which were unlike each other. Iberian languages included Basque and some relatives which are now long gone, and also the civilisation of Tarshish, as mentioned in the Book of Jonah as being very distant and practically at the end of the world but which has left a few inscriptions, spoke a language which didn’t seem close to Basque at all. Meanwhile in Italy before the rise of Rome, and presumably before the influx of Italic tongues generally, the Etruscan civilisation spoke a language referred to as Etruscan which left its influence on Latin itself and through it modern European languages. The words “atrium” and “person” are both from Etruscan, and it’s also been claimed that the word “element” is but this isn’t well-founded and it probably isn’t. Etruscan may be related to a couple of ancient and long-extinct languages, Rhaetian, spoken in what are now Switzerland and Austria, and Lemnian, spoken on the Greek island of Lemnos. Further east, in Crete, there are two undeciphered scripts known as Linear A and Cretan hieroglyphics, which were used by the ancient Minoan civilisation, and it’s not even clear whether these record the same language, referred to as Minoan. Later on, there was a language called Eteocretan which seems to be its remnant, which cannot be connected to any other language including Etruscan.
The general picture, then, is rather hard to reconstruct, but what seems to have happened in Europe is that there were formally fairly local language families compared to Indo-European and Uralic, and a number of linguistic isolates, and the situation seems to have shifted from considerable diversity to an almost monocultural one. The exceptions seem to be in mountainous areas such as the Pyrenees and the Caucasus, and this is also reflected in Indo-European languages with the uniqueness of Armenian and Albanian, and also the survival of Welsh. Hence there’s a trend towards lower diversity.
Then there’s the Nostratic hypothesis. Although the techniques used to attempt to research this are sound, it’s not generally accepted within comparative linguistics, which is a shame because if it did turn out to be true it would be very interesting. Nostratic is a hypothetical language spoken towards the end of the last Ice Age which is hypothesised to be ancestral to a huge number of other languages, including Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Uralic, Dravidian (spoken in South India), Georgian, Altaic and Inuit-Aleut, which just as an aside is the other language family which is clearly attested in both the Old and New Worlds because they live near the North Pole and around it, so trivially, yes that is a link but not a very surprising one. The idea was to compare reconstructed proto-languages from each family and attempt to construct an even older ancestral language, but it probably doesn’t work. The problems are that words are often borrowed between unrelated languages and that at such an extreme temporal distance the background “noise” in the findings is likely to be very high. It should also be noted that although there very probably is a single parent language to two or more of these language families, or even all of them, that most recent common ancestor is not ancestral to other languages, such as the several hundred now spoken in Papua, those of the Amazon basin, Austronesian languages like Maori and Indonesian, the click languages of southern Africa or those of Australian aboriginals.
Hence if you go back as far as late in the last Ice Age, maybe 15 000 BCE or so, the situation seems still to be that a relatively small number of languages are ancestral to all languages spoken today, and a couple of other questions then arise. One is of what the rest of the human linguistic environment was at the time. Were there just very few languages compared to today, spoken by almost everyone? Or were there loads, each spoken by a very small number of people. The human population of the planet at the time was under ten million, probably quite isolated from each other, so it seems likely that the situation was as it has been historically in places like Australia, Papua and the Amazon, with lots of languages, sometimes organised into small families.
Another question is, are all spoken human languages related, or did language arise separately in different parts of the world? How long ago was this? Archaeologists talk about the emergence of behavioural modernity in about 50 000 BP (Before Present, i.e. before 1950), which is the persistence of cultural and social learning combined with things like abstract thought, the control of fire, planning, coöperative work, symbolism, trade and body decoration. Although there’s no discernible difference in human anatomy before that time, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of things like burial customs, art (i.e. no cave paintings) and hearths. Some archaeologists believe there was some kind of revolutionary change at this point, whereas others see it as cumulative and existing prior to that time but not in a concerted way. The attribution of this change where people do believe it to be revolutionary is to an evolutionary change, possibly a mutation in the FOXP2 gene, and this is where my ideology steps in.
Because I’m vegan, I’m very wary of anything which attributes something special to humans which places us “above” other species. That said, species often do have distinctive features which make their abilities superior in one way or another, such as the ability of dolphins and bats to use echolocation or the extreme smell sensitivity of certain moths. The FOXP2 gene is supposed to confer the ability to use language. Whereas it probably does make it easier to acquire language, it’s notable that other species also seem to be able to do so, notably certain birds, which have however not done so as far as anyone can tell in their history. Therefore I look at the appearance of language as a happy accident, and believe that a number of different animals could have stumbled upon this and built on it. Once it’s acquired, however, it would have major implications for evolution. For instance, it might become less important to remember things in great detail because we can ask other people or learn from them more easily without direct experience of the situation, so I can easily believe that once we had language our brains may have become “lazy” in that respect and we may have lost certain abilities and acquired others which are represented in our genes. Hence it’s a bit of an act of faith on my part, but I don’t believe our ability to learn to use language started off as special, although it may have become so by now. It would also have become so for crows if they’d developed it first. However, many people do link behavioural modernity to the emergence of language.
One of the issues I have with language is that because the further back you go, the more complex grammar and other features of spoken language seem to be, that suggests that at some point in the distant past there were languages which were far more complex than even the most complicated ones anyone knows about today, and it’s hard to imagine how that would’ve worked because it suggests it would’ve taken a very long time for children to learn to speak and it would’ve been very easy for changes to take place even in small groups which would’ve caused them to split, because people would remember details differently. On the other hand, maybe there’s a cycle where language becomes simpler and then builds up to more complex forms again. For instance, the modern Romance languages often use a future tense derived from the infinitive of the verb with the verb for “have” tacked onto the end, which has now become an ending, and this is an example of increasing grammatical complexity.
Another rather interesting feature of many known languages is that they tend to have features in common even when unrelated, and beyond this that there is a certain cluster of features which occur together, which may have led to the spurious idea that Altaic languages form a family. These include things like Subject-Object-Verb languages tending to have suffixes rather than prefixes, and in fact most of these universals, as they are known, tend to be found in SOV languages. This just makes me wonder whether this is a clue as to the nature of the first spoken languages. Were they, for example, SOV and exclusively suffixing? If so, this could be a natural human bias or dictated by the logic of communication. The latter means that such features might even occur in alien languages if they exist, although they may be based on entirely different features and not even be spoken.
I haven’t mentioned sign at all in any of this, so that’s another issue. Nor have I gone into much that applies to non-European languages, and in particular I’ve tended to leave out the languages native to the Western and Southern hemispheres. Nor have I mentioned the possibility that other species of human may have had languages which it would be impossible for humans as we exist today to understand, or whether that’s even a coherent idea. But it’s enough for now I think.
Except for one thing which I do think this teaches us which is relevant today. There doesn’t seem to be anything special about the features of the languages which triumphed as languages themselves, but rather what seems to have happened is that certain languages just got lucky and won out over the others, although that was sometimes because of non-linguistic aspects of the civilisations they were part of. I think this shows that capitalism is destined to become monopoly capitalism left to itself, because there’s nothing special about any particular business which leads to its dominance over competitors. I think the history of language shows us that this is a natural process and that we should act accordingly, and that capitalism is therefore not a healthy system for any of the human race to operate.
I may have been assuming that something was common knowledge which is in fact not, judging by a recent comment made to me about Irish being related to Sanskrit. Whereas this is true, it’s also true of hundreds of other languages, including English, and of course all those languages are related to each other, in a huge family of languages known as Indo-European, or more broadly, Indo-Hittite, because the Hittite language and its relatives such as Luwian are an early offshoot of the main stock. I feel like I’m telling people what they already know but in any case, here goes.
The original Indo-European language was spoken some time in the Bronze Age and is referred to as Proto-Indo-European or PIE. The majority opinion is that it was associated with the Kurgan culture, which existed north of the Black Sea and east to the Ural mountains from around 3500-2000 BCE, by which time they had spread across a much wider area and lost their identity as a united group. A kurgan is a kind of barrow, used for burial, and ironically the word is Turkic rather than Indo-European, distinctive of the area at the time. There were two types of kurgan – clan kurgans and elite ones. The clan ones were mass graves and devoid of grave goods, but the elite ones are individual and have stuff buried with them. Some people see a shift from mass graves for everyone to the appearance of “special” graves as a sign of the emergence of hierarchy in human history and associate it with agriculture and land ownership. But I’m no archaeologist and I can only report these things, quite inaccurately I expect. Later on, tumuli are found across central Europe. The British burial mounds, by contrast, spread up from Spain, are earlier and are Neolithic.
There are a couple of other hypotheses about the spread of Indo-European languages. One is Anatolian – that they originated in modern-day Turkey – and another is that they spread up from South Asia. That last view seems quite strongly nationalistically-motivated, although there was a time when I would’ve agreed with it. The Anatolian hypothesis has going for it that the very oldest recorded “Indo-European” language, Hittite, was spoken in that area, and there’s another hypothesis claiming that the ancestors of Indo-European, which later gave rise to it and various other ancestral languages, were also spoken in Anatolia several thousand years before. This takes us back to late in the last Ice Age, but I’m getting away from the matter in hand there.
You can think of Indo-European as having three branches, one of which only contains extinct languages. This defunct one is Anatolian. Anatolian includes Hittite, Luwian and a few other languages spoken around the eastern Med, and has the distinction, along with Old Persian, of being written in cuneiform, although there’s also a hieroglyphic script.
Hittite is particularly of interest to me because it shows an early stage in the evolution of grammatical gender and gives clues as to how it originally operated in this language family. Hittite has two genders, namely feminine and neuter-masculine. Feminine words are derived from adjectives and masculine-neuter words tend to be agents. Only later did feminine come to be associated with the female and masculine with the male, because the societies where they were used had women defined by their appearance and men by what they did. I have to confess I don’t know much about Hittite, but Anatolian languages are the outlier of the family in the sense that they’re an early offshoot, possibly because they were spoken on the other side of the Black Sea and didn’t share in the changes in the language spoken by the Kurgans before they split up.
The other two “branches” are known as KENTUM and SATEM, named after the words for “hundred” in those languages. KENTUM obviously includes Latin, with its word “CENTUM” for the number, and the KENTUM branch is a genuine branch, unified initially and then splitting later. SATEM languages are less unified, and it’s this feature which piques my attention because oddly this closely parallels how flowering plants are related to each other, and yes this is a digression but an important one for reasons which I hope will become clear. Although flowering plants are traditionally divided into monocots, with parallel veins in their leaves such as grasses and leaks, and dicots, with branching tree-like veins such as cabbages and conkers. Strangely, and possibly coincidentally, their ancestry is also like that, with the monocots consisting of parallel lines of families which diverged at an early stage and the dicot family tree being more like a tree. There are no true trees among the dicots – bamboo and palms are in there but these aren’t really trees. The Indo-European language family is the same. It consists of a tree-like bit, the KENTUM branch, and a series of early-diverging parallel groups about as closely related to each other as they are to the KENTUM branch. I can’t help thinking this represents something significant and I suspect that if it does I’m probably the only person who has noticed it, because relatively few people know about the taxonomy of both plants and languages, but I also lack a peer group in this respect so it could equally well just be my imagination.
It used to be thought that SATEM languages were spoken to the east and KENTUM to the west. Although this has turned out not to be so, it is almost true, and again I’ll be coming back to that. There seem to be some languages in the middle which are intermediate as well.
Starting with SATEM, the unequivocal members of that group include Indo-Iranian, Slavic and Baltic. Armenian, Greek and Illyrian may also be SATEM.
The Indo-Iranian languages are spoken, naturally, in India and the areas north and northwest of it. Apart from Sinhala and Maldivian, native to Sri Lanka and the Maldives respectively which split off early, only the northern part of India has Indo-Iranian languages, the southern part being occupied by Dravidian languages such as Tamil. There’s also the linguistic isolate Burushaski and a few Mon-Khmer languages, related to Cambodian, spoken in parts of India. Probably the furthest eastern native language of the whole family is Bengali, spoken of course in Bangladesh. Not forgetting the Iranian branch, this is characterised by the Afghani language Pashto and the Iranian Farsi. The only other Indo-European language written in cuneiform was Old Persian. There’s also the rather surprising fact that Romani, the languages of the Roma people, is in this group, apparently most closely related to Punjabi.
Sanskrit and Avestan are both in this group. Sanskrit is the ancestor of most of the two hundred odd Indic languages, and is characterised by complex grammar (the verb has more than a thousand forms and there are eight cases and three numbers) and a couple of distinctive phonetic features which it handed down to most of its descendants in various ways. One is that many vowels merged into a schwa somewhat like the one in English but more open and further back, written as “a”. Hence there are words like “tadasana”. Another feature is that it contains many retroflex consonants, pronounced by curling the tongue backwards on the roof of the mouth. The “a” has suffered various fates. It’s often retained, but in Bengali, for instance, it has become an “o” sound. Hindi, Urdu (basically the same language), Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Nepali, Rajasthani and many other languages are descended from Sanskrit, and even those which aren’t have often borrowed many words from it. The Romani language tends to adopt the grammar and pronunciation of the languages spoken around it, and is the most westerly Indo-Iranian language, being spoken in Ireland. Indic languages also tend to retain the aspirated sounds of Proto-Indoeuropean. The more northerly languages of the group such as Pashto and Farsi haven’t been through the process which added retroflex consonants, which seems to have been a Dravidian influence, or the reduction of vowels, and they have also lost the aspirates. Farsi in particular is remarkably simple and shares substantial cognates with Western European languages, but this is not obvious because both it and Pashto are written in the Arabic script. Another surprising feature of Farsi is that it completely lacks gender, which kind of puts the kybosh on the Sapir-Worf hypothesis that language determines one’s world view considering the nature of Iranian society. Iranian languages are also remarkable in that they include several languages spoken in remote valleys which are completely unknown to outsiders, and because of this the total number of Iranian languages is unknowable.
As far as I know, there have been three recorded Baltic languages, spoken of course around the Baltic Sea. These are Old Prussian, Lithuanian and the language I call Lettish but most other English speakers refer to as Latvian. It’s said that a speaker of Sanskrit can make herself understood in Lithuania, but this is something of an exaggeration. Lithuanian is the purer of the two surviving Baltic languages, and the most conservative (“primitive”) living Indo-European language, with for example eight cases. Its conservatism seems to reflect the general conservatism of the nation, which was the last pagan European country and also only legalised homosexuality in 1993. Lettish is like Lithuanian but influenced by Finnish. The Baltic languages in general have features only shared with our own Germanic languages, so although they are SATEM they may be basal forms of the ancestors of English. The third member of the branch is Old Prussian, which despite its name is not closely related to the Prussian dialect of German. Old Prussian was even more conservative than Lithuanian but died out in the eighteenth century. It was written in Black Letter like many other languages spoken in Northern Europe at the time. Lithuanian and Latvian are unusual for languages of the Soviet Union in being written using our own Latin alphabet rather than Cyrillic.
The Slavic languages are relatively close to Baltic and are also grammatically quite conservative. They tend to be written in Cyrillic, an alphabet derived from Greek with several Hebrew letters invented by St Cyril, who brought Christianity to the Slavs. They also tend to have broad and slender versions of consonants, which makes them similar in one respect to Q-Celtic languages such as Gaidhlig, but unlike those languages the script is natively adept in including and representing those features, which is why I often say Irish, Manx and Gaidhlig should be written in Cyrillic. There was also another script called Glagolitsa, as seen above, which is confoundingly peculiar in its letter shapes to the extent that it’s been suggested that it was composed in secret by someone who was afraid of being persecuted. Old Church Slavonic is written in both scripts and is the oldest written form of Slavic and the direct ancestor of Bulgarian. Bulgarian is somewhat aberrant, being a Balkan language. Balkan languages share a number of idiosyncratic features due to being spoken in the same area even though they aren’t closely related. Some Slavic languages have four genders, with an extra “sub-gender” for masculine animate nouns, and the third person of the verb is also inflected for gender. They also tend to have more cases, and one, Slovene, retains the dual number, a special form of words for pairs of things distinct from singular and plural. Speaking of verbs, Slavic languages also retain the primitive Proto-Indoeuropean distinction between completed and uncompleted actions, so for example “drink” and “drink up” are inflected differently.
Armenian is in its own branch of the family, and doesn’t really fit into the SATEM/KENTUM model. It was only realised fairly recently that it even was an Indo-European language because it developed in an unusual direction and seems to have been influenced by Caucasian languages, which are decidedly odd in themselves. Some people have suggested that Armenian and Greek belong together. I have to hold my hands up here and say I know practically nothing about Armenian except that it’s unlike all other languages in the family in that it’s agglutinative. On the whole, Indo-European words are inflected in more than one way at once. For instance, English has the “-‘s” and “-s'” singular and plural possessive endings which express in the first case both possession and singularity and in the second possession and plurality, but also has the usual plural noun ending “-s” which expresses plurality without that, but ignoring the apostrophe, which many people do, or have the impression it belongs in all of them, it’s the same ending and expresses more than one idea. This is known as “fusional”. Indo-European languages are unusual in having fusional endings. Most other languages which have inflections express the likes of plurality and possession in separate changes to the word, so there will be a string of endings or prefixes, for example, each found in many words with that feature. Armenian does this. The other thing about Armenian which appealed to my twelve-year old brain when I first came across it is its unique alphabet, which looks like a futuristic alien language from space. Like the Cyrillic alphabet, it was invented by a religious figure, Mesrop Mashtots, who also invented the Georgian alphabet. Like the Georgian alphabet, however, the Armenian script is well-suited to write its native language but doesn’t fare very well with Western European languages, partly due to the presence of ejective consonants, which are pronounced simultaneously with glottal stops.
Another of the three languages with a branch of its own, Greek is also a in a class of its own in other ways. Although it’s now only spoken by thirteen million people mainly in one country, it has had an inordinate influence on most of the other major languages of the world via technical vocabulary. Approximately a quarter of the words in the artificial international language Esperanto are from Greek. It also seems to be the Indo-European language with the longest continuous identity, although this is a slightly misleading thing to say because on the whole each generation can converse easily with the previous and next generation, so in a way there is just one Indo-European language with hundreds of versions of mutually incomprehensible speech. The earliest Greek writing, in Linear B, dates from the sixteenth century BCE, over three and a half thousand years ago. Incidentally, Coptic, which is still in use as a liturgical language in the Coptic Church, is a form of Egyptian and is therefore much older at over five thousand years, but it isn’t Indo-European but Afro-Asiatic like Arabic, Hebrew and Maltese. Coptic also contains many Greek loan words and is also written in an alphabet derived from Greek with the exception of a few letters ultimately originating in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It also adapted the Phoenician alphabet for its own purposes, which was in turn copied by the Etruscans and various other peoples and from Etruscan into Latin, being modified somewhat each time.
As a language, Greek retained the aspirated stops of Proto-Indo-European, had six cases and the traces, by classical times, of the dual number, and has the odd feature of sticking letters on to the beginnings of words which in related languages aren’t there, such as “onoma” for “name”, something like “odons” for “tooth” and so on. The ancient language had a number of dialects of which the ultimate victor, Attic, as spoken in Athens, is in fact something of an unusual example, meaning that many of the words we have inherited from them are anomalous and not as obviously connected to our own native words as might be expected. Greek was also very influential on Latin, even though they’re not that close to each other, and the grammar of Greek has strongly influenced the way grammar has traditionally been approached in the West. After Greece was conquered by Rome, the language remained the speech of the eastern Roman Empire and consequently the New Testament is written in a colloquial form of the language. By that time the aspirated stops had shifted to fricatives and later still the vowels shifted in a similar way to how they have done in English, and to a lesser extent High German. Greek today is somewhat influenced by being Balkan, like the other languages spoken in the area. Greek is considered KENTUM although it’s always seemed quite SATEM-like to me. It’s remarkable that it’s only ever really been a single language in spite of having survived so long and been so successful.
This is our own group. Germanic languages were originally spoken in an area of modern-day Sweden about three thousand years ago, where the original language underwent the Germanic Sound Shift. This generally involves a harshening of the sounds and conversion of some of the stops to fricatives, and is notably close to being repeated a thousand or more years later in High German, which is kind of “Super-Germanic” compared to the others. Germanic has three divisions: North, West and South. Although extinct since the late eighteenth century, Southern Germanic was the earliest continuously written form and therefore shows the language in its most primitive state, namely Gothic. Gothic, however, does have some distinctive features compared to the others. It’s written, or rather printed, in a modified Greek alphabet and borrows a fair bit of vocab from Greek. Remarkably, the main source of information is the Codex Argenteus, the Gothic Bible, printed using individual letter stamps in silver, hence the name. Wulfila, whose name means “wolf cub”, refused to translate the books of Kings because he thought it would encourage the Goths to become even more warlike than they already were. Another feature of Germanic languages is that early on they were written in runes, a script adapted from northern Italic peoples at around the start of the Christian era. The earliest runes show a language which can’t be classified as specifically North or West Germanic and are in fact a record of the language as it was used before the split took place. Germanic seems to have been influenced by a language related closely to Finnish and the two languages share some vocabulary and grammatical features. For instance, Germanic languages have no true future tense, expressing it instead either with the present as Finnish does or with auxiliary verbs. This Finnish influence is also found in the Baltic language Lettish (Latvian), which leads me to wonder if Lettish and Germanic were originally the same language. Another feature of most Germanic languages, with the exception of pidgins and creoles, is that they have strong verbs, which indicate different tenses and inflections by changing the main vowel in various patterns depending on the class of verb. These classes correspond to those of other Indo-European languages, suggesting that the weak verbs, that is, the ones we Anglophones consider regular verbs, are in fact innovations and that there was a time when practically all verbs in Germanic were strong. It’s said that when Alaric the Goth reached the gates of Rome in the fifth century, the Goths outside the walls were speaking a more grammatically complex language than the Latin-speakers inside it, because by then Latin had become a lot simpler. Which of course brings me to:
I’ve lumped these together although it’s no longer obvious that they belong in the same category. In the later Bronze Age, the Kurgan culture extended into Central Europe, where they carried on building their distinctive burial mounds. This particular community is thought by some to be the common ancestors of the Italic and Celtic peoples. I’ll deal with the Celts first.
The Celts were a very widespread and successful set of tribes before the Romans came to dominate. They were found in Spain and modern-day Turkey. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is in fact addressed to a Celtic people who lived in Cappadocia on the southern shore of the Black Sea. The Celts in Iberia may be the ancestors of the Gaels, i.e. the Q-Celtic speakers mentioned previously who now live in Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland. Ancient Celtic tongues were particularly unlike the ones spoken today and resembled other Indo-European languages quite closely in form. However, for some reason, possibly because they have tended to be the losers in many linguistic battles, first to the Romans and later to the Saxons and others, they have become increasingly aberrant and peculiar in a way I personally find hard to handle. I’ve mentioned this at length in my previous blog post, so I won’t go into it again here.
What’s been obscured by history is that there is a connection between the Celtic and Italic people and their languages. What seems to have happened is that the original Celtic-Italic tribes living in Central Europe spread south into the Italian peninsula where their languages took on a distinctive form. Before the rise of Rome there were quite a number of languages related closely to Latin but not the direct ancestors of any survivors, such as Oscan, Umbrian and Faliscan, each with their own alphabets. Some features of these languages persist in Italian dialects. Latin, spoken in Latium naturally, then came to dominate first the peninsula, then the whole of the Mediterranean and finally most of Europe and North Africa. When Rome fell, the language of the proles took over and evolved into the modern day Romance languages, including Romanian, again a Balkan language and quite conservative, also an outlier, Italian, Catalan, which is the central Romance language with most in common with each of the others, Castilian, which is probably the world’s second most widely spoken language in the form of Spanish, French, Portuguese and a number of other languages spoken in small pockets in Switzerland. There were also a number of languages which didn’t make it, and a number of extant languages which are underdogs. Into the former fall African Romance, British Latin and a language spoken in Hungary in the Dark Ages. African Romance shows traces in Berber vocabulary today. British Latin is entirely lost except in tiny fragments such as our tendency to use the word “chester” in placenames. Dalmatian was spoken between Italian and Romanian and was part of a general East-West division between the Romance languages. Sardinian is still a distinct language and the most conservative of all surviving Romance. It has things in common with Romanian, which is a Balkanised and Slavicised language with the least in common with the others.
It sometimes surprises people that Illyria was once a real place. Illyria is the Western part of the Balkans where a mixture of tribes used to live. It’s not entirely uncontroversial, but many people believe that the sole surviving language of a putative Illyrian subgroup of Indo-European is Albanian. I think of Albanian as KENTUM because its word for “hundred” is “qind”, roughly pronounced “tyind”, but I’m not an expert and I could be wrong. Albanian is the third language with its own branch, although unlike the others it seems to be a survivor of a larger group. Albanian spelling, like English, uses the letter H to modify words and is, as far as I know, the only language to use “ë” a lot. It’s also the only branch of Indo-European which is purely Balkan, which might go some way towards explaining why the other languages spoken in the area have such peculiarities in common, since they may originally have been spoken by people who were used to speaking other Illyrian languages. Albanian, like other Balkan languages, has a post-positive definite article – that is, it expresses “the” with a suffix. The verb has no infinitive or if it has one is often avoided. It has five cases. The future tense is expressed with an auxiliary verb expressing desire. English also does exactly this with “will” incidentally. The past uses a verb meaning “have”, again like many other Western languages. The “teen” numerals use the unit before the word for “ten”. Many of these features are of course found in other languages, but in Albanian and other Balkan languages they occur together. They also share some vocabulary not found elsewhere.
Finally, there’s the joker in the pack:
Tocharian is for some reason both a KENTUM language group and the easternmost Indo-European language (unless the rather improbable Proto-Tsimshian hypothesis turns out to be correct, but I’ll mention that at the end).
Tocharian consists of two languages, A and B, or Turfanian and Kuchean, both extinct, used to write Buddhist religious texts . Although one was used later than the other, neither is descended from the other and Kuchean, the newer one, is more conservative than Turfanian. Both had become extinct by the year 1000 and they were used in the Tarim Basin, an area north of Tibet. Something mysterious has happened here. Mummified corpses have been found in the area with the facial features of white people and with red hair. They also used tartan patterns on their cloth like the Celts of central Europe and other places. They seem to have disappeared via intermarriage with the Uyghurs in the eighth century.
Tocharian languages are anomalous for their region. One distinctive feature is that all of their stop consonant series have amalgamated into single sounds, so for example where Greek has B, P and PH>F, Tocharian will simply have P. This reminds me of the Sanskrit tendency to turn all of its vowels into “A”, but it’s the other way round. It has cases like other languages but their form has no resemblance to them and they seem to have been recreated from other features. For instance, there is no accusative case and there are a total of eleven. The first person pronoun has feminine and masculine forms, unlike in any other Indo-European language. The earliest Tocharian mummies date from about 1800 BCE, which is older than Hittite, so it’s quite odd that they seem to have spoken a language post-dating a split which seems to have occurred later.
Finally, there is a somewhat obscure theory that four First Nation languages of the Canadian Pacific coast are Indo-European. If this is so, it’s at least in the right place in a sense, since the Pacific side of the North American continent is closest and has the largest number of pre-Columbian connections with Eurasia. I don’t know why this claim was made, to be honest, but I am aware that the reconstructed ancestor of these languages had labialised stops like proto-Indo-European (i.e. “kw” and “gw” sounds in the latter case). I don’t know if that’s why but it seems pretty far-fetched. Maybe though.
Something I haven’t got into is the other language families which exist or the relationships between them. I mainly wrote this because I’ve been assuming for a long time that all of this stuff is more or less common knowledge. It may very well be extremely boring or widely know to you all, to be honest, but anyway, take it or leave it, here it is.
If all goes well, our daughter will have a child of her own this year. This has led to anxiety dreams for Sarada and me, and it would generally make sense and probably be appealing for me to talk about the whole thing in a personal way, but as you may be aware, my middle name is Theory. Or perhaps it’s actually Teòiridh, because I have Scottish ancestry.
The prospect of having a grandchild raises the question in our minds of how I should be addressed, which in turn raises the issue of kinship terms, which as you probably realise vary according to certain patterns in different languages. Along with colour terms, there are predictable ways of naming family members as to their relationships with you. Because there was a possibility of our grandchild ending up with three grandmothers, I needed a less ambiguous and less triggering term. Owing to the probable disappearance of my surname in this family line, the issue of cultural heritage arose, and since both my family and the baby’s father have Q-Celtic connections, I have chosen to be called “seanmhair”. These are the reasons for my choice:
Both parents of the hopefully forthcoming child have Q-Celtic connections.
My surname is likely to be lost in my immediate family line in the next two generations (although my nephew will probably retain it).
I wanted to choose a kinship term which didn’t sound like it had the word “mother” or anything similar to it to Sassenach ears.
Now I am only vaguely ethnically Scottish. Moreover, the sense in which I’m Scottish is more to do with the Lowlands than the Highlands and Islands although I do have a Gaidhlig name, two in fact. The same is true of many Scots. Scotland has hosted a variety of languages over the last couple of millennia, including of course Gaidhlig, Welsh (the oldest written Welsh originates from Scotland), Pictish, Norn, Scots and of course English. In a way, there’s no good reason to focus on Gaidhlig rather than the others, and although it was at its zenith spoken over a very wide area including the Lowlands, it’s arguably not so much of an indigenous language to Scotland as Welsh and Irish are to their respective countries. It’s also much less widely spoken than those two.
I’ll return to Gaidhlig in a bit, after I’ve mentioned the other languages, which tend to be neglected in its favour. Norn is derived from Old Norse and was spoken in the Shetlands and Orkneys, and if you go back far enough, also in Caithness and Sutherland on the Scottish mainland. This is partly due to Viking invasions and partly because of dowries being given by Scotland to Scandinavian kings when their princesses married them. My own surname, Mac an t-Saoir, has a legend associated with it that a carpenter (saor) cut out and hid blocks of wood from a boat, filled the holes with tallow when a Scandinavian king kidnapped a Scottish princess, demanding that the princess be returned or he’d let the boat sink. While I’m at it, my other surname, Iubhair, which literally means “yew tree” although that seems to be coincidental, is from the earlier Mac Iomhair, “Son of Ivar”, whose estate consisted of an area of land including mountains high enough to have snow in the summer, and whose annual rent was either a snow white calf or a summer snowball, which the clan chose to convert to money and consequently lost its land. There are many more family legends of course, and I can’t be sure how clearly they’ve come down to me.
In recent centuries, whether or not my family spoke Gaidhlig, and it’s possible they did, they mainly would’ve spoken Scots since they lived in the Gorbals area of Glasgow. Scots, also known as Lallans, has a status problem, and tends to be thought of as a dialect of English, but is in fact distinct from Scottish English. The same cannot be said of its sister tongue Ullans, as spoken in the north of Ireland, which in fact seems not to be a language at all so much as a political posture, set up in opposition to Irish, although Ullans is allegedly spoken by the Ulster Scots. I have a feeling that the Scottish adherence to Gaidhlig as opposed to Lallans has a lot to do with tartan Nessie dolls, tins of shortbread and the idea that specific tartans are associated with specific clans – it’s a kind of manufactured plastic Scottishness which has little authentic history to back it up. Having said that, nobody can deny that Gaidhlig is a “proper” separate language compared to Lallans and English, and even Norn, and I still feel it deserves support. It’s not that there is anything wrong with Gaidhlig so much as there’s definitely something wrong with the fact that the other indigenous languages are ignored.
The other two are interesting, if anything which grabs my attention is of interest to anyone other than myself. Firstly, it’s entertainingly startling that Welsh is in fact a Scottish language. This is stretching it a bit because in fact most of the island of Great Britain spoke a P-Celtic language before the Romans came. Nonetheless, parts of Scotland were still speaking P-Celtic after they left. Ystrad Clud was a kingdom straddling present-day southwest Scotland and northwest England until the eleventh century, where Cumbric was spoken, a language very close to early Welsh. I will at some point get round to talking about what exactly P- and Q-Celtic are. Finally, there was Pictish, which died out around the eleventh century. For a long time, Pictish was thought to be a non-Indoeuropean language possibly related to Basque. Disappointingly, this has turned out not to be so and in fact Pictish was probably just a P-Celtic language, although possibly not closely related to Welsh, unlike all surviving such languages. It was later assimilated into Gaidhlig and only survives in placenames and inscriptions in the Irish carving code referred to as oghams, which resemble tally marks and were written vertically.
Now to explain P- and Q-Celtic. The only surviving Celtic languages are the ones currently spoken in the British Isles and Breton, spoken in Brittany, which is descended from Cornish. These are known as Insular Celtic, although they don’t form a single closely related group. There are two clusters, Q-Celtic and P-Celtic, named after the way the proto-Indoeuropean “KW” developed in them. Q-Celtic turns Q, or “KW”, into a hard K sound written as a C, whereas P-Celtic makes it into a P. Hence “pedwar” is the Welsh number four, similar to the Gothic “fidwor” which is almost ancestral to the English word, but the Irish four is written “ceithir”, although of course the spelling is misleading.
The surviving P-Celtic languages are Welsh, Cornish and Breton, and the Q-Celtic are Irish, Gaidhlig and Manx. It’s thought that the latter actually originated from northern Iberia (Spain), whereas the former result from migrations from Gaul (France). It’s important to note that although Breton is spoken on the continent, it isn’t a continental Celtic language because it’s derived ultimately from Welsh.
Gaidhlig and Manx are both descended from Old Irish, which is the oldest Celtic language in which continuous texts have been found. The Irish spread from Ireland north-east into modern day Scotland, founding a kingdom called Dalriada, which included the Inner Hebrides, County Antrim and Argyll. It consisted of four clans, known as Cenél Loairn (kindred of Loarn), Cenél nÓengusa (kindred of Óengus), Cenél nGabráin (kindred of Gabrán) and Cenél Comgaill (kindred of Comgall). The Cenél nGabráin is geographically most closely associated with my clan, which was in Kintyre, unsurprisingly. Dalriada and Ystrad Clud (Strathclyde) were adjacent, incidentally, although I’m not sure they were contemporaneous. For a long time, Gaidhlig was simply referred to as “Irish” by the Lowlands language speakers, and wasn’t recognised as being its own language. For instance, they used the Irish Bible for centuries. However, it isn’t generally possible for Irish and Gaidhlig speakers to understand each other today, unless of course they speak English, which they almost always do.
It can’t have escaped your attention that the way Gaidhlig and Irish use the Latin alphabet is somewhat idiosyncratic, but then the same is true of English and French. The third recorded Q-Celtic language, Manx, is not like that. Its spelling is based on English, which in itself is not entirely wonderful but is less confounding than the other two. Surprisingly, the spelling we see nowadays in those has actually been recently reformed. The reason Gaidhlig and Irish are spelt this way is that many consonants have two forms and, as with all other surviving Celtic languages, the initial consonant of many words changes according to other words which precede it and for grammatical reasons. This is seen in the English word “corgi”, where the actual Welsh word for “dog” is not “gi” but “ci”. This means you get arrangements like the one in my name “An t-Saoir”, where the lower case T represents the actual pronunciation and the capital S reflects the letter beginning the word as found in the dictionary. The apparently unnecessary vowels are to do with the fact that the sounds have slender and broad pronunciations, where slender appear to have a weak Y sound with them and the broad sound kind of, well, “thick”. This same situation exists in Slavic languages and for this reason I have often asserted that Cyrillic would be a better script for Q-Celtic languages than Latin, but this is obviously never going to happen.
Speaking of non-Latin scripts, Irish itself, and to a much lesser extent Gaidhlig, used its own alphabet well into the twentieth century:
This resembles the script used to write English before the Norman conquest, although instead of using the letter H, dots are placed above the letters preceding them. Although this has occasionally been used to write Gaidhlig, it’s not done any more. The difference is similar to the use of Black Letter to write German and a number of adjacent languages in the rest of Europe. It’s officially known as uncial.
A difference between Irish and Gaidhlig writing is found in the use of the acute accent in Irish and the grave in Gaidhlig. In fact the word “Gaidhlig” itself should be written with a grave accent but I haven’t done that here because support on computers for Gaidhlig is poor. So for the record it’s “Gàidhlig”, and I apologise for being lazy but in fact this illustrates another point about the language: that it’s considerably more in the minority than even Irish, and therefore has very little support. Only about 70 000 people speak it, and that’s down from about 300 000 when I was in my twenties. This is less than Frisian, Icelandic, Basque, Maltese, but more than either Sorbian language. One reason people are not keen on speaking it is that it doesn’t provide the links to the rest of the world which English clearly affords, and it amounts to a medium-sized town.
I have made several attempts to learn Gaidhlig, but my motives for doing so are not the same as my interests in other languages. I feel a kind of obligation towards at least attempting to speak it because, albeit in a fairly nebulous sense, it is in fact part of my heritage – my family background. Since I live in the depths of England, the chances of actually being able to hold a face to face conversation with anyone in it are practically zero. It’s also a substantially rural language tending to be spoken by people who are sometimes decidedly non-vegan and religiously and socially conservative. The kind of rarified spheres I tend to orbit in are seriously displaced from Gaidhlig culture and it’s all a bit of a struggle.
But I also feel they’re kind of my tribe, and that I can reclaim the language to some extent. I don’t have any of that sentimental Celtic cultural appropriation many people in these isles tend to have. I didn’t call our daughter Siobhán or our son Calum, even though the latter is a family name, and it would’ve seemed weird and inappropriate to do so. Nonetheless, we do have a Gaelic background, ultimately, and I use that word because it refers to both the Irish and the Scottish parts of our grandchild’s family tree, I need to be able to pronounce “seanmhair” passably, and I even feel guilty about the fact that this is probably going to read like I’m slagging the language off.
So to get down to the nitty-gritty, I can’t pretend to be anything more than a post-beginner in Gaidhlig and have been since the early 1980s, but here are a few observations. Gaidhlig shares with other Celtic languages and Hebrew the third most common syntax of Verb-Subject-Object. It also has something which looks like a construct state, also found in Hebrew, where one element of a compound noun kind of “shrivels up” when it’s tacked onto the end of the other, as with “seanmhair” itself, which includes the word màthair , which however could equally be said to occur in the English “grandma”. Also like Hebrew, it inflects prepositions: agam – at me; agad – at thee (i.e. “you” singular/familiar). Again like Hebrew, it has feminine and masculine grammatical gender. I can’t tell, in fact, whether these apparent parallels with Hebrew are significant or just me seeing a pattern where none is really there. But to me one of the most confounding things about the language is the fact that whereas it has many of the usual kinds of features European languages have, instead of using them straightforwardly it has a strong tendency to be very circumlocutory. For instance, it’s “the hair on her” rather than “her hair”, and “there is from me a pencil” rather than “I need/want a pencil”, and so forth. No, I can’t remember the Gaidhlig for these phrases!
Although Celtic languages are historically part of our Indoeuropean language family, the actual features of the languages nowadays, particularly in the case of Q-Celtic, are now very far indeed from the original, and even from the majority of other European and Indian languages. Although this could be said to be true of most contemporary European speech, it is considerably more so of Gaidhlig, Manx and Irish and to a lesser extent Cornish, Breton and Welsh than it is of, say, English or French, although that pair too has its moments, such as the English use of “do” and its periphrastic approach to verbs and the oddness of French negation and liaison. Maybe if I was learning either of those as an outsider I’d find such features equally difficult, but I can’t help thinking that it’s particularly true of Gaidhlig/Irish/Manx that the best way of learning them is to know them already! I’m only being partly facetious here. In fact, the obstacles to learning them as a second language are much greater, I feel, unless your first language is one of the others or possibly a P-Celtic tongue, than with other European languages. I also think there’s a good reason for this, although this is just personal speculation.
Irish was spoken “outside the Empire”, as was to some extent British, i.e. Welsh. As such the regulation of Rome and Greece were never imposed upon it. After the fall of the Empire, Q-Celtic entered some kind of ascendancy which, however, was then curtailed by the Normans and English, and also by their language. It spent centuries being disrespected, and although the effects of this can be seen on English to some extent while French was the language of the gentry in England, this went on for a lot longer and was a lot fiercer on the Q-Celtic languages. In the case of Gaidhlig itself, it was subordinate to a subordinate language, being regarded as an aberrant form of Irish. It is in a sense the ultimate underdog. As such, I feel like I kind of owe it to Gaidhlig to promote its survival, and it is in a sense, a very anti-racist sense I might add, in my blood. Consequently, yes it’s a struggle, and I’m still learning Swedish, but it’s worth the effort to learn it. I’m unlikely ever to be fluent, but I really ought to respect it more. Apart from anything else, a fivefold decline in my own adulthood is a pretty frightening plummet, and that probably occurred at the hands and the tawses of the schoolmasters, among other equally oppressive means. Gaidhlig is like that, I think, because it never had Latinate grammar or pronunciation imposed upon it, and as such the mark of language politics is all the way through it.
So I will learn Gaidhlig, a bit, and I will, I hope, be called “seanmhair”.