How to Make a Revolution in Historical Linguistics

Pick your myths carefully. Your battles won’t be won in the scholarly community as much as on the opinion pages of the Sunday newpapers, so you will need to develop a fine nose for the political relevancy of your “research”. Particularly historical linguistics is interlocked with identity politics to such an extent that you might consider making this your stomping ground. But choose the right kind of historical linguistics. A solid piece of research that draws theoretically interesting conclusions about the semantics of the perfective aspect of Old Church Slavonian will have people questioning the wisdom of financing academia with taxpayers’ money. A piece of total junk connecting nation A with glorious past civilization B will, if you play your cards right, make you a superstar.

Now, exercise some tact in choosing your “field” of “research”. Claiming that, say, the Germans are the closest living relatives, linguistically and genetically, of the ancient Indo-European master race might raise a bit too many eyebrows (besides, it’s been done already). Don’t wander off into excessively obscure directions either: you won’t be able to buy your way to stardom uncovering the ancient linguistic relationships of the Vaupes region in Brasil (least of all as accessible and therefore abusable literature about those languages is hard to get, and might actually require, well, work. So that’s an obvious no-no). Best to choose a somewhat plucky language, whose speakers have no overly recent associations with genocide, and have just that slight little touch of “Otherness” that might endear you to fuzzy-headed progressives.

To help you on your way – suggestions for modern languages might be Irish, Finnish, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Basque and Hopi; ancient civilizations to use include the Sumerians (absolute favourite: no linguistic relatives, so the field is wide open), Ancient Egyptians, the Megalith builders, the Lemurians, Ys, Lyonesse and Atlantis.

You might think you want to avoid trying to get through peer-review altogether, but believe me, pulp machines are regularly fed unsold editions of self-published breakthrough work connecting Cornish and Uto-Aztec. Moreover, getting rejected by peer-review is a victory. It means the secret cabal of conservative scholars see you as a threat to their comfortable ivory towers which they have built with taxpayers’ money, and thus are trying to censor you.

Particularly if your ideas are not quite as far-flung as Alpha Centauri, there may be possibilities for you to get yourself published, by hook or by crook, in even quite prestigious journals. The following advice may help you:

  • Never refer to primary sources. Don’t refer to secondary sources either. Choose tertiary sources for support for questionable assertions, particularly references that are so brief that they might be easily interpreted in your favour.
  • You might think you won’t be able to get away with referring to “manuscripts” or “handouts” of your buddies that don’t exist. But you can.
  • Remember that your reviewers will be disinclined to believe that you have blatantly misinterpreted a reference, or even lied through your teeth. If you are confident enough, you might even get them to think they have been reading things wrong. This is some elementary psychology you must remember and use to your advantage: people will generally be more inclined to let absolute bullshit pass than to take the risk of missing some very deep, profound point and being made to look very stupid. Note that usage of absolutely inappropriate quantifications, pseudo-mathematics and nonsensical terminology hijacked from the natural sciences will serve well to make a very shallow statement look very profound and intimidate your reviewer. Also take the academic culture of the country you’re in into account. Anglo-American reviewing tends to be very mild. The Germans are positively savage: avoid them.

The next trick deals with exploiting the differences between the natural sciences and disciplines like linguistics, properly part of the humanities. Because (pace a whole lot of linguists) those differences are vast. For starters, rocks in outer space, to name something, move according to laws that have been the same since the dawn of time, and which we expect to remain the same for the lifetime of the universe. Linguistic change is not even a properly causal process, but a teleological one. In any event, it is best to ignore those differences as much as possible and employ a pseudo-exact methodology with lots of mathematical symbols. Make some up yourself. Also, the rate of linguistic change is not constant, and linguistic change cannot be quantified. Linguists have known this for more than a century (despite some serious but doomed attempts in the 60s to quantify language change). Therefore, think up some worthless formula to quantify linguistic change. You get the picture.

Remember also that linguistic change means that linguistic relationships become irretrievably obscure within a timespan of, say, 6,000 years. Ignore this, and do not deal with anything more recent than the end of the Last Ice Age (this will deter your opponent from trying to disprove your assertions, as no evidence whatsoever happens to exist). Do not be daunted in this by details such as the date of the Sumerian civilization (3,000 BC). Use words such as “Pre-Sumerians” where appropriate.

In all of these, the method is the same: find some area where linguistics is by the nature of its subject, restricted in what it can and cannot claim, and ignore those restrictions. If it’s not too obvious that you’re fooling everyone, you might just raise the interest of sister disciplines such as archaeology and population genetics, where there is some frustration with the unavailability of linguistic evidence for most of the timespan in question. Do not assume that scholarly journals in other disciplines (archaeology or even the natural sciences) won’t publish bad linguistics. You’ll be surprised.

Anyway, now it’s time to stuff your publication list a little. First, publish every review or discussion note four or five times, in different languages, in different journals. Second, don’t waste your time writing something you’ve already written: simply cut and paste whole swaths of your past articles. Third, and most important, don’t be picky. Don’t sulk if you can’t get into Language or Antiquity. Who reads those journals, anyway? Quite a few more people might read the door-to-door monthly magazine of the local energy corporation – and, yes, they will publish bad linguistics if you dumb down enough, and even add a photograph of you.

Finally, liberally use quotations of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Learn the lingo: paradigm shift, incommensurability; and rub it in.

There are few, too few, working linguists who have a good command of the various subdisciplines of the field, such as psycholinguistics, historical linguistics, theory of grammar, etc. Let alone people who can competently handle population genetics, archaeology and historical linguistics. At the same time, when the field becomes more and more professionalized and fractured, “interdisciplinary” research is in vogue more than ever before. This when the decline of secondary and higher education, in Western Europe at least, means that it’s quite possible to get a Master’s degree, in quite a few disciplines, without knowing the meaning of the word “empirical”, without having a clear idea about the methodological similarities and differences between the Humanities and the Natural Sciences, etcetera. So, you won’t meet much opposition, and the opposition you will meet is all too easy to dismiss as a hoary old clique, unable, because of the incommensurability of scientific paradigms, to even comprehend the importance of your revolutionary insights.

The future is yours.

Merlijn de Smit would like to emphasize that the practices criticized here
are all over the place, and not pertaining to any single individual or group
of individuals.

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