Friday, June 16, 2006

Linguistic historical evidence: Suspect searches for origins versus unravelling transliterations

Words in different languages often sound the same and seem like they bear some family relation to each other when they actually don't [Scholar-linguist Burma expert F.K. Lehman pointed this out recently on the SOAS Burma Research]

I am great fan of Geoff Wade's systematic debunking of the Gavin Mendez 1421 Zheng He travelled to Antarctica marketing approach to historical truth. Now there's a finally a linguist dynamiting the weak-minded linguistics too: [original article, link1, link2]

But what about transliterations?

But what I'd really like to know is how to analyze contemporaneous transliterations in historical sources.

Sometimes the same historically important personage is referred to in radically different cultures with little if any contact using different languages. I'd like to develop a system or way of determining whether two phonetically similar renditions of a name refer to the same historical personage(some historiographical logic).

Searches for origins

Is it really possible to link the proto-languages constructed in historical linguistics to the history of political and economic events that historians deal with?

We have to be careful in the questions we ask. Simple origin questions just will not do. Foucault makes this point rather poetically in Nietzche, Genealogy, History:

"The pursuit of the an attempt to capture the exact, and pure, [transhistorical, immanent] essence of things," it assumes a world of forms preexisting the world of accident and succession i.e., history... "But he who listens to history finds that things have no pre-exisiting essence, or an essence fabricated piecemeal from alien forms." (78)
: reason was born of the fights of schoolmen
: liberty is an invention of the middle classes
In short, not the "inviolable identity of their origin" but disparity is at the beginning of things."

"A genealogy, on the other hand, of values, morals, knowledge, will never confuse itself with a quest for their 'origins' but will cultivate the details and accidents that accompany every beginning."

Accident, contingency, multiple changing causes, the generator of the statistical distribution is changing even as history collects samples from it (See Taleb's Fooled By Randomness).