Uralic Linguistics Vs. Voodoo Science


The "New Paradigm" on the Uralic Urheimat: Size Does Matter!

"So begruessenswert neue Wege auch sein mögen - der hier vorgeschlagene Weg des methodikfreien transdisziplinären Hypereklektizismus fuert wohl ins Nichts."

Cornelius Hasselblatt Wo ist die Revolution? Finnisch-Ugrische Forschungen 56, 2001

”On ilmeistä, etteivät nämä suursuomalaista esihistoriaa rakentavat kirjoittajat tule mielipiteitään muuttamaan, ja sen vuoksi monet tutkijat epäilemättä kokevatkin keskustelun heidän kanssaan turhauttavaksi. Mielestämme on kuitenkin tärkeää tuoda julkisuudessa esille, että heidän levittämänsä historiankuvan tukena ei ole mitään yleisesti hyväksyttyä tutkimusta, vaan kysymyksessä on lähinnä kansallismieliseksi liikkeeksi luonnehdittava ilmiö. Alkuperäinen kirjoituksemme ei siksi ollutkaan suunnattu varsinaisesti Julkulle, vaan hänen lukijoilleen. Kun luovutaan sekä tieteellisen kritiikin vaatimuksista että terveestä järjestä, ajaudutaan vaarallisen helposti Robert Parkin kuvaamaan petokselliseen tieteeseen. Spekulaatiot toimivat yhä uusien spekulaatioiden perusteluina, kunnes lopulta päädytään tyystin järjettömiin väitteisiin ja harhaanjohtavaan argumentointiin.”

Ante and Aslak Aikio Mikä oli todistettava Kaltio 4/2002


For the last seven years or so, a fierce debate has raged within Uralic linguistics concerning the placement and timing of the Uralic proto-language, as well as its actual shape. A number of researchers - mainly, the linguists Kalevi Wiik, Janos Pusztay and Ago Kunnap and the historian Kyösti Julku - proposed a radical new paradigm, basically entailing that languages ancestral to Finnish and Saami were spoken in a vast area in Northern Europe during the latest Glacial, i.e. at least 10,000 BC although time-depths of 40,000 BC have been seriously proposed. Concerning the shape of Proto-Uralic, the model according to which the current Uralic languages diverged from a common proto-language was rejected and supplanted by a model in which more shallow language families have been in contact with each other in a large area in Northern Europe.

Obviously, time-depths of more than 10,000 years are far beyond the reach of historical linguistics. Speculating on the linguistic and ethnic make-up of people living during the last Ice Age is a very useless exercise, since historical linguistics has nothing to say on that matter. Nevertheless, the possibility of a rather more recent Uralic substratum in, especially, Germanic languages was raised by Kalevi Wiik. A number of fatal problems with this hypothesis were pointed out by, for example, Asko Parpola, Jorma Koivulehto and Petri Kallio, and the question on Uralic features in proto-Germanic can be considered as decided in its disfavour.

The model Wiik et. al. proposed on Proto-Uralic and its evolution suffered from the problem that it contradicted everything we know about language evolution. Languages do not mix unless in rather special circumstances, yet genetic mixing and the multiple-rooted language family trees associated with it were cheerfully adopted by the 'innovationist' Uralists. Worse even, the reconstructed Proto-Uralic was disregarded by a methodological sleight-of-hand which re-interpreted any common features among Uralic languages as having arisen due to contact. The remarkable result was a view on Uralic language history which lacked any historical dimension.

None of these criticisms have been taken seriously, however. To the contrary, a virtual bombardment of material from the 'innovationist' side accompanied by bombastic labels as a "breakthrough in Present-Day Uralistics" (Kunnap 1998), "earthquake" (Julku in Kaltio on Marcantonio's new book) ensued. At the same time, the agents of this breakthrough or revolution have turned into an essentially closed circle, publishing mainly in general popular-scientific and cultural venues like Kanava and Kaltio and producing reports of closed conferences and symposia (see, for example, Roots I, Roots II and III in the Bibliography). Thus, whereas within Uralic linguistics itself the supporters of the new paradigm have failed to make their case, the Uralic "breakthrough" is finding a fertile ground elsewhere, here, for example.

My own views concerning the Uralic "breakthrough" should be clear - I agree with Aslak and Ante Aikio cited above that we are dealing with a body of ideas that is no longer amenable to any scientific scrutiny, but consists of speculations built upon speculations, a form of voodoo science comparable to astrology or Creation Science - hence the title of this page. Trying to weed out voodoo science within one's own discipline is a rather frustrating task, but any specialist in Uralic linguistics should care about the image of Uralistics outside Uralist circles itself - among the general public, in Kaltio and Kanava, on the Sunday pages of Helsingin Sanomat.

This page contains links to some materials dealing with the debate between Uralists and the supporters of the "new paradigm" outlined above. Apart from that, I include a bibliography with off-line references.

Merlijn de Smit, Turku, October 30 2002

09-02-04: A few new links added.

15-04-04: New links have been added, mostly provided by Petri Kallio, who also patiently alerted me to some dead or changed links. On a very sad note, I heard that Prof. Larry Trask of the Univ. of Sussex has passed away. His introduction to Historical Linguistics was one of the first books I read on the matter when a student, and Larry Trask also had the patience to debunk various nonsense and pseudo-linguistics in his own field (Vascology) and more widely as well. An Obituary of Prof. Trask can be read here.

30-08-04: The summer has passed, something new here, something new there, with thanks to Petri Kallio, Jaakko Häkkinen and Mario Alinei for suggestions.

On-line references - General

Interesting background reading

Debunking the "new paradigm"

Defending the "new paradigm"


Close encounters of the Third Kind

Reports and Discussions


Bibliography on Uralistics Vs. Voodoo Science

Go To Bibliography

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