New Age channelers out of tune, linguistics prof says
The Pittsberg Press Oct 2 1989
By Mary Pat Flaherty
Some New Age channelers' messages are being transmitted with a little too much static to convince linguist Sarah Thomason of their authenticity.
The University of Pittsburgh linguistics professor reviewed audio tapes of 11 channelers who claim spirits of the long-dead or extra-terrestrials speak through them to de¬liver wisdom to faithful believers.
The message Ms. Thomason got was clear.
“As soon as some channelers opened their mouths, they gave themselves away,” she said.
The dialects, accents and some words, while generally interesting and sometimes even charming, weren’t suited to the period when the spirits reportedly lived, or else the spirits pronunciation varied from one sentence to the next.
Ms. Thomason, who lives in Squirrel Hill, does not go so far as to say the channelers are fakes
“I’m perfectly willing to believe that some of them are deluding themselves,” she said.
But, when they charge money for entry to their sessions, “then I begin to suspect they’re not fooling themselves, they’re out to fool others.”
A woman named Marjorie Turcott channels “Matthew,” a poor, blind fiddle player who claims to have lived in 16th century Scotland in a place called the Firth of Forth.
Ignoring for the moment that the Firth is a body of water — “let’s assume he lived along the shore,”
said Ms Thomason — Matthew has some serious speech defects.
He uses “rapscallion,” a word that did not appear in print until the 18th century, and “bully boy,” a phrase that Matthew says describes a “tyrannical coward.” Not so, says Ms. Thomason. It meant “good friend” in his time.
Matthew fails not just on usage, but accent. When he says neighbour, he keeps the “gh” silent as is now done m English. But Scots English speakers have always, through to¬day, pronounced those letters as
though they are the "ch" in Bach.
Mafu, the supposed spirit of a first-century leper speaks through Penny Torres of California. The problem is he speaks in a Britsh accent which didn't appear until 800 A.D. and that's giving pretty wide leeway," said Ms. Thomason.
She listened to the tapes for a conference on New Age sponsored by the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
The task fell to her because of her expertise in historical linguistics and after 17 years ln Pitt's linguistics department, "I'm the one they usually send all the weird calls to. They say ‘Sarah will like this.’ ” Usually, they're right.
. “Listening to all of this Is great fun. Besides channelers. Ms. Thomason has been asked to evaluate dialogue of people claiming to be reincarnated spirits, voices delivered through extra sensory perception and the languages of people who claim to speak in tongues during a religious experience.
Of the 11 channelers she listened to. she said, eight were suspicious. The remaining three Included a man who claimed to be channeling Jesus using the man's own dialect, a channeler "whose language I couldn't identify but who had a weird though consistent accent." and a channel!? whose dialect was "good enough that I couldn't prove it was fake without spending a lot of time and I didn't want tills to become my life's work " The biggest failing among the channelers was their rhetoric "They went for lofty speech that sounded fancy and then they messed up because they didn’t know enough to maintain that level of highblown, elevated rhetoric," she said.
As compelling as Ms. Thomason's evidence is. it does raise one question. How does she know what people sounded like 1000 or more years ago?
Through the comparative method of analysing languages, she says.
By comparing the various modem dialects of a language, an historical linguist can reconstruct pronunciations and infer what someone would have heard centuries earlier. Or they can look at old writing systems that show spellings that are nonsense — Judging by modern pronunciation - but indicate how words once were spoken. And then there’s always the researcher's “gift,” like the 18th pronunciation dictionary published for all those rising middle class types who wanted to blend in
with England s upper crust.
For channelers who can't get their hands on a pronunciation dictionary but to be convincing, Ms. Thomason has this advice. Forget the accent. Have the "spirit" speak in your own voice.
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