A Crank Theory Challenge

Who doesn’t enjoy a good crank theory? Jesus married Mary Magdalene? I’m in! The earth is hollow and/or flat? Yowza! A perpetual motion machine? Bring it!

Can you distinguish a real crank theory from a fake? Here is the Crank Theory Challenge. Three crank theories follow. Two are real crank theories, put forward by genuine cranks. The other I just made up. While I may be a crank, it isn’t a real crank theory because I lack the necessary ingredient of sincerity in presenting the theory. Can you spot the fake?

Two ground rules:

(1) No googling, obviously.  Really, do I need to even tell you that?

(2) If you already know one or both of the real crank theories, treat this as a spoiler, with appropriate warnings in comments.

(3) In the spirit of the thing, I have not googled my invention. If it turns out also to be a real crank theory, I claim the prize.

So here we go:

Crank Theory One: Modern English has existed since ancient times. It later split into German and French.  French in turn split into Provençal, Catalan, Spanish, Italian, etc.  Latin was an invented pidgin language used for commerce in the Mediterranean. Anglo-Saxon split from German, making it an indirect descendant of Modern English.

Crank Theory Two: The Dark Ages did not happen. The calendar was fudged by adding 297 years, from A.D. 614 to 911. All events purported to have occurred in this period are fictional creations. This was done by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II, and possibly the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII, because this would put them at A.D. 1000, which clearly is cooler than some random year, what with all those zeros.

Crank Theory Three: Queen Elizabeth I was actually a man named Edmund. Edmund was effeminate from an early age and insisted on wearing women’s clothing. His father, Henry VIII, relented following the birth of the future Edward VI.  He allowed Edmund to be raised as a girl, taking the name “Elizabeth,” but rewrote the line of succession, moving Mary up in the line. Elizabeth maintained the fiction the rest of her life, never marrying but surrounding herself with comely young male courtiers.


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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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47 thoughts on “A Crank Theory Challenge

    • I agree. I have heard #2 before — or something approaching it — so I’m confident that isn’t the fake. I don’t know a ton about either language or monarchs, but I know slightly more about the former and have never heard anything even remotely similar to it. Plus it isn’t particularly “juicy” — thereby generating little interest (though it sometimes amazes me what people are passionate about) — and seems like the sort of thing that would need to be made up out of whole cloth since I just don’t know what even quasi-evidence could exist for it. So, yea, I think #1 is the bogus one.


  1. OK, I know that one of them is a real crank theory because I’ve encountered it before. I’m going to guess that 3 is the one you invented, because the name. I mean, there’s already an Edmund in her story:

    LO I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
    As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
    Am now enforst a far unfitter taske,
    For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
    And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
    Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,
    Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
    To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
    Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.


    • OK, since I’d made my guess, I googled, and 3 is definitely real, though the story is even more bizarre than you let on. Elizabeth wasn’t born a man. Instead, she died, possibly of the plague, at around age 10, and was replaced, without Henry’s knowledge, by an effeminate village boy who resembled her enough to fool people. Apparently even Bram Stoker believed this to be true.


  2. I’m going to go with a variation of the B-Movie Thriller Maxim, wherein whoever is the least likely person of all non-protagonist characters to be the murderer/turn coat/villain will always end up bing the murderer/turn coat/villain.

    So I am guessing that the one you made up is #3, since that seems the least utterly bizarre.


  3. I’ve heard number 3 before, so I’m sure that’s one of the ‘real’ ones.

    Theory number 1 sounds like something that proves Jesus spoke English, thus the Bible in inerrant, so I’m thinking that’s ‘real’ as well

    Thus, theory number 2 is the one you made up.


  4. 3 is obviously inspired by Blackadder (“Edmund” is a dead giveaway.) 2 is reminiscent of Blackadder again (where most of the supposed reign of Henry VII was actually the reigns of Richard III and RICHARD THE FOURTH [1]) And 1 sounds like an outgrowth of the actual belief that the King James Bible was specially inspired by God so don’t tell them that the places it differs from the original are mistranslations. Of course the people who subscribe to that one are Christians, not cranks.

    So, no way to tell. They’re all equally loony.

    1. Portrayed by Brian Blessed.


  5. This is just like Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!

    My money is on theory #1 as the fake.

    Of the other two, I ran across one of them on Wikipedia a couple months ago and the the other sounds just like the sort of thing that makes for a good crank theory. Theoretical plausibility combined with it being surprisingly difficult to actually prove it wrong.


  6. 1’s the fake. Among other things, it lacks any reasonable motivation. #3 has a motivation stated (and further ones implied), and while #2 doesn’t have a motivation stated, one can easily shoehorn it into a dozen motivations stolen from plenty of other crank theories. That sort of history rewriting, rich-and-powerful, blah-blah sinister agenda stuff. Both 2 and 3 also name culprits — the sinister mastermind.

    Whereas lying about the roots of English lacks an obvious or implied benefit to any power structures. Pretty sure if it was a real crank theory, motivation (some powerful, sinister figure or figures) and the reasons for the manipulations would be spelled out more.

    Sure, you’ve got “powerful figures rewrote history” but no reason for them to do so, no named culture of figure that did so. Add in the Tower of Babel and you might get somewhere.


    • I disagree that it lacks motivation. To me, it seems like that kind of crackpot theory that could be used by someone for why English is the ‘true’ speech. It’s the kind of thing I could see someone who wanted to believe there was some divine reason why people shouldn’t be allowed to speak Spanish would come up with.


      • For a real crank theory, you need actors. People who covered up the secret true history known only to the initiates.

        There’s none of that for #1. Now if he’d added “secularists” or “liberal socialists scientists” or something, it’d have a little more swing. Or as I said, tied it to the Tower of Babel — it wouldn’t be the sinister conspiracy though, it’d be the “Proof of God”.

        The most fertile field for the belief that English predated England would probably be evangelical fundamentalists, but I happen to know they hang their hat on a totally different hook for biblical innerancy of the King James version.

        Seriously, a good crank theory ALWAYS has a boogeyman. The CIA, the NSA, dead kings or sinister figures, and an easily divined reason for hiding the truth. That’s true across the whole idealogical spectrum.

        Even the anti-vax folks have one (Big Pharma poisoning our kids for profit!. Villian AND motivation, all in one).

        Crank Theory 1 lacks both a villain and a stated motivation. It’s more like a Buzzfeed article. “Here’s one weird fact about English you didn’t know”.


  7. I love #2 – it’s like its originator(s) looked at the Bielefeld Conspiracy, and thought “go big or go home”.

    My guess is #1 being the fake. As described, it has no sinister actors or motivation behind the coverup, requiring that all linguists be merely incompetent, rather than ALL in on a massive plot with no conceivable advantage, and ALL perfect in their secretive security culture. So, it passes Hanlon’s razor where there was an opportunity to fail it, at which any proper crank would have jumped.


  8. Yeah, #3 has all the hallmarks. Specific, powerful person, realistic motivation, completely unfalsifiable…

    And I’ve seen something like #2 before. Plus it namechecks popes and emperors, and throws in an oddly specific but not ritually significant detail for verisimilitude.

    #1 seems incomplete to me, since there’s no causal link. Some way to get the Modern English that Jesus spoke to England’s mountains green. Obviously, the real secret of the Merovingians wasn’t that they were protecting Jesus’s wife, they were protecting his language. Since it lacks this kind of detail, I vote for #1.


  9. Before reading the comments, I chose #1 as the fake (and still do). #1 doesn’t seem to be a conspiracy per se — it doesn’t have any specific group that spoke Modern English in historical times and has concealed that for nefarious reasons down through the centuries.


  10. I’m going with 1. I’ve heard 2 before. I haven’t heard of 3, but it seems totally plausible (as a crank theory). 1 just doesn’t seem plausible, even as crank theory. Why would there be a cover-up?


  11. I’m voting for Crank Theory Three as the Fake Crank Theory that you made up. Because it’s kind of too compassionate, actually. Although it is perfect for the Masculine Supremacists who claim that women can’t be effective leaders.

    Nevertheless, Crank Theory Three is my vote for Fake. Now to read spoilers.


  12. 614 to 911 is more or less the time of the Carolingians: Charlemagne’s ancestors became important in Frankish politics in the early 7th Century, and his direct descendent Louis the Child died in 911, which was the end of Carolingians rule in Germany. (They lasted a bit longer in France.)


  13. Here we go:

    Number one is the major thesis of The Secret History of the English Language by M. J. Harper (or, in its English edition, The History of Britain Revealed). Several commenters dismissed it as lacking a sufficient conspiracy element, but conspiracy theories are only a subset of crank theories. Historical linguistics has a long tradition of crank theories, usually involving the theorist discovering to his delight that his native tongue is the original language from which all others derive.

    You can buy a used copy on Amazon for $1.47 plus shipping. I don’t recommend it. While Harper’s claims are satisfyingly bombastic, his execution is mediocre. There is a certain artistry to doing this well. Holy Blood, Holy Grail was a masterpiece. A sensible person could read that and come away thinking that there just might be something to it. Harper lets his crankiness show through too strongly. He is too obviously reflexively contrarian–Slatepitch in overdrive–and he doesn’t actually bullshit all that well. He claims, for example, that there was no such thing as Middle English. It is just Modern English with a bit of eccentric orthography. He proves this by quoting a stanza from Chaucer that is perfectly understandable. Which would be really persuasive to anyone who has never actually read Chaucer, but to anyone who has (which surely includes a substantial portion of his target audience) it is obvious that he has cherry picked. This is pretty much par for the course.

    Number two is known as the “Phantom Time Hypothesis.” You can look it upon Wikipedia if you want the neutral point of view version. For the rest of us, we can simply point and laugh. The idea is pushed by a couple of Germans, Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz and Heribert Illig. I cannot find (in an admittedly cursory search) the credentials or affiliations of either, which is suggestive. On the other hand, in some photos Illig looks a little like a young Burt Reynolds, so there is that. I correctly suspected that several of you would already know it, but it is one of my favorite crank theories of all time and I couldn’t resist.

    Number three was my own, but my disclaimer that I had not googled it turned out to be on point. This is harder than it looks! There is a somewhat different genuine crank theory out there in which Elizabeth died young and was replaced by a man because, …umm…. Because it seemed like a good idea. My version is more plausible, which I suppose under the circumstances counts as a demerit. In retrospect I should have made it Mary rather than Elizabeth. Or perhaps Elizabeth II. Would any of you have bought that one?

    This is fun. I will think about further installments. In the meantime, I claim no proprietary interest in the game. Feel free…


  14. Dear Mr Hershberger
    As the author of one of the hypotheses you selected (and the undisputed winner!) I have been following your competition with considerable delight. Some of us are discussing it on our own website that deals with these matters so if you or any of your colleagues want to join in, please feel free. The start of the discussion can be found here:
    Kind regards to you all
    M J Harper
    The Secret History of the English Language


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