13 Dec 2011

Those who clutch on to the past have no future


"You can't rehabilitate shoehorn freaks like GG," blurts Douglas Kilday about me on Cybalist, a Yahoogroups forum originally devoted to Indo-European linguistics before devolving into a depraved gathering of angry lunatics hurling invectives to malign intelligent debate. And to emphasize just how depraved many of these sorts are online, this remark apparently arose simply because of a perfectly valid reference I cited a whole ten years ago and which, to boot, I no longer even believe. I've moved on and evolved considerably since 2001, unlike some apparently. However I've discovered that this is part of Kilday's larger campaign of trolling to slander any online contributors that threaten his little basement-dwelling life.[1]

Kilday incites further: "Anyone familiar with the Etr. corpus will reject Gordon's /n/-genitive nonsense." Funny enough, the nonsense was published by Giuliano and Larissa Bonfante in 1983. It can't be "my" nonsense because I was all of 7 years old at the time! Indeed he may as well beat up a child to justify his drama-addiction because on page 70 of The Etruscan language: An introduction, it was verily alleged the following:
"There is also an archaic genitive in -n (-an, -un): so lautn: gen. lautun or lautn; puia: gen. puian."
Of course now I know that it's fabricated poppycock but that's a part of the learning process that some insecure people want to pretend they're beyond - that is, the process of trying something, getting it wrong, admitting it to oneself, and adapting accordingly. Some people get stuck at the first stage and never do a thing out of a crushing fear of failure. I suspect this is Kilday's more genuine issue.

There is no word *puian in Etruscan as we can now confirm online in Helmut Rix's Etruskische Texte. The closest form listed is puiam but this is composed of nomino-accusative puia plus phrasal conjunctive -m. It's one of several booboos they've published which give me the impression that the Bonfantes hadn't boned up on the linguistics side of their field before rushing to publish on it. I trust that in later versions of that book the claim of a genitive **-n in Etruscan was omitted, however little else had been updated after almost 20 years between the first and second editions. Their mistake is exacerbated by the fact that a published book is expected to be thoroughly thought-through before being printed and it can remain on library shelves for a very long time to misinform future readers, even several decades later.

I bring up this quote from the Bonfantes though because in a strange way it's comforting to know that even respected specialists can be fallible. It's comforting not through petty spite but because it reminds us that there's still so much knowledge for every one of us to discover and share with others openly. Once we get past our egos, that is.


NOTES
[1] On Nostratic-L, Kilday concocted the claim, "it is quite clear that thesane cannot be a case-form of thesan," tripping over himself to provoke others with pompous pet theories and twisted strawman arguments despite Steinbauer and Pallottino maintaining exactly what he rejects. He forcibly mangles so much here that I really doubt his views are honest. Tellingly he cites no relevant references regarding his theory on thesan as a verb nor proffers a decent rationale in his favour. If it quacks like a duck...

7 Dec 2011

Looking into the eyes of the Iceman


Remember Ötzi the Iceman? He was that mummified man found back in 1991, ice-encased in the Alps somewhere around the border of Austria and Italy, having died some 5300 years ago at the age of approximately 45. Above is a reconstruction of his face.

I didn't know this until now but it turns out that not only can scientists figure out what supper he ate last, but they can even be reasonably certain of his eye colour thanks to genome analysis! They were brown, by the way. DNA analysis also reveals he had Lyme disease, was at risk of atherosclerosis, and of Ibero-Sardinian descent. Very fascinating stuff!

Sadly, genetics won't tell us what language he spoke but we can make some educated guesses nonetheless. Given the region, he might have spoken some Celtic or Italic dialect. On the other hand, could he have spoken Paleo-Sardinian or some other non-Indo-European language instead? We can never be sure; that's a possible option too. In case anyone is wondering though, given the millennium he died in, one thing is sure: he didn't speak an Etrusco-Rhaetic language since that population hadn't yet settled in Italy.

More information is found in this link: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41782798/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/iceman-looks-tired-hes-years-old/

4 Dec 2011

Sand-hundred


Here's a funny little word in Greek: ψαμμακόσιοι (psammakósioi). It literally means 'sand-hundred', from ψάμμος 'sand' with the suffix for 'a hundred' attached. As you might have guessed, it conveys a huge uncountable sum. I love the mental imagery of that.

18 Nov 2011

The historical use of non-decimal counting bases


When we think of other cultures with alternative number bases, that is, counting systems other than the decimal system of one to ten that we've arbitrarily become accustomed to in the modern world, many will recall the examples of Sumerian's base-60 system (sexagesimal) or the Mayan base-20 system (vigesimal). A professor of anthropology at Humboldt State University, Victor Golla, describes some other interesting systems on page 220 of California Indian Languages (2011) under the heading 4.10.3 Quaternary and Octonary Systems:
"A small residue of counting schemes that cannot be classed as quinary, decimal, or vigesimal are found in Northern Yukian, Salinan, and Chumash (Appendix D: 3, 9, 6, and 7). In all three language groups the count is by fours, either straighforwardly quaternary (based on four, in Salinan and Chumash) or octonary (based on eight, in Northern Yukian). Counting by fours apparently had its origin in an old practice, attested ethnographically among the Yuki (Kroeber 1925:878-879), of counting sticks held between the fingers rather than counting the fingers themselves."

12 Nov 2011

A matter of the Egyptian heart


The Egyptians placed a lot of importance on the heart and it was believed to be the seat of the mind and the soul. In the English-speaking world, we usually treat "heart" as a symbolism of the feelings but for ancient peoples around the Mediterranean, it was instead the seat of reason and essence. They didn't realize yet the significance of the brain in that regard and of the bodily organs that Egyptian mummifiers traditionally preserved in their sacred rites, the brain wasn't one of them.

Considering how central the heart was to the ancient Egyptian perception of the soul, one would think we'd know how to pronounce the word by now. In hieroglyphs, it's represented only in consonants and we write this in standard orthography as ỉb. This unfortunately gives the false impression that we should just assume a pronunciation of /ib/. Indeed, Antonio Loprieno does reconstruct */jib/ and compares it directly with Semitic *libb- assuming in turn an Afro-Asiatic reconstruction of *lib (see Ancient Egyptian: A linguistic reconstruction [1995], page 31). So isn't that our answer?

I'm beginning to think it isn't. For one thing, this reconstruction could only work for the earliest stage of Egyptian before all instances of word-initial *y- were nullified in the language. Since the reed leaf symbol came to represent a glottal stop as a result, by the time of Middle Egyptian, we could only have had *ib at best. So isn't this our answer then?

To be honest something still seems off. The related Cushitic branch seems to instead point to *lub- with a rounded back vowel. If we derived an expectation of the Egyptian form from that piece of external data, we'd arrive at *ub, not *ib! Adding to the difficulty is that Coptic has replaced the word for "heart" with a completely different word, hēt (from ḥȝty). No clues there.

So what can we rely on to decide the matter? I finally came across the Hebraicized name Ḥophraˁ, the name of a pharaoh of the sixth century BCE. The original Egyptian form is represented in hieroglyphic writing as wȝḥ-ỉb-rˁ. It suggests that ỉb was at that point pronounced like the -oph- in Ḥophraˁ, causing me to want to side with the Cushitic reconstruction. Therefore *ub seems far more sensible than Loprieno's *(y)ib.

I'm curious about this word lately and want to get it right because of the parallel Proto-Berber form reconstructed as *ulβ. I wonder then if this might suggest that Proto-Berber had coloured the prothetic vowel with the original quality of the root vowel now lost between the two surviving consonants. If so, I have no clue how to account for the *i in Semitic *libb- however. The Semitic vocalism of the root now becomes the outlier.

10 Nov 2011

The reconstruction of the Pre-Egyptian case system

Antonio Loprieno states something confusing to me on page 55 of Ancient Egyptian: A linguistic introduction (1995):
"Also, the ending *-u is still preserved, although functionally reinterpreted, in the forms of some singular patterns as well: when the original stem ended in a vowel, for example *u in *ḥāruw '(the god) Horus,' *-a in *upraw 'form,' or *-i in *masḏiw 'enemy,' the ending was maintained as a glide, often written in good orthography as <-w> in the case of *-aw as opposed to <-ø> in the case of *-iw or *-uw: <ḫprw> =: *ḫupraw 'form,' <ḥfȝw> =: *ḥaf3aw 'snake.'"
Stated more directly, he's claiming that the *w in *upraw was written by scribes according to "good orthography" while strangely ignored in *masḏiw and *ḥāruw despite being present in all these words. It's hard to understand why that would be so. It's rather as if we have *upraw with *w but *masḏi and *ḥāru without. But then this would be inconsistent with what he's stated on the development of the case system from Pre-Egyptian into Old Egyptian.

So it seems that either I'm missing something here or his theory needs a few tweaks. If I ventured an attempt at revisal, perhaps we could try Pre-Egyptian nominatives *ḫaprúwu, *másḏiyu and *ḥārawu. After reduction of unstressed vowels, this becomes *ḫaprūwa /xəpʰˈɾəwə/, *masḏi /'masɟi/ and *ḥāru /'ħaːɾu/ before the case ending was omitted altogether: *ḫaprū, *masḏi and *ḥāru. I contend that only the first word ever motivated writing w. I question its existence altogether in the pronunciation of the second. In the third, 'hawk', I suspect the word was built on the notion of 'that which is above', consisting of *ḥar 'above, upon' and an ancient masculine suffix *-aw, becoming therefore *-u. As such, it couldn't have consonantal w during literate times either since we have only a short vowel. This then explains Loprieno's "good orthography" which now reflects a transparent, underlying reality. No more arcane scribal rules on whether or not to write the trailing semivowel. No more wildcard symbols either, as I've shook my fist at beforehand.

9 Nov 2011

Socrates' debate with Gorgias and others

I'll get to Egyptian tomorrow, but for now please take a look at Plato's Gorgias on Perseus, which may be read both in its original Greek and also in English translation. It's then discussed on Youtube by an interesting online lecturer.




As I finally got around to reading Gorgias, I immediately appreciated how much it relates to the modern age. The seething anger of a growing number of people towards an insolent plutocracy is just beginning to boil over as the markets show increasing instability and as yet more responsible homeowners are being put out to the streets. To add insult to injury, these same victims are doubly left crippled in utter joblessness as politicians flutter about feigning stupidity. Democracy? Only in word, not in deed.

Socrates' words spoken more than two thousand years ago ring true as he rejects feel-good Rhetoric for the greater virtues of Truth. He proceeds to tear apart in laborious detail and unceasing wit all the ridiculous arguments put to him in favour of "might makes right" and in favour of childish selfishness at the expense of society. In effect, he establishes the beginnings of a logical morality, not based on cultish dogma or religious superstitions but only on pure reason. As the lecturer briefly notes, Socrates treats Truth in a quasi-religious way, being in keeping with the Apollonian traditions of his time (ie. the likening of justice and truth to a kind of illumination by the all-seeing sun god Apollo). Yet Socrates' public process of inquiry is anything but religious. Quite the opposite, it's defiantly anti-religious as he challenges the validity of all idle beliefs that do only harm to humankind. As then, we still have trouble heeding his insights and to our own peril.

7 Nov 2011

Changes in Pre-Egyptian vocalism

Lately I've been reflecting on what Loprieno says about the early Egyptian vowel system on page 55 of Ancient Egyptian: A linguistic introduction (1995):
"In our discussion of phonology (section 3.4.3), we saw that one of the major features of Egyptian in its early stages was the presence of a strong expiratory stress, which eventually caused a reduction to /ø/ of short vowels in open syllables in posttonic position, with the resulting change from the Dreisilbengesetz to the Zweisilbengesetz (**saḏimat > *saḏmat 'she who hears')."
While Loprieno speaks of reduction to zero, I've long been thinking more along the lines of a Pre-Egyptian system of *a*i and *u being reduced to *schwa* wholesale in all unstressed positions. To begin with, long vowels were only to be found in stressed positions in Pre-Egyptian, at least if the comparison with Proto-Semitic is trustworthy, and this length contrast in stressed positions clearly remained in Egyptian, as still evidenced by Coptic. I therefore choose to write all of these reduced, unstressed monophthongs of Pre-Egyptian as *a (to be implicitly understood as [ə]). Furthermore diphthongs *Vy and *Vw (*V = any vowel) then become *i [əj] and *u [əw] respectively. This has worked very well for me for a while now. The result is an Egyptian vowel system that still looks on the surface much like Proto-Semitic with long vowels restricted to stressed syllables and unstressed positions having only short *a*i and *u. Yet since the system has been notably altered, we find a curious incongruence nonetheless between the vowels of Proto-Semitic and those of Egyptian.

We can also avoid a lot of the wildcard symbols Loprieno and others occasionally use in the unstressed syllables this way since my theory makes this pointless: Only *a can exist in these positions unless accompanied by a written semivowel y or w in which case the appropriate short high vowel is selected. It appears that the matter of whatever the original vocalism may be is an issue for Pre-Egyptian reconstruction, not Egyptian proper. Loprieno's */'ri:ʕuw/ (> */'ri:ʕə/) 'sun' becomes my *rīˁa.

There are further reasons why I'm dwelling on this, but I've divided it up into subsequent posts.

3 Nov 2011

Theft is big business


BBC News
informs us of the frustratingly inevitable plundering that occurred in yet another country in arms: Libya's historic treasures survive the revolution.

One may start suspecting a regular, enduring theme of events given Egypt's looting under the watch of Zahi Hawass (who was unsettlingly connected with the Mubarak regime at home, mind you) and Iraq's looting of Babylonian artifacts during the Iraq war. Regardless of why it keeps occurring lately, the world loses one more piece of its soul as we stand by and simply allow our collective history to be sold for a cheap buck.

27 Oct 2011

Small quibbles about Proto-Berber orthography

Phoenix responded to a minor issue I raised about Proto-Berber orthography in Why I reconstruct *β and not *v. In defense of using a relatively arcane symbol  (taken from the IPA system) for a v-like sound that could instead be accommodated by a straight-forward symbol *v, he supplied the following reasons:
  • "In African linguistics v is commonly used as the symbol for the voiced fricative while β is used for the labial approximant."
  • "So I don't use v to transcribe Proto-Berber β, because it would suggest that it is the fricative counterpart to *b."
So from what I can see, his justification for the specialist symbol boils down to phonetics and tradition in the field. However I fail to find any justification here grounded in a clear methodology of some kind.

To the first argument, I suggest that basing an orthography on the phonetic level is inevitably cumbersome because it's then prone to constant revision as new discoveries about underlying phonetics come into view. A more stable and sensible orthography is based on the higher phonemic level instead, which focuses less on exact articulation of each sound in its context but instead displays for us *distinct* sounds of the language. For example, in English, the phoneme /p/ is pronounced differently in "spun" than it is in "pat". The /p/ in the former example is completely without a puff of breath (ie. [p] in IPA symbols) since it follows /s/ while in latter example, /p/ is indeed pronounced with a puff of breath by default (ie. [pʰ]). However on the higher phonemic level, we represent in both examples the single phoneme /p/ to eliminate extra irrelevancies that are ungermane to the focus at hand. It'd be likewise unnecessary to write out every word of a proto-language like Berber with only phonetic symbols rather than phonemic ones unless the topic was specifically about the exact articulation of each sound.

It's also a fact that there are exceedingly few if any languages that contain two distinct phonemes /β/ (bilabial fricative, pronounced by blowing through near-closed lips) and /v/ (labiodental fricative, pronounced with the lower lip touching one's upper teeth). It's pointless to obsess on minutia about the exact articulation of the sound if it can be reasonably ascertained that the sound was v-like. It then suffices to take advantage of an available letter from the Roman alphabet, *v, to aid readability both by specialists and by people in general. Things should be written with clarity for both specialists *and* the general public when possible lest it encourage ivory tower attitudes, the scourge of current academia.

To the second argument, tradition indeed is a seductress but it must be rejected when it no longer clarifies but obfuscates. Sometimes tradition is misguided. Sometimes tradition is outdated. Sometimes tradition is just plain wrong. In this case, I feel that this tradition is wrong precisely because of the first argument, that orthographies should reflect the phonemic level not the phonetic and that by ignoring this rule, one has unnecessarily obfuscated rather than clarified.

Possible solutions

After reading Phoenix's explanation with deep interest, I pondered on how the system might be revised to be clearer and to follow a more consistent methodology in its design. By following the principle of phonemics over phonetics, and by reserving diacritics and special symbols for the rarer sounds of a language marked by special articulatory features, we can arrive at a more balanced and clearer phonology.

Breaking with empty Berberist traditions, emphatic sounds may be marked by the underdot, as in Proto-Semitic studies. Again, we all may quibble about the exact pronunciation of (or *q) but a revised symbol  has the definite advantage of visibly showing a shared feature of "emphatic" with the other emphatics which would likewise be indicated more consistently with the dot: *ḍ*ḍ (former *), *ġġ (former *qq), * and *. The missing emphatic counterpart of *b, represented in this new system as **ḅ, is now impossible to confuse with non-emphatic *v which lacks the underdot. We may finally eliminate unnecessary IPA symbols and replace them with more generally readable symbols from the standard Roman alphabet that we already use while simultaneously making explicit any shared features that the different sounds may have in the language, such as "emphaticness".

And finally, through this revised system, specialists may continue to debate on the exact articulation of *ġ and such, but it won't affect the symbol shared among the specialist community until the phoneme's emphatic nature or its existence is disproven.

UPDATE
(1 hour later)
Upon further thought (my mind never stops!!), enforcing a surface representation with unvoiced letters might be even more kosher and, again, this would be even more in line with what's done in Proto-Semitic linguistics. So alternatively, we could use the following symbols to clean things up: * (= *), **ḳ (= ), *ḳḳ (= *qq), * (= *) and *ṣṣ (= *).

16 Oct 2011

Egyptian vowel reconstruction and other gripes


Occam's Razor is a valuable tool to the student and scholar. It forces us to think hard about the assumptions we hold on to and whether they are absolutely justified or whether there's room for doubt. Linguistics seems to be one of those studies where this methodical principle is still not respected to the level that it should be and, as a result, there are many ancient languages being reconstructed with too much artistic flair to properly reflect the data.


Diversity of plausible theories or diversity of empty opinion?

I've been very busy collecting data on Ancient Egyptian after growing dissatisfied with the lack of profound discussion or clarity on its vocalism. Egyptologists constantly write words with only their consonantal values to reflect how the Egyptians themselves wrote these words. This is how it's always been. However I find that it often does more to obstruct and obscure the proper reading of these texts than aid us. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Egyptians themselves wouldn't have thought of words purely in terms of consonants. Some of the clever word puns exhibited in Egyptian texts require our knowledge of the vocalism too in order to grok its fullest meaning and pattern. After centuries of Egyptomania, why is there no clear consensus on the Ancient Egyptian vowel system? What's the hold up? Are we interested in Egyptian or not?

To illustrate the point, let's take the word for 'cat' which may be represented consonantally as mỉw. Here is the mountain of possible reconstructions for the utterly confused outsider to select from:
  • Albright *mắȝĕʔ
  • Callender *máȝejvw
  • Garnot *mṓȝei̯
  • Smieszek *må̆ȝjᵉw
  • Vergote *māȝuy
Obviously they can't all be correct. Notice that a lot of these scholars seem to delight in masking their representation of the language with a bunch of unnecessary diacritics. (I've ranted against this before many times.) To aid in our investigation, we see that the plural form of the word is reflected in the Greek name Πανομιευς which represents the Egyptian phrase *pȝ-(n)-nȝ-mȝj.w 'He of the cats'. Of course, Egyptian shares with Arabic the use of broken plurals and so the plural vocalism is not necessarily the vocalism of the singular. In order to keep my sanity, I find myself forced to develop my own testable opinions on the matter with a conciliatory reconstruction of *māya /'mɑ(ː)jə/ for the period around 1500 BCE and it seems sufficient to account for later Coptic form moui agreed upon by Sahidic, Bohairic, Akhmimic and Fayyumic dialects.

Back to Occam's Razor, one thing that frustrates me when I see this kind of diversity of opinion and no consensus is that the reasons why these individual scholars have arrived at their differing ideas appears to be grounded less in linguistic science and more in artistic whim. To me, phonotactic analysis is unavoidable in this task. We need to be absolutely conscious about how syllables are put together in our language of interest, not just the individual phonemes. We need to start with the most universally commonplace rules and meet each contradiction with adaptation from a simple and commonmost state to a more complex and exotic one, not vice versa. Sadly linguists often don't demonstrate this rigour but it's vital in creating a coherent theory that obeys the KISS principle (ie. Keep It Simple Stupid). So, to me, the diversity of opinion in the example of 'cat' is not so much the result of coherent theories clashing for competition, but a bunch of lazy theories made by scholars ignoring Occam's Razor in their idiosyncratic ways.


And how to handle those unstressed syllables?

Focusing just on how different scholars treat unstressed syllables Egyptian, there doesn't appear to be a justification for how one decides which vowel it is, aside from appealing to outside branches of Afro-Asiatic like Semitic. Callender for example reconstructs *pAsīḏaw for 'nine' with wildcard symbol A whereas Loprieno chooses *pisī́ɟvw (nb. Loprieno's i = Callender's A) with yet another wildcard symbol v in the final unaccented syllable. In this case, Proto-Semitic having only *tišˁu has no equivalent cognate to enlighten our efforts on the matter.

Neither the Babylonian inscription EA 368 which records 
pi-ši-iṭ nor the later Sahidic Coptic form psis gives us much evidence of what the first vowel was because an unstressed vowel is often less audible than a stressed one. Coptic has already dropped the vowel while, for all we know, the Babylonians interpreted a garden-variety schwa as a lax -i-. I still search for precise evidence that justifies this need for more than one vowel quality in unstressed positions. Until I do, I reconstruct *pasiḏa /pə'siɟə/ where unstressed *a is nothing other than the generic schwa /ə/ which we would find in all unstressed positions. Notice too that I choose to avoid unnecessary diacritics like the plague, as I believe we all should if we strive to be good little linguists.

Naturally if there is indeed unambiguous evidence of other possible vowel qualities in unaccented syllables, I'd love to hear about it. But until I do, Occam's Razor must be my guide.

10 Oct 2011

To the earth and sky

Back to the Liber Linteus again, the longest Etruscan text so far known that remains untranslated (but not if determined people can help it.) One of the many interesting things about this text are the several binary oppositions, much of which allude to the sanctified space defined during the rituals described in it. Two good examples of this two-way contrast are the phrases, hante-c repine-c "both in front and in back" and θesane uslane-c "at dawn and at dusk" (literally "at dawning and at setting"). However another example, and the one I wish to explore right now, is a less understood one at LL 11.vii: celu-cn aθumi-tn.

First let's remark on the opposition of postposed demonstratives between proximal -cn and distal -tn, both of which are declined in the accusative case (ie. they mark nouns as objects of an action). This in itself demonstrates that this is another binary opposition similar to hante-c repine-c. Etruscanists agree that celu is 'earth' so it stands to follow from this that aθumi may point to the skies above.

So standardizing to Old Etruscan phonotactics, aθami /'ɑtʰəmi/ may be given the value 'sky, clouds'. This would be yet another binary contrast relating to ritual space, this time in the vertical, and it jives well with the scribe's choice of demonstratives since the earth is just below our feet (proximal) while the highest skies are by comparison remote (distal), the earthly world of humanity versus the celestial world of the divine.

7 Oct 2011

See here!


After parsing into sentences and adding punctuation, TLE 170, the inscription devoted to Arnth Alethnas who is described as a 43-year-old leaving behind two sons, reads in Etruscan as follows:
Arnθ Aleθnas, Ar. clan, ril XXXXIII.
Ei-tva tamera śarvenas.
Clenar zal arce acnanasa.

Zilc marunuχva tenθas eθl matu manime-ri.
In the inscription, eitva is written without spaces however we've seen tva elswhere in the inscription that starts Eca sren tva (TLE 399) already translated by the Bonfantes as "This image shows [...]". Ei is abundantly attested too and means "here".

I notice that ei-tva is strangely similar to a French expression I'm familiar with: voici. Voici is composed of vois "(you) see; see!" and ci "here". According to my grammatical model of Etruscan, tva is the present-future form of *tau "to see". The sentence may be translated as "Here (ei) [we] see (tva) an urn (tamera) for cremation (śarvenas)." I find it difficult to be sure of the last word of the sentence since it's attested only once in Etruscan, although Lemnian śerunai, declined in the locative case on the Lemnos Stele, is a tempting match.

4 Oct 2011

Etruscan grammar - The nouns and verbs and everything

Finally after much procrastination I've at last hammered out a provisional model of Etruscan verbs. My pdf, originally focused on Etruscan declension, now includes what I hope is a coherent and natural model of Etruscan conjugation. Given the available literature, I fear that I'm the only one that dwells on these little details. So please review it in the Lingua Files section. This is to be, as always, regarded as an ever-evolving work in progress for discussion.

One will notice that while amace '(he) has been' is often parsed as am-ace and called a "perfect", I elect to interpret this more elaborately as three morphemes marking both aspect and tense: am-ac-e = be-PERF-PAST. As such, I specifically call this form the perfective past which contrasts with the perfective present-future seen in eniaca 'shall remain' (see Pyrgi Tablets) which is then similarly composed of the verb root en 'to remain', the perfective -ac- and the present-future marker -a.

My model has the benefit of finally making sense of uncomposed Lemnian -ai which marks the verbs recorded on the Lemnos Stele. Surely these too then are imperfect pasts. I don't know of a competing model that can address these various facts as well. It seems too that treating -in(-) as a mood marker works best with a grammatical structure of tense, aspect and mood. So I've settled on calling this a mediopassive which contrasts with the default active mood. It's interesting too that both Greek and Latin, two languages having notable influence on Etruscan, had this same mood. "A product of areal influence or just accidental?" I wonder.

1 Oct 2011

What if the problem is traditional academia?


Memiyawanzi raises an issue in Imposter syndrome about perfectionism run amok among linguistics students (and students by and large). I noticed that the focus is on the individual's internal psychology but I have an even broader perspective on this.


Individual quirks and psychoses

My life experience has led me to believe that many students who seem to naturally gravitate to scholarly pursuits have a common personality type. They tend to be detail-oriented for one and this can lead to this beautiful skill being turned inward on themselves for less constructive purposes (ie. perfectionism, self-doubt, anxiety, depression, etc.). Detail-oriented people, I believe, are precisely the kinds of people that will direct their psychic energy inward rather than outward, unlike the stereotypical jock who will instead gravitate towards physical pursuits to work off those same internal energies. If this inward reflection is used in a healthy way, one can properly evaluate one's weaknesses and adapt. If not, a student can be swamped by her own thought processes. All introspective, detail-oriented people need to learn to manage this hidden battle within themselves to stay on top.

However, we should also consider how environment must also play a part in a student's mental health. If an environment is unreasonable, we all know that it can contribute to an unhealthy mental state in an otherwise healthy individual. Family abuse, gang intimidation, drug abuse, etc. are the typical things we hear about as toxic environments for many children, teens and even adults. Yet what if traditional academia itself is adding to deleterious feelings of inadequacy in hopeful students?


University as a "place of learning"? Are you sure?

We're all led to believe that the university is a "place of learning" but we should question that notion. The university is in reality a "place of gambling" where students bet with their hard-earned money for a mere shot at the workforce and a future career. The wonky global economy only makes the game more exciting for career thrill-seekers. It goes without saying that rich and incompetent people can afford to gamble multiple times until a pay-off while competent poor people have little room for error. University is a business, pure and simple. Intellectuality comes second to money.

If university were really a place of learning rather than the heavily corporatized institution it is, it would be more in line with a rationalist Socratic ideal where strict roles such as "student" and "teacher" are regarded as illegitimate. The reasoning for this is simple. If knowledge as a whole is infinite and all humans are finite beings, then all of us must be ignorant one way or another. If we're all ignorant, we all can stand to learn something and then that means we're all students. Yet since we all know *something*, we're also all teachers automatically.

So when we say "teacher", we're really saying that society arbitrarily recognizes someone as "more knowledgeable" than "students". The meaning of "teacher" has been perverted into a kind of paid career while the student is an indentured servant beholden by peonage to the system. When we say "specialist", we're really saying that society arbitrarily recognizes someone as "more knowledgeable" than non-specialists and this effectively stops "non-specialists" from questioning them out of threat of shame or ridicule. There's no empirical way to measure how much one is a "teacher" or "specialist" because even the boundaries of any particular "subject" or "branch of study" are arbitrarily defined. Simply put, universities avoid this socratic ideal of equality, critical thinking and individuality because they are in bed with CEOs who would much prefer in its stead inequality, yes-man thinking and conformism.

To be clear, a real student questions others with reason, thinks for herself, investigates the truth no matter how inconvenient, stands up to stupidity and holds her own but none of this is conducive to corporate "team-playing". Learning is and must be a solitary pursuit.

From that angle then, is it any wonder that even a well-meaning, normally adjusted student might feel mentally unhealthy? The university has turned into a kind of ideological war zone meant to separate the true scholars from the status-hungry. The status-hungry win in this system.


On a side note...

Take in UCLA's Campus casts wider safety net for depressed students. This quote is a mixed grab bag of good and grim:
"'Fortunately, at UCLA we have a lower suicide rate than other campuses, and overall we have a higher rate of students who are already being counseled at CAPS,' said Susan Quillan, chief of clinical services at Ashe, who oversaw UCLA’s participation in the partnership."
Oh good, they have a lower suicide rate. We can sleep well at night then. Keep in mind that corporations have made depression into a disturbingly profitable industry (ie. pharmaceuticals) while simultaneously causing much of the woe by creating a head-trip system that runs counter to sense. Irony much?

26 Sep 2011

Haider's transcription of the Minoan medicinal text


Eureka! I've finally nabbed a detailed photo of the previously mentioned Minoan spell text. With all the silly errors I discovered being committed by Etruscologists alone, I suspected that a photo might reveal similar errors in the transcription of this text too. Sure enough, I'm reminded that many have a lazy eye.

Our Minoan text is written on lines 6 and 7 from right to left (see picture below).


I can see quite clearly now that in Minoan deities in an Egyptian medical text (2001), published in Aegaeum 22, Peter Haider's transcription is dreadfully loose. One word that begins sȝ-b-w-j-ȝ-jj-... is demonstrably inaccurate. The above text (upper left corner specifically) shows that there's an extra symbol between the b (foot) and the w (coil). Why and how was this overlooked?

It goes on. Haider's alleged god name Razija or Razaja is concocted out of the seventh line which shows only r-...-ȝ-yDEITY. The intervening gap could conceivably be anything but the author indulges in wishful thinking to connect with some Linear A fragment showing RA2-TI. Any gain from even bothering to associate these two things is hopelessly unproductive in my view. I'm also having trouble mapping his alleged *humekatu to the correlating portion in the picture, but then again my hieratic could be rusty.

And why would the Minoan text be broken up here by an interloping Egyptian phrase *pa wūra 'the great' (which he transcribes as pȝ-ȝ wr). Something is surely wrong with the overall handling of this text but it appears this will be a long-term ball of yarn for me to unravel.


UPDATES
(27 Sep 2011) I've deleted my confused/confusing statement: "A sure error however is in the reading of Ameja itself where Haider reads a trailing eagle glyph (the final ȝ in his ˀa-m-ˁ-j-ȝ) where it's visibly a different glyph, reused in fact on the next line in case there's any doubt of its true shape." This is unfair of me considering that I misread the sparrow (representing wr) as an owl (representing m), thereby assuming the sequence that Haider reads as Ameya starts sooner. Even still, I'm completely at a loss as to how he obtained Ameya out of this sequence because then the "m" is where a gap lies. Still problematic and confusing.

20 Sep 2011

FDR Second Bill of Rights Speech Footage



My, how times have changed. Now, of course, Americans don't have these rights. (Nor do Canadians for that matter.) To quote: "For unless there is security here at home, there cannot be lasting peace in the world."

The question I have is: Can we (or should we) rely on corporatized governments to cherish human rights when abject slavery remains profitable to the most ruthless of capitalists? What is the value of our free speech when it can so easily be bought by the continuing threats of poverty and disease? Is there a better system? Or have we finally given up these silly ideas of humane society in order to bury our cold noses deep underneath the comforting blanket of tyrannical doom?

18 Sep 2011

A pair of Minoan deities recorded in Egyptian


Concerning that ever-fascinating Minoan spell written out syllabically in Egyptian hieratic during the Amarna period, I wonder about the ritual context itself of the spell and how it might relate to similar practices around the Mediterranean. Andras Zeke at Minoan Blog had attempted his own explanation but this analysis is unrealistic. (I stopped at the hyperbole that suggested Miguel Valério's inconsequential word-games were a "crucial discovery" rather than a suboptimal, disorganized attempt at translation by pure whim. I've talked about this before.)

What I've been considering is whether the spell simply describes the ritual offering of bread or grains to a lady and lord of the underworld (compare Egyptian Isis/Osiris, Greek Persephone/Hades, Etruscan Catha/Pacha, Hattic Furunsemu/Furunkatte, etc.) in order to plead for the survival of a patient suffering from the disease simply known as Asiatic illness. The seeming determinative symbols, used presumably to aid in reading the non-Egyptian phrase, seem to hint at such an offering. It seems to me as if it's just a way of "bribing" Death incarnate to take the person some other day. There's however the question of why the Egyptian scribe didn't bother to mark the sex of these Minoan deities as one would if writing in Egyptian proper.

Yet if we know that this Egyptian scribe was writing in another language, namely Minoan, is it reasonable to assume that semantic gender (ie. as opposed to grammatical gender) would be marked overtly? What exactly are the rules for transcribing foreign languages in the Egyptian script anyway? If Minoan and Etruscan are related, then judging my Etruscan grammar, we shouldn't expect to find a masculine/feminine gender contrast in the way we find it in Egyptian. This is something to think about.

As far as I can tell, the lack of overt feminine marking on these foreign names doesn't necessarily prove that these deities are entirely masculine. We would be better assured of that if the phrase in question was written directly in Egyptian.

14 Sep 2011

Alpha males, beta males (... and other choices to be discovered)


A couple of days ago Melinda Beck at The Wall Street Journal posed the question Are Alpha Males Healthy?. The subtext reads Aggressiveness aids rise to top, but the stress can harm a body.

First I can't help but feel that this subject is in some way triggered by the dramatic economic downturn currently unfolding. The implicit notion here perhaps is that wealthy "alpha males" are more stressed out for having unjustly accumulated so much materialism which has caused only crushing war, poverty, disease and death among the rest of the world's population. Naturally "betas" in this sense can only hope that such karma honestly plays out. If "alpha" is meant covertly to hint at sociopathy, then siding with author and psychologist Martha Stout on this matter, such people by nature lack empathy; they seldom if ever learn their lesson or feel sorry for what they do. Certainly there's no questioning that sociopathic people aren't healthy.

But what exactly does "alpha male" or "beta male" mean in this context anyway? We must accurately define it first before we can have a handle on the vague question. It can't just be about aggression since we're often in a variety of different roles from minute to minute in our complex society. As one commenter, James M. Smith, comically puts it:
"'Alpha' in our society is context-based. I know a guy who's an alpha tax accountant, but he's an omega at flag football.
One possible dichotomy that we can use to cleave through this subject is the difference between "healthy competition" and "unhealthy competition." We may argue that moderation is the winning hand at the end of the day in all things. Unhealthy competition is the kind of competition that loses balance and context, thereby leading to stress because it so opposes our evolutionary development and it can lead to many detrimental errors in judgment. Cyberspace is currently debating whether or not our overall economic and social systems are just such an unbalanced form of competition that pits one person against another mentally and physically. An alternative to that format exists, "cooperative competition," that constantly reminds us that we're all in this together against chaos. It's a much saner form of competition that doesn't lead to the widespread isolation observed in extremely competitive societies. Afterall a common expression is "It's lonely at the top!" although it's just as lonely at the middle and bottom if all a society does is wage war with itself to keep up with the Jones's.

Finally, there's a lurking sexism in the whole text. Notice that females are being corralled into a common stereotype and linked to "passive cooperation," while males are likewise associated with "aggressive competition." Let's get real: aggression is not linked with gender. And for that matter, aggression means more than just brute strength. Gender differences are by and large sensationalized by the media. Measured overlaps between the brains of both cardinal sexes aren't taken into account enough in intelligent discussion. If we can all accept that there are "alpha females" present in society too, why then is the title emphasizing males and their aggression as if to say that males have a monopoly on this behavioural trait?

10 Sep 2011

Revisiting the lily


Looking back at my personal notes and some previous online conversations concerning the common words for 'lily' or 'flower' that spread across the Mediterranean, I believe there's still some unfinished business.


A conflict arises

Under Hittite alel-, Jaan Puhvel lists off related forms in a multitude of languages showing that this word must have been an important "culture word" since olden times. I surmised and still surmise that Egyptian is the one ultimate source behind all of this. I eventually reasoned to myself that the Ancient Egyptian feminine noun written only as ḥrr.t was once pronounced *ḥalūrat (~  *ḥarūrat) guided in part by the Coptic forms with vowels explicitly written in a Greek-based alphabet.

Everything seemed fine until I started to question when exactly Egyptian  evolved into  and how. Foreign texts from the Amarna period seem to suggest that a vowel-sound like  must still have been spoken at about 1350 BCE. The cuneiform inscription labeled EA 368 records the numeral mu-ṭu (the Egyptian word for 'ten'), leading therefore to Callender's *mūḏaw (whose orthography I simplify to *mūḏu). Clearly the eventual change to *mēḏ- (Sahidic Coptic mēt) hadn't yet taken place.


The Minoan perspective

Meanwhile, the hypothetical Minoan loan *aléri 'lily' had emerged out of the illuminating conversations I had with Minoan Language Blog's Andras Zeke. With the former Egyptian form I've attempted, I can't sensibly explain the connections Zeke had alluded to between a certain Cretan Hieroglyphic plant glyph known as CHIC 031 and its later derivative Lin AB 27 which has been given the value of RE. (See John Younger's The Cretan Hieroglyphic Script: A review article in Minos 31-32, 1996. It's mentioned in the middle of page 397.) A Mycenaean loan from Minoan can cleanly explain later Classical Greek λείριον (léirion) 'lily' and so this serves to doubly assure the term *aléri.

Surely the phonetic value of CHIC 031 and Lin AB 27 reflects the actual Minoan word for a flower or lily but to get *aléri out of *ḥalūrat, I would have to assume that the word was loaned only by the **closing of the 2nd millennium BCE** when the Egyptian vowel shift in question must have taken place! Ironically this is when the Minoan language was also becoming extinct (if not already moribund as the Achaeans swept through). It could never explain the said Cretan Hieroglyph dated to as early as the 17th century BCE.

Ground control, we have a problem.


Everything's coming up roses (or Egyptian lilies)

This all seems remedied however if I simply ammend the Egyptian 'flower' term to *ḥalīrat. Given that, the Egyptian term must be borrowed into Minoan around or before 1700 BCE. Minoan *aléri would acquire a new specialized meaning of 'lily' as well. The Cretan hieroglyphic lily symbol is subsequently created, understandably employed to write LERE ("l" and "r" not being distinguished in both Linear A and Linear B scripts) since this is afterall the stressed syllable of the surmised word. Sahidic hrēre should also be accounted for in the same way that Egyptian *rīʕa 'sun' likewise produces .

At any rate, this is one confusing little word but who knows what new weeds I might yet dig up in this untamed flower garden.

7 Sep 2011

New atheists and old debates


I've just read the June 2007 article The New Atheists at the Nation by Ronald Aronson reflecting on the rise of atheism, particularly in published literature, in America during the height of the Bush regime. "Atheism" as we're exploring it here is in a broader sense of a "lack of belief in or devotion to invisible cartoon characters called 'gods'". During that period of time, as we all recall, religion was pushed on us like crack cocaine as the economy was coincidently dismantling itself brick by brick, evolving into the exciting roller coaster of red it is today. (Notice how I've cleverly employed a reflexive mood to avoid speaking of any hypothetical agents that may or may not have been treasonously involved in this transitive but possibly non-agentive act of "dismantling".)

Back to atheism, one question implied is to what end should atheism be expected to supply us with "hope" in our daily lives? Aronson reasons:
"Living without God means turning toward something. To flourish we need coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life's vital questions."
But flourish by what definition and by who's standards? A rationalist may recognize in this subtle statement the attempt to politicize mere truth here. That is, the simple truth that any argument that unnecessarily invokes hypotheses about the existence of an invisible, unmeasurable being to explain the unknown is by any rational definition invalid. We don't need anything. We flourish just fine by logical means and it's the irrational that suffer immensely. Rather it remains Religion's onus to explain why it's had the right all this time to manipulate reason away from tried-and-true Logic to give us all the illusion of an answer to life's vital questions. Why must atheism be expected to attain an ideal that Religion has itself failed to reach? More manipulation.

Additionally why must we, in a world absent of benevolent sprites, "turn" to anything other than Logic (and thus to atheism as a result of that Logic)? What other mode of thought is as functionally complete? What kind of competent adult prioritizes invisible beings over the measurable, the unknown before the known? What does that implicit set of priorities say about such individual's psychological and cognitive state and why should we "respect" their banter by silencing our challenges? If organized religions (ie. cults) manage to still hold on, I'm bold enough to argue that it's precisely because mental illness too persists.

Another observation of his catches my eye: "In recent polls, far more respondents have declared themselves willing to vote for a woman or African-American for President than for an atheist--atheists are more unpopular than gays." As a gay atheist, I sadly must concur, so I guess that means I'm doubly maligned. Triply so if you count being constantly outspoken against nonsense. (Nobody likes a loud mouth, they say.) To prove that point, ignorant hysteria has once again hit the fan recently, this time over transgender Chaz Bono's involvement in Dancing with the Stars. According to some lunatics, her on-air trysts may somehow cause a transsexual apocalypse, kind of like a Borg collective but with rainbow flair perhaps.

The sense of true compassion, the purposeful attempt to understand another person's perspective within reason, has been lost as religious leaders either condemn others with outright loathing or confront them with insincere politesse drenched in disrespect and willful stupidity. This just leads back to how it's ironically organized religion that's failing to offer a life-affirming purpose to individual existence. It's this continued apathy of the religious, their self-contradictions and their increasingly nihilist undertones that are sure to eventually unseat Religion's common allure, even without the help of outspoken atheists.

4 Sep 2011

Tidings from Arzawa


Written by J. David Hawkins, The Arzawan letters in perspective (2009) covers some interesting facts concerning the history of the region of Arzawa such as the Amarna letters recording correspondences between the ruler of Arzawa, King Tarhundaradu, and the concurrent Egyptian king referred to as Nimuwaria (ie. Egyptian *Nib-Muˀˁat-Rīˁa = Amenhotep III). It's frustrating that more isn't known about this region and time period but the article is a good read for those interested.

30 Aug 2011

The sun and the lion


Here's a seemingly simple question: How do you pronounce Egyptian rw 'lion'? Coptic has laboi 'lioness'[1] and isn't a direct descendent of rw; it can't guide us. William Albright had suggested a pronunciation *ruw[2][3] based on very little. To help us backtrack, we have additional data from surrounding languages and language groups and it all shows that this word travelled far and wide across the seas.
  • Indo-European: Greek λέων, Latin leō.
  • Semitic: Akkadian aria, Hebrew arī.
  • Aegean: Etruscan leu.
  • Egyptian: rw.
The reason why I'm pondering this now is because of my latest reflection on the Etruscan reflex. It's easy to dismiss the question of its origin by setting it beside Greek λέων and assuming that the Greeks gave them the word. It's not impossible from a purely linguistic standpoint afterall since there are a few Etruscan terms that have once ended in -un only to lose the trailing nasal over time - eg. Petru 'Petron', Χaru(n) 'Charon', θu(n) 'one', etc. However we should ask ourselves why the Etruscans would have borrowed the 'lion' word from the Greeks when the animal's habitat lies in Africa.[4][5] One would think that Etruscans would adopt the word from Africans themselves. It's not as if Etruscans were unfamiliar with Africans (hint: Carthaginian trade).

So the hypothesis I've held onto for a while, is that leu could be inherited, thereby indicating earlier Proto-Aegean *lau, assuming a raising of Old Etruscan a to e before resonants, as with Old Etruscan clan 'son' > Late Etruscan clen. With the direct antecedent of Etruscan in Lydia, an Egyptian source for this word is the only thing sensible.

However, I'm beginning to ponder a more extensive idea - perhaps it's not so much Proto-Aegean *lau as *liwa. Then Etruscan leu is the result of an aforementioned Cyprian Syncope as well as the lowering of i to e. This also better explains the god mentioned in the Aleksandu Treaty, Apaliunas, whose complex name defies attempts at etymology although it's the stuff of long essays by overspecialized Hittitists.

As far as I'm concerned, Apaliunas is only understandable in Aegean terms and grammar. With the new reconstruction above we have: *apa 'father' (cf. Etruscan apa 'father') + *liwa-na 'leonine, of lions, lion-like' < *Apa-Liwana 'Lion Father'. This is apt for a sun god who would later become Greek Apollon. Unlike my former root *lau, this new form accounts more directly for the -i- in Apaliunas.

Yet there's perhaps another bonus. It's finally dawned on me that while the lion is a common sun symbol in the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE, the Egyptian language holds the key to it through simple word pun. Based on the ideogram value r` and Coptic , the word for 'sun' was undoubtedly once *rīʕa. The consonantal value for 'lion' is known to be rw but its vowels are harder to reconstruct because the word has not survived into Coptic times. Since I know Egyptian scribes couldn't resist good puns, I wonder if the sun was associated with lion for the simple reason that the two words shared the same vocalic matrix. Could the word then have been *rīwa? A pun between *rīʕa and *rīwa could clarify a lot.

The Semitic reflexes too seem to justify this Egyptian reconstruction since they reflect *ʔarīwu ~ *ʔarīyu. The -y- also replaces expected -w-, a typical preference of North-West Semitic languages. Glück published this very assessment.[6] I'm sure this word is yet another Egyptian loan. The only problem is the prothetic vowel. Where is it from? The obvious answer would be from Egyptian. And so, we might want to tweak *rīwa to *arīwa. (The stress accent remains on the long vowel.)

If Egyptian contains this "prothetic vowel", should we then consider Aegean *alíwa instead of *liwa? Does this still work? Apparently so. As I said before, unstressed initial *a- is regularly dropped in Etruscan. An *Apa-Alíwana manages to keep aligned to Luwian Apaliunas. Regardless, I figure that Greek λέων must be somehow based on Minoan *(a)líwa.

29 Aug 2011

Something fishy


Julius Pokorny reconstructed the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) etymon *dʰǵʰū- (which was later updated to *dʰǵʰuh₁-). This was to explain apparent cognates in Baltic (Lithuanian žuvìs, Lettish zivs) and Greco-Armenian (Greek ἰχθύς ikhthús[1]; Old Armenian ձուկն jukn) languages.

Yet given the geographical restriction of the cognate set and given the strangely similar Ugaritic word, *dagu [dg] 'fish'[2][3], why should we not instead ponder a more recent source by way of a Mediterranean loanword?


NOTES
[1] Please note that the Greek reflex contains an irregular prothetic i- while a far more widely evidenced root, *dʰǵʰōm 'earth', has become khthōn. If we wish as linguists to obey our own sound laws, this 'fish' root must be abandoned in favour a more recent origin.

23 Aug 2011

Space, time and language


I notice my thinking comes in waves. As you readers know, I often dwell on linguistic details but sometimes my mind gets temporarily bored with that and instinctively, it seems, my focus drifts to more generalized notions of things as if it were some kind of "learning sleep-cycle" until the next awakening. Lately I ponder on the interrationship of space-time and grammar which may come across as ethereal but is, I believe, not as frivolous as it may sound.

It starts with deconstructing something as benign as English infinitives. We use the preposition to in the infinitive to go, for example, and yet it's probably obscure to even the most able speakers why we should do so. This is where a broad experience in foreign languages leads to added insights. In Ancient Egyptian too, the particle r 'to, towards' came to be used for future tense as if time were "space". Proto-Indo-European *-i, the notorious hic-et-nunc particle used throughout much of the primary conjugation, is likely in origin a postposed version of the demonstrative stem *ʔi- and locative particle *ʔe 'here, there' which alluded to location as well as, apparently, tense (cf. the "augmented past form"). In other words, while we all know the difference between space and time, spatial morphemes are constantly being employed to describe points or spans of time without being terribly obvious as to why this is so.

I could go on and on listing example after example but it's quite clear that the association of space with time is a curious cross-linguistic tendency. It strikes me as ultimately subconscious because when we think on the meaning of "space" and the meaning of "time", we see that they appear quite conceptually different aside from being both a type of "dimension". Seemingly, space-time has been hardwired into our brains over eons of evolution. And yet why and how? It's as if Albert Einstein was merely the first to finally drag this subconscious association into the conscious realm only to discover that it's key to the riddle of the cosmos, both micro- and macroscopic.

It's as if the human brain merely reflects quantum topology in its thought processes somehow. As if the interrelationship of space and time were actually, in some crazy way, a part of our brain's computational process.

17 Aug 2011

More on Etruscan verb *zil-

To add to my previous rant, Overseeing in Anatolia, it turns out that a quick google search yielded a gem in my favour. To recap, since the attested Etruscan words zilaθ and zilχ strongly imply a verbal root *zil- presumably meaning 'to oversee, to supervise', I considered the possibility that the verb was simply inherited from a Proto-Cyprian form *zila-. I then considered the possibility of a relationship between this word and Hattic zilat 'throne, seat' by way of a cultural exchange between these two unrelated language groups. I asked: Could this latter word be built on a Hattic verbal root -zil? Is there a shared verb pertaining to governance between Hattic and Cyprian? Sadly, Cyprian-Hattic loans seem to be hard to examine given the gaps in present-day linguistic information of that region and time period.

Now to the aforementioned gem. I came across Yasemin Arikan's article, An official in Hittite cult: LUtazzelli-, where he surprisingly contemplates precisely this Hattic verb, *-zil, but with the added evidence of another Hattic word, *ta-zil, pertaining to a type of official. If I understand correctly so far, ta- creates derivative nouns as in *ta-parfasu (cf. Hittite taparfasu-, a type of ritual bread), and another noun *t-astup (cf. Hittite tastuppa-). Both of these latter nouns are mentioned in Petra Goedegebuure's article I read previously.

15 Aug 2011

Innateness of grammar

On Language Log, I came across Universal Grammar haters. For some, the debate rages on about nurture versus nature and I, like this blogger, also think the debate is inane.

My personal slant draws from the field of artificial intelligence where it's an already-firm conclusion that "grammars" aren't just abstract concepts pertaining to linguistics only. In a broader sense "grammar" is structure; it determines the sequential order of computation and clarifies the constituents of a functioning dynamic. So grammar also has relevance in other geeky subjects like computer programming, mathematics, systems theory and digital circuitry. Even our very DNA must have the innate capacity to understand a grammar because, without it, it would surely be hit-or-miss whether a string of gene sequences were executed in a timely order. Grammar is order. Neither you nor I would exist otherwise, let alone our complex brains.

Grammar is, on the most fundamental level, part of any coherent system and necessary to maintain that coherency. So, forgetting about whatever political vendettas one personally has against Chomsky et alia, most emphatically there must be some sort of basic "universal grammar" from which specialized grammars for particular languages are drawn. However this universal grammar must not be misunderstood to be only linguistic in nature but part of the fundamental processes of thought and computation. I believe that one innate capacity of the human brain, bland as it may sound, would be the ability to distinguish an object from an action performed on it.

A brain born without any inherent grammar must surely be a lump of thoughtless meat, fundamentally incapable of computation itself. Thought requires grammar. It's a foregone conclusion that an idea is nothing more than a structure of links to other ideas in an infinite sea we call knowledge. The neuronal structure of knowledge requires an innate grammar to parse it before one can comprehend it. To deny that there is a universal grammar in this sense is to say that the very act of thinking can be learned out of thin air. It can't, no more than you can teach a block of ice to think.