Sunday, December 31, 2006


This is my humble contribution to the third annual Ralphies.

Andrzej Sapkowski: "Lux Perpetua", the final volume in his Hussite trilogy. In the interest of full disclosure I'd like to add that I have not read it yet and that's because I'm an idiot who decided to wait for the translation. Well not anymore. The first thing I'm doing come January 2nd is ordering it from Poland.

Come to think of it, the only scholarly book published in 2006 I've read was Jonathan Owens' "Linguistic History of Arabic". But still, even if it were the only scholarly book published this year, it would certainly have to be mentioned as the most significant contribution to Arabistik in 2006. Now as for being 'the best'...

I haven't seen many movies this year, but of those that I have, the biggest surprise was "Devil Wears Prada". I loved it. I also liked "Casino Royale", though I don't think it deserves a place on any Best of 2006 list. "The Queen" does.
Worst of 2006: "Superman Returns". I paid 160 Sk for the ticket. To think that this is the price of a Romeo y Julieta No. 3...

Sky One's adaptation of Terry Pratchett's "The Hogfather". Though I still have my doubts about Noby Nobbs and the Tower of Art (is it really that high?), it was everything a Pratchett fan could have hoped for. I'd love to see them do "Thief of Time" and not just because I want to see Michelle Dockery as Susan again.
I understand many of you would expect to see "Doctor Who" here. I'm sorry, I can't. Although I enjoyed it immensely and I firmly believe that David Tennant is the best doctah evah, I just can't overlook the silliness so typical of season 28. I could swallow the alternate Earth storyline, though it strongly reminded me of the alternative reality in later seasons of ST:DS9. But "Love and Monsters" virtually reeked of shark and the ending of "Fear Her" was simply cheesy. The olympic dream is dead just because someone dropped the torch? Give me a lovin' break. And don't get me started on the season finale.
And yes, Ma'am, the theme is Torchwood, we get it!

Honorable mentions:
"How I Met Your Mother", episode 2x09 "Slap Bet". The best laugh I had all year. Not to mention that the writer single-handedly rehabilitated slapstick comedy in my eyes.
And the best TV moment: Stephen Colbert and the Hungarian ambassador.

Dixie Chicks - Taking the Long Way. "Not Ready To Make Nice" beats anything else hands down.

And finally, best wishes for 2007 to everyone, especially you, David and cjmr :o)

Saturday, December 30, 2006


40+ tv channels and nothing good on, what do you do? You turn to CNN or N24 hoping for a documentary. I was not disapointed, since CNN was showing a documentary on early Christianity called "After Jesus". I tuned in just before 21:00 CET (about halfway through) as the narrator (Liam Neeson, apparently, though minus his gorgeous accent in "Love, Actually") got to the Simon bar Kochba revolt and anounced that in the next part (after the commercial), we will be hearing more about the conflicts in the early Church, especially gnosticism. And that's where my bullshit Dan Brown radar went off.

Regrettably, I was right. One would think one had nothing to worry about seeing that CNN decided to consult authorities such as Richard A. Freund or Bart Ehrman who were, naturally, great. Yet the narration framing the entire documentary was all wrong. There are things one could just let go, like equating gnosticism with mysticism. But no matter how impressive Liam Neeson's Aslan voice is, a large number of the statements made in the narration (which accounts for cca. 70% of the entire program) were either misleading or plain false. Just a few examples:

- The narration states that the texts in the Nag Hammadi library were authored by the monks of the nearby St. Panochius monastery. Not only is this not true (the general opinion is that the monks were only hiding the texts from the orthodox church), but also it implies that these works are a product of a small fringe sect and not a popular movement or movements within the early Christian church.

- The narration states that the apocryphal gospels offer a different biography of Jesus than the canonical ones. The chief example it gives is the Gospel of Thomas - which does not contain any biographical information on Jesus at all.

- Once the narration got to explaining what is so important about the gnostic gospels, the first on the list was - you guessed it - the role of women and especially Mary Magdalene in the early Church, accompanied by the now famous saying 114 from the Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter said to them, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life."
Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."

- The narration described the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library as "perhaps the greatest threat" to Christianity in the last 2000 years. I'm sure many a theologian would strongly disagree. Moreover, the writers seem to believe - mistakingly, as many have repeatedly pointed out - that people's faith would be shattered with the discovery of documents which post-date Jesus by at least two centuries.

Besides sensationalism so typical of the media (et tu, CNN?), the last two clearly show the effects the gospel according to Dan has had on the perception of the history of Christianity. One cannot help but wonder why the creators of the documentary bothered to talk to actual scholars if they were not ready to provide them with enough space. A skilled director could have let the experts speak and used the narration to introduce their comments and tie them together. Instead, the writers of "After Jesus" resigned themselves to repeating the currently popular wisdom and used the scholars they interviewed (and the names of their institutions) to give the program an air of seriousness. The result was another opportunity missed.

I had my doubts about BBC's "The Lost Gospels", too. They might have as well named it "The Bart Ehrman Show", since it was apparently based on Bart Ehrman's "Lost Christianities" and featured a lot of Bart Ehrman. But for all of its deficiencies and the difference in scope and subject, it made a much better job of explaining the actual issues and the historical context. Not to mention the lovely cinematography. And we got to see the original text of the Gospel of Thomas.

Here's a more comprehensive review of "After Jesus", this time from an evangelical perspective and with a lot of actual quotes from the program.

Friday, December 29, 2006


Let us consider the following passages from a North-African šarḥ of the targum to Song of Songs*:

ווּקְפוּ לוֹ אֵסַמְס וּלְקַמַר
u-waqfū lo es-sams u-l-qamar (ŠM 1:1)

כִּיף אוּלַאַד לַחְבָּאַסָא
kīf awlād la-bāsa (ŠM 1:5)

כַמָא אֲלְדִי זֵין וּמַשְכּוּר אֵתְרֻנְגְ בֵין אַסְזַ'ר
kamā aldī zēn u-maškūr etrung (et-trung?) bēn asžar (ŠM 2:3)

The use of term
la-ḥbāsa is interesting in itself. The Aramaic text reads כִּבְנוֹי דְכּוּש, i.e. "like children of Kūš". כּוּש is a well-known Old Testament name of (so Strong 03568):
  1. a Benjamite mentioned only in the title of Ps 7,2
  2. the son of Ham and grandson of Noah and the progenitor of the southernmost peoples located in Africa
  3. the peoples descended from Cush
  4. the land occupied by the descendants of Cush located around the southern parts of the Nile (Ethiopia)
Apparently, כּוּש is used in targum to Canticles either referring to the descendants of Cush or as the name of the country we know now as Ethiopia. Should the latter be the case, it wouldn't be surprising that the translator chose to use the equivalent in his target language, i.e. الحبشة. After all, many before and after him did so, like St. Jerome in the Vulgate or the translators of the KJV. Die Lutherbibel, on the other hand, has "Kusch" and even "Nile" (Esther 1:1 "...der König war vom Indus bis zum Nil..."). So far so good, yet there is one mystery: why the voiceless alveolar fricative [s] instead of the voiceless post-alveolar fricative [š]? And it's not just la-ḥbāsa, but also es-sams (الشمس) and asžar (اشجار). What up with that?

As expected, Handbuch** has a few words to say on the subject. According to the chapter on the dialects of Maghrib (p. 253), in the Jewish dialects of Tunis and Susa, the [s] and [š] sounds have merged. Furthermore, [š] and [ž] are the only phonemes which can occur in a non-emphatic environment, while [s] and [z] only appear when followed by a non-emphatic [r]. Hmmm... Where have I heard this before? Ah yes, David Cohen's Le parler arabe des juifs de Tunis: Textes et documents linguistiques et ethnographiques (Mouton & Co, 1964; henceforth: Parler I). It would appear that Parler I was the source of this particular passage in Handbuch, so let us check the original. In addition to the observations above (which seem to have been taken over word by word), Cohen notes that
[š] and [ž] appear to be both the non-emphatic counterparts of [ṣ] and [ẓ] and their allophones in a non-emphatic environment. He illustrates the phenomen with the following example (p. 13):

ẓāṛ = "neighbor" (<<< ǧwr; note the emphatic [ṛ])
žirǟn = "neighbors"

So instead of the typical sets [s] - [š] - [ṣ] and [z] - [ž] - [ẓ], we have [š] - [ṣ] and [ž] - [ẓ] with [s] and [z] as positional allophones only appearing before non-emphatic [r]. Sounds pretty straightforward and there are plenty of examples in Parler I texts:

tūnǝš ("Tunis")
ǝnnǟš ("people")
ḫämš ("five")
šǝ́mʿū ("they heard")
lǟžǝm ("must")
žǟdä ("moreover, in addition")

and, as expected (note the [r]),

yǝsǝryu ("they buy", p.38)
ǟsǝr ("very", p. 153)
yǝzri ("he/it runs", p. 116)

and so on and so forth. Nice and neat, ain't it?

Well, no. You see, there are more than a few words in Parler I which directly contradict Cohen's observations. Examples:

sisǟn (Cohen: "choses fundamentales", p. 57)
zǟd ("more", p. 60)

ḥwǟyǝz ("clothes", p. 153)
zǝ́mäʿtäyn ("two weeks", p. 81)
ʿlǟs ("why", p. 92)

Note the absence of [r] in the words above. And just in case Cohen got it wrong and the influence of [r] stretches across word boundaries, note that none of the words above appear anywhere near
[r] - ʿlǟs even occurs in a one-word sentence. Since they appear in a close proximity to an emphatic consonant (suprasegmentally or not), one might - just might - expect tafḫīm-induced variants like *ʿlǟ or *ḥwǟyǝ. But based on Cohen's description, the only possible option is žǟd (see the list above), and ḥwǟyǝž.

And finally, if you look closely at the list above, you will spot at least two words in which one would expect [ž] and [š] in any modern dialect of Arabic:

zǝ́mäʿtäyn ("two weeks", p. 81)
ʿlǟs ("why", p. 92)

Which brings us back to the original question: why ʿlǟs in Parler I if ʿlǟš makes perfect sense (see e.g. Maltese għaliex), why es-sams instead of eš-šams/eš-šamš in ŠM?
The possible explanations I have been able to come up with so far are as follows:

1. Hypercorrections.
Cohen himself notes in Parler I that in literary texts, "the typical opposition of š - s and
- s is restored throughout (with the expected number of errors and confusions)" (p. 16, translation mine).
PRO: Some of Cohen's other observations concerning the language of literary texts (e.g.
ǝldi or variations thereof instead of ǝlli as the relative pronoun) do seem to correspond with what I've seen so far in ŠM. And hypercorrections are a staple of any Judeo-Arabic text.
CONTRA: Some of Cohen's other observations concerning the language of literary texts do not apply to ŠM - for example, I have yet to notice a high number of Hebrew words and phrases and the tendency to restore [h].
As for confusions, the anonymous author of ŠM appears to be not only a skilled translator, but also very well versed in grammar and phonology (more on that later). People's 2 (note the sorta-apostrophe following the second zayin):

עָלָא זוז' לְוּוַּאַח
ʿalā zōž lwāḥ (ŠM 1:2)

Examples like these indicate that the translator was very well aware of the difference between [z] and [ž] (and, conversely, [s] and [š]). Confusion - at least in this case - is thus very improbable.

2. Change in progress
The exceptions to the rules of the merger of [s]/[š] and [z]/[ž] postulated by Cohen himself noted in Parler I as well as the even higher ocurrence of such exceptions in ŠM may indicate that the merger described by Cohen was far from completed at the time Cohen spoke to his informants and had only recently begun at the time ŠM was composed.
PRO: this phenomenon is - as far as I know - unattested in other pre-Hilalian varieties of Arabic (Maltese, Siculo-Arabic).
CONTRA: such a late phonetic development, though not at all impossible, is quite unlikely.

3. Other
I've been working under one particular assumption here, assuming that ŠM is from Tunisia. I have no doubt it was written in Maghrib (more on that later), but aside from historical considerations (large Jewish population of Tunisia, a large number of Judeo-Arabic works published by Belforte & Co. are of Tunisian provenance etc.) and the
[s]/[š] - [z]/[ž] alternation, I have no other proof of its Tunisian origin. It could very well have been composed in Morocco, Algeria or even Libya by a speaker of another dialect with different phonetic rules and pecularities.
That still would not explain the contradictions observed in Parler I, though.

To be continued...

*Sefer šir ha-širim
ʿim pitron targum ve-arvi. Leghorn: Solomon Belforte & Co, 1854-55. Henceforth: ŠM (šarḥ maġribī).
** Fischer & Jastrow: Handbuch der arabischen Dialekte. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1980.

Friday, December 22, 2006


I.e. "heel Porsche". That was the correct answer to the question "Womit düsen vornehmlich die Senioren zum Supermarkt" (roughly: "What do the senior citizens drive to the supermarket?") in today's edition of "Wer wird Millionär?" ("Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?").
The contestant admitted that he had not heard any of the four options before and had to ask the audience. Luckily, the good people there were more than confident and 80% of them picked the word above. Other options were similarly structured compounds noun1+noun2, where

noun1 = a body part (besides "Hacken" = heels, I only remember "Sohlen" = soles), and
noun2 = a sports car (Ferrari, Maserati).

As Günther Jauch revealed to the contestant, the 20% of the audience and to me, a "Hackenporsche" is a shopping bag (usually tartan, so some sources) with steel frame and wheels, like these. Needless to say, ROFLMAO. Compounding, especially the German kind, you gotta love it.
And while the official term is apparently "Einkaufsroller", I have absolutely no idea what the English word is (if, indeed, there is one). Any ideas?

Thursday, December 14, 2006


So there I was, in my infinite arrogance, thinking nothing in this world will ever surprise me. Then one day (this Monday, to be specific), as I was sitting at my computer searching the vast virtual planes of the internet for the best translation for one thing or another, my eyes spotted something I had not considered possible.
The place: YLE Colloquia Latina, the Latin-language chat of the Finnish Public Broadcasting Company.
The marvel of all marvels: a flamewar in Latin.
Lingua mortua? Minime*!

* That's how the French "
Non!" is translated in the Latin editions of Asterix.

Friday, December 08, 2006


Thanks to gastan, I learned a new word just the other day. When he asked me what the title of a Snoop Dogg (feat. B-Real and Pharrell) song "Vato" meant, I had to (yet again) admit my ignorance and put my Google skillz to use. And lo, behold, check this out yo!

vato = Mexican Spanish. 1. man; 2. dude; 3. homeboy

According to the wikipedia article,

the word originated in Pachuco slang of the 1940s, and is derived from "the once-common friendly insult chivato, or goat. It had a slightly unacceptable air to it, which the Locos and Weesas of the Chuco world enjoyed. They were able to take the sting out of racism by calling themselves a bunch of names assimilated 'good Mexicans' didn't like."

It would appear that this is one of those situations where a minority community took a word commonly used to insult them and accepted it as a symbol of their distinctiveness, thus changing its meaning and even turning it to a symbol of defiance. Other examples may include the N-word or even the words cigán/cikán/cigány, normally a pejorative name, yet one used with pride by the Roma of Eastern Europe (before the post-1989 Roma revival) to emphasize and embrace their status as a minority and their distinctive culture.

The urbandictionary entry seems to agree on the original social context of the term, as it lists vato as a part of the gangsta slang and the equivalent of American English homeboy, which is also a word with strong gangsta culture connotation. On the other hand, there are more than a few examples which show the word in non-gangsta environment. One of them is item no. 4 in the above mentioned urbandictionary entry. Also, George Lopez uses the word vato in a plain, non-gangsta sense in one of his routines where he discusses the inability of Chicano men to express their emotions:

Vatos never wanna tell 'em ... that we love 'em.

("Team Leader", Track 13 - 'Love You-Sober')

Interestingly enough, Snoop Dogg's "Vato" may complete the circle: his popularity and his association with the gangsta culture could very well help supress the neutral meaning vato has acquired and reestablish it as a firm part of the cholo culture. Watch this space for further developments.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


As my current research (what little of it I have time for these days) leads me further and further into the realms of Old Testament studies et alia, I find myself enjoying James R. Davila's PaleoJudaica more and more. Aside from being the best online resource for pseudepigrapha, PaleoJudaica is THE place to get your info on Dead Sea Scrolls and various other things Judaic and ancient Near Eastern. And if that's not enough for all you language freaks, go check out yesterday's post where professor Davila links to the home page of Iranian studies at Harvard, which contains introductory textbooks for Avestan, Old Persian and Sogdian by P. O. Skjaervø and reference grammars of both Sorani and Kurmanji Kurdish by W. M. Thackston.

And on a personal note: how would you feel if you had just spent three days busting your behind arranging a last-minute trip to Mauritius (no small feat, since the holiday season is about the start and most of the good hotels are booked solid) only to find out that contrary to previous plans you're not going? Because I'm a little miffed.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


If I were, as the Germans say, poetisch veranlagt, I'd sing to you of the joys of being self-employed - the idiot boss, the long hours, the lousy pay (couple of weeks late, again), very little time for anything else etc. etc. But I am not and besides, I can't, I've got to make the deadline.
As a result, I got nothing for you. Absolutely nothing. Nada. Ничего. גורנישט*.

*Courtesy of the Yiddish Radio Project. Needs Real Player. Trust me, it's worth it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


For your weekly dose of linguisticky reporting, look no further than this article in The Australian. The author, a sociologist by the name of Dr. Abe Ata of the Australian Catholic University, doesn't hold back and delivers his first crippling punch in the title:

A language in need of change
Arabic needs to get with the times

I'm getting the pop-corn, this is gonna be good. If the guy actually whips out conjugation tables, I'm digging out the 1999 slivovica I have stashed somewhere for special occasions.

Arab social scientists say that Arabic is more than a secular tongue; it is the language of Islam as chosen by God to speak to his creation

I, for one, find the concept of "secular language" quite fascinating. I can't wait for the assembled hords of social scientists to analyze Greek, Hebrew or Hindi in the same manner.

It also influences how a person views the world and expresses reality.

So Ibn Khaldun hearts Sapir-Whorf, too. Who would have thunk it?

Fouad Ajami, a US-based Lebanese Muslim academic, says the intellectual output of Arabs for the past 800 years has been "dead stuff written in a dead language".

800? Damn. He could have gone with 200-300 and maybe - just maybe - could have had the teeniest-weeniest fraction of a point. You know, something about diglossia and the use of the actual living language in both literature and education. But eight centuries, that's just cutting in too deep, because...
Pardon me, I must have slipped into debate mode there for a second. How silly of me, to actually attempt a meaningful discussion based on facts with these people.
In any case, it gets better:

"This shallow, pompous, and stilted Arabic language, a language that has become an aim in and of itself (rather than a means of communication), has provided both ablution and excuses for the Arabs, allowing them both to ward off their impotence and run away from it," [Ajami] concludes.

Take it from Ajami, he knows a lot about ablution and excuses, let alone running away from things. And I'm not even going to comment on the "impotence" bit. Nor will I say anything about projection, this is getting too Freudian already.
Instead, let us turn back to the good doctor who has a few more things to say:

Hence, it is argued, that in contrast to English, the Arabic language - its rhythms, its metaphors and its nuances - has become an instrument of entertainment rather than a medium for transmitting thoughts and information.

Well waddyaknow, rhythms. Metaphors, too. And even nuances. Instrument of entertainment rather than a medium for communication.
Seriously, does this guy speak Arabic or even know what a language is?

All the same, Hilali made me realise that language is largely an understanding between members of a community that they share the meanings assigned to certain symbols.

That would be a heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeell NO on both counts since he apparently realized this just now.
And while I am glad that Dr. Ata has broadened his horizons, I cannot help but to think that the same knowledge (and more) could have been gained from a linguistics or semiotics textbook or even a general encyclopaedia of which I'm sure the ACU library has plenty.
So to what use will Dr. Ata put this new-found knowledge? Will he attempt to foster the understanding between the Arab world and the Western world by translating important works of Western thought into Arabic? Or will he go the other way and teach us about Arabic civilization?

It could also be recommended that they command an Arabic adapted to the ways of a new world: more concrete, with fewer flourishes, subtle but not evasive, shaped to a different sensibility.

To recap, يا اخوان العرب : You are to
- make your language more concrete (no more of that numerals valency nonsense),
- remove all flourishes at once (I nominate all those fancy conjuctions like اذ أنّ and the الا clauses),
- you are to make your language more subtle ( ... whatever the frack that means),
- and shape it to a different sensibility (i.e. remove all references to all things non-western.)

In other words, forget Arabic, start speaking English.

And speaking of Fouad Ajami: together with Bernard "The World Will End on Tuesday" Lewis, he is about to receive the National Humanities Medal which "honors individuals and organizations whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities".
Nice to see that some things don't change. Like the fact that no matter how much time passes, Ecclesiastes 9:11 is still a pretty good description of how things work in this world. Its academic and political portion especially.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


Well about effing time: I finally got my hands on a decent copy of "La Divina Commedia". This particular edition was published in Milan by Ulri in 1925, edited by G. Vandelli with the commentary provided by G.A.Scartazzini (and used to belong to Anton R. Krchnávek Esq., a public notary from Žilina). Due to the abundance of allusions and richness of references, reading and understanding Dante's magnum opus is much like a walk in a dark forrest and one would be quickly lost without a guide, even at 27. Virgil is not available, I'm told, but luckily, Scartazzini appears to be a reliable replacement - a bit on the skeptical side, but that is just fine with me.
And so as I was skimming through the pages one afternoon (on the loo, because that's the only time I'm actually not working these days), the following verses caught my attention:

Purgatorio, Canto VII, v.97-102

L’altro che ne la vista lui conforta,
resse la terra dove l’acqua nasce
che Molta in Albia, e Albia in mar ne porta:

Ottacchero ebbe nome, e ne le fasce
fu meglio assai che Vincislao suo figlio
barbuto, cui lussuria e ozio pasce.

Translation by Longfellow:

The other, who in look doth comfort him,
Governed the region where the water springs,
The Moldau bears the Elbe, and Elbe the sea.

His name was Ottocar; and in swaddling-clothes
Far better he than bearded Winceslaus
His son, who feeds in luxury and ease.

The words "Molta" and "Albia" caught my eye and I immediately identified them as geographical names "Malta" and "Albania", re
spectively. Upon second glance, however, I quickly realized I had been wrong - after all, what would Malta do in Albania and both of them in (or into) the sea? And once I spotted the names "Ottachero" and "Vincislao", I knew where I was - in Bohemia, where Vltava (German: Moldau, Latin: Moldavia, Multavia) merges with Labe (German: Elbe, Latin: Albis).
The Ottachero referred to is none other than Přemysl II. Otakar (Ottokar II, 1230 - 1278), king of Bohemia, duke of Austria, Styria, Carinthia and Carniola, also known as the "Iron and Golden King", a fascinating fella. But the most interesting bit here is the information concerning his son Václav. No, it's not his beard, nor his taste for the fine things. It's the commentary identifying him:

101. Vincislao: Vencoslao IV., detto il Pio o il Buono, nato nel 1270, successo al padre nel regno di Bohemia al 1278, eletto nel 1300 re di Polonia, genero di Rodolfo imperatore, morto al Buda nel 1305. (p. 384)

Apparently, signore Scartazzini confuses two bearded Václavs known for their love of wine: Václav II (1271-1305), the son of Přemysl II. Otakar, and Václav IV (1361-1419), the second son of the legendary Czech king Karel IV (Charles IV, 1316 - 1378). It is quite clear that Dante could have only meant Václav II, as he reigned during Dante's lifetime. Václav II's substance abuse, however, is not something immediately associated with him. Much unlike in case of Václav IV, who was even impeached and deposed as the Holy Roman Emperor in 1400 due to, among other things, his incompetence and his general preference for wine and hunting over affairs of the state. Add to that his notoriety thanks to the the whole Jan Hus affair and the Hussite wars and it's not surprising that it was his name that popped up in connection with "luxury and ease".
The moral of the story? Erare humanus est. And I should think about a career change. Being able to only read on the loo sucks.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Those of us who went to school in what used to be Czechoslovakia probably feel like throwing up every time someone mentions the name of John Amos Comenius (a.k.a. Ján Ámos Komenský). The father of modern education, one of the greatest sons of our country, our largest university (and my alma mater) is named after him, his birthday is a sorta school holiday (ok, that's a minor plus point) blah blah blah. You know what it's like - you get something shoved down your throat long and hard enough, you start hating it too. And worst of all, they never actually tell you why something is important, only that it is. That is the main reason I did not learn the full truth about Comenius until relatively late, when I started learning Latin. It was only then that I found out that Comenius authored what many consider the first modern language textbook, Janua linguarum reserata (also known as Porta linguarum reserata, published in 1631). This textbook of Latin for schoolchildren, though still heavily vocabulary-based, not only provided teaching and learning advice, but also gave context to aid the children in understanding and learning the new words. Surely, (I hear some of you say), this is nothing new or groundbreaking. Aaah (I answer), but it was back then. Memorizing long lists of words was the only way to learn languages and providing context was nothing short of revolutionary. And don't call me Shirley!

Comenius followed Janua with a workbook and grammar exercise book, Januae linguarum reserata aureae vestibulum (1633). It was, as you can see from the title, intended to a be a preface to Janua, but more importantly, it contained pictures. The idea of picture dictionary appealed to both Comenius and - judging by the popularity of the workbook - to his readers as well. Moreover, Comenius believed that learning words was no learning at all and that if the children were to learn the language properly they had to learn about the concepts behind them and their relationship to the world as well. And so in 1685 in Nurnberg he published what is probably his most important work, the dictionary-encyclopaedia Orbis (Sensualium) Pictus. The first bilingual Latin-German edition was an instant success and rightly so: not only does it provide context and aims to teach words according to their semantic fields, it also contains a lovely introduction to phonetics. But what is more important, it is probably the first schoolbook which treats learning as fun and the child as a partner. Just consider the introduction:

M. Veni, Puer! disce Sapere.
P. Quid hoc est, Sapere?
M. Omnia, quae necessaria, rectè intelligere, recte agere, rectè eloqui.
P. Quis me hoc docebit?
M. Ego, cum DEO.
P. Quomodo?
M. Ducam te, per omnia, ostendam tibi omnia, nominabo tibi omnia.
P. En adsum! duc me, in nomine DEI.

Even after all these years, Orbis Pictus still remains a wonderful tool for learning Latin. Lord knows it did help me and so if you're on the same path, be sure to check out one of these versions: Hungarian (with Hungarian text and woodcuts from the 1685 Levoča version, NB the spelling), English, Russian (selected chapters only), the 1658 German and Latin original (incomplete), Latin only and a modern Latin-English version with new pictures to bring the book up to date.

And here's an added bonus for those of you who know my real self: check out the Hungarian version of the chapter on Agriculture and note No. 16.


Friday, October 20, 2006


No, no, no, no, no. Oh no. I really did not need to see this, not in the light of day and definitely not before going to sleep. I mean, the post at sounded so promising, so hopeful:

"Here's an article about some people who were raised speaking Coptic."

Yay, a dead language coming to life! That's just gotta put a little giddy-up in your step, right? So naturally, I clicked the link. And what is the first thing I see?

Coptic is a combination of the ancient Egyptian languages Demotic, Hieroglyphic and Hieratic.

I guess that's finally it. My pet peeve about the difference between a language and a writing (ok, granted, Demotic is both) has just turned into a major friggin' psychotic break. And the whole historical-linguistics and evolution-of-languages thing isn't even worth bitching about. I mean.... come on:

Combining the Greek alphabet with Demotic, Coptic is a unique conglomeration of languages.

That's right, unique. Very unlike combining Latin alphabet with Anglosaxon to get English, or Hebrew alphabet with German to get Yiddish or again Greek alphabet with Slavic to get Old Church Slavonic*.


Did I mention how much I despise journalists?

*Which, of course, ain't how it went down.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


If you haven't read Juan Cole's blog yet, go do it. Although the stuff he writes about is far from uplifting, he is probably the best source for news on the current situation of Iraq and related matters of foreign policy and general interest and he even occasionally delves into linguistic issues, like the "wipe off the map" controversy. I stopped by yesterday (Tuesday 17th), read the latest posts, clicked couple of links and then my eyes fell on this sentence:

Other Sunni families have been ethnically cleansed and forced to take refuge in Dhuluiyyah.

Now as we all know, the phrase "ethnic cleansing" came into wide usage in the 90's during the Yugoslav war(s) to describe the forcible removal of various populations from certain areas. "Ethnic" and "areas" seem to be the key concepts here and that is why I find the above statement rather odd.

First of all, the incident described involves people of same ethnic origin, but different religious persuasions. The atrocities comitted by Sunnis on Shiites and vice-versa would therefore be most fittingly referred to as confessional cleansing (and believe it or not, I got 105 Google hits).

And secondly, ethnic cleansing or indeed any kind of cleansing and cleaning requires an object, something the dirt or filth is removed from. Tools can be cleansed, houses can be cleansed, files can be cleansed (either of incriminating data or formatting). But families? What can they be cleansed of? Could it be that the object of this verb phrase is not something the dirt is removed from, but rather something to be removed as dirt?

Apparently so. And it's not the first time these words are used in this manner, as evidenced by this 1999 Time article on the forgotten victims of the Yugoslav war(s):

The ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s estimated 100,000 Gypsies began only after the Serbs withdrew...

Here (and in many other similar contexts) we have a group of people who have been removed from a territory. And while the act of such removal can be described as "ethnic cleansing" of the said territory, the phrase "ethnic cleansing of people X" clearly means "the removal of people X", without any indication as to where from, i.e. without any indication as to what is being cleaned. Similarly, the verb "to ethnically cleanse" (as in the example by Juan Cole above) can only mean "to drive out, to expel, to remove, to displace" (of a group of people). I suspect that once the original term gained wide circulation, the emergence of the verb "to ethnically cleanse" was only inevitable. But still, it is a rather interesting shift. Any other thoughts?

P.S.: I wish this phrase and this post had never existed. I really do.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


Honestly, I have absolutely no idea what's wrong with me. It's fall and I love fall, so that is not a problem. The weather is beautiful, I am for once on good terms with my folks, work - both the "for money" kind and the research - is going reasonably well, languagehat added me to his blogroll, other important things (wink wink) I can't complain about (well, ok, mostly because there is absolutely nothing to complain about) and even my health is finally getting better. And yet, I feel ... um ... er ... what's the word? Depressed, yeah, that's it.

So besides some occupational therapy (I've decided to finally repair the water-damaged wall and paint it), the best potential cure I could come up with is listening to STS. I got hooked on them back at the college while listening to Austrian radio which would play one of their biggest hits, Grossvater, at least twice a day.
Now wait, that's a bit misleading. Let me rephrase that relative clause:
... which would play one of their biggest hits, Grosvoda ...
Messrs. Steinbäcker, Timischl and Schiffkowitz all hail from Styria and their lyrics (mostly written by Steinbäcker) betray it with every word. It took me a week of very attentive listening to even decipher the title (and the first word of the chorus) and even longer (plus, admittedly, the help of Google) to comprehend the entire text. The whole dialect angle would have been enough to capture my interest, but I really love that song and once I got my hands on several of their albums, there was no going back.

The STS music is difficult to fit into neat categories. As for genre, I really have no idea what it is these guys do. Rock? Folk? I really don't know, nor do I care. In a state of mind like this, I just can't get enough of their more private, emotional, personal songs like Zeig mir dein Himmel, Es kommt wieder a* Sommer, Mach die Augn zu, Überdosis G'fühl or the anthem of the overworked Irgendwann bleib i' dann duat*. But Steinbäcker's genius as a poet really shows in his socially engaged lyrics. A few years ago, some of them seemed like soooo 80s. These days, songs like Das Neue Vaterland, Es fangt genau so an (both inspired by right-wing extremism), Wohin die Reise ("Alles muß immer mehr werd'n und immer schneller / Die Krallen g'schärft, die Ellbog'n knochenhart"), Die Kinder san dran, Kalt und kälter (both referring to nuclear weapons and energy) or Wie a Sternschnupp'n seem as current as ever. Let me give you one example from Es fangt genau so an (roughly: "It's starts all over again") which speaks of refugees and hatred. Just a few years ago, this song could have been about our people in Austria. "Ein westliches Land" may be just a simple description to some, but I can't even begin to describe to you the feelings of hope that will forever be associated with this expression to those of us who know what it was like before 1989. And in any case, there but for the grace of God go I:

Es san die Zuständ' daham unerträglich
Die Versorgung ist komplett am Sand
Und ka Aussicht auf irgendeine Zukunft
Die einzige Chance, a westliches Land

All's is fremd und man muss akzeptier'n
Dass auch die Leut' da was besseres san
Immerhin kann man sich frei bewegen
Obwohl manche Blicke net harmlos san

The situation at home is desperate
There are no supplies left
There's no future for us here
The only chance we have is a Western country

Everything is so foreign and we have to accept
That the people here are better than us
At least you can move around freely
Though some looks are far from harmless

Kalt und kälter (or rather Koit un köölter) is one of those I can listen to over and over again - the chorus is simply beautiful and uplifting and Steinbäcker skilfully employs dialect words to connect with the audience: Austrian "reärn" (instead of "weinen") doesn't just provide a solid rhyme, but unlike its Standard German counterpart also sounds real, honest and intense when coming from a Styrian mouth.

And so as it came up again in my Winamp playlist, the following verses caught my attention:

I spir* zwar an* ganz leisen Schock, doch mit'n Pivo in der Hand
Denk i: Was soll i ändern an die Probleme von an so fremden Land

I feel a slight shock, but with a beer in my hand
I'm thinking 'what can I do about the problems in a country so far away?'

As anyone who has ever been to Prague knows, pivo is Czech (and Slovak, Croatian, Serbian etc.) for "beer". It's nothing strange to find a Czech loanword in any Austrian. Check the Vienna phone directory and you will begin to understand the extent of social and linguistic contact in the Austro-Hungarian milieu. But to see this particular word appear in this particular context gives a food for thought.

In every case of linguistic contact, there is a language or a variety perceived as dominant or High (H, usually the language of the political and social elites) and one or several languages with a Low (L) status. Borrowing and other contact phenomena usually take place in one direction, H > L. One would thus find French loanwords and phrases in the colloquial Arabic of Algeria and Morrocco (Darja), Arabic influence in Farsi, English elements in US Spanish, Russian words and concepts in Georgian and Armenian, German and Czech elements in Slovak and Hungarian and/or Serbian influence in Romani.

But every once in a while, that effect is reversed. I'm not talking about such obvious and easily explained phenomena as L loanwords in H in semantic domains for which H had no original terms (Amerindian names of plants and animals in Latin American Spanish or Slavic household and agricultural concepts in Hungarian). This particular type of exchange seems to mostly involve slang and other non-standard modes of expression. Consider examples like Arabic words in French slang, isiXhosa and Sesotho words in Afrikaans and perhaps most famously, Yiddish words in US English.

One would think that borrowing words from the people at the bottom of the social ladder would be rare, but far from that. Quite the contrary: the social context of those words and expresion may even lead to their popularity. After all, slang is mostly the domain of the young and the rebelious who are the first to be enslaved by fashion and passing fads. Using a new word for an established concept is a necessity - and should that word come from some people your parents wouldn't even shake hands and would be horrified to see you with, that's just an added bonus. As a result, such loanwords do not fully replace the original term, but take on a different, often negative, connotation - dreck in US English for example, is not just dirt, but anything unpleasant, undesirable or disgusting, too. Čávo (from Romani o čhavo = "boy") in Slovak is not just a young male, but also a flashy macho type of guy.

And so I suspect that the use of the word "pivo" in the verses above is another example of this phenomenon. The author uses this well-known, though not common, Czech loanword to distance himself, to express - as the whole song does - disillusion, disdain and emotional coldness.

Speaking of our former brothers - here's two lines from Das neue Vaterland:

Hängt im Wirtshaus umadum
Und tschechert si an

Hangs out in the tavern
and gets wasted

A brief search in the Datenbank zur deutschen Sprache in Österreich revealed the following:

tschechern = to drink alcoholic beverages (Styria: to get wasted)
antschechert = to be drunk (Styria: perceived as Viennese)

While it does not provide any etymology, I suspect a Czech. The word "ein Tscheche", that is. Which, come to think of it, is rather strange. Not the fact that the Czechs are behind this - there are behind everything even slightly detrimental to the Slovak people. But the fact that this time they are tarnishing our reputation as number one drunkards in Central Europe is simply outrageous. They get a loanword and we don't? That's it, I'm taking this up with the European Commisssion. That'll teach them!

*Not to disagree with their official website, but I clearly hear "a", "duat", "wüll", "stüll", "spir" and "an", respectively. I won't be fooled!

Monday, October 09, 2006


As some of you may have noticed, today is October 9th. It's the 282nd day of this year, 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tishri, 16th day of Ramadan, the first anniversary of the general ban on smoking on the UK rail network (those damn fascists!), the feast of St. Denis, Leif Erikson day and many other anniversaries and holidays.

But most importantly to us, today marks the 560th anniversary of the publication of the edict 훈민정음 (Hunmin Jeongeum), by which the king Sejong the Great (1397-1450) established the Korean syllabary eonmun, also known as hangul (한글). There are a few things about hangul and its history that have always fascinated me - the very concept of the Hall of Worthies, the phonetician king, the design of the letters based on articulatory phonetics and the derrogatory names given to hangul by its opponents ("vulgar script" and "women's script") are but a few. But the one thing I find particularly noteworthy is the number of similarities between the genius Sejong was and a certain other historical figure who also set out to create a form of writing for a people who had none. The first of them is the statement of purpose, the introduction to Hunmin Jeongeum where Sejong explains his motivation. To quote from Hunmin Jeongeum Haerye (훈민정음 해례), the commentary on Hunmin Jeongeum:

The language of our country is different from the Chinese language and so the Chinese letters are not appropriate for our language. Therefore there are many uneducated people who cannot express their thoughts properly, whether in speech or in writing, though they wish to do so. Since I have pity on those people, I have set out to create 28 new letters hoping that each and every one will be able to easily learn them and use them in their everyday lives.

Reading this, I could not help but think of Constantine (St. Cyril), one of the apostles to the Slavs and the creator of the Glagolitic script. In Proglas (Прогласъ), the Foreword to his translation of the Gospels, he writes:

For naked are all nations without books
they cannot defend themselves without weapons

True, there are many differences between Sejong and Constantine (and Rastislav, who was the political force behind Constantine and Methodius). Constantine was inspired by the desire to bring the Gospel to the Slavs (and the weapons were to be used against the devil) and Rastislav wanted to break the hold the German and Austrian bishops had on his territory. But to find that somewhere between politics and religion, Sejong and Constantine found time to stand up for the little guys, that's somehow comforting.

And secondly, as expected, both Sejong and Constantine faced considerable opposition by the elites. In Sejong's case, it was Choe Manri who spoke out against hangul quoting Confucian scholars:

Though western barbarians such as the Mongols, the Tangut, the Jurchens, and the Japanese all have their own script, but it is a matter of being barbaric and does not merit consideration. It is our way to convert the barbarians, not to be changed to their ways. Through its various dynasties, China has always taken us to be the decendents of Gija, the legendary Chinese Viscount of Ji because our artefacts, customs, and rituals are similar to those of China. Now if we follow the barbarians to create Eonmun and desert China, we shall be ‘deserting the fragrant herbs for the excrement of insects’, and obstruct the development of our civilization!
The ancient Confucian sages say: ‘The various diversions take their toll on the spirit.’ As for writing, it is the most relevant business to a Confucian scholar. But if it becomes a diversion, it will also take its toll on the spirit.

As for Constantine, he was summoned by Nicholas I. to appear before a council of bishops (whose strings were probably pulled by the Archbishop of Salzburg), where they (so Vita Cyrilli XVI)

attacked him using the three-tongue heresy, saying: "How dare you create a writing for the Sloviens and teach them in letters noone has invented, not the apostles, not the Roman Pope, not Gregory the Theologian, not Jerome and not Augustine? For we know only three tongues in which it is appropriate to praise God - Hebrew, Greek and Latin."

I do not know what Sejong's answer to Choe Manri and others was, but Constantine's reply is recorded in what is probably the most famous passage in Vita Cyrilli:

Does the rain not come down from God equally on all? Does the sun not shine on all? Do we all not breath the same air? Do you have no shame only to accept three tongues and order every other nation and tribe to be dumb and deaf? Tell me why you make God powerless if he cannot give it or envious if he does not want to? But we know of many nations who have their alphabet and praise God each in their own tongue: Armenians, Persians, Abazgs, Iberians, Sogdians, Goths, Avars, Tyreans, Chazars, Arabs, Egyptians, Syrians and many others.

And so, my friends, let us remember king Sejong and all the others, both known and unnamed, who have given all of us the gift of writing and a voice to those who cannot speak. 만세!

Oh and happy birthday, Snežka :o)

UPDATE: Jane writes:

And let's remember also Shong Lue Yang, the tragic and inspired inventor of Pahawh Hmong. This script proved a rallying-point for Hmong people. He provided them with a voice, and so he was hunted by the CIA, the Communists, and then murdered in 1971, apparently by government agents.

Hear, hear! Thank you, Jane.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


So the good news first: after a hiatus of more than a year and a change of address, Antikvariát Steiner - a Bratislava institution - is open again. To be honest, the used books store next to the Justičný palác with its seven shelves of "miscellaneous linguistics" has always been my favorite, but I bought some of my most treasured books from Steiner, including the 300-year old map of Comitatus Abaujvariensis hanging right here above the place where my third bookcase will be. I dropped by today just to see the new premises (very nice, love the courtyard) and spent about an hour. I left with the following five volumes which cost me 190 Sk (about €5):

1. Inscriptiones Latinae (Altlateinische Inschriften) collegit Ernestus Diehl (Bonn, A. Marcus und E. Weber's Verlag 1911). According to the jacket, this volume contains inscriptions raging from the oldest known at that time to the gravestone of the pope Nicolaus V arranged in chapters ("sakrales", "profane bauten" and "grabschriften", among others) and alphabetically. I am particularly glad to see the old Roman numerals used with the appropriate inscriptions.

2. Supplementum Lyricum - Neue Bruchstücke by the same author and printing house (1917) contains (at that time) newly found poetic fragments by such authors as Archilochus, Sappho and Bacchylides with commentary.

Though advertised as "short texts for the use in classroom", both volumes listed above are a great example of German scholarship - impeccably edited, extensively commented and with comprehensive indices. A fine addition to my Classical Philology shelf they will surely make!

3. M. Tullii Ciceronis De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (editit Geyza Némethy, Budapestini MDCCCXC). I do not know much about this particular work of Cicero's, except that it's - as the title would suggest - a treatise on ethics and the source of the famous Lorem Ipsum passage.

4. George Orwell's The Animal Farm. Well, not exactly. It's George Orwell's Folwark zwierzęcy. I just had to have it. Especially since the word "folwark", which I admit I had never seen or heard before, was right there staring at me half provokingly, half accusingly.

5. Last but definitely not least, Poltava: Berättelsen om en armés undergång by Peter Englund (Atlantis, Stockholm, 1988). A brief look at the back jacket had me hooked: I am of course familiar with the battle of Poltava, but only from the Russian side. An "hour by hour" account of the battle which lead to the "fall of the mighty Swedish empire" written by a Swedish historian is just what the doctor prescribed. Having briefly skipped through the 400-odd pages, I find myself agreeing with Amazon reviewers of the English translation: it is incredibly detailed, intense and gripping. I'm really looking forward to reading this one.

And now for the bad news: as of yesterday, I am officially 27. *i̯̪ebh-, indeed.

Friday, September 29, 2006


Come to think of it, I've never had the doubtful pleasure of watching Law and Order: The Original in Slovak dubbing on Slovak state TV. Having caught a few old episodes of it last night (in English) I'm really glad I haven't. Why, you ask? Slovak translators, I answer. Idiots, the lot of them. As long as I live I will never forget abominations like "Gettysburgská adresa" (i.e. "the address - as in street number and zip code - of Gettysburg" for Gettysburg address, instead of "Gettysburgský prejav") in one episode of West Wing or "ničiteľ" (i.e. "the thing/person which destroys" for destroyer, instead of the proper nautical term "torpédoborec") in several episodes of Babylon 5. All I could do was bang my head against the wall and repeat "And someone got paid for this..."
Listening to the fast one-liners (usually delivered by the late and great Jerry Orbach) and quick retorts filled with idiomatic expressions and slang made me (and my forhead) glad I didn't get to see LandO on STV. I can't even begin to imagine what those shmucks there did to these colorful expressions when translating them:

"Maybe you should stop giving us the runaround."
"- Well she has nerve!
- Not to mention several organs below Mason-Dixon."
"Bachelorette number 1..." (Brisco referring to a young woman)
"Either this girl is doing a real Meryl Streep or she doesn't know anything..."
"Don't quit your day job, detective."
"- What did she expect you to do?
- Well, to be blunt, she'd like me to jump down, turn around, pick a bale o'cotton."

And my favorite from that episode (13x15):

"Makeover maven..."

To translate these wonderful examples of US slang requires not only an extensive knowledge of American language and culture (which most of our translators do not possess), but also cojones on the part of the translator. I've said it once, I've said it twice and I'll say it again: standard Slovak is still a language of the theatre and those famous monday night adaptations. Although slang, expletives and other non-standard modes of expression are a normal part of everyday speech, in any even remotely public context, people are still uncomfortable to use words that are perceived as "not being proper Slovak".
The other day, a buddy of mine wrote an email to a discussion group asking for help concerning an item of hardware. The discussion group in question is not noted for it's insistence on decorum, in fact the lack of any such thing would be item number one on any description of that forum. Yet still, the guy felt the need to put quotation marks around the word "pasovať" (a common, yet non-standard word for "fit"). Why? Knowing the kind of people that hang around the said discussion group, there is no doubt in my mind he wouldn't have any problem saying the word out loud. I suspect that the reason he put those quotation marks there to distance himself from this word is the same reason why most public personae precede every perceived non-standard word or phrase with the waiver "ľudovo povedané" (i.e. "as the simple people would say"): it's the ghost of "spisovná slovenčina" (standard Slovak). Once a beautiful idea, it is now a scary half-dead monster baring its teeth at anyone who'd dare to approach it from the wrong side of the social and dialectal divide, yet incapable of defending itself from being eaten away by anglicisms and general disregard for knowledge and education. I'm pretty goddamn sure this is not what Bernolák or Štúr had in mind.

Oh and fyi, the following is how I would translate the expressions above:

"Možno by ste nás mohli prestať vodiť za nos."
"- Tá má teda drzosť!
- A riadne veďvietečo od pása nižšie k tomu."
"Kandidátka číslo jedna..."
"Buď nám tu táto slečinka predviedla úžasný herecký výkon, alebo naozaj nič nevie..."
"Len si nerobte nádeje, detektív."
"- A čo čakala že urobíte?
- Asi že si sadnem, založím ruky a budem sa tváriť že ja nič, ja muzikant."
"Kúzelníčka s mejkapom..."

Or something like that, given enough time and money. Anyone wants more, you know where to find me.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Yesterday's post on meänkieli (and the antiobotics-induced state of mind I'm in) got me thinking about the names of some languages. Terms like "our language" seem a bit strange, but they're far from rare. The brief poll I conducted about my fellow Easternslovakians revealed that many of them refer to speaking in their native dialect as "hutorec/hvarec/kazac po našomu" (lit. "speaking our way"). Even the ancient Hittite word for their language, našili, was once interpreted as derived from -naš = "our" (though these days it's not). But the language name which has always struck me as quite odd is Bislama. When I first came across the name of this pidgin, I filed it under "one of those pidgins/creoles from Africa, Arab conquest, islamization ekcetera ekcetera". Imagine my surprise when I learned that Bislama is an English-based pidgin (closely related to that of the Solomon Islands and Tok Pisin) and is actually spoken in Vanuatu. Connections between Vanuatu and islam? Zero. Having opened the window to let my previous theory fly out, I reached for my copy of Holm's "Pidgins and Creoles. Volume II: Reference Survey" and found the following:

The second Melanesian product whose market was confined to China was the edible sea slug called the beach-la-mar (cf. portuguese bicho do mar 'creature of the sea', whence French beche de mer), prized in China as a favorite ingredient in soups. Theses sea slugs are found on the coral reefs of Melanesia, the Torres Straits and Micronesia. There the trade often flourished alongside that in sandalwood, frequently carried on by the same traders. It requried close linguistic contact between the Europeans who lived in the trading areas and the islanders who caught the sea slugs and preserved them for shipment through a process of cleaning, boiling, and smoking. The trade language that this situation fostered was often referred to as Beach-la-mar, a name which survives in Vanuatu's PE.

Imagine that. Naming a language after a (ethnic, religious or social) group of people or a country is quite normal. Naming it after a city is quite common, too. But naming a language after a commercial product, that's gotta be rare. Do you know of any other languages with names with interesting history?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Making my way through the dark forrest of the Internet searching for an overview of the Ge'ez script as used by the speakers of Tigrinya (to use with my newly acquired Grammar of Tigrinya), I stumbled across this wonderful site. As its title suggests, it is devoted to all the minority languages of Sweden, both official and non-official. A praiseworthy project indeed, with a billionzilliontrillion links for just about any language freak. In just a few clicks, I found these glossaries of everyday items and concepts in 15 languages, this multiscript online keyboard, a Syriac-English dictionary with a Firefox search plugin and a list of mathematical terms in Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. Pretty cool, he?
And I'm sure this is just the tip of the iceberg. After all, the site includes information on Finnish, Saami, Arabic, Farsi, Tagalog, Tigrinya, Luganda, Albanian, even Yiddish, Romani and Syriac/Aramaic, Somali, Thai, Meänkieli, Kurdish...
Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold it right there. Meänkieli?



So meänkieli (meidän kieli = 'our language'), also known as Tornedalen Finnish, is a dialect of Finnish spoken in the area around and including the twin-city of Tornio-Haparanda on the Swedish-Finnish border in Lappland. In Sweden, it is also spoken in Gällivare, Kiruna, Pajala and Övertorneå by immigrants from Finland who started arriving in Sweden in the Middle Ages and whose numbers grew after the Russian annexation of Finland. With 30.000 to 80.000 speakers in Sweden, a grammar and a Gospel translation, an active writer community and a few TV and radio programs, meänkieli was declared an official minority language in 2002.
As for the linguistic characteristics, the Wikipedia article only mentions the lack of the comitative and the instructive case. Hm. How to put it nicely... Duh? Both cases are rarely used in written, let alone spoken Finnish nowadays, so their absence in a dialect is hardly surprising. Longing for more information, I remembered the old saying ("You wanna get something done right...") and set out to investigate the matter. And thus here are a few characteristic features of meänkieli I have observed so far:

1. assimilation:
-ts- > -tt- (Ruotsin > Ruottin; merkitse > merkittee)
-ks- > -k- (mielenkieliksi > mielenkieliki)

2. lack of gemination:
-lla/-llä > -la/lä (samala laila, meänkielelä)
-lle > -le (täysille > täysile)

3. aspiration:
-t- > -th (kutsutaan > kuttuthaan; yhteyksissä > yhtheyksissä, toteutetaan > totheutethaan)
-p- > -ph (lopuun > lophuun; tarpeeksi > tarpheeksi)
-øN- > -hN- (voimaan > voihmaan; kokonaan > kokohnaan)
-ø- > -h- (lauseita > lausheita; kokoon > kokhoon; meänkiehleen)
-N- > -Nh- (viranomaista > viranomhaista; opettaneet > opettanheet; puhuneet > puhuhneet)

It would appear that this phenomenon occurrs in a syllable with a long vowel, such as the passive or the Illative case suffix (kuttuthaan; ...tavalishiin kysymykshiin...) and/or in the syllable immediately preceding long vowels (meänkieli, but meänkiehleen). From where I sit, it looks like the "h" may be at least partly involved in the stem gradation (see e.g. Ruothiin).

4. elision:
-d- > -ø- (rakkauden > rakhauen; oikeuden > oikeuen)
-t# > -# (tullut > tullu)

5. monophtongization:
-oi- > -o- (tarkoittaa > tarkottaa; antoi > anto, but voihmaan)

6. personal pronouns and the copula:
mie olen, sie olet, se oon, met olema, ?, ?

Mie, sie etc. is actually a quite common feature of Finnish dialects and/or spoken Finnish. Met (olema), however, appears to be a typical feature of meänkieli.

7. lexical borrowings from Swedish:
frästaus (frestelse)
förlaaki (förlag)

Discovering a 'new' language is bound to make any day brighter. Doubly so today, since I feel like shit - I'm running a fever, every joint in my body seems to have walked out on me and I can't hear squat 'cause of some gorram infenction in my ears. So with your permission I shall now retire and make an appoitment with my doctor. If he won't help me, it will at least get majki off my ass. Yeah, right, like that's ever gonna happen...

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Today one of Pali's learned colleagues found herself at loss for words when one of her students asked her what was the origin of the phrase "modrá krv" ("blue blood") indicating nobility. When he told me about this and the discussion that ensued and asked me to clear up the issue, I had to admit my own ignorance and I promised to do a little digging.
To make good on my promise, as soon as I got home I checked a few sources. They all seemed to be telling the same story, so just to verify, I dug out my copy of OED (Second Edition) where I looked up the word "blood". And voilà:

blood, n.
blue blood: that which flows in the veins of old and aristocratic families, a transl. of the Spanish sangre azul
attributed to some of the oldest and proudest families of Castile, who claimed never to have been contaminated by Moorish, Jewish, or other foreign admixture; the expression probably originated in the blueness of the veins of people of fair complexion* as compared with those of dark skin; also, a person with blue blood; an aristocrat.
Helen XV. (D.) One [officer]... from Spain, of high rank and birth, of the sangre azul, the blue blood.
Cæsar xi. 120 A young nobleman of the bluest blood.

It turns out that Inka was nearly right: she proposed the origin of the phrase lies in the skin of the aristocrats which was of much lighter tone in contrast to that of commoners and peasants who worked in the sun (compare "redneck"). The underlying ethnic/racial aspect of "sangre azul" is quite interesting. The only thing to do now is to find out how this phrase entered our language, especially seeing that its English counterpart is less than 200 years old. So let me just get my etymological dictionary of the Slovak language...



There is no etymological dictionary of the Slovak language. There is no comprehensive dictionary of the Slovak language, either. The last decent grammar is from 1971 (written by the great Eugen Pauliny) and the last comprehensive overview of Slovak morphology is from 1966. I guess our linguists have better things to do. Like, say, telling people what the right word for "dog leash" is (fyi, it's "vôdzka", definitely NOT "vodítko" or "vodidlo"). It's not like our many varied dialects were dying out and in dire need of recording and preserving for the posterity. No sirreeeee.
So until I get my hands on the etymological dictionary of the Czech language, let me present my hypothesis: it's the Habsburgs. Between 1516 and 1700, they ruled Spain and until 1918 they ruled most of Central Europe, including Slovakia. It is possible that the phrase "sangre azul" entered the main languages of the Austro-Hungarian empire (German "blaues Blut", Hungarian "kék vér" and perhaps Latin "sanguis caeruleus/coeruleus", too) even before it entered the English language and then continued to influence other languages of the empire, including Czech and Slovak. I think I'll check the historical dictionary of the Slovak language, too. There's - at last! - one thing the boys and girls at JÚĽŠ got right.

* fair complexion = svetlá pleť

Saturday, September 16, 2006


Inspired by languagehat, I bring you a list of (more or less) randomly selected books from my library which I bought, but still haven't read.

PAVIĆ, Milorad: Hazarski rečnik - ženski primerak
This one is on the top of my "to read" list. Emík bought it for me in some antique book store in Bosnia back in ... I'm not sure when exactly since it's missing my usual ex libris. Couple of years ago, anyway. And I will get to it, I swear. Soon. I mean how can you resist a book which begins like this:

Sadašnji pisac ove knjige uverava čitaoca da neće morati da umre ako ju pročita, kao što je bio slučaj s njegovim prethodnikom, korisnikom izdanja Hazarskog rečnika iz 1691. godine kada je ova knjiga još imala svog prvog spisatelja.

GOITEIN, Shlomo Dov: Mediterranean Society: An Abridgement in One Volume
In my defense I'd like to say that I have actually read volumes II and IV of the full version and even read some of the Genizah documents referred to. Unfortunately, this abridgement omits all the references to T-S documents and is thus 'merely' a great historical work. I'm pretty sure I will pick it up some time before my final exam, though.

Beowulf: A Student Edition (ed. by George JACK)
I spotted this one in an OUP catalogue back in 1997 (together with "How to Kill a Dragon") and I just had to have it. Nine years and several changes of address later, I'm still stuck at monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah.

FRIGGIERI, Olivier: Fi parlament ma jikbrux fjuri
I bought this one in October 2003 in Malta (my last real holiday, fyi). The back jacket informed me that in 1986, when the book was first published, it sparked a huge political controversy. There is no better way to get to know a culture than through its political scandals. Besides, you know how much I like gossip :o)

GINZBURG, Carlo: The Night Battles
I got this one for Christmas a few years ago. The subject (witchcraft, shamanism and white magic in medieval Italy) is fascinating and despite my initial impression, the book is written in an impecable scientific manner. Somehow I just haven't found the time yet...

LEWIS, Bernard: What Went Wrong
This is one of those I had to buy ex officio. I tried reading it once, but all it did was to raise my blood pressure. Perhaps after I finish my PhD thesis. If I ever do.

DUMÉZIL, Georges: Mythes et dieux des Indoeuropéens
Not so much 'unread' as in a permanent state of reading limbo for the last 4 years. I only finished the chapter on the 'Rehabilitation of Snorri' and it was so good I could not process more.

8. Jazyk, média, politika
This is a collection of essays on the usage of the Czech and Slovak languages in media and politics. I've been thinking about writing something on the subject myself, so I may read it before long.

PINKER, Steven: Words and Rules
I'm still not sure whether this is a 'I haven't read these' list or a 'I haven't read these, but I plan on reading them' list. If it ends up as the latter, this book doesn't belong here. I mean, come on - "Words and Rules"? Doesn't that just sum up everything that is wrong about T/GG, Chomskyanism, the Minimalist program or whatever those washpots call their religion these days? Tell you what - if I survive reading Lewis, I'll get to this one.

LIPTÁK, Ľubomír: Slovensko v 20. storočí
This is one of those books every Slovak intellectual (feh!) should have on their nightstand. To lend it to a friend who is studying for her Slovak history exam is also a good reason for buying it.

Friday, September 15, 2006


Today's whiskey-tango-foxtrot* moment is brought to you by languagelog:

A less obvious example of the influence of English [on Turkish] is a new phenomenon: the current greeting Selâm in place of Merhaba. This is not evidence of increasing religiosity, but is due to the prevalence of English-language films on television.
The aim when dubbing is to use Turkish words requiring lip movements similar to those of the original, and the lip movements for Selâm are closer to those for 'Hello' than to those for Merhaba.

I'm certainly not surprised at the liberties dubbing translators take with the target language. What astonishes me, however, is the effect those translations could have on a language. And it makes wonder about the possible influence of dubbing on other languages. Take German, for example: when translating English-language movies and TV shows, one of the standard problems is the translation of the auxiliary "to do", especially in affirmative. Lip movement and timing are important factors to consider and so the translators are often forced to push the limits of the German language. For example, one very often hears the literal and absolutely unnatural translation of the auxiliary "to do", such as "Ja, das tue ich" for English "Yes I do". Hold on, did I just say "absolutely unnatural"? Weeeeell... not so much. Consider this example by Goethe:

Ich wollt´, ich wäre Gold,
Dir immer im Sold;
Und tät´st du was kaufen,
Käm´ ich wieder gelaufen.

or this example by STS:

Am weissen Strand tät i Flamenco spiel'n
Oder mit an Tanzbär'n durch die Lande zieh'n
Jede Nacht am Lagerfeuer
Jeder Tag ein Abenteuer

this one from one of the forums on their website:

(3) Tust jetzt Fieberphantasieren oder was?

and this random one I just googled:

(4) Aber übermäßig selektieren tu ich ja nicht, wie gesagt

It would appear that the verb "tun" can indeed be used as an auxiliary verb, especially in certain dialects (the STS guys are from Styria) or registers. We've seen it so far as an alternative to "werden" in conditional clauses (1 and 2), used for emphasis (especially in connection with "ja", see 4) and even employed as an interrogative auxiliary (3). So no, not absolutely unnatural. German "tun" can indeed replace English "do" in certain contexts and perhaps even on a one-to-one basis.
And so I wonder: how much of this usage is a natural development without any interference from English and German dubbing of English-language movies? Can German dubbing contribute to semantic and syntactic extension of "tun", such as the still-too-literal and not-quite-natural "Ja, das tue ich"? Has it already? Has anyone actually heard this or some similar anglicism involving "tun" in everyday usage?

*And this delightful phrase is brought to you by The Tensor.