Thursday, August 31, 2006


In what I hope to be the first installment in a long series, I present to you a discussion of an interesting Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root:

Köhler's Indogermanisches Wörterbuch (letter E):

*eibh-, *oibh-, *i̯̪ebh-, idg., V.: nhd. beischlafen; ne. copulate; RB.: Pokorny 298 (439/20), ind., gr., ill., germ., slaw.;

Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Woerterbuch (p. 298):
Root: eibh- (: oibh-), i̯ebh-
English meaning: to copulate
Material: Ai. ya/bhati 'futuit'; ... ; slav. *i̯ebo: 'futuo:' in russ. jebu/, jeti/, skr. je\be^m, je\bati (mit neugebildetem Infinitiv), usw.

To illustrate, let me quote from Calvert Watkins' phenomenal How to Kill a Dragon. In chapter 25, professor Watkins describes a fascinating Indo-European ritual (involving horses, young women and some erotic imagery) known in the Vedas as Aśvamedha. The ritual was accompanied by a "litany of mantras" one of which is given below:

ámbe, ámbike, ámbālike
ná me yabhati káś caná;
sásasty aśvakáḥ

Compare the English translation provided by Watkins:

Mother, dear mother, little mother,
noone is fucking me;
the bad little horse is asleep.

And a Slovak translation by me (courtesy of Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary) which is a bit more faithful to the original. Not that professor Watkins is a bad translator, far from it. It's just that the English language has lost many PIE structures most Slavic languages have preserved. Like the the case system (Nominative: amba, Vocative: ambe!) and the diminutive form (amba - ambika - ambālika). NB the first line:

Mamo, mamko, mamičko,
nikto ma nepojebe;
zlý koník už zaspal.

According to professor Watkins, the verb yabhati was considered as vulgar in Vedic Sanskrit as its counterparts are in modern English or Russian (HTKAD p. 274, footnote 12). I wish he'd included more evidence (and if anyone has any, please come forward), but nevertheless, I think we can take his word for it. So there.

It is interesting that of all the offshoots of the PIE tree, this particular root with all its connotations has only survived (in pristine condition, nonetheless) in Slavic languages where - as I'm sure anyone will tell you - it still enjoys immense popularity. So remember, my Slavic friends: when life gets you down and you feel the need, do not hesitate to use any and all words derived from this root. By doing so, you are certainly not contributing to the corrosion of our society as some would have you believe. On the contrary: you are engaging in a healthy activity which relieves your frustration and cleanses your mind of aggression. And all of that in a way which lets us express and celebrate our Indo-European heritage. After all, it's only Sanskrit and us!

Monday, August 28, 2006


Happy indeed! And what is the source of my joy, you ask? Well, I finally found a decent Unicode picker which includes not only the whole Latin set, but also the Arabic and Hebrew blocks and even the full IPA chart!!! Finally no more of this "ħ" nonsense and I can write like a pʰrŏpər Ærabī́śṭ of the Ǧeṛṃăṅ śḳḫōōḷ!

Cool, he?



Did I mention it's got the Ethiopic block, too?

Oh nevermind. Move along, nothing to see here.


Sunday, August 27, 2006


Thanks to lameen (go check out his blog, Adela and Co., and I don't mean later!), my doubts concerning qaddāš as an exclamatory particle have now dispersed.

Side note 1: I called Silvia (who is a native speaker of Jordanian Arabic) and she informed me that in her native dialect, the proper way of saying "How big...! or "How pretty...!" would be Mā akbar...!, Mā aħsan...! etc. Using kam the way lameen suggested did sound acceptable to her Jordanian ears, but she would never use it that way.

Side note 2: The answer might have been right there before my eyes all the time. Lameen's comments reminded me of some phrases in Maltese where the particle kemm* (< كم) is also used in an exclamation. In search of examples, I picked up my copy of Olivier Friggieri's Fil-Parlament ma Jikbrux Fjuri and opened it at random. And lo! on page 81, I found the following: "Kemm tarahom koroh il-politiċi!" (lit. "How ugly you see them, the politicians!"). Two pages down, there it was again: "Kemm nixtieq li għandi l-pulptu tiegħek, Dun Benjamin!" (lit.: "How/How much I wish I had your pulpit, DB!"). Talk about serendipity...
A brief Google search uncovered several other examples, including this one: "Ara l-Ingliz kemm hu kreattiv!" ("Look at English, how creative it is!"). Great, thought I, 'tis probably some journalist trashing Maltese. I couldn't have been more wrong. Turns out this sentence was uttered by none other than Professor Manwel Mifsud in an interview with l-orizzont on the occasion of the founding session of the Kunsill Nazzjonali ta' l-Ilsien Malti**. Professor Mifsud has, as usual, a lot of interesting things to say about Maltese in general, its current state and future and he briefly comments on such things as English loan words and Maltese word formation. Read the whole thing.

* Maltese kemm turns out to be a rather interesting particle. Expect more on the subject later.
** I am not sure about the time line, since there is no exact date on the article. But since according to its website the Kunsill was founded in April 2005, I take that to be the date of the interview. And here's another one, this time in English.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


The ever fascinating languagehat has a post up about an Israeli standup comic Gila Hakimi, who has the distinction of being the only comic known to perform her routine in Neo-Aramaic. Go check it out!
To honor languagehat, I decided to chip in and in line with today's theme (Aramaic), I bring to you the following links on Mandaic:

The great Charles Häberl has set up a site devoted solely to the Mandaic language and culture. Unfortunately, most of the links do not seem to be working properly, including the text of his PhD thesis on The Neo-Mandaic dialect of Khorramshar and accompanying audio files. Until such time as they are restored, enjoy the links to the Mandaean World, the Mandean official site, the audiofiles at Semarch and Charles' article on Mandaean studies since the millenium.

Speaking of the history of Mandean studies: one of the pioneers of Mandaean studies was our very own Rudolf Macúch, the author of Handbook of Classical and Modern Mandaic. Charles Häberl naturally included him in his overview of western scholars writing on Mandaic in section 1 of his PhD thesis (p. 28-33). Though giving praise and acknowledgement where they are due, Charles makes a few respectfully critical remarks concerning Macúch, which show the legend that Macúch is in a different, shall we say, more human light. I admit my rather perverse passion for gossip, especially when it comes to great minds. With the hope you will enjoy it too, I quote now from Charles' thesis (p. 29-31):

The Handbook was released in 1965 to a mixed reception, which was somewhat mitigated by the fact that the data contained within it was available nowhere else and addressed an egregious lacuna in our understanding of Late and Neo-Aramaic. Nonetheless, it suffered from some serious flaws

Among the many scholars who tempered their praise for Macuch’s contribution with a few sober notes of criticism was Joseph L. Malone, who composed a review of the Handbook targeted towards the general linguist. Shortly after the publication of this review, Macuch contacted Malone directly, and provoked him into publishing an apology in a subsequent issue of the same journal. Several years later, Macuch savaged Malone (along with several of his other critics) in his Zur Sprache und Literature der Mandäer, protesting that he did not write his grammar for linguists, labeling him as “a complete beginner,” and attributing to him an ignorance of “the elementary concepts of Mandaic verbal morphology.”* It is perhaps not surprising, under the circumstances, that few other scholars took an interest in Neo-Mandaic during this time. To his credit, Malone continued to contribute to the study of Classical and Neo-Mandaic over the following decades, working primarily from Macuch’s data.

*Footnote 92: ... It should be noted that the subject of Malone’s doctoral dissertation, completed two years before his review of the Handbook, was “A Morphological Grammar of the Classical Mandaic Verb.”

Friday, August 25, 2006


At dinner, I realized that exactly one year ago today I moved from the university dorm (where I had spent 8 crazy and beautiful years) to my own apartment. This realization put me into a nostalgic mood and since I don't have any perspective on 2006 yet, I started thinking about what 2005 was like. Difficult as I find it to concentrate on the positive, it only took me a moment to remember that 2005 was a bad year for Czecho-Slovak oriental studies. It was the year when, within two weeks, we lost two of our finest.

Milena Hübschmannová (1933-2005) was one of the pioneers of Roma studies in Czechoslovakia, author of the first Romani-Czech dictionary (during the work on which she even spoke to Roma from my native village) and several other books on Romani and Roma culture, the first chair of the department of Roma studies at the Charles University and a brave woman who fought both to preserve the Roma culture and language and to give them their rightful place in modern Europe.

Stanislav Segert (1921-2005) was a great scholar of Semitic languages, best known for his Basic Grammar of Ugaritic Language, Altaramäische Grammatik and work on the Qumran Scrolls and the dialect of Moab, author of hundreds of scholarly papers on various aspects of Semitic philology and one of the finest bearers of the tradition founded by Bedřich Hrozný and Karel Petráček. Though he has always been an inspiration to me, I have never had the honor to meet Professor Segert in person. I will let speak those who knew him.

Both will be missed. Džan devleha!

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Going through my recently acquired copy of a North-African Judeo-Arabic šarħ of the targum to Song of Songs (thanks oldshelf :o), I stumbled across the following:

qāl Šlomo en-nabī: qadāš zēn bēt əl-miqdās matāʕ allāh... (1:17)

Jay C. Treat's brilliant translation and the original Aramaic text (אמר שלמה נבייא כמא יאי בית מקדשא דיי) inform me that the qadāš zēn part means "how beautiful!". Hm. I'd be the first to admit that my knowledge of the maghribī dialects is sketchy at best, but it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect some form of kīf for "how". That is, if I was expecting this word to appear here as it does in English in the role of an exclamatory particle. In CA, one would have to resort to (as in the famous example of laħn al-ʕāma, i.e. Mā aħsanu/aħsana 's-samā').
And so I'm a little puzzled: Handbuch (p. 258) lists qaddāš as "das Vorherrschende Frageadverb für 'wieviel'". Willms' Einführung (p. 51) describes qədd-əš as the North-East Algerian word for "wieviel(e)". Willms also mentions qədd with the meaning of "same size as, same extent as, same kind as" in hist list of prepositions next to kīf and zay. "Same size/extent/kind as" (see Maltese daqs) is certainly a bit closer to "how" than "how much" and the interrogative particle "what" -āš/-əš appears to be a suffix often used to create other interrogative particles (b-āš, kīf-āš, ʕl-āš, w-āš or k-āš). But still - that would make qaddāš an interrogative particle, maybe (and that's a big 'maybe') a relative particle. How does it then wind up being used in an exclamatory sentence? Is it a normal current use, a normal use in the 19th century, both, just another case of a typical šarħ translation or something completely different? Any thoughts?


This is my first post.

I returned, and saw under the sun,
that the race is not to the swift,
nor the battle to the strong,
neither yet bread to the wise,
nor yet riches to men of understanding,
nor yet favour to men of skill;
but time and chance happeneth to them all.

This has been my first post*.

*And a slight wink to all my libertarian friends out there. But since I'm still trying to work out how this all works, I'm not pressing the point.