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 lingnews.net 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.