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.