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.