Sunday, July 22, 2007


As long as I can remember, my name has always been a source of misunderstandings, mishaps and embarassing incidents. It all started when my mother decided to defy an ancient tradition (the firstborn son always receives his father's first name and both my grandfather and my father are named Imre/Imrich) and talked my father into giving me a different name. My father backed down insisting on the tradition being continued at least in some way and so two years later when my brother was born, they named him Imrich. Since people believed the tradition was honored the first time, for most of our lives, everyone always confused the two of us.
To make matters worse, instead of an honest-to-God Hungarian first name to go with my Hungarian last name, my mother picked out a name which couldn't have been more Slavic without sounding too 1836*. So here I am, stuck with the politically suspect combination of a Slavic first name and a Hungarian last name which has raised many a brow and lead to many a dumbass question of the "So what ethnicity are you then?" type. It's Hittite, by the way. I even gave that as my ethnicity at the last census and you can kiss my fat Neshite ass, Slovak National Party.
Then there's the way my last name should be correctly pronounced: the Hungarian "é" which is a long close-mid/near-close front unrounded vowel without a counterpart in Slovak** is usually heard as [i:] and the combination of "pl" with the final "ö" (i.e. [ø]) is simply too much to handle for most people. As you can imagine, calling a service hotline or introducing myself at the front desk of an office building is always a fun experience - "I'm sorry, did you say [tʃible]?" As long as I live, I will never forget the look on the face of the doctor in the ER in an English town (where I came in after a small accident of the 'pedestrian vs. motor vehicle' type) as he looked at my sign-in sheet and went "Um... Mr, er, [kɛpləʊ]?". The only non-speaker of Hungarian outside our family who has ever pronounced our last name correctly was the Vice-Dean of our Faculty (a professor at the Department of Slovak Language and Literature, of all people) at my graduation ceremony. Needless to say, this feat earned him the undying respect of the entire Hungarian branch of our family, especially my grandparents.
And finally, there's the whole written thing. Never in my life have I had an official document issued with my last name spelled properly the first try. My first passport was a particularly embarassing disaster: the accute accent on "e" was missing. As a result, I was not allowed to board a flight on one occasion because the name on the ticket (copied from my ID card) did differ in this rather insignificant aspect from the name on my passport.
At one point, my father - who has had to go through the same ordeal - started collecting various instances of misspellings of our name from things like official letters, ballots, participant IDs and such most which he came across during his politically active years. For a long time, my favorite item from that collection was Czőploi, taken from a wedding invitation. Every time I look at it I can just hear the person responsible thinking "OK, I'm pretty sure 'p' and 'l' were there somewhere and there was a digraph and one of them Hungarian letters, now if I could only remember which one and in what order..."
Long story short, I thought I'd seen it all. That was until Friday when I went to the post office to pick up my latest order from abebooks. Having opened the package and checked its contents, I was thinking of throwing the envelope into the next trashbin when my eyes fell on the address box:

Yes, you are indeed seeing what you are seeing: & # 2 6 8 , é p l ö. Someone wrote an HTML entity on an envelope.
I totally understand where this began: the webform on the abebooks page did not process the character "Č" - Latin capital letter c with a háček U+010C, HTML entity & # 2 6 8 ; - correctly (happens a lot) and thus this was printed on the order and the invoice. But how could someone actually write this as a part of a person's name, is simply beyond me. Do the good people in France really think our names contain ampersands and numbers? I hope not. Even if this was just a case of not paying enough attention, someone actually had to grab the envelope, pick up a pen, look at the invoice and wonder for a second or two just what the heck were those weird characters and numbers doing in a person's name. I am inclined to believe that that someone was not very IT-savvy and simply too puzzled to figure it out. So they just copied the name line over from the order. But still...
Be that as it may, I shall be proud to present this to my father to include in his collection. I hope it will have the same effect on him as it did on me, because when I looked at that envelope, I broke into a laughter the like of which hadn't been heard from me in years. That alone - and stories like this one - is compensation enough for all the trouble with my name.

* On April 24t, 1836, a bunch of Slovak patriots led by Ľudovít Štúr took a trip to the Devín castle to pledge their lives to the national cause. As a symbol of their dedication, each took a purely Slavic name. Some of those would still be quite OK today (Hurban's Miloslav, Maier's Jaromír etc.) , some of them... Let's just say that if you decided to name your newborn son Velislav, Zvestoň or Slavoľub, you might as well start saving up for therapy sessions right now.

** No matter what the Wikipedia says, there ain't no way in hell the Hungarian "é" in "hét" is the same vowel as "ee" in German "Seele" or the long variant of the Polish "e" in "dzień". No fracking way. Hungarian "é" is both more close and more front than either of those.

Friday, July 20, 2007


It's not every day that I learn something new about my neck of the woods on Wikipedia, but every such occasion is a joyous one and this particular bit of information is certainly worth sharing.
It concerns Sigismund of Luxembourg, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Hungary, King of Bohemia etc. etc. (1368-1437), better known around here as Žigmund Luxemburský/Zikmund Lucemburský. A colorful figure, this one: known to his enemies as "That double-crossing sly red fox" and famous for his lavish lifestyle and constant financial problems, he is said to have once exclaimed "This whole kingdom is bankrupt, you can't squeeze more than 40.000 gold pieces out of it!". He even pawned 13 cities of Spiš to Poland to finance his war against Venice (and/or his expensive tastes, depending on whom you chose to believe). These cities were only returned to the Kingdom of Hungary (and thus Slovak territory) in 1772, which is how come Henryk Sienkiewicz's Potop (The Deluge) has the Polish king John II Casimir (Jan Kazimierz) travel to the Polish city of Lubowla (today's Slovak Stará Ľubovňa) to receive a hero's welcome and to plan the resistance against the Swedish invasion.
But what Sigismund is most (in)famous for is his part in the Hus affair and the resulting Hussite wars. He was the one who guaranteed Jan Hus a safe passage to and from the Council of Constance. The lying cheating bastard politician that he was, Sigismund broke his promise and the rest is history. Which brings us to our amusing anecdote.
It was at the opening session of the Council that the following transpired:

"Right Reverend Fathers, date operam ut illa nefanda schisma eradicetur," exclaims Sigismund, intent on having the Bohemian Schism well dealt with,--which he reckons to be of the feminine gender. To which a Cardinal mildly remarking, "Domine, schisma est generis neutrius (Schisma is neuter, your Majesty)," --Sigismund loftily replies, "Ego sum Rex Romanus et super grammaticam (I am King of the Romans, and above grammar)!"

Well, at least he did not say "Ego deciderator sum"... Anyway, it is quite interesting that in my study of the Hussite wars I have never stumbled upon this bit of trivia. One would have thought that the Czechs with their hate for Sigismund would particularly enjoy this bit, but neither the history books I consulted, nor the historians I spoke to had ever heard of this incident.
By the way, the quote above is not from the Wikipedia, but it's a description of that incident from Thomas Carlyle's History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great (Volume II) who quotes from Wolfgang Mentzel's Geschichte der Deutschen. It would seem that Carlyle is the main source for this anecdote, at least in the English-speaking world, though it crops up in Italian, too. I haven't been able to find Mentzel's work to check his sources. Anyone out there has a copy?
The Wikipedia article, referring to The Nutall Encyclopedia, adds that "this reply caused him to receive the nickname "Super-Grammaticam". Again, I scouted the vast plains of the Internet and consulted my library only to arrive at the conclusion that "Super-Grammaticam" probably wasn't a nickname given to Sigismund by his contemporaries, but rather an invention of Carlyle's, as he himself admits in the very same passage I quoted from above:

For which reason I call him in my Note-books Sigismund SUPER GRAMMATICAM, to distinguish him in the imbroglio of Kaisers.

It would appear that the nickname comment is a slight oversight on the part of the Wikipedia users. Someone should correct it immediately.

And on an unrelated note: this record temperatures shit has got to stop. I don't mind the heat that much, it's quite manageable with proper hydration and the right choice of underwear (don't ask). But Bratislava being what it is* and the ladies summer attire being what it is... Let's just say I almost got slapped twice yesterday for, well, staring. Enough, I say.

* The city with the highest proportion of gorgeous women per capita in the world, that's what!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Two things I didn't know about:

1. Sabean inscriptions in minuscule script written on pieces of wood and palm leaves

I stumbled across this one in the programme to the 30. Deutscher Orientalistentag in the Semitic Studies section where it was announced that Dr. Peter Stein of Friedrich-Schiller Universität Jena will present a preliminary report on a research project.
I rushed to my bookshelves to consult first A.F.L. Beeston's A Descriptive Grammar of Epigraphic South Arabian (1962) and then G.M. Bauer's Язык южноаравийской письменности (1966). A lot on the monumental script, but zip on the minuscule script on both counts. Fortunately, the incredibly useful Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages (p. 455-456) was a little more forthcoming (not surprisingly, since the article on Old South Arabian was co-authored by the very same Peter Stein):

At the beginning of the 1970s, the first instances of writing on wooden sticks, in a hitherto unknown minuscule script, were discovered in Yemen. The understanding of these sticks, which come from the Yemenite Ǧawf and of which several thousand have come to light in the mean time, is made especially difficult because of the script and the unknown vocabulary. Concerning the contents of the roughly thirty examples published thus far, probably dating to the second/third centuries AD, it can be said that they are documents partly written in the form of letter that have to do with legal and economic matters.

That would explain the lack of any mention of the minuscule script in the aforementioned works on South Arabian both of which predate the discovery of inscriptions in minuscule (cursive) script. Furthermore, according to the website (DE) of the project, only a few more than 40 of these have been published so far (e.g.). The Bavarian State Library in Munich is in posession of several hundred of inscriptions in Sabaean minuscule script which represent the focus of the research currently underway in Jena. In the first phase of the project (pardon my poor translation),

...wurden sämtliche Inschriften der mittel- bis spätsabäischen Periode (ca. 3. Jh. v. Chr.-6. Jh. n. Chr.) analysiert. Dieses Textkorpus umfaßt 205 Nummern, worunter sich 85 juristische und Wirtschaftstexte (Abrechnungen, Quittungen, Schuldscheine u. dgl.), 74 Briefe, 26 Schreibübungen und 7 Inschriften aus der Kultpraxis (vornehmlich Orakelanfragen und -bescheide) befinden. Diese Inschriften werden in einem ersten Band der Publikation veröffentlicht, dessen Drucklegung z. Z. vorbereitet wird.

... all inscriptions from the Middle to the Late Sabaean period (ca. 3rd century BC - 6th century AD) have been analyzed. This corpus contains 205 items consisting of 85 texts of legal and economic nature (bills, receipts, IOUs etc.), 74 letters, 26 scribal exercises and 7 inscriptions of religious nature (mostly questions to oracles and responses). These inscriptions will be published in the first volume of the publication which is currently being prepared for printing.

Now there is something to look forward to. While we wait for both the report and the book, check out this sample of the minuscule script.

2. Latino-Punic inscriptions in Libya

A thesis on the subject was recently defended by Robert Kerr of Universiteit Leiden (summary in pdf). Punic written in Latin script is of course nothing new: act V, scene 1 of Plautus' Poenulus, for example, contains an entire monologue in Punic (look here for an analysis taken from Rosenberg's Phönikische Sprachlehre und Epigraphik). Yet I had no idea that the Latino-Punic corpus was so extensive (Dr. Kerr mentions 69 inscriptions, "mostly epitaphs"), nor that Punic apparently remained a living "functioning North-West Semitic language" for much longer than previously thought. Dr. Kerr believes Punic was spoken as late as the 7th century AD and offers the following insight (NL) into the Punic-Roman relations after the Third Punic War (again, please excuse the poor translation):

Er is lang gedacht dat het afgelopen was met de Punische cultuur toen Carthago was verwoest, en ‘Africa’ een provincie werd van het Romeinse Rijk. Maar in Tripolitanie kwam die cultuur toen eigenlijk pas tot bloei. Het gebied ging zijn eigen gang. Rome bemoeide zich er niet intensief mee, en met de Carthaagse invloed was het al afgelopen sinds de Tweede Punische Oorlog, toen de regio zich aan het gezag van Carthago had onttrokken. We zijn snel geneigd om te denken in een dichotomie Romeins-Carthaags. Maar echt niet iedereen in Noord-Afrika die Punisch sprak had posters aan de muur had hangen van Hannibal als bevrijdingsheld.

It was long believed that the Punic culture was done for once Carthage was destroyed and "Africa" became a province of the Roman Empire. But the culture in Tripolitania actually only came to bloom. The region went its own way. Rome didn't really bother itself with it and the Carthagian influence was already diminished after the Second Punic War when the region broke away from the Carthagian sphere of influence. We are inclined to think of that period in terms of Roman-Carthagian dichotomy. But not every Punic speaker in North Africa had posters on their wall celebrating Hannibal as a liberator.

The earliest inscriptions in the Latino-Punic corpus are from 1st and 2nd centuries AD and were found in Leptis Magna. Later specimens were found deeper inland at the edge of the desert and date back to the 3rd and 4th and perhaps even 5th century AD. According to Dr. Kerr, het pre-desert gebied van Tripolitanië waren de Punische inscripties juist veruit in de meerderheid. Daar zijn bijna geen Latijnse inscripties gevonden.

... in the pre-desert part of Tripolitania, Punic inscriptions far outnumbered the Latin ones. In fact, almost no Latin inscriptions were found there.

No surprise there since apparently Punic was spoken by the mixed population which came about when Punic men married Libyan women. Punic men

... waren in het grensgebied neergezet door de Romeinen. Ze hadden in het leger gezeten, en werden nu ingezet om tegen een goede betaling de verdedigbare grensboerderijen te bemannen. Ze hadden een grote vrijheid. In Romeinse bronnen stonden Punischtalige mensen erom bekend dat ze in droge gebieden succesvol landbouw konden bedrijven.

... were settled in the border areas by the Romans. They had been in the army and were now employed to man defendable border outposts for a good pay. They were afforded a lot of freedom. In Roman sources, speakers of Punic were famous for being able to succesfully cultivate the land in dry areas.


Het systeem van de verdedigbare boerderijen en het opslaan van water was fragiel en onderhoudsintensief, en heeft de invallen van Berberstammen vanaf de zesde, en de islamitische veroveringen in de zevende eeuw niet overleefd.

The system of defendable outposts and water retrieval was fragile and maintenance intensive and did not survive Berber raids beginning in the 6th century and the Islamic conquest in the 7th century.

As for the actual language of the inscriptions, there is still some controversy as to what it actually is:

Sommige Berberologen en Afrikanisten wilden nog wel geloven dat arme pachters Punisch waren blijven spreken, maar de elite niet, die sprak Latijn. Maar de inscripties zijn bewijs uit de eerste hand dat het Punisch ook door de upper class aan de kust nog in de derde eeuw na Christus werd gesproken, zoals ook al blijkt uit de overlevering rond keizer Septimius Severus (rond 200 AD, red.), die uit Lepcis Magna kwam.

Some berberologists and africanists still wanted to believe that while poor leaseholders still spoke Punic, the elite did not and switched completely to Latin. But the inscriptions are a first-hand proof that Punic was still spoken by the upper class on the coast as late as the 3rd century AD, as is also evident from the tradition surrounding the Emperor Septimius Severus who was born in Leptis Magna.

I found Dr. Kerr's findings concerning the phonology of the inscriptions utterly fascinating. He compared the writing conventions used in both Latin and Punic inscriptions of North Africa and found that the latter must be derived from the former. This lead him to the conclusion that the pronunciation of North African vulgar Latin must have strongly resembled that of Punic. In both languages, for example, ellision of unstressed vowels is a rule. Dr. Kerr believes that the phonology of both vulgar Latin and Punic in North Africa must have been influenced by a substrate language which he terms Berbero-Libyan. In his own words:

Vergelijk het met de overeenkomst in uitspraak tussen het Afrikaans en het Zuid-Afrikaanse Engels, of tussen het Iers en het Engels dat in Ierland wordt gesproken. De taal is anders, maar de tongval is herkenbaar.

Compare that with the similarities in pronunciation of Afrikaans and South African English, or Irish and Irish English. The language is different, but the accent is immediately recognizable.

And finally, even the good old St. Augustine (who was born in Roman North Africa) comes into play here:

Vaak wordt aangenomen dat Augustinus eigenlijk ‘Berbers’ bedoelde als hij het over Punisch had. Maar hij wist heel goed dat er verschil was tussen het Punisch en het Libico-Berber. Van het laatste wist hij dat het bestond, maar hij kende het niet. Augustinus herkende bijvoorbeeld ook Hebraïsmen in de oud-Latijnse Bijbelvertaling, doordat hij Punisch kende. Hij kende geen Hebreeuws.

It is often assumed that Augustine actually meant "Berber" when he spoke of Punic. But he was very well aware of the difference between Punic and Libyco-Berber. Of the latter he only knew that it existed, but he did not speak it. Augustine for example recognized Hebraisms in the Old Latin translation of the Bible because he spoke Punic. He did not speak any Hebrew.

Unfortunately, Robert Kerr's dissertation is not available on the website of the Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics. Bummer, certainly, but it will hurt less once you look around and notice the tons and tons of great stuff there. My favorites so far are Matthias Hüning's Woordensmederij (pdf) on the history of the Dutch suffix "-erij" and J.A.M Vermaas'
Veranderingen in de Nederlandse aanspreekvormen van de dertiende t/m de twintigste eeuw (pdf) on the history and development of Dutch forms of address. But there is also Johnny Tjia's A Grammar of Mualang (pdf, Ethnologue report here) and František Kratochvíl's (go Czech boys!) A Grammar of Abui (pdf) which was recently announced on linguistlist. So go and get it before they wise up :o)

UPDATE: The always brilliant Lameen follows up with a post linking to a comprehensive database of Neo-Punic and Latino-Punic texts kept by Dr. Jongeling of Leiden and quoting al-Bakri who suggests Punic (or a variation thereof) might have survived well into the 11th century. Do go and check it all out. And if you speak Dutch, Dr. Jongeling's page has a lot more goodies for ya, like this introductory grammar of Hebrew and an introduction to Welsh with exercises.