Sunday, September 30, 2012


Unless you've been living under a rock these past weeks, you know about the Gospel of Jesus' Wife (GJW), so no intro, just the basic overview: this is the draft PDF of the paper by Karen King, Alin Suciu has some great comments, Mark Goodacre links to detailed textual analysis by Francis Watson (but see Timo Paananen for a rebuttal) and a video by Christian Askeland; and Jim Davila is, as always, your go-to guy for the complete picture of the debate. Before I venture any further, let me offer a disclaimer: I have no dog in the fight over the historical Jesus and my faith (such as it is) is not threatened by the very idea of Him being married. To me, this whole debate is first and foremost a wonderful example of how scholarship works and it's a great thing to watch it more or less live. Well, mostly watch, because (disclaimer continues) I am no expert on either Coptic or any aspect early Christianity and thus I cannot and will not offer any opinion as to the authenticity of the GJW fragment. I did, however, leave one comment on Mark Goodacre's blog where I essentially wondered aloud about some usage in GJW I found peculiar. As it so happened, yesterday earlier this week on Charles Halton's blog, Gesine Robinson offered her view of the whole affair and her remark #8 addresses the same point, except of course in a much more detailed and better articulated manner. I'm reproducing it below with one modification - I've changed the transliteration scheme[1] to something that I find a little easier on the eyes:

Therefore, the rather rare phrase PEDžE IS* (though frequently used in the Gospel of Thomas since we have to do there with a collection of Jesus’ sayings) is used even in both instances of speaking, instead of the form PEDžAF (+ pronominal/nominal object) + NQI + subject that is more common in dialogues or other literary texts. Here in the first instance one would expect something like PEDžAU NIS* NQI NMAThÉTÉS, and in the second instance PEDžAF NAU NQI IS*, or since Jesus answers the disciples, even AFOUÓŠB[2] NQI IS* PEDžAF NAU DžE. It seems a cautious and perhaps unsure modern Coptologist was at work here.

To actually understand what's going on, first, PEDžE. Translated as "(pronoun) said", PEDžE belongs to a funny little class of words Layton (2000:297-314) refers to as verboids. Semantically, they are like verbs, and they can even take some of the verbal affixes, but there are a few important aspects in which they differ from actual verbs. In case of PEDžE, they are as follows:

  1. 1. PEDžE cannot be negated or converted, i.e. it cannot take the relative, circumstantial, preterit or focalizing prefix (Layton 2000:321-322).
  2. 2. PEDžE only expresses the past tense.
  3. 3. PEDžE can only be conjugated sufixally.
  4. 4. PEDžE can appear in two forms: 
    • independently (PEDžE), in which case it must be immediately followed by the subject noun or pronoun (Layton's 'prenominal state').
    • suffixed (conventionally written as PEDžA=) where the suffix marks the subject of the action of speaking (Layton's 'prepersonal state'). In this case, if the 3rd person subject is also expressed by a noun, the noun is preceded by the preposition NQI.

In GJW, PEDžE (i.e. the prenominal state) appears twice: first on line 2 (PEDžE MMAThÉTÉS NIS* DžE ... = "The apostles said to Jesus: ...") and then of course on line 4 (PEDžE IS* NAU TAHIME = "Jesus said to them 'My wife...'"). The objection Dr. Robinson raises is that this is unlikely since PEDžE in its prenominal state is rare and seeing it twice in such a short text even more so when there are other (presumably more frequent) constructions that could have been used. We have very little reason to doubt Dr. Robinson's intuition and experience. But what we also have is a way to actually check whether she's right. Distribution and probability, that's all we're dealing with here, and that is a familiar theory NLP territory where a corpus and some math is all you need. The questions to be asked can be reformulated as follows:

1. Is the prenominal state of PEDžE indeed rare?
2. What is the probability of one prenominal PEDžE following another?
3. What about the frequency of other constructions?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


A while back over at Lameen's place, we discussed the mystery morpheme -ij-/-iyy- that is used in Maltese and Siwi Berber with the plural suffix -at/-iet. Lameen argued that in both cases, it seems to be employed chiefly with nouns whose form is atypical for the given language. For Maltese, this would definitely make sense, since many of Maltese nouns with plural ending in -ijiet are borrowings. In fact, of the 20 most frequent nouns of this type in the MLRS Corpus, only three are of Arabic/Semitic origin: xogħlijiet = "works", mistoqsijiet = "questions" and aħbarijiet = "news". Sounds straightforward enough, especially in the context of Maltese where there is a separate conjugation paradigm for borrowed verbs, thus the existence of a noun suffix used predominantly with borrowed nouns with their strange and unusual syllable structures and vowel patterns is not that surprising.
This, however, cannot be the full story. For one, the question of 'what is a typical noun form' is one that is not that easy to answer. Secondly, Maltese is notorious - well, at least among us melitists - for applying some creative broken plurals to borrowed nouns. Thus we get forma / forom, storja / stejjer, spiża / spejjeż ("cost"), rotta / rotot ("routes") and so on, even though, say, storja with its four consonants or spiża with its very un-Semitic initial consonant cluster are not exactly, um, typical. At the same time, Romance borrowings of the honest-to-El Semitic CCVC / CVCC type (see Lipiński 2001:216) like skop or post form their plurals by means of the suffix -ijiet. Obviously there are other factors here at play, like perhaps the age of the borrowing or even the place and manner of articulation of root consonants, which would all have to be taken into account if a more detailed explanation is to be provided.
And then there's the whole semantic aspect. As Lameen notes in a reply to my comment where I wondered why we get art / artijiet ("earth, land") instead of *arieti (< Ar. 'arāḍī with presumed imāla, depharyngealization and devoicing) or żmien / żminijiet (instead of something like *azmina):

... "earth", "time", and for that matter "mother" are all words that are very rarely pluralised, increasing the pressure to adopt some commoner plural type.
This makes perfect sense - so in the evolution of Maltese, the original *arieti or something similar fell into disuse and artijiet, formed most likely by analogy, took over. And as I was reminded this morning by Charles Briffa's new book Iż-Żmien fuq Sider Malta, we actually have evidence for this shift. Not just any evidence, mind you, the mother of all evidence: Il-Kantilena. If you're reading this and you don't know about Il-Kantilena, feel free to consult Wikipedia for more details (I recommend the French version which seems to offer the most comprehensive account, and this image for the actual text). Suffice it to say that it is the oldest literary text in Maltese composed by Pietru Caxaro and dates back to the late 15th century (terminus ante quem 1485). We find what we're looking for on line 18:

Transcription (Wettinger and Fsadni 1968):
haliex liradi ’al col xibir sura

Modern orthography:
Għaliex l-iradi għal kull xiber sura:

because DEF-land.PL for every span [1] shape

for each (piece of land) has its own shape (features)
And here it is: it would seem that ca. 1470, the noun art still formed a broken plural. One might consider - especially in the light of the genre - the possibility that Caxaro deliberately chose an archaism for both effect and reasons of metrics, but as for the latter, the number of syllables is the same for l-artijiet and l-iradi. In any case, it seems Lameen's hypothesis is correct and by 1796, the publication of Vassalli's Lexicon Melitense-Latino-Italum, art only had the suffixed plural form, in Vassalli's spelling Ardijyt
By the way, if you're wondering why it's iradi and not my hypothetical *arieti, it's because I forgot to account for the emphatic which, at least in most cases, inhibits imāla.
Finally, if you want hear what Il-Kantilena might have sounded like try the video below. The performer, Dr. Martin Zammit, is an Arabist and it kinda shows - for example in verse 18 (1:32) where the first word has -ie-, Martin reads [halāš]. Nevertheless, I think it is a pretty good approximation.

[1] span = "the space between thumb and forefinger". Cachia (1994:89) glosses għal kull xiber as għandhom = "they have".