lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)
Here's a cool thing I learned a few months ago: Have you ever wondered about the prevalence of words in English spelled with an O but pronounced as if it were U; words like "son", "money" (and "honey"), "love" (and "dove"), "wonder", "London", and I suspect once upon a time, also "coney"*? What they all share in common is that the O is next to an M, N, V or W; and the reason for this spelling is that when a U is juxtaposed to one of these letters in Carolingian miniscules, it becomes very difficult to tell which letter is which, as is famously shown by writing the word "minimum" in miniscules:


Consequently, the spelling of the English words was changed to use an O instead of a U, which made life easier for readers a thousand years ago, though more difficult for people trying to learn English spelling. It's amazing how much insight knowing this has given me on English spelling; I keep coming across more and more words the spelling of which this explains.

* "Coney" used to be in general use in English to mean "rabbit". (The German for "rabbit", Kaninchen, rendered piecewise into its English cognates, comes out as the cutesy "coneykin".) But when in the nineteenth century "cunny" arose as slang for "c*nt", which was the pronunciation at the time of "coney", the latter dropped out use, despite an attempt to rescue it by pronouncing it the way it was written, in favour of the term "rabbit", originally meaning a young rabbit.

On a similar subject, I recently discovered from the History of English podcast the reason why we have in England, counties and countesses but not counts. These terms were brought into English from Norman French after the Norman Conquest, displacing the older English terms, but "count" never quite managed to displace "earl" because its pronunciation was too much like "c*nt". I reckon at the time, the former would have had the vowel in "food" and the latter the vowel in "good", making them more similar than they are today.

I wonder if there are any other words that resemblance to taboo words forced out of the language...

"Lay on"

Friday, October 21st, 2016 12:36 pm
lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)
The German for to pick an argument with someone is sich anlegen. This is not the sense in which we use "lay on" in English today, but I wonder whether it once was: "Lay on, Macduff!"
lethargic_man: (Default)
At school I was taught that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded and conquered Britain, pushing the Britons to the extreme west of the country and settling the rest themselves.

Later, I learned this was simplistic: The genetic evidence points to a mixed Celtic/Saxon population in England, so the Britons were still around there (though they may have been slaves).

Now I've learned another couple of interesting twists from the History of English podcast: First, there's documentary evidence that twenty years after the Roman legions left Britain to defend Rome, the Britons were successfully holding the Saxons at bay: they weren't the pampered civilians reliant on the Romans for defence we thought they had by then become. It was only later that the sheer weight of invading Saxons overwhelmed British defences.

And secondly, when William Duke of Normandy conquered England in 1066, reducing the Saxons themselves to a conquered people, one third of his army was not Norman but Breton. That's to say, descendants of the Britons who fled the Saxon advance by crossing the channel, lending their name to their area of France, and taking their Brythonic language and culture with them. So, for one third of William's army, they weren't invading a foreign country; they were coming back to the land of their ancestors and avenging their unjust displacement from it—and their bringing with them the Arthurian mythos in its most fully developed form suggests they themselves were aware of this.

That's pretty cool, I thought.
lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)

Back when I posted my English-through-1500-years video, David Curwin of the Balashon blog recommended I send it to Kevin Stroud of the History of English podcast, who tweeted it to his followers.

Ever since, I've been playing catch-up on the podcast; I'm currently up to episode 30 (and have also listened to episodes 75 (I think) to 82 which were podcast since then). Stroud is an amateur linguist, and makes a few mistakes (particularly regarding historical pronunciation, and the Semitic languages), but what he lacks occasionally in depth he makes up for in breadth, and I'm thoroughly enjoying listening to his podcast. Some of the earlier episodes (he begins his history of English with the proto-Indo Europeans) didn't tell me much I didn't know already, but the further he goes, the more I'm learning.

Anyhow, the reason I'm blogging this is because I recently learned through this podcast of the existence of the fifth-century Undley bracteate (medallion), which contains the oldest Germanic inscription found in England, and hence can be argued to be the oldest sentence known in English.

It reads g͡æg͡og͡æ mægæ medu, which Stroud translated "This she-wolf [depicted on the bracteate] is a reward for my kinsmen"; Wikipedia demurs about the first word, deeming it a "magical invocation or battle cry"; so that leaves mægæ medu "meed for the kinsmen", which seems disappointingly opaque for an English sentence at first glance. (Translating medu into modern English "meed" doesn't particularly help if you're not familiar with this word.)

However, a closer inspection does actually shed a little light, particularly if you know German. Mæg (nominative of mægæ) had a female form, mægþ, upon which the diminutive suffix -en (as in "chick-en") was appended to give mæġden, or to wind the clock on 1500 years, "maiden" in modern English. And medu "reward", turns out to be cognate to modern German mieten, "to rent" or "hire".

So despite this first recorded English sentence looking at first sight completely opaque, it turns out on close examination to involve roots I am indeed familiar with. I thought this was cool.

lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)
A year ago, I posted:
[S]omething I'd love to hear is a text read which starts in Old English, and as the reading progresses, the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary gradually shift into Modern English, via all the intermediate stages. A quick google does not show me any such thing, though there are things like this, which have discrete texts jumping forward several hundred years between each.
Originally I left it at that, because I do not have the skills to write English as it was written across the whole time period, but then it occurred to me that there is a text which was repeatedly rendered into the English of each period during the language's history: the Bible. It still took me months and months to get around to doing this, because it was a big project that required tens of hours of work, but I made a start on it during the second half of my recent period of unemployment (in between getting a job lined up and actually starting it), and here finally is the result:
If anyone has any questions about how or why I made this, or how or why English changed the way it did, or what decisions I made or why, I'll be happy to answer them in the comments. And do feel free to share this further onwards.
lethargic_man: (Default)
When I snack after dinner, it's on nuts and raisins (what the Germans amusingly call Studentenfutter, "students' fodder"). One reads that one should snack on healthy food like nuts, so I was quite surprised when [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m made a comment to be about nuts being high calorie. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised: a nut is a seed; it has all the resources in it to allow the germinating seed to grow to self-sufficiency. But I said that surely raisins would be higher calorie, because they contain all the sugar you find in a grape, but compressed into a smaller volume, meaning you are likely to eat more of them.

Well, in the way that one does (or at least I do), I went off to the Net of a Thousand Lies to investigate, where Google says that their calorie content is:
Nut typeCalorie content per 100g
Brazil nuts656
* Yes, I know they're actually peas, not nuts

Against which, raisins were just 299 calories per 100g. So go figure.

No, I'm not a calorie counter, but I find myself intrigued as to what one could snack on if one wanted to keep the numbers down. A quick glance at Google gives figures of 112 for couscous, 52 for apples, 89 for bananas, 47 for clementines... and 50 for the King of Fruit, the pineapple.

Well, looks like I've learned something.
lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)
Follow-up to my last post: I only realised a few months ago that אוי ווי זמיר "oy vey zmir, which I first heard in between the lines of a Shabbos zemira, has got nothing to do with zemiros, but is short for oy vey iz mir.

I was just thinking about this just now, and had another ping moment: In the English equivalent "woe is me", "me" is not accusative, as it normally is when without any accompanying words, but dative. (How could it be accusative when "to be", being a copula, takes a nominative?). In English "me" can be either accusative (corresponding to German/Yiddish mich) or dative (corresponding to German/Yiddish mir). The latter is normally preceded by "to" or "for", but it doesn't have to in German, and it strikes me there are probably stock phrases which preceded the need for the preposition to distinguish the two. That "woe is me" is an example is confirmed, I now see, by the places it is used in the KJV corresponding to dative in Hebrew, e.g. Psalms 120:5.

Another example that springs to mind is "methinks", which I already knew is not bad grammar for "I think", but short for "[it] thinketh me," Middle English for "it seems to me". Again, I hadn't realised until now that "me" here is dative.
lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)

In linguistics, the sounds a language distinguishes in its use are called phonemes. Sometimes, though, a language will contain sounds which though distinct do not convey different meaning; these are called allophones. A few examples from English: The sound at the start of the words "hew" and "hole" are different. In German this difference is phonemic, and the sounds are written differently—ch versus h—but in English it is not, which is why the sounds are written identically, and most native speakers will not have even realised they're different sounds until it's pointed out to them. (If it's still not obvious to you, try saying them, listening closely, and observing where your tongue is in your mouth.)

Other examples: The Ps in "peel" and "lip" are different: the former is aspirated (there's a puff of air when you're saying it), the latter is not. In English this difference is not phonemic; in (frex) Sanskrit-derived languages, it is. The Ls in these two words are also different; that in "peel" is a "dark" L, written ł in Slavic languages (except Polish, where AIUI the plebeian pronunciation /w/ displaced it a few centuries ago.

In Hebrew, the letters ‪ב ,ג ,ד ,כ ,פ‬ and ת may all take what's called a דָּגֵשׁ קַל (one of the different meanings a centre dot may have in Hebrew). This changes their pronunciation for ‪כ ,ב‬ and פ, and, depending on your pronunciation schema, possibly also ת. In Biblical Hebrew, however, the pronunciation of all these letters changed with a דָּגֵשׁ קַל, changing it to [b], [g], [d], [k], [p] and [t] from [v], [γ] (gh), [ð] (like in "this"), [χ] (kh, like in "loch"), [f] and [θ] (like in "thistle").

What's fascinating is that this difference appears not to have been phonemic in Biblical Hebrew*—where a letter with a דָּגֵשׁ קַל appears, the corresponding letter without דָּגֵשׁ קַל cannot be substituted and vice versa—so the two forms were allophones in Biblical Hebrew; which raises the question, given what I said in my opening paragraphs, of whether the ancient Israelites/Jews were able to hear the difference between ‪ב ,ג ,ד ,כ ,פ‬ and ‪בּ ,גּ ,דּ ,כּ ,פּ‬ and תּ. To me this difference is really obvious, but maybe the different H sounds in English "hew" and "hole" are equally obvious to German speakers, or those in "lip" and "peel" to Hindi or Ukrainian speakers.

(I'd also ask [livejournal.com profile] curious_reader, [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m and [personal profile] green_knight whether the differences between the two allophones of ch in German were obvious to them growing up, but since German grammar is a core part of the German curriculum, I'd guess neither of them remembers their reaction to the language before they learned about it formally in school...?)

* Thanks to loanwords such as "ketchup" (ending in a [p], impossible in Classical Hebrew), this is not the case in Modern Hebrew.

lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)

I get annoyed when I hear people pronouncing קַדְּשֵׁינוּ as [kadšeinu] or קִדְשָׁנוּ as [kidšanu]. Unless you're using the Israeli pronunciation, it's [kadəšeinu] and [kidəšanu]. Now, I know most of you use a different pronunciation schema, with different rules about when a שְׁוָא is vocalised or not, but some siddurim, including the fourth edition Singer's Prayerbook, indicate this, and they bear me out.

But why is this שְׁוָא a שְׁוָא נָע ("mobile", or voiced, שְׁוָא)? My journey to understanding this starts with [personal profile] ewt's copy ofWeingreen's Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew, which asserts that in Hebrew the Semitic genitive ending -i has been lost, and there is no difference between the nominative and genitive in Hebrew. Some time later, whilst davening, I noticed what seems to be a counterexample. (I'm still not sure if it actually is, because my understanding of Hebrew grammar isn't good enough.)

To recapitulate what I said in my previous post, the phrase בֵּית הַמִּקְדָשׁ is pronounced 'béth hammiqdhāsh' (to use Biblical pronunciation); however, מִקְּדָשׁ by itself, for example, in the Song at the Sea, has a geminated* ק, which makes the שְׁוָא a שְׁוָא נָע; hence the word is 'miqqədhāsh'. By contrast the former example, which is in the genitive, has no gemination on the ק and a silent שְׁוָא נַח.

* Gemination is doubling of a consonant, and its length: think of the length of the N sound in 'unnamed' in English compared with in 'un-aimed'.

I still don't know why the ק is is geminated in the one example and not the other, but I now feel confident the change in the realisation of the שְׁוָא is because of this. Once I'd noticed this, I started noticing other examples, which leads me to the answer to my original question. Hebrew verbs are composed of three root letters, and in the פִּעֵל the middle letter of the root receives a דָגֵשׁ (centre dot) if it is grammatically capable of doing so (i.e. is not a guttural (א, ה, ח, ע) or ר). Nowadays this largely makes no difference to the pronunciation, but in Biblical times and later, it geminated the consonant. In the case of a few consonants (פ, כ, ב, also ת if you're Ashkenazi or Iraqi, and ג and ד if you're Yemenite—and all of these historically) it also modifies the sound of the letter, but this does not remove the gemination of the letter.

Now, in some languages you can have a geminated consonant immediately next to another consonant, but not in Hebrew. Hence when a geminated consonant takes a שְׁוָא, that שְׁוָא must be vocalised. Hence קַדְּשֵׁינוּ and קִדְשָׁנוּ, which would originally have been pronounced [qaddəšeinu] and [qiddəš̄ānu], with doubled Ds. The verb being in the פִּעֵל doubles the length of the ד, the ד having a שְׁוָא then makes that שְׁוָא voices.

Now that I understand what's going on here, I have become alert to the same phenomenon in other places, and have begun to modify my pronunciation where I can see it's wrong. The same rule applies in שַׂבְּעֵנוּ מִטּוּבֶךָ וְשַׂמְחֵנוּ בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ: they are also verbs in פִּעֵל, so should be pronounced with [sab`əeinu] and [saməḥeinu], not [sab`einu] and [samḥeinu].

The presence of a דָגֵשׁ, forcing a שְׁוָא to be a שְׁוָא נָֹע, is not limited to this context. In the Shabbos shacharis Amida occurs the word מַתְּנַת. I'd always pronounced this [matnas]; however, there's a דָגֵשׁ in the ת as the legacy of the dropped נ (the word derives from the verb נתן, and where a letter elides out in Hebrew it normally leaves a trace in the form of a דָגֵשׁ in the following letter). Hence the word should be pronounced [matənas], and again the Singer's bears me out here.

Another example: Most people think the definite article in Hebrew is הַ־. In fact, it's actually that plus gemination of the following letter, where that letter permits it. In the Shabbos prayers, we make frequent reference to "the seventh day". "The seventh" is הַשְּׁבִיעִי; the דָגֵשׁ means it's [hašəvī`ī], not [hašvī`ī] (in Biblical Hebrew [haššəvī`ī]), and similarly וּבַשְּׁבִיעִי is [uvaš(š)əvī`ī], not [uvaš(š)vī`ī]: the דָגֵשׁ there represents the dropped ה, because בַ־ is short for בְהַ־. (Similarly מִ־ is short for מִן and the dropped נ causes gemination of the following letter.)

Now onto a different case. The Singer's Prayerbook indicates a שְׁוָא נָֹע in words like אָמְרוּ. This doesn't fit into the above categories; what's going on here? Weingreen informs me that a מֶתֶג (the short vertical line you sometimes see under a letter) occurs here; the מֶתֶג forces a pause and the end of the current syllable. (This is its use in the Bible; in siddurim it is, confusingly, often used for a different purpose, of indicating where the stress falls in a word.) This word is pointed אָ ֽמְרוּ (you may need to increase font size in your browser, using CTRL-+, to see the diacritics clearly); hence in Biblical times this would have been pronounced [ā|mərū], not [om|rū]: the מֶתֶג makes the reader pause and hence leaves the first syllable open, turning the vowel from [o] to [ā] (i.e. it does not have a קָמַץ קָטָן).

Unlike in the previous example, I do not understand why this מֶתֶג is there. So how do we know that it represents a genuine indication of how the word was pronounced in ancient times, particularly given that the נִיקוּּד (system of diacritics indicating vowels, including the מֶתֶג) is less than fifteen hundred years old (though is said to encapsulate older oral tradition)?

The answer, as pointed out to me by [livejournal.com profile] boroparkpyro, lies with transcriptions of names into other languages. The name אָ ֽסְנַת, which is pronounced by most people nowadays "Osnat", has a מֶתֶג under the א, and, indeed, the ancient transliterations of this name, Ασεννεθ and Asenath, bear this out. (You can see the same in other similar Biblical names: (A/O)holiav, (A/O)holibamah, perhaps also Basemath.)

So, in summary, I recommend davening with a siddur that indicates where a שְׁוָא is שְׁוָא נָע, and paying close attention to where the way you pronounce something doesn't agree with what it says in the siddur. It's probable that God isn't so petty as to get narked when you pronounce something wrong, but God probably also appreciates you putting in the extra effort to ensure you do pronounce things right.

(no subject)

Friday, May 25th, 2012 01:37 pm
lethargic_man: The awful German language (Mark Twain's words, not mine) (Die schreckliche deutsche Sprache)
One of these two words is English, and one German (for the same thing):

überboss, Oberchef

Can you work out which is which?
lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)

I got an unusual email today:

I stumbled across one of your blog posts while looking for how to write a birthday in Cuneiform, and was wondering if you have gotten any further along in your studies?

The reason why I ask is because I am typesetting a book for an author who would like to have his birthday (January 31, 1968) written in Cuneiform on the "About the Author" page.

I thought: either this will be a five minute google, or it will be completely beyond me. What I found, to my surprise, is that it was somewhere in between the two, so I regarded it as a challenge. Starting from an overview of the Babylonian calendar on Wikipedia, I found a calendar converter online, but it only supoprts dates up to 76 CE. So, to work out the birthday, we need to move the date back into that range. Now, the Babylonian calendar runs in a nineteen year period; this is because the lunar and solar calendars come together every nineteen years. So, if we move multiples of nineteen years into the past, we'll arrive at the same Babylonian day.

That's the theory.

In practice—warning: calendar geekery follows—the nineteen year cycle in the lunar calendar consists of 235 months of 29.53059 days, totalling 6939.68865 days; but nineteen solar years, according to the Gregorian year of 365.2425 days, comes to 6939.6075 days, i.e. the lunar year is 0.08115 days (1 hour, 56 minutes and 51.36 seconds) longer than the solar year. So, winding the birthday back by one hundred nineteen-year periods, we end up on the 31 January 68 CE Gregorian, which is 2 February 68 in the Julian calendar; but by that stage the lunar calendar is 154.185 days out of sync with the solar calendar—almost half a year!

So the question is: do we adjust the date by that period, or assume the Babylonians would have corrected their calendar to keep it synced with the solar year (like Western culture did with the switch to the Gregorian calendar)—or like the Jews, who also use a lunisolar calendar, and picked up the Babylonian month names during the Babylonian Exile. I'm going to assume the latter: after all, they did put intercalary months in to result in that nineteen year cycle, unlike the Muslims, whose calendar gradually gets earlier and earlier compared to the Gregorian calendar (which is why the Islamic calendar now says it's 1432 years after the Hejira, despite that happening 1389 common-sense years ago!).

So, if we enter 2 February 68 into the above web form, this tells us that the date then was 9 Shevat Šabaṭu of the year 378 of the Seleucid Era according to the Babylonian reckoning (and 379 according to the Macedonian reckoning), or year 314 of the Arsacid Era. Seleucus was one of the generals of Alexander the Great, who established an empire of his own in Babylonia after the death of Alexander; Arashk (or in Greek, Arsaces) was the founder of the (later) Parthian Empire. I have no idea which is more relevant, but let's go with the Seleucid reckoning, on the grounds that it's referred to more on the Net of a Thousand Lies. In reality, if cuneiform had remained in use, they would almost certainly have switched to the Islamic calendar, but by the time Islam reached Mesopotamia, cuneiform had fallen out of use in favour of the much easier to write Aramaic.

So, now how do we represent the date 9 Šabaṭu 2178? A prolonged google (via an interesting digression to the tablet showing the calculation of √2) seems to show that dates were expressed in the form:

MU <year-num> KAM <king-name> ITI <month-num> UD <daynum>

where MU, KAM, ITI and UD are sign names referring to, I think, what they represented in Sumerian; in Babylonian MU is (I think) šattu, ITI (w)arḫu (related to Hebrew יֶרַח), UD ūmum (יוֹם). KAM I couldn't easily find a Babylonian equivalent of, but it doesn't matter, as we're just using the cuneiform sign anyway. The formula above is from a late-period text, so that suits my purposes.

Therefore what I need to write is:

MU 36,18 KAM Si-lu-uk-ku ITI Šabaṭu UD 9

(where 36,18 is 2178 expressed in sexagesimal, the base 60 system the Babylonians used), which appears to be (mouseover for more information):

MU glyph 36,18 KAM glyph Si-lu-uk-ku ITI glyph Šabaṭu glyph UD glyph 9 glyph

Note: I'm not sure about the first sign of Seleucus's name; that appears before his name in various places, represented as a superscript m. I have no idea what it means. [ETA: Found it out: m, f and d represent signs indicating a man, a woman and a god(dess).]

So there you are, how to represent 31 January 1968 in Babylonian cuneiform. Do be warned, though, that if you use this, sooner or later you will get a knowledgeable reader coming up and pointing out that I've made horrendous mistakes, and mixed together cuneiform signs from a thousand years apart, or used the wrong sound value, or anything even worse.

But for your average reader, I could have written "I like linguistics geekery", and 99.9% of them would never know the difference. :o)

lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)

A year ago, I was in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, about which I wrote:

[There was] a surprisingly small number of explanatory labels. Actually, that's not entirely true: There was a lot of explanatory text on the artefacts; unfortunately it was all in Akkadian. I'm beginning to think I ought to teach myself cuneiform in the same way as I taught myself the Arabian alphabet, to look for Hebrew cognates (quite a few of which I was able to spot in transliterated names).

[livejournal.com profile] aviva_m then delighted me by getting me a copy of Assyrian Primer, an Inductive Method of Learning the Cuneiform Characters, by John Dyneley Prince, for my birthday. I duly set out to learn cuneiform, but didn't get very far, as it's very complicated. Read more... )

(no subject)

Monday, October 5th, 2009 07:18 pm
lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)
We are now in the middle of Succos, in which we welcome ushpizin, guests—specifically, the spirits of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon—into our succah.

I read a while ago (and unfortunately forgot to note where at the time) that the word ushpizin not only means guest, but is actually cognate to "guest" too!* This, I thought, was cool.

* Well, possibly; if Latin hostis (enemy) has the same root as hospes (guest, friend), which Klein's Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language claims, as does the Collins Concise English Dictionary and the Online Etymology Dictionary. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, however, says hospis is of unknown origin.
lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)
Max HeadroomWay back in the middle of the last century (all right, 1985) Channel 4 aired a one-hour telemovie giving the background to their Max Headroom computerised TV show presenter character. (They repeated it a few years ago.) Like many others, I loved the telemovie, but sadly it was never released on DVD. There was an American version made, in which the plot of the telemovie was, it seems, stretched out to an entire series; but I'm sure it would grate for me as wrong compared to the version I've now seen twice.

A few years ago, the British telemovie was released on DVD for rental (only) in Japan. As happens with this kind of thing, occasionally ex-rental discs find their way onto the secondhand market, and I found one listed on Amazon's Japanese site. However, one of the reviewers comments "作品そのものとしては★5つのところだが、DVDとしてはあまりにもショボい(価格の割に)のでマイナス★2つ,", which Google translates "The work itself is just one ★ 5, DVD is not too SHOBO (for the price) so negative ★ 2," and given that, I thought it wasn't worth the price (¥3,334 (£29) excluding P&P).

Occasionally, thought, I'll do a search for マックス・ヘッドルーム and today discovered another one (hands off—I got there first!), but this one without a picture or much information. I wanted to know whether it was the British version or the American, so I put together an email to the seller, and tweaked it until translating it into Japanese using Google's translation engine and then translating it back again gave me something approximating to what I started out with. I'm quite pleased with myself for taking the effort.

Along the way, I had to go to Wikipedia to find out the Japanese for "Japanese" to put in manually, because Google was turning it in one context to "Japan". This turned out to be 日本語 "Nihongo". Which made me wonder why Nihongo and not Nippongo (seems /p/ in Japanese became /ɸ/ (like the sound of v in Spanish (but presumably unvocalised)) and then /h/.) Which it turn made me wonder why it is that the Japanese for "Japan" is "Nippon", whereas the English, going back all the way to Marco Polo, is "Japan". (Polo gave the name as Cipangu—Chipangu with English orthography.) I've wondered this before, but if I've found out the answer, I've not remembered it.

To cut a long story short, the original name of Japan in Japanese was (amongst others), hi no moto, meaning "source of the sun", i.e. the Land of the Rising Sun. This was written in Chinese characters as 日本, where each character expresses a concept, not a sound. Reading the same characters as they would be read in Chinese (Cantonese?), but mangled through the constraints of Japanese, in which syllables can only be CV(n), this comes out as "Nippon".

Reading them, however, through Wu Chinese or early Mandarin, they come out as something like "Japan" (/zəʔpən/ in modern Shanghainese). And this is the form Marco Polo came across when he was in China.

And the "-gu" or "-go" on the end? This comes from Chinese guó, meaning "realm" or "kingdom". (Presumably the same as the "kuo" in the Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang, that ruled the Republic of China and has ruled Taiwan on and off since the fall of mainland China to the communists, or in "Manchukuo", the puppet state the Japanese set up after invading Manuchuria.)

And that is how Max Headroom led me to learn why the Japanese for "Japan" is "Nippon".
lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)

Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] rochvelleth—and to [livejournal.com profile] livredor for pointing her in my direction—I now have Mycenaean and Homeric Greek in my linguistics geekery icon too, yay! I have updated the original post to read as follows:

The first text on the third screen gives the phrase in Mycenaean Greek, written in Linear B, the script the Bronze-Age Greeks used, three thousand years ago. Linear B is an adaptation of Linear A, the script used to represent the Minoan language, and hopelessly unsuited to Greek: the text, which is glōssōn kharis, ends up represented as ko-ro-to-no ka-ri. (A similar mangling of language happened in the Middle East, where the cuneiform invented for representing Sumerian was shoehorned into representing Semitic languages too.)

Following the collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation, Greece entered a dark age so severe they even lost the art of writing. When they took writing back up centuries later, it was with a derivative of the Phoenician script. The second text shows the form of the phrase in Homeric Greek—hē glōsseōn kharis—using characters from the Dipylon inscription—one of the oldest inscriptions in the Greek alphabet, dating from not long after Homer himself, and is written from right to left.

The third text on the third screen shows the phrase in two different dialects of Ancient Greek (hē glōsséōn kháris in Ionic, and hē glṓttōn kháris in Attic); it also shows the form (hē glṓssōn kháris) in the Koine: the lowest-common-denominator language which, according to Wikipedia, arose amongst the soldiers of Alexander the Great's army, and is best known for being the language of the New Testament. (Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] darcydodo for helping me out with these.) The Ionic form is in fact the same as the Homeric one, but since Homer's time, the alphabet had changed, with new letters (Ω and η here), and diacritic marks.

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lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)

Here's something that's been missing from my blog so far: a linguistics geekery icon. It took me two evenings to put together, and was sufficiently interesting doing so that I think I'm going to blog about it here. [Now edited to add Mycenaean Greek.]

Read more... )
lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)

"Five lines of ancient script on a shard of pottery could be the oldest example of Hebrew writing ever discovered, an archaeologist in Israel says," reports the BBC News site. "Preliminary investigations since the shard was found in July have deciphered some words, including judge, slave and king." It even provides a picture:

...which is fine for giving an impression to those who can't read Palaeo-Hebrew, and can't understand Hebrew, and is maddening to those of us who can! I've just spent the last five minutes googling other news sites, and can't find any better picture than this, which is just good enough to show that a letter aleph is being pointed to, and one or two other letters, but that's all.

How annoying!

(Of course, I'm sure if I but wait—possibly for proper publication—I will learn more.)

lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)
The guy working at the desk behind mine is an American, and asked us if we wanted to see what a USAn postal vote (or as he called it, absentee vote) looks like. The ballot itself and the instructions came marked in three languages. One was English, one Spanish; the third was not immediately obvious:
Enstriksyon Pou Votè Peyi Etranje Yo
(Instructions for Overseas Voters.) It looked like it might be Romance from that, but there wasn't enough there for me to be sure these weren't all words borrowed from another language, so I read on:
Li enstriksyon sa yo ak anpil atansyon anvan nou make bilten vòt lan.
(Read these instructions carefully before marking ballot.) The guys sitting around me thought it might be Portuguese, but it didn't look Portuguese, and I had a sneaky suspicion that it might be... But wait, first you have one more try:
Trè enpòtan. Pou asire w ke yo konte bilten vòt pou moun ki pap la w an, se pou w gen tan ranpli li epi voye li tounen bay Sipèvizè Eleksyon Miami-Dade lan le pli vit ke posib pa pi ta ke 7:00 p.m. (diswa) menm jou eleksyon an.
Have you got it yet? My suspicions were confirmed when I found the page entitled "Enstrikson—Kreyòl". It's Creole. Read it aloud and you'll see it's like phonetically spelled slangily pronounced French (with a lot of loanwords). I found it fascinating: I've never actually come across Creole beforehand.

Klein wins

Sunday, July 13th, 2008 03:17 pm
lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)
My Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, and Collins Concise dictionary all merely list "bitumen" as having derived from Latin bitūmen. Rather to my surprise, I was able to get some more detail from Klein's Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language (whilst looking up בֶּטוֹן beton, "concrete", which turns out to derive, via French, from this word):
L. bitūmen (= mineral pitch), an Osco-Umbrian loan word (the genuine Latin form form would have been *vetūmen, from *gwetūmen, of Celtic origin.
Cool, eh?

(Still doesn't tell me where *gwetūmen came from, though: it looks too long to simply be a single term meaning "bitumen, pitch". What do the individual parts of it mean?)


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Lethargic Man (anag.)

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