31 Jul 2007

The origins of Greco-Chinese apeirophobia

Let's say you have a swift runner and a lazy-going tortoise placed on a track with the intent of racing each other for the curious enjoyment of a classical audience. Do not ask why. This absurd scenario is purely theoretical for the sake of a point about dead philosophers. Now, the tortoise, being slow, is given a head start by the gracious Achilles. In order that Achilles even pass his reptilian competitor, he must first travel the distance from himself to the tortoise. Yet before, he gets to the tortoise, he must have travelled half of that distance. And before half that distance, he must have journeyed a quarter the distance, and before that, an eighth, and before that, a 16th, et cetera ad vomitum. As we can see then, he has to accomplish an infinite number of tasks to even get to that sluggish turtle. So we can conclude that Achilles will never win the race at all, no matter how fast he runs.

No, wait. Nevermind. Bad example. Let's just skip the Greek calculus exam and sum it all up by saying that, um... the dimensionless cannot be accumulated, yet its size is a thousand miles. Sound good? Excellent.

What am I carrying on about? Infinity, of course. And both the Ancient Chinese and the Classical Greeks are to blame for its discovery as well as the countless mathematicians on both sides of Eurasia tormented by its abstract purgatory of existential paradoxes during the following two millenia thereafter. Personally, I like to think that both Zeno of Elea and Hui Shi were fraternal twins seperated at birth on the open Indian sea by a freak storm. Strangely, they both covered similar topics involving the notions of infinity, motion and spacetime approximately 2500 years ago without the use of a telephone. Another coincidence is that little happens to be known of both of these people's lives.

Zeno of Elea, a Greek, was born in the town of Elea (hence the name) and was probably born around 490 BCE. Zeno was said to be a handsome man, at least according to Plato, and in his youth he had probably been the eromenos to an older philosopher named Parmenides (read Plato, Parmenides, 127b). He seems to especially have been devoted to the notion of paradoxes involving the divisibility of dimensions, the nature of motion and the illusion of plurality. He appears to have made a name for himself through his genius explorations taking advantage of logical proof by contradiction to undermine the very things we most take for granted in our daily lives. He is famous for the self-named Zeno's Paradox involving that mindnumbing turtle example above.

However, miles away, a contemporaneous fellow by the name of Hui Shi (惠施) wrote about surprisingly similar things concerning plurality and our notions of infinity. He was part of the "School of Names", a nebulous label we use for a group of recognized philosophers of the same time period as Zeno and his followers, who likewise delighted in paradoxes, mind twisters and an overall profound contemplation of logic in a way that wasn't done before (as far as we know). And of course, it can be attributed to Hui Shi who stated in Classical Chinese:

  • 无厚不可积也,其大千里。
    Wú-hòu bù kě jī yě, qí dà qiān lǐ. (Modern Mandarin pronunciation)
    Literally: Non-thickness not can accumulate also its size thousand miles.
    The dimensionless cannot be accumulated, yet its size is a thousand miles.
(Mar 27 2008) Updated thanks to a tipoff from an anonymous person. The Chinese character 也 is to be read yě, not tā whose character is quite similar: 他. Sorry, this is due to my carelessness.

26 Jul 2007

Sherdnerd hosts Four Stone Hearth and spreads scholarly love my way

I forgot to take my happy pills this week. Just when you think you're unloved, the world is getting dumber and we're all going to die in an ominous mushroom cloud of atomic radiation, badabing! Hugs and kisses come out of nowhere and smack you upside the head to brighten your day. Go figure.

I was scoping the internet today and visited the Four Stone Hearth website again. This link was an interesting tip-off provided by one of my visitors and so I've been lurking on it lately to see what it's all about. It calls itself a "blog carnival" and it chooses other bloggers to host each installment every two weeks. From what I gather, each bi-weekly host then submits content on their own blog as a holy offering to Four Stone Hearth. In this way, it provides readers with a steady, meaty collection of informative leads on topics relating to the social sciences and helps bloggers combine their readership together to make their input more visible. Wow! I have to say it's got me hooked. A fabulous idea. See, Wikipedia? That's a proper use of "Web 2.0". Bad Wikipedia, bad!

So moving on, it turns out that a Egyptology blog called Sherdnerd recently hosted the 19th installment of Four Stone Hearth. And looky, looky...

To my shock I'm mentioned there in company with Abnormal Interests, a very intelligent blog that I uncovered some time ago through the article By the Numbers concerning Egyptian numerals written in cuneiform script during the Middle Kingdom.

Well, geez Louise. The pressure's on. I better get snappy and pull up my sport socks then. No more boozing for ol' Glenny on the weekends. Time to crack open more of those library books and blog, blog, blog!

25 Jul 2007

ETP 187: More weirdness

I'm not sure what is up with the Etruscan Text Project (ETP) and its indexing system. I found duplicates in it that have gone unchecked for a full year (as I've explained previously on this blog). Now what is published in Etruscan News doesn't match what the ETP website claims.

I just noticed that in the newsletter Etruscan News [pdf] (Winter 2006, volume 5, page 5), Rex Wallace of UMass subtly slips in one of his ETP indices, namely ETP 187, amidst a big list of more widely recognized indices from Etruskische Texte (often abbreviated as ET). He is attempting to demonstrate here that a gentilicium Vetna (genitive Vetnal)[1] is well attested and that it relates to the family name that is present in an inscription from the town of Chiusi. I have no objections whatsoever towards the validity of the name however since indeed it is well attested and his conclusions on the two inscriptions he speaks about here are sober and informative.

Putting aside shameless self-promotion of his own project which quite frankly isn't such a big sin considering that we're all trying to promote ourselves somehow, the real problem is that there is no trace of Vetnal on his own project's website under the index he gives. ETP 187 can be seen here. All it shows is a fragment of a vase reading [---]raices zav[---]. Whatever happened to proofreading? There's nothing on the ETP website indicating the presence of vetnal at all and so I can either surmise that it is another error thanks to ETP, or a note is in order explaining why the name is not visible here despite what is said in Etruscan News.

Perhaps those from the ivory tower don't expect plebeian pedants like myself to actually spend their spare time verifying what is published.

[1] (Jul 25/07) I added minor clarity to my hasty wording. I said quickly "the gentilicium Vetnal" but of course, more accurately, Vetna is the citation form with Vetnal as its genitive form. I felt I needed to change that. Maybe I have OCD. Whatever. Who are you to judge me? Hehe.

24 Jul 2007

The dicey proof of Etruscan numerals

There are a pair of dice called the Tuscania dice that everyone studying Etruscan encounters. It's unavoidable. Whenever an Etruscologist of any sort publishes anything about the Etruscan numeral system, it's a done deal that we will be told of those lovely ivory dice and how this somehow proves conclusively the proper order of the numerals. It is said that dice in classical times followed a specific order and were made such that any two opposing sides would be respectively marked with numbers that when added together equalled seven. So if we have "one" on one side, we expect "six" on the other. If we have "four" on one side, we expect "three" on the other. And so on, and so on.

The words for most numbers in Etruscan are no longer up for debate because of the many inscriptions beyond just the dice that show their true mathematical values. However some numbers, the words for "six" and "four", are still being debated to this very day.

You see, from these dice, despite other notables in the field who had said before this discovery that śa means "six" and huθ means "four", we are now often told, far too confidently, the very opposite, based only on these dice, that śa means "four" and huθ means "six". Upon reading that information, the reader is expected to sleep tight and feel that they know everything they need to know. The debate is now closed...

But is it?

Unfortunately, the pattern on the dice are not as dependable as widely believed. The following link hits home a simple message, easily verifiable, which quickly uncovers a masked uncertainty in this material evidence:
On each page is a lucid warning at the top: "Note that many ancient dice are NOT numbered in the standard (1-6, 2-5, 3-4) way." Be warned and take note of the various patterns possible. Frankly, it's somewhat common sense that in an age before mass production, there must have been variation but this revelation in itself undermines the hallowed evidence. There is, of course, no scientific reason that "1-6, 2-5, 3-4" should be a preferred pattern over all others since if the dice are properly made, all sides should have an equal chance of turning up with each roll.

As you can see by this list of photos of ancient dice discovered in various locations, there is indeed a prevalent classical pattern of "1-6, 2-5, 3-4" which would seem at first to confirm the feelings of many Etruscologists, however there are also a significant number of dice that follow other patterns like "1-3, 2-4, 5-6" and "1-2, 3-4, 5-6" showing that the debate on the proper order of the Etruscan number system, particularly concerning the words for "four" and "six" are just not resolved to any appreciable degree by these artifacts alone.

20 Jul 2007

Dr Weiss delivers up Etruscan grammar online

As per his biography online, the good Dr Weiss is Associate Professor at Cornell University's Department of Linguistics. Focussing on Indo-European linguistics, he states that he is "currently working on a book about the Iguvine tables, the most important surviving texts in the Umbrian language". That description has been there for a while though and I'm not sure how he's coming along with that or whether he has published something interesting but you can see a sample of his work online as well (see Introduction: The Third and Fourth Iguvine Tables [pdf]). This unusual openness to information and creating pdfs for online consumption makes him a modern hero in my books, an example of what all professors should be striving to do nowdays to open education up to all around the world who are hungry for knowledge. It's a matter of promoting the greatest social good in a world that needs healing.

One of his online articles deals with Etruscan grammar [pdf] which is natural considering that Etruscan studies overlap with Osco-Umbrian studies. These languages and cultures afterall were all living in the same region. As a whole, it's a detailed account of the language that you won't find anywhere else, and I mean anywhere else, available for free on the internet. In fact, you will probably have trouble finding something like this at your local libraries as well. Now, it's not without mistakes, mind you, and ol' Glenny has to nag. However, I can certainly give mercy to someone specialized in Indo-European linguistics to goof up on Etruscan which is outside their field, rather than forgiving the countless specialists actually devoted to Etruscology who still make the same miserable mistakes. The errors you can find in that pdf are not his own mistakes since he is merely relaying information extracted from specialized sources of respected notables like the fallible Helmut Rix. Beware, fellow readers, as always.

One pernicious little meme written on page 460 of this pdf is the belief that the Etruscan second person pronoun "you" is un. This is rhetoric written by Rix but it's understood by many others in the field that the pronoun has in fact never yet been retrieved. Rix's attribution of un, une and unu (the last form being potentially fabricated by missegmenting words) as we find attested in the Liber Linteus to the 2nd person pronoun is unconvincing and even disprovable because the plural of that word is also found in the Liber Linteus, unχva, and since -χva is the inanimate plural suffix (explicitly stated as such in the same pdf, page 458), we can clearly see that the whole translation of un then is yet another self-contradiction given far too much worth. We would do well to sift these errors out of our consciousness.

Also present in the pdf is the continued and very popular mistranslation of the word for śa as "four" (even though there is a hill of evidence, mostly downplayed or even absent in most scholar's published accounts, showing that it means "six"). There are quite a number of considerations I have personally found to explain why this is wrong, provably so for all time, but alas. This one is an itch just waiting to be scratched but I'll put some salve on it for now. Perhaps I can save this for another blog entry since it deserves a long essay, but let's just say that even Massimo Pallottino admitted the real possibility that the interpretation of this numeral as "four" was inaccurate because of certain evidence from the Tomb of Anina. But don't concern yourselves with that and certainly don't scramble for his book The Etruscans (1975) and do something hasty like flip to his notes section to see what I'm talking about. Just silly details that undevoted academics shouldn't concern themselves with. Moving on...

There's also, here on page 466, the bizarre Rixian connection of meχ θuta to "of his own money" based on a random appeal to an obscure Oscan phrase, suvad eítiuvad, but this does poorly to explain other oft-inscribed Etruscan phrases like meχ Rasnal which anyone else would translate as "people of Etruria" or something similar (ie. "Etruscan state", "Etruscan league", "Etruscan people", etc). The more commonly found translation of meχ as "people" (Larissa Bonfante, Reading The Past: Etruscan, 1990, page 60) goes a longer way in making these texts intelligible. Rix merely confuses his students here with historical irrelevancies.

New Age + Nutritional Science = Tasty fish and chips

Perpetual internet surfer that I am, I managed to come across this pearl of science-based madness on one of my latest electronic safaris. I normally try to make meaningful posts, but frankly I can't make heads or fishtails about this one. Read the abstract of this American article entitled Cultural symbolism of fish and the psychotropic properties of omega-3 fatty acids and then tell me how hungry you feel for either:

a) a tasty plate of fish with a dab of butter and a glass of wine


b) real science not hijacked by a desperation to publish anything no matter how vacuous or conjectural

17 Jul 2007

Thoughts on the early Indo-European subjunctive 1ps ending

I had an intriguing thought a while back. No doubt it's published but you never know.[1] Maybe I'm original for once. So just in case, I want to pass it on to you all. It was a flash I had after I wrote something previously about the subjunctive and its development into the present-future indicative of non-Anatolian/non-Tocharian languages of the Indo-European family of languages.

What always nagged my curiosity was why on earth Proto-Indo-European (PIE) had a first person singular in *-oh₂ for thematic present-future forms (e.g. *bʰér-oh₂ "I carry") yet *-mi for athematic ones (e.g. *káp-mi "I take"). In the past I came up with a whole bunch of completely lame excuses, but I assure you all I was desperate in the absence of guidance from wiser academics who didn't seem to touch the subject in a comprehensive and comprehensable way. However, I think, my dear Watsons, I've finally got it!

It seems to me that the first person of the subjunctive implies something that is different from all other persons. In most languages, the subjunctive is the mood we use when we want to indicate a hunch, emotional feelings, a hypothetical situation or any other idea that lies outside the strict statements of empirical fact that the indicative is meant to cover. Naturally, however when we convey our own feelings or our own potential acts in the first person, we are surely speaking with the utmost authority. Afterall, who else knows best what I will do but I myself. (Speaking of which, I will no doubt go to a local café again to ponder on early Indo-European grammar some more, hehe.) The other persons of the subjunctive are different because we can never be as sure what the potentiality of an action or the true feelings of another person really are, were or will be. Thus we can say that the first person subjunctive is a more certain statement of irrealis when compared to all other persons.

With that revelation, let's agree then that original PIE (the one that preceded the oldest divergeance, that of the Anatolian and Tocharian languages) likely contained the following conjugated forms:
  • indicative present-future 3ps *bʰēr-ti "he carries"
    (later *bʰér-e-ti via the subjunctive)
  • indicative preterite 3ps *bʰēr-t "he carried"
  • subjunctive 3ps *bʰér-e-t "he would carry"
  • mediopassive 3ps *bʰer-ór "he carries (something for himself)"
    (later *bʰer-e-tór or *bʰer-e-tói)
Notice the mediopassive form which was used to express passives (i.e. "It was given") or reflexives (i.e. "I shave (myself)" or "I sit (for myself)"). In its earliest form, it's known to have used the same endings as in the perfective but with the addition of a mediopassive suffix *-r and a shift of the tonal accent to the suffix. This form is witnessed in Celtic, Anatolian and Tocharian branches. The use of perfective endings was a natural consequence of the fact that these endings marked largely intransitive actions to begin with. Reflexives and passives can be seen as a subclass of intransitive verbs. So naturally then, a specialized mediopassive ending was formed out of the originally general perfective ending. However, if we have to accept this chain of events, it implies that before the mediopassive was created, the perfective endings themselves had been used to mark reflexives in an earlier stage of (pre-)PIE.

Now we come back to the 1ps of the subjunctive which low and behold seems to contain a perfective ending, something that I contend marked the reflexivity inherent in the subjunctive of that person. When stating, for example, "I would go", one is in effect saying "I would go (speaking for myself personally)". It's no wonder then, considering it this way that we should find the subjunctive 1ps terminating in *-oh₂ (that is, that ubiquitous thematic vowel *-e/o- plus the old perfective ending *-h₂(e) that marked the ancient reflexive as it existed before the adoption of a specialized mediopassive conjugation).

Now I can make sense of the suppletive pattern we see in the subjunctive-turned-future-indicative endings:
  • 1ps *bʰér-o-h₂ "I would carry (speaking for myself)"[2]
    (later *bʰér-o-h₂ "I will carry")
  • 2ps *bʰér-e-s "you would carry (as far as I know)"
    (later *bʰér-e-si "you will carry")
  • 3ps *bʰér-e-t "he would carry (as far as I know)"
    (later *bʰér-e-ti "he will carry")
If the above hasn't already been published, then please publish the damn thing so that we can all move on with our busy linguistic-obsessed lives and adequately reconstruct far older protolanguages sometime in this century. Thanks a bunch.

[1] The above thought, by the way, is built on ideas already published (see Hittite and the Indo-European Verb, by Jay H Jasanoff) but I'm just not sure whether anybody explained the subjunctive in this way before. Hmmm...
[2] Some people, I wager, will be still confused about why there is no *-i on the later thematic 1ps indicative *bʰér-o-h₂ but in order to explain this we need to appeal to Mandarin Chinese and its particle zài as a real-world parallel of both grammar and etymology with that of the marker *-i in Proto-Indo-European. Just as Mandarin zài, a particle literally meaning "being there" used to mark continuous actions, is barred from perfective forms with particle le, so too would *-i be likewise disallowed in PIE's perfective aspect, despite many IEists who like to entertain the possibility of the two endings coexisting together. If what I'm saying is correct (that the 1ps subjunctive was in effect an old reflexive perfective), then we have a grammatical reason to justify the attested avoidance of *-i in being used in *-o-h₂.

(Aug 3 2007) I don't know what possessed me to put the accent on the thematic vowel of the subjunctive paradigm (i.e. I wrote **bherét instead of proper *bhéret) but I took my medication and I feel better now. The accent should be on the root and so I've changed all instances of it here. Good thing I review my own crap. In fact, I can't explain the alternating *e/*o pattern of the thematic vowel unless it is unaccented so this suits me just fine. I plan to talk about thematic vowels further in an upcoming blog entry.

(Mar 19 2008) I corrected the following "In its earliest form, it's known to have used the same endings as in the perfective but with the addition of a mediopassive suffix *-r and a shift of the tonal accent to the penultimate syllable." The part in italic bold was changed to "suffix". I assume I was mixing up different stages of Pre-IE when I wrote this because this statement is only valid for Mid IE.

Etruscan Texts Project (ETP): Update on their database error

As I had already stated in a previous blog, I was astonished that, despite being a much needed website for distributing information on Etruscan inscriptions to everyone online, the Etruscan Texts Project (ETP) at the University of Massachusetts had a lazy duplication error sitting in its database for more than a year (!!!?) before I, the neurotic that I admittedly am, notified them by email. They graciously responded but gave me a lame techie tale about the complications of EpiDoc formatting. Being that they don't know who I am from mitochondrial Eve, they no doubt assumed that I was some average hobbyist without experience in empty database technobabble.

Since they surely have resolved their technological dilemma months later, lo and behold, the same errors are still sitting there:

ETP 341
ETP 358

Is "lazy" too politically incorrect an adjective nowdays, or should I dare let that poor cat out the bag? No one's perfect, but come off it already! Quite frankly, I don't think it's unfair to question the professionality of a university project maintained by anonymous characters "James" and "Zilath" anyway. Anonymity is for Wikipedia. Where did accountability go or were those mores finally abandoned in the last century for the euphoria of dogmatic relativism?

While they are apparently receiving (and spending?) funds from other generous organizations for their academic ennui (see here), I coincidently haven't yet noticed too many persons citing ETP index numbers. Of course, we do find a certain Rex Wallace making reference to a few in his article in the Summer 2006 newsletter Etruscan News but you may have already guessed where Rex Wallace heralds from. Yes, the University of Massachusetts. In fact, he is the very person that directs the ETP Project itself (read more under About ETP). Beautiful marketing, really. Good job, good job. The conspiracy thickens...

13 Jul 2007

Religion in Ancient Etruria: A comedy of errors that keeps on giving

Imagine an Egyptologist who knows little of Middle Egyptian grammar, or a Mayanist who is unfamiliar with the Yucatec ejective stop. I hope we can all agree that it is an obligation of historians to learn everything they can about the ancient culture that they study... including the language of that culture. If language is the very voice of a people, being ignorant of that voice is as unproductive as trying to follow the plot of a full-length movie with the volume turned to zero.

Jean-René Jannot, a professor emeritus of history and archaeology from the University of Nantes in France, has recently published an English language book called Religion in Ancient Etruria (2005), a translation by Jane Whitehead (assistant professor at Valdosta State University) of his Devins, dieux, et demons: Regards sur la religion de l'Etrurie antique.

Judging by the shallow reviews of his and many other books regarding Etruscan history online, we'd be led to believe that his opus is a trimph of human knowledge.

In reality, when understanding just how tainted this book is with simple errors and self-contradictions just on the Etruscan language alone, it seriously calls into question the extent of his knowledge in other areas like Etruscan history and religion.

Prominent Errors in Religion in Ancient Etruria
  1. On page 140, a most famous artifact, the Apollo of Ferrara, is transcribed as:

    mi : flereś : spulare : aritimi : fasti : ruifriś : t(u)rce : clen : Cea

    Yet on page 144, even despite being next to a very clear photograph of the inscription, Jannot transcribes it differently:

    mi : flereś : spulare : aritimi : fasti : rufriś : t(u)rce : clen : ceχa

    The reader is left to decide which versions if any are true. (Hint: Consulting that photograph he provided and just ignoring what he says is more productive.) Jannot mispells the name as *Riufri for correct Ruifri in his falsifiable translation: "Fasti, wife of Riufri (sic!), consecrated me to Spulare Aritimi in thanks for her son." The translation itself is false because it ignores everything written about Etruscan grammar to date. A reading of "to Spulare Aritimi" is not possible if it's marked in the locative (marked in -e or -i) which only signifies "by, at, on, with". Likewise, "for her son" necessarily requires the noun to be declined in a dative or genitive, but instead, clen is entirely unmarked, signalling the default nominoaccusative case, used for the subject or direct object of an Etruscan sentence.

    The complete bastardization of this artifact's transcription combined with agrammatical flights of interpretative whimsy are not becoming of someone flaunting a doctorate.

  2. Many careless transcription errors, often involving the interchange of letters (such as the confusion of san & sigma or of chi & kappa), show a lack of attention to detail. For example the inscription TLE 900 is recorded on page 13 showing Selvans sanχuneta while on page 199 under note 41 of chapter 8, another version is cited: Selvans sancuneta.

  3. Jannot writes out the inscription on Laris Pulena's sarcophagus (TLE 131) on page 199 as:

    cathas pachanac a/umna the hermu

    He claims this to mean: "having performed in a place (named alumna) the cult(?) of Catha and Pacha". The third word is wrong for two reasons, one being that the slash should be an "l" and also because, considering alumnaθuras in line 8 of the same text, Jannot is clearly making things up as he goes along. Dividing words by whim (i.e. a/umna the) rather than careful analysis of context is not demonstrative of competence in or respect of linguistics.

  4. On page 158, an error shines out of the very title of a subsection, one of the most embarrassing and telling of all his errors:

    "Cautha, Cath, Usil, Cathesan (the sun) and Thesan (the dawn)"

    If Jannot had not put "(the sun)" next to his fictional name *Cathesan and place it in unmistakable association with the name Cautha, the error could be chalked up to careless editing. However, since he clearly misunderstands the meaning of the actual phrase ca θesan "the dawn" (from TLE 340, a bronze mirror from Ortebello), despite Massimo Pallottino having published the meanings of both ca and θesan over forty years ago (see The Etruscans, 1975, pp 226 & 228), he destroys any credibility he may have had as an expert of the Etruscan language. For that matter, by misunderstanding *Cathesan as a single name, he also exposes his confusion on Etruscan religion itself and his apparently twisted notions of history.[1]

I could go on listing every error Jannot commits but there are more constructive things to do, like consulting other sources of information and taking poorly edited literature with a pinch of salt. Caveat lector.

[1] More strangely, when flipping to page 160, despite the flawed title, he actually translates ca θesan more appropriately as "this is Thesan (the dawn)". Jannot apparently lapses in and out of consciousness since how else can the reader make sense of his consistent self-contradictions?

10 Jul 2007

Proto-Algonquian hot off the press at Lulu.com

Every once in a while I confess that I snoop around Lulu.com just to see what creative things up-and-coming authors and hobbyists are doing with the whole publishing-on-demand (POD) phenomenon. People like to poopoo the idea of self-publishing but frankly, I just don't see traditional publishing surviving through the 21st century without either evolving or being absorbed by this new wave. I have to say that the concept of being completely free to publish a book without upfront costs whatsoever and the end of the "tyranny of a middleman" to dilute creativity with marketability is an intriguing notion and a wonderfully democratic means of expressing niche points of view. While the down side might be many more crappy books on the market, the inevitable up side is a greater freedom of selection for the reader. Plus, it's ecofriendly. POD publishers aren't publishing any more books than what's ordered, unlike traditional publishers. We've lost too many trees already through decades of everyday bookstores buying books in bulk in the desperate hopes of selling each and every one à la extremist capitalism. Naturally, many of these books only end up amassed into unwanted heaps of pulp in warehouses. Egad.

Just recently I was astonished to discover a book on Proto-Algonquian, also available for free to download. I came across it when I searched for "protolanguage" on Lulu. Being that I live in Winnipeg where Cree and Ojibway (both from Proto-Algonquian) are the main Aboriginal languages spoken, it especially gives me a tingley feeling of joy to see. Regional pride and all that. The book in question is:

Some Prehistoric Algonquian Cultural Vocabulary
by Paul Proulx

Check it out. It's chalked full of information and as it turns out, the author is an avid lover of protolanguages. Yippee! Of course, poor Mr Proulx would also like to sell a book or two and it's only fair that we encourage people who wish to take the time to emancipate specialist information, normally tucked away in the crusty innards of a university library, and deliver it directly to the masses. I've always been a fan of Robin Hood.

6 Jul 2007

Interesting blog: The Effing Librarian

While I know this has nothing to do with historical linguistics, I came across this well-crafted blog called The Effing Librarian that gave me a good laugh because of its idiosyncratic style of writing and because it also put out some interesting insights into the world of information, society's treatment of information, and many other quirky, librarian-centric perspectives.

Since I'm really anal about finding truth and accuracy in a sea of meaningless advertising, it's a relief to see that not all daring thinkers have been wiped off the planet just yet.

Some of my favourite picks so far on this site include:

5 Jul 2007

Mayan writing and modern graffiti

Call me strange, but I love the artwork of street graffiti. Not garden-variety gang nametags, but the colourful lively art like... like... Well, like the above picture. Why express in words what pictures can a thousand times better?

Strange as it may seem this has more to do with Mayan writing than you might think. We always like to feel smug in our modern world and believe that we've invented the best thing since sliced bread. For example, we like to think that we're the only civilization that has reached such stupendous levels of brilliance that we've invented machines despite the fact that machines were already in existence well before Julius Caesar. Putting away our delusions, we've just been reinventing the wheel over and over again. Of course, each time we end up with an exotic permutation but basically the same basic ideas are used and reused throughout eons.

Mayan writing was a beautifully complex hieroglyphic system that in some respects went much further than, say, Egyptian hieroglyphs, in terms of artistic license. I think it really shows off the creative intelligence of the Maya. One stele in particular really shines through in my mind as a perfect example of the extremes that the Maya went through to display both a robotic mastery of mathematical precision and yet also a divine inspiration in their expression. The stele is located in Quiriguá and has got to be one of the most complex examples of the Mayan writing system discovered so far.

Maybe with this example you can see what I mean now. Here is where ancient writing and image successfully merge together, as we find in modern street graffiti. Is it an image or is it a word? Why choose? It's both. It's meant to express on a far more profound level by displaying not only the nude word but also its personal clothing, a plethora of so many other ideas, related in a kind of artistic form of "hypertext", if I may be permitted to indulge in conceptual pun. Of course ironically, pun is itself a verbal form of hypertext. Mayan writing is seldom inanimate. The hand who carved this monument was intentionally endowing each glyph with the breath of life.

It's interesting how while the Maya believed this art to be sacred, we've by and large come to see the similar, talented creativity in street graffiti as profane. Perhaps in a thousand years, when prints of Warhol's Campbell's Soup become stale and bland, the art of meaning and the meaning of art will be once again respected as divine. Round and round the cultural wheel turns. When she stops, no one knows.

3 Jul 2007

Voodoo linguistics in Etruscology: the imaginary word 'naceme'

I really think that the topic of the Etruscan language is one of the most sabotaged topics one can find in the modern age. And clearly no one but a few neurotics like myself care enough about history to notice these flagrant inaccuracies. Just when I'm sure I've seen it all, I always find a new, shiny pearl showing me how incredibly ill-researched even well-respected academics in this field happen to be. I know that sounds harsh but take a look at this and tell me if I'm crazy.

Xaverio Ballester had chosen to limit his career by writing a silly article entitled Etrusco ¿una lengua úgrica? [pdf] (2003) (English: Etruscan - An Ugric language?). (The abstract summary is found here.) Sufficed to say, you'd expect this sort of nonsense from would-be amateurs and loons with too much time on their hands but sadly this individual comes out of the University of Valencia.

If the sensationalist title isn't a tip-off that trees have been wasted to print this, and if the pedantic exploration of the validity of ad hoc Etruscan-Hungarian comparisons are not jarring enough for you, some of Ballester's subtle mistranslations he relays to us can point us to how much more disturbingly profound the scourge of "voodoo linguistics" and self-indulgence in academia really is.

On page 15, Ballester shows us two monstrous fumbles:
    naceme ‘hacia mí’
    iχeme ‘yo beba’
However, these innocent items are provably non-existent. If they had existed, they would be the only such occurences in the entire corpus of known Etruscan inscriptions since it is only retrievable from an artifact called Vetulonia's Cup (i.e. TLE 366 [1]) which coincidently is written in continuous script (that is, script without spaces making word seperation difficult to those that lack intimate understanding of the language in question).

Without being laborious about it, the fact is that we already have the following two well-attested words:
    nac [PyrT 1.ix, 2.i; TLE 334, 366]
    [CPer B.xx; TLE 366, 399]
For example, the phrase " ca ceχa ziχuχe." in the Cippus Perusinus artifact means "Thus this rite was written." It's not rocket science if you have organizational skills. And naturally anyone with a bit of grey matter can see that eme then must be a seperate element here, possibly a verb. This analysis is more optimal since if we think of this as a game of cards, two attested words and a dis legomenon (i.e. a word attested only twice) beats two hapaxes any day. It shouldn't be too difficult to figure all this out if you're a qualified specialist in Etruscology with a PhD, right?

Sadly, no. It's sensible to at first believe that this sort of astonishing incompetence is only typical of the likes of, say, Alinei or Mayani who dish out imaginative books that linguists shun but which masses, fattened on television and fantasy, tend to swallow without skepticism. However, there's a bigger problem here. Much bigger. Hold on to your seat.

Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies was edited by Larissa Bonfante, a foremost Etruscologist, in 1991 and published from the Wayne State University. In it, Emeline Richardson while trying to speak so authoritatively on the subject falls into the same pitfall as amateurs and loons when she cites the same inscription (TLE 366) on page 216 with missegmented *naceme and *iχeme, proving how uninformed she and all that contributed to that book really are on the Etruscan language. Fortunately, the shameful error is online. Go to this link from Google Books and either scroll down to page 216 or do a search for 'naceme' in the righthand frame.)

[1] The inscription TLE 366 is transcribed as