30 Jul 2011

The evolution of empathy

There's a great talk here available online at the Centre for Inquiry website that I just have to share with everyone called Evolution of empathy. The speech is very insightful and spoken in plain language. It gives a lot to think about on different societal attitudes towards moral behaviour, behavioural tendencies in social populations, and what direction we're all headed in. (No, it's not necessarily completely doom and gloom at all.) It personally gave me a few positive insights to reflect on.

27 Jul 2011

Is problem solving dependent on money?

Sometimes I google for much more than informative websites or blogs. There are a wealth of interesting journal articles available too, sprinkled all over cyberspace like tasty candy for the mind. But beware of greedy corporations and old-school institutions who try their best to interfere with the inevitable future of the internet: free information exchange.

For example, there was this interesting article called Is problem solving dependent on language? that I wanted to get my dirty hands on. If you follow the link, you can see that ScienceDirect.com basically says "Cough up my $31.50 if you wanna see the article alive!" So I was like, "Omg, how rude. No thanks, creep." Realistically, the average person just doesn't have 30 bucks to throw away for every article that they need to read. If there was ever a time when that was true, it's certainly not now.

So being a rebel to the core, I went back to google and searched directly with the query: "Is problem solving dependent on language?". My defiance paid off and I recovered the abstract plus article which is accessable in pdf format here for the low low price of *ZERO* dollars. I celebrated afterwards for my victory against the machine with a soothing cup of tea. (Yeah, I'm a geek. What's it to ya? Lol.)

Now what have we learned for today, class?

24 Jul 2011

There's Latin acila and then there's Etruscan acila

I received a comment that I felt was just best to delete, not because it was at all offensive but because it was full of inaccurate, half-remembered facts. It's time-consuming to try and piece together someone else's "thought mess" and even more time-consuming to explain away all that isn't even true. One rule is definite on my blog: No half-remembered facts. If you can use your fingers to type a comment, you can certainly use your fingers to google beforehand.

However, if I were to guess at one thing the commenter was "half-remembering", it was probably what was published on page 205 in The Etruscan Language by Larissa and Giuliano Bonfante and I think this merits close attention:
"One mirror shows snenath tur(a)ns; perhaps snenath means 'maidservant or companion': compare acila = ancilla, 'handmaiden', on a Praenestine mirror."
I would label this "a falsehood waiting to happen" because the above text could be misinterpreted very easily by many readers, leading to a flat-out falsehood. The potential error is to read into this that acila is an Etruscan equivalent of Latin ancilla. The Praenestine mirror in question is explained in the Corpus speculorum Etruscorum showing only an *Old Latin* inscription with acila on it. It's a *Latin* word, not Etruscan, yet the Bonfantes weren't quite clear here about the nature of their comparison. (And mind you, this is in the "revised" edition published in 2002 which strongly makes me wonder how things get labeled "revised" if there are so few updates in it.) Their comparison was instead meant to link the semantic value of Etruscan snenath with Latin acila ~ ancilla.

On the other hand, to make it more confusing, there's also an identical word in Etruscan in ET Ve 6.3, the only instance that Helmut Rix lists in that language. Yet in Etruscan, acila is not a feminine noun at all (since there are none) and it's instead the commitative case of acil, the latter nomino-accusative form being amply attested. In fact, the Bonfantes had already translated acil as 'work, thing made'.

So let that be a poignant caveat: Be careful not to confuse Etruscan with Latin by misreading English.

21 Jul 2011

Are childhood "taunting songs" universal?

Lately John Wells's has been exploring taunting songs and the concept strangely has me hooked. Not sure why. Maybe I'm just immature but I'm finding it fun to analyse and discuss the linguistics behind these childhood taunts too. The 5-syllable nyaaah-nyah-nyah-nyaaah-nyaaah song, for example, should be widely familiar to most anglophone children and it can be overlayed onto any taunt by singing out the desired insult with this 5-note song.

So the question has been tossed around: What other languages and cultures have similar taunting songs with the same characteristics? Some commenters on John Wells's blog are affirming a Korean musical pattern of AAGAAG EEDEED based on non-sense words /ʌl.le.ɾi k͈ol.le.ɾi/. I'll take their word for it and I've been googling for other pertinent information.

I found nuggets of data-gold at one forum that directly asks the question I was seeking: Are children's taunting songs universal? There I've learned among other things that a French taunt has passed me by in gradeschool. It's called nananère and naturally, being a frivolous pop-culture topic, all the details are faithfully documented at Wikipédia in French. It looks like the combination of taunting and singing is just too tempting for any child on this planet to resist. I'd say these songs certainly appear universal.

Now another fun question that's probably even harder to answer: What equivalent ancient language taunts might have existed in Latin? Or in Etruscan? Hittite? Egyptian? Hattic? The mind boggles.

18 Jul 2011

Pit worship and common Cypro-Minoan rites

Albert Grenier in The Roman spirit in religion, thought, and art (1926) described this important type of Etrusco-Roman ritual space quite succinctly[1]:
"The mundus is really a mouth of hell, a way of communication between the upper earth, the abode of the living, and the subterranean world, the dwelling of the dead."
As I said before, chapter 12 of the Liber Linteus shows a case alternation between muθ hilarθ une (with locative un-e) and muθ hilarθ una (with commitative un-a). Cross-correlating the context of each of these words with other Etruscan inscriptions, I read "The mundus (muθ) is enclosed (hilarθ) with libation (une/una)." The slight variation in case of the last word must nonetheless convey the same thing, much like the creative case choices seen in the main religious formula of the Liber Linteus that likewise suggest only nuanced semantic differences if any despite different case endings. The phrase mut-ti ceśasi in LL 10 refers then to depositing (ceśasi) a holy offering 'in the pit' (mut-ti).

Additionally, considering that Indo-Europeanists haven't identified a native source for Latin mundus,[2] it may very well be loaned from Etruscan muθ. Afterall, a large portion of Roman religious rites has already been attributed to the Etruscans before them whose traditions are simultaneously linked to similar rites like those of the influential Hittites of yore.[3] This further contributes to the plausibility of interpreting muθ as a ritual pit.

Given the existence of this important Etruscan word, and charging forward with my previous identification of a Minoan accusative-declined noun phrase on libation table KN Za 10tan muti Asásaramana 'the pit of Asasarama' (as per John Younger's transliteration), a common Proto-Aegean word *muti meaning 'pit, hole' is a natural sequitur. The reduction of final vowel and concommitant aspiration of plosive in Etruscan is already explained by Cyprian Syncope.

Finally there's the matter of what kind of goddess Asásarama would have represented to the Minoans. I get the impression of an archetypal fertility and earth goddess paralleling Isis and Ashtarte. If we follow the recurring themes of the religions hugging the eastern Mediterranean during the 2nd mill. BCE, this would lead me to suspect that she was also the wife of a local god of storm and/or underworld, like Egyptian Osiris or Hattic Wurun-Katte. If a fertile earth goddess, the link between Asásarama and a word 'pit', already noted as a chthonian symbolism in Hittite rites, is all the more promising.

I plan on elaborating more on the nature of Asásarama and other possible intercultural connections in a future post.

15 Jul 2011

Translating KN Za 10

This is the post where I now willingly put myself in the bullets. This is something I owe after expressing my critique of Bayndor's recent post on the Minoan libation table known as KN Za 10.

Which transliteration is right?

As long as the ivory tower makes it difficult for the general public to access artifact photos, we're left to the mercy of various scholars with greater access and biased agendas. With no way to rationally judge what's correct for ourselves, we can do little but defer to the competence of, say, the contributors of GORILA 4 and of John Younger who present the opening of the inscription as TA-NU-MU-TI. Alternative readings co-exist such as TA-NU-A-TI, motivated by idle Semitic comparisons, and TA-NU-TA2-TI, equally based on subjective expectations.

Translating Minoan based on a Proto-Aegean model

I continue to be encouraged by a historically guided comparison of Minoan to Etruscan, not only because of the shared vocabulary but also parallels in grammatical structure. The comparisons also yield contextually sound phrases further guiding my inquiries. Thus for KN Za 10, I would like to offer my following attempt:
KN Za 10

Tan muti Asásaramana
ausi. Ṭawáto iya.
The pit of Asásarama is filled(?). It is filled(?) here.
First, on the lexical level, many terms here directly relate to Etruscan vocabulary. The first word tan (TA-NU) is identical to the Etruscan accusative distal demonstrative. Due to Cyprian Syncope, the Etruscan equivalents can be regularly predicted so that Minoan iya contracts to Etruscan ei like clockwork and Minoan muti links with Etruscan muθ (see LL 12.iiimuθ hilarθ une & LL 12.vmuθ hilarθ una = '[the] mundus [is] enclosed with libation.'). Although I find no Etruscan equivalent for a verb like ausi, we might deduce that a meaning of 'offering to', 'filling' or 'pouring to' is a reasonable approximation of the intended meaning of the inscription.

The grammar too is parallel to Etruscan, demonstrating the same SOV word order that I've previously sussed out from the common Libation FormulaAsásarame una kanasi 'Before Asásarama a libation is brought.' (cf. Etruscan un 'libation' and cen 'to bear'). Note how the demonstrative tan signals the accusative object muti by means of its specific inflection. By comparison with Etruscan, we may predict nominative *ta. Minoan verbs, often in -SI or -TE, trail both the subject and object, as here and also in Etruscan sentences. This inscription suggests a new verb stem to analyse, *au, whose Etruscan equivalent would be *zau. (I have yet to ponder a relationship with the word zavena which I've so far translated as 'kantharos' in my Etruscan database.) It's possible that an apparent intransitive participle awáto (cf. Etruscan intransitive participle -θ) reflects a separate verb stem or something else altogether since the introductory accusative noun phrase shows that ausi must logically be transitive. For ausi, we would expect a transitive participle form, *awau (cf. Etruscan transitive participle -u), paralleling ṭinau in HT 16 (= Etruscan zinu 'formed, fashioned').

The phrase also fits context since what more do we expect from the inscription other than it describe the ritual purpose of the object it marks and to whom it was dedicated? And the notion that a same term for a ritual pit works in both Etruscan and Minoan is exciting but also historically plausible considering that it's generally accepted that Etruscans have brought several common traditions from Asia Minor to Italy. On the Minoan libation table, there are indeed pits for the ritual pouring of libation. The pits serve in a sense like the physical mouths of the gods.

12 Jul 2011

Eyeballing Minoanists and the value of A-SA-SA-RA-ME

Minoanist Leonard Palmer once wrote, “[...] for in questions of genetic relationship the linguist rightly attaches small importance to common elements of vocabulary. Decisive are resemblances of morphological procedures, for these are less readily borrowed.”[1]

Eyeballing is for the bored and desperate

Rational people deal in facts and probabilities, not in mere possibilities and assumptions. If one's translations depend fundamentally on subjective similarities of words between languages, then one's contribution to the field of paleolinguistics is as useful as toxic sludge.

The eyeballing method, if it can be dignified as a 'method' at all, relies primarily on individual perceptions about phonetic similarity and difference. Since subjectivity is in the eye of the beholder, different individuals will reach different conclusions about the same data according to this strategy, making it disordered and unhelpful. It's best to become familiar with this shameless tactic so as to shun it whenever it surfaces in someone's work.

Internal analysis first

A widely applicable statistic known as Zipf's Law adds to what we should already be able to deduce by experienced linguistic intuition. In any given language, the most frequent words tend to be the shortest. Conversely, less frequent words tend to be longer. Afterall, how often do words like osteochondrodysplasia or spatiotemporal pop up in everyday conversation? This relates to the efficiency of information exchange.

The sheer length of Minoan A-SA-SA-RA-ME and its derivatives also hints that it most likely belongs to a core word class, such as a noun or verb. We can see that a five-syllable term is above the average length of attested Minoan vocabulary which implies that, with all things being equal, its typical frequency in random text or conversation should have been comparatively infrequent. Yet to the contrary, its unexpected ubiquity among libation table inscriptions demonstrates in itself a strong link between its genuine semantic value and its evident religious context. If one agrees that the analyzable suffix -NA belongs specifically to nominal morphology, then since our term is found with this very suffix (KN Za 10: YA-SA-SA-RA-MA-NA), it must likewise be nominal. Hence we can make an informed guess that it's likeliest a name or common noun relevant to Minoan religion.

These rational considerations alone then compel us towards the optimal conclusion that the term conveys the name or title of a deity to which these libations must have been dedicated. Palmer's original comparison to a title for a neighbouring Anatolian goddess (or goddesses) merely supplements the strong deductive foundation of this avenue of investigation. So this identification with the divine can't be so easily downplayed as the kind of immature eyeballing method that sensible linguists work hard to avoid. This view has something richer going for it.

8 Jul 2011

In front and in back

This is pretty interesting... Puhvel's Hittite Etymological Dictionary under the term marzai- a curious snippet of Hittite text is cited and translated: "He fritters three flatbreads and crumbles them in front and back of the male gods of the pit, he scatters fatcakes [and] meal, and libates."

The rituals cited here are the same as those of the Etruscans and, even more fun, is the fact that even the phrase "in front and back" is aped by the Liber Linteus where hante-c repine-c conveyed the identical. Common traditions in both religion and writings of the Hittite and Etruscan cultures is evident and gives us another piece of evidence in favour of an Asia Minor origin of the Etruscans (as if it weren't thoroughly proven already).

6 Jul 2011

Minoan Asasarame is not a deity??

The transliteration of an inscription on a libation table from the House of the Frescoes (KN Za 10) is written out as ]-TA-NU-MU-TI • YA-SA-SA-RA-MA-NA • DA-WA-[•]-DU-WA-TO • I-YA[ by John Younger to which Bayndor (Andras Zeke) of Minoan Language Blog has plausibly revised with DA-WA-SI. Shedding the ugly brackets, I would thus reconstruct the inscription in full as:

Bayndor's Minoan translation turns "bloody"

In his latest entry Those "bloody" Minoans..., Bayndor commits a number of false deductions towards his favoured value of YA-SA-SA-RA-MA-NA and I'm left disappointed by how he rationalizes this. The status quo maintains that Asasarama refers to a goddess figure (or figures) and despite any perceived difficulties in the comparison with Anatolian epithets, it still fits the context best. It's comparison with Isassaras-mis (see The Song of Ullikummi), with Mycenaean Potniya, with 'My Lady' equivalents in Asia Minor (cf. Kubaba, Cybele, Asherah, Ashtarte, Ishtar, etc.), and Egyptian ones (cf. Hathor, Isis) only adds to its historical plausibility. So I expect that any credible objection to all of this must be next to flawless.

To be brief, Bayndor's alternative translation based on Luwian asḫarmis 'sacrifice' is shockingly incoherent for someone who spends much of his time studying Minoan. The Luwian sequence /-sx-/ can't possibly explain reduplicated -SA-SA- in any meaningful way. This reduplication is so consistent in Linear A that it's absurd to avoid interpreting it as anything other than underlying -sasa-, not *-ssa- or *-sa-. As such, Bayndor has no leeway here. I won't dwell further on something so easily falsifiable.

Asasarama is *not* Minoan

Given the formulation of the original hypothesis, Bayndor errs some more when he states: "Isḫassara- is a compound stem, made up from isḫa- = 'lord' and the feminizing suffix -sara-, thus meaning 'lady'. None of its parts have a particularly good Indo-European etymology." Yet the source of -sara- is already commonly known to be from Proto-Indo-European *-s(o)r-, a suffix present also in Celtic and Indo-Iranian! Therefore Asasarama *can only be* from an Anatolian Indo-European language like Hittite. Even Judith Weingarten, who we may also assume studies Minoan rather extensively, falls into the same false reasoning in her comment further below: "So, I'll stick with Isḫa-ssara as the most likely parallel, also because it seems non-Indo-European in origin." Sigh.

There's a difference between the origins of isḫa- and of isassara-

As I said above, isḫassara- 'lady' is a transparently Anatolian formation so any talk of its possible Minoan origins is off to left field. Nonetheless it's true that the *root* of this Hittite word, isḫa- 'lord', may very likely come from Hattic asaf 'lord, god' (= asapasaw) as per Jaan Puhvel in his Hittite dictionary. This particular non-IE etymology can have little to do with the source of Minoan Asasarama though and we must endeavor to keep these irrelevant side-facts separated in intelligent discussion on the matter.

On the other hand, these facts about the Hittite root suggest a stress accent on its second syllable. Thus Hattic asáf /əs'xaɸ/ would be lent to Hittite nominative isḫás /ɪs'xas/, then extended by the IE feminine suffix to isḫássaras, in turn used to form an epithet which in the vocative case becomes Isḫássara-Mi /ɪs'xassara-mɪ/ 'O My Lady'. If anything, we may best trace underlying Minoan Asásarama /ə'sasaramə/ from this foreign vocative. Searching for a Luwian equivalent to explain initial a- becomes unnecessary.

From this, we have the Minoan locative case form Asásaram-e and the qualifier Asásarama-na 'pertaining to Asasarama'. To respond to Bayndor's objections regarding the nature of the distinctive Aegean suffix -na, I maintain that the semantic distinction between a true genitive form and a qualifier is rather moot. We must note that Anatolian languages too had gone so far as to systematically replace their inherited Indo-European genitive case forms with adjectival formations. Finally, the same case and derivational endings I theorize for Minoan are amply attested in Etruscan with precisely the same usage, lending further weight to my interpretation of the term.

I'll speak more later on the reasoning behind a full translation of KN Za 10 I have cooking in my wok right now.