29 Jul 2012

Now she speaks Mandarin

So I'm sitting at home, browsing the net for info as I always do and what pops on the telly but a commercial for Rosetta Stone language learning software. Towards the end of it, a spunky white woman declares in both Mandarin then English, "Now I speak Mandarin!"

I always get tickled by this sort of out-of-the-box iconoclasty towards cultural norms. I wish a lot more people were as adventurous. Considering the rise of the Chinese economy over the past decade, it's a little surprising to me that Chinese isn't more common than it is among the non-Chinese community. Then again, there continues to be insulation between European and Asian cultures after centuries of persistent isolation from each other - culturally, politically, economically and linguistically.

Now what exactly is she saying in Chinese? To convey "Now I speak Mandarin!" in Mandarin, one might expect a word-for-word translation such as 现在我说汉语! Xiànzài wǒ shuō Hànyǔ. Mandarin by and large has the same word order as English making the grammar relatively simple even if the pronunciation and tones present a dilemma for speakers of languages without word-tone distinctions. As I strain to listen to her rapid execution of the Chinese sentence, my ears detect the addition of huì /xwe(ɪ̯)/ (会) 'can, be able' but she misapplies the term guóyǔ (国语) 'national language, official language' as an equivalent to 'Mandarin'. This is best translated as Hanyu instead (literally 'language of the Han', the Han originally being a culture from northern China) since if one resides in the States, one's guoyu should be Yīngyǔ (英语) 'English', not Mandarin.

The thing that throws me off the most in her sentence is what's happening at the end of it. My brain expects to hear guoyu but it instead sounds like *guoyuan. This can't be right. I can only surmise that she's added a sentence-final particle a to denote a statement of fact.

The transcription I'd expect then is: 现在我会说国语啊! Xiànzài wǒ huì shuō guóyǔ a! "Now I can speak the national language!" Perhaps I'm missing something so I'd love to hear feedback. The phrase may not be the best but then again she's one of the very few Mandarin-speaking blondes represented on TV to date so we should cut her some slack.

28 Jul 2012

Etruscan such and such

There's a curious lexeme with an interesting inflection in the Liber Linteus (LL 6.xviii): caticaθ. Another similar form is found again at LL 7.xix but this time as cnticnθ. Are they related and if so how? What is the origin?

Contextually it appears that an English equivalent like this very (one) is a nice fit, or alternatively such. The word might then be compared to the semantics of Latin talis 'such, such like, the like'. It preposes the noun it modifies as is seen in caticaθ luθ. Since nominative ca 'this' and its accusative can ~ cn is so well attested, it makes sense that we should trace both caticaθ and cnticnθ to the respective case forms of their simple demonstrative counterparts.

But what is going on with these forms? Why, in a language that agglutinates with suffixes, are there internal case changes in this form? My solution is that caticaθ stems from a reduplicated earlier form *kati-kati (in the Proto-Cyprian stage), itself built on the form *ka-ti 'like this'. The corresponding accusative form at this stage would be *kanti-kanti which over time is reduced to cnticnθ. The source of this alternation is thus easily obscured.

I propose that this postposition -ti 'like, as', which is not to be confused with -θi 'in' pronounced with an aspirated plosive, is also found in clanti 'stepson, adopted son' (literally 'like a son; son-like') paralleling in meaning and form the Latin term fīliaster 'stepson' (< fīlius 'son' plus derivational suffix -aster).

16 Jul 2012

The river, the lady and the egg

I'll just cut to the chase on this one by first unleashing a data dump of three interesting crosslinguistic word themes ("lady", "egg" and "river") I've noticed that suggest some fascinating substrate influence emerging from the region of the Eastern Mediterranean. I also don't believe that any of these words can be convincingly explained by appeal to Proto-Indo-European as is so often attempted but rather that this is the product of a common package of religious beliefs shared across the area.

*lota 'seed, blossom, bud; egg'

- Greek λωτός lōtós 'lotus', λῶτα lōta 'bloom, blossom', λυταρίς lutarís 'poppy-like flower', λωτάριον lōtárion 'lotus flower'
- Egyptian *lāṭa 'growth, bud, plant' [rd]
(Note Loprieno reconstructs *rāduw 'plant' with *r yet there is Sahidic rōt together with Fayyumic lōt.)
- Hebrew לֹט lōṭ 'myrrh'
- Etruscan luθ 'seed, bud, blossom; egg'

*laṭá ~ *laṭó 'lady, woman'

- Hieroglyphic Luwian and Lycian lada- 'woman, lady, wife'
- Greek Λητώ Lētṓ 'Leto' (Doric Λᾱτώ Lātṓ), mother of Apollo (sun) and Artemis (moon)
- Etruscan lasa 'lady, woman' (usually overspecified as 'nymph')

*lata 'flowing water, flood, river, stream'

- Greek Λήδη Lḗdē 'Leda', mother of Castor and Polydeuces (the Dioscuri).
- Greek Λήθη Lḗthē (Doric λάθα), a river in the underworld (< λήθη lḗthē 'forgetfulness')
- Etruscan laθ 'flood, river, stream' (> Leθams, the god of streams)

When presented this way, we can see the opportunity for clever interplay among speakers of some Bronze Age substrate language containing these three lexemes together. I do believe this substrate to be "Aegean" (ie. the family to which I attribute Minoan and Etruscan among other Cyclado-Cyprian dialects). The fact that we know so little of Minoan merits exploring this idea.

The surviving Greek myths add to this hypothesis. Through Zeus, Leto is the mother of Apollo and Artemis who were considered twins representing the two orbs in the sky, the sun and the moon respectively. The similarly named Leda was by coincidence said to be the mother of Castor and Polydeuces, revered together under the term Dioscuri among Romans and Tinias clenar by the Etruscans. They two are also twin offspring and can be understood to represent the sun and the moon. The father is Zeus as in the story of Leto, this time in the guise of a swan. Surely these stories are the same and contain repeating symbolisms that shed light on Etruscan mythology. Given the external evidence in comparative mythology, the Etruscan Dioscuri must have been the sons of the sun god Tinia, king of all gods, and the mother would have been the "river swan" seen on one mirror (ET OI S.45). In these stories are the curious combination of a "stream" (as a swan), an "egg" and a "lady" that would appear to outsiders as absurd associations. A common set of vocabulary as a source of pun gives us a decent explanation of this odd jumble of images.

This is only a summary of a wealth of other pertinent connections, mind you, but it's best to absorb these ideas in parts so as not to overwhelm discussion and distract from this larger picture of religious symbolism that spans several linguistic and cultural boundaries around the local maritime region.