29 Apr 2007

Aristotle hidden between the lines

The writings of Aristotle emerge from a 12-century Christian prayer book. Read more from the National Geographic...

26 Apr 2007

Origins of Mayan writing pushed back in time

And more on the Maya theme, it turns out that the Mayan writing system is really old (as if that wasn't already clear by the fact that it's insanely abstract and complex):



So you want to learn some Mayan, eh? This site has hours and hours and hours of fun for those that can't stop marvelling at the intricate beauty of this ancient language and writing system:


22 Apr 2007

The misused miracles of autism

There is a particularly brilliant man by the name of Christopher Taylor in North Yorkshire who can speak some twenty languages without effort. What makes it even more exceptional is that he was born with autism, a disorder that basically rewires the brain in such a way as to make social interaction with others difficult or impossible. Despite the handicap, some of the less afflicted autistic savants have some amazing mental gifts that put our 'normalcy' to shame. I found this video on YouTube that I'm sure will blow the socks off of any polyglot:

[Youtube.com] Part 2/4 Christopher & Language Acquisition (Linguistics)

Professor Neil Smith from UCL's Institute of Neural Cognitive Science uses the example of Chris to gather evidence to support Chomsky's theory of universal grammar. All the while as I was looking at the video of this amazing individual, I naturally thought what anyone obsessed with linguistic paleontology might be thinking...

Give him some undeciphered Minoan texts to chew on!

Arrrgh. I hate to see the talents of an autistic savant being so utterly wasted like this, hehe.

21 Apr 2007

Modern Indo-European?

The Indo-European (IE) revivalists are up to some crazy plans to get the European Union to adopt "Modern Indo-European" (MIE) as the new European lingua franca. One look at the grammar that they propose and you'll see why their efforts are more doomed than Esperanto[1]:

They seem to have some interesting re-interpretations of history and IE roots in their pdf too, so I would suggest that after reading it, consult another source of information or hug your local librarian. Remember, question everything.

One of the things that I noticed was the claim that *ec- means 'fast'. First off, the standard spelling you see in any textbook on IE is palatal *ḱ. More importantly however, the root isn't directly based on the attested words which show Greek ōkus, Latin accipiter 'hawk' < *h₁oḱu-petro- and Sanskrit āṣu-. The word is normally shown as *h₁ōḱú- but the initial *h₁ is often omitted for simplicity's sake (read here).

These revivalists also linger on theories that place the earliest Indo-European far more to the east, near the Ural mountains! I personally have some major issues with that considering that if this were true, there would be an abundance of Uralic loans in Indo-European, however nothing conclusive has ever been shown earlier than 2500 BCE when the Indo-Iranian branch of IE was in positive contact with the Finno-Ugric branch of Uralic that had only done so, so it appears, because it had journeyed further south near the Caspian Sea from its original forested areas to the north. The few links that have been identified between the earlier protolanguages IE and Uralic themselves, such as IE *wódr̥ 'water' / Ur *weti 'water', could equally have been inherited in both protolanguages from a common parent language in the remote recesses of prehistory. Plus, the age old dilemma of Indo-European *septm̥ "seven" as a transparent borrowing from Proto-Semitic *sabʕ-at-um 'seven' (masc. form) (basic root *sabʕ-) is something that can't be ignored. So logically, the easterly location just isn't plausible. (On the other hand, I'm not a fan of those who place Indo-European in Turkey either. Eastern Europe suffices if we take into full account the implications of Neolithic sea trade in the Mediterranean to which archaeology attests.)

The original grammar of Indo-European is explained in great detail by Piotr Gasiorowski for those traditionalists out there like myself who don't like to mix protolanguages with protopolitics.

(2009 Nov 2) Added footnote #1. Also see dnghu and dogmatic relativism for an update on Carlos Quiles' "organization".

[1] I should have qualified this statement a long while ago to avoid confusion. What I mean here is "doomed" in the sense of expecting that Esperanto or any other similar language attain the same popularity as other natural languages. Afterall popularity is the name of the game here, isn't it? There's no point marketing an unpopularizable language obviously. Of course, "never say never" and all that, but for everyone's information, Mandarin is estimated to have a little more than a billion speakers in all. I have respect for Esperanto as a fun conlang only and nonetheless appreciate the positive message of global unity that comes with it, but popularizing an artificial language for anything more than entertainment or for an apolitical, humanist message of peace is unconstructive.

17 Apr 2007

How to pronounce Proto-Indo-European stops

Particularly for English-speakers unaccustomed to such phonetic novelties, there's a common question one asks when one first encounters the un-English phonology reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European: How on earth can anyone distinguish phonemes like *t, *d and *dh from each other? The first is called a voiceless stop, the second a voiced stop but the third a voiced aspirate stop. The last one trips a lot of people out.

However, no need to fear. Treat your tongue as a science lab. Find a quiet place away from prying ears who may think you've gone mad. Just have fun playing with voicing and aspiration as you pronounce a "d" over and over a little differently each time. After repeated practice, you should get a feel for it. Of course, it often helps if you can hear what the difference is. Take a look at this wonderful page on Hindi phonetics that gives visitors an audio recording of similar differences in that language:


This site also has some other exotic phonemes that even more advanced linguistics students may find instructive. Personally, I just get a kick out the phonetic jumbalaya!

I'm probably lucky in that I grew up speaking English and French from childhood, so this whole conundrum wasn't so difficult for me. English and French are the two official languages here in Canada, of course, and my parents tried to make me a good Canadian. Alas, they tried. As I mastered both languages through gradeschool, I began to notice the subtle differences between an English "d" and a French "d" while my peers were more busy outside, discovering the joys of cigarette smoking behind the garbage bin.

It turns out that the differences between stops in both languages have to do with "voicing onset". But I didn't need the technical term to know what I was hearing. What I instinctively began to sense was what I personally called a "light d" (in English) and a "heavy d" (in French). It turned out that my ears were on to something. I was hearing the subtle fact that French "d" is pronounced with a longer duration of voicing, something I perceived as a deeper, richer sound. My English d's certainly sounded weaker somehow because oftentimes they are only semi-voiced. As a child, you learn to mimick sounds very easily in your environment and only much later do you think about it all.

Some African languages push the voicing onset to the extreme, even beyond French, and create phonemes like nd and mb. One might say that the initial nasal sound is what naturally happens when voicing extends beyond just the 'd' itself. To the other extreme, some languages don't have any voicing at all but the stop may still sound like a 'd' to English-speakers if the stop happens to lack aspiration. For example, when a Mexican pronounces Spanish queso, it may sound like 'gay-so' to an Anglophone even though the sound is in fact an unaspirated, voiceless "k".

(If you're interested in the ugly technical details, you may find this article right up your alley. It's called Perception of VOT and First Formant Onset by Spanish and English Speakers [pdf] from the University of Michigan. It shows us how easily speakers of a new language can mispronounce and misinterpret sounds because of the influences of their native language's phonology.)

Now if you're lucky enough to speak English and another contrasting tongue with significant differences in voicing onset, then you can begin to understand how a single language like IE could have had a distinction between this "light d" and "heavy d". It's not the only one (cf. Hindi or Thai).

Hopefully this layman explanation will encourage a few more zany paleoglots out there to successfully revive a dead protolanguage for their own enjoyment.

14 Apr 2007

Blog alert: 'BadArchaeology' Rated E for Everyone

I love to find tasty morsels of information on the internet and always feel the need to alert everyone else about my little discoveries even if it bores them. While we might complain that there is a lot of crap out there on the 'information superhighway' and that I'm probably contributing to it, at least there are some informed archaeology bloggers out there that offer some intelligent opinions on things.

Don't let this blog title mislead you: Badarchaeology is good archaeology.


I'm adding this one to my yummy list.

12 Apr 2007

Xenolinguistics and the Language Gene Scam

I have a love-hate relationship with headlines designed cleverly to deceive people into believing that an article is about something fantastic when it's really about something completely different that deserves deeper mental thought. It's an enjoyable perversion to wield one's power of the word to draw people into your writing web. You were no doubt thinking that this article is going to be about language use among extraterrestrials but, please, put your spacesuit away. Instead you'll be reading about language use seen in animals on our own planet and how we're more connected to them than we might think.

What? Animals use language? As human beings we've wasted thousands of years trying at all costs to deny that we're not really so special or vital in this universe afterall. For a long while, we just couldn't accept that the earth was not in the center of our solar system or that our solar system was not in the center of the universe. Sooner or later, we just have to wake up to the fact that we're not at the center of anything. The sooner we can drop the ego, the sooner we can move forward. Just as we had to realize that the earth revolves around the sun, people are slowly realizing that humans aren't the only species with the capacity for language. It's just that animals use different forms of communication than we do and something is not inferior just because it's different.

There are many instances of "xenolinguistics" to be found if we look for it such as math-capable bees, Koko the signing gorilla, groupThink in elephants, global whale sing-a-longs, etc. And if you really think I'm crazy, head down to the University of Hawaii and take a course in linguistics where you'll learn all the nitty-gritty about animal language as well. Xenolinguistics is alive and blooming right here on planet Earth and will probably take some intriguing new directions in the future once we let go of some quaint notions about what 'language' is.

If we know that all animals in one way or another have evolved their own sophisticated ways of communicating, it frustrates me to no end how some academics could still be pondering about the simple question of how language first arose in human beings as if it were truly an unsolved mystery. Geneticists recently discovered the FOXP2 gene that was inappropriately named the 'Grammar gene' or 'Language gene' by the popular press. These exciting discoveries were then quickly abused by those with the naive assumption that our own DNA must be the answer to the origins of language, that somewhere out their is a 'grammar gene' just waiting to be found that will somehow trace 'language' back to a specific date in the past. This article from National Geographic illustrates this sort of nonsense when Anthony Monaco artificially makes a distinction between 'a language gene', which he claims FOXP2 is, and 'the language gene', which by the name itself reifies a totally non-existent concept.

The Language Gene is an illogical farce from the get-go considering that chimps and other primates like Koko have been effectively taught sign language. This is common knowledge. People in the 'vocal world' often forget that sign language is language too. You can read a well-written critique of the Language Gene hype here. As that author clearly states, speech must be understood as only a medium for language, not language itself. Also, if other primates have the ability to speak through the use of their hands, there was absolutely nothing to stop our Australopithecus ancestors who were one of the first to stand upright from signing a complete sentence or two. If we think about that for just a second we start to realize that while yokels are wasting their lives waiting for that special 'language gene', you and I can feel smug knowing that language is the result of a slow, uneventful social-driven process of evolution that had started much more long ago than a mere 200,000 years. Another blogger also quotes passages from a book by Matt Ridley entitled Nature Via Nurture suggesting this very idea of language before homo sapiens. So, it seems to me that the origin of language is already solved and there's no need to banter on with this pseudoscience anymore.

As one online commenter puts it succinctly: "How could you possibly isolate a gene that every living thing on this planet possesses?" Food for thought.

8 Apr 2007

Mommy, where do tones come from?

I've been ranting too much about European linguistics. I've been shamelessly unfair to the other continents who have patiently been reading my rants and feeling unrepresented. This is a big world so let's get cracking on... [Glen swiftly spins a globe and then stops it suddenly with his finger]... ah, yes, Sino-Tibetan.

Don't know what Sino-Tibetan is? Then check out this explanation from Berkeley University in California. Learn it because this is where the most popular language in the world comes from. No, no, not English, silly. Mandarin!

When I was a wee lad, there was this nagging question in the back of my quirky mind: Why does Chinese have tones? No matter how educated one happens to be, most people honestly haven't the foggiest clue about how to answer that question. Afterall they don't teach language origins in high school for some crazy reason. I guess if they started that programme, people would feel more united and have one less reason to start wars with other countries. Surely global comradery would cause a collapse of civilization. (Okay, that was a terribly bitter thing to say, but I just finished watching George Orwell's 1984 on YouTube and it just makes ya think, y'know?)

Anyways, it was only in my twenties when I finally discovered the juicy answer. The keyword here is called tonogenesis. Tonogenesis is the development of tonal contrasts in a language that previously didn't have any. Apparently, this happens all the time. It probably happened in languages before the Ice Age. It's certainly happened into the modern day, and if we live long enough and haven't evolved into waddling fish-people, there will be new languages with tones, perhaps derived from English, in the future.

Asian languages aren't the only tongues with tones. Did you know that Swedish has two tones? See The Tone-bearing Unit in Swedish and Norwegian [pdf]. And have you ever heard of a Nilo-Saharan language called Nobiin? Where have you been? Read this article entitled A sketch of Nobiin tone [pdf] from the University of Leiden. And we can't forget our Native American brothers and sisters, some of whom speak Navajo.

Tonogenesis in Sino-Tibetan is pretty interesting. Surprisingly linguists have reconstructed Proto-Sino-Tibetan with tongue-twisting consonant clusters and no tones. Frankly, it sounds more like Russian than anything we'd recognize in China today. All the tonal contrasts that Chinese languages now use (four tones in Mandarin; six or more in Cantonese) came after Proto-Sino-Tibetan. I have to chuckle every time I think about that crazy thought. It's a mind-bender. The word "eight", for example, is pronounced ba with high tone in Mandarin and as baat in Cantonese with middle tone. The two words, including their tone are related, of course. Sometimes you can even guess what the tone will be in Cantonese if you know the Mandarin word but, trust me, be careful with that because I personally have miscalculated a few times and had egg on my face. Both Mandarin ba and Cantonese baat go back to Proto-Sino-Tibetan *bʀyat but this word is without any reconstructable tone. Yep, just like Russian. So where did these tones come from then? Thin air? How does that work?

It turns out that voiceless and voiced sounds that we make unconsciously when we speak a language have an inherent acoustic frequency or "tone". In the word *bʀyat the initial consonant cluster is voiced and therefore gives off a low frequency but the letter at the end, *t, is voiceless and has high frequency. In other words, the surrounding sounds of the vowel were the seeds for later tone and they eventually determined the tonal shape of the word, whether the tone was low or high, whether it rose to a high pitch or fell sharply, etc. I suppose we could say that the vowel assimilated the unconscious frequencies of consonants and this evolved into more conscious tones, now intrinsic to the meaning of that word. Different Chinese languages have different kinds and numbers of "tonemes", just as all spoken languages have different kinds and numbers of phonemes.

Similar tonogenesis happened in Navajo, a language which derives from Proto-Athabaskan. Proto-Athabaskan also doesn't appear to have had tonal contrasts. This article Vietnamese and Tonogenesis: revising the model is also interesting for those who want to really get their hands dirty.

7 Apr 2007

The origin of Indo-European ego

(The following uses a special font to render linguistic symbols. Please download and install the Code2000 font [zip] if you're having difficulties with the display. A single asterisk (*) represents reconstructed forms; double asterisks (**) mark implausible forms.)

This blog entry is not about a psycho-linguistic exploration of our collective ego, nor even my own deranged ego. I'm talking about the word 'ego' and its unsaid curiosities, how it relates to Indo-European languages, why Nostraticists are wrong, and where it really comes from. Depending on your personality, my explanation will either prove to be terribly more boring or wonderfully more exciting than you've probably read elsewhere. Bon apétit, mes amis.

The English word 'ego' comes directly from Latin egō 'I, myself', an ancient word used to convey the first person singular throughout the Indo-European family of languages (Old English ic, German ich, Greek égō, Sanskrit áham, Hittite uk, etc.), the common origin being Proto-Indo-European *h₁éǵoh₂ or *h₁éǵom. (Often, simply the common pronominal stem *h₁eǵ- is cited.) Unlike the second person where we see a nominative form *tu, enclitic *twe and plural verb ending *-te-, we see a curious break in the pattern with first person nominative *h₁eǵ-, enclitic *me and 1pp *-me-. Many would expect something like **mu in the nominative instead. However we have to look outside of PIE altogether, in language groups suspected to be remotely related to it (Proto-Uralic *minä and Etruscan mi), before we see any evidence for this earlier pronoun in the nominative case.

Proto-Indo-European (PIE) was spoken around 4000 BCE until the people who spoke it significantly spread out in different directions. Various new languages sprang forth from it, now spoken throughout Europe and India six thousand years later. So we can conclude logically that *h₁eǵ- was first used in Indo-European sometime even before that date.

However, beyond this, intelligent discussion dies. Little of substance is mentioned in books or shared in online forums. Few competent people delve seriously into prehistoric linguistics. Few ask important questions like "Where did that word come form?" or "When exactly was that pronoun first used?" Few too resist idle fantasy when seeking answers to these important questions but we need to solve these questions scientifically, based firmly on facts and logic, not by lazy whim.

Many Nostraticists wrongly connect it to a seemingly identical first person pronoun ɣem in a Siberian language called Chukchi (eg. Joseph Greenberg). This is rejected by mainstream linguists because it relies on idle eyeballing of look-alikes and exposes a lack of knowledge in the languages in question. Most Nostraticists fail to get intimate with the protolanguages on which they write and they suffer much-deserved scorn by academics as a result. However, the same academics who reject this solution offer no real solutions of their own, shirking their duty as scholars to be inquisitive. Sufficed to say, there is a more logical solution already available that shows that this pronoun is a much later invention and unique to PIE.

PIE *h₁éǵ- always seems to have ended, regardless of dialect, in a first person singular suffix intended exclusively for verbs. The ending -oh₂ is specifically used for the indicative mood of so-called thematic verbs (ie. stems ending in *-e-) . So, PIE *bher-e- 'carry' was conjugated in the first person as *bhéroh₂. The ending *-om is likewise a first person ending, used in the thematic subjunctive to convey a hypothetical situation. Either way, this pronoun undeniably behaves as though it were a verb, not a pronoun. Yet, how can a verb be a pronoun?

Easily, actually. It turns out that *h₁éǵoh₂ or *h₁éǵom can be understood to have originally meant 'I (am) here', formed from the attested adverb *h₁e-ǵe "here". This pronoun was initially only necessary when introducing oneself as a new topic, as emphasis, since the verb of a sentence itself was always conjugated distinctly for each person. Numerous languages show similarly formed pronouns made like verbs. Look at Inuit (uvaŋa 'I' from uva- 'here' and -ŋa 'I'; ivvit 'you' with -it 'you'), Aleut (tiŋ 'I' from ti- 'here' and 'I'), Coptic (ntok 'you', ntof 'he', ntos 'she' with pronominal endings -k, -f and -s respectively), and even Chukchi (ɣem 'I', ɣet 'you' from a demonstrative stem ɣe- and endings -m 'I' and -t 'you'). Chukchi pronouns may not be related to PIE ones but they do show an independent, parallel development that's still useful here.

The only objection left to analysing the PIE first person pronoun as a verb derived from an adverb is the belief that adverbs aren't normally made into verbs like this in PIE. I encountered that objection once when discussing it online and I didn't know what to say about that until I encountered this informative article entitled Hittite hi-verbs from adverbs that eliminates that argument.

The article explains that a number of Hittite verbs conjugated with its first-person ending -hi are derived directly from adverbs such as āppai 'to be finished' (PIE *h₁ópi 'afterward'), parā- 'to come forth' (PIE *pro 'ahead'), šanna- 'to conceal' (PIE *sn̥h₁- 'without'). That Hittite first person ending, by the way, has already been related by PIE experts to the thematic ending, precisely the one we see in this first person singular pronoun! (See Piotr Gasiorowski's Homepage on IE grammar.)

So my job is done. The mystery of 'ego' is thoroughly solved. Yes, break out the champagne. The mystery is solved. The next mystery now is what the original Pre-IE pronoun that *h₁egoh₂ had replaced looked like...

4 Apr 2007

Etruscan Texts Project (ETP): Not so kosher

I admit it. I'm really detail-oriented to the point of obsessive-compulsive. However, in many lines of work, that's actually a good trait, particularly database administration. Afterall, the other alternative is to not care at all about anything one does. So I'd rather be a little obsessive if it means being painfully conscientious about accuracy and annoying the hell out of everyone in the process.

Now, please don't misunderstand me. I absolutely love the ETP project site and hope that it continues. ETP stands for Etruscan Texts Project (read more in this pdf) and it is a godsend for people who crave access to information about various, hard-to-find Etruscan inscriptions. We the public need such a project, there is no question.

That being said however, it pains me to know that it's not being effectively updated so far. I was one of the few that noticed a duplication error involving the indices ETP 341 and ETP 358. In fact, the fine people at ETP didn't even notice the error, and yet it's been present in their system for at least a year based on their own entries' creation dates!

In fact, this silly error exposes the fatal flaw of their entire index system because obviously one of these inscription entries has to be eliminated now. Yet this will leave a confusing blank in the linear series. One cannot simply replace an empty index with another inscription because this will lead to further confusion about what number to cite for which inscription. The database administrators should have had enough foresight to recognize that a non-linear index system was required for something like this, as is in fact already used elsewhere with artifacts.

So, being a very data-oriented nerd, I became severely chagrined at this online project for being so careless. To non-DBA laymen, it might sound like I'm being bitchy but anybody with just a bit of database administrator experience knows that a duplicate is one of the easiest things to sift out of the system once found. Without getting into specifics, just know that it takes all of five seconds with the proper command to be able to purge it from a database forever, without it ever risking the existing data.

Sufficed to say, not only had they not eradicated the easy-to-solve duplicates before I found the problem and notified them on March 15 (a year after the problem was created in the first place), but it is now April 4 and they still have done nothing to eliminate a problem that takes all of five seconds to correct.


I can forgive those not familiar with database administration to not see the dilemma here but for myself who has that geeky experience, it makes me question the professionality of the ETP project and its ability or willingness to provide the public with accurate data. Why is it so difficult to eliminate these simple errors when they're found? What in fact is the point of such a project or its index numbers if they aren't reliable enough to be cited? This is grounded out of the University of Massachusetts, by the way, and not just created in a basement by some anonymous hackers. So what's the deal, U of Mass?

And their claim? "We are in the middle of converting the database to EpiDoc format so we've let things slide a bit." Still?? Do you people need help? I'm a Canadian that wouldn't mind a vacation to New England if you need to import talent from outside your location.

If you readers are curious about the duplicates error and when it will be resolved, you can track the duplicates for yourself here:

ETP 341
ETP 358

I'll keep you posted when their errors are finally fixed. If anyone else has discovered other errors, I'd appreciate any feedback. For now, I will have a drink of rum to calm my autistic nerves, hehe.

Ni-Ankh-Khnum and Khnum-Hotep: Update

(This is a follow-up on my previous entry Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep. This post also uses Code2000 font to display some unicode characters, available free for download.)

I found a very thorough post by Katherine Griffis on alt.history.ancient-egypt, written in May 2005 (read it here). She discusses in detail various issues about the tomb of Ni-Ankh-Khnum and Khnum-Hotep and even some mistranslations of the Egyptian words ḫnm and ḥtp made by others.

Obviously, I'm going have to start doing some digging into this archaeological conundrum, pardon the pun.