30 Jun 2007

Apocalypto, a movie review

I just managed to watch Apocalypto, a movie directed and co-written by the notorious Mel Gibson, about the trials and tribulations of a small tribe during the decline of the Mayan civilization. I have to say, amidst the likely gasps from the peanut gallery: I really enjoyed it.

The movie and the man are fiercely criticized by bitter people that I can only conclude have a spooky agenda to find yet another celebrity to draw blood from and expose his or her imperfections in order to validate their own. First off, I can't believe that any mentally balanced critic, who has surely at least glimpsed the trailer shown months in advance, could possibly have expected that this movie strives to be "historically accurate". Yet some scholars cry bloody murder. Perhaps it's the title "Apocalypto" (an obvious allusion to common global myths and prophecies) that gives the real intent of the movie away: To explore a make-believe, mythological universe just as any other well-respected saga of yore has done, from Beowulf to Fengshen Yanyi. Secondly, people far too often have the hypocritical chutzpah to complain about the high level of violence in Mel Gibson's movies as if it were some sort of darkly delicious indication of his own "sadomasochistic tendencies" when at the same time we glorify Quentin Tarantino's gun-obsessed epics and Eli Roth's plotless chainsaw porn for sociopaths called Hostel as examples of modern cinematographic art. We can hardly go around accusing some unfortunate scapegoat for societal violence when we're still telling weirdo stories to our children about creepy old ladies having a taste for little children as in the story Hansel & Gretel.

To me, the violence was an ironic smokescreen, which I think, helped keep superficial dolts from truly understanding important messages and morals in the film. While watching Apocalypto, I couldn't help but recognize an interesting analogy between the night sky and its bloody savagery. Much like the night sky, there is so much blackness that it's hard to see the small points of light that shine forth. In the same way, there are clear moments of tenderness, compassion and self-sacrifice in the film if you keep your eyes open (the innocent, brotherly teasing of Blunted at the beginning of the film; a mother with son in the hole lovingly tending to his wounds; Blunted trying to help Jaguar Paw escape from their oppressors; etc.).

It's not high on deep plot or academic accuracy perhaps, simply because it's meant to be a mythology with a moral commentary on society as a whole, and our own society. It may be a different time and a different culture with different values, but it emphasizes both the self-centeredness, fear and greed festering within humankind like a disease, and the potential for these things to destroy us when these flaws go untempered.

Finally, I have to say that for a purportedly racist alcoholic like Mel Gibson, it's somewhat odd that, were this true, he would choose to collaborate with Iran-born screenwriter Farhad Safinia to write the film, choose Yucatec Mayan as the language of choice of this unique film, and employ talented indigenous actors to play the parts! Has media corrupted our minds yet again?

Do watch the film. You'll be surprised and for linguaphiles out there, the living sounds of Yucatec conversation are beautiful to hear.

26 Jun 2007

Matriarchy and women rulers

I was idly thinking about matriarchy the other day while walking in a park. I do stuff like that regularly to unwind from stress. It's all part of my bohemian daily regimen, really. Then my mind wandered to how Marija Gimbutas and others have earned a bad rap for their insistence on skewing historical perspective with their matriarchal/matrifocal ideals of an 'Old Europe', i.e. Europe and its inhabitants before the domination of Indo-European languages. (Some interesting insight into the politics behind this ideology can be gained from False Goddess by Lawrence Osborne at Salon.)

After that, I started to think that despite the silliness of feminism[1] and its equal opposite, chauvinism, and despite the fact that matriarchy in its true definition either doesn't exist in any culture or is astonishingly rare, there are still some notable women of history that rose to full power regardless of cultural limitations.

In Egypt, there was Hatshepsut (aka Maat-Ka-Re), the fifth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty who lived between 1473 and 1458 BCE. She was the daughter of Thuthmose I and Ahmes. Her father died and so Hatshepsut's younger half-brother, Thuthmose II, ascended the throne. However, Thuthmose II died soon after, and so she was made regent for the young Thuthmose III. Rather than relinquish her title to him when Thuthmose reached maturity as expected, Hatshepsut proclaimed herself Pharaoh. While women enjoyed a number of rights, from owning land and property to having rights in the court of law, a female Pharaoh was a bit outside the norm. Nonetheless, she was approved by the temples as the 'daughter of Amon' and she maintained rule for about twenty years.[2]

It seems however, thanks to a tip from a good friend of mine who knows her Chinese history, there was another similar character called Wu Zetian (武则天, pronounced [u tsɤ tʰiɛn]). Born in 625 CE into a merchant-class family in Shanxi, she started out with the role of fifth-grade concubine, a cairen (才人, pronounced [tsʰai ɻən]), to Emperor Taizong. When the emperor passed away, it was customary for all concubines of the deceased emperor to be taken to the nunnery to live out the rest of their lives. However, the next emperor named Emperor Gaozong evidently showed special favour towards her when he had her reinstated into his own harem. Her status was raised to a zhaoyi concubine (昭儀, pronounced [ʈʂau i]). Wu Zetian gave birth to a daughter which then died mysteriously. Empress Wang was quickly accused of having killed the baby out of jealousy and was disgraced. In the process, Wu Zetian rose to become the new empress. The Emperor's health was poor, deteriorating gradually, and Wu Zetian's responsibilities increased little by little until by 650, he suffered a stroke. At this point, he was Emperor in name only as Wu Zetian was practically ruling the country already. In fact, in 690 she finally proclaimed herself Emperor and promoted Buddhism as the state religion. All of these facts were a shock to Confucianists who could not accept a woman in power because to them it violated their perceptions about the natural order of things. Wu Zetian even had a male harem and was especially fond of a set of identical twins. She was both reknowned for her ruthlessness in stamping out opposition as she was for promoting arts, fighting against nepotism and elevating the status of women that was kept down by Confucius philosophy in previous eras. She ruled until she was 81. In 705, when a coup slaughtered her harem, her rule ended and she died nine months later.

Now, isn't historical accuracy far more fascinating than inventing sterilized feminist myths about imaginary peace-loving matriarchies or talking ad nauseum about the same ol' dry, men-only history that we still see in school textbooks? In my mind, there is no such thing as an "egalitarian society" or a "patriarchal society" in the end. These are imaginary oppositions invented in the modern day. In reality, human society is far more complex. A culture, regardless of how you look at it, is always a special blend of both egalitarianism and patriarchy. Sometimes a culture is more open to women having power, sometimes not. Time changes a culture too. The battle between balance and extremism is a neverending one.

[1] (June 26/07) Egad! In hindsight, I had better elaborate on what I mean in this context by the word "feminism" to avoid unnecessary ire from those who should mistake my words for what they are not. Here, by opposing this word with "chauvinism", I am of course talking about "radical feminism". Naturally, the goal of "feminism" itself (if used only to refer to promoting equality regardless of gender) is a logical and constructive goal. I think readers should be able to understand my intent by the nature of the topic anyways, but it's better to communicate clearly than not at all.
[2] (June 26/07) More interesting perspectives on Hatshepsut are available online from Hatshepsut: Wicked Stepmother or Joan of Arc? by Peter F. Dorman, an associate professor of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of the University of Chicago.

23 Jun 2007

The f to h sound change in Etruscan

I'm on an Etruscan kick lately. Sometimes I go weeks without noticing new errors in books concerning Etruscan civilization or language but this past week I noticed another meme that I had to disinfect myself from.

When I reread through Massimo Pallottino's The Etruscans (1975), I notice he asserts that there was a general tendency over time for early Etruscan plosives to become aspirate and aspirate stops to become fricatives. He mentioned in the book that 'f' becomes 'h' in initial positions. His proof? A single name: Fasti / Hasti.

Am I crazy or is that a flimflam excuse to justify a purported sound change? So, just to make sure that I wasn't being too hasty, I consulted my beautiful personal database that I set up on my computer, now with 745 entries! I even queried all words beginning with 'f' and all words beginning with 'h' to see if there could be some records worth merging. Can you guess how many words I found that show this sound change? One: Fasti / Hasti. What's worse, unless my notes are in error, it seems that both names co-occur during the 1st century BCE in Perugia, implying that even if there was a sound change (affecting only one item, might I remind), it was only dialectal and incomplete at best.[1]

Hmmmm. Here we go again. Another farce. I think it's safe to say that there isn't enough evidence for the sound change at all and it should be thrown out the window along with the million-and-one other fabrications I've found in these books (cf. my Etruscan folder).

Now, the only question remaining is what is this Fasti-Hasti thing about? Are they the same name or are they different names altogether? (Fasti, at least is connected with the Roman name Faustia.) Luckily, being that I'm taking care of a friend's cat, events have nicely transpired such that I'm closer to the university library. Hooray! I'm such a geek.

[1] (June 23/07) I decided to do a quick search online for anything on this Etruscan "sound change" and... Faliscans. I had a hunch. I realized that Faliscan, an Indo-European language of the Italic family to which Latin belongs, also shows an 'f' to 'h' sound change, so if there is anything to this, it would come down to something dialectal again. Sure enough, I find this article called Is Faliscan a local Latin patois? [pdf] about how Faliscan shows a change of 'f' to 'h' in word-initial position. It specifically states that it is found also "in northern Etruscan dialects", thereby substantiating my understanding that it wasn't a true sound change in Etruscan as a whole and only dialectal. It gives the following example: Fuluna (masculine gentilicium) [TLE 401] from Volaterrae 3rd to 1st c. BCE vs. Hulunias (feminine gentilicium) [CIE 1900] from Clusium 3rd to 1st c. BCE. It even shows a hypercorrected name Ferclite which was originally Herclite. Again, both found at the same period of time and all involving names only! So "sound change" is not an appropriate phrase. A sound change implies that something has, well, changed! And a sound change doesn't affect only names. This reinforces my belief that if there is an alternation, not a sound change, between 'f' and 'h' in Etruscan *names*, it is only present because of external influence due, say, to Faliscan and their naming conventions. Again, there just doesn't seem to be a true 'f' to 'h' sound change in Etruscan affecting the native vocabulary itself.

18 Jun 2007

Etruscan 'lucairce': How good is your eyesight?

I'm finding that each word touched by Etruscologists is a fascinating tale of intrigue, goof-ups, outright lies and shameful contrivances. Here's another interesting universe to explore, the word lucairce.

Without fail, in any book, on any website, throughout the world in every land, this word will be explained as meaning "to rule". So I would sympathize if some of you were to think me insane for questioning dogma. However, I'm of the old school that believes that ideas should be based on facts, not popularity. I will present the facts so that you can see how I arrived at my skepticism. My blog's growing Etruscan folder of suspect items will hopefully help everyone understand why Etruscology is in heavy need of new cross-displicinary contribution from the field of linguistics.

First let's start with a picture of the inscription (TLE 131 - Laris Pulena's sarcophagus), the only inscription in which this supposed word is found. It's almost brilliant how obscenely difficult it is to find a clear picture of this inscription, by the way. How good is your eyesight?

Please, my friends. No need to squint. I'm a wizard with Adobe Photoshop. I'll spare you the grief and zoom onto the area where the word itself is found, located specifically on line 4:

What?! You say that you still can't read it? How about if I highlight the word with a helpful red box?

Personally, I defy anyone to pick out the characters in this jumble. Both to the right and left of this inscription (which is read from right to left) everything is clear, but this word has been unfortunately massacred by the sands of time. This is what I believe Pallottino and others were seeing from this enigma:

Now you see how the word lucairce was first invented. It doesn't seem to honestly account for all of the indentations of the area but added to that is a linguistic consideration, of which no archaeologist would concern themselves, that very few words in Etruscan show a diphthong between two consonants in a medial syllable of a word stem aside from eleivana (TLE 762) which is in fact not even a native word but a borrowing from Greek. Aside from that, the medial sequence of the form CVVC (like -cair- in this example) seems to be either astonishingly rare or a signal that the reading is wrong altogether... and this latter possibility is most likely since we can all see the damage of the text in the pics above.

Dare I say, lucairce seems to have been a convenient word on a conveniently marred piece of stone. Being a hapax (ie. a word found only once in all known Etruscan inscriptions) and being vaguely similar enough to lauχum which itself was already claimed to probably but not certainly mean "king" (Pallottino, The Etruscans, 1975, p.229), it served as an excellent avenue to paint a glorious scene of an early Etruscan political organization replete with noble kings based on the worst kind of linguistic methodology this side of Zacharie Mayani and drawing upon some vague references by Roman authors which were coincidentally fertile for artistic interpretation (e.g. using Virgil's unclear writings in Aeneid).

So excuse me, in a world of yesmen, if I should seem like a non-teamplayer when I question the above house of cards. The translation of lucairce was fundamentally translated on a purported association with the equally uncertain word lauχum, making the whole thing too contrived to not question. For example, if the two words are related and -ce is the perfective ending, what on earth is the element *-air- that is implied from this ad hoc conjecture supposed to signify? Nothing, because it's all fabricated nonsense. In my mind, someone who is to be considered knowledgeable in linguistics will not simply confuse an aspirated consonant (χ) with an inaspirate one (c) or invent imaginary inflection to justify a word connection. Rather, real linguists will offer structured, carefully reasoned and linguistically valid justifications to intelligent readers of their hypotheses.

Despite the iffiness, it hasn't stopped the masses from misreading possibility for certainty. This word has now been made into an unquestionable meme that is already spread across the internet. Thanks, Wikipedia! Nowdays, any modern book treats it as a plain fact but nowhere is there a clear account as to why. Beware.

14 Jun 2007

Latin 'pulcher': Is it really an Etruscan loan?

The Latin word pulcher meaning "beautiful" is really bugging me lately but I haven't yet spent enough time looking into its origins. The usual story that one will see published is that it comes from Etruscan mlaχ and then it's just left at that, without further explanation. So far this is what I've collected in my database on the Etruscan adjective and noun:

malaχ [ETP 118], mlaχ [TLE 27, 42, 62] (na.) // mlaχas [TLE 66], mlakas [ETP 28; TLE 62] (gen.) // malakasi [ETP 118] (dat.)

As you can see it has a few variants but this is not really due to dialect so much as diachrony. At around 500 BCE, syncope occured due to a strong stress accent in Etruscan and caused vowels in unstressed syllables to become reduced in length and quality or even to disappear altogether, which is why we see both old Etruscan malaχ and Neo-Etruscan mlaχ as above. The problem I have with these popular Latin-Etruscan etymologies is that they're too lacking in necessary detail. Even worse, the average joe often reads "probably from Etruscan" in dictionaries as "certainly from Etruscan". Confusing probability (something relative) with certainty (something absolute) is one of the most common and dangerous flaws in logic. The human tendency towards absolutism engenders confusing memes and increasing mass misinformation without individual reasoning to get in the way.

In this example, as I often see whenever something is attributed to "those mysterious Etruscans", a number of subtle but important linguistic considerations are missed by those who aren't versed in the languages they're discussing. In the above example, people don't take the time to address vital questions that should be bubbling up in all of our noggins:

1. Why Latin unvoiced stop ('p') for Etruscan voiced nasal continuant ('m')?
2. Why 'u' in Latin for 'a' in Etruscan?
3. If stress was on the 2nd syllable in the Etruscan word, why not Latin *placher instead?

I've never seen these questions adequately answered and its probably because, sadly, no one bothered to ask them before. It's much easier and quicker for us to just quote blindly from a book than to think about what we read. (On a side note, that's precisely why I fear wiki-mentality and its brainless notions of 'verifiability'.)

At any rate, this little rant is just about why I find the etymology of this word suspect. Hopefully, by sharing, others might have a more detailed explanation to offer accounting for all of the above.

(Jul 14/07)
While most words containing 'ch', 'th' and 'ph' in Latin were of Greek origin, Classical Latin also has words proven to be native but which nonetheless were given aspirated spellings. We have lachrima "teardrop" for example, also spelled lacrima (from Old Latin dacruma), which is without a doubt an old word inherited directly from Indo-European *dáḱru. If this is the case, it lends credence to Douglas Kilday's recent suggestion that pulcher (also spelled pulcer) is equally ancient and native to Latin itself. Perhaps, as he offers, it is from Indo-European *pl̥h₁-tló- "made abundant".

9 Jun 2007

Negational particles, negational verbs and negational adverbs

I am having another geek moment again. Ever heard of negational verbs? They are the fabbest thing ever. Imagine the word "not" as a verb. Impossible? Even in French, I came to realize there is a potential for such things to arise when we say "Peut-être que non." (meaning "Maybe not."). Normally, que is used to introduce a relative clause, equivalent to English "that" or "which". So having non in the section of the sentence where a verb is expected implies that non here actually is meant to signify "it is not". Hence "Peut-être que non." equals "Maybe that it is not." Modern English employs a modal do to help convey the negative in conjunction with not... so in effect, don't may be in a vague way a kind of "negational verb", no?

Negational verbs are more overt in some languages like Finnish where ei is used to convey "not". An affirmative phrase like menen "I come" becomes en mene "I don't come", or perhaps rather "I am not (who is) coming." The ending -n marks the 1ps and as you can see it migrates to the negative verb when it is present. This can be traced all the way back to a negational verb *ei in Uralic. Here it is considered a verb because it takes the pronominal endings which are normally only used for verbs.

The reason why I have been thinking about this a lot lately is because of Indo-European grammar. At the University of Texas Winfred P. Lehmann's views are explained but I disagree with them. It's tempting in an SOV language to expect that the negational element should always be at the end of a sentence but there are other alternatives.

I was thinking of a negational adverb[1], not particle, in IE's earliest history. It works like this. It is similar to what we see in Uralic but Old Indo-European *nei would be rather a negative verb used to modify the main verb. On its own, *nei would have meant "to not be (true)". In effect it would be like saying "I go." in the affirmative and "I not-truly go." in the negative. Since adverbs tend to be preposed to the verb in natural SOV languages, there's no strong need to expect that *nei was once at the end of the sentence. Open your mind to fresh possibilities, people! Anyways, over time, *nei would erode into a particle *ne, still preposed to the verb like other adverbs until IE finally fragmented into the various branches we recognize today.

[1] (June 11/07) I found an inspiring pdf online called On the Diachronic Development of Negation [pdf]. It discusses the numerous strategies for negation in languages as well as the development of negational adverbs! I guess it's far more common than I appreciated and it adds some more crazy twists to my theory above because, for example, if multiple negative elements can come to be used to mark the negative in a language without being understood as a double negative (eg. French ne...pas, ne...guère, etc.), then maybe there was a double negative like we see in French used in a very, very remote ancestor of Indo-European. In varieties of colloquial Canadian French, pas has already taken over and ne is no longer added (eg. J'sais pas for Je ne sais pas). I also forgot about gems like the use of Italian non which comes straight from Latin adverb non.

7 Jun 2007

And now you may kiss the bride

If you were a Roman, you just wouldn't be caught dead marrying in May. Or perhaps, rather sadly, you would be caught dead marrying in May. This all might make more sense if you read The May Tabu On Roman Marriage and A Parallel. Just like today, ancient people had silly little taboos and superstitions whose origins are often obscured. If you think we're above it all and have evolved in the 21st century, remember that times never really change. Why do we play the same nauseating carols over and over again during Christmas? Tradition. Why do we "drop the ball" in Times Square on New Year's Eve? Tradition. There's really no sense to it. We just do it because we saw other people doing it. Monkey see, monkey do. Nothing has changed for 2 million years of evolution.

Anyways, forget the monkeys. Back to the Romans. More info can be glimpsed from Smith's Dictionary concerning the May festival of Lemuralia and its connection to the taboo. You know the ol' saying afterall: Mense Maio malae nubent.

So I sincerely hope none of you got married last month. Oh dear, you have? Ouch. Hate to be you, hehe.

3 Jun 2007

The odd inessive of Etruscan *hantha

I'm still plugging away at my Etruscan database, entering in new data and continuously pondering on new connections and insights that I seem to be the only one caring about. Grrr!

I just noticed another oddity in the Liber Linteus, a long text which people presume concerns Etruscan rites. It was written on linen which was wrapped around a mummy but as far as I know, no one yet has bothered to translate it so there's a lot of fruitless hearsay that still floats around. But let's face it: Compared to learning history, isn't it far more fascinating what Paris Hilton is getting arrested for today? Bah!

Anyways, there's one word which is repeated over and over in a particular formulaic phrase of apparent ritual significance. Despite historians recognizing this pattern, no one for decades and decades has bothered to nail down what it means for some bizarre reason. It's spelled and inflected in various ways, such as:

Cis-um pute tul θans, hate-c repine-c. (LL 3.xxiii-xxiv)
Cis-um pute tul θans, haθe-c repine-c. (LL 9.xi-xii)
Cis-um pute tul θansur, hatr-θi repin-θi-c. (LL 2.xv-xvi)

Thus far, I've recorded the word as *hanθa "front" in my personal database with the following inflected forms as we can see in some of the phrases above:

hanθin [LL 11.iii, 11.vii], hante-c [LL 3.xxiv], haθe [LL 9.iv], hate-c [LL 4.vi, 4.xvi], haθe-c [LL 9.xii, 9.xx] (loc.sg.) // haθr-θi [LL 2.iv, 2.xvi, 5.v, 5.xii] (iness.sg.)

Larissa Bonfante likewise claimed hanθin to mean "in front". Some may be tempted to connect the etymon haphazardly to Egyptian [ḥȝt] 'foremost' (Sahidic xach) or to Hittite hanti 'front' but I think we need to resist that temptation unless no internal etymology can be found. From what I see the above shows a variously-declined derivative noun *hanθa meaning "front" which in turn can be based on a postpositional particle han "before, in front of" (hen [CPer A.v, A.xxiv]; ce-hen [TLE 619] "this here") .

Inspired in part by Bomhard's views expressed in Indo-European and the Nostratic Hypothesis (1996), I would personally conjecture that any similarities here between Hittite and Etruscan are the product of individual inheritance from an Indo-Aegean protolanguage circa 7000 BCE that would later produce Indo-European (including Hittite of its Anatolian branch) and Aegean (producing Etruscan, Rhaetic, Lemnian, Eteo-Cypriot and Minoan). But that's just me.

What I'm interested in here is not so much the etymology but a curious loss of medial -n- as well as an otherwise unattested alternation (at least as far as I know) between locative haθe and inessive haθr-θi. If the loss of -n- can be explained here, the locative form is otherwise the natural result of Old Etruscan -ai (stem-final -a plus locative ending -i) turning to -e. However the inessive throws me for a loop. Where on earth is that -r- coming from? It's placed so consistently in the Liber Linteus between the stem and the inessive ending that it can't be an error.

I have no firm answers yet (nor do I believe that many Etruscologists have even noticed this yet or really thought about it), but the only answer I can give right now is that maybe this is what happens when a vowel is squeezed between two aspirate stops. Thus, what we would expect to be *haθe-θi is transformed by some as-yet obscure morphophonetic rule to haθr-θi with syllabic liquid.