29 Dec 2010

Etruscan trees and related grerbage

No, it's not a typo - I really did mean to type grerbage. According to Anderson (2003)[1], a distinct lexical contrast between the tree versus the generalized grerb had existed in Latin, West Germanic, and East Germanic as opposed to North Germanic which had a slightly different contrast between tree versus grass. These possible taxonomical differences and global tendencies might be helpful to details of ancient semantics.

If Etruscan lied geographically between Germanic and Latin, could Etruscan also show a similar lexical pattern? Furthermore if Proto-Aegean *árapu (previously explained on my blog) evolved to Cyprian *arpu and it was loaned into Latin through Etruscan as arbos ~ arbor 'tree', could it be this early Proto-Etrusco-Rhaetic language that had sparked this specialization of floral terms when it expanded early in the 1st millennium across the Alps? Were neighbouring languages Venetic, Celtic, Umbrian, North Picene and South Picene also implicated in this sphere of increasing nuance in plant vocabulary?

[1] Anderson, Folk-taxonomies in early English (2003), pp.366-7 (see link).

26 Dec 2010

Foreign accent syndrome

I was notified of this first while watching BBC. It would be a lie if I said I didn't choke on my tea. I'm not sure how to weigh this. Part of me thinks that a disorder like this is within plausibility since I myself find that my brain, thus far, can compartmentalize different phonologies of different languages quite well. Would it were that I had a stroke, Athena forbid, who's to say that my own mental walls between the set of English phonemes of my native dialect and the distinct set of French ones I've adopted might become blurred? If the data chemically coded in my cerebellum were mangled just right, I might conceivably enounce my English ar with a uvular panache.

Yet, the skeptical and pessimistic side of me (the one that's done so well to keep me out of trouble in life) appreciates the immense attention hypochondriacs can receive from being misdiagnosed with this hazy disorder. No, strokes and cognitive disorders are certainly not funny but one has to admit that it elicits a little doubt.

Below is a Youtube clip of an interview with a woman who says she acquired an Asian accent after an acute migraine caused some brain damage.

(26 Dec 2010) Browsing more online, I notice two other blog links tackling the bizarre subject. One is Neurologica: Foreign Language Syndrome which rightly compares this to the absurd glossolalia of some fundamentalist Christian sects, hinting at other disturbing motives here and not just scientific ones, unfortunately. Then Language Log: Foreign Accent Syndrome speaks of a similar disorder with a suspiciously similar term that also can so easily be sensationalized with notions of miracles serving to reinforce an irrational belief system.

When I think of it, I'd be more prone to interpret this news story as genuine if it weren't for the sensationalist term used. It's clearly not a genuine foreign accent being acquired and its proponents explain it as a kind of dysphasia. So why not just call it that and show greater respect for the intellect of viewers? This issue combined with the stunted debate about how "Chinese" her accent really is is, to be frank, just plain stupid if not potentially offensive.

18 Dec 2010

A Mediterranean term for 'lower back' and 'loins'

I was messaged the other day about an interesting word with a mystery etymology. In Greek, there is ἴσχιον or ἰσχίον 'hip, hip-joint, haunches' which may be compared with the Hittite s-stem iskis- 'back'. This pair of comparanda seems to be where most inquiry stops however.

The OED mentions that this Greek word is "probably from iskhi 'loin,' of unknown origin" yet I can't find this word in Perseus online. Perhaps the editor rather meant an underlying root iskhi-, as in the word ἰσχιάζω 'move the hips', but there's no mention of the Hittite term. Many like Anna Prins (Hittite neuter singular - neuter plural: Some evidence for a connection [1997], p.218) have however acknowledged the Hittite link that establishes that this word at the very least straddled a Greco-Anatolian region, even if its exact source is unknown. Predictably forced attempts have been made by some IEists to explain this away through a hypothetical s-stem *h₁isgʰís-. This is unlikely to be true since the zerograded accented syllable dates it to Late IE at best and the word's meaning and derivation appears obscure (not to mention the severely restricted attestation of the word).

Exploring a possible Proto-Aegean (PAeg) term, we might note that the Greek evidence points to a specifically voiceless, aspirate velar stop. Aegean languages are notable for their lack of voiced stops and use of aspiration contrast in its place. Thus PAeg *iskʰis(a) 'lower back, hips, loin' might explain both although I must admit that the shape of the word seems as odd for this language just as *h₁isgʰís- does for PIE. Maybe there's a third possibility in all this that I'm not considering.

Of course I'm exploring conjectures here but it's always worth pondering alternative ideas to either illuminate further possibilities or to fully expose the absurdity of the path of thought. So far, the word for 'back' isn't known in Etruscan nor do I have the foggiest clue what it might have been, but there does seem to be an Etruscan derivational suffix -is. I'll keep my eye out for further info on this term, of course.

14 Dec 2010

The poppy pops up from nowhere

In 1862, volume 94 of the publication The North American review wrote on page 384:
"We are told that the use of the common white poppy as a soother of pain and giver of sleep, has been familiar from the earliest times; and an ingenious attempt has been made to derive the name poppy, or papaver, from papa or pap, because the plant was commonly mixed with the food of young children, to secure their sleep. This is one of those etymological postulates more ingenious than probable."
Nearly a hundred-and-fifty years later, I still can't get a straight answer on the origin of Latin papāver. If it somehow were to have something to do with the nursery term pāpa for 'food' (cf. pāpārium 'pap') as implied above, and even ignoring that such a semantic link is trying in itself, how would this poppy word have been grammatically formed from such a root? There are oddly only five terms in the Latin dictionary on Perseus ending in -ver (excluding vēr itself) which could suggest that the word was loaned from elsewhere, yet if so, establishing its source so far eludes me. What a frustrating word.

12 Dec 2010

Giving and having in Indo-European

In my last post, I was noticing the link between Etruscan genitives in "give" constructions which mark the recipient of a gift and clauses conveying "having", as per John's Newman's Give: A cognitive linguistic study (1996). On that note, there are some extraneous connections that come to my mind in other ancient languages I know of.

I've reasoned for a while now that the source of Indo-European's thematic genitives in *-osyo like *h₁éḱwosyo 'of the horse' is quite simple: the athematic genitive *-ós plus endingless relative pronoun *yo-. This construction would have first developed in Pre-IE (specifically Late IE) as *-asya, replacing former accented genitive *-ás, when Acrostatic Regularization risked making the nominative and genitive identical in the thematic paradigm. The addition of *ya (the original endingless form of the relative pronoun used for nominative, locative and inanimate accusative cases) helped disambiguate and reinforce thematic genitives. This resultant construction, instead of conveying the direct but potentially ambiguous phrase "of X", used the circumlocution "(with) which [is] of X".

With Newman's insights, we might even reinterpret "which [is] of X" as "which X [has]" since a lack of "to have" in Proto-Indo-European encourages a speaker to use the verb "to be" plus a genitive noun to express the possessor. The distinct but semantically equivalent phrases we take for granted in English like "the horse's speed", "the speed [which is] of the horse" and "the speed [which] the horse has" all become a little blurry in such languages.

Then I wonder further. I've already noticed that there's no rational motivation to reconstruct a distinct dative case in pre-IE, if not in IE itself[1]. The dative in *-ei must have only later originated from the pre-existing locative ending in *-i and/or from analogy with *h₁ei- 'to go (to)'. So in pre-IE or IE, without an available dative form, what case is left to express the recipient in phrases using the verb *deh₃- 'to give'?

[1] Francisco Adrados, On the origins of the Indo-European dative-locative singular endings published in Languages and cultures: Studies in honor of Edgar C. Polomé (1988), p.29 (see link).

6 Dec 2010

The semantics of giving

Avid polyglots may eventually notice that so many innocent things can get lost in translation. Translation is a comical affair at times. I believe Etruscanists are also getting lost in translation when they try to wrap their heads around the syntactics and semantics of a quite innocent-looking verb like tur 'to give'.

First an example of bilingual confusion

Before I explain the Etruscan problem, let me illustrate a living example of confusion between, say, English and Chinese speakers. The verb "to rain" seems like such a simple little verb. How can anyone misunderstand it? When waking up to a rainy day, an English speaker may announce, "It's raining today!" while a Mandarin speaker may say, "Jintian xia yu le!" (今天下雨了!) Roughly this means the same thing, but more specifically the Chinese sentence might be translated back into English literally as "Today (jintian) has started (le) descending (xia) rain (yu)!"

What can be confusing in this language clash is not just the slightly different idiom used but also the way in which "rain" may be perceived by the speaker by way of the words and syntax chosen. In English, it's a continuous action marked in the present tense and the focus is on the state of raining. In Chinese, the action is inchoative and punctual; the verb is also unspecified for tense. What is being focused on in Chinese is the very split-second it's started raining, something which can naturally only occur abruptly. So this is why the Chinese sentence ends in the punctual marker le, leaving many Anglophones perplexed (especially when they further mistake the aspect marker as a past-tense marker).

My intended warning here is to avoid forcing one's own native semantics on foreign vocabulary. Sometimes the most straight-forward equations between tongues turn out to be a little less than exact. When Etruscanists who write books on language and who are otherwise well-versed in linguistic science linger on about the "mystery" of why the genitive is used to express the recipient of tur 'to give', I get the impression that even they are having a hard time stepping out of the boxes of their own native speech patterns.

The moment of gifting

So why is the recipient of tur marked in the genitive instead of, say, the dative? Instead of trying to force our assumed patterns on Etruscan, let's begin by just accepting what we see: What could the Etruscans be trying to express by this? Since the genitive elsewhere is so regularly used to mark the possessor, taken as is, it means simply that the recipient must be understood as equal to the possessor in these instances. Suggesting otherwise presumes added, unnecessary roles for the case ending. We should heed Occam's Razor and hold back the temptation to assume.

Personally I reason that perhaps the aspectual focus of tur, unlike in English 'give', focuses on the final result of the transfer rather than on the moment of transfer. When is the recipient equal to the possessor? When the act of giving is complete. Once the action is complete, the donor is naturally no longer the possessor. Thus, with tur treated as a punctual and resultative action, there's no need to speak of a special "dative usage" for the genitive. The genitive instead can now be seen to consistently mark the possessor, even in cases where "give" is used.

Recipient as possessor

I've just noticed that John Newman has written the perfect book to understand cases where the recipient is equal to the possessor in "give"-constructions called Give: A cognitive linguistic study (1996). Page 98 begins with a relevant example from Australian Dyirbal and then compares with a Chinantec example from Southern Mexico that employs a relative clause signifying "which X has" to express the recipient X. So with that in mind, it suggests that examples like mi tn Arnθal turuce "I gave that to Arnth" are short for mi tn [ipn cei] Arnθal [ama] turuce "I gave that [which is now] of Arnth." My perception of inherent punctual aspect in this verb can coexist with Newman's interpretation and gives a secure answer to a "riddle" that Etruscanists have been sitting on far too long.

3 Dec 2010

By whom, for whom

According to Bakkum, The Latin dialect of the Ager Faliscus: 150 years of scholarship, vol 2 (2009), p.305 (see link):
"The Etruscan forms in -si and -(a)le can be used to designate both by whom and for whom the object was made (Steinbauer 1999:174-6)."
In case the absurdity isn't noticeable, "by whom" and "for whom" are opposite roles in these inscriptions. How did this nonsensical statement make its way to modernday print? What happened to the concept of structured, coherent grammar? In his solitary example of ET Fa 3.4, a vessel from Vignanello, the solitary name Vultasi doesn't help much to decide the matter. I can't help but appreciate too how, by using an unclear inscription, the author can quickly pass a shaky statement over the reader without being too obvious.

Luckily for us, TLE 651 does decide the matter. As pictured above, this is a statue of a standing nobleman nicknamed The Haranguer. The only names present in the entire inscription at the base of his toga are in the first line and they're declined in this same case: Auleśi Meteliś Ve. Vesial clenśi. Who would think that the image of this mystery man can be anything other than Aule Meteli himself? The inscription must read "For Aule Meteli, for the son of Vel and Vesi." If we interpret this case ending as by whom the statue is made, the inscription fails to explain who this man is while giving us useless information about the statue's creator. This data is hardly as important to an average, literate Etruscan as the man for whom all this metalworking effort was devoted!

Then too, we also find tinśi tiurim avilś χiś repeated several times in the Liber Linteus and since tin, tiur and avil are certain to mean 'day', 'month' and 'year' in these passages, forcing an agentive sense on an inanimate noun like tinśi is absurd. It must therefore mean 'for the day' in the context of the rituals to be performed on specified dates. An Etruscan agentive case has been concocted from nothing.

Bakkum goes on to write something that I'd gauge to be naive wording for a linguist:
"[...] in most other cases, the use of the -si or -(a)le form is due to a verb, usually mulu-."
To observe that this case ending occurs often with the verb mulu- is justified, but to say that the use of this case marker is "due to" a verb, combined with his odd reference to Steinbauer above, seems to disqualify his expertise on structured grammar itself, let alone on Etruscan grammar. Need it be said, the use of this case ending or any case ending isn't incumbent on the verb itself per se but demanded by the overall semantics of what one is expressing. If one doesn't comprehend why -si/-le is used with some verbs like mulu- while not for other verbs, one fails to comprehend the very meaning of these individual grammatical units. The verbs haven't "caused" these endings to occur any more than the Oracle of Delphi.

The correct answer is simple: -si/-le must be consistently translated as 'for', as in 'for the purpose of' or 'on behalf of', never ever 'by' (whether in a locative or agentive sense). This value is evidenced not just in several Etruscan inscriptions but in Lemnian ones too.