30 Aug 2011

The sun and the lion

Here's a seemingly simple question: How do you pronounce Egyptian rw 'lion'? Coptic has laboi 'lioness'[1] and isn't a direct descendent of rw; it can't guide us. William Albright had suggested a pronunciation *ruw[2][3] based on very little. To help us backtrack, we have additional data from surrounding languages and language groups and it all shows that this word travelled far and wide across the seas.
  • Indo-European: Greek λέων, Latin leō.
  • Semitic: Akkadian aria, Hebrew arī.
  • Aegean: Etruscan leu.
  • Egyptian: rw.
The reason why I'm pondering this now is because of my latest reflection on the Etruscan reflex. It's easy to dismiss the question of its origin by setting it beside Greek λέων and assuming that the Greeks gave them the word. It's not impossible from a purely linguistic standpoint afterall since there are a few Etruscan terms that have once ended in -un only to lose the trailing nasal over time - eg. Petru 'Petron', Χaru(n) 'Charon', θu(n) 'one', etc. However we should ask ourselves why the Etruscans would have borrowed the 'lion' word from the Greeks when the animal's habitat lies in Africa.[4][5] One would think that Etruscans would adopt the word from Africans themselves. It's not as if Etruscans were unfamiliar with Africans (hint: Carthaginian trade).

So the hypothesis I've held onto for a while, is that leu could be inherited, thereby indicating earlier Proto-Aegean *lau, assuming a raising of Old Etruscan a to e before resonants, as with Old Etruscan clan 'son' > Late Etruscan clen. With the direct antecedent of Etruscan in Lydia, an Egyptian source for this word is the only thing sensible.

However, I'm beginning to ponder a more extensive idea - perhaps it's not so much Proto-Aegean *lau as *liwa. Then Etruscan leu is the result of an aforementioned Cyprian Syncope as well as the lowering of i to e. This also better explains the god mentioned in the Aleksandu Treaty, Apaliunas, whose complex name defies attempts at etymology although it's the stuff of long essays by overspecialized Hittitists.

As far as I'm concerned, Apaliunas is only understandable in Aegean terms and grammar. With the new reconstruction above we have: *apa 'father' (cf. Etruscan apa 'father') + *liwa-na 'leonine, of lions, lion-like' < *Apa-Liwana 'Lion Father'. This is apt for a sun god who would later become Greek Apollon. Unlike my former root *lau, this new form accounts more directly for the -i- in Apaliunas.

Yet there's perhaps another bonus. It's finally dawned on me that while the lion is a common sun symbol in the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE, the Egyptian language holds the key to it through simple word pun. Based on the ideogram value r` and Coptic , the word for 'sun' was undoubtedly once *rīʕa. The consonantal value for 'lion' is known to be rw but its vowels are harder to reconstruct because the word has not survived into Coptic times. Since I know Egyptian scribes couldn't resist good puns, I wonder if the sun was associated with lion for the simple reason that the two words shared the same vocalic matrix. Could the word then have been *rīwa? A pun between *rīʕa and *rīwa could clarify a lot.

The Semitic reflexes too seem to justify this Egyptian reconstruction since they reflect *ʔarīwu ~ *ʔarīyu. The -y- also replaces expected -w-, a typical preference of North-West Semitic languages. Glück published this very assessment.[6] I'm sure this word is yet another Egyptian loan. The only problem is the prothetic vowel. Where is it from? The obvious answer would be from Egyptian. And so, we might want to tweak *rīwa to *arīwa. (The stress accent remains on the long vowel.)

If Egyptian contains this "prothetic vowel", should we then consider Aegean *alíwa instead of *liwa? Does this still work? Apparently so. As I said before, unstressed initial *a- is regularly dropped in Etruscan. An *Apa-Alíwana manages to keep aligned to Luwian Apaliunas. Regardless, I figure that Greek λέων must be somehow based on Minoan *(a)líwa.

29 Aug 2011

Something fishy

Julius Pokorny reconstructed the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) etymon *dʰǵʰū- (which was later updated to *dʰǵʰuh₁-). This was to explain apparent cognates in Baltic (Lithuanian žuvìs, Lettish zivs) and Greco-Armenian (Greek ἰχθύς ikhthús[1]; Old Armenian ձուկն jukn) languages.

Yet given the geographical restriction of the cognate set and given the strangely similar Ugaritic word, *dagu [dg] 'fish'[2][3], why should we not instead ponder a more recent source by way of a Mediterranean loanword?

[1] Please note that the Greek reflex contains an irregular prothetic i- while a far more widely evidenced root, *dʰǵʰōm 'earth', has become khthōn. If we wish as linguists to obey our own sound laws, this 'fish' root must be abandoned in favour a more recent origin.

23 Aug 2011

Space, time and language

I notice my thinking comes in waves. As you readers know, I often dwell on linguistic details but sometimes my mind gets temporarily bored with that and instinctively, it seems, my focus drifts to more generalized notions of things as if it were some kind of "learning sleep-cycle" until the next awakening. Lately I ponder on the interrationship of space-time and grammar which may come across as ethereal but is, I believe, not as frivolous as it may sound.

It starts with deconstructing something as benign as English infinitives. We use the preposition to in the infinitive to go, for example, and yet it's probably obscure to even the most able speakers why we should do so. This is where a broad experience in foreign languages leads to added insights. In Ancient Egyptian too, the particle r 'to, towards' came to be used for future tense as if time were "space". Proto-Indo-European *-i, the notorious hic-et-nunc particle used throughout much of the primary conjugation, is likely in origin a postposed version of the demonstrative stem *ʔi- and locative particle *ʔe 'here, there' which alluded to location as well as, apparently, tense (cf. the "augmented past form"). In other words, while we all know the difference between space and time, spatial morphemes are constantly being employed to describe points or spans of time without being terribly obvious as to why this is so.

I could go on and on listing example after example but it's quite clear that the association of space with time is a curious cross-linguistic tendency. It strikes me as ultimately subconscious because when we think on the meaning of "space" and the meaning of "time", we see that they appear quite conceptually different aside from being both a type of "dimension". Seemingly, space-time has been hardwired into our brains over eons of evolution. And yet why and how? It's as if Albert Einstein was merely the first to finally drag this subconscious association into the conscious realm only to discover that it's key to the riddle of the cosmos, both micro- and macroscopic.

It's as if the human brain merely reflects quantum topology in its thought processes somehow. As if the interrelationship of space and time were actually, in some crazy way, a part of our brain's computational process.

17 Aug 2011

More on Etruscan verb *zil-

To add to my previous rant, Overseeing in Anatolia, it turns out that a quick google search yielded a gem in my favour. To recap, since the attested Etruscan words zilaθ and zilχ strongly imply a verbal root *zil- presumably meaning 'to oversee, to supervise', I considered the possibility that the verb was simply inherited from a Proto-Cyprian form *zila-. I then considered the possibility of a relationship between this word and Hattic zilat 'throne, seat' by way of a cultural exchange between these two unrelated language groups. I asked: Could this latter word be built on a Hattic verbal root -zil? Is there a shared verb pertaining to governance between Hattic and Cyprian? Sadly, Cyprian-Hattic loans seem to be hard to examine given the gaps in present-day linguistic information of that region and time period.

Now to the aforementioned gem. I came across Yasemin Arikan's article, An official in Hittite cult: LUtazzelli-, where he surprisingly contemplates precisely this Hattic verb, *-zil, but with the added evidence of another Hattic word, *ta-zil, pertaining to a type of official. If I understand correctly so far, ta- creates derivative nouns as in *ta-parfasu (cf. Hittite taparfasu-, a type of ritual bread), and another noun *t-astup (cf. Hittite tastuppa-). Both of these latter nouns are mentioned in Petra Goedegebuure's article I read previously.

15 Aug 2011

Innateness of grammar

On Language Log, I came across Universal Grammar haters. For some, the debate rages on about nurture versus nature and I, like this blogger, also think the debate is inane.

My personal slant draws from the field of artificial intelligence where it's an already-firm conclusion that "grammars" aren't just abstract concepts pertaining to linguistics only. In a broader sense "grammar" is structure; it determines the sequential order of computation and clarifies the constituents of a functioning dynamic. So grammar also has relevance in other geeky subjects like computer programming, mathematics, systems theory and digital circuitry. Even our very DNA must have the innate capacity to understand a grammar because, without it, it would surely be hit-or-miss whether a string of gene sequences were executed in a timely order. Grammar is order. Neither you nor I would exist otherwise, let alone our complex brains.

Grammar is, on the most fundamental level, part of any coherent system and necessary to maintain that coherency. So, forgetting about whatever political vendettas one personally has against Chomsky et alia, most emphatically there must be some sort of basic "universal grammar" from which specialized grammars for particular languages are drawn. However this universal grammar must not be misunderstood to be only linguistic in nature but part of the fundamental processes of thought and computation. I believe that one innate capacity of the human brain, bland as it may sound, would be the ability to distinguish an object from an action performed on it.

A brain born without any inherent grammar must surely be a lump of thoughtless meat, fundamentally incapable of computation itself. Thought requires grammar. It's a foregone conclusion that an idea is nothing more than a structure of links to other ideas in an infinite sea we call knowledge. The neuronal structure of knowledge requires an innate grammar to parse it before one can comprehend it. To deny that there is a universal grammar in this sense is to say that the very act of thinking can be learned out of thin air. It can't, no more than you can teach a block of ice to think.

12 Aug 2011

Overseeing in Ancient Anatolia

A particular Etruscan word currently haunts my mental processes, zil 'to oversee'. It's the verbal base of the participle zilaθ 'supervised' and the noun zilχ 'supervision'. I have some quams against the comparatively exaggerated values given by Larissa and Giuliano Bonfante that would have zilaθ mapped to English 'magistrate' and zilχ equivalent to 'magistracy'. For zilci Larthal Cusuś, which they translate as 'in the magistracy of Larth Cusu', I read less fanfare into it: 'Under the supervision of Larth Cusu'.

As with every morpheme I've entered into my database so far, I ask myself: What's the etymology of this verb zil 'to oversee'? Where does it come from? If inherited from Proto-Cyprian, a form *zila would be indicated for the 2nd millennium BCE. If Proto-Cyprian is also to be located in Cyprus and Western Turkey (including Lydia, as Herodotus had himself prescribed for the ancestors of the Etruscans), it strongly appears as though interaction with the Hattic language, cradled once upon a time in central Turkey, would not just be likely but inevitable.

This is why it's curious that we should find a Hattic word zilat being given the meaning of 'seat' or 'throne'. The Hattic word for 'to sit' is already known to be nifas though. It builds the name Hanfasuit 'She of the throne' (ha- 'down (?)' + -nifas 'to sit' + -it [feminine marker]), an epithet of a goddess that was borrowed into Hittite as Halmasuit. So what morphemes then compose zilat? An understandable hunch enters my head: Could Hattic have had a related verb stem *-zil meaning 'to oversee'? Is this a possible piece of evidence in favour of Hattic-Cyprian language contact?

If so, the proof remains unsatisfying and paltry. I naturally need further evidence to build a stronger case.

8 Aug 2011

Hattic grammar and Proto-Aegean

I'm currently data-mining an excellent article about a very obscure subject, that of Hattic grammar. The article is written by Petra Goedegebuure who gave it a rather verbose title: Central Anatolian languages and language communities in the colony period: A Luwian-Hattian symbiosis and the independent Hittites (2008). It's refreshing that the author has a mature grasp of the subtleties regarding cultural identity and language. Sometimes language shifts while the culture stays largely the same; sometimes culture may alter radically with no large changes to language. A question she explores is: Can certain peculiarities of the Hattic language hint at the specifics of complex, unrecorded shifts in language and culture/cultural identity between the Hattians and the Indo-European speaking population in early Anatolia?

She gives a wealth of thorough examples showing Hattic grammar in action and my eyes have been opened. More frivolously, I believe I can now partially conjugate a Hattic verb with a modest degree of confidence: fa-nifas 'I sit', u-nifas 'you sit', an-nifas 'he/she sits', ai-nifas 'we sit' and nifas '(they) sit'. There are a camp of linguists who believe that Hattic belongs with the Abkhaz-Adyghe languages[1] that are currently restricted to the northern regions of the Caucasus mountains and I think this most likely.

A Proto-Cyprian connection?

While a few kooks carry on dreaming that Etruscan is actually related to Hattic[2], the two languages couldn't be any more alien to each other. Hattic is a prefixing language and exhibits an underlying VSO morphology (ie. verb-subject-object, as in Semitic and Egyptian languages) while Etruscan strictly uses suffixes. If there were any prefixes in Etruscan, we can expect them to be very rare, as is in fact typical of any SOV language (compare with other SOV languages like Inuktitut, Japanese and Turkish, for example). We can be certain then that the Cyprian languages, like Etruscan and Eteo-Cypriot, represented an entirely separate language group to Hattic.

Yet, there's still the potential that some traces of Hattian influence lurk in Etruscan through lexical and structural borrowings. Comparing the locations of Hattic (central Anatolia) and of Proto-Cyprian (western Anatolia & Cyprus) alone warrant the thought. And if not with Proto-Cyprian, could there have been an interaction with the older Proto-Aegean stage in the 3rd millennium BCE from which Minoan too would derive? This is why I've been feverishly recording Hattic vocabulary into my computer. Cross-correlation is delicious.

6 Aug 2011

The great economic cycle

It's come to my attention that there are whispers of stock market collapse as the US finally admits to its troubling economics that some might say began in the 70s, let alone 2001. At any rate, it's been my experience that not only does history repeat itself but that merely knowing history doesn't really prevent anything.

The more practical purpose to learning history is not simply to know it but to understand it. That is, to understand why things happened the way they did and to reapply that knowledge to the present world, the world we live today. History is a source of information that we so often fail to take advantage of. This then is sadly why it's very easy to trick many fools into thinking that any system can last forever without change.

2 Aug 2011

I dedicate these musings of thought to the Temple of Numbers

When I tripped over the online Perseus entry for the word χάος which alludes to the Pythagoreans, it inspired me to pursue another new trail to experience. My google-fingers floated my mind across the ocean of cyberspace until I docked at a website about Pythagoras of Samos. Some fun reflections emerged from the deeps.

Pythagoreans are often said to be an important part of the foundation of modern science and mathematics. However I never really took the time to soak in how these philosophies contributed to modern rationalism and atheism. In a general sense, we might get away with saying that theories like those of the Pythagoreans arose from the rubble of religious contradictions noticed by the most astute iconoclasts of that period, offering us a new set of eyes to gaze into the heavens with, a new method of perceiving the cosmos whose doctrine would be increasingly shaped by logic and deductive reason.

It seems to me that a silent sin of religion is that it abstractifies the infinite Unknown into a fear-inspiring overlord standing over our helpless fate. But a deity is just our common anxieties anthropomorphized. The logic born from Pythagoras and similar philosophies brings remedy to that spiritual tyranny, lamping the path to our self-salvation, overthrowing the sadomasochism inherent in the unhealthy relationship between human and "God". So is it sacrilegious as an atheist to cede after all that that, in a sense, logical truth is Divinity expressed? Is Logic, floating on its flimsy axiomatic foundation called "existence", ironically nothing more than the most optimal faith of faiths?

And so I dedicate these humble offerings of finite perception to the Temple of Numbers. May it compute correctly. Amen.