27 Oct 2011

Small quibbles about Proto-Berber orthography

Phoenix responded to a minor issue I raised about Proto-Berber orthography in Why I reconstruct *β and not *v. In defense of using a relatively arcane symbol  (taken from the IPA system) for a v-like sound that could instead be accommodated by a straight-forward symbol *v, he supplied the following reasons:
  • "In African linguistics v is commonly used as the symbol for the voiced fricative while β is used for the labial approximant."
  • "So I don't use v to transcribe Proto-Berber β, because it would suggest that it is the fricative counterpart to *b."
So from what I can see, his justification for the specialist symbol boils down to phonetics and tradition in the field. However I fail to find any justification here grounded in a clear methodology of some kind.

To the first argument, I suggest that basing an orthography on the phonetic level is inevitably cumbersome because it's then prone to constant revision as new discoveries about underlying phonetics come into view. A more stable and sensible orthography is based on the higher phonemic level instead, which focuses less on exact articulation of each sound in its context but instead displays for us *distinct* sounds of the language. For example, in English, the phoneme /p/ is pronounced differently in "spun" than it is in "pat". The /p/ in the former example is completely without a puff of breath (ie. [p] in IPA symbols) since it follows /s/ while in latter example, /p/ is indeed pronounced with a puff of breath by default (ie. [pʰ]). However on the higher phonemic level, we represent in both examples the single phoneme /p/ to eliminate extra irrelevancies that are ungermane to the focus at hand. It'd be likewise unnecessary to write out every word of a proto-language like Berber with only phonetic symbols rather than phonemic ones unless the topic was specifically about the exact articulation of each sound.

It's also a fact that there are exceedingly few if any languages that contain two distinct phonemes /β/ (bilabial fricative, pronounced by blowing through near-closed lips) and /v/ (labiodental fricative, pronounced with the lower lip touching one's upper teeth). It's pointless to obsess on minutia about the exact articulation of the sound if it can be reasonably ascertained that the sound was v-like. It then suffices to take advantage of an available letter from the Roman alphabet, *v, to aid readability both by specialists and by people in general. Things should be written with clarity for both specialists *and* the general public when possible lest it encourage ivory tower attitudes, the scourge of current academia.

To the second argument, tradition indeed is a seductress but it must be rejected when it no longer clarifies but obfuscates. Sometimes tradition is misguided. Sometimes tradition is outdated. Sometimes tradition is just plain wrong. In this case, I feel that this tradition is wrong precisely because of the first argument, that orthographies should reflect the phonemic level not the phonetic and that by ignoring this rule, one has unnecessarily obfuscated rather than clarified.

Possible solutions

After reading Phoenix's explanation with deep interest, I pondered on how the system might be revised to be clearer and to follow a more consistent methodology in its design. By following the principle of phonemics over phonetics, and by reserving diacritics and special symbols for the rarer sounds of a language marked by special articulatory features, we can arrive at a more balanced and clearer phonology.

Breaking with empty Berberist traditions, emphatic sounds may be marked by the underdot, as in Proto-Semitic studies. Again, we all may quibble about the exact pronunciation of (or *q) but a revised symbol  has the definite advantage of visibly showing a shared feature of "emphatic" with the other emphatics which would likewise be indicated more consistently with the dot: *ḍ*ḍ (former *), *ġġ (former *qq), * and *. The missing emphatic counterpart of *b, represented in this new system as **ḅ, is now impossible to confuse with non-emphatic *v which lacks the underdot. We may finally eliminate unnecessary IPA symbols and replace them with more generally readable symbols from the standard Roman alphabet that we already use while simultaneously making explicit any shared features that the different sounds may have in the language, such as "emphaticness".

And finally, through this revised system, specialists may continue to debate on the exact articulation of *ġ and such, but it won't affect the symbol shared among the specialist community until the phoneme's emphatic nature or its existence is disproven.

(1 hour later)
Upon further thought (my mind never stops!!), enforcing a surface representation with unvoiced letters might be even more kosher and, again, this would be even more in line with what's done in Proto-Semitic linguistics. So alternatively, we could use the following symbols to clean things up: * (= *), **ḳ (= ), *ḳḳ (= *qq), * (= *) and *ṣṣ (= *).

16 Oct 2011

Egyptian vowel reconstruction and other gripes

Occam's Razor is a valuable tool to the student and scholar. It forces us to think hard about the assumptions we hold on to and whether they are absolutely justified or whether there's room for doubt. Linguistics seems to be one of those studies where this methodical principle is still not respected to the level that it should be and, as a result, there are many ancient languages being reconstructed with too much artistic flair to properly reflect the data.

Diversity of plausible theories or diversity of empty opinion?

I've been very busy collecting data on Ancient Egyptian after growing dissatisfied with the lack of profound discussion or clarity on its vocalism. Egyptologists constantly write words with only their consonantal values to reflect how the Egyptians themselves wrote these words. This is how it's always been. However I find that it often does more to obstruct and obscure the proper reading of these texts than aid us. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Egyptians themselves wouldn't have thought of words purely in terms of consonants. Some of the clever word puns exhibited in Egyptian texts require our knowledge of the vocalism too in order to grok its fullest meaning and pattern. After centuries of Egyptomania, why is there no clear consensus on the Ancient Egyptian vowel system? What's the hold up? Are we interested in Egyptian or not?

To illustrate the point, let's take the word for 'cat' which may be represented consonantally as mỉw. Here is the mountain of possible reconstructions for the utterly confused outsider to select from:
  • Albright *mắȝĕʔ
  • Callender *máȝejvw
  • Garnot *mṓȝei̯
  • Smieszek *må̆ȝjᵉw
  • Vergote *māȝuy
Obviously they can't all be correct. Notice that a lot of these scholars seem to delight in masking their representation of the language with a bunch of unnecessary diacritics. (I've ranted against this before many times.) To aid in our investigation, we see that the plural form of the word is reflected in the Greek name Πανομιευς which represents the Egyptian phrase *pȝ-(n)-nȝ-mȝj.w 'He of the cats'. Of course, Egyptian shares with Arabic the use of broken plurals and so the plural vocalism is not necessarily the vocalism of the singular. In order to keep my sanity, I find myself forced to develop my own testable opinions on the matter with a conciliatory reconstruction of *māya /'mɑ(ː)jə/ for the period around 1500 BCE and it seems sufficient to account for later Coptic form moui agreed upon by Sahidic, Bohairic, Akhmimic and Fayyumic dialects.

Back to Occam's Razor, one thing that frustrates me when I see this kind of diversity of opinion and no consensus is that the reasons why these individual scholars have arrived at their differing ideas appears to be grounded less in linguistic science and more in artistic whim. To me, phonotactic analysis is unavoidable in this task. We need to be absolutely conscious about how syllables are put together in our language of interest, not just the individual phonemes. We need to start with the most universally commonplace rules and meet each contradiction with adaptation from a simple and commonmost state to a more complex and exotic one, not vice versa. Sadly linguists often don't demonstrate this rigour but it's vital in creating a coherent theory that obeys the KISS principle (ie. Keep It Simple Stupid). So, to me, the diversity of opinion in the example of 'cat' is not so much the result of coherent theories clashing for competition, but a bunch of lazy theories made by scholars ignoring Occam's Razor in their idiosyncratic ways.

And how to handle those unstressed syllables?

Focusing just on how different scholars treat unstressed syllables Egyptian, there doesn't appear to be a justification for how one decides which vowel it is, aside from appealing to outside branches of Afro-Asiatic like Semitic. Callender for example reconstructs *pAsīḏaw for 'nine' with wildcard symbol A whereas Loprieno chooses *pisī́ɟvw (nb. Loprieno's i = Callender's A) with yet another wildcard symbol v in the final unaccented syllable. In this case, Proto-Semitic having only *tišˁu has no equivalent cognate to enlighten our efforts on the matter.

Neither the Babylonian inscription EA 368 which records 
pi-ši-iṭ nor the later Sahidic Coptic form psis gives us much evidence of what the first vowel was because an unstressed vowel is often less audible than a stressed one. Coptic has already dropped the vowel while, for all we know, the Babylonians interpreted a garden-variety schwa as a lax -i-. I still search for precise evidence that justifies this need for more than one vowel quality in unstressed positions. Until I do, I reconstruct *pasiḏa /pə'siɟə/ where unstressed *a is nothing other than the generic schwa /ə/ which we would find in all unstressed positions. Notice too that I choose to avoid unnecessary diacritics like the plague, as I believe we all should if we strive to be good little linguists.

Naturally if there is indeed unambiguous evidence of other possible vowel qualities in unaccented syllables, I'd love to hear about it. But until I do, Occam's Razor must be my guide.

10 Oct 2011

To the earth and sky

Back to the Liber Linteus again, the longest Etruscan text so far known that remains untranslated (but not if determined people can help it.) One of the many interesting things about this text are the several binary oppositions, much of which allude to the sanctified space defined during the rituals described in it. Two good examples of this two-way contrast are the phrases, hante-c repine-c "both in front and in back" and θesane uslane-c "at dawn and at dusk" (literally "at dawning and at setting"). However another example, and the one I wish to explore right now, is a less understood one at LL 11.vii: celu-cn aθumi-tn.

First let's remark on the opposition of postposed demonstratives between proximal -cn and distal -tn, both of which are declined in the accusative case (ie. they mark nouns as objects of an action). This in itself demonstrates that this is another binary opposition similar to hante-c repine-c. Etruscanists agree that celu is 'earth' so it stands to follow from this that aθumi may point to the skies above.

So standardizing to Old Etruscan phonotactics, aθami /'ɑtʰəmi/ may be given the value 'sky, clouds'. This would be yet another binary contrast relating to ritual space, this time in the vertical, and it jives well with the scribe's choice of demonstratives since the earth is just below our feet (proximal) while the highest skies are by comparison remote (distal), the earthly world of humanity versus the celestial world of the divine.

7 Oct 2011

See here!

After parsing into sentences and adding punctuation, TLE 170, the inscription devoted to Arnth Alethnas who is described as a 43-year-old leaving behind two sons, reads in Etruscan as follows:
Arnθ Aleθnas, Ar. clan, ril XXXXIII.
Ei-tva tamera śarvenas.
Clenar zal arce acnanasa.

Zilc marunuχva tenθas eθl matu manime-ri.
In the inscription, eitva is written without spaces however we've seen tva elswhere in the inscription that starts Eca sren tva (TLE 399) already translated by the Bonfantes as "This image shows [...]". Ei is abundantly attested too and means "here".

I notice that ei-tva is strangely similar to a French expression I'm familiar with: voici. Voici is composed of vois "(you) see; see!" and ci "here". According to my grammatical model of Etruscan, tva is the present-future form of *tau "to see". The sentence may be translated as "Here (ei) [we] see (tva) an urn (tamera) for cremation (śarvenas)." I find it difficult to be sure of the last word of the sentence since it's attested only once in Etruscan, although Lemnian śerunai, declined in the locative case on the Lemnos Stele, is a tempting match.

4 Oct 2011

Etruscan grammar - The nouns and verbs and everything

Finally after much procrastination I've at last hammered out a provisional model of Etruscan verbs. My pdf, originally focused on Etruscan declension, now includes what I hope is a coherent and natural model of Etruscan conjugation. Given the available literature, I fear that I'm the only one that dwells on these little details. So please review it in the Lingua Files section. This is to be, as always, regarded as an ever-evolving work in progress for discussion.

One will notice that while amace '(he) has been' is often parsed as am-ace and called a "perfect", I elect to interpret this more elaborately as three morphemes marking both aspect and tense: am-ac-e = be-PERF-PAST. As such, I specifically call this form the perfective past which contrasts with the perfective present-future seen in eniaca 'shall remain' (see Pyrgi Tablets) which is then similarly composed of the verb root en 'to remain', the perfective -ac- and the present-future marker -a.

My model has the benefit of finally making sense of uncomposed Lemnian -ai which marks the verbs recorded on the Lemnos Stele. Surely these too then are imperfect pasts. I don't know of a competing model that can address these various facts as well. It seems too that treating -in(-) as a mood marker works best with a grammatical structure of tense, aspect and mood. So I've settled on calling this a mediopassive which contrasts with the default active mood. It's interesting too that both Greek and Latin, two languages having notable influence on Etruscan, had this same mood. "A product of areal influence or just accidental?" I wonder.

1 Oct 2011

What if the problem is traditional academia?

Memiyawanzi raises an issue in Imposter syndrome about perfectionism run amok among linguistics students (and students by and large). I noticed that the focus is on the individual's internal psychology but I have an even broader perspective on this.

Individual quirks and psychoses

My life experience has led me to believe that many students who seem to naturally gravitate to scholarly pursuits have a common personality type. They tend to be detail-oriented for one and this can lead to this beautiful skill being turned inward on themselves for less constructive purposes (ie. perfectionism, self-doubt, anxiety, depression, etc.). Detail-oriented people, I believe, are precisely the kinds of people that will direct their psychic energy inward rather than outward, unlike the stereotypical jock who will instead gravitate towards physical pursuits to work off those same internal energies. If this inward reflection is used in a healthy way, one can properly evaluate one's weaknesses and adapt. If not, a student can be swamped by her own thought processes. All introspective, detail-oriented people need to learn to manage this hidden battle within themselves to stay on top.

However, we should also consider how environment must also play a part in a student's mental health. If an environment is unreasonable, we all know that it can contribute to an unhealthy mental state in an otherwise healthy individual. Family abuse, gang intimidation, drug abuse, etc. are the typical things we hear about as toxic environments for many children, teens and even adults. Yet what if traditional academia itself is adding to deleterious feelings of inadequacy in hopeful students?

University as a "place of learning"? Are you sure?

We're all led to believe that the university is a "place of learning" but we should question that notion. The university is in reality a "place of gambling" where students bet with their hard-earned money for a mere shot at the workforce and a future career. The wonky global economy only makes the game more exciting for career thrill-seekers. It goes without saying that rich and incompetent people can afford to gamble multiple times until a pay-off while competent poor people have little room for error. University is a business, pure and simple. Intellectuality comes second to money.

If university were really a place of learning rather than the heavily corporatized institution it is, it would be more in line with a rationalist Socratic ideal where strict roles such as "student" and "teacher" are regarded as illegitimate. The reasoning for this is simple. If knowledge as a whole is infinite and all humans are finite beings, then all of us must be ignorant one way or another. If we're all ignorant, we all can stand to learn something and then that means we're all students. Yet since we all know *something*, we're also all teachers automatically.

So when we say "teacher", we're really saying that society arbitrarily recognizes someone as "more knowledgeable" than "students". The meaning of "teacher" has been perverted into a kind of paid career while the student is an indentured servant beholden by peonage to the system. When we say "specialist", we're really saying that society arbitrarily recognizes someone as "more knowledgeable" than non-specialists and this effectively stops "non-specialists" from questioning them out of threat of shame or ridicule. There's no empirical way to measure how much one is a "teacher" or "specialist" because even the boundaries of any particular "subject" or "branch of study" are arbitrarily defined. Simply put, universities avoid this socratic ideal of equality, critical thinking and individuality because they are in bed with CEOs who would much prefer in its stead inequality, yes-man thinking and conformism.

To be clear, a real student questions others with reason, thinks for herself, investigates the truth no matter how inconvenient, stands up to stupidity and holds her own but none of this is conducive to corporate "team-playing". Learning is and must be a solitary pursuit.

From that angle then, is it any wonder that even a well-meaning, normally adjusted student might feel mentally unhealthy? The university has turned into a kind of ideological war zone meant to separate the true scholars from the status-hungry. The status-hungry win in this system.

On a side note...

Take in UCLA's Campus casts wider safety net for depressed students. This quote is a mixed grab bag of good and grim:
"'Fortunately, at UCLA we have a lower suicide rate than other campuses, and overall we have a higher rate of students who are already being counseled at CAPS,' said Susan Quillan, chief of clinical services at Ashe, who oversaw UCLA’s participation in the partnership."
Oh good, they have a lower suicide rate. We can sleep well at night then. Keep in mind that corporations have made depression into a disturbingly profitable industry (ie. pharmaceuticals) while simultaneously causing much of the woe by creating a head-trip system that runs counter to sense. Irony much?