Saturday, February 8, 2014

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Indo-European metalheads

Bits and pieces of Proto-Indo-European metallurgy can be reconstructed. Because metal was often mined and smelted in very localized areas, the names tend to be highly regionalized. Oddly enough, I know of no particular treatment of PIE metalwork; rather, studies of metallurgy must be gleaned piecemeal as parts of larger works.

The word for "metal" was *h2ei-es-, according to Mallory & Adams, or *h2éios, via Beekes. No matter which reconstruction you prefer, the word was responsible for a number of 'metal,' 'copper,' 'iron,' and 'ore' reflexes.

Outside of the word for "metal" itself, we find that metal words are based upon the colors yellow, white, and red.

*ǵhelh3- "gold" but literally "the yellow." (Lendinara 2007)

*h2erǵ-nt-om- "silver" but literally "the white." (Mallory & Adams 1997)

*h1roudhós "copper" but literally "the red." (Mallory & Adams 1997)

Much has been written and much more remains to be said about ancient metalcraft. Few knew that the PIE metal-system was based on colors. We could suppose that perhaps other metals and materials were based on colors as well, but that requires more research for another blog post.

"metal," "silver," "copper" in Mallory, J. P. & Douglas Q. Adams. The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. 1997.
Beekes, Robert S. P. Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction. John Benjamins Publishing Co. 2nd Edition. 2011.
Lendinara, Patrizia. "The Survival of Indo-European Words in Old Frisian" in Aspects of Old Frisian Phonology. Ed. by Geart van der Meer, Rolf Bremmer Jr., & Oebele Vries. Rodopi. 2007.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What's Your Accent?

If you are a citizen of the United States, it may interest you to know that The New York Times has published an interactive quiz in conjuction with the Harvard Dialect Survey. It is the most accurate test I have encountered. It pinned my accent to within 5 miles of my hometown.

If you are interested in trying it for yourself, click here.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Breaking down Creationist bad linguistics

I never suspected this blog would deal with Creationism, but it seems I can't permit a certain psuedo-scientific article go unchecked. This post will dismantle the bad linguistics behind "The Tower of Babel account affirmed by linguistics," an essay by a certain K. J. Duursma.

Duursma's piece has recieved some circulation in Christian apologist circles, such as the Theopedia. This article is not meant as an attack on Christianity or religion in general. This is an attack on bad linguistics. The article is characterized by quote mining of reputable linguists (Crowely et al; R. L. Trask; etc...), less reputable ones (Greenberg; Ruhlen), and ones of no repute (Steel). The factual mistakes and historical distortions betray the ignorance of the author and the foundationlessness of his assertions.

Secular linguists are puzzled by the existence of twenty or so language families in the world today.

Wrong. It's the very first sentence and you are wrong. There are roughly 136 language families according to Ethnologue. Saying 20 language families is grossly ignorant of the facts. The only way you could arrive at a number like 20 is if you confused the clustered families like "Papuan" and "Paleo-Siberian" language families for single language families. They are not. Families like Khoisean are just titles linguists give to refer to dozens or more of unrelated language families that exist in geographically local regions. We're off to a bad start.

The languages within each family (and the people that speak them) have been shown to be genetically related, but few genetic links have been observed between families.

Wrong. Sentence two and wrong again. There are two possible interpretations of this terrible sentence and either interpretation is incorrect:. First interpretation is that Duursma is referring to two subfamilies within a larger macro-family (such as Italo-Faliscan and Germanic families being siblings within the larger Indo-European family). That's patently false as macro-families must have incredibly strong evidence in order to be granted the designation of a genetic relationship. Second interpretation is that Duursma is referring to any two macro-families like Uralic and Indo-European. This is probably what Duursma meant and it's even dumber. There aren't genetic links observed between separated families. By definition a genetic relationship between two language families means they are part of the same family.

But still, if speech did evolve somewhere, somehow, we would expect to find that all languages are genetically related.

World languages may be related; world languages may not be. The rate of language change exceeds the amount of time that humans have been speaking. In other words, languages that are related have mutated past the point of proving a genetic relationship. Furthermore, we needn't expect that all languages must be genetically related even if we evolved. Sometimes languages are birthed spontaneously, as in the case of Nicaraguan Sign Language. The mind is capable of spontaneously creating impressively complex modes of communication even without the influence of language, and the mind is capable of making modes more complex in order to fit one's needs.

Some have therefore suggested that man evolved speech simultaneously in more than one place. This suggestion is beyond belief, considering the dangers involved in the supposed evolution of speech.

No, it's not beyond belief. As I mentioned above, people are capable of creating language ex nihilo.

Only Genesis provides a credible explanation.

Of all the theories for how speech originated and whence our language families came, Genesis is the only incredible explanation.

Central Asia and the rest of northern Asia host the Altaic family, which also contains Turkish.

There are few Altaicists today and since the 1990s they no longer represent a majority view of linguists. The simple fact is that Japonic and Koreanic families do not have even close to enough evidence to support a genetic relatedness. Tungusic as been strongly questioned as well and its position is no longer certain. Duursma is forgetting that, even if we accept the putative Altaic family, there are many, many other north Asian language families like Nivkh, Ainu, and Yeniseian.

The Pacific is host to three or four families.

The Pacific is home to as few as 20 language families but probably many, many more. The only way this sentence makes sense is if the author is counting by Greenberg's typology, which no credible linguist believes.

...the Khosian languages are spoken in the south-west of Africa.

Remember when I predicted that Duursma must be counting language families by confusing 'convenience families' for genetically-related language families. Prediction confirmed. The Khoisean language family is a grouping of convenience. Only a few of the languages within the group are actually related. Nearly all are isolates. We just lump them into a big group because they're close to each other and utilize clicks.

The result shows that 19.5% of the core vocabulary changes every 1,000 years.

No. Some lexicostatisticians had found that the Swadesh vocabulary changes at a rate of 19.5% every 1,000 years. Duursma cites Crowley et al. to "prove" his point, but that very same book demonstrates the problem with that figure just a few pages later. The number was arrived at by testing just 13 of the world's 7000 languages (11 of them were Indo-European). There is a serious problem of statistical significance and contamination due to relatedness and proximity. The simple fact is that the only thing we can definitively say about language change is that change is not constant and can accelerate or decelerate rapidly and unexpectedly.

If this is the same for all languages, it means that statistically all words in a language should be replaced within a period of about 10,000 years. 

This is actually close to the truth, but - funnily enough - it dismantles Duursma's whole point. If genetic links cannot be found past 10,000 years because of natural language evolution, then the fact that there are unrelated language families is not troublesome at all. It certainly is no evidence for the Tower of Babel. There are any number of more parsimonious explanations for the existence of 136 language families in the world. Sorry, I meant twenty.

Trask remains unsure as to how and when this change occurred.

Well, yeah. Trask wasn't an evolutionary biologist and never pretended to be. He was a very, very fine Vasconist - a linguist of the Basque language - but by no means a biologist. We need better sources than Trask to learn about the evolution of the vocal tract and speech.

Again, there is no evidence to back their view that speech evolved.

Demonstrating that speech evolved was never Trask's intention. Trask's book is an introduction to the way language works. It's to introduce the public to how societies and minds works with language. Duursma should not pick up books on Topic A (general linguistics) and blame it for not proving Topic B (the evolution of the vocal tract).

...scholars supporting monogenesis or the relatability of all languages run the risk of being branded Creationists and of therefore having their work disregarded by colleagues.

I completely agree. There is no evidence for a single ancestral tongue of all world languages and those that support such an idea are groundless.

It seems that there is little evidence to support the view that all languages evolved from one or more proto-languages.

A lack of evidence for one theory is not positive evidence for another.

The Babel account suggests that several languages came into existence on that day.

Well, unless only a few people were building the Tower in the Plain of Shinar, there should be several thousand languages created that day, at least. Right? One language for each builder? I guess Duursma could just say that God split them up into three or four language families and then they started fighting. There doesn't seem to be much Biblical evidence for that either. Oh, well, my point here isn't to debate Biblical interpretations, just the linguistic facts, so I'll move on. I just thought it was funny.

The unitary state of Indo-European languages ... [is dated at 3000 BCE].

NO. That is far too young a date. Proto-Indo-European, the ancestral tongue of all IE languages, was last spoken just north of the Caucasus somewhere around 5000 BCE at least. 3000 BCE is an extremely fringe opinion and not even close to representative of the majority viewpoint. I would say that a date of 3000 BCE is about as fringe among linguists as those who believe PIE dates to 9,000 BCE.

Wieland points out that ‘to have such close correlation’s still existing makes little sense if the migrations were as much as 11,000 years ago, as is commonly believed. From the biblical record, they would have been less than some 4,000 years ago’

Umm... okay? Well, you haven't demonstrated that a Tower of Babel event occurred 4,000 years ago, so all of this is evidence-less speculation. And don't tell me that evidence for the Tower of Babel is not the point of the article. You blamed Trask for not proving the evolution of the vocal tract when his intention was to show how people work with language. Regardless, I'm still waiting for this "evidence" I keep hearing about.

Crowley carries on to share how languages can change from sophisticated to simpler versions, and from simpler to more complex systems. He distinguishes between, ‘isolating’, ‘agglutinating’ and ‘inflecting’ languages and shows how languages change in circular patterns.

If languages evolve in a circular pattern then this implies they either don't lose complexity or they regain complexity when they come full circle. Nevermind that none of this is true. Languages do not change in overall complexity; languages become "simpler" for the native speaker and listener as a method of reducing the effort to convey messages, but the languages gain complexity with the production of novel shortcuts that are invisible to the communicants. The point to take home here is that complexity is a constant over time.

Classical Greek was a highly inflected language; it used five cases, as well as Active, Middle and Passive voice. Koine Greek was almost reduced to four cases, and the Middle voice was used rather inconsistently. Modern Greek distinguishes only three cases, but many endings have disappeared. It is a good example of van der Tuuk’s Ruin, as it is slowly becoming an isolated language.

Wow. Duursma confuses the pathway from agglutination to isolation for simplification. This says nothing about complexity. Isolating languages are incredibly complex, it just so happens that they are less complex in terms of inflection. English, for example, reduced the number of cases over time but replaced this with a complex system of word order, idiomatic phrasing, light verbs, and novel case marking (like the fearsome triple genitive that most world languages cannot easily translate in a concise manner). Duursma has no idea what he's talking about.

However, this model cannot be used to explain the origin of highly sophisticated language systems like Sanskrit and Greek.

Yes, it can. The origin of both is Proto-Indo-European and we've known about it for 200 years. In fact, it was first hypothesized by the same Sir William Jones mentioned at the head of this article. Golly.

Language change, as Crowley’s model shows, would be unlikely to produce consistent endings for the whole of the Inflecting Language.

This does not make sense.

The fact remains that the Greek/Sanskrit parent was utterly consistent...

No, it wasn't. What are you talking about, Duursma? Ever hear of Early and Late PIE? Narrow PIE? The S-mobile? The isogloss mysteries and wave theory? The shift from animate/inanimate-neuter to masculine/feminine/neuter? This article is a bad joke that keeps getting worse.

If chance, then, did not make this Proto Language, where did it get its consistency from?

First of all, PIE is a reconstructed language. That means we can only reconstruct what is shared among its daughter languages. Part of what that means is that we invariably fail to capture the full nuance of PIE, including its inconsistencies. Regardless of the fact that we already know PIE was not consistent and far from it. Why wasn't it consistent? Cause it was a normal language just like Etruscan or Tagalog: constantly in flux. If it were consistent (which is a stupid idea to begin with), it would be a conlang.

It suggests a Designer.

It doesn't suggest anything other than it was a ~7000 year old language with a number of differing dialects.

In Babel one of the groups was given the sophisticated, and utterly consistent, Proto Indo-European language.

This implies that PIE was a first language at the Tower of Babel event. Does Duursma realize that there are fragments of Pre-Proto-Indo-European that can be reconstructed which point to an even earlier stage in the language's history?

Sadly, as people in a fallen world began to use this language, it slowly began to lose some its consistency, as grammatical mistakes became fashionable.

I already pointed out that PIE speakers frequently made mistakes, such as the S-mobile, which arose from a confusion of the inflectional ending *-(V/C)s with the start of the next word. Much like a napron was confused for an apron in English, PIE confused words like -os teuros "the bull" for -os steuros. Thus we get tauros in Greek but steer in English.

The facts we observe today are consistent with the Tower of Babel account in Genesis 11, but this does not prove the correctness of the account.

Habla mucho pero dijo nada.

Since the history of languages cannot be reconstructed beyond 10,000 years, evidence for (and against) alternative views is limited.

I agree. But this undermines the point of the entire article because nothing affirming of the Tower of Babel was presented. That is what you were trying to do when you titled your piece "The Tower of Babel account affirmed by linguistics," right Duursma?

...if we take an objective look at the facts at our disposal we cannot but draw the conclusion that the Bible account has far more going for it than the alternatives, for which there is little, if any, evidence.

You didn't discuss linguistic dating and the reason why is obvious, that would be evidence against a putative Tower of Babel. Some language families pre-date a possible Tower of Babel event. Afrasiatic is roughly 10,000 years old; PIE is 7000; Algic is roughly 8-9000.

We therefore wholeheartedly believe that the findings of historical and comparative linguistics have served indeed to affirm the Tower of Babel account recorded in Genesis 11, beyond reasonable doubt

Wow, that's hilarious. Duursma failed to provide any evidence in favor of Genesis 11. All he said was that there is no evidence against his theory. Beyond reasonable doubt? Let's hear some reasonable evidence first.

Believing this account, however, requires believing in God, and the denial of the evolution theory, which suggests that all animals, humans, and even human language, arose by chance. For many, this might prove too big a price to pay, despite the evidence.

What a capstone to a paper laden with errors and inconsistencies, hilarious mistakes and ridiculous assertions.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Evaluating the Difficulty of the State Department's Critical Languages

Ranking the "best" language to learn (usefulness vs. difficulty)
  1. Hindi: 6/10 difficulty; 44 weeks; 8/10 usefulness. The lingua franca of India and a globally important tongue. It's not the easiest language on here, but compared to Korean, it's a breeze.
  2. Mandarin Chinese: 8/10 difficulty; 88 weeks; 10/10 usefulness. What can I say? Mandarin is tomorrow's language superpower, second to English. The difficulty of the language is daunting, if overstated. There are certainly more difficult languages to learn, but the orthography is a nightmare for English speakers.
  3. Urdu: 6.5/10 difficulty; 44 weeks; 8/10 usefulness. Hindi and Urdu are both dialects of the same Hindustani language, but Urdu got the shaft cause its writing system is more difficult to master than Hindi's. 
  4. Persian (Farsi & Dari dialects): 5/10 difficulty; 44 weeks; 6/10 usefulness. Two dialects of the same Persian tongue. It will get you through Iran, parts of Afghanistan, and Tajikistan - not to mention you may find speaking communities in other parts of the Middle East. It's a good one to know, for sure.
  5. Arabic: 8/10 difficulty; 88 weeks; 8/10 usefulness. A very useful language but very difficult. If you have the motivation, I say go for it; but for those of you who are trying to pick up another language for the moolah, I would advise looking elsewhere.
  6. Korean: 9/10 difficulty; 88 weeks; 7/10 usefulness. As explained below, it is probably the most challenging language on the list. It is a useful tongue, but do the rewards justify the amount of time and effort required to master it?
  7. Pashto: 7/10 difficulty; 44 weeks; 3/10 usefulness. Pashto is for the Afghan/Pakistan enthusiasts and the language geeks. 
For those interested in becoming a diplomat on behalf of the United States (a Foreign Service Officer), bonuses are granted to the applications of those who know foreign languages with political importance (generally meaning they are the official language of a state or region). Not all languages are evaluated equally. Knowledge of any language gives you a .17 point bonus - small but certainly an edge over other candidates - and the required speaking/reading score is 3/3 (non-native, fluency), which is difficult to attain but not impossible. Based on anecdotal evidence, it is believed that Spanish is the most common second language of FSO applicants.

Many applicants want to learn one of the critical languages, a short list of languages with significantly higher bonuses. Applicants are further encouraged by the laxer standards to receive the bonus, the minimum score is only 2/2 (a professional but non-fluent ability). Unfortunately for many interested without solid language knowledge, there is a good deal of language myth and hogwash around each language learning experience: namely, myths concerning the difficulty of learning any of them as a native American English speaker. This post is intended to provide a myth-free review of each of the languages for anyone interested.

Note #1: Learning any language is difficult. Just because Spanish or Frisian or Scots would be listed as "easy" does not mean learning them is an easy experience. It simply means that they are some of the easiest you could select, relative to other world languages.

Note #2: There is no such thing as a objectively "easy" language. Dispel that myth at once. Some languages are easier than others for an English-speaking adult. All languages are equally easy for a baby. For example, perhaps the most difficult languages for an English speaker, the polysynthetic Eskimo-Aleut languages of North America, are just as simple for a child to learn as learning English or Vietnamese or Afrikaans. This list is NOT an objective list of language difficulty and there is no such thing!

Note #3: The "Time" numeral is the number of years or months required, on average, to attain necessary proficiency. These averages are maintained by the State Department.

Note #4: Difficulty is, and always will be, a subjective thing. Some speakers will find themselves unusually adept at learning and employing languages using case declensions, others may find themselves better at tongues with enormous verbal complexity. The result is that a language rated 9/10 may be closer to a 4/10 for some. Take these with a grain of salt.

Note #5: In 2012, point bonuses for critical languages were amended. While non-critical languages continue to receive a .17 boost, I do not know what the point values have been set to. I will report the pre-2012 bonuses which should grant some degree of certainty.

Arabic (Afrasian - Semitic)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .5
Time: 88 weeks
Difficulty: 8/10
Usefulness: 8/10
An important problem with Arabic is the enormous dialect diversity within the language so that two speakers from opposite ends of the Arab world may find themselves unable to converse with ease. Arabic has a lot of political pull and can be great for a career outside of the Foreign Service. But Arabic is a tough language. Why?

  • Phonology: 5/10. On the one hand, its number of consonants and vowels are average, and the vocalic system is much simpler than English. On the other hand there are a few tough consonants. Arabic distinguishes between velar, uvular, pharyngeal, and glottal plosives (and some dialect varieties have epiglottal plosives - cue jaw drop), which can make mastering the phonotactics of the language a surmountable challenge. The difficulty of Arabic's sounds has been greatly overrated in the past.
  • Vocabulary: 8/10. The triconsonantal root structure of Arabic is strange but by no means peculiar. A vowel ablaut exists in fragmented form in English (sing, sang, sung, song) and the consonant roots make learning new words easier than normal. As the language is not Indo-European, thus unrelated to English, learning the roots is going to be a challenge.
  • Grammar: 7/10 Literary Arabic boasts a small number of noun cases (3) and gender (2) and declines for three numbers but spoken Arabic no longer utilizes case or the dual form. Verbs have a normal degree of conjugations compared to world languages (including 5 moods), but significantly higher than English.
  • Suprasegments: 3/10. Arabic is a mora language where the meaning of a word is determined by the length of a phoneme, this is not especially difficult for an English speaker. Stress exists but its placement is non-random and limited: not a problem.
  • Script: 9/10. This is nearly as tough as it gets. 

Mandarin Chinese (Sino-Tibetan - Sinitic)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 88 weeks
Difficulty: 8/10
Usefulness: 10/10
A terribly difficult orthography with a somewhat simple spoken form. The difficulty of Chinese is famous, if greatly exaggerated. Learning Chinese is a great skill outside of State. If you never get in but you learned the language, it was time well spent.
  • Phonology: 4/10. Strange to an English mouth, but entirely palatable. Remember that tone is a suprasegmental characteristic, so don't jump to conclusions just yet.
  • Vocabulary: 8/10. Non-Indo-European so don't expect to find cognates with English, except in loanwords. 
  • Grammar: 3/10. English and Chinese have something very special in common: they are both isolating languages relatively free of inflection. Because of that, English grammar maps quite well onto Chinese.
  • Suprasegments: 8/10. Tonality over a single word modifies the meaning and can make the difference between saying "cow" and "mother." If you do some travelling, you may find other Chinese speakers using different tones, but knowing Standard Chinese tones will get you anywhere you need to be.
  • Script10/10. This is as tough as it gets and Chinese is famous for it. Thousands of unique symbols requiring memorization. The aid of radicals, small marks within the symbols that hint at sound and meaning, are of use but will not save you.

Hindi & Urdu (Indo-European - Indo-Aryan)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 44 weeks
Difficulty: 6/10 for Hindi, 6.5/10 for Urdu
Usefulness: 8/10
Hindi is the standard Indian dialect of the Hindustani language while Urdu is the official Hindustani dialect of Pakistan. The difference between the two is primarily rooted in vocabulary and the script. Like Chinese, it has an enormous number of speakers. Lots of Indians know the tongue and non-Indians too. Related to English but distantly. Very distantly. Close to Bengali and Gujarati.
  • Phonology: 4/10. An average number of phonemes. There is a distinction between retroflex and dental plosives but a dedicated learner would find that more fun that difficult.
  • Vocabulary: 6/10. Indo-European roots but extremely divergent from English, thanks to 5000 years of separation. Colored by cultural stratification.
  • Grammar: 6/10. A case system that has been reduced from Proto-Indo-European but never easy for an English speaker. Three cases with two declension classes. Conjugation by gender, tense, number, and aspect. Split ergativity. 
  • Suprasegments: 2/10. Stress accents that can be predicted.
  • Script: 7/10 for Hindi; 9/10 for Urdu. Devanagari script makes learning Hindi difficult but fortunately the letters correspond fairly accurately to consonants and vowels. Urdu is written in the Persian alphabet, based around the Arabic script.

Korean (Isolate? - Koreanic)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 88 weeks
Difficulty: 9/10
Usefulness: 7/10
A major economy with a sizable number of speakers. Not to mention that North Korea overhead means there will always be a few security analyst positions available for someone with knowledge of Korean. 
  • Phonology: 7/10. The inventory is short and simple but Korean employs stiff voice, a narrowing of the glottal opening, and hollow voice, a distortion of the larynx's position and constriction of the glottis. I have been told this is very difficult for English speakers to master as they often think they are doing it correctly as they cannot hear their mistakes.
  • Vocabulary: 10/10. Unrelated to English and distinguishes between honorifics, speech level (where the status of who you speak to/of demands a particular set of vocabulary be used), and gender.
  • Grammar: 9/10. 7 cases but not defined by gender and optionally defined by number. Verbs are relatively complicated for an English speaker, able to tack on up to eight affixes simultaneously (!). While the nouns are fairly easy fare, the verbal system is a monstrosity.
  • Suprasegments: 0/10. No significant stress system, no tonality, no pitch accent. There are several non-standard pitch accents found in dialects outside of the capital. 
  • Script: 7/10. A different orthography but one that makes sense.

Pashto (Indo-European - Indo-Iranian)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 44 weeks
Difficulty: 7/10
Usefulness: 3/10
The national language of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Strongly latched on to identity of the Pashtun tribes. Expect to be working in Central Asia.
  • Phonology: 5/10. Nothing too crazy except for a retroflex lateral flap (a funky 'l' sound) that can be mastered with practice.
  • Vocabulary: 6/10. Like Hindi and Urdu, it is Indo-European but very distant from English.
  • Grammar: 7/10. Four cases defined by gender (2) and number (2). Split ergativity. Moderate degree of complexity to the conjugation of its verbs.
  • Suprasegments: 2/10. Some argue there is a free pitch to add emphasis to a word. Nothing that can't be learned.
  • Script: 9/10. Pashto variation on the Persian alphabet.

Persian - Dari & Farsi dialects (Indo-European - Indo-Iranian)

Pre-2012 point bonus: .4
Time: 44 weeks
Difficulty: 5/10
Usefulness: 6/10
By learning Persian you could pick up either dialects and test in both. I'm not sure if you can do that. I'm pretty sure they only give you a bonus one time. In addition to having some currency in Eastern Iran, Dari Persian (which is not the Dari language of central Iran) is a co-official language of Afghanistan. Farsi Persian is the official language of Iran, and the language has many speakers in Central Asia and parts of the Middle East. 
  • Phonology: 2/10. 22 consonants, 6 vowels. Only strange feature for an English speaker is an allophonic [g ɢ] (think a 'g' further back in the throat) which is simple enough.
  • Vocabulary: 6/10. Like Hindustani and Pashto, relatedness to English is very remote.
  • Grammar: 5/10. No grammatical gender. 3 cases marked by adpositions. The role of cases has been greatly reduced since Old Persian. Verbs are conjugated inflectionally or aspectually with light verbs. Present tense verbs are highly irregular, but overall there are few tenses to master. 
  • Suprasegments: 2/10. Stress accents that can be predicted.
  • Script: 9/10. The Persian alphabet is derived from the Arabic.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

An Etymological Map of the District

The greater DC area needed an etymological map.

Okay, so it probably didn't need an etymological map, but it sure could use one. I took 30 minutes out of my morning today to have a bit of fun: mapping the greater Washington, DC area not with its current names, but names built around their historical meanings. For example takoma, as part of Takoma Park, derives from a Native American word meaning "snow-capped mountain." Some of the results were surprising (check out Suitland and Carrollton).

Actual names of cities - Etymological names of cities:

Alexandria – Defender of Men. From Greek alexein "to defend" + -andr- "man" (related to andros and anthro-).

Anacostia – Village Trading Center. From Nacotchatank Algonquin anacost- "trading village."

Arlington – Hygered's Farm. Named after Arlington, England. Anglo-Saxon records from the 800s CE list the name as Hygered-ing-tun. The suffix -ing- is a possessive marker analagous to 's in Modern English. -tun is a suffix for town but in the 800s CE it meant a stately house with farmland (Modern English -ton).

Bethesda – House of Mercy. From Aramaic beth "house" (whence the second morpheme of the word alphabet) + hesda "mercy."

Bladensburg – Sword's Fort. From a Germanic source, possibly Anglo-Saxon. Bladen "sword" or "knife" (contrast Modern English blade) + -s a possessive genitive marker (Modern English 's) + -burg "fort" (though today means something more like city or burrough).

Glenarden – Great Forest Narrow Valley. From English glen "narrow valley" + Latin arden "great forest."

Greenbelt – Rural Land Outside the City. English analogy: a belt of greenland that wraps around a city. A bit dated as nearly cities are surrounded by suburbs today.

Holmes Run – Holly Tree Run. Holme and holmes have many meanings. The one I figured was most likely is a common Middle English name meaning a place of a holly tree. The last name of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, meant "man of the holly tree."

Hyattsville – Village of the Man of High Gate. From Middle English hyatt a dialect shortening of high + gate with a 's genitive and -ville "village."

Lake Barcroft – Farm by the River Bank. From Scotch-Irish English ban- "river bank" + croft "farm."

Langley – Long Meadow. From Old English lang "long" + -lea "meadow" or "woods clearing" (contrast Ashley "meadow between the ash trees").

Marlow – Marsh Hill. From English mar- "marsh" + low "hill."

McLean – Celtic shorthand for (Saint) John's Servant

Mount Rainier – General's Adviser. A rarely employed term. A rainier was once a common position to Frankish and German armies.

New Carrollton – Town of the Slaughter Champion. From older Irish carroll "slaughter champion" + -ton "town."

Potomac River – River of Swans. Disputed etymology, so I chose the prettier one. It could also be from From Algonquin patowmack "something brought," signifying a trading post.

Pimmit Hills – Unknown

Suitland – Senator Samuel Taylor Suit's Land

Takoma Park – Snow-covered mountain. From Lushootseed [təqʷúʔbəʔ] "mother of the waters."

Washington – Wassa's Estate. Contrast Arlington. From Old English Wassa personal name + -ing- possessive suffix + -tun "estate," "farm house."

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Fantasy Tropes

While I'm waiting for the results of a small survey on the accents and vocabulary of middle age and elderly Iowans, I think we can take a moment's respite to talk about the accents used in the fantasy genre.

It's long been noticed that when directors want to demonstrate the "foreign-ness" of a character, they utilize British accents. TV Tropes calls this The Queen's Latin phenomenon. They are right on the money. British accents are an over-used technique. Is the guy from Rome circa 300 CE? Well he's speaking in Received Pronunciation now. Sometimes directors go so far as to have American and Australian actors adopt British accents, rather than cast a British actor.

But the stereotypes go deeper than just British accents in a period film. The fantasy genre is one of the worst purveyors of language stereotyping. Let's get frank, here:

Strong, brutish, and well-intentioned but not particularly intelligent
Result: Scottish accents

Cultured, sophisticated, pompous, usually good but sometimes evil or mischievous
Result: Highfalutin English accents

Human (heros)
Balanced, smart, lovable, closest to a perfect character
Result: Common English accents, General American

Human (lower class)
Unafraid to get their hands dirty in morally ambiguous situations but not necessarily evil
Result: Cockney, Irish

Human (antagonists)
Super powerful and super evil and super smart. They stand for chaos, destruction, deception, powerlust, and selfishness.
Result: General American, Common English accents

Hobbits and Simpleton Races
Generally good, down-home folk.
Result: Common English accents

Humans (assassins and mercenaries)
Strange and mysterious. Usually from a foreign land. They may speak slowly but their wits are sharp and skills unmatched by everyone but the heros and the main antagonist.
Result: Foreign accent, usually Mediterranean or Middle Eastern

Trolls and Ogres
Stupid, evil, easily tricked and hateful
Result: Cockney, Scottish

 So what we learn from today's venture is that American accents are generally ignored but Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian accents really get the boot.