Monday, June 17, 2013

etymology scoreboard

The cumulative score for people who participate in the Reddit Etymology Game. Round #3 was concluded on 1 July 2013. Next week will be a guest host with a special theme. See you then!

14 Points

13 Points

10 Points

8 Points

7 Points 

6 Points

5 Points

4 Points

3 Points

2 Points

1 Point

0 Points

-1 Point

Ongoing perfect streaks: hoochie_minh (x1)
Longest perfect streak: galloping_tortoise (x2)
Most perfects: galloping_tortoise (x2); mhenderson5 (x1); rusoved (x1); mmword (x1); SundayIsTheFirstday (x1); hoochie_minh (x1)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

rare sounds

People love the weird and the unusual. When it comes to languages of the world, both ancient and living, there is no shortage of odd features that make every language unique and bizarre. Consider polysynthetic languages like Yupik that can say in a single massive word that which would take us an entire sentence: tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq "he had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer." In the exact opposite spectrum are analytic languages like English and Chinese which make statements out of many words and few morphemes. A word like dog (singular) in English has only one other morphological manifestation, dogs (plural thanks to the morpheme -s), while polysynthetic languages can start going nuts with that word.

Today's post looks at sound. More accurately, we are going to take a look at rarest sounds among world languages. These are sounds that linguists almost never encounter.

1. The [ɧ]
This sound occurs only in Swedish and arguably the Kölsch dialect of German. It's a voiceless palatal-velar fricative sometimes described as a cross between English 'sh' and 'h,' and it's pretty difficult for English speakers to distinguish it from just a regular 'h' sound. Listen to it here.

2. Clicks
All of the click consonants are extremely rare. In fact, only 1.8% of all languages utilize clicks at all (Maddieson). One of the langauges is Damin, in Australia, while all the others are in southern and eastern Africa. Something peculiar to mention is that no language ends a word on a click, and only a very small selection of them can begin words with a click. Clicks are almost always inside words.

3. Labial-velar consonants
These are "double" sounds where your mouth is positioned to pronounce one sound in the back of the mouth while moving the lips as if producing a different sound. For that reason, labial-velar consonants get two phonetic symbols with an arch indicating the connection. Take the sound [k͡p] for example. To make the sound, try to say cove. Now say Poe, as in Edgar Allan Poe. Now try to say cove while forcing your lips to move in the way you said Poe. These sounds are found in central Africa and New Guinea. Listen to [k͡p] here.

4. The 'th,' otherwise known as [θ] and [ð]
Among many of the European languages are the 'th' sounds. Though they are common in Europe, they are extremely rare in the rest of the globe. English is one of the few languages lucky enough to have both [θ] and [ð], both written as 'th.' One is voiced and the other is voiceless. What that means is that for the first 'th' [θ] you do not use your vocal chords while for the second 'th' [ð] the chords vibrate. To illustrate, put your hand around the top of your neck and just give a nice "ahhhh" for all of us. Continue until your hand can feel your throat vibrate. Now say "thy thigh." If we were to substitute the IPA for the 'th,' we could write it "ðy θigh." Notice how the first 'th' vibrated while the second did not begin to vibrate until you got to the -igh? It may be interesting to note that some historical linguists believe that the prevalence of the 'th' sounds in Europe is because of prehistoric languages. The theory goes that invading Indo-European languages (like Germanic and Celtic and Latin) were learned by indigenous tribes with their own tongues, tongues that were heavy on the 'th.' While the local tribes learned the Indo-European languages, they never lost their own accents.

5. The [t̪͡ʙ̥]
This is a bilabial trilled stop. English does not use it for speech, but we do make the sound when we motorboat. It occurs in about ~5 languages, though the exact number is disputed. The most famous of these is probably Pirahã, publicized by Daniel Everett. It is largely limited to South American Native American languages.

Anyway, these are just five examples of a great swathe of rare sounds. We didn't even get to /ʄ̥/ (found in the Serer language). Such a shame. Well, until next time, language lovers.

For more reading, see Ian Maddieson's fun but woefully short article here. Thanks to Reddit for for pointing out a few of them.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Indo-Europeans and their god, the Sky Daddy

Credit to /u/KjellJagland of Reddit for this hilarious treatment of
Indo-European religion as a contemporary evangelical belief.
Chapter One, Introducing the Sky Daddy

By comparing the hundreds of Indo-European languages, we can reconstruct a supreme being that the Proto-Indo-Europeans worshiped roughly seven thousand years ago. His name (yes, a he) was *Dyēus ph2ter. Encoded into that name is a bunch of jargon-notes for linguists which tells us how to pronounce it. While our reconstructive methods are not perfect, and while there is still debate about how the < h2 > was supposed to sound, we can reasonably say that his name sounded somewhat like "Dee-yea-oos P'-hah-ter." That's about as good as I can do trying to type out equivalent sounds for you to try. Actually it's not very close at all. You know, American English is remarkably bad for this job. Well, if you want to know more about how it sounded, you can wiki it.

So how do we know about this *Dyēus ph2ter? How were we ever in a position to even say what language and religion was like so long ago? The answer is that we have some really neat detective work by lots of historical linguists over several hundred years. You may recall from grade school that the Greeks and Romans had a habit of assuming that their pantheon of gods was equivalent in nature to the pantheons of other cultures. That's why we get Zeus (Greek) paired with Jupiter (Roman), Ares with Mars, and Athena with Minerva. Their comparisons had less to do with historical facts and more with folk belief, popular opinion, and conveniences, but with the Zeus/Jupiter couple they unwittingly got it right.

Chapter Two, Unwittingly Getting it Right

You see, both gods trace their name back to the same title: *Dyēus ph2ter. With Jupiter, it is more obvious. We have some very old inscriptions where Jupiter gets a < d > in front of his name, Diespiter, for example, which alerts us that the Romans began dropping the /d/ sound. (It may help to mention that < j > in Latin has a sound like English < y > in "yes", not like the < j > in "judge"). You can already see the merger of two older words, "dies-" and "-piter." More interestingly, the "dies-" part is identical to Latin dies "day." Could the two be related? Hint: Yes. Both words come from an older Indo-European word *dyēus meaning "sky" or "heaven."

With Zeus (Zεύς) it's a bit less apparent. While nearly all ancient Greek sources write Zeus with a < z >, the oldest of all written Greek is Mycenaean Greek, and they wrote the name with a < d >: Di-we. While the Mycenaeans used a very clunky and imprecise writing system, Linear B, the system is accurate enough to tell us that the "Di" is no accident. Adding to this, Zeus was frequently called Zeus Pater, "father Zeus." So we can see that while the Latins began to use the words father and "dies" together so much that their identities became indistinguishable, the Greeks continued to treat the two words as distinct. Thus we discover that Zeus is cognate to the "Ju-" in Jupiter!

Chapter Three, The Sky Daddy in Other Languages

While the Greek and Roman examples are the most fun to look at, we can highlight a "Ju-/Zeus Father" in the other Indo-European tribes, and by extending our research, we know that the deity was literally "Sky Father." We can make this extension by comparing all the Indo-European languages and finding a remarkable unity - a remarkable unity that tells us that the religious concept and name stretch back to a very ancient time.

English: Tiw (which is the first part of the word tuesday, lit. "Tiw's Day") < Proto-Germanic *Tē₂waz
Sanskrit: Dyaus Pita (recorded in the Rigveda around 1700 BCE). In fact, when Dyaus is used apart from Pita, the word means "sky" or "heaven," while Pita means "father." So this is a big clue: ancient Hindu religion and language preserved the original name and definition)
Lithuanian: Dievas < Proto-Baltic *Deivas

Those are just some examples; a full list would be enormous. By comparing all the different sounds in each version, and by taking time and natural language change into account, we can reconstruct a 'proto' form with relative accuracy. Neat, huh? If you learn other Indo-European languages, you may had noticed sound correspondences with the word 'father.' English father sounds a lot like Spanish padre which is a lot like Sanskrit pita and even a bit like Irish athair (note the dropped < p >). Now you know that the similarities are not by chance but by the slow, unstoppable evolution of language.

Chapter Four, An Epilogue or an Epitaph

So with this entry I intended to show the philosophy and spirit of historical linguistics to the average reader. One of the greatest things about comparing these languages against each other is that there's so much mystery out there to uncover. Whether it's a recent mystery like the origin of that blasted word quiz (it popped up in the 19th out of nowhere) or a very ancient mystery like the mythology of the Indo-Europeans, by comparing the writings and speech of everyone we can begin to unravel the gordian knot just a bit further.

Some concepts that are very basic have no great mystery left. The reconstruction of the word for 'father,' for example, has been quite secure for last 80 years. Some concepts are difficult to pin down, but we have quite reasonable and safe explanations. For instance, that the Indo-Europeans worshiped a supreme Sky Father is not debated, but the various attributes and priestly rites associated with the deity are less clear to us. Some concepts divide linguists who continue to comb through the oldest writings and ancient folklore to add new material to the great debates. Did the Proto-Celts come into contact with Paleo-European tribes that spoke languages related to Basque? Most linguists believe there's too little evidence to pass judgement either way, but a vocal minority makes quite the case for the affirmative.

Either way, as an epilogue, I hope I passed on some of the wonder of reconstruction on to you. If you read this whole thing and you didn't get drunk on the linguistic vinegar, then I applaud you for your attention span and willpower. If you skipped to the end, hate all this geeky stuff, and would rather bury it six feet under then go fuck yourself.

In the name of Sky Daddy, I bid thee farewell.

If you would like to read more of this stuff, Wikipedia has a short (but free) summary of the stuff... and you just can't beat free, can you?
For more scholarly information on the sources used, some Latin etyma were checked against
Michiel de Vaan. "Iūpiter" in: Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages. Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries Online. Edited by Alexander Lubotsky. Brill, 2013. Brill Online. June 2, 2013.
The Mycenaean citation was confirmed and spellt via
Robert Beekes (with the assistance of Lucien van Beek). "Zεύς" in: Etymological Dictionary of Greek. Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries Online. Edited by Alexander Lubotsky. Brill, 2013. Brill Online. June 2, 2013.