Wednesday, 31 December 2008

what's Latin for "veni vidi vici"

There's some interesting language-related things happening in The Fires of Pompeii (which should have been called Doctor Who and the Laurel Wreath). The idea is, and this was established back in 70s Doctor Who, that the TARDIS translates alien languages for the Doctor and companion. In the new series, the Doctor reveals that the TARDIS makes a change in the companion's brain so she can comprehend any language.

In "The Fires of Pompeii", the Doctor and Donna are in ancient Pompeii on volcano day (AD 79), and... well here's the transcript:

DONNA (sobered)
Hold on a minute, that sign over there's in English.
She points to a board advertising 'Two amphoras for the price of one'.

Are you having me on, are we in Epcot?

No, no, no, that's the TARDIS translation circuits, just makes it look like English. Speech as well, you're talking Latin right now.


Uh huh.

I just said 'seriously' in Latin.

Oh yeah.

What if I said something in actual Latin? Like, 'Veni, vidi, vici'? My dad said that when he came back from football. If I said 'Veni, vidi, vici' to that lot, what would it sound like?

I'm not sure. You have to think of difficult questions, don't you?

I'm gonna try it.
She walks to a stallholder.

Afternoon sweetheart. What can I get you, my love?

Ehm... Veni, vidi, vici.


Huh? Sorry? (gesticulating wildly) Me-no-speak-Celtic. No-can-do-missy.

She walks back to the Doctor.

How's he mean, Celtic?

Welsh. You sound Welsh. There we are, learnt something.

Doctor Who is produced by BBC Wales, so you can see what they did there. Anyway, what conclusions can we draw about the TARDIS translation circuits? Clearly they don't just let you comprehend languages, they change your speech into another language, without you noticing.

And when someone affected by the translation circuits speaks to a native in the native's own language, the translation circuits render it as another language of the period and place. Or Welsh. In AD 79 the language we call "Welsh" was a putative language called Proto-Celtic. The stallholder is clearly hearing Proto-Celtic because he says "Celtic." He wouldn't recognize modern Welsh; it sounds nothing like what Proto-Celtic would have sounded like. The Doctor said "Welsh" because he was trying to be funny, but he could just as easily have said "Breton" or "Gaelic".

What made me think about this in the first place was Donna's Latin pronunciation. Her pronunciation of "vēnī vīdī vīcī" is something like

[ˈvɛneɪ ˈviːdeɪ ˈvitːʃe]

(Video here.) In one of the commentaries, David Tennant says they were coached by the BBC pronunciation department on the Latin. But I don't think that Donna's pronunciation is Classical Latin, the Latin of AD 79. In Classical Latin it would be pronounced something like

[ˈweːniː ˈwiːdiː ˈwiːkiː]

Would a Latin speaker of AD 79 have understood Donna's pronunciation? I don't know how different the Vulgar Latin of the period was from Classical Latin - how far palatalization had gone, etc. Maybe the translation circuits don't just translate what you say, they have to translate what you think you're saying. She thinks she's speaking the same language as the stallholder, the translation circuits interpret it as the Latin the stallholder speaks, then change her speech to another contemporary language.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

gas, chaos, gums

As has already been noted, the word gas was invented by the Dutch chemist J. B. Van Helmont, based on Greek χάος "chaos".

Van Helmont also invented the obsolete word blas, a "term for a supposed ‘flatus’ or influence of the stars, producing changes of weather," altho this was presumably based on Middle English blas "blast, breath", or Dutch blas "bladder".

χάος is from Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰēu- "yawn, gape". In English, *ǵʰēu- became gōma then gums, which are exposed when you yawn.

Gum that you chew is based on gum "the secretion from certain trees," from Latin gummi, cummi from Greek κόμμι.

PS: because it's that time of year: grime and Christ.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Valkyrie and ragout

The Valkyries, warrior-maidens of Scandinavian mythology, get their name from Old Norse valkyrja, from valr "those slain in battle" plus kyrja "chooser". Valr is from Proto-Indo-European *welh₂- "to strike, wound".

Kyrja is from kjósa "to choose" from Proto-Indo-European *ǵeus- "to taste, choose" (also the root of English choose). *ǵeus- became Latin gustāre "to taste" and gustus "taste". Ragout is from French ragouter "to have a taste", formed from re + à + goût "taste" (OED).

*ǵeus- is also found in the name Fergus, meaning "having the strength of men", from Old Irish fer "man" (from *wiH-ro "man") + *ǵeus-.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

thali and -stan

A thali is a dish served on a flat plate. It's from Hindi थाली thālī "flat metal plate", which is related to Sanskrit sthālā "a vessel, plate" from Proto-Indo-European *steh₂- "to stand".

Also from *steh₂- is Persian -stān "place where anything abounds" and Sanskrit sthāna "place". This forms the suffix in place names like Afghanistan, Hindustan, and Rajasthan.

In an interesting vegetable metaphor twist, thālī is found in the Hindi expression थाली का बैंगन thālī kā baiṃgan "eggplant on a tray", figuratively used to mean "one whose opinions follow his self-interest". The word for eggplant, baiṃgan, is related to aubergine.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Neptune and nephew

According to Fortson's Indo-European Languages and Culture, the Proto-Indo-European form for "grandson, nephew", *nepōt- became the name for the Indo-Iranian deity whose name means "grandson of the waters" - Vedic Apám Nápāt, Avestan Apąm Napā̊. He also connects it to the Irish deity Nechtan and the Roman god Neptūnus "Neptune". (The OED doesn't accept this derivation of Neptune.)

*nepōt- became Latin nepōs "grandson", becoming Anglo-Norman neveu, borrowed into English as nephew. The Latin feminine form neptis became Anglo-Norman nece and English niece.

There is a theory that naphtha is derived from Apám Nápāt thru Greek. This is unlikely; naphtha is either from Semitic or perhaps from PIE *nebʰ- "cloud".

Friday, 5 December 2008

Beckham's tattoo is spelled right

It made the news a while ago when it was reported that it was spelled wrong. It's व्हिक्टोरिया vhikṭoriyā (not Vihctoria as the article reports) and it should be विक्टोरिया vikṭoriyā in Hindi. Hindi magazine editor Pademesh Gupta said "Whoever did the tattoo was probably English and didn't know Hindi."

But I'm not so sure it is a mistake. In fact I don't think it's even Hindi, I think it's Marathi, a related language that is also written in the Devanagari script. The supposed error is in the first conjunct - व्हि (vhi) instead of वि (vi) - which seems like an strange mistake to make, since it shows a good knowledge of the conventions of Devanagari.

Hindi doesn't have the conjunct व्ह, but Marathi does, and it is used in the name Victoria. This page on Marathi Wikipedia about the Australian state of Victoria spells it the same way as Beckham's tattoo. A ship called the Queen Victoria is spelled the same way on this Marathi page.

Beckham has nothing to be embarrassed about.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


The Hindi-Urdu word for "grape" shown here (अंगूर انگوُر aṅgūr) was borrowed from Persian angūr "grape", which is sometimes given as the ultimate source of gherkin.

The OED tells us that Greek ἀγγούριον "watermelon" became Italian anguria "cucumber" and French angourie "water melon". The word is also found in Slavic, like Czech okurka and Polish ogurek, with a diminutive -k suffix. One of these Slavic words is the source of German Gurke and Dutch gurkje "cucumber". An earlier form of Dutch word, something like *gurkkijn, was borrowed into English as gherkin.

What's not clear is where the Slavic and Greek words come from. Chambers says gherkin is of "Eastern origin, as in Pers. khiyâr." Skeats says "The word is thus based upon a form agur*, due to a (put for al, the Arab. def. article) prefixed to Pers. khiyár, a cucumber." But as the OED notes, Persian angūr doesn't mean "cucumber" or "watermelon", it means "grape".

Tuesday, 2 December 2008


In Indo-European Language and Culture, Benjamin Fortson has a list of names formed from compounds where both elements stand for concepts, virtues, or animals that were important in Indo-European society. The most interesting one is Ralph, which is from Old Norse Ráðulfr, meaning "counsel-wolf". Ráð "counsel" is from Proto-Indo-European *h₂reh₁(i)- "to reason, count". It's also found in German Rathaus "town hall". The English reflex is read.

The second element of Ráðulfr is ulfr "wolf" from *wlkʷo- "wolf". Probably because the wolf was feared, the word was deformed in some of the daughter languages, becoming Latin lupus and Proto-Germanic *wulfaz.

Monday, 1 December 2008

isinglass and soufflé

Isinglass is a substance obtained from the air bladders of sturgeons. I learned recently that it's used to clarify cask beer, so cask beer is not vegetarian. V. sad.

The word is possibly borrowed from an obsolete Dutch word huisenblas from Middle Dutch huisen "sturgeon" and blas "bladder". Blas is from Proto-Germanic ƀlēs-, an extended form of Proto-Indo-European *bʰleh₁- (possibly *bʰleh₂-) "to blow".

The zero-grade *bʰlh₁- became Latin flāre "to blow", combining with sub "under" to form sufflāre, which became French souffler "to breathe, blow". Soufflés are so called because they are made with frothed egg white and heated until they puff up.