Thursday, 17 December 2009

The City & The City

I've just finished China Miéville's new novel, The City & The City. It's not as good as Perdido Street Station or The Scar, but it's very enjoyable. I'm impressed at how he manages to make the central conceit last for a whole novel without it seeming silly.

There are a few paragraphs of linguistic interest which I quote for your amusement. It concerns the two languages, Illitan and Besź.

If you do not know much about them, Illitan and Besź sound very different. They are written, of course, in distinct alphabets. Besź is in Besź: thirty-four letters, left to right, all sounds rendered clear and phonetic, consonants, vowels and demivowels decorated with diacritics - it looks, one often hears, like Cyrillic (though that is a comparison likely to annoy a citizen of Besźel, true or not). Illitan uses Roman script. That is recent.

Read the travelogues of the last-but-one century and those older, and the strange and beautiful right-to-left Illitan calligraphy - and its jarring phonetics - is constantly remarked on. At some point everyone has heard Sterne, from his travelogue: "In the Land of Alphabets Arabic caught Dame Sanskrit's eye (drunk he was despite Muhamed's injunction, else her age would have dissuaded). Nine months later a disowned child was put out. The feral babe is Illitan, Hermes-Aphrodite not without beauty. He has something of both his parents in his form, but the voice of those who raised him - the birds."

The script was lost in 1923, overnight, a culmination of Ya Ilsa's relorms: it was Atatürk who imitated him, not, as is usually claimed, the other way around. Even in Ul Qoma, no one can read Illitan script now but archivist and activists.

Anway whether in its original or later written form, Illitan bears no resemblance to Besź. Nor does it sound similar. But these distintion are not as deep as they appear. Despite careful cultural differentiation, in the shape of their grammars and the relations of their phonemes (in not the base sounds themselves), the languages are closely related - they share a common ancestor, after all. It feels almost seditious to say so. Still.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

yoga and syzygy

Proto-Indo-European *yeug- "to join" became Sanskrit योग yoga "union". Yoga philosophy teaches "self-concentration, abstract meditation and mental abstraction practised as a system… its chief aim being to teach the means by which the human spirit may attain complete union with Īśvara or the Supreme Spirit" (Monier-Williams). The English cognate is yoke.

In Greek *yeug- became ζυγόν "yoke", which combined with συν "with" to form συζυγία "union, conjunction". This was borrowed as syzygy thru Latin. A syzygy, by the way, is an astronomical term for a conjunction or opposition of two heavenly bodies.

Another Sanskrit reflex is युग yuga a term for an age of the world. I quote the complete definition from Monier-Williams here because it's so interesting:

an age of the world, long mundane period of years (of which there are four, viz. 1. Krita or Satya, 2. Treta, 3. Dvapara, 4. Kali, of which the first three have already elapsed, while the Kali, which began at midnight between the 17th and 18th of Feb. 3102 B.C. [O. S.], is that in which we live ; the duration of each is said to be respectively 1,728 ,000, 1,296,000, 864,000, and 432,000 years of men, the descending numbers representing a similar physical and moral deterioration of men in each age; the four Yugas comprise an aggregate of 4,320,000 years and constitute a "great Yuga" or Maha-yuga

The Kali of the Kali Yuga, the yuga we are currently in, is the male demon named Kali, not the goddess Kālī.

Friday, 4 December 2009

lox, lakh, shellac

lox is a kind of smoked salmon, from Yiddish לאַקס laks, from Old High German lahs "salmon". The Proto-Indo-European root is *laḱs- "salmon". The IEW has laḱ- 653 "to be spotted, salmon".

lakh/lac/lack is Anglo-Indian for "one hundred thousand", from Hindi लाख lākh, related to Sanskrit लक्ष lakṣa "one hundred thousand", also "mark, sign, token". Hobson-Jobson says the word has been borrowed into Southeast Asian languages like Malay and Javanese.

Pokorny derives Sanskrit lakṣa from *laḱ-; the sense development is presumably something like "spotted > lots of marks > a vast amount like one hundred thousand".

There is a homophonous Hindi word लाख lākh "gum-lac, a kind of wax formed by the Coccus lacca" (a scale insect that feeds on certain trees in south Asia). This is related to Sanskrit लाक्ष lākṣa "a kind of red dye", which is also possibly from *laḱs- (because salmon are red?). The Hindi word found its way to French as laque en écailles, which was calqued into English as shellac, that is, "shell-lac" - lac that has been melted and run into thin plates (OED).

Thursday, 3 December 2009

host and guest

Via Motivated Grammar, I have found the very entertaining blog the ragbag, entertaining for its wide-ranging and whimsical discussions on literary topics, including etymology.

A recent post on words wholly related or words wholly unrelated states that host "bread consecrated in the Eucharist", host "army", and host "one who entertains guests" are wholly unrelated. This is true up to a point, but if you go further back it turns out that the second and third hosts are both derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *gʰos-ti- "stranger, guest, host". Host the army is from Latin hostis "enemy", from the "stranger" sense. Host as in someone who receives guests is from Old French hoste from Latin hospitem, hospes "host, guest, stranger, foreigner". Latin hospitem is from the form *gʰos-pot- (*poti- "master").

However, the ecclesiastical host is wholly unrelated.

guest is from the same root via Old Norse gestr. According to Watkins in the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, the PIE root meant "someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality", which explains how it could come to mean both "guest" and "host".

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

the grammar gravy train

Geoffrey Pullum says

When you set yourself up as a grammar expert it's better than being an expert on plastics. To be an expert on plastics you actually have to know something about plastics. With grammar the analogous thing doesn't hold. Nobody asks, nobody checks, nobody knows enough to get suspicious. You are free as a bird to publish any garbage you might want to type out.

I discovered this myself while in my favourite used bookstore a few days ago. I was in the language section as usual, and I found The Wordsworth Dictionary of Modern English Grammar by Ned Halley. Says the back cover, "Is there a right way to speak and write English? This unique new guide to the language is dedicated to answering the question - in Plain English. Compiled for readers from school age onwards, this is a book of easy reference."

Well it turns out this book contains a few errors. Here are some:

active and passive In grammar a verb is in the 'active voice' when it describes an action by the subject of the phrase; as, "he gave her the flowers." When the verb describes an action affecting the object of the phrase, it is in the passive voice; as, "she received the flowers from him."

Both these sentences are active. The passive voice is formed by a form of be plus the past participle, for instance The flowers were given to her.

ablative In grammar, the 'case' of a noun or pronoun expressed in the context of location, direction, time or other influences. In the sentence "She sat next to him", the pronoun "him" is in the ablative case. As a determinant of word forms, ablative is not a distinct case in English. In Latin, where nouns, pronouns and adjectives are 'declined' into cases, ablative is the final case in the sequence nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative.

If English has no ablative, how can him be ablative?

combat Once a mere noun, combat is now in common use as a verb...

The noun and verb are attested at about the same time.

imperfect tense In grammar the tense of a verb describing the progress of an action in the past. In "he was laughing" the verb 'was' is the imperfect tense of 'be'.

was is the past tense. The past imperfect is was laughing.

mood In grammar, the way a verb is used can always be identified with a 'mood.' There are five distinct ones:
1. Indicative mood expressing a fact: 'He is going'
2. Optative mood expressing a wish: 'Let's go'
3. Imperative mood expressing a command: 'Go!'
4. Interrogative mood expressing a question: 'Is he going?'
5. Subjunctive mood expressing a condition: 'Were he to go…'

Optative mood is at least a mood used by some languages (not English). But interrogative mood? It is to weep.

But that's nowhere near the worst of it. The book covers "the curiosities of current slang" as well. Here is the beginning of the entry for Goth:

Goth A worldwide youth 'counterculture' launched, according to some popular historians, by British pop singer Ziggy Stardust - known for his black clothing and eyeliner, white face and piercings - in 1979.


A black-clad, pierced Ziggy Stardust (scientific name: David Bowie) in its natural environment

[It seems that some languages really have an interrogative mood, including Koasati, Yupik and Cubeo.]