Saturday, 30 March 2013

Easter and aurora

Spotted on facebook:

Really? The name of the Akkadian deity Ishtar sounds a bit like Easter, so they're related? What about the German word for the holiday, Ostern? How is that related to Ishtar? Why do most other European languages use a completely different word for the holiday? (Italian Pasqua, Swedish påsk, Welsh Pasg, Greek Πάσχα, etc, all borrowed from Hebrew פֶּסַח pesakh)

The truth is that Easter is related to east. It's from Old English Ēastran, probably from Proto-Germanic *austrōn- "dawn", whence German Ostern, Old Dutch ōstermānōth "Easter-month", Old Saxon ōstarfrisking "paschal lamb".

east is from Proto-Germanic *aust-. Both *aust- and *austrōn- are from Proto-Indo-European *heus- "to shine" (the form is written a few different ways; this is how it's cited in Fortson's Indo-European Language and Culture).

Austria is related; it seems to be a Latinized form of German Österreich "Eastern Kingdom".

*heus- also became Latin aurōra, Vedic uṣas, Avestan ušah-, Greek ἠώς (ēōs), Irish Gaelic fàir, Welsh gwawr, Lithuanian aušrà, all meaning "dawn". In Germanic languages it came to mean "east", since that's where the dawn is.

Another idea that gets circulated about Easter is that there was a deity named Eostre who was worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons at the vernal equinox. This comes from Bede:

a735   Bede De Temporum Ratione xv,   Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes.

"Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated "Paschal month", and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.  Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance." (translation)

Says the OED: "This explanation is not confirmed by any other source, and the goddess has been suspected by some scholars to be an invention of Bede's. However, it seems unlikely that Bede would have invented a fictitious pagan festival in order to account for a Christian one."

The Vedic, Greek and Latin derivatives (Uṣā́s, Ēṓs and Aurōra respectively) were used to refer to a goddess of the dawn, according to Fortson. So the idea that there was a Germanic equivalent doesn't seem too far-fetched.

Further: There is also talk of a Germanic goddess Ostara, from Old High German ōstara which is cognate with Easter. But as far as I can tell, we have no direct evidence of a deity named Ostara. Everything we know about her is from speculation by Grimm in his Deutsche Mythologie.

Saturday, 16 March 2013


Out of all the alphabets, this is my favourite letter.

Isn't it cute?

It's the Malayalam long vocalic R (U+0D60), the equivalent of Devanagari ॠ.

I assume it's only used for writing Sanskrit. It is pretty much ignored in Learn Malayalam in 30 Days through English, the only book for learning the language that I can find. This alphabet book covers the short vocalic R (in ഋഷി ṛṣi "wise man" and ഋഷഭം ṛṣabhaṃ "bull"), but skips the long vocalic R altogether.

There is one Malayalam word that uses this letter: ൠഭോഷന്‍ ṝbhōṣan "contemptible fool". It's apparently used in alphabet songs, so when children in Kerala sing the alphabet, the word they use for the coolest-looking letter ever is "contemptible fool".

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

National Grammar Day

OMG yesterday was National Grammar Day! I've been sick, so I have an excuse for missing it. Anyway, here's a fantastic post from Painting the Grey Area on literacy privilege. Literacy is not tied to intelligence, and "bad" English is not the result of laziness: "the idea that there is only one right way of doing English – and everyone else is doing it wrong – is inherently flawed. And by 'flawed' I mean illogical, elitist and even oppressive."

Sunday, 3 March 2013

dachshund and tissue

Proto-Indo-European *teḱs- "to weave, fabricate" possibly became Proto-Germanic *þahsuz "badger" ("the animal that builds") and German Dachs "badger". Dachshund means "badger-dog", probably because it was bred for hunting badgers.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots suggests that *þahsuz is more likely from the same source as Gaulish Tazgo-, Gaelic Tadhg, originally meaning "badger".
In Greek, *teḱs-na- became τέχνη tekhnē "art, craft, skill" as in technical
In Latin, *teḱs- became texere "to weave", becoming Old French tistre past participle tissu, which was originally used for a kind of rich cloth.