Category Archive 'Languages'

22 Jul 2021

Ancient Egyptian


HT: Karen L. Myers.

18 May 2021

Major Breakthrough on Linear A

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Greek Reporter claims that a new on-line database created by Dr. Ester Salgarella, a Junior Research Fellow in Classics at St John’s College, Cambridge, aspires to be the Rosetta Stone that will make possible the decipherment of Linear A.

The Minoan language known as “Linear A” may finally be deciphered with the help of the internet, which can be used to uncover previously-hidden links to the much-better understood Linear B language, which developed later in the prehistoric period.

The puzzle of Linear A has tormented linguists for many decades, as they attempted to link it somehow to Linear B, which was translated successfully for the first time in the 1950s. Linear B was used on the Greek mainland and Crete 50-150 years later than Linear A.

Understanding the link between them and decoding the secrets of Linear A would allow experts to paint a much more complete picture of Minoan civilization going back as far as 1,800 BC.

Linear A, which was used by the Minoans during the Bronze Age, exists on at least 1,400 known inscriptions made on clay tablets. The language has baffled the world’s top archaeologists and linguistic experts for many years.


29 Mar 2021

The Mysterious Language of Easter Island

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Atlas Obscura discusses the effort to decipher the Rongorongo script.

On the outskirts of Hanga Roa, Easter Island’s only town, the Museo Rapa Nui has a small but striking collection. It includes a rare female version of the monolithic statues known as moai, and sets of piercing moai eyes made from white coral and red volcanic rock. Finely worked obsidian tools sit alongside displays on the Birdman contest, which involved swimming through shark-infested waters and searching an offshore islet for a seabird egg in order to claim the spiritual leadership of Easter Island. With so much to see, it’s easy to overlook the carved wooden fish in a glass cabinet. Raised on a stand, as if held aloft by a proud angler, it is the color of dark chocolate and roughly the size and shape of an oar blade. The design may be relatively simple, but this object represents a great—and unsolved—linguistic puzzle.

The fish is covered with rows of stylized glyphs. Some resemble human forms and animals and plants, while others are more abstract—circles, crosses, chevrons, lozenges. This is rongorongo, the only indigenous writing system to develop in Oceania before the 20th century and, according to James Grant-Peterkin, author of A Companion to Easter Island, one of “the last remaining mysteries on Easter Island.”

Known locally by its Polynesian name Rapa Nui, Easter Island is the remotest inhabited island on Earth, 1,298 miles from its nearest populated neighbor. According to oral traditions, rongorongo tablets were brought here by the first settlers, who arrived between the years 800 and 1200, probably from the Marquesas or Gambier islands, which are now part of French Polynesia. Academics disagree about when the writing system emerged. Some believe it long predated European contact—which began when Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen reached the island on Easter Sunday 1722—while others argue that it emerged as late as the 1770s, after the Rapanui people saw European writing for the first time during a Spanish expedition to the island.

It appears that rongorongo was primarily used for religious purposes and only understood by the local elites. “Rongorongo was never a script of the common people,” says Cristián Moreno Pakarati, head of research at the Rapanui Pioneers Society. “Only a handful of wise literate people, according to tradition only men, could interpret the texts.” Knowledge of the script began to disappear in the 19th century, he adds. “The Rapanui population faced the disintegrating forces of the West in the form of disease epidemics, piracy, ‘blackbirding’ slave raids [in which up to 1,500 islanders were kidnapped and forced to work in Peru] and religious indoctrination.” As the Rapanui population declined by approximately 95 percent—a census in 1877 recorded just 111 Rapanui islanders—only a fragmentary understanding of rongorongo survived.

But the knowledge was never completely lost, says Steven Roger Fischer, former director of the Institute of Polynesian Languages and Literatures in Auckland, New Zealand, and author of Island at the End of the World, A History of Writing, and A History of Reading. “Several Rapanui still remembered the traditions, some chants and customs, and relayed a few of these things to foreign visitors well into the first two decades of the 20th century.”

Some of these visitors took notes on what they heard about rongorongo, and over the years, there have been various attempts to decipher the script, but it has proved a difficult task. One problem is the lack of data. Only 26 rongorongo objects have survived—the Museo Rapa Nui’s is a replica, and the originals are all overseas, predominantly in Europe, the United States, and mainland Chile. Some have only a few lines of text. “Some rock carvings on the island [have individual symbols that] are very similar to rongorongo, but there isn’t a line of text anywhere,” says Grant-Peterkin.


11 Oct 2020

Werner Herzog on the Extreme Lengths He’ll Go to Avoid Speaking French

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14 Aug 2016

Listening to Gilgamesh

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Gilgamesh cylinder seal impression, Schoyen Collection.

Martin Worthington, Lecturer in Assyriology, Babylonian and Assyrian grammar, Akkadian and Sumerian Cambridge University, reads The Epic of Gilgamesh in Akkadian.

2:08 Audio

05 Oct 2015

Arabic for Beginners

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25 Sep 2014

Paw Paw French

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NPR identifies another case of linguistic non-assimilation, one apparently on the verge of expiring.

Language lovers and locals of an isolated mining region of the Ozarks are scrambling to preserve what’s left of a dialect known as pawpaw French before it fades. The dialect once dominated this community in southeastern Missouri, but now, it is barely a whisper. …

Pawpaw French — named after a local fruit-bearing tree — is a linguistic bridge that melds a Canadian French accent with a Louisiana French vocabulary. The French originally settled Old Mines around 1723, back when the area was part of upper Louisiana. Floods of workers from Canada and Louisiana came to work the lead mines.

The dialect faded in other nearby towns like De Soto and Bonne Terre and Ste. Genevieve a long time ago. Pawpaw French persisted in Old Mines because it is much more remote.

18 Jun 2014

The Origin of Yiddish

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Marc Chagall, I and the Village, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In Tablet magazine, Cherie Woodworth reviews the fascinating debate on the origin of the Yiddish language.

That history revolves around two theories, that proposed by Max Weinrich:

If you want to know not just what Yiddish is but where it came from, how it managed to survive and even to flourish, you can do no better than the new edition of Max Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language—but be sure to read the footnotes. They extend for over 750 pages, are now published in English for the first time in the new Yale edition, and contain the most interesting, and controversial, part of what had seemed till now a fairly straightforward and unchallenged historical narrative.

Weinreich’s original text and notes were published in 1973, four years after his death. A partial translation into English—without the notes—was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1980. Yale’s new edition thus finally makes available for the first time the greater part of Weinreich’s work—the notes are longer than the text—thoroughly edited by Paul Glasser. The notes cite research in two dozen languages and took more than a decade to edit and check even after they were translated. These notes are not just the usual formal apparatus, reassuring to any scholarly reader: They are essential to understanding Weinreich’s many-stranded argument about the relationship between culture and language. They also provide a subtle counter-argument to his lifelong thesis. Weinreich was a careful, fair, and judicious scholar, and it was in the notes to his monumental work that he gave place to the vexing confusion of counter-evidence to his main, and beloved, story of Yiddish origins and, by implication, the origins of millions of East European Jews and their descendants in America. …

Weinreich’s basic story of the beginnings of Yiddish in the Rhine valley and its centrality in creating a European Jewish culture are repeated everywhere, and without question. But the pillars of Weinreich’s argument are too broad, their foundations in a millennial-old history too unstable, to be as unshakable as his subsequent readers have made them seem—a fact that Weinreich knew very well. He was too careful a scholar to buy into a simplistic view, as the publication of the notes now clearly reveals.

Weinreich’s first innovation in the History was to argue, against apparent common sense and abundant personal experience, that Yiddish was formed not through isolation but through constant interaction combined with a chosen separateness. The walled-off ghettos of 18th-century European cities, although they preserved Yiddish, were not the environment that gave it life. Weinreich’s innovation was to argue that “Jewish otherness”—and the language that goes with it—“cannot be the result of ‘exclusion’; it is not even the result of exile.”

Where others had persistently told the story of confinement, prejudice, and persecution, Weinreich spoke of independence, self-government, selfassertion, and community building. It was undeniable that “without communal separateness there is no separate language,” and so the separateness of the Ashkenazi community was necessary for Yiddish to arise. But the modern explanation for that separateness, according to Weinreich, got the story exactly backward. Nineteenth-century Jewish activists, demanding rights of citizenship, created the story that the Jews had been locked in ghettos since the Middle Ages, “and thus excluded from society at large and its intellectual development; in this forced isolation”—an influential Jewish assimilationist argued—“both their mode of life in general and their language in particular became corrupted.” …

For Weinreich, based on both the linguistic and historical evidence, there could be no doubt that up until the 18th century “the Jews wanted to be by themselves. … Separate residence (strange as this may appear in the light of present Jewish and general conceptions of rights) was part of the privileges granted the Jews at their own request” so they could worship together; provide for their own slaughterhouse, bathhouse, cemetery, and social halls; study together; run their own rabbinic courts; supervise tax collection; and when necessary, protect themselves from attacks.

Archeology supports this part of Weinreich’s argument. Befuddled tour guides in Prague struggle to explain why, given the expectation of exclusion of Jews, the city’s famous Jewish quarter, Josefov, is so central to the old town. (One misguided explanation is that the Jews were given land near the river that was too marshy for the other city inhabitants, prone to flooding and disease-bearing miasmas.) But Prague’s Josefov is not an isolated case—it is typical. Weinreich’s point is that exclusion could also be exclusivity; restrictions also came with designated privileges. In Trier, Mainz, Aachen, Cologne, Worms, and more than 100 medieval towns in Central Europe, the Jewish district was both a central and a prime location, close to the economic heart of the city. The German Bishop Rüdiger, granting a charter of the city of Speyer in 1084 wrote, “I thought that I would increase the glory of our city a thousandfold if I were to include Jews.” …

Once he demonstrated that Yiddish is an independent language, Weinreich explained how it came to be, first as an altered language formed among medieval Jewish trading settlements in the French–German borderland along the Rhine valley. Weinreich deduced from traces left in early Yiddish that these first Jewish immigrants to the heart of Europe spoke a Romance language, having left Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek behind when they left the eastern Mediterranean, although Hebrew and Aramaic were still languages of study. But early on (in the 10th or 11th century) these Jews from Rhineland France, presumably through contact with Jewish settlements in southern Germany, converted from old Judeo-French to western Yiddish, which was more purely German with some elements of Latin or early French. In subsequent centuries—when, exactly, is a source of considerable debate—this language moved east with Jewish emigrants, settlers, and refugees, either in the 12th century (after the Crusades and persecutions) or in the 14th or 15th. There it picked up a significant cargo of Slavic vocabulary and expressions and became the Yiddish more familiar today: eastern Yiddish.

With his 1,000-year history, Weinreich thus removed the East European Jews from both the poor shtetls (the cliché associated with Jewish immigrants to America of the 19th and early 20th century) and their tragic end. Distancing them from their Slavic neighbors, who had little cultural cachet in America, and bypassing the association with Germany, which had become toxic after 1945, he placed their roots instead in France, where Jews still like to go on vacation.

And the alternative argued by Paul Wexlar:

[H]ow to account, demographically, for the millions of Jews who appear on the records in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Hungary, and elsewhere by the 19th century. Immigration following the medieval Crusades and expulsions from Western Europe, followed by 400 to 500 years of natural biological growth, are not enough to account for the size of the East European Jewish population. The numbers simply don’t add up. Two scholars from disparate fields of inquiry have recently tried anew to solve this puzzle, first noted at least a century ago: Paul Wexler from comparative linguistics and David Goldstein from genetics.

The title of Paul Wexler’s detailed study, The Ashkenazic Jews: A SlavoTurkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity, is not shy about his claim: Yiddish has Slavic grammar, syntax, morphemes, phonemes, and lexicon, with a smaller input from Turkic. Wexler made the case that Yiddish is a “relexification”—a massive borrowing of Germanic words onto a basically Slavic structure, as opposed to Weinreich’s view that Slavic words were added to a Germanic structure. Wexler’s claim applies not only to the language: “The bulk of their [Ashkenazi Jewish] religious practices and folkways also prove to be of Slavic origin” and thus “the Ashkenazic [sic] Jews may be in the main ethnic Slavs”—Wexler added his own italics, in case readers should not get the point. Wexler’s preferred term for modern Judaism was “Judaized pagano-Christianity,” though he used the term rarely on the grounds that it was too cumbersome. …

Genetics might provide us with an exit to this uncomfortable, and vexingly arcane, linguistic argument. Recent studies of markers on the Y chromosome of Ashkenazi men hold out the possibility of determining, with apparent mathematical precision, how many Ashekenazi men share markers distinctive to the European, Middle Eastern, or other (for example, Central Asian Turkic) gene pool. The results are inconclusive, puzzling, and unexpected. David Goldstein, a molecular geneticist at Duke, undertook to trace Y markers among two Ashekenazi subgroups: the Cohanim (the class of priests narrowly defined) and the Levites (liturgical officiants from the tribe of Levi). He found that the Cohanim from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations shared an unusual marker on the Y chromosome that set them apart both from the surrounding non-Jewish populations—and from their own communities. He traced the marker to a mutation originating about 3,000 years ago and suggested in conclusion that this showed both groups had a real and unbroken genetic link with the original priestly Jews of Israel. (He received tremendous media coverage as a result.)

The Ashkenazi Levites, on the other hand, showed a puzzling genetic signature: they did not match particularly well with the Cohanim, nor with the broader population of Ashkenazi Jews. Comparing this group with the most common Y-chromosome micro-mutations in European and West Eurasian populations (i.e., Turkic and Caucasian tribes), Goldstein concluded that though he had at first been very skeptical of the “Khazar hypothesis” that Ashkenazi Jews came to Eastern Europe from the Eurasian steppe, rather than from Germany, he now found it “plausible, if not likely” and “worth investigating further.”

In his latest work—more linguistic studies, as well as an etymological dictionary of Yiddish—Wexler argues that the core of what became the Ashkenazi Jews originated not in post-exilic Judea, later dispersed through the Mediterranean Roman Empire, but in Persia: the Azhkenazi(c) Jews were “an outgrowth of Jewish Iranians who brought Judaism to the Khazars, and subsequently migrated westwards with Turkic-origin Jews and non-Jewish Khazars.”

Read the whole thing, and look forward to part two.

16 Jan 2013

Languages of the Middle East

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(click on image for larger version)

A fascinating illustration of the astonishing diversity of languages found at the geographic meeting points of the Indo-European, Semitic, and Turkic language families. It is also very interesting to note how large a portion of the land area of the Middle East is arid and uninhabited.

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