Thursday, May 31, 2012

Say ah!

Little Boy and I were playing yesterday. He's become quite the chatter box, though he's only starting to grasp words. Because he loves to make lots of noise with his voice, he opens his mouth really wide. So wide that I saw his tongue move down and back before he started yelling /ɑ/ at me. Every time he went to yell, down and back went the tongue.

I mention this because I had been having a hard time picturing the front/back and high/low distinction when producing vowels. I can hear the distinctions, well, insofar as any native English speaker can. This is to say I can hear the distinctions English makes quite clearly. Others may be a bit more difficult, but I digress. It was good to see the actual mechanics of speech production put in front of me so accidentally.

It was nice to see that. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Sanskrit isn't Indo-European?

I just ran across an article—maybe excerpts from a vanished article—that suggests that it is colonial to claim Sanskrit as Indo-European. Please note, I may refer to things with rather strong language, but pseudoscience deserves no less.

Some further reading (here and here) makes me think that this is some sort of reaction against perceived erroneous history. The gist of it is this: the Brits when colonizing India saw that Sanskrit shared deep similarities to Ancient Greek and Latin. If that is the case then there must be some common language. Since white people—according to the grossly misinformed thought of the time—were superior, and people in India come in a variety of skin colors, then there must have been white invaders who brought Sanskrit to India. Apparently the colonizing Brits couldn't imagine that maybe, just maybe, the initial Indo-European population had skin darker than theirs. Pity their lack of imagination.

The problem with the old notions is that they are junk. This junk in turn, rightfully, raises a horrified reaction among Indians. So far so good. One should be outraged by bullshit pseudoscience. The problem is when one reacts to junk by inventing more junk. The pseudoscience starts off with a howler.
For instance, in Hungary, there is a growing body of scholars who are extremely uncomfortable and dissatisfied with the manner in which Hungarian was excluded from the Indo-European framework.
I feel bad for the Hungarians who want in on the IE, but that's how science goes. It doesn't always come back with the answers you want. Tough. Believe what you like, the science is the science.
there are some Indian language scholars who have suggested that a computerized analysis of Sanskrit and Latin lexicons might yield a far more limited overlap than would be rationally implied by the “Indo-European” classification.
Of the tiny bits I know about  Sanskrit, I know that counting to ten is an awful lot like modern Persian and telling your name is an awful lot like Latin. This is daily use, low rate of change stuff. I also wouldn't expect there to be massive overlap between Latin and Sanskrit—particularly when getting into descriptions of local flora and fauna. This book has a whole chapter about non-IE words borrowed by Sanskrit. Fancy that, a language that borrows words.
…Building primitive lexicons that show similar roots for certain common words can hardly be an adequate basis of linguistic classification.
Actually this is what I'd expect. Quick, say the past tense for see and dive. What were your answers? Saw and dived are the correct answers as of this writing, though dove is making inroads. Highlight the blank if you are curious. One is not being changed, the other is. Care to guess which? If you said that see is maintaining its historic form, you'd be right. Why? Because it's a basic word in heavy use. Dive? Not so much.
Moreover, it [IE theory] has strengthened the now increasingly untenable view that there is no continuity between the Indo-Saraswati Harappan civilization and Vedic civilization, and that India’s languages (both in the oral and written forms) must have been brought to India by more “civilized” outsiders.
The same way that English sprung up in England without any help from continental invaders? While I have no doubt that language displacement can also disrupt cultural transmission, I don't know that language displacement necessarily causes cultural discontinuity. One (cultural discontinuity) has happened without the other (language displacement) in Greece. But I'm not an archaeologist. Until you've got better evidence, stick with what the data tells you. The data, so far as I can see, tells me that there was some sort of linguistic invasion. These things happen, otherwise I might be writing this in a Celtic language.
In this entire body of work stretching, from Sakatayana to Panini, there is virtually nothing to link Sanskrit to any European influence.
No shit. I wouldn't want to put words in Sir William Jones's mouth, but I'd venture to say he didn't know about the connection and was surprised at the similarity too. Oh, why don't I just let him speak for himself.
…yet [Sanskrit] bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident…
I hate it when that happens. I also hate this too.
both Sanskrit and Tamil are syllabic languages and both treat consonants and vowels very similarly.
All languages have syllables and treat consonants and vowels very similarly, when viewed through the lens of being syllabic. Well, except for maybe a pesky example or two in the Caucasus mountains. Nice try though.
From the point of view of classifying languages based on the organizational principles that govern their written scripts no logic would permit the Sanskrit-derived North Indian langauges to be placed in the same language group as the European languages.
Writing systems don't count at all when comparing languages. Just the spoken end. I get the sensation that the author isn't a linguist.
Writing in Language in India (9, Jan, 2002), G. Sankaranarayanan observes how repeating words and forms is a significant feature that extends across the Indian subcontinent and includes not only the Sanskrit and Tamil derivatives but also Munda and languages from the Tibetan-Burmese group.
It's called sprachbund. It happens all over. The interesting part here—to me anyway—is that the Indian sprachbund includes non-related languages. Nothing to see here.
Note too that Indic languages permit the dropping of pronouns (which become implied). …would be impermissable in English.
Dropping pronouns—even obviously assumed content words—is fine by Latin. No one disputes that Latin is IE. Spanish also thinks dropping subject pronouns is fine. Dammit. I hate it when I pick bad examples like English to almost but not quite make my point. Moving along, our pseudoscientist goes on to talk about word order.
In this respect, Indian languages are similar to each other [in regards to a more free word order] but not to less flexible “Indo-European” languages like English. On the other hand, Russian and Czech (like Hungarian) [no cheating, you need to compare IE to IE] do not require a fixed or default word order.
Oops. I think you're hurting your own argument there.
In conclusion, it might be stated that the present scheme of bifurcating Indian langauges into the “Indo-European” and “Dravidian” scheme is unsatisfactory in many ways.
For whom?
…it has also precluded comprehensive comparitive studies between these Indic languages and other Indic langauges such as the Munda or those from the Tibetan-Burmese stream.
Who is being stopped? These studies might actually be fruitful, but they only count when peer-reviewed.
Sh Thadani [the author, has] a Post-Graduate degree in Computer Science from Yale…
Aha. I was right. Not a linguist. Look, I'm not claiming authority here, but if you're going to write a "research" document it may help to have some formal training in the subject at hand. I don't trust my plumber to fix my car, why does a computer science guy get to look like a linguist?

Anyway. This has put some fire under me to learn Sanskrit. I think I'll put some effort to it over the summer. Well, once I've got True Story read. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Final project

As part of the class I took last semester, we each analyzed a language that we had not studied. While my intention was not to choose a Romance language, French is where I had a native speaker willing to help. So French it is.

The point of this exercise was to tease out the way the language works as spoken. I don't know that I did the best job in the world, but I did learn a bit about French. I added a section on the history of French, since I knew a little about that. In all honesty, that may be the best portion of the project for non-linguists who are curious about French.
  French linguistics project

Friday, May 25, 2012

μέν and δέ

I've recently learned about switch-reference markers. Since I'm a native English speaker, I don't really know about know about such things. We don't have them (I don't think).

They're not traditionally shown as such in Greek, but I'm beginning to think μέν and δέ are switch-reference markers of a sort. Or if they aren't, they're very similar. For those who are familiar, consider what this means:
οἱ δὲ [non-noun]…
It should signal that whoever οἱ are, they are not the subject of the last sentence. Hopefully I'll learn more about switch-referencing and will be able to say more about this topic. So far as I know, this would make Greek and odd man out—so far as I am aware—in Indo-European languages.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Greek compound nouns

Since I'm reading some Greek, I might as well inflict a little Greek on the world. That and I've got some serious dislike of traditional Greek grammar—parathetic and synthetic compounds being the sort thing that the classics have too much of. Let's remedy that.

I'm at the halfway point in True Story, and the sheer promiscuity that Lucian tosses out compounds wholly invented for his book astounds me. For whatever reason, it makes the work seem less alien. Anyway, back to my point. He makes compounds, and for sake of reducing assumptions let's assume he is following the standard patterns of forming compounds that Greek uses. Let's see what we can learn from these compounds. Specifically, N-N compounds in book 1. Anything that looked questionable or that I couldn't find, I ditched. First up: pre-existing words.

Right headed endocentric compounds
γαστρο.κνημίη – calf
Ἡρα.κλέης – Hercules
Λυχνό.πολις – Lamptown
οἰνο.φαγία – feast
πελτ.αστής – light shield bearer

Right-headed do-er compound
σκευο.φόρος – porter

Νεφελο.κοκκγ.ία – Cloudcuckootown

Well, um, yeah
οἰκο.δόμημα – building

Seriously, this thing means something like househome. Anyway. From the looks of these pre-existing words, it would appear that Greek uses right-heading as its main strategy when compounding. Sound like another language? That's right. English tends to use right-headed compounds as well. Yet another reason, Ancient Greek is more like English than you may think.

And here are Lucian's made up words. He used a lot of these, and they're fun.

 Right-headed endocentric
Ἀερο.κόρδακες – sky dancers
Ἀερο.κώνωψ – sky-mosquito
ἀερο.μαχία – air battle
Ἀνεμο.δρόμοι – wind walkers
Ἱππο.γέρανοι – crane cavalry
Ἱππό.γυποι – vulture cavalry
Ἱππο.μύρμηξ – horse ant
Κεγχρο.βόλοι – Millet throwers
Λαχανό.πτερος – Grass plumer
Νεφελο.κένταυρος – cloud centaur
νησο.μαχία – island fight
Σκοποδο.μάχοι – Garlic fighters

Right-headed do-er compound
Θαλασσο.πότης – Sea-drinkers

Ψυλλο.τοξότης – flea archer

Exocentric compounds
θυννο.κέφαλος – tuna headed
Καθλο.μύκητες – stalk mushrooms
Κυνο.βάλανοι – dog acorns
Στρουθο.βάλανοι – Sparrow acorns
Ψηττό.ποδες – Sole-feet

In a book like this, you can't tell if he means that the creatures are just heads (κέφαλος) that look like tuna (θύννος) or some sorts of Doctor Who style tuna-headed alien. I prefer the latter interpretation.

Sadly, not everything was a compound. Drat.
Τριτωνο.μένδητες – Mergoat
When I saw this, I was truly hoping I could find how this was a compound. The Middle Liddell failed me. Of course, given Greek culture, there was almost no way that there aren't all sorts of words having to do with every facet of boats and seafaring. Which brings me to the most glaringly odd omission. All of these other things are  compounded, but this one isn't despite the free way Greek compounds.
χείρ σιδήρεος – hand iron
But you might like to call it a grappling hook, and I think it's cool. Even if it isn't a compound.

And then in Book 2, section 4, Lucian spells out exactly how he makes his compounds.
ἅπαντα ἡμῖν προσεοικότας, καὶ τὰ σώματα καὶ τὰμεγέθη, πλὴν τῶν ποδῶν μόνων· ταῦτα γὰρ φέλλινα εἶχον, ἀφ᾽ οὗ δή, οἶμαι, καὶ ἐκαλοῦντο Φελλόποδες.
…entirely similar to us in both body and size, except for their feet: those are cork, from which I suppose, they are called Cork-feet.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Greek compounds and English phrasals

I'm working my way through Lucain's True Story and the realization is hitting me again. Ancient Greek and English have some odd ways that they are alike. The biggest to me is in how compound verbs are interpreted. (And I'm sure as soon as I hit publish, I'll realize otherwise.)

I should be clear. The morphology of the verbs are completely unalike. English is virtually inflection free, whereas Greek has inflections for person and number that are much more like Latin. But the interpretation of the compound is more likely to be transparent to English speakers than Latin compounds. For example:
καταγράφω – I write on
The morphology breaks down like this:
Ok, so maybe I'm cherry-picking a definition for κατα. But there are more. I'll divide the morphemes up with dots like I did above—they are in the same order.
περι.πλέκ.ω – I fold around
ἐπι.σκοπέ.ω – I look at
In most cases, the Greek compound fits more or less with its English phrasal counterpart. This is completely at odds with Latin. Latin forms its compounds exactly like Greek. Preposition + verb root + person/number inflection.
pro.mitt.o – I send for?
in.veni.o – I come into? – I stand with?
No, promise, find and agree (though that last one kind of works). It is almost as if you have to learn each Latin compound as its own new work, but in Greek you can guess and wind up close to the mark. The other nice thing about Greek is that it is a bit more promiscuous about noun-noun compounds. Latin does this to an extent with words like crucifer (cross bearer), but it usually prefers to phrase things like that as a phrase—typically with genitive case.

Greek is far more promiscuous with compounds, particularly in the right- vs. left-headedness of the compound. You're familiar with some of them already. Here are a few left-headed compounds.
ῥινό.κερως – rhinoceros (nose.horn)
ἱππο.πόταμος – hippopotamus (horse.river)
φιλο.σοφία – philosophy (love.knowledge)
You may not know my new favorite from Lucian, which is right-headed.
ψυλλο.τοξότης – flea archers