Thursday, September 13, 2012

A bit of Aesop

A little something I cooked up for those of you walking out of the shallow end of the Greek pool. Should I make more?Fable of the Ants and Cicadas  

wh-movement in Ancient Greek

Last week for school, I wrote a terribly flawed paper about wh-movement in Ancient Greek. There are two problems.

First, I was limited to questions about the direct object. A necessary operation when most students are writing about English. Subject questions don't display much wh-movement in English. I had to throw out a lot of potential data points. I would have killed to find a question like this
poi-on     su    cyon.a akou.eis
what.sort you dog
What sort of dog do you hear?
Something relatively simple that showed strong wh-movement. I found one (sentence 1 on the paper), but it was complex. The qu-word related to a direct object alright, but the direct object of a participle. Probably not my hour of glory.

The other problem is that a lot fo the data looked like this
ti       ph-ēs
What are you saying?
Now this looks like wh-movement to me, but I'm a native English speaker. After all, the ti is the first word, how isn't is wh-movement? My intuitions probably aren't right here. But at the same time, I can't shake the feeling that Ancient Greek shows wh-movement even if it doesn't look like it.

The problem is that a speaker of a language that is 1) pro-drop (like Ancient Greek) 2) uses  SOV order (like Ancient Greek can) and 3) leaves interrogatives in situ may see things quite differently. As in anyone who speaks Persian. To them, most of my data points would appear to be in-situ questioning.

All I can say is this: Dammit. Why hadn't I thought of that sooner?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Asper spiritus

Rough breathing. δασὺ πνεῦμα. Spiritus asper. Whatever you like. It's all the same.

Sometimes I get down on Ancient Greek grammarians when compared to their Indian counterparts. After all, how am I supposed to take the Greek descriptions of the language seriously when they didn't know the proper difference between voiced and voiceless consonants. (/p/ and /b/ are the same except /p/ is voiceless and /b/ is voiced.)

On the other hand, they did get something quite right. Instead of inflicting a separate letter for /h/ like the Romans, they gave us the rough breathing because /h/ isn't a real consonant.

Wait. /h/ isn't a consonant?

Isn't /h/ called a glottal fricative on the IPA chart? Well…yeah…it is. We call it a fricative, even though we know better. The wikipedia article addresses the concerns well enough for my purposes. If you're all tl, dr on the wiki link the argument is this: the /h/ sound is produced at the glottis which is where the sound is made but there is no constriction of the vocal tract as with other fricatives like /s/ or /z/. It's all free flow. (Wait. It's a vowel?)

Anyway. The Greeks get it right with the breathing mark.The Romans screw it up. They promote /h/ to full blown consonant with its own letter—and then to keep things simple it later marks aspiriation. After all, "ph" represents /ph/ and not /f/.

(And yes, I'm aware of the development of the breathing marks out of actual letters. I'm just trying to give some credit to the Ancient Greeks for hitting on something kind of odd.)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Cisalpine Gaul's modern existence

I"m sure it's occurred to others, but am I the only one to notice that Cisalpine Gaul's border roughly corresponds to the La Spezia-Rimini Line?

On the east side of the red line, Italy juts north. Toward the middle Gaul just dips south of the line. On the west, the Rubicon flows to the Adriatic just north of the line. Of course this isn't quite the course the line takes on this map, but it's a reasonable first approximation.

Is it possible that this is some sort of relict of the Celtic language speaking population that lived here way back when? (Don't you hate these Latin/Celtic language contact posts? I always bring up questions and never give answers.)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Universal Grammar

I'm taking a typology course. One of the focuses of the class will be the existence of Universal Grammar. UG is one of those ideas that has a lot of appeal on first glance.

Everyone you've ever met, with so few exceptions that it might as well be everyone, speaks at least one language. There is very little variance in basic language skills: do you know anyone who only knows part of their language? No one knows just the words but not the syntax. All adults are competent speakers of their native language. When children learn their first language, they seem to follow enough of the same track that you get presentations like this. Languages also seem to fall into a few basic groups (e.g. if verbs come before objects, your language probably has prepositions and not postpositions).

It would seem like there is something to this notion of UG.

On the other hand, I don't think I've seen any evidence of the particular circuitry in the brain that is associate with language in humans—and no other animal.

And that's the crux of it.  There's no physical evidence for UG—just a bunch of speech that might be more simply explained other ways. Don't get me wrong. If solid physical evidence for UG were presented, I'd get on board. Right now. Until then, color me skeptical. Right here and right now, UG seems like the ether that 19th-century physicists were proposing as a way to allow light waves to spread.