Monday, October 22, 2012

Of lice and men

Life again impinges on the blog. Since my daughter managed to get a few lice. It got me to thinking. Obviously delousing has given some interesting lexical items to English.

  • Lousy – denoting poor quality, initially implied lice-infested; it also shows the same voicing between vowels as knives and wolves
  • Nitty-gritty – the core of an idea; but the etymology is disputed and is early 20th century African-American, but may reduplicate gritty as easily as nitty
  • Nit-picky – overly pedantic, the way you'd want someone who is picking nits to be
  • Go over it with a fine-toothed comb – to really check the details, because this is how you catch lice and nits
  • Nitwit – a fool, though whether it means someone who has the wit of a nit, or is a nit (under another definition of a useless person) is disputed
  • Louse up – to screw something up, as in you've added lice to it

No less than Jonathan Swift give us this gem.

  • Three skips of a louse – something worthless

But this isn't all that interesting. It's fun coincidences of culture on the lexicon. So where did louse and nit come from that they've infested the language? Mind you, lice are a common phenomenon across mammals and birds, so people have managed to turn up not one, but three species of lice specific to us.

Looking at the OED, we get this as the progression of the word louse over time:
lús OE > lous ME > louse ModE
Looking at the other Germanic languages we see this at Wiktionary—and it's no real surprise.
Dutch, luis; German, Laus; Swedish, lus
Common roots for a common problem. Seems all the Germans had lice. Latin on the other hand gives us pediculus. What's this? A diminuitive of pes? And lice do have nasty feet, but no common root. Hmm. Or as its synonym, it could be serpens—but really that's any animal that creeps. Greek doesn't supply any likely candidates either: φθείρ. Oh well.

And nit at the OED shows this history in English.
hnitu OE >  nites ME > nit ModE
The other Germanic languages are likewise fellow travelers.
Dutch, neet; German, Nisse; Swedish, gnet
All of the Germanic languages seemed to have noticed lice eggs too—or rather our linguistic ancestors did and thus gave us the word. (And catch the English/German doublets: nit/Nisse, shit/Scheisse.) What about Latin? Lens. No dice. Grek is another story. The modern Greek for nit is (apparently) κονίδα. I see an /nit/ or more accurately /nið/. In any case, this could potentially be a really old word. Let's take a peek at some other Indo-European languages (and I kind of wish there were a better tool than Wiktionary for this, but there you have it).
Polish, gnida; Armenian, aniç (as Romanized); Latvian, gnīda
Here's the pattern I see (and I'm not going to get into Persian or Hindi as they screw up my point):
/_nid_/ or /_nit_/ – and /t/ and /d/ are the same except for voice
So this one looks to be a common Indo-European affliction. But enough nit picking, no?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ørberg for Ancient Greek

I've thought a bit about this sort of thing. I've written a few passages, but nothing good enough to share. And I realize that the project needs to be approached quite a bit differently than Lingua Latina per se Illustrata. In part this is an intellectual challenge. Polis, Athenaze and Reading Greek are all creditable books—and probably hard to really make an improvement on.

Some challenges
  • the alphabet
  • the pronunciation to use—though probably ignorable
  • not so many obvious derivatives
  • the dialects
  • contracts
I'm really not quite sure how to deal with the alphabet. It's not hard to learn, but teaching it through context is another story. Pronunciation is somewhat a moot point, as Ancient Greek isn't really a spoken language. On the other hand, sound recordings are valuable resources.

The derivatives are a major problem. Ørberg uses the preposition in on the first page. English, German, Italian, Dutch and Swedish use the same word to mean the same thing. Spanish is one letter off. There are no diacritics. Place names add yet another layer of familiarity to the first chapter. The fact that Latin's ablative case in the first declension looks like the nominative with a diacritic also helps too.

Greek on the other hand presents a challenge. ἐν looks more like ev—nonsense, unless you've thoroughly mastered the alphabet. While not difficult, beginning students will occasionally slip. Ἑλλάδα, on the other hand, doesn't look like any work a non-Greek student knows. Then there's the morphology involved with the dative case in Greek…

But that's no real matter. I don't think Ørberg's first chapter works with Greek. It would probably have to look more like Ørberg's chapter 2, but without the genetive case. I suspect that a different entry point would be necessary anyway.

The dialect situation is also a concern. Attic Greek is probably the best place to aim at. Epic has fierce morphology, since it is somewhat an amalgam of several dialects. It also has the disadvantage of being entirely in verse, which isn't the easiest way to present material to beginners. On the other hand, you can't completely ignore Epic either. Authors will quote it and figure you know what they're quoting. Koine is straightforward after Attic Greek, so no need to worry about it after Attic. Either Koine or Attic would work well, given that there are lots of examples of both written down. Lots of fodder for corpus mining. In any case, Attic is the best given the ease of entry into Koine and the availability of stuff to read. But the Attic dialect presents its own challenge.

Verb contracts. This is a major wrinkle. Verb contracts have to be taught and mastered. On the other hand, some dialects—Epic and Ionic in particular—don't contract. I think I know how to get around it: start with Ionic Greek. Herodotus, among others, is written in this dialect, and it solves the contract problem for a few chapters.

The angle

The story should probably start in Asia Minor and follow the characters across the Aegean to Athens. This story angle allows for a start in non-contracting Ionic Greek but also builds in the eventual shift to contracting Attic Greek. One problem solved.

Another story angle would be to work the Greek gods into the narrative in some way. From the beginning. If for no other reason than people are familiar, at least passingly, with Greek myth. It also solves, to some degree, the derivative problem mentioned earlier. People may not know Δημήτηρ right off hand, but at least sounding the word out will give them a chance. Ζεύς will be transparent to the newbiest newb. So that's got to be a consideration.

The other nice thing that the journey across the Aegean would solve is the sheer volume of nautical terminology that seems to pervade Ancient Greek.

The sequence

Here's one point that I've not gotten as far with. Or at least I've not gotten answers that satisfy me. The sequence of learning Greek is going to be much different than Latin's sequence. Naturally: it's another language. Indirect speech? No problem. Greek is virtually English on that point. The article is a problem. You've got to use it, but defining it isn't very transparent in an Ørberg-style environment. Since the article lines up so nicely with the first and second declensions, morphology on that point won't be too vicious. Same with the 3rd declension—the article to the rescue again.

I'm also not quite sure how to present verb tense. Clearly present at first. But which first? -μι verbs? Or add on the imperfect and aorist? Which of those two first? Imperfect seems obvious, but aorist is frequent and useful. The whole mess of the verb's principal parts is an ugly question too. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Latin vowels—do macrons tense vowels mark?

I've done some trawling around the internet and have yet to find any satisfactory answers.

So far as I can gather from Allen's Vox Latina the Latin's vowel space is something like this:

    \             |   |
     \   ɪ        | ʊ |
      \           |   |
        \         |   |
         \        |   |
          \       |   |
            \     |   |
             \    |   |
              \   |   |

The only true long/short difference would seem to be the difference between a and ā, represented as /a/ and /aː/ in IPA (at least in native Latin words). All the other seem to be a quality difference. e and ē are /ɛ/ and /e/. i and ī are /ɪ/ and /i/. o and ō are /o/ and /ɔ/. u and ū are /u/ and /ʊ/. (Or at least I think that's what it is. Allen didn't use IPA.)

Again, as far as I can tell, Italian doesn't make a tense/lax distinction the way English does. (Of course I can't find the source right now.) I mention Italian because it has the vowel space most similar to Latin—as well as some similar contrasts going on. This is, it uses e to mark both /e/ and /ɛ/ and o to mark both /o/ and /ɔ/ in the way that Latin did. Or course macrons are an addition by later scholars—no native Latin writer would have used them.

The reason I'm curious is that some consonant clusters can trigger the change of a vowel from one vowel to its long equivalent. Here's the easiest to follow situation.
/a/ -> [aː] / _ns
No problem. It happens pretty clearly when shifting from the root of something like amant- to the nominative of amāns. We've made the vowel longer when it occurs before an ns cluster. All good to go. Here's the hitch.
/ɛ/ -> [e] / _ns
So in a root form of vident-, we get vidēns when shifting to the nominative. Again, nothing unusual when you know about this particular macron rule. The problem is that we're going from /wɪdɛnt/ to /wɪdens/. If it were  */wɪdɛːns/, it would be a clear example of vowel (duration) lengthening.

Now, if Latin employed vowel tenseness, it would be really clear, and simple too, to state the rule like this:
/V-tense/ -> [V+tense] / _ns
But alas, there are not recordings or sonograms of Latin speakers… We may never know.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Using the language vs linguistics

I find myself struggling with a balance. Maybe you don't, but I do. Here it is: I'm fascinated by language, but I also enjoy learning new/firming up already-known languages to put to use. And it's hard to say which is more fruitful—personally and professionally. 

I've got some skill with Latin. One of my things with Latin is teaching it. And I'm exactly self-important enough to think you might want my help in reading Latin. What follows is a treatment of Cicero's de senectute chapters 6 through 9 (if the title didn't give it away) aimed at Latin students just wading into their first bit of classical Latin. 

Let me know what you think.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

One year

This is the first anniversary of the blog. Hooray blog!

Congratulations on me? Why not. Here are the statistics for those you who are curious:
•3,099 page views
•79 posts
•A G+ count of +1—thank you to whomever you are
•2 followers—thank you to both of you
•My most popular post is "Quid est hoc?", but it's not going viral yet.
I'm flattered that my ramblings about language, most of 'em dead, have rated this much attention. My degree is progressing—one class finished, enrolled in two, nine more after that. The kids are growing like weeds: Little Girl in school and Little Boy starting to talk. The road, while long doesn't seem so lost today.

I leave you with Dante:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Monday, October 1, 2012


I just got done with a frustrating analysis of vowel duration in English. From what I can tell, the rules only count in theory. In measurable spectrograms, all bets are off.

This makes me want to make some spectrograms of Latin aphorisms to see if I'm putting the theory into practice. Praat much?