Friday, December 12, 2008

Wikati, wikati, do you hear?

The Ancient Greek language consisted of a number of rather different dialects. The most famous of these is Attic, the classical language of 5th century Athens. This is the dialect most often taught to beginners in Classical Greek. Other dialects were Ionic (of which Attic is sometimes seen as a sub-form), which was spoken in western Asia Minor and was the language of writers such as Herodotus. Aeolic was used by Sappho. And then there was Koine, the post-Alexander the Great concoction of Attic and Ionic which became the language of the whole eastern Mediterranean during Hellenistic times and was the language of the New Testament. From this mix derive both spoken Byzantine Greek and the Demotic Greek spoken and written in Greece today.

But there was Doric, too. This dialect (which in many respects is the most conservative of them all) was spoken in the Peloponnese as well as in Crete and Rhodes and Sicily. To an indo-europeanist, Doric Greek is like a piece of art. It keeps the long ā:s and doesn't turn them to ē:s like Attic and Ionic and it preserves the sequence ti, which Attic turns into si. This means that the word phēsi ("s/he says") is phāti in Doric. It somehow feels more real and proper, I think. Powerful, even ;-)

Certain forms of Doric even keep the old Indo-European w-sound, which is lost in Attic and Ionic. We see it in such wonderful words as woikos ("house", cf. Latin vicus, "village"), and wikati ("twenty", cf. Latin viginti and Sanskrit vimśati). The latter sounds ever so much more real and true than the flattened-out Attic equivalent eikosi, don't you think?

As stated above, the Modern Greek language derives from the Attic/Ionic Koine language. The standard language, that is. There is one other strange remnant of the ancient dialectal diversity. This is Tsakonian, spoken to this day by a dwindling number of people in the Peloponnese. This language, which differs rather a lot from "normal" Modern Greek, seems to be a direct descendant of the Doric dialect. It is very changed and grammatically simplified, to be sure, but it retains many of the old characteristics which I so love. For example:

Tsakonian often has a where Standard Modern Greek has i (from the old ē). Thus Tsakonian has amera for "day" where Standard has imera.

It has an u-sound for the old short u, which in Doric never shifted to y as in Attic.

it sometimes even keeps the old w, now transformed into a v.

And here goes; the Lords Prayer in Tsakonian:

Ἀφένγα νάμου π' ἔσσι στὸν οὐρανέ.
Νὰ ἔννι ἁγιαστὲ τθὸ ὀνουμάντι,
νὰ μόλῃ ἁ βασιλειάντι,
νὰ ναθῇ τθὸ θελημάντι, σὰν τὸν οὐρανὲ, ἔζρου τσὲ τὰν ἰγῇ.
Τὸν ἄνθε τὸν ἐπιούσιον δί νάμου νί σάμερε,
τσὲ ἄφε νάμου τθὰ χρίε νάμου
καθοὺ τσὲ ἐνὺ ἐμμαφῖντε τοῦ χρεουφελῖτε νάμου,
τσὲ μὴ νὰ φερίτζερε ἐμούνανε 'σ' τζειρασμὸν,
ἀλλὰ ἐλευθέρου νάμου ἀπὸ τὸ κακόν.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wallander speaking Swenglish

I watched the first episode of the British-produced Inspector Wallander series a couple of days ago - hailing from southern Sweden myself, it would have been something of a sacrilege not to throw a glance at this televised transformation of Swedish dejection and gloom gone pop culture. I once read three of the Wallander novels (by Henning Mankell, one of Sweden's most economically successful literary exports) and wasn't all that impressed. I must say, however, that I thoroughly enjoyed Kenneth Brannagh's take on the Swedish sleuth - especially, I loved the almost romanticising Scanian landscape-views that filled the screen, with trees, skies, seas and rape-fields (a word which in English creates an unintentional and - given the story - very fitting and morbid pun).

All of the show seemed very Swedish - the furniture even. But of course, the actors were very British, and so were their gestures and looks. And they spoke English. Which is weird.

I know - the movie version of Gorky Park is in English, as are the Italian parts of Hannibal (sadly). And I suppose we're all tired to death of WWII-movies wiz gerrmans speeeeeaking English instedt of Deutsch ("Ja, myne Fewrer" etc.). But English it was. Are subtitles that hard?

Well, one adjusted, and after a while it wasn't even strange to hear rural Scanians speaking cockney (or RP, for that matter). But the names!! When Mr. Jackson did his Lord of the Rings he hired language coaches to get the Elvish right - for the sake of the purists. Couldn't Branagh & Co get someone to teach them to at least stress the Swedish names correctly? It's pronounced Vallánder, not Wollender, for Supreme Being's sake! And Svedin is Svedéen, not Svédin. But I guess even I have to accept the difficulty in pronouncing the surname Nyberg, which in actual Swedish has not only a) the vowel "y", sort of like French "u" in "lune", and b) the auslaut -rg (sounding like "ry", sort of) but also the Swedish tonal grave accent, which would sound bizarre in an English piece of prosody.

But the others - I mean: Vallánder! How hard can it be?

And yes, I'm a purist. But languages are my thing, and I'm Swedish, so I have the right ;-)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Etruscans in Person

The Etruscan language (spoken in antiquity in central Italy) is a strange beast. It is seemingly quite unrelated to any of the language families of the ancient world - its only known relatives are the very scantily attested Lemnian and Rhaetic: Lemnian is preserved to us in one (1) single inscription. Etruscan, however, is attested in over 9000 inscriptions, but most of these are extremely short. Only a handful of the Etruscan texts exceed 25 words, which has of course somewhat hampered the modern interpretation. But this does not mean that Etruscan is a "complete mystery": substantial portions of the language have been made quite understandable after over a century of systematic scholarship.

The fact is that we can find a number of remnants of Etruscan in modern languages, even though it died out during the first century of the common era. Latin borrowed a few words from their Etruscan neighbours, and some of these have travelled on into English, German, French, Swedish and other modern languages. The most well-known of these (possibly) Etruscan words is "person".

The Latin word persona originally means "theatre mask", from which the current meaning was extrapolated: our personalities can, after all be viewed as masks. There is an Etruscan word phersu, which seems to mean "theatre mask". This word was probably borrowed into Latin and thence into English, etc. So every time you talk about "persons", "personalities" or "personas" or "personal things", you might be inadvertently rehashing an old Etruscicism!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Proto-Indo-European Transformers

Remnants of ancient languages do tend to crop up in the strangest places. A lot of these happen to be in the sphere of popular culture, a fact that seriously challenges the old worn-out idea that ancient languages are just that - old and worn-out, interesting only to small cliques of academics (or possibly to more fashionable, albeit somewhat bizarre, cliques of the more Donna Tart-esque variety).

In fact, one can find references to very old linguistic items in the most popular of cultural outpourings, especially if the language happens to be English. There are many such examples, some of which I intend to discuss in this blog.

One instance to begin with is something as "low-brow" as Transformers, that great main-stay of western eighties mythology. Look at the names of the big robots, and smile:

Optimus Prime: Latin through and through, from optimus ("best") and primus ("first"). Primus even happens to be the name of the Transformers "god" created by genius comic book writer Simon Furman.

Megatron: The beginning of the name of this great bad guy is of course as classic as can be, reflecting the greek adjective megas, megalê, mega ("big, large, great"), itself an inheritance from the Proto-Indo-European adjective *meĝh2- (whose root is also reflected in words such as English "much", Swedish mycket , Gothic mikils, Sanskrit mahi, and Hittite mekki-).

Fortress Maximus: Here we find Latin maximus ("greatest"), again from Proto-Indo-European *meĝh2-.

Even the word "Autobot" is of course of ancient origin: "auto-" from Greek autos ("self", here from the word "automobile") and "-bot" from "robot", which is itself a loan from Czech, where the root means "work, labor". This Slavic word is from the Indo-European root *h3erbh-, which originally meant "join a different social group" (a meaning preserved in the Hittite verb harp-), whence the meaning "become a slave, become an unfree worker". The same root is reflected in German Arbeit.