Sunday, September 20, 2009

I, the Elamite!

Elamite, the mother tongue of Elam (in modern Iran) was a language that really did its own thing. It was not related to the Indo-European or Afro-Asiatic language families, or even to Sumerian - the only somewhat plausible suggestion is to connect it with the Dravidian languages of India (such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, etc.), but even that possibility is highly uncertain - a bit dubious even.

One of the things making Elamite such an odd language is the fact that its nouns were inflected according to grammatical person, so that you get special forms for "I, the King," "you, the king" or "he, the king ". This is not a case of possessive suffixes but of endings showing the identity of the word itself. The Elamite word for "king" was sunki, but when the king was speaking of himself it was inflected sunkik (something like "the king, i.e. me"). The "second person" of "king" was sunkit and the third was sunkir.

The terms most often used to describe these strange forms are locutive, allocutive and delocutive. The suffix -me may be used to create abstract nouns: sunkime is thus "kingdom".

This tendency to inflect nouns according to person is extremely rare. A similar system is supposed to exist in the Khoisan language Nama, but apart from that I think it is rather unique ...

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Let's let's!

One of the best manga names I have ever heard is Let's Bible, yet another example of the common "engrish" tendency to put "let's" in front of everything. The fact that the comic is about an angel and a fisherman in Croatia (whose greatest interests are fashion and sex) just makes it even better!

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Asato mâ sad gamaya
Tamaso mâ jyotir gamaya
Mrtyor mâmrtam gamaya

"Lead me from the false to the true!
Lead me from darkness to light!
Lead me from death to the immortal!"

The words are from the Brhadaranyaka-upanishad (perhaps about 800 BC), and describe the salvific experience of immortality in the most vivid terms. Note the old Indo-Euroepan words sat, "true", originally a participle of the same root that gives English "is", the root mr-, which we find in Latin mors (and in the latinate loanword "mortal"). The word gamaya ("lead") is a causative of the same root (*gwem-) that we have have in the word "come", which means that the text literally says "let me come."

And where do we find this text today, apart from the dusty tomes and recitations of philologers and brahmins? In the majestic choral piece called Neodämmerung , which is played in the movie The Matrix Revolutions, when Neo is fighting with the ever-so-cool Agent Smith. The word-stress is not quite right in the movie, however (the chorus puts the emphasis on second syllable in gamaya , which should ideally be short). But it is nonetheless quite fun to find Upanishadic Sanskrit in a big Hollywood movie - who said ancient languages can't help you understand modern life?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Kabbalistic dyslexia

Defining one's own distinctive character through spelling of names and suchlike is something that occurs quite often, but one especially interesting phenomenon occurs when this method is used to separate religious traditions from each other. This is well exemplified by the word which in English is usually spelled Kabbalah, i.e. Jewish mysticism. The word itself is derived from the Hebrew verb qibbel, "to recieve", and means "tradition". As I'm sure many of you know, Kabbalah today extends far beyond Judaism (Madonna is one of the more humorous examples of this), a process that began during the Renaissance, when thinkers such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin became interested in Kabbalah and created a Christian variant. In later Western esotericism (even non-Christian and non-Jewish) it has had quite a central position (in particular the symbolism surrounding the 'Etz Chayim, the tree of life).

The funny thing is that the various "transformations" of the concept have recived different spellings of the word itself in Western languages. The original, Jewish variant tends to be rendered "Kabbalah", while the more Christianized version is often given the name "Cabala". The occult version is often called "qabala" (a spelling which was popularized by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn around the end of 19th century and the early 1900s). These variant spellings have almost become ideological markers to some modern practicioners, and some people have gone so far as to encourage this confusion of spellings in order to make an ideological point. A bit funny, that.

It is especially interesting, and somewhat ironic, to note these variations in spelling, as Kabbalah traditionally puts extreme emphasis on the exact letters used to spell a word (in order to make the letter mysticism and numerology work) ...

The Golden Dawn use of (and often peculiar pronunciation of) the Hebrew language is a topic I am thinking of doing a future article on. It would be a nice thing to do if I can find the time. Modern Western Hebrew and quasi-Hebrew has its peculiar charm... though I really don't want to think about how Madonna pronounces it!

'Ayin, the sound of thunder

One of the most characteristic sounds of the Semitic languages (and probably the one most non-Semitic-speaking people find the hardest to pronounce) is 'ayin (or 'Ayn as it is called in Arabic). To some of those whose native language belongs to other linguistic families (like Indo-European, for example) it sounds almost like some kind of vomiting or nausea, but I happen to be one of those who really think it is beautiful and pleasant to listen to. Thus, I feel called upon to provide a small tutorial on how to pronounce this sound, which is phonetically classified as a voiced pharyngeal fricative (or sometimes a pharyngealized glottal stop)—as a simple service to non-semitist mankind:

1) constrict the muscles as far down in the throat as you can.
2) produce an ah-sound, as deep and gargly as you possibly can, almost like when the doctor examines your throat with one of those funny little tongue depressor-thingies.
3) Feel how your whole body vibrates when you make the extraordinary sound.

Hey presto! Now you can pronounce beautiful words such as mu'allim ( "teacher" in Arabic), and enunciate the name of the country Iraq as it was meant to: 'irâq, with an audible 'ayn at the beginning. And don't forget ra'am ( "thunder" in Hebrew, in the classical pronunciation). Particularly note how the 'ayn-sound makes the Hebrew word vibrate and almost sound like the sonic shockwave created by lightning: RA'AM!

Beauty in its most unadulterated form. Call me crazy, but that's what I think it is. I spent many years of my adolescence trying to learn to produce this sound correctly: I suppose a lot of people thought I was somewhat demented, but hey: it worked!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Hebrew Consecutives, part 2

In the previous post I described the weird phenomenon of the so called consecutive tenses of Classical Hebrew - the strange fact that the word for "and" seems to make the two Hebrew quasi-tenses switch meaning with each other. At the end of that post I promised a historical explanation for this somewhat outlandish state of affairs, and one does not like to disappoint, so here goes.

In the linguistic stages before Classical Hebrew, the verbal system was somewhat different. We know this from older North West Semitic languages, most notably Ugaritic, which was spoken and written in modern day Syria during the latter half of the second millennium BC.

At this earlier time, the verbal system in North West Semitic (of which Hebrew is a part) seems to have looked something like the following. There were two tenses which expressed true verbal actions, both of them created using prefixes (and some suffixes). If one uses the standard example verb q-t-l (meaning "to kill" - that's a weird piece of grammatical morbidity for you), we get the forms yaqtul and yaqtulu in the 3rd person singular masculine. These two forms differed somewhat in meaning: the longer form yaqtulu seems to have been used for actions of duration, for present and future actions. The shorter one, yaqtul, was used for narrative purposes, for the past, but also for exhortations and orders.

There was also a suffix form, qatala, which originally had stative meaning (it marked a state rather than an action). After a while it also started to be used for actions, often (but not always) in the past, actions which were known to be true with high cerntainty, background facts, etc.

Then came a great reorganization of the system. The final vowels of Hebrew were dropped, so that the two prefix forms fell together: yaqtul and yaqtulu both fell together as yiqtol, the form mostly called "imperfect" in Hebrew grammar. The difference between present-future and past form became obscured in most (but not all) verbs. And the qatala form was increasingly used for past time in the form qatal, often called "perfect". Later on this temporal separation became full fledged, which led to the fact that the imperfect and perfect forms are usually regarded as "future" and "past" in the grammar of Modern Hebrew.

But in the classical language, the old narrative yaqtul-form lingered on. It remained as an old and fossilized relic - but normally only in one single environment: when preceded by the word for "and" (we- or wa-). This gave rise to the wayyiqtol form, the most common form of classical Hebrew narrative. A form of the "impefect" (present/future) was suddenly used for past time. It must have seemed strange indeed to the mediaeval Jewish scholars for whom this form was nothing but an old weirdness.

The reason for the perfect getting a "switch" of its own from past to future was completely different. That came to pass because of the original use of the perfect form: talking about certainties, emphatic utterances and states. This usage meant that the perfect often occurred in the second half of "if-then" type clauses (oy! I'm sounding like a programmer here!). The certain result of a condition would stand in the perfect form, often preceded by we-. which provided sequence. This usage can be found in Ugaritic, as well as in the letters from Bronze Age El Amarna. But again, this surviving construction appeared to be completely "backwards" to traditional Hebrew grammar. Perfect for the future? Weird.

And so both "tenses" had seemingly been switched. But that was never what really happened; it only seemed that way to those for whom the system was no longer living.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hebrew Consecutives, part 1

I love the Hebrew consecutive tenses. For those who have not studied Classical Hebrew, the subject might need something of an introduction (and nota bene, Classical Hebrew: the consecutive forms disappear in the Post-Biblical language).

The basic idea is the following. Hebrew has two main verbal forms, often known as "tenses" (although that designation is really a bit off, as the forms weren't originally purely temporal, but rather aspectual - sort of). These two creatures are often called "perfect" and "imperfect". The "perfect" often (but not always) signifies past time, and the imperfect often (but not always) signifies present or future. So far so good.

Now comes the fun part. When preceded by the little word we- (or wa-), meaning "and", the "tenses" seemingly switch meanings with each other. These are the "consecutive" tenses, and they seem downright bizarre to the beginner. Past becomes future and future becomes past just by putting "and" in front of the word.

An example: the imperfect yishmor means "he will guard", but wayyishmor means "and he guarded".
The perfect shamar means "he guarded", but weshamar means "and he will guard."

Weird, huh? The perfect seems to take on the meaning of the imperfect, and vice versa. How can this be? Were the ancient Israelites just crazy? No, of course not. There is a nice historical reason for all this, which will follow in the next blog post.

As an aside, good old Gershom Scholem (the Kabbalah scholar of great renown) once wrote that the consecutive perfect (the "past" form which is switched to future meaning) specifically refers to the Messianic age. Grammar has become theology - in a rather weird way. Stay tuned for part two.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chamesh, pente, quinque, fimf, penkwe etc.

BJ Epstein tagged me with the following internet meme; I don't do them often, so it might be a fun excercise. The basic idea is to write five answers to every question. Here I go.

What were you doing five years ago (December 2003)?

1) I was a student at that time - I suppose I was doing some Hebrew course or other. And assorted other academic stuff.
2 I was working on my Enuma Elish-translation and chiseling out the structure of my book Dead Languages' Society, which was eventually published in 2006.
3) I was writing an (unpublished) fantasy novel together with a friend.
4) I think I had just moved into my first honest-to-God apartment at that point, but I'm not 100% sure about the timing...
5) I had just come into contact with one of my childhood idols, Swedish role-playing-writer-turned-novelist Erik Granström.

What were five things on your list for today?

1. Giving a lecture to my Biblical Hebrew class (on nominal phrases, to be specific).
2. Trying to get rid of this awful flu which has crippled me for the last week.
3. Helping my girlfriend - who is currently stricken by pneumonia (!) - with a number of chores.
4. Printing out materials for my seminar on monday (three pieces from the dissertation, to be exact), and getting them to a colleague and friend of mine.
5. Answer a number of e-mails and other net-related stuff (like this one!)

What are five snacks you enjoy?

1. Light chocolate.
2. German Strudel (can you believe it?).
3. Bananas, in near-suicidal quantities.
4. Vegetarian futomaki-rolls.
5. Clementines - even more of those than of bananas. And cold, almost freezing. Yessss...

What are five things you'd do if you were a billionaire?

1. Donating to certain political causes I find important.
2. Giving to some more general "charity"-type causes, duly considering their political slant.
3. Making sure the people close to me could live comfortable lives and pursue their ambitions.
3. Possibly buying a nice, semi-large apartment with lots of library space.
4. Buying enormous amounts of books and video games.
5. Instituting some kind of prize fund for classical humanities research.

What are five jobs you've had?

1. Writer.
2. Translator from various ancient languages (not permanently hired as such, but still - doing the work and getting paid for it).
3. Doctoral candidate in Old Testament Studies, including teaching of Biblical Hebrew.
(numbers 1-3 are still operational, by the way, and those, I'm afraid, are the lot. Not even a summer temp job to show.)

Who are five people you want to tag?

Three will have to do ;-)