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This is another retroactive post, written from the future. I really need to stop doing this. I am writing just before one am on the seventh of June, but this post is destined for the fourth. While I am here, I really ought to come clean: I have had writer’s block. I have a plan, and have been percolating this paper in my head for a solid week now- and yet I cannot write. I sit down to write, and nothing comes forth. I scrawl plans and make notes and then stare at the blank page and sigh, and mutter about doing it tomorrow, and watch television on my computer. I do not blog, because if I can blog, I can write, and then I feel guilty about two things, and then it piles and piles and leans and–

enough. I think you understand why I missed today’s post. Not to worry, because it is here now.

I was poking around the internet trying to look up the poem intended for this coming Wednesday (9/6), and stumbled upon the Linguistics Research Centre at the University of Texas. Not only did I find the text I was looking for -and a reference to an edition I preferred- but it also turns out that the LRC has several online courses for early Indo-European languages! Such joy I felt!

There are texts for Old Irish, and Old English, Old French, Latin, Classical and New Testament Greek. Oh, it is wonderful. University quality teaching, for free, online, with easy access for all. I wish I had found this site earlier. Even more exciting, the texts are not limited to those I just listed, oh no. One can find online tutorials for Latin or Classical Greek or Old Norse all over the internet.

No, the best aspect about this site are the languages no-one ever expects to see on the internet: Tocharian, the easternmost of all Indo-European languages. I had not even heard of this until I studied Old Irish last year. Old Church Slavonic! It takes all my willpower not to try learning this immediately. Hittite- again, until last year I had assumed that Hittite was an Semitic language.  There are several others as well, if your language interests are better met by other distant cousins on the Indo-European family tree.

I could only be happier if Classical Hebrew and Finnish were on the site as well, but they are not IE languages- and besides, we must not be greedy. Not with all this treasure heaped before us, ready for an intellectual feast. The site includes the beginnings of an Indo-European Lexicon for those of you who (like myself) love to know the origins of things.

I wish I were able to be more coherent in this post, to say something insightful. Yet all I can do is stare at this website, and mutter about essays which are due, a thesis still to research and write, and languages I am already studying to understand. “Here,” I say instead, “share my pleasure in the dead tongues spoken by extinct cultures.”

Whichever Spaniard first coined that proverb really had no idea. I am busy with at least three devils, with the potential for more depending on how you count them. Although Beowulf is an aglæca rather than a feond. Not that either word has a specific meaning which can be pinned to the paper. The term aglæca applies to Grendel as well as Beowulf; does it mean monster, or hero, or something in between? Does it refer to ferocity? Does the application to Beowulf make him monstrous? The application to Grendel make him heroic? Robinson once got irritated at this conversation, stating that the word meant something like ‘troubler, vexer’.1

At this point I want the adjective applied to the poem Beowulf. It is certainly vexing, troubling- and monstrous. Writing a commentary on only a handful of lines I already want to borrow Unferth’s sword and hack away at the sodding thing. I cannot imagine the heart-strength and mind-ferocity that it takes scholars to spend their careers studying this impressive piece of verse.

At some point I lost track of what I was supposed to be talking about. Oh! Why I am behind on blogging. The reason is simple: I am busy. All those devils which trouble me, the chief of whom is not named Beowulf, but ‘procrastination.’ A lot less heroic, that one. So while we wait for me to have some spare time:

Those of you with some northern European language skills may like to try your hands at this runic puzzle over at the Omniglot blog. I have not studied runes enough to be able to tell, offhand, the difference between the Elder and Younger Futharks, let alone transcribe or translate from them. Worse, I suspect that this may well be Tolkein’s Cirth runic system. Anyone want a challenge?

Evan Dahm, creator of the brilliant webcomics Rice Boy and Order of Tales, has commented on his tumblr that he would love to do a comic biography set in our period:

I’d like to do something (though it would probably be more historical fiction than biography) about a monk during the Byzantine Iconoclasm, or about a viking living in the midst of Scandinavia’s conversion to Christianity, or about someone during the Reconquista in Spain. These are all ideas I’ve worked on a bit but don’t have time for! I’m really interested in how individuals cope with these big cultural paradigm shifts, and I’m interested in religion, as a complete outsider to it.

While his work-to-date is psychedelic fantasy rather than historical fiction, I know that Dahm would more than merely do these ideas credit: his take on these would be incredible. A number of medieval themes are discernable in his work; the fall and inheritance of empire, the weakening grasp of ancient, isolationist powers, the problems of religious power.2 The Iconoclasm is a topic I would particularly like to see rendered in comic form; a text-as-images discussing the forbidding of religious imagery during the wounded trashings of an empire being pounded from without? Yes please. Dahm is a dab hand at allowing silent images form scenes (spoiler) in his comic work. He could do amazing things.

I wish I had more time and energy to devote to discussing this. In the meantime, what piece of history would you like to see rendered in comic form?

Read the rest of this entry »

I spent the past few hours trawling around linguistic and language blogs, the result of which means that I am all excited about studying my dead languages some more. Given that I have two Beowulf papers to write and a paper on the Völsungasaga to edit, I would say that this is awful convenient. Sort of. In the sense that inspiration is convenient; not in the sense that spending two hours roaming the blogosphere and wasting time is a wise plan.

To start, a year-old post at Living Languages discusses the growth of Modern Irish teaching in the United States. Apparently a New York radio station has a weekly broadcast in learning the language, while a growing number of universities offer courses. Neat. It ought to be noted that the University of Sydney offers a brand-new course in the language in our Celtic Studies Department.

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On the subject of language learning, Confessions of a Language Addict raises an interesting question. Discussing conlangs such as Tolkein’s elvishes and the Na’vi language from Avatar, he points out that many language-learning tools are heavy on grammar and vocabulary and light on fun. This is especially problematic for conlangs, which only exist to be learned for fun. (Or because you are a crazy person.) On the other hand, the Na’vi language site features a fun (apparently) little workbook with crossword puzzles and the like.

It made me pause. I have at least begun to learn Latin, Old English, Old Norse, and Old Irish. Of these, Latin had the most available resources for obvious reasons, being commonly taught at university and even in some few Australian high schools. This latter means that Latin crossword puzzles, ridiculous cartoons, and silly adventures are available for translation. The first Latin text I encountered was the simplified version of Plautus’ Aulularia (an hilarious slapstick comedy) in Jones & Sidwell’s Reading Latin. For the other medieval languages, the work was much more serious, focused on translation of progressively more difficult texts.

I actually prefer to learn my languages this way. I enjoy slowly translating, becoming faster as the grammar becomes natural and the more common vocabulary starts to sink into the mossy bog which is my brain. I wonder if it would be difficult to come up with methods that are less… I’m not sure. Less focused, I suppose. Especially for Old Irish, which is extraordinarily difficult.

How do you prefer to learn languages (whether living, dead, or reviving)?

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Finally, I offer a poem from the High Plains Drifter:

Hringas þríe       þéodnum Ælfa,
allra ældestum,     ofer eormengrunde.
Hringas seofun     innan sele stænnum
Dwergdryhtnum.     Derc heara hús.
Hringas nigon     néote Moncynn,
hláfordas méra     mégas déaðfæge.
Heolstres Hearra     hring ánne weardað
in dryhtsele dimmum     on dercan þrymmsetle
þér licgað scedwa     in londe Mordores.
Hring án gewalde,     hring án gefinde,
hring án gebringe,     hring án gebinde
þéoda swá þéowas     in þéostrum tógedere
þér licgað scedwa     in londe Mordores.

Some readers may recognise a Modern English form of this poem from Professor Tolkien’s translation of the Red Book of Westmarch. This version was found on the manuscript known as St. John’s College Library, Cambridge, MS. B 971. A MnE translation and commentary on the poem can be found here.

I am an unabashed dork. This fact cannot be denied by any who know me- indeed, many would rush to back up this assertion, their heads frantically nodding. One particular aspect of this is my fascination with languages, dead and living, old and new. I am a Tolkein fanboy, and have always wanted to peer into the constructed languages of Middle Earth. Somewhat more embarrassing is my love of Star Trek, although I have no intention of learning any Klingon. Personally I find the more interesting of Star Trek’s cultures to be the Romulans, closely followed by the Vulcans.

I recently learned that there are folks working on constructing languages for these two cultures, through people who also lack the usually requisite nerd-shame. This is fantastic! For all that Klingons are a fierce warrior people, &c. &c., the Vulcan obsession with logic is far more interesting to me as a scholar. Romulans are even more interesting; somewhat mysterious, Paramount has not done much with the race beyond their use as vaguely treacherous and yet occasionally honourable bad guys who are nonetheless widely despised. Also, they are passionate Space pseudo-Romans. Learning that there are folk willing to expand out these tidbits into an artificial language or two warms the cold recesses of my heart.

It is an often overlooked fact in SF world-building that planets -continents! island chains!- are rarely monolingual. Europe is a pretty small area on the global scale and yet has dozens (hundreds?) of languages and dialects covering the continent in a patchwork. A throwaway line justifying multiple fan iterations of ‘Vulcan’ by pointing this out got me thinking. At present, the various Romulan and Vulcan projects appear to be disconnected, with no linguistic similarity between them at all. Furthermore, each is concentrating, rightly enough, on a single dialect of each language. I thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be fun to design an entire family tree for these languages?’ After all, the Romulan and Vulcan peoples share a common ancestor- surely their languages must do the same. The saner parts of my brain tried to shout me down but alas! my insanity will not be denied.

If we look at a single language group within the Indo-European (IE) family, that of the Romance languages, we can see for ourselves how quickly languages may change. From the early years of the first millenium CE to the present day, Latin has evolved into French, Spanish, Italian, and Romanian. If one were to squint and look sideways, it is possible for one to see how the languages retain a common ancestor. Using the example phrase ‘She always closes the window before dining (or having dinner)’ from Wikipedia, we can see this:

Language Phrase
Latin [Illa] claudit semper fenestram antequam cenat.
French Elle ferme toujours la fenêtre avant de dîner/souper.
Spanish [Ella] siempre cierra la ventana antes de cenar.
Italian [Lei/Ella] chiude sempre la finestra prima di cenare.
Romanian Ea închide totdeauna fereastra înainte de cină.

Going further back, one may compare entire language groups. As an example, take Old English (a Germanic language) and place it alongside Old Irish (Celtic) and Latin (Italic) to clearly see that all three are closely related IE languages. Below are a handful of words which mostly serve to demonstrate the sound changes that have occured since Proto-Indo-European:

Latin Old Irish Old English Modern English
pater athair fæder father
tres trí þrīe three
dentis dēt tōđ tooth

Indo-European Family Tree; Wikipedia

Yet, particularly in the case of Old Irish, each is definitely distinct from the others. Special enough to satisfy the most energetic and enthusiastic creator of conlangs, and yet unified enough for the family tree idea I propose here.

In Vulcan ‘history’, around the 4thC CE on Terra occurred an event known as the Time of Awakening. The Vulcans as we see them on Star Trek -logical, dispassionate- were transformed into such by the teachings of Surak, a scientist-philosopher. The teachings are not entirely relevant to this discussion (not that they are detailed anyway), save to note their emphasis on pure logic in opposition to excessive emotion. Several factions resisted these teachings, and eventually left Vulcan. One such group would eventually settle on Romulus and become the Romulans. This split would also drive language diversity, but in the case of the Time of Awakening/Romulan diaspora there are politically motivated linguistic splits.

Let us call, for convenience, the language spoken by Surak at the Time of Awakening ‘Middle Vulcan’ (MV). It is from this language that modern Vulcan (MnV) dialects descended. We shall all the ancestor of this language ‘Old High Vulcan’ (OHV), which itself descended from older roots. This is vastly simplifying matters, of course, but I hope this is sufficient to demonstrate my point.

THE DISTANT PAST –> Old High Vulcan –> Middle Vulcan (c.400) — {reforms} –> Modern Vulcan (c.2300)

Modern Vulcan will have evolved from Middle Vulcan, but the language reforms introduced by Surak would have served to make the language more logical. Natural languages develop all sorts of weird and wonderful quirks, the most obvious of which are irregular verbs. ‘To be’ is notorious for this; so far as I am aware, ‘to be’ is irregular in all natural languages. Surak’s followers would reform their language to remove oddities such as this, as well as organising noun declensions or the like to work in a more regular pattern. Oddities similar to Latin’s domus would be streamlined. At this point, an organisation (similar to the Terran L’Académie française would be set up to monitor the language and ensure it remains logical- languages behave like living things and have a tendency to evolve in odd directions without guidance. All this would result in MnV behaving quite oddly as a language, being akin to a natural language evolved from OHV in places and yet like a conlang in others.

Naturally, there would be several dialects, possibly even languages, evolved from this. Vulcan was not completely unified during the Time of Awakening, and it is unlikely that a single language would be established as dominant very easily. Different groups interpreted Surak’s teachings in different ways and would evolve their languages from MV accordingly. Furthermore, with the eventual development of universal translators, why would one language become necessary? Logically it would be better to allow individual cultures to retain their autonomy and languages in order to further the diversity of Vulcan literature. Perhaps there is a dominant form, an international language or one used in diplomatic interactions with the Federation- or perhaps not. Star Trek is set in the 24thC CE, and two thousand years is more than sufficient time for languages to develop in a multitude of fascinating ways.

The people who became Romulans deliberately turned their backs on Surak’s logical reforms, preferring to remain an emotional and militaristic people. Diane Duane wrote several Star Trek novels centred on the Romulan people, and detailed how they developed their language. In order to differentiate themselves from their cousins on Vulcan, Romulan linguists artificially aged an older form of their language in a ‘different direction’. If we presume that what we have called OHV is the root language used, then ‘Middle Romulan’, the language developed by the reform, would differ considerably from Middle Vulcan, and yet be clearly related. MV would have a broadly similar patterns of noun declension and verb conjugation in order to be more easily learned, although artificial sound changes would lend the language an entirely different ‘feel’. The sound change from IE to proto-Germanic is a good example of how such changes could work. The problem would be constructing the language so that folk could easily adjust to it, and yet was distinct from MV.

Old High Vulcan — {artificial aging} –>Middle Romulan (c.500) –{evolution} –> Modern Romulan Dialects (c.2300)

The recent Star Trek movie (NuTrek) mentions in passing that there are three principal dialects of Romulan. I rather suspect these are languages rather than ‘dialects’ although I concede that the terms overlap to a certain extent. This is certainly reasonable, for a language family that has developed over almost two millenia (NuTrek is set in the 23rdC) almost certainly without the strictures of a language academy, but I think it would be fun to have only two of these languages be developed from MV. The other, which I shall call Low Romulan (LR) developed more directly from MV. This is the language of those who never quite adjusted to the language change of MR, although certainly words and concepts would have borrowed quite heavily from the rapidly-dominant Romulan tongue. I suspect LR would have been spoken by the lower classes, those for whom the flight from Vulcan was less a matter of choice and more of following their lords and leaders. All this gives Romulan languages quite a character and provides something for xenophilologists into which to sink their teeth.

I’m an historian, not a linguist; I can go no further with my idea than this. This proposal would require a great deal of work, requiring as it does the development of one conlang (Old High Vulcan) and then the artificial-but-seemingly-natural development for Middle Vulcan and later Modern Vulcan; the artificial Middle Romulan and then the natural development of Modern Romulan (1, 2) as well as Low Romulan. A great deal of work, particularly in dictionaries. My own study of languages enables me to pick up the basics of grammar relatively easily; it is in vocabulary that I always stumble, easily bored by repetitive chanting. Nonetheless, a project such as this would be extremely rewarding, particularly for those who -like myself- are fascinated by historical linguistics.

Who is with me?

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