Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Is Omotic Afroasiatic?

Omotic, a small group of non-Cushitic, non-Semitic languages spoken in the highlands of Ethiopia, has always been the odd one out in Afroasiatic; by anyone's tree it is the first to have split off, and the noted Chadicist Paul Newman expressed scepticism about its membership in the family. I know little about Omotic, or Cushitic for that matter, but after reading a few sketch grammars in Omotic Language Studies , I found it very difficult to imagine these languages as Afro-Asiatic; with Berber or Hausa or Beja or Semitic the cognates are instantly visible, but none of the most familiar grammatical morphemes or lexical items seemed to be present. However, a paper I just came across by Rolf Theil is the first I've seen to present an argument against the hypothesis, and a pretty good one at that. There are parts I would question - for example, the suggestion that pronouns are unreliable (they are conspicuously unreliable in regions where extensive politeness systems have developed, like East and Southeast Asia, but I didn't think highland Ethiopia fell in that category) - but the overall argumentation seems good. In particular, the attempt to show that a roughly equal number of similarities can be observed between Omotic and families other than Afro-Asiatic is on the right track - if Omotic were to have more similarities with Afro-Asiatic than with any other family, then merely pointing out problems with some of those similarities would be inadequate. I'll be interested to see the reactions of people better acquainted with the family.

On another note, I passed my upgrade presentation yesterday - yay!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Ugaritic inscription


Last weekend I got a chance to indulge my longstanding passion for ancient Semitic languages at the Louvre. The Ugaritic collection was, as you might expect, especially good; I took many photographs, including this particularly clear one here, a ceremonial axe from the 13th or 12th century BC. Since the Ugaritic alphabet only contained some 30 letters, it's easy enough to read the inscription (turn it 90 degrees counterclockwise), although no word dividers are present:

xrṣn rb khnm

which the museum caption translates as "la hache du Grand Prêtre". xrṣn is presumably "axe"; I can't find it in my small dictionary, but it looks like it might be related to xurāṣ "gold" (itself cognate not only to Hebrew ḥarūṣ, but also to Greek chrysos, a Semitic loanword.) rabb- means "great one", identical to Arabic ربّ "lord" and cognate to Hebrew rav "great one; rabbi". kāhin- is "priest", identical to the Arabic كاهن "soothsayer" and cognate to Hebrew kohen "priest" - yes, the same word from which the surname "Cohen" comes from. -īm is the oblique plural, identical to Hebrew -īm (which however is no longer inflected for case) and cognate to Arabic -īn. Once you start looking, it's so easy to spot the connections between Semitic languages; no wonder people a thousand years ago noticed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Brothers in Law

Reading a Language Log post I just noticed a rather laughable argument apparently being used in the Jose Padilla trial (according to AP):
FBI wiretaps played in court for jurors contain frequent references to "brothers," which prosecutors say means mujahedeen fighters looking for a battle. Defense lawyers contend the term is a common expression among male Muslims.
If the AP article has correctly represented the prosecution argument, they must be either absolutely desperate or thoroughly unqualified. As the defense correctly states, "brother" is fairly commonly used between male Muslims, in accordance with a hadith saying that "A Muslim is the brother of a Muslim"; it carries absolutely no implication of being a fighter. Google will turn up numerous examples; for an illustrative sample, consider this slightly frivolous MPAC forum discussion about finding motivational speakers, where other Muslims are called by the terms "brs", "bros", "akhee" (Arabic for "my brother"), and "Brother".

However, in fairness, other reports indicate that the prosecution claims that the defendants used some kind of system of codewords: they claim innocuous words like "picnics", "football", and "marriage" were used with much more sinister intended meanings. If their claim is that "brother" meant "fighter looking for battle" in this alleged code, as opposed to in normal usage, then that might not be completely absurd; I haven't found any transcripts, so I can't attempt to evaluate the plausibility of such a claim.

The usual arguments about the correct translation of "jihad" and "Allah" apparently came up as well - I don't think I'll bother adding to the thousands of web pages discussing that issue.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Popper, Sapir, and international auxiliary languages

I've been reading some of Karl Popper's work lately, and found it quite interesting (and clearly written, which one doesn't always expect of philosophers.) Both his political and his scientific writings are dominated by the same important theme: no one can get closer to the truth without being willing to put their beliefs to the test, and the more different people doing the testing, the less likely they are to overlook a flaw in the idea. Thus dictatorship and censorship - in any power structure, governmental or academic - are not just bad, but intrinsically prone to get worse results. I noticed that he took this view to have implications for language policy too:
The adoption of rationalism implies, moreover, that there is a common medium of communication, a common language of reason; it establishes something like a moral obligation towards that language, the obligation to keep up standards of clarity and to use it in such a way that it can retain its function as a vehicle of argument. That is to say, to use it plainly; to use it as an instrument of rational communication, of significant information, rather than as a means of 'self-expression', as the vicious romantic jargon of most of our educationists has it. (It is characteristic of the modern romantic hysteria that it combines Hegelian collectivism concerning 'reason' with an excessive individualism concerning 'emotions': thus the emphasis on language as a means of self-expression instead of a means of communication.) (Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies vol. II: Hegel and Marx, Routledge 1945/2003, p. 264)
While this quote is mainly about how you should use a given language, rather than which language to use, it clearly suggests the desirability of some international language, and Sapir's idea of how such a language should be built happens to be rather Popperian in spirit:
It [the international auxiliary language] must, ideally, be as superior to any accepted language as the mathematical method of expressing quantities and relations between quantities is to the more lumbering means of expressing these quantities and relations in verbal form. This is, undoubtedly, an ideal which can never be reached, but ideals are not meant to be reached; they simply indicate the direction of movement. (p. 51)... National languages are all huge systems of vested interests which sullenly resist critical enquiry... (p.60) Intelligent men should not allow themselves to become international language doctrinaires. They should do all they can to keep the problem experimental, welcoming criticism at every point and trusting to the gradual emergence of an international language that is a fit medium for the modern spirit. (p. 64, Edward Sapir, "International Auxiliary Language" in Culture, Language, and Personality, Berkeley: University of California)
So it is all the more ironic to find that Popper's paragraph continues with this:
And it implies the recognition that mankind is united by the fact that our different mother tongues, in so far as they are rational, can be translated into one another. It recognizes the unity of human reason.
This seems to imply that linguistic diversity is worthless: if something is rational, it can be explained in any language, and if it can't be explained to me in my language, it must be irrational. I rather suspect that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was partly intended as a rebuttal to this sort of argument. If your language tends to blind you to the differences in logical form between sentences with superficially identical structures (his example in the very essay quoted above is the perfective/imperfective distinction in English) and makes it easy to spot the differences between ones with different structures, then the ideal auxiliary language should allow you to express logical form as unambiguously as possible; and to be able to make a language free of your own linguistic biases and blind spots, you will have to carefully study many languages of as many different types as possible.

Of course, that begs the question: is there such a thing as an overall better language, or is that whole approach misconceived? Algebraic notation is unquestionably superior to English for describing physical laws, but it's not a very effective way to make a grocery list. In practice, people use different languages, and different technical vocabularies embedded in the same language, for different purposes.