Thursday, April 27, 2006

A comparative linguist of the thirteenth century

I've been reading Empires of the Word recently, a quite enjoyable and informative history of the world's main languages; it skimps on Arabic to an almost absurd extent, but makes up for this by a truly excellent chapter on Sanskrit. Anyway, one surprise it provides is that, in addition to his better known poetic activities, Dante also wrote a treatise about language, De vulgari eloquentia, in which he comments on the nature of language change, specifically attempting to explain how Latin could have gradually changed into the Romance languages, a concept which his audience apparently found hard to accept:

Nor should what we say appear any more strange than to see a young person grown up, whom we do not see grow up; for what moves gradually is not at all to be recognized by us, and the longer something needs for its change to be recognized the more stable we think it is. So we are not surprised if the opinion of men, who are little distant from brutes, is that a given city has existed always with the same language, since the change in language of a city happens gradually only over a very long succession of time, and the life of men is also, by its very nature, very short. Therefore if over one people the language changes, as has been said, successively over time, and can in no way stand still, it is necessary that it should vary in various ways quite separately from what remains constant, just as customs and dress vary in various ways... (p. 321, Empires of the Word; original available elsewhere)

It's easy to forget just how difficult even the basics of historical linguistics must once have seemed, but texts like these help.

Incidentally, I hope to reestablish my website sometime soon - can anyone recommend a good free/very cheap website hosting service other than Geocities?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Free online American Indian linguistics papers

- and if that's not a title to draw the crowds, I don't know what is :) I found this handy Kansas University site while researching my Siouan reduplication essay, which is currently growing at an out of control pace (thanks partly to the help of Siouan List); just a few of the highlights are articles on:

Opata, Eudeve
proto-Siouan "one"
Klamath-Sahaptian correspondences

Oh, and while I'm posting links, a couple of non-linguistic links for your perusal - some undeservedly obscure news stories:
Bouteflika back in hospital
Central African Republic
The Israel Lobby

Friday, April 14, 2006

Ibn Hazm on conlanging (and other stuff)

Having established the divine origin of language to his own satisfaction, Ibn Hazm goes on to discuss the vexed question of what language Adam spoke, and concludes - sensibly enough - that there is no way to be certain. However, he figures it must have been "the most complete of all languages, and the most clearly expressive, and the least ambiguous, and the most concise, and the one with the most various names for all various nameable things in the world" since, having been bestowed by God directly, it must naturally have been the most perfect.

He also decides that it almost surely must have been the ancestor of all modern languages, because it was not inconceivable but extremely improbable that anyone would have decided to waste so much time and effort as to "invent a new language, which would be an enormous effort for no reason; such meddling would not be undertaken by any intelligent person... [its inventor would be] a person busying himself with what does not benefit him and neglecting what concerns him", and even if this did happen, it was even less likely that the inventor would be in a position to impose his language on any community. He specifically considers the "Esperanto" case of a multilingual kingdom adopting a common lingua franca, and argues that "it would be easier for him [the king] to make them learn one of those languages that they used to speak, or his own language; this would be easier and more plausible than the invention of a new language afresh."

He concludes by tersely stating that "Some people imagine that their own language is the best of all languages; this is meaningless" and justifying it theologically and logically.

I like this guy. Makes me wonder what other early linguists had to say...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Ibn Hazm on language endangerment and the origin of language

I've been reading more of chapter 4 of the 11th-century work Ihkam Ibn Hazm - "On how languages come into being, whether by (divine) construction or establishment of convention" - and it's great. I found his description of how a language becomes endangered particularly compelling:

So when a community's state is destroyed, and their enemy gains power over them, and they are kept busy with fear and need and ignominy and serving their foes, then the death of their spirits is guaranteed - and that may cause their language to disappear, and their lineages and history to be forgotten, and their sciences to perish. This is both observed in reality and deduced through a priori reasoning. (Arabic begins: وأما من تلفت دولتهم...)‍

The main topic of the chapter is, of course, the origin of language. He argues that language must have been taught to man by God, because he argues that the three other possibilities that he considers - mutual agreement on a convention, instinct, or the influence of geography - are logically impossible. His argument on instinct is the most interesting: if language were an instinct, then we would all speak the same language. Chomsky, of course, inverts this: since language is an instinct, we all do speak the same language (modulo trivial details of vocabulary and parameters.) On mutual agreement, he notes that it is impossible that a languageless community could agree on a language; how would they have explained to each other what each word was supposed to mean? The idea that each place causes its inhabitants to speak a particular language - advanced as an explanation for linguistic diversity - he rejects as absurd, since any one place can, and generally does, have a variety of languages spoken in it.

I plan to describe more of the chapter later - his comments on conlanging are particularly amusing...

Saturday, April 08, 2006

A comparative linguist of the 11th century

Ibn Hazm (994-1064) was a polymathic intellectual of Cordoba, equally well-known for his poetry and his religious commentary. Less well-known are his opinions on Semitic linguistics, which turn out to have been rather impressive. In the quote below, he demonstrates a clearer understanding of the process of historical change than Ibn Quraysh, who seems to have seen the mutual similarities as as resulting as much or more from intermixture than from common ancestry, although both ultimately succumb to the temptation of explaining linguistic family trees in terms of religiously given genealogies. As near as I can translate it off the cuff, he said:

...What we have settled on and determined to be certain is that Syriac and Hebrew and Arabic - that is the language of Mudar and Rabia (ie Arabic as we know it), not the language of Himyar (ie Old South Arabian) - are one language that changed with the migrations of its people, so that it was ground up... For, when a town's people live near another people, their language changes in a manner clear to anyone who considers the issue, and we find that the masses have changed the pronunciation of Arabic significantly, to the point that it is so distant from the original as to be like a different language, so we find them saying `iinab for `inab (grape), and 'asTuuT for sawT (whip), and thalathdaa for thalaathatu danaaniir (three dinars), and when a Berber becomes Arabized and wants to say shajarah (tree) he says sajarah, and when a Galician becomes Arabized he replaces `ayn and Haa with haa, so he says muhammad when he means to say muHammad, and such things are frequent. So whoever ponders on Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac will become certain that their difference is of the type we have described, through changes in people's pronunciation through the passage of time and the difference of countries and the bordering of other nations, and that they are in origin a single language. Having established that, Syriac is the ancestor of both Arabic and Hebrew, and to be more precise, the first to speak this Arabic was Ishmael, upon him be peace, for it is the language of his sons, and Hebrew is the language of Isaac and his sons, and Syriac is without doubt the language of Abraham, blessings and peace be upon him and upon our prophet. (Ihkam Ibn Hazm; see Wikisource for original text, beginning الذي وقفنا عليه وعلمناه يقينا أن السريانية والعبرانية والعربية...)

My attention was originally drawn to this remarkable quote by an article by Ahmad Shahlan, in a rather strange Libyan book fusing pan-Arab nationalism with Semitic philology, at-Tanawwu` wal-Wahdah fi l-lahajaati l-`uruubiyyati l-qadiimati, which probably merits a post in its own right at some point.

Friday, April 07, 2006

More from Qatar

I'm here on holiday in Qatar for a while yet, and it's been great. However, I recently heard (at second-hand) a story I just have to share... Apparently, a teacher came across a kid in her second grade class who somehow hadn't learned to talk. After enquiries, it emerged that the child's parents weren't home much. The father wasn't interested in interacting with babies, and the mother was out working and socializing pretty much all the time. So, of course, the kid was being brought up by the maid... and they had strictly forbidden her from talking to their children, for fear the kids might pick up an uncouth accent or, even worse, a different language!

This may make more sense if you consider the frankly bizarre demographics of this country, one of the world's richest and most multicultural. Of the 576,000 inhabitants over the age of 15, only 110,000 are Qataris (who are well subsidized by the legal requirement of Qatari majority ownership of any businesses formed here, and by the oil money); the rest are expatriates from all over the world (in just these couple of weeks, I've heard or seen Arabic, English, Urdu, Malayalam, Persian, Chinese, Turkish, and Swahili used here). While the Qatari population has a more or less 50:50 sex ratio, the non-Qatari population is 77% male. Among the Qataris, more than twice as many women as men make it through university; male drop-out rates are consistently higher, even in primary school (!) It will be interesting to see how the country copes with this over the coming years.