Samstag, 28. Dezember 2013

Thoughts on PIE *bhag-

In my haul of presents this year there was a copy of NIL, so I embarked on reading it root-by-root. The first one is *bhag (NIL 1-2), and looking at the evidence for nominal derivations listed, I got a few ideas, which I’ll share below.

1)    The root has abundant nominal derivation only in two families, Indo-Iranian and Greek. These are the same families where, according to LIV 65, verbs formed from said root are attested. Interestingly, there are no matching derivations shared by both Indo-Iranian and Greek, except the o-stem *bhago- (m.): Sanscr. bhaga- “wealth”, Iranian baga- “god, allotment“, Greek phagos “eater” (originally only found as last element of compounds).

2)    Outside these families, the only attested formation is the above mentioned o-stem *bhago- (m.), found in Slavic bogъ “god” and the adjective compounds nebog- (and ubog-, not mentioned in NIL) meaning “poor”, and in Tocharian B pa:ke A pa:k “share”. Slavic also has a secondary derivation bogat- from *bagho-, formed with the productive suffix *-eH2to-. On the surface, therefore, we have three branches (Indo-Iranian, Slavic, Tocharian) showing a meaning “share, allotment, wealth”, and one branch (Greek) showing a meaning “eat”. Both NIL and LIV, following IEW and the communis opinio, take the meaning “share” to be the basic one and the Greek meaning to be a later development.

3)    According to footnote 1 in LIV, the Tocharian cognates are the main reason for positing *bhag, not **bheg with a schwa secundum as the source for Greek  ephagon ("ate" - suppletive aorist to esthio: "eat"). But as per footnote 8 in NIL, at least Adams in his Dictionary of Tocharian B classifies pa:ke as an Iranian loanword due to it having a plural in -nt-. Now, as, NIL states in footnote 6, it is widely assumed that Slavic bogъ loaned the meaning „god“ from Iranian. But it is also possible that the word itself with all its meanings is a loan from Iranian; after all, both meanings “god” and “wealth, allotment” are present in Iranian as well. The sound laws of Slavic don’t allow us to decide between loaned or inherited. But the fact that there are no old verbal formations based on bog- in Slavic and the absence of any cognates in Baltic, together with the identical dual semantics as in Indo-Iranian, speak, in my opinion, for bog- being a loan, not a cognate, in Slavic.

4)    In that case, the Tocharian forms could not be used as evidence for the existence of  /a/ as the root vowel. And instead of a three-to-one preponderance for the meaning “share”, we would have two different meanings in two different branches, as the Tocharian and Slavic correspondences to the Indo-Iranian formation, being due to loaning, not inheritance, should not be taken into account for reconstructing the original meaning.

5)    If, accordingly, there is no need to reconstruct a root containing /a/, it is possible to trace both the Greek and the Indo-Iranian words back to the root *bheg “break” (LIV 66 / IEW 114-115 / NIL 6). The development “break” to “share out” in Indo-Iranian is straightforward; in the verbal system of Indo-Iranian, we would have a neat case where the meaning “break” became associated with the nasal present which, as in Baltic, was spread also to the non-present stems (at least in Vedic), while the non-nasal forms took on the meaning “share”; in Greek, the meaning changed from break” to “eat”, either via the idea of sharing food or via the idea of cutting / chewing it; in any case, the assumed development in this case is not more tortuous than the assumed development “share” > “eat”. In Greek, the family of phag- would seem to be the sole continuant of *bheg.

6)    In summary, it is possible to eliminate the root *bhag “share” from the reconstruction of Indo-European, if one assumes that the Slavic and Tocharian cognates are actually loans from Iranian and that the Indo-Iranian and Greek cognates actually continue *bheg “break”.

I can’t say whether anything of the above is truly original, as I don’t have the means and the time to chase up even the references mentioned in NIL and LIV in order to see whether these thoughts have been discussed before. But as neither NIL nor LIV even mention such a possibility, I’d appreciate my readers to tell me if this has been addressed before and to point out any flaws in my reasoning.

Freitag, 4. Oktober 2013

Pullum on the world roles of English and Chinese

Over at Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum observes how English is currrently the world's lingua franca (obviously correct) and on how Chinese will not become the world's lingua franca "Not in fifty years, and perhaps not ever." His reasons?
First, there is no such thing as the Chinese language: Chinese is a language family, and there are far fewer people who are fluent in the politically dominant member, Mandarin, than the Chinese authorities would like you to think. Second, the Chinese languages share a writing system that is simply not fit for purpose: taking years to learn, and incredibly hard to adapt to many purposes, it is holding China's progress back by many decades. And third, nowhere in the world is there a country outside China where Chinese is used by non-Chinese to communicate with other non-Chinese.

Yeah, right. The existence of language varieties that are not mutually understandable (Scots, anyone?) and a crazy orthography sure have prevented the rise of English. Yes, it won't happen in the next fifty years, but Pullum's stance (although, of course, not his reasoning) looks a bit like that of an 18th century Frenchman regarding the possibility that the language of that rising merchant power from the neighbouring island would ever be able to challenge the dominance of French as the lingua franca of the civilised world. I doubt that orthography, writing systems, or the existence of non-standard varieties play any role in determining whether a language attains the status of lingua franca - it's all about the political, commcercial, and cultural influence of its speakers. It's fairly well possible that China will never reach the degree of political, commercial, and cultural influence that today's English-speaking nations (first and foremost the U.S.) have, but that (and not the writing system or whether Putonghua can crowd out the other Sinitic languages) will determine the status of Chinese in the future.

Montag, 3. Juni 2013

Longest Word in German Abolished

Maybe I ought to have added a few exclamation marks and used a bigger font. Maybe I ought to have added a few titillating pics. After, all, I just used a misleading headline in order to draw attention to this post. The rest of the post will try to be accurate, I promise.
Der Spiegel reports that the longest word in Germany that is actually in use has been "retired". What actually happened (and like with this post, you learn that when you read the article) is that lawmakers in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern abrogated the Rinderkennzeichnungs- und Rindfleischetikettierungsüber- wachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz ("Law on the transfer of responsibilities for supervision of the marking of cows and the labelling of beef"). The second part of this (Rindfleisch- etikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz) was on record as the longest German word actually in current use. German has the ability to form theoretically endless compounds, which are also pronounced and written as one word. So it's easy to make up crazily long compounds to illustrate this, but the ones in actual use are normally quite short - normally the longer ones contain three- to four words. Longer compounds are mostly found in legal terms and scientific and technical terms. The longest one that's sufficiently frequent to be recorded in the Duden (the standard and standard-setting dictionary for German) is Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung ("third-party motor insurance"), which is a combination of a three-element compound Kraftfahrzeug ("motor vehicle") that nobody uses outside of technicalese and legalese - in everyday language, you'd say Auto or Wagen "car" or Fahrzeug "vehicle", or shorten it to Kfz -, and a four-element compound Haftpflichtversicherung "third-party insurance" that, in everyday language, is often shortened to Haftpflicht (which, by itself, normally means "third-party liability").
Now, in the article it is stated the mentioned law was the longest compound in actual use since the Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmi- gungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung ("Ordinance on the transfer of responsibilities for the approval of real-estate transactions") was abrogated in 2007 (in the article, length is measured by the number of letters). That reasoning is a bit curious - after all, a law can be referred to even after it is abrogated. The word can still be found in various collections of legal acts. And there's a meta-discussion out there about long German compunds where it's bandied about (going by the first four pages of a Google search I did, most attestations of the word are in discussions about long words and compounds, not in legal contexts). So the G-word is still being used, and the same reasoning is valid for Rindfleischetikettierungsüber- wachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. To argue that a word is not used anymore because the thing it describes is not used anymore is a curious mix-up between signifier and signified. That notwithstanding, the article is worth a read.

Sonntag, 12. Mai 2013

Earl Grey

As someone interested both in languages and in tea, I liked the feature about the origin of the designation "Earl Grey Tea" in this week's World Wide Words Newsletter. Short version - the name seems to have been "Grey Tea" originally, and the association with the 2nd Earl Grey a late 19th century marketing ploy. It's not clear where the "Grey" in the name orginates, but it's possible that it refers to a tea trader of that name.