Friday, August 31, 2007

Language Stops Plane

Language Log reports that the mere speaking of Arabic got air passengers suspicious enough to alert authorities to ... the speaking of Arabic. Now that I'm studying Arabic in more earnest than previously, I hope this won't cause undue concern--ok, I admit, I don't really care if people have a problem with it. And anyway, my pasty white northern Europeanness probably will work in my favor in the eyes of similar suspicious passengers. Seriously: you can't live in the modern world and be terribly surprised to hear just about any language, especially one spoken by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. (And I'll admit here I was spoiled growing up in Brooklyn and hearing everything!) But if you do think of Arabic primarily as a language that many of our enemies speak, wouldn't you want more people speaking it? Anyway, Bill Poser's point about what languages terrorists actually speak is well made--I better be careful who I speak French around.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Reading up on Central Asian history and names and such took me to the word Turan, a vague term used in medieval Persian literature for the land of Turkic and other peoples beyond Persia, meaning literally "land of the Tur". Interesting enough, especially given the article's attempt to sort out historical common usage from actual ethnic, geographic, and linguistic distinctions (always a tricky job), but what struck me was the analogy provided for the formation of the word:
Tūrān ("land of the Tūrya" like Ērān, Īrān = "land of the Ārya")
I never realized the etymology of the name of Iran before.

Incidentaly, the A-to-E vowel change also gives us the name of England out of Angla-lond, as well as word pairs like man-men, Denmark-Dane, and even ultimately star-steer. In Old English this is called I-mutation, since you mutated the sound of the first vowel by anticipating the sound of the I in the following syllable. This mutation remained even after the syllable with the I, often a inflectional (grammatical) ending, had been dropped. There are other examples in Old English that don't look like they apply in Modern English because lots of Old English a's have become modern O's.* But if you allow for this, you can see the effect of I-mutation in pairs like whole/hale and heal (OE hal/hæl, halian), strong and strength (OE strang, strengþu), long and length (OE lang, lengþu), old and elder (OE ald, ieldra), know and knew (OE cnawan, cneow).

*This is where we get off having the O-sound represented by "oa" as in boat, throat, coat, etc. The A in Old English bat was pronounced close enough to an O that people noted it by writing an O next to the A. I assume the same origin for the Scandinavian letter Å, except scribes there wrote the O on top instead of to the side.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Haiku

New place, web access
computer that works again
and back to blogging.