Category Archives: Indo-European

What Is Plattdeutsch?

Beatrix writes:

‘Alt Hoch Deutsch’ (Old High German) sounds a bit like the Plattdeutsch my older Mennonite relatives spoke. But they left West Prussia for the Ukraine in 1802.

Plattdeutsch is a Low German language, and yes, it is an East Low German language with roots in far northeastern Germany and Prussia across the border into what is now Poland. It is close to Pomeranian, a dying East Low German language formerly spoken in that area that died out with the ethnic cleansing of the Germans there after WW2.

It is not intelligible with Standard German or really with any other German language, including other Low German languages. Low German is a completely different language from Standard German. German speakers cannot understand it at all.

Dutch speakers can actually understand Low German languages better than Germans can. That is because in some ways they are quite close to Dutch even though one is Old Franconian and the other is Old German. But there are also German “dialects” that are straight up from Franconian also, especially those spoken in northwest Germany near the borders of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. There are dialects (or really languages in that area that are quite difficult to characterize as either:

German
Dutch
Neither

I am thinking specially of the languages spoken where German, the Netherlands and Belgium all come together around Kerkrade, Aachen and Stolberg.

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Filed under Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Dialectology, Dutch, German, Germanic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Language Families, Linguistics, Low German, Sociolinguistics

Comparison of Old German with Modern German

Althochdeutsch

Ik gihorta dat seggen,
dat sih urhettun ænon muotin
Hiltibrant enti Hadubrant untar heriun tuem.
Sunufatarungo iro saro rihtun,
garutun se iro gudhamun, gurtun sih iro suert ana
helidos, ubar hringa, do sie to dero hiltiu ritun.

Modern German Language

Ich hörte (glaubwürdig) berichten,
dass zwei Krieger, Hildebrand und Hadubrand, (allein)
zwischen ihren beiden Heeren, aufeinanderstießen.
Zwei Leute von gleichem Blut, Vater und Sohn, rückten da ihre Rüstung zurecht,
sie strafften ihre Panzerhemden und gürteten ihre
Schwerter über die Eisenringe, die Männer,
als sie zu diesem Kampf ritten.

Alothochdeutsch was the first form of the |German language and it can be called Old German. It existed from 500-1000 CE. It is probably somewhat analogous to Old English, but I doubt if the two languages would have been intelligible. The passage above is from 900, written about the same time as Beowulf was written.

It is truly amazing how much German has changed. Old German for all intents and purposes is a completely different language. The two languages look nothing alike at all and there is no way that modern Germans would understand a passage spoken in Old German. In that sense they are analogous to the relationship between English and Old English.

The modern German language called Hochdeutsch or High German is based on the language that Martin Luther used in his Bible translation. Luther was from Saxonia and the language he used was an Upper Saxon dialect modified to make it intelligible to as many Germans as possible.

Presently Standard German is a mix of Upper Saxon and Thuringian spoken with a Northern German accent. No one ever spoke this way naturally as part of their dialect from their home region. For hundreds of years, Hochdeutsch was only a written language. Various German writers used variations of it to try to make their written German as intelligible to as many Germans as possible.

Only around 1800 did Hochdeutsch begin to be used as a spoken language. At this time it began to be taught in schools and for a long time, German students learned it as a what amounted to a foreign language, their first language being whatever German dialect was spoken in their region.

In the 20th Century, Hochdeutsch began to be a common first language for many Germans who grew up speaking it either alongside their regional dialect or instead of the dialect. It was also during the past century that Hochdeutsch began t supplant many German dialects. The truth is that many German dialects are not dialects at all but instead they are full blown language in terms of both intelligibility and structure. Ethnologue lists 20 different German dialects as separate languages and the truth is that there are many more than that.

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Filed under Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Dialectology, German, Germanic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Language Families, Linguistics, Sociolinguistics

Linguistic/National Question

In what countries is the language spoken in the capital different from the language spoken by the majority of people in the rest of the country? As you can see, there is more than one country where this is the case.

Some cases from the past include

Austria-Hungary, where the capital Vienna spoke High German but most of the people spoke Czech, Slovak, Venetian, Slovenian, or Serbo-Croatian.

In Ireland, before English became popular in the early 1800’s, most people around the capital spoke English, while the majority of the population spoke Irish.

I found nine countries, two in Europe, two in Southeast Asia, two in South Asia, one in Oceania, one in the Caribbean, and one in Africa.

Hop to it!

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Myth: Latin Died a Long Time Ago

SD writes:

I presume you want an answer based on ‘raw’ knowledge, that is, without looking up on the internet. Latin has been a dead language for a long time. I think even during the Roman empire, classical Latin was a language that only the educated elite spoke, and even they probably spoke in their own dialects at home.

It really depends on where you want to draw the line between classical Latin and vulgar dialects, but classical Latin as we know it has not been spoken as a native language for at least 2000 years. I’m quite sure the language spoken in Roman marketplaces was quite different from what 19th century classics professors would present their obscure papers in.

This is a common myth, and like so many myths, it’s not even true.

but classical Latin as we know it has not been spoken as a native language for at least 2000 years.

No.

Incredible as it sounds, Latin lived as a native language into the 20th Century! He was born in Budapest, Hungary about 100 years before, maybe in 1836 or thereabouts. He was born into a very upper class, elite family, possibly with connections to Royalty. His family actually spoke Latin and the principal language of the home! So he was raised speaking Latin. Latin was his first language, and while he did learn a couple of other languages, Hungarian and maybe German, but Latin was the language that he was always most comfortable in. He said that his situation was not unusual among the class that he was born into.

At that time, Latin was widely spoken at least as a 2nd language. In earlier post, I pointed out that Latin was actually the official language of the Croatian Parliament until 1846!

He later moved to the US where of course he become a Classics Professor who specialiazed in teaching Latin at one of America’s most elite universities, possibly Harvard or Yale.

He died in 1936. I found his obituary and I believe it said he died when he was around 100 years old.

Latin lived as a native language until the 1930’s!

Incredible!

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Filed under Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Italic, Italo-Celtic, Italo-Celtic-Tocharian, Language Families, Linguistics, Sociolinguistics

Latin Is a Dead Language

What year did the last native speaker of Latin die?

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Filed under Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Italic, Italo-Celtic-Tocharian, Language Families, Linguistics, Sociolinguistics

Croatia, 1846

There probably wasn’t really any such thing as “Croatia” back then, but anyway, let us discuss what was happening in the territory we currently refer to as the nation of Croatia.

  • What was the official language (Slavic)?
  • What were the two other languages that were widely spoken everyone or nearly everyone along with the official one (both Slavic)?
  • What was the language most commonly spoken by educated people, especially in cities? For instance, if you went into a bookstore in Zagreb, the books would mostly be in this language (non-Slavic)?
  • What was the language of science and the ultra-elites? As an example of how this language was used, what was the official language for the Croatian Parliament? (non-Slavic)?
  • What was the official religion?

Five questions, five whole questions, now hard could it be?

Have fun kids!

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Filed under Balto-Slavic, Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Europe, European, German, History, Indo-European, Language Families, Linguistics, Modern, Regional, Religion, Serbo-Croatian, Slavic, Sociolinguistics

Last Word on Phoenicians, Phonetics, Etc.

It looks like we finally got the answer to whether Phoenician and phonetic, phonology, phone, phoneme, etc. are related – they are not, but both are from Greek words. Phonetic, phone, phonology, phoneme, etc. are derived from Greek Phonein, which means quite logically “to sound.” Phoenician, on the other hand, derives from a Greek word Phoenikoi for the people and region, derived from the word Phoenix which originally meant a particular conch shell that yielded a nice purple dye and later acquired the meaning via legend of a bird that rises from the ashes after it dies. I am not sure what the Phoenikoi were named after – perhaps the conch shell?

Anyway, the roots have no relationship to each other, but it was a nice hypothesis anyway. “Scientists” always like to chortle with ridicule at the notion of a “bad hypothesis” but I think in many cases, most hypotheses that seem prima facie reasonable are not bad hypotheses. Furthermore, I dislike the very notion of bad hypotheses as it smacks of the horrific arrogance all of the sciences engage in these days, even the ridiculous fake social “sciences” like my own pitiful specialty, Linguistics.

Miville writes:

Phonein (to sound) should first be sounded as the ancient Athenians did: not phoney-in, but pf-hone-een (or pf-honey-an as the Spartans did): the important thing is to try to sound out an f not with the teeth against the upper lip but with both lips as gently as to let off a beautiful soap bubble instead of ordinary spittle.

The Romans despite being the new lords on the block felt they were no match for Greece however decadent and derelict so they made that effort to sound the Greek ph the Greek way rather than like their own f, at least so as to spit gracefully down upon their own people, hence the spelling we inherited from them despite the fact no longer any Roman nor Greek knows any other sound than our own vulgar present f.

Phonein in Greek is written with an Omega, which was sounded Oh like in OMG in Athens and like Awe or (Golden) Dawn in Sparta. Phoenicia is derived, as regards the Greek language, from Phoenix, which was written with the false diphthong (original simple sound lacking a proper letter in the alphabet and therefore written two ones) oi which bore but little relationship whatever with either simple o or Omega and was rather sounded œ as in German Goethe or u as in turn depending on the city. Phonein meant to sound, phoenix rather derives from a word meaning a conch, the particular one whence came a very precious dark red dye, purpur or purple.

It also meant a legendary bird capable of rebirth after having passed through burnt offering. The legend was common (and still is in works such as the One and Thousand Nights) to all Near and Middle Eastern countries and the red color also pictured the Rising Sun, the Orient, hence the name given to the mariners stemming from the land of the rising sun also most renowned for its production of purple dye from the conch and for having given to Greece the alphabet.

The Phoenicians themselves called their own language and nationality Cana’an, so the name we use is a pure Greek creation, like the name Greek which is a Roman appellation for a people who call themselves Hellenes. The letters, of Phoenician origin, meant sounds, or phonemata.

The conch could also be used as a sounding horn, as is the symbol of the primeval creating divine vibration in many cultures, apart from the fact that in many languages a telephone receiver can be called a conch (Muschel in German). The proximate sounds, however, prove no common etymology, even though they are marvelous for poetry.

The early Roman soldiers when it came to name the same people that had settled Carthage did not make the effort their betters made when trying to pronounce Greek names and sounded Phoenikoi like Punici, simplifying the very peculiar Greek ph into p rather than into f. By regressive derivation they likened the word to their own poena, a punishment, and to the verb punire, but there is no common etymology.

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Filed under Afroasiatic, Ancient Greece, Antiquity, Greek, Hellenic, History, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Indo-Irano-Armeno-Hellenic, Language Families, Linguistics, Roman Empire, Science, Semitic

The Roots of the Alphabet(s)

Probably most of you do not know that we are all using a variant of the ancient Phoenician alphabet. Actually I am not sure if that is precisely true, as I think the Phoenician alphabet was preceded by an Assyrian one. But at any rate, our classic Western alphabets all came out of the Levant and Mesopotamia in some way or other. Indeed, it is even theorized that many of the syllabaries in use in Central, South and Southeast Asia are also rooted in this original alphabet from the Levant.

Of course, Chinese and consequently Korean and Japanese alphabets have another origin.

One might wish to throw the odd SE Asian orthographies such as Thai, Lao, Burmese, Vietnamese, Javanese, Sundanese and Khmer there, but my understanding is that all of those SE Asian orthographies were actually derived from syllabaries originally designed in India.

A few writing systems such as Georgian, Armenian and Cree may have been created de novo, but I might have to look that up. The only non-Middle Eastern derived orthography that immediately comes to my mind is the Chinese ideographs.

The origins of the Assyrian/Phoenician alphabet appear to have been ultimately in Egyptian hieroglyphics. So the ancient Egyptians really started it all when it comes to writing down words, at least for the West.

Chinese ideographs may date from even earlier. Chinese bone writing goes way back.

Very early European writing such as runic systems and similar systems in Asia such as the Turkic Orkhon inscriptions may not be related to the Phoenician system at all. The Yukaghir in Siberia and the Yi in South China may also have designed de novo systems.

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Is There a Language That Is Almost Impossible to Learn Without Growing Up with It?

A question was recently asked on Quora. Here is my answer.

Hello, I recently talked to a Westerner who is learning Min Nan, which is a Sinitic language often called a dialect of Chinese. He already speaks Mandarin, but he told me Min Nan if vastly harder than Mandarin. At age 35, he was studying it 2 hours a day, and at some point, he hit a wall, and he didn’t seem to be making any progress. He kept adding more study hours to the day  – four hours, six hours – with little effect. Finally when he was studying it for eight hours a day, he started making some good progress. I believe he said contour tones and tone sandhi were the major roadblocks.

Min Nan speakers say that even Cantonese is easier than Min Nan, and Cantonese is deadly hard. They also say that Min Nan tones are so hard that no one who did not learn Min Nan growing up gets anywhere near native fluency.

Cantonese is a similar language that is very difficult. It is much harder than Mandarin, and many native Mandarin speakers say they tried to learn Cantonese and gave up on it because it was too hard. Cantonese has 9 tones. The general consensus among Chinese is that Cantonese is much harder to learn than Mandarin.

Basque is said to be very hard to learn unless you grow up with it. There is a joke that the Devil spent seven years trying to learn Basque, and he only learned how to say Hello and Goodbye.

Navajo would also be murderously hard. Even Navajo children struggle quite a bit learning Navajo. When they show up at school at age 5-6, they are still struggling with Navajo. There are reports that Navajo children don’t seem to get Navajo well until maybe age 12.

Korean is a surprise, but apparently it is very hard to learn well. A native Korean speaker told me that Korean is so hard that no Korean speaker ever speaks it with 100% accuracy, and everyone makes errors.

As another respondent pointed out, Japanese is also quite notorious, and most Westerners get nowhere near native fluency.

Czech is also hard. Even most Czech speakers never get Czech all the way. They have TV contests in Czechoslovakia where they try to stump native speakers with hard forms in the language. If you can last 30 minutes without making even one error, you win. I think only two men have been able to do it, but one was a non-native speaker! Czech also has a strange r sound found only in one other language on Earth. It is said that no native speaker ever gets this phoneme quite right.

Piraja is also very hard as another respondent pointed out. Only two non-natives have ever been able to speak Piraha with any fluency. When Daniel Everett went to study the language, he found a number of reports from priests who had tried to learn Piraha since the early 1800’s, and only one had succeeded. The others tried to learn but gave up because they said it was too hard.

Tsez, spoken in the Caucasus, is also murderously hard. Every verb can have tens of thousands of possible forms. Reports say that even native speakers make regular errors when speaking Tsez.

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The Verb Gustar

I am having a disagreement with a friend here about the verb gustar. My friend says gustar is only conjugated in the 3rd person. There are no 1st and 2nd person conjugations of the verb gustar. I disagree.

1p sing

me gusto = I like myself.

te gusto = You like me.

le gusto = He, she, it, likes me. You like me.

les gusto = Y'all like me.

les gusto = You all, they like me.

2p sing

me gustas = I like you.

te gustas  = You like yourself.

le gustas = You like yourself. He, she it likes you.

nos gustas = We like you.

les gustas = They like you.

3p sing

me gusta = I like him, her, it, you.

te gusta = You like him, her, it.

le gusta = He, she, it likes him, her, it, you. You like her, him, it, yourself.

nos gusta = We like him, her, it, you.

les gusta = Y'all like him, her, it, you

les gusta = They like him,her, themselves.

1p pl

me gustamos = I like us. (weird)

te gustamos = You like us.

le gustamos = He, she, it, you like us.

nos gustamos = We like ourselves.

les gustamos = Y'all like us.

les gustamos = They like us.

2p pl

me gustan = I like y'all.

le gustan = He, she, it likes y'all.

nos gustan = We like y'all

les gustan = Y'all like yourselves.

les gustan = They like y'all.

3p pl

me gustan = I like them.

te gustan = You like them.

le gustan = He, she, it likes them.

nos gustan = We like them.

les gustan = Y'all like them.

les gustan = They like themselves.

Let me know if I am correct.

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