Friday, 24 May 2013

Zero in a Śāka Date from Cambodia, 683 CE

For students of southeast Asian history - or world history, I suppose - this is rather cool: an inscription from Cambodia with the oldest known Eurasian zero inscribed on it.  It's in a date, 605 Shaka.  The Shaka era (Saka, or Śāka; the article uses 'Chaka', which I've not seen anywhere else) began in 78 CE, so the date in the Gregorian calendar would be 683.  The inscription is clearly in the Pallava script.

I doubt this is the earliest zero in the world.  In fact, I'm sure it isn't; there must be Mayan zeroes out there of similar or earlier date, even if they were used for different purposes, and if it has been found in Cambodia to express a date in an Indian calendar in an Indian script, it must have had earlier Indian precedents.  The comments on the article say the same thing.  But still, it's an interesting artifact, one originally discovered by Georges Coedes and rediscovered by the author of that article.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Fusion and Fission - 'Introduction to Historical Linguistics', Part V

This is the fifth part in a series on historical linguistics using Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern's Introduction to Historical Linguistics as a base.  Part I is here.  Part II, here.  Part III, here.  Part IV, here.

So, on with feature.  Features, as we saw last time, are what phones break down into.  [m] has a set of components, including [+ consonantal] and [+ nasal], and so does [a] and [x] and [ç] and every other phone in every human language.  Of course, we all share the same phone-production equipment, so all sounds have to be able to break down into features that are potentially parseable by any other human brain or vocal apparatus.  In speech, the presence of two phones in close proximity can make them fuse together through the removal of features from one phone and their coming together with other features from the other phone.

Historical Linguistics Has Limitations

I'm finishing up my post on fusion, feature, fission, etc, in the series on historical linguistics, and I'll put that up shortly.  But before I do, I wanted to post something I've been thinking about recently.

There have been some proposals - in fact, many proposals, and they keep on coming - trying to establish a common language family in Eurasia, or Afro-Eurasia, or the Americas, or the world.  People seem to love this kind of research.  Media publications seem to love it, too, with the New York Times and BBC website regularly publishing overviews of these kinds of spurious linguistics.  It looks a lot like science.  It is not science.  The people involved are usually non-linguists applying a non-standard framework to linguistic problems - a phylogeographic model employed by epidemiologists and biologists, for instance, which has graphs and cool jargon and other sciency accoutrements.  It looks convincing to people who don't know anything about linguistics or reconstruction, and it tends to treat languages as if they are something other than languages.  But languages are languages; they aren't genetic entities like living organisms, but 'genetic' entities, with a primarily metaphorical association to the idea of genetic relationship. Treat them as something other than languages and you'll only do it wrong.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Sound Addition, Metathesis, and a bit of Fusion - 'Introduction to Historical Linguistics', Part IV

This is the fourth post in a series on historical linguistics, using Introduction to Historical Linguistics by Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern as the source.  Part I is here.  Part II, here.  Part III, here.

Sound addition can be a very common phenomenon.  We can see it in a lot of loanwords, in particular; think of borrowings into Chinese and Japanese, which typically add vowels to break up consonant clusters (Las Vegas becomes Lasi Weijiasi in Chinese).  In fact, breaking consonant clusters into CV (consonant-vowel) structures is a common tendency in human languages, and so this kind of sound addition isn't at all surprising.  Crowley gives the example of English loanwords in Maori, which, like most Oceanic languages (indeed, most Austronesian languages), strongly tends towards CV structures:

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Sound Loss - 'Introduction to Historical Linguistics' part III

This is the third part in a series on historical linguistics.  Part I - here.  Part II - here.

You may have twigged to the fact that much historical linguistic work is applied phonetics.  Better understand the nature of sounds in human languages and you'll better understand how they change.  Better understanding how sounds change can help you to reconstruct forms used in the past and provide a reasonably reliable image of past times.  Sounds almost always change in predictable ways - or, perhaps more importantly for the work of historical linguists, in retrodictable ways.  While historical (diachronic) linguists study change in general, most historical linguistic work consists of reconstructing common ancestors of known languages and is therefore retrodictive rather than predictive.  Anyway, it's mostly applied phonetics.  If you know synchronic phonetics inside-out, applying it to historical cases is quite easy - as we'll see later, this is especially true when looking at fusion and assimilation.  In this post, however, we'll be looking at sound loss, which is simpler than fusion if you don't know phonetics so well.



Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Types of Sound Change: Lenition and Fortition ('An Introduction to Historical Linguistics' by Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern)

This is the second post in a series using Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern's An Introduction to Historical Linguistics as a base to provide a brief introduction to the method to interested parties on the web.  The first part is here.

Sounds in human languages change in more-or-less predictable directions.  Sound changes are the result of the sum of individual decisions, and so they aren't totally predictable - we could all get together and decide to say 'telephune' instead of 'telephone', for instance, and that would be an isolated and pretty peculiar sound change.  But in general they move in similar directions, largely because humans tend to use the same or similar criteria in determining their actions.  As I mentioned in my last post, simplicity and relevance are key factors in human communication, and the maximisation of the effort/effect ratio in speech is probably behind much phonological change.

Monday, 13 May 2013

'An Introduction to Historical Linguistics' - Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern. Part 1: Introduction

This is the first part in a series on historical linguistics, using Crowley and Bowern's book as a base.  Updates will be posted until the book is finished.


One of the best books I read as a graduate student was a book I read on my own initiative with no compulsion from any source.  It appeared on none of the reading lists for any of my courses and I didn't read it to improve my exam scores.  (Actually, this applies to almost all of the reading I did at Oxford!)  This book was An Introduction to Historical Linguistics by the late Terry Crowley, one of the doyens of Pacific linguistics, and Claire Bowern, a linguist at Yale who was primarily responsible for editing and updating the work in the wake of Crowley's untimely death.  I read it because I thought it would be a good introduction to the discipline, which is in turn important for understanding humanity and prehistory.  Having now read a couple of other works on the same subject, I have to say that it's still the most readable book for the novice.