I’ve written about Mayan a number of times, though not recently (e.g. Pok-ta-pok, Mayan in the News Again, Xoc > Shark?); now I’m pleased to learn of the existence of Maya Decipherment, “a weblog devoted to ideas and developments in ancient Maya epigraphy and related fields, overseen by Dr. David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin.” Another great use of the internet; my only (very mild) gripe is that the URL seems to bite off all of “decipherment” for the Mayan field.


  1. Michael Coe’s book was recommended to me a coupla years ago one a blog about quantum physics of all things.
    Excellent read – depressing how ego and arrogance can hold a whole field back, though.

  2. But you know that the Mayan etymology of shark is untenable, don’t you? Quite apart from formal problems (too early for hypercorrect rhoticity), shark is now first attested from 1442, nine years before Columbus was born.

  3. Whoa, that’s pretty conclusive. I’ll add it to the earlier thread. Thanks!

  4. marie-lucie says:

    The Latin in that quotation seems somewhat strange.

  5. Rodger C says:

    @marie-lucie: Medieval Latin is often very unclassical. Writers were often using it basically as a code for their vernacular. By the way, “vijam” threw me until I realized it represented “septimam.”

  6. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks Rodger, I understood that the writer was not very proficient in Latin, but “vijam” stumped me. What do you make of “le Shark”? is it the French article? but it would be strange that in 1442 an English speaker knowing Latin (even imperfectly) would also have known what French “le” meant (and of course a French speaker would not have used “le” in a Latin text).

  7. Hat: “Delete, delete” is not working. Time for “block”, if you have the capability.
    read: Bias of course has to do with judging in advance of the evidence, as the word prejudice shows. Here the evidence is ample and the justice has been very long delayed.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    Rodger: I guess I mixed up two sentences, here is a correction:
    it would be strange that in 1442 an English speaker knowing Latin (even imperfectly) would NOT have known what French “le” meant.

  9. Trond Engen says:

    Piotr: Nice to see that zombie killed, but the word has so obvious Germanic relatives that it really should have been unnecessary.

  10. “Le Shark” doesn’t mean that the word is French. According to the 15th-century conventions of Anglo-Latin writing, “le” marked any non-Latin noun embedded in a Latin text. I agree with Trond that the word is almost certainly Germanic.

  11. Incidentally, M-L, the diarist in question was very proficient in Latin. He was a bishop and a diplomat.

  12. Thomas Beckington, educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford. Of course what he used in his diaries was not (and was not ment to imitate) Cicero’s Latin.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    Piotr, of course I did not think that the word was French (“shark” is le requin), I only wondered what le was supposed to do there. I did not know that it was a conventional use. I will take your word for the bishop/diplomat’s proficiency in Latin. Mine is rather far away in time, but his looks strange to me.

  14. See: Laura Wright. 2010. “A pilot study on the singular definite articles le and la in fifteenth-century London mixed-language business writing”. In: Richard Ingham (ed.), The Anglo-Norman Languge and its Contexts, York: York Medieval Press/The Boydell Press, 130-142.

  15. Etienne says:

    Sili: I won’t name anyone, but the ego and arrogance of a number of scholars are holding back progress in a number of linguistic subfields, and from this point of view I am more than certain that the history of Mayan studies will be mirrored in the later histories of the subfields in question.
    “Le shark”: I can’t help but note that, in some Native American languages, the presence of French loanwords (nouns) with initial LE, LA or LES caused this element to be re-analyzed as a morpheme marking a noun as a loanword. As a result an initial /l/ + V element was prefixed to subsequent non-French loanwords (such as English ones).
    So the convention whereby a non-Latin word was “flagged” with LE in 15th century Anglo-Latin writing may have had its roots in (some lects of?) English.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne, I agree with you about the unfortunate role of “ego and arrogance” among some better-not-to-be-named linguistic scholars …
    About French l-initial articles borrowed in America, it sounds like you are not just referring to Chinook Jargon, or are you? many languages adopted CJ words, some of which were originally French words now prefixed with the article, rather than French words as such. But do you know of instances of such borrowing, straight from French? Perhaps in languages whose speakers were christianized by French-speaking missionaries?
    Incidentally, this is the same process through which algebra and a few other words (more in Spanish) were borrowed from Arabic, with the article al prefixed to the word.

  17. Etienne says:

    Marie-Lucie: why do I feel you and I are characters in a HARRY POTTER novel? Between the “better-not-to-be-named linguistic scholars” and “He who must not be named” there isn’t much of a leap.
    Perhaps we should join forces and write a ROMAN À CLEF together about the damage wrought to the fictional Academy of Pigpimple by Professor Flightdeath and his evil acolytes. If the novel meets with the success of the HARRY POTTER series we won’t have to worry about funding or monetary matters ever again! Hmm, to help ensure commercial success I suggest titling it FIFTY SHADES OF SCHOLARSHIP.
    That title would suggest near-inhuman sadism, degradation and masochism, come to think of it. A non-misleading title!? The sheer novelty might boost sales.
    And the language I had in mind when I typed the comment above was Innu (AKA Montagnais): Lynn Drapeau wrote an article (I can dig up the exact reference for you and/or any other interested hatter/hatters) on French loanwords in the language and how initial /lV/ was re-analyzed into a morpheme marking “foreign noun” status. Subsequently this new bound morpheme became productive and was systematically prefixed to at least some new loanwords.
    And yes, Arabic loanwords do have the initial definite article (AL-): but in Europe there is an interesting twist to this. Arabic borrowed nouns in Iberian Romance languages have as a rule kept an AL, treated as part of the noun, whereas Arabic borrowed nouns in the Romance languages of the Italian peninsula typically do NOT keep initial AL-. This is why Spanish has ARROZ where Italian has RISO (both from Arabic): English RICE comes from French RIZ, which in turn (as the absence of an initial AL- shows) entered French from Italian, not Spanish.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    Go ahead with the novel, Etienne! I’ll read it.
    That’s very interesting about French loans into Innu and the regrammaticalization of the articles. So the Middle English construction “le shark” could have worked like the Innu one!
    About Arabic: riso, riz, rice but algebra, Aldebaran, alcalde, alcohol and a number of others. So Romance-speaking scholars and scientists learning from Arabic ones living among them dutifully kept the article they learned along with the technical words, while (apart from in Spain where contact with Arabic was much closer) less educated people such as merchants learned the names of exotic substances (sg rice, sugar) without the article. Could it be that, as in incipient pidgin situations, the Arab traders in the Mediterranean simplified their language and omitted the article in dealing with their foreign customers, while the Arab scholars, etc living within Spain did not, since their students, along with part of the population, must have learned at least some Arabic, the language of the occupiers? In this respect, has there been a comparison of Arabic loanwords between Spanish (especially Southern Spanish) and Catalan (on the Mediterranean but not directly affected by the Arab conquest)?

  19. To a first approximation, all count nouns in French-based creoles begin with /l/ and all mass nouns with /d/.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    JC, that makes sense. But you also have those beginning with /z/, like zoreille, from plural forms.

  21. Andrew Woode says:

    The French-based creoles particularly attract l-, and z- etc when they would otherwise begin with vowels (zalimèt = allumette, loto = auto); words beginning with consonants are more resistant, though there are examples; lanmè = mer.
    (All examples from Martinique Creole according to “Annou palé kréyòl” by Richard Crestor).

  22. Rodger C says:

    But you also have those beginning with /z/, like zoreille, from plural forms
    And then of course there’s zydeco (zaricots).
    I think there’s at least a theory that the Spanish words in al– were borrowed through Berber, excuse me Amazigh, in which (saith myn auctour) there’s no determiner and the Arabic words were therefore borrowed by people with no cosciousness of one.

  23. Etienne says:

    Marie-Lucie: the contrast between the Arabic loanwords which entered Romance vernaculars of the Italian peninsula (without the article AL-) and those which entered Romance vernaculars of the Iberian peninsula (with the article AL-) is certainly not due to a difference in terms of knowledge of/access to Arabic: Sicily was dominated by Arabic speakers for centuries, no less than (most of) the Iberian peninsula.
    (Indeed, it has been claimed that the island was thoroughly Arabicized in the Middle Ages and that present-day Sicilian is a transplanted Romance variety (from somewhere further North) which does not go back to the Vulgar Latin of Sicily (which was, in this view, replaced by Arabic))
    Rodger C. above does point to one explanation which has been offered to explain this state of affairs, i.e. Berber speakers as the ones who first introduced Arabic words into Iberian Romance languages. In support of this scenario it might be argued that, once a stratum of Arabic loanwords with AL- had entered Ibero-Romance, later generations of Romance-Arabic bilinguals would systematically apply the same “adaptation strategy” (“A borrowed Arabic noun comes with its article”) to subsequent loanwords.
    Just like French Creoles: examples such as ZALIMÈT and LOTO, which Andrew Woode gives us above, quite obviously did not exist in the seventeenth-century French which gave French creoles their “native” element. Bilingual Creole/French speakers, in adapting French loanwords, obviously were already used to the idea that a creole word is meant to incorporate a French article or liaison consonant.
    Against the idea (i.e. that Berber mediation might explain the presence of AL- in Arabic loans into Ibero-Romance) is the fact that this sort of variation seems to be common. Berber itself borrows some Arabic nouns with and others without the definite article; Coptic borrows most Arabic nouns with the definite article, but a minority of nouns (including some very ancient ones) lack it.
    In answer to your request for a reference on Arabic loans in Spanish, Catalan (and Portuguese!): see Kiesler, Reinhard, 2006. “Ibero-Romance”. In: Versteegh, Kees (Ed.) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ARABIC LANGUAGES AND LINGUISTICS. Volume 2, 281-286, and references therein.

  24. zétwal is my favorite /z/-noun, particularly as there seems no obvious reason for it.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    AW: lanmè = mer
    Is it certain that this creole word is from la mer rather than from en mer ‘on the sea’?
    Etienne, I was not aware of the Arab history of Sicily. Of course, with Malta between Tunisia and Sicily, it is not surprising that there would have been Arab domination in all three places, effectively controlling the Mediterranean. (Thank you for the reference too).
    and Rodger too: About Berber (I think that Amazight is only one of the Berber languages or dialects): apart from the presence or absence of the article, what reason is there to assume Berber rather than Arabic influence on Spanish or Italian? are the borrowed words closer to Berber than Arabic in phonology? are Berbers rather than Arabs known to have migrated to Spain or Sicily, or to have been the ones engaged in trade?

  26. marie-lucie says:

    JC: zétwal is my favorite /z/-noun, particularly as there seems no obvious reason for it.
    No obvious reason? There is only one sun and one moon, but how many stars? Those z-initial nouns are from (vowel-initial) French nouns most often used in the plural, when they appear preceded by the sound /z/ which seems to be part of the noun. Consider also the French slang word zyeuter ‘to look (at)’, from les yeux, the plural form.

  27. Etienne says:

    Marie-Lucie: Martinique Creole LANMÈ definitely derives from LA MER: the nasalization of the /a/ in the creole word is strictly allophonic, due to the following /m/, and the spelling (like that of many creoles) is phonetic rather than phonological. Besides, EN MER as an etymon would leave the initial /l/ unexplained.
    As for Berbers in the Iberian peninsula: I haven’t read about this in detail in quite a while, so do please take what follows CUM GRANO SALIS, but I believe it is quite clear that at the time of the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula Berber was the demographically dominant language everywhere in North Africa West of Tunisia, with the percentage of native Arabic speakers diminishing the further West one went (this is still true today: Morocco is, demographically, the most important Berber-speaking country today in terms of the percentage of the population who speak Berber as their L1). Thus, simple geography would lead us to predict that the Iberian peninsula would be much more “Berber-influenced” than Sicily.
    Whether this Berber influence accounts for the presence of AL- with borrowed loanwords is a different issue, of course.

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    Just on language in Sicily, there’s a medievalist on the faculty at Johns Hopkins (a woman I knew a bit socially in college but haven’t crossed paths with since the late ’80’s) whose current professional webpage says:
    I also have a side-project on the Jews of Sicily, who are interesting because they continued to speak, read, and write Arabic (usually in Hebrew characters) long after the defeat of Muslim rule on the island ca. 1060 and the expulsion of the Muslims in 1246. The persistence of Arabic among Sicilian Jews has usually been explained as either a cause or a consequence of their putative isolation as a minority. But both the documentary and literary sources in Judeo-Arabic from Sicily suggest the opposite: that Arabic offered Jews coveted roles as cultural and linguistic mediators and, therefore, social privileges that they jealously guarded and deployed to various ends depending on who was ruling.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    More and more fascinating, this Mediterranean history!
    Etienne: lanmè = mer
    Could the exception be due to the homophony between mer ‘sea’ and mère ‘mother’? in French, only the first one would occur almost always with the article, while the second would be more likely to be preceded by possessives and therefore be recognized as an isolated word. This of course assumes that mère is the source of the creole word for ‘mother’ (I don’t know creole, obviously).

  30. Etienne says:

    J.W. Brewer: I agree with this thesis. In North Africa there is a basic dichotomy between an older and a more recent stratum of Arabic. The more recent one is associated with a tribal confederation, the BANU HILAL, who invaded North Africa in the eleventh century and were the cause of the large-scale Arabization of the countryside: the earlier stratum of North African Arabic (called, logically enough, “pre-hilalian”) is associated with a number of urban dialects spoken in the oldest urban settlements.
    What I find interesting is that Jewish varieties of North African Arabic are typically pre-hilalian: this suggests that Jewish communities must have been among the first groups to shift to Arabic, which definitely fits with the claim you quote above.
    Marie-Lucie: French creoles typically use a reflex of French “Maman” (which is spelled “manman” in most French creoles, on account of the same allophonic nasalization of vowels I described above) as the word for “mother”, so in this case I don’t think homophony avoidance was an issue.
    Homophony avoidance has been argued to have been a factor explaining the presence/absence of a definite article or some other non-etymological pre-nominal segment in some Indian Ocean French creoles, however.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne: French “Maman” (which is spelled “manman” in most French creoles …
    That’s how I pronounce the word too (as a term of address). “Ma-man” sounds precious and stilted to me. I don’t think of it as allophonic nasalization, but as a reduplicated form (where “man” is from the nasalization of “Ma”).

  32. Rodger C says:

    marie-lucie: I think a form of “Amazigh” is the Berber autonym, found in various forms in Berber languages (e.g. Aouarigh, Tuareg), and is now considered the politically correct form in preference to the borrowing from Latin barbarus.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    Rodger: I have met a few Berber people, and I understood that Amazight is just one of several names (or dialectal forms) for the language, that’s why I used “Berber”. But thank you for mentioning some of these forms: previously I could not see a resemblance between Amazight and Tuareg, but Aouarigh (awarigh) provides the link (with m ~ w and z ~ r, which are phonetic correspondences independently attested in other language families).
    The people I met included two Moroccan teachers of Berber who were involved in developing teaching materials for use in schools (for both Berber and Arabic native speakers), since the king had taken an active interest in encouraging the use and survival of the language in Morocco. Until then, Berber had been considered a rural dialect unworthy of attention by the urban elites. On another occasion I talked with a man who was concerned with reaching adult Berber immigrants in France. He explained that those immigrants were illiterate and could not communicate by letter, but were now exchanging messages with relatives at home through making recordings and sending cassette tapes back and forth (that was a few years ago). He himself was involved in producing tapes in Berber for use by those people and making sure they had access to tapes and recorders.

  34. It’s not at all clear what the connections between the Greek and Arabic /barbar-/ forms may be, whether one borrowed from the other or whether they are independent formations. Clearly, though, Barbary, Berber are exonyms, and they have always been assumed in the Western European languages to be connected with barbarian, barbarous.

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