Solving Linear A.

Andrew Trounson writes for Pursuit about the ongoing quest to decipher Linear A:

How do you go about deciphering the script of a wholly different language that was lost more than 3,000 years ago? Linguist and archaeologist Dr Brent Davis says it’s like walking out on a tightrope anchored at just one end and supported by nothing but thin air, hoping you find something to stop you from falling. […]

Dr Davis, a lecturer in Archaeology and Ancient Egyptian at the University of Melbourne, is one of only a handful of people around the world to have made any significant headway on solving Linear A in the last 50 years. He established for the first time the word order of the language as being Verb-Subject-Object, like ancient Egyptian. So rather than ‘Minos has a minotaur’, a Minos would write ‘has Minos a minotaur’. […]

It was while he was doing his PhD at University of Melbourne that Dr Davis began to make real headway on solving Linear A. By establishing the word order of the language, linguists can identify the function of a word in a sentence just from its position. It’s like finding a key word in a massive crossword puzzle.

“The definite word order in English is Subject (S)-Verb (V)-Object (O), as in the phrase John likes cats. And we know that about 97 per cent of human languages are either in this form or S-O-V (John cats likes) or V-S-O (Likes John cats).” But when Dr Davis looked at other Bronze Age languages of this period in the region, none were like English. They were either S-O-V (like early Greek and Sumerian), or V-S-O (like ancient Egyptian). He guessed Linear A was likely to have one of these two word orders.

He then applied this framework to a series of inscriptions that appear on Minoan offering bowls. To put it simply, he found that the words on the bowls tended to recur in what was obviously a formula, except for the second word in the inscription, which was always different from bowl to bowl. His guess was that this word was probably the name of the person (the subject) making the offering. If correct then Linear A was likely a V-S-O language. That was confirmed when he found the Linear B sign for ‘olives’ (which had been borrowed from Linear A), occurring after the name as the object of the phrase. The repeated start of the phrase was therefore a verb, like “gives”, yielding the phrase gives Yasumatu olives, or in English [order] Yasumatu gives olives.

Davis points out that to actually decipher the language, more signs are needed:

“Discoveries are still being made, so I’m optimistic, but what we really need to find is a palace archive, which is where we are likely to find enough Linear A to finally decipher it.”

Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. I’m intrigued to see what people who know more than I do make of this.

    Biblical Hebrew, formal Arabic and “ancient Egyptian” are V-S-O. Is V-S-O widespread among ancient Semitic languages or Afro-Asiatic languages? I see that Akkadian was S-O-V, and that this distinguishes it from South- and Northwest-Semitic. Sumerian was also S-O-V.

    I assume from Hindi, Hittite, Latin and Greek that S-O-V is likely to be a characteristic of Proto-Indo-European. Is that accurate?

    Does Davis’s discovery constrain the search for a language behind Linear A by making a Semitic language much more likely? Or does word order flip so often that it doesn’t help exclude anything, though it may still help guide the effort to decipher individual words or word-endings?

  2. Trond Engen says:

    Interesting. I’ll read the article (when I get to my laptop!), but until then, I don’t think the “name second” word order equates S2. A name in a drinking formula could juster than well be that of a god, and the subject be unexpressed, at least by name. That means verb – benefactor – patient or V IO DO.

  3. ə de vivre says:

    VSO order often happens when the pronouns of an SVO language cliticize to the verb then become affixed. IIRC, the NENA languages (re)acquired their VSO order this way. I also have vague memories of discussions about Proto-Semitic (and/or Western Semitic) word order being explained this way.

    But Welsh also became AUX V O this way, so VSO doesn’t itself mean Afro-Asiatic or Semitic.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    It seems very unlikely that Linear A is Semitic. Cyrus Gordon suggested this a long time ago, but seemed to feel that his work was done simply in making the suggestion. The fact is, that if it were Semitic, you’d expect a lot more progress to have been made with the language by now: the ancient Semitic languages resemble each other closely enough that you’d expect numerous characteristic patterns to have come to light already: the decipherment of Akkadian was much eased by the fact that it was Semitic.

    It’s generally believed that the Akkadian word order is due Sumerian influence. VSO certainly is widespread in Afroasiatic, and this probably reflects the (extremely ancient) protolanguage; however, most Chadic languages are SVO, and Cushitic languages SOV; the modern Semitic languages of Ethiopia have become SOV likewise presumably because of Cushitic influence.

    One thing this demonstrates, of course, is that basic word order isn’t particularly stable over time, and it’s not a good predictor of linguistic affiliation at all.

    Latin was SOV; all its descendents are SVO. Insular Celtic is VSO; continental Celtic was SOV.

    In West Africa, most Mande languages have a typologically extremely unusual subtype of SOV order where adverbial elements of all kinds (even including indirect objects) follow the verb; this order is shared by most Songhay languages, but not even the most enthusiastic Lumpers believe that Songhay and Mande are in any way closely related*. Moreover, Timbuktu Songhay has the SVO order of neighbouring Fulfulde.

    Gur languages, like most West African Niger-Congo languages, are SVO; but the Senoufo languages are SOV, just like neighbouring Mande.

    There are, however, strong though not invariable correlations between VSO word order and other syntactic features (like the conjugated prepositions of insular Celtic and Semitic); so if it is firmly established that Linear A was VSO that might indeed help with further analysis.

    *Actually, this is not quite accurate; there have been (very stupid) suggestions that the resemblances between neighbouring Songhay and Mande somehow prove that the vast and very-far-from-fully-demonstrated Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan phyla are themselves related; and rather more respectable (though still far from mainstream) ideas that Songhay is a sort of Mande creole relexified with Berber.

  5. The fact is, that if it were Semitic, you’d expect a lot more progress to have been made with the language by now

    Yes, that’s my take on it as well.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    However, I’d concede that, given that VSO is relatively uncommon, and the Afro-Asiatic languages show VSO a good deal more often than most other groups do, if Linear A has VSO order it would increase the chance of it turning out to be (non-Semitic) Afro-Asiatic; perhaps a whole new branch. There’d be nothing surprising about that geographically. It wouldn’t help much with decipherment, unfortunately: Afro-Asiatic is too diverse.

    There were almost certainly a lot more isolates around four thousand years ago than nowadays, though. No particular reason a priori for Linear A to turn out to be related to anything we know.

    Thinking about it, if Linear A, which is a syllabary, did represent an Afro-Asiatic language, and that language showed the kind of ablaut-as-extreme-sport you’d expect of a four-thousand-year old Afro-Asiatic language, the writing system would do a grand job of making the morphology hard to recognise (not like Greek with its well-behaved final flexions, as famously recognised by Michael Ventris.) That might partly explain why the decipherment has been so intractable (though I think there is also the fact that there is nowhere near as much material as with Linear B.)

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    Even though all Hatters will have seen this already, somebody has to link it:

    https://xkcd.com/2151/

  8. There’s danger in extrapolating from the grammar of formulas to that of the standard language; Gandalf tea Wednesday doesn’t represent a normal English sentence type. But of course even if this only establishes that the syntax of these particular formulas is VSO, that’s still a very useful result.

  9. Trond Engen says:

    The article wasn’t much more than you quoted. What strikes me most on rereading is this (my emphasis):

    That was confirmed when he found the Linear B sign for ‘olives’ (which had been borrowed from Linear A), occurring after the name as the object of the phrase.

    The repeated start of the phrase was therefore a verb, like “gives”, yielding the phrase gives Yasumatu olives, or in English Yasumatu gives olives.

    Just such an offering of olives in a goblet has been found, preserved at the bottom of a sacred Minoan well.

    Doesn’t this suggest that Linear A was a combination of hieroglyphic script and syllabary, presumably that some glyphs had both a lexical and a syllabic phonetic reading? And, possibly, that the Minoans took the script and used the syllabary, either with their original values or their own based on transltion of the sign name? These are certainly not new ideas, but having them supported would be very helpful.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Hurritic was SOV, Basque is topic-comment-verb. Nobody is telling about Hattic, and I can’t find anything on the Caucasian languages right now.

    There were syllable signs and word(-root) signs in Linear B, and for that matter in cuneiform and modern Japanese, while hieroglyphs can represent 1, 2, or 3 consonants and, with a diacritic, a word.

  11. Trond Engen says:

    There were syllable signs and word(-root) signs in Linear B

    Oh, right, I should have remembered.

    If root signs in linear B correspond to words used without added derivational morphology in Linear A, that’s suggestive of the morphological structure of Minoan. I really should get hold of his paper. Or something later. I see it’s from 2014.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    According to Johanna Nichols, Ingush is

    verb-final but with frequent verb-second order in main clauses (with prefixes and first elements of compound verbs left in clause-final position.)

    which sounds vaguely familiar.
    Hewitt says that in Georgian “the neutral orderings are SOV and SVO. Arguments can be put in focus by being placed first or last in the clause.”
    Colarusso says that Kabardian is “a rigid verb-final language.”

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    If root signs in linear B correspond to words used without added derivational morphology in Linear A, that’s suggestive of the morphological structure of Minoan.

    Up to a point; but it could just reflect the alterations necessary to write a foreign language in a script originally developed for Minoan. Early Sumerian texts omit much of the agglutinative morphology; the progressive increase in writing out of affixes seems to go hand in hand with ongoing language death, presumably because native speakers of Sumerian didn’t need the help, but Akkadian scribes did. (Unlike me, ə will Actually Know about this.)

  14. David Marjanović says:

    which sounds vaguely familiar.

    It does…!

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Also from 2014 is a book with this abstract (farther down the author’s Academia page):

    Inscribed Minoan stone vessels are ritual gifts that index their dedicants’ intention that both their gift and their name should survive permanently at the place of dedication. These vessels contained offerings, yet the vessels themselves were also offerings, serving as permanent records of a ritual act. These rituals were most likely communal, incorporating group feasting and drinking. The seasonality of these rituals suggests that they were focused on the cycle of life: fertility, birth, death and renewal. Offerings left with the vessels suggest that these rituals also addressed other, more personal concerns. As for Linear A itself: the language behind the script appears to contain a fairly standard phonemic inventory, though there are hints of additional, more exotic phonemes. The morphology of the language appears to involve affixation, a typical mode of inflection in human languages. The presence of significant prefixing tends to rule out PIE as a parent language, while the word-internal vowel alternations typical of Afroasiatic verbal inflection are nowhere to be found in this script. In the end, Linear A appears most likely to represent a non-IE, non-Afroasiatic language, perhaps with agglutinative tendencies, and perhaps with VSO word order.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    More Caucasian: Diana Forker’s Hinuq grammar says that in main clauses the overwhelming majority are SV or APV (it’s ergative) but all logically possible orders are attested or at least elicitable, with “pragmatic” differences which she doesn’t much go into; however, in subordinate clauses verb-final order is “almost obligatory.”

    In languages where varying of the basic word order is possible, it seems to be cross-linguistically very common for such variation to be limited or absent in subordinate clauses. Not surprising when you start thinking about it, if word order changes are used to mark focus, foregrounding and such.

    Actually, this is potentially relevant to this Linear A issue: even if the examples have been correctly identified as (say) “Gave Minos olives”, it does not at all follow that this is the unmarked word order of Minoan (as TR has really already said.) The VSO order could be focussing the object (“What did Minos give?”) or the subject (“Who gave olives?”); if so, the unmarked order might be pretty much anything, even boring old SVO.

    Still, you’ve got to start somewhere.

    It’s just occurred to me that we have no reason to assume that the first word is in fact a finite verb at all. It might be (for example) “gift” or “offering.” Then we have a possessum-possessor NP construction, a null copula, and a complement: “The offering of Minos – olives.” Latin word order, pretty much.

  17. Kabardian is “a rigid verb-final language.”

    Kardashian, on the other hand, is a soft tushy-final language.

    =======

    “Is it really true that OVS in particular sentence types indicates a truly OVS language?” asked John.

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    The offering of Minos – olives.

    In fact, the word order is clearly Russian.

    It is only the archaic character of the writing system which, by omitting flexions which could be readily supplied by a native Russian speaker, disguises the fact that the second word is in fact in the genitive.

    @JC:

    Clearly not, replied David.

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    The example “Has Minos a minotaur” is poorly chosen. Now that it is proven that Minoan was Russian, this should be recast as “To Minos exists a Minotaur.”

    Verbs used like English “have” are not as universal as Andrew Trounson supposes.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    Kardashian, on the other hand, is a soft tushy-final language.

    Those Kashubian-Jenners are just famous for being famous.

  21. John Cowan says:

    Well, also for the smallpox vaccine.

  22. Stu Clayton says:

    the conjugated prepositions of insular Celtic and Semitic

    German zum, zur, am, vom look like conjugated prepositions, don’t they ?

  23. Stu Clayton says:

    Dammit, confused conjugation and declination again.

  24. I’d like to point out that one thing is a fixed formula, and another is the general, or prevailing order of words in a language.

    My language (a dialect of Croatian or Bosnian or Serbian) is always described as SVO. But, depending on the verb, the word order in some sentences will be actually VS, or even (e.g. when talking about pain) OVS.

    Not to mention that it lacks some typical traits of SVO languages…

  25. A few comments some may find pertinent if not interesting…

    1-A possible reason why Linear A is yet to be cracked (I believe I once made the same point here at Casa Hat on the subject of the Harappan inscriptions): perhaps the Linear A corpus involves a script used to write more than one language. I do have a precedent in mind: the Iberian, Tartessian and Celtiberian languages were all written using (variants of) the same (Paleohispanic) script, and early attempts at decipherment were hampered because researchers assumed the inscriptions were likewise written in a single “Paleohispanic” language. Only later research determined that the paleohispanic corpus was multilingual, with the Celtiberian portion the only one to have been deciphered.

    2-Speaking of Celtiberian: David Eddyshaw, I believe Celtiberian is the only Continental Celtic language whose syntax is consistently verb-final: Gaulish seems to be predominantly SVO, whereas for Lepontic and Galatian we simply have too little data. Of course, this strengthens your point: Among known Celtic languages we have some that are SVO, others that are SOV, and others that are VSO.

    3-David Eddyshaw, Hat: Even if for the sake of argument we accept that the Linear A corpus consists of a single language, I could easily believe the language is Semitic. For decades Carian was believed to be a non-Indo-European language: it is in fact Indo-European (Anatolian, actually). This fact was long obscured by very unusual sound values which had been given some letters of the Carian alphabet: perhaps, in like fashion, the sound values of the shared symbols of Linear B and of Linear A differed more than we would like to think, obscuring whatever Semitic features might otherwise be detectable today.

    4-Whatever one might think of my points above, I must echo TR and Daniel N: the grammar of a formula needn’t be the grammar of a language: this danger should be especially acute when (as in this case) the corpus is dominated by writings of a religious nature.

    5-Something the article does not mention is the fact that Linear A was not the first script to be used in Crete: that honor goes to Cretan Hieroglyphs. Whether Linear A and Hieroglyphs were different scripts used to represent the same (non-Greek) language or different scripts used to represent different languages (perhaps either or both scripts represented more than one language, as pointed out above) remains, I think, wholly unknown.

    6-Unfortunately, the fact that linear A was in contact with an even more obscure script complicates matters, as contact between different languages and scripts is liable to create complications: I have in mind the logograms in Hittite, where words were written out in cuneiform as Sumerian or Akkadian words to represent native Hittite words. If Cretan Hieroglyphs and Linear A originally represented separate languages, perhaps some similar features of Linear A orthography (words spelled out like their equivalent in the “Cretan Hieroglyph language” to represent “Linear A language” words) account for Linear A remaining this opaque today.

  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    For decades Carian was believed to be a non-Indo-European language

    Fair point; however, Indo-European is much more diverse than the Semitic of four milllenia ago (and Carian turned out to belong to the most aberrant branch of Indo-European at that) so the late recognition of its true affiliation is much less surprising than if Minoan turned out to be Semitic.

    Having said that, my argument that the Linear A writing system, which is surely a syllabary where it is phonetic, would be calculated to thoroughly obscure the morphology of any ancient Afro-Asiatic language, certainly applies to Semitic itself.

  27. Stu Clayton says:

    “Calculated” = apt ?

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    Pretty much. “Apt” is not as refined, though.

  29. And “doggone determined” would be even less refined!

  30. January First-of-May says:

    As far as phonological values go, Linear B (and its successor the Cypriot syllabary) is a lot like hiragana; this had been taken as suggesting that whichever language the predecessor of Linear B (probably Linear A) was originally invented for was likely to have had a phonology not unlike that of Japanese (and thus very much unlike Russian, English, or Greek) – i.e. mostly CV syllables and no phonemic voicing.

    Dunno what this possibility means about the assorted hypotheses – though of course it’s perfectly possible that Linear A as we know it was not the original language of that syllabary either.

    Now that it is proven that Minoan was Russian, this should be recast as “To Minos exists a Minotaur.”

    “At Minos”, rather. “To” would be a different preposition.

    And Hebrew would have “Exists to Minos a Minotaur” (…I think; not sure if the word I translated as “exists” actually means that, but I’m confident about the “to”).

    It is only the archaic character of the writing system which, by omitting flexions which could be readily supplied by a native Russian speaker, disguises the fact that the second word is in fact in the genitive.

    It doesn’t really have to omit flexions; maybe the second word is in the genitive and we don’t know that because those names had not been attested in any other form, and/or because their genitives happened to be the same as said other form (say, the accusative: “the offering of Minos – olives” and “at Minos exists a Minotaur” would both have had Minosa in Russian, despite being in different cases).

    IIRC, the Linear B decipherment was significantly aided by words being attested in multiple case forms, which allowed the decipherers to guess that the difference was probably only in the final vowel (a guess that ultimately turned out to be correct).

  31. David Marjanović says:

    The idea that the default word order of Linear A texts was VSO was already suggested here; latest update: August 2019.

    A general introduction to “the Aegean pre-alphabetic scripts” (including the two of Cyprus) is here.

    Gaulish seems to be predominantly SVO

    Maybe Alesia was in all of us all along!

    This fact was long obscured by very unusual sound values which had been given some letters of the Carian alphabet: perhaps, in like fashion, the sound values of the shared symbols of Linear B and of Linear A differed more than we would like to think

    That’s unlikely in this case. The Carian alphabet appears to be derived from the Greek one by turning the letters cursive and then back to monumental, sometimes ending up with the existing shapes of other letters and thus with the false friends you mention. Between Linear A and B, many logograms are shared, and so are entire names. Also, you can trace the sign mu from Linear B through Linear A back to Cretan hieroglyphs, where it’s the head of a bull; ra is the head of a dog, and ma that of a cat (easily identifiable in some of the many Linear A versions).

    the corpus is dominated by writings of a religious nature

    There are lots of writings of a bureaucratic nature. But those have a fixed two-dimensional layout – they’re pretty well understood nowadays, which lets us reconstruct the economy but helps us with barely more than two words (because all the goods are written with logograms).

    Cretan Hieroglyphs

    Pretty clearly related to the Linears like the Chinese characters on oracle bones are to Chinese seal script: they’re more recognizable picture versions of the same characters.

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    January will receive suitable credit when I publish my monograph on the Russian nature of Minoan. These are all excellent points.

    Actually, the point about genitives is spot on. Ogham inscriptions are the same, though there at least we have enough information from other sources to see what’s going on.

    Good reminder about the Linear B decipherment: and in fact if Linear A encoded a Semitic language (of that antiquity) you’d expect an even more transparent situation, with the singular cases going -u nominative, -a accusative, -i genitive.

    I suspect the intractability of the decipherment in fact is as much as anything to do with sheer paucity of source material (as the original article implies.) If Etienne is right that Linear A texts are actually in more than one language that would make the situation even worse, of course.

    I don’t think the nature of the syllabary necessarily tells us much about Minoan, even if it was devised for that language (and even if there was only one Minoan language.) Cuneiform is basically a very bad way of writing even Sumerian; these are after all first attempts at devising writing systems, and it’s not surprising that they leave a lot to be desired from our point of view. Only the unsung hero(ine) who created Egyptian hieroglyphs had enough linguistic insight to abstract away from the syllable (admittedly s/he was presumably helped along by the peculiar morphology of Afro-Asiatic, but even so.)

  33. David Marjanović says:

    mostly CV syllables

    The Luwian hieroglyphs consist only of V & CV syllables except apparently for a sign for final -r. There’s no evidence that they were invented for another language, and from what we can tell about Luwian from cuneiform texts and other Anatolian languages it had plenty of closed syllables.

    I wonder if this restriction was a deliberate decision to keep the number of signs manageable.

  34. David Eddyshaw says:

    After all, the writing systems didn’t have to be good; they just had to be good enough.

    And that means good enough for professional scribes, who had a perverse incentive for the system not to be readily usable by muggles (Exhibit A: Pahlavi, for which this is surely the only rational explanation.)

  35. David: Luwian hieroglyphs were indeed almost certainly invented for Luwian, but there is some linguistic evidence that they were created in a Luwian-Hittite bilingual environment (I can give references if anybody asks).

    A much more blatant example of a phonologically inadequate script consists of various paleohispanic scripts which, despite being of Phoenician origin (with Phoenician script having separate symbols for several voiceless and voiced consonants) and despite being used to write a language (Celtiberian) which had separate voiceless and voiced stop phonemes (as is shown quite clearly in Greek and Latin transcriptions of Celtiberian words), failed to differentiate voiced and voiceless stops. And in this case this limitation definitely cannot be explained by a desire to keep the number of signs manageable.

  36. ə de vivre says:

    mostly CV syllables and no phonemic voicing.

    Huh, not having phonemic voicing seems to be an areal feature of the non-Semitic Bronze Age Middle East: Sumerian, Elamite, Hurrian—and Hittite lost it. If Hittite could lose the distinction, a Semitic language could too, but without a 3-way stop distinction or an u/i/a case system, I don’t think VSO word order is very convincing evidence of Semitic affiliation.

  37. January First-of-May says:

    Exhibit A: Pahlavi, for which this is surely the only rational explanation.

    Very early Pahlavi (the so-called Inscriptional Pahlavi) was pretty decent, IIRC. Book Pahlavi, on the other hand, is basically the Pahlavi version of Sütterlin.

    (Admittedly I’m not sure when or how did the random Aramaic logograms show up.)

  38. “Please give a big welcome to tonight’s opening act, the Random Aramaic Logograms!”

  39. David Eddyshaw says:

    (Supporting Chadwick and the Neutrons.)

  40. these are after all first attempts at devising writing systems, and it’s not surprising that they leave a lot to be desired

    Interesting that you view writing systems in terms of “progress”. The lack of “progress” (stuck at an earlier stage) of the Chinese writing system was a common observation in the colonial period. I don’t think it is fashionable any more, but fashions change…

  41. David Eddyshaw says:

    I don’t think it commits one to the Whig view of history to regard alphabetic writing as an advance on cuneiform.
    What I had in mind, though, was actually a change during the history of cuneiform itself in the direction of fuller representation of speech sounds specifically, even in writing Sumerian, and of course a fortiori when the system was adapted to new languages. On that metric there was certainly “progress.”

    This judgment does conceal an assumption about what writing is actually for, admittedly. I am not committed to the view that practical utility is the only worthwhile criterion (I am no Mairist.) I would still regard it as quite desirable though …

    I think you could make an argument that the Chinese system has actually regressed since Li Si’s reforms: the relationship between writing and speech was probably a good bit less opaque at that point.

    Other systems have been made worse (in the utilitarian sense, at any rate) over time, either by the sheer entropy of not keeping up with sound changes (like our own dear English spelling, and Chinese, and many others) or sometimes on purpose. It must have been relatively straightforward for a bright native speaker of Egyptian to acquire literacy at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom; by the New Kingdom, not so much at all.

  42. not having phonemic voicing seems to be an areal feature of the non-Semitic Bronze Age Middle East: Sumerian, Elamite, Hurrian—and Hittite lost it.
    Whether Hittite lost the distinction or not depends on whether you assume that voicing was distinctive in PIE. That certainly is the traditional view, but there are models of the PIE consonant system being proposed where the phonemic distinctions were tense / lax / glottalised and features like voicedness or aspiration as known from e.g. Greek or Sanscrit are explained as purely phonetic or as later developments.

  43. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I drew to attention of someone at sci.lang who knows about Linear A (more than I know, anyway) to this thread. He described Davis’s work as “a lot of foam and no beer”. I won”t quote any more, because he knows how to get here and express his views himself if he wants to.

  44. David Marjanović says:

    I think you could make an argument that the Chinese system has actually regressed since Li Si’s reforms: the relationship between writing and speech was probably a good bit less opaque at that point.

    Yep, Baxter & Sagart say before him (roughly) it was pretty close to a syllabary with determinatives.

    the sheer entropy of not keeping up with sound changes (like our own dear English spelling, and Chinese, and many others) or sometimes on purpose.

    “aCHe, agHast, aiSle, aLmond, ancHor, arbOUr, bliGHt, bUild, bUry, cauGHt, (musical) cHords, coLonel, couLd, crumB, deliGHt, dHow, endeAvOUr, dingHy, fOetus, foreiGn, gHastly, gHerkin, gHost, ginkGo, glamOUr, glisTen, hauGHty, iSland, lacHrYmose, limB, lisTen, misdemeanOUr, neighbOUr, numB, postHumous, Ptarmigan, QUeue, redouBt, rHumb, rHyme, roWlocks, sCent, Scissor, sCythe, sovereiGn, spriGHtly, thumB, tongUE, wHelk, Whole, Whore. All the capitalised letters are spurious, and often they were deliberately added as “improvements” by incompetent etymologists.”

    (I added the Y in lachrymose because that’s only “justified” if the word switches from Latin lacrima to Greek dákryma halfway through. And not all of the spurious letters were added specifically in English, but most were. …And I’m not sure about neighbour.)

  45. PlasticPaddy says:

    Re listen, I think in old-fashioned Hiberno-english (and maybe some English or Scots dialects?) “list” can be used. Compare fast and fasten.

  46. He described Davis’s work as “a lot of foam and no beer”.

    Sad but not surprising; thanks for checking with someone who actually knows!

  47. David Eddyshaw says:

    The expert in question believes that most of Linear A is in Hurrian, and also that Carian is a dialect of Hurrian, the identification as Anatolian being “entirely bogus.” He has identified Uralic elements in Na-Dene and various indigenous languages of California.

  48. Stu Clayton says:

    Please don’t leave us Fußvolk in breathless, clueless speculation ! Are you “suggesting” (as the cowardly newspapers now say, where I would say “saying”) that the expert in question is a foamhead too, or that the beer is bitter ? We like to see effective punches, even though they may be below the belt.

    I would be dazzled, for merely formal reasons of self-referentiality, to learn that the e. in q. is yourself.

  49. David Marjanović says:

    that the expert in question is a foamhead too

    Yes. I think what’s on Wikipedia should be enough to make clear that Carian is an Anatolian language and nowhere near Hurrian, which is not IE.

  50. I’m confused. Which expert? The one whose output is claimed to be foamy or the one making that claim?

  51. Stu Clayton says:

    The claimants are the experts in response. They are not the expert in question. Or so it would seem.

  52. Stu Clayton says:

    what’s on Wikipedia should be enough

    Now Wikipedia is being invoked as another expert in question and/or response ! My standpoint is: when I know zilch about a subject, I am in no position judge whom to “believe” among those who claim to know more than zilch.

  53. David Eddyshaw says:

    I would be dazzled, for merely formal reasons of self-referentiality, to learn that the e. in q. is yourself.

    Alas, I am no expert in Hurrian. If I were, I too might be inclined to see Hurrian everywhere.

    Though I wonder if a Niger-Congo affiliation for Linear A has been given proper consideration?
    The very sensible page on Linear A that David M linked to above says that the language seems to have a lot of prefixing. And it (maybe) had lots of CV syllables.
    Hmmm … got it! Bantu!

    (It is actually quite common in Bantu languages for the word order, which tends to be free-ish but to gravitate towards SVO, to go VS in order to focus the subject. Must stop now before I’m tempted to take the suggestion seriously and become the linguistic equivalent of a Crazy Cat Lady.)

  54. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Stu:

    OK. I was honouring AC-B’s reticence, but the identification did not take Cowan-like levels of google-fu; so, from his many papers on academia.edu, the merits of which I lack the expertise to assess, I was struck by (among others):

    https://www.academia.edu/40243933/Chechen_reasons_why_Nakh_is_Indo_European

  55. Oh dear.

  56. Stu Clayton says:

    Alas, I am no expert in Hurrian

    But, along the lines suggested by DM, you could easily become one after consulting the WiPe. The English and (slightly more detail-luxuriant) German articles contain a whole lot of stuff that should be instructive to those in the know about this kind of stuff.

  57. Stu Clayton says:

    Chechen reasons

    In what language is “chechen” a numeral ? The paper doesn’t have the word in its title. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ?

  58. David Eddyshaw says:
  59. Stu Clayton says:

    From there: annuitants of the ongoing Indo-Europeanist fraud

    It’s good to learn that somebody is profiting from this business. To me it has always seemed a brotlose Beschäftigung.

    This guy, or someone of similar allure, ruffled feathers here a few months ago. You can usually recognize the unemployed by the vigor with which they attack pensioners.

  60. PlasticPaddy says:

    Chechen seems to be the author’s stand-in for proto-nakh. Perhaps he should have included more Batsbi reflexes. Some of the correspondences are ingenious, e.g. hair and “fur, sheep-hide”.

  61. Stu Clayton says:

    Some of the correspondences are ingenious, e.g. hair and “fur, sheep-hide”

    Ingenious-seeming perhaps, depending on what one already knows. Spanish piel “[human] skin”, pellejo/a “fur/hide [of an animal]”. The first from Lat. pellis, the second from Lat. pellicula, according to the RAE.

  62. David Eddyshaw says:

    Kusaal uses the same word for animal hair and human body hair, and a completely unrelated word for human head hair. Makes sense (more or less), I suppose.

  63. David Eddyshaw says:

    This is a review of his work with Allan Bomhard purporting to show that Hurrian is Indo-European:

    https://www.academia.edu/345706/Review_of_The_Indo-European_Elements_in_Hurrian_by_Arnaud_Fournet_and_Allan_R._Bomhard_2010_

  64. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

    I once mentioned elsewhere that one of my ancestors was the tenth of ten brothers. Someone said that as he wasn’t his own brother and he only had nine brothers he couldn’t be the tenth of ten brothers. I thought that was taking pedantry to an extreme, and said that by that logic the film should have been called Seven Brides for Six Brothers. Thoughts?

  65. John Cowan says:

    Perhaps the Kusaal words originally meant “where the head lice are” and “where the body lice are”. I always snicker softly to myself when I remember yet again that human pubic lice (Pthirus pubis) are most closely related not to human head/body lice (Pediculus humanus) and chimp/bonobo lice (Pediculus schaeffi), but to gorilla lice, and they can’t jump. How did they get there? The world wonders…

  66. Stu Clayton says:

    By sleeping on the same leaf bed as gorillas used the night before. Today motel sheets are an important vector of pubic lice, their pubic transportation system.

  67. Stu Clayton says:

    Seven Brides for Six Brothers and a Relative

  68. >The claimants are the experts in response. They are not the expert in question. Or so it would seem.

    Did it really seem this would answer anything for anyone who didn’t already know the answer? It’s seems deliberately opaque yet at the same time thoroughly muddled.

  69. David Eddyshaw says:

    Interestingly (well, to me, anyway) the Kusaal word for “animal” (of the large warm-blooded non-human sort) is bʋnkɔnbʋg, which looks like a transparent compound “hairy thing”, whereas one core term for “human being” (as opposed to animal) is saal, which looks like a transparent use of the adjective stem “smooth” in the “human” a/ba noun class: so “naked big mammal” (or “naked ape” if you must.)

    However, all the “looks like” above is because I’ve been bitten by this sort of tempting derivation before, and discovered that the relevant words must have been completely distinct historically and have fallen together through regular phonetic mergers.

    One that I’m still not altogether clear about is ya’am/yam “gall bladder; common sense”, where the dictionaries of Western Oti-Volta languages duly say of the second meaning “(as being the seat of understanding): common sense, wisdom.” Unfortunately the reflexes outside Western Oti-Volta strongly suggest that these were two completely distinct words which have fallen together as the result of regular sound changes, so that if the belief that the gall bladder is the seat of wisdom was not simply invented by Western lexicographers to “explain” the phenomena, it’s a genuine belief that arose as a result of regular phonological changes.

    I was thinking about this sort of thing because of a recent mention in a different thread of Bruce Chatwin (OK, fish in a barrel, I know.) I remember a list he came up with somewhere of (I think) Araucanian vocabulary, where he was attempting to divine titillating exotic Araucanian mystical connections between concepts which seem very different to us; somewhat undermined by the fact that he evidently had no concept of (or perhaps interest in) the fact that many of his supposed homophones were almost certainly illusions created by inadequate transcription.

  70. Stu Clayton says:

    Deliberately opaque yet at the same time thoroughly muddled

    Thanks! That’s exactly what it was intended to be. My work is done.

  71. David Eddyshaw says:

    Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

    In Sanskrit, the dual pitarau “two fathers” means “parents.”
    OK, that’s not immediately relevant, but when else am I ever going to have the chance to say it?

    Perhaps slightly more relevant: in Kusaal, dɔl means “go with, accompany (in a subordinate role)”; this is incidentally what “follow” usually means in West African English: it doesn’t mean that you are (necessarily) trailing after someone. You can “follow” someone from in front. It just implies that you are basically the sidekick.

    However, you can perfectly well say Ba dɔl taaba “they go together” (“they follow each other.”)

  72. Stu Clayton says:

    You can “follow” someone from in front

    It’s called a front tail. Seriously.

  73. David Eddyshaw says:

    Actually local etiquette more or less requires that if you’re the sidekick you should go first. I expect it’s so that you get to step on the snakes/land mines/whatever, rather than the boss. Makes sense.

    The Kusaal personal name Ana’ab “Anaba” is literally “Chief”; but what it actually means is “afterbirth” (because a chief leaves the house after his retainers.) It’s a name given to the sole survivor of a pair of twins.

  74. PlasticPaddy says:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierson%27s_Puppeteers
    Clearly the Kusaal are descended from space aliens and proof that WE ARE NOT ALONE!

  75. David Eddyshaw says:

    Are we not all descended from space aliens?
    (On second thoughts, it may be better if you do not answer that question.)

    The neighbouring group to the immediate north of the Kusaasi, the Bisa, are said to believe that they are descended from crocodiles, and that consequently crocodiles will not eat them if they fall in the water. A Kusaasi friend with a rigorously Galtonian approach to such matters told me that he had sadly been unable to persuade any Bisa to subject this belief to controlled experiment.

  76. In Sanskrit, the dual pitarau “two fathers” means “parents.”

    And so does mātarau “two mothers”. And the “two Indras” are Indra and Vāruna, the “two heavens” are heaven and earth, “two mortars” are a mortar and pestle… This IE “associative/elliptical dual” survived into Latin — Castor and Pollux can be referred to as the Castores — and into Greek, where the early Homeric use of Αἴαντε “the two Ajaxes” to mean “Ajax and Teucer” appears to have been misunderstood by later bards, who duly wrote the lesser Ajax as a sidekick (à propos) into scenes where he never belonged.

  77. Trond Engen says:

    The “expert” who must not be named (but whose name can be gleaned from David’s links) has a long history on the Internet. Little is of substance, none of it is pleasant. How he got Bomhard to put his name on a shared paper is beyond me.

    When it comes to the morphology of the Minoan language(s), I concede all points made above. Still, as David E. says, you have to start somewhere, and repetitive patterns in the restricted and formulaic setting of inscriptions on drinking vessels seems a very good place for just that.

  78. David Eddyshaw says:

    What Trond says …

    The weakest point in this seems to me to be the assumption that the first word in this formula has to be a finite verb; but it may be (for example) that in similar contemporary nearby cultures dedication formulae are almost always expressed with finite verbs, so that that would be a reasonable assumption. (I’ve no idea if that’s so myself.)

    If the language were really shown to be consistently VSO, it certainly would be a step forward quite apart from the question of linguistic affinity: it would be extremely likely to have prepositions rather than postpositions, for example, and to have noun phrases where the head usually comes before dependent modifiers and such.

  79. David Marjanović says:

    Castor and Pollux can be referred to as the Castores

    That’s more likely a Greek loan (as the names themselves are, with the usual l ~ d confusion): it is the dual Κάστορε in the original.

    The “two heavens”, though, did survive in Latin: at least that’s the only explanation for why the plural of neuter caelum is the masculine-looking caeli. Now if only I could remember where on academia.edu the paper is.

    How he got Bomhard to put his name on a shared paper is beyond me.

    I was going to say!

  80. PlasticPaddy says:

    Re caeli
    Has anyone suggested a fossilised dual (compare viginti)? Old Latin caelus could even be back-formation. I agree there are many other Latin gender benders which would have to have a different explanation.

  81. That’s more likely a Greek loan

    Yeah, good point. There’s also Cereres, which in a cult context refers to Ceres and Persephone; I don’t know if there’s a Greek parallel for that. (In any case of course these are plurals rather than duals, so not a perfect continuation of the PIE use.)

  82. David Marjanović says:

    Has anyone suggested a fossilised dual

    That’s what the paper says that I can’t find.

  83. that’s the only explanation for why the plural of neuter caelum is the masculine-looking caeli

    Well, it could have originally been a regular plural of caelus (attested in Ennius); the plural of this word is pretty rare and poetic anyway. And caeli doesn’t mean “heaven and earth”, as it should if it was an associative dual.

  84. David Marjanović says:
  85. David Eddyshaw says:

    You can never have too much Hattic.

  86. David Eddyshaw says:

    From a series of reviews of works on Hurrian by Alexei Kassian, obligingly produced for me by academia.edu (well, it’s much preferable to the time it spent under the misapprehension that I was interested in Mormon studies of American prehistory) comes a brief note on the same AF/ARB work, which ends:

    The book under review will be interesting for lovers of linguistic curiosities.

  87. PlasticPaddy: Re listen, I think in old-fashioned Hiberno-english (and maybe some English or Scots dialects?) “list” can be used. Compare fast and fasten.

    This may be most familiar outside these dialects from the song “The Patriot Game,” as sung here by Liam Clancy. (Clancy, like practically all performers, has edited the original lyrics to take out their worst excesses of violent nihilism.)

    Come all ye young rebels, and list while I sing,
    For the love of one’s country is a terrible thing.
    It banishes fear with the speed of a flame,
    And it makes us all part of the patriot game.

  88. Reading Kassian’s article on Hattic, discovered that at least one Russian word is likely of Hattic origin.

    киноварь (cinnabar) from Ancient Greek κιννάβαρι, of Middle Eastern origin, ultimately might derive from Hattic kinawar (copper).

  89. I feel one ought to distinguish degrees of faultiness of English spelling. Apportioning blame is such fun! A folk etymology is more forgivable than a pedant’s miscorrection. OE hlystan “hear” != hlysnan “listen” but the ME conflation is venial, not venal.

    I don’t see how “QUeue” works; if the original is “cue” than it should be “QUEue”, but even that I disagree with; it’s the whole spelling that’s been replaced with the French (contrast quire > choir != chœur).

    Arguably, “queue” is a regular English spelling (“qu” = /k/ + “eu” = /ju/ + “e” = ∅); compare “liqueur”.

  90. January First-of-May says:

    The problem with “qu” (as actually pointed out elsewhere in JBR’s linked spelling rant) is that the Latinate qu = /kw/ conflicts with the Romance qu = /k/ (before front vowels), and Old English didn’t have either.

    Apparently Spanish gets around the same ambiguity by using cu for /kw/ and qu for /k/ before front vowels, which I didn’t know before. It’s a bit ironic that English mostly goes the other way.

  91. John Cowan says:

    the ME conflation is venial, not venal

    Joseph Wright advising the young Tolkien: “Go into folk etymology, lad; there’s money in it.”

    (Actually he said “Celtic”, but wevs.)

    Tolkien also records this conversation with Wright:

    Years before I had rejected as disgusting cynicism by an old vulgarian the words of warning given me by old Joseph Wright.

    “What do you take Oxford for, lad?”

    “A university, a place of learning.”

    “Nay, lad, it’s a factory! And what’s it making? I’ll tell you. It’s making fees. Get that in your head, and you’ll begin to understand what goes on.”

    Alas, by 1935 I now knew that was perfectly true. At any rate as a key to dons’ behavior. Quite true, but not the whole truth.

  92. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Expert Who May Not Be Named has apparently missed a trick: not only are virtually all the languages of Eurasia derived from Hurrian, but so is the Black Speech of Mordor.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Speech

    Eat your heart out, Merritt Ruhlen!

  93. Stu Clayton says:

    # Russian historian Alexander Nemirovski claimed a strong similarity to Hurrian,[4] which had recently been partially deciphered at the time of the writing of The Lord of the Rings, E. A. Speiser’s Introduction to Hurrian appearing in 1941.[5] #

    I quote this final paragraph as a public service, allowing readers to skip the LoteRi details that make up the rest of the article, and hurry on to the Hurrian connection.

  94. David Eddyshaw says:

    Interesting that Sauron’s constructed interlanguage seems to have run up against much the same sort of problems as human efforts in this area. Adopted with enthusiasm by a tiny highly motivated minority, and moderately successful where it gained influential official support, but never really in the running to replace natural Middle-Earthian languages; where interethnic/interspecies communication became vital, creoles developed instead.

    [Apparently JRRT really didn’t like Esperanto.]

  95. David Eddyshaw says:

    Sauron may also have made a parallel error to Zamenhof, inasmuch as the Black Speech seems to have been quite Mordor-centric in respects that Sauron would not have been in a position to appreciate, living as he did in a period before sociolinguistics was firmly established as a discipline in its own right; this seems to have inhibited uptake of the language particularly among elvish groups, whose traditions are very different.

  96. The folklore I have heard was that Tolkien’s snide description of the Black Speech was intended not so much as a criticism if Esperanto, but as a rebuttal to Orwell’s ideas about the power of language to shape thought.

  97. David Eddyshaw says:

    As I have confessed before, I am myself Tolkien-blind, and can therefore not pronounce on such issues with any authority whatsoever; but for what it’s worth, the Black Speech acrolect seems to have all the magical brain-warping properties of Newspeak; and

    The Elves refuse to utter Black Speech, as it attracts the attention of the Eye of Sauron.

    according to the Wikipedia article.
    The best literary antithesis to Newspeak I’ve ever come across is the Ascian language in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascian_language

    The Ascians langauage consists entirely of approved political slogans; but in a bravura passage Wolfe has a long story told by an Ascian prisoner with a running translation by an interpreter, showing that the Ascians have transcended this formal limitation and can truly speak nevertheless.

  98. David Eddyshaw says:

    (The Wikipedia article has missed the point: this is not “intelligent Ascians” working round official constraints: it’s human linguistic ability expressing itself fully even through extraordinarily constrained formal structures. OK, it’s not really possible in quite this way: but it’s still brilliantly done. You have to read the whole thing to see it. It’s as good as some of the most inspired linguistic bits from Babel-17.)

  99. @David Eddyshaw: That quote about the Black Speech attracting the Eye is rubbish.

    The Ascian’s tale in The Book of the New Sun is kind of cute, but it (like all the stories Severian listens to in the hospital tent) seemed to me to be mostly marking time. In fact, since the climax of the story really comes at the end of The Sword of the Lictor, the whole fourth book, while entertaining, seems like an afterthought. Severian’s final arrival where the war is being fought seemed like it should represent the climax of the story, but the narrative never archives another peak like the one accompanying the battle at Lake Diaturna and Severian’s conversation with the cacogens there.

  100. David Eddyshaw says:

    That quote about the Black Speech attracting the Eye is rubbish.

    Happy to take your word for it. As I say, I disclaim all insight into Tolkieniana. If I had more insight, I would probably disclaim insight into many other things too.

  101. David Eddyshaw says:

    Re the anticlimactic nature of The Citadel of the Autarch, I certainly see what you mean and am inclined to agree (while continuing to maintain the the Ascian’s tale is brilliant rather than merely cute); however, Wolfe is good enough that I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m tempted to say that he’s a rather uneven writer, but I suspect that the bits I don’t quite see the point of (sometimes) just reflect my own obtuseness. At least (as I’ve no doubt you agree), when he’s good, he’s very, very good. It’s not like Wolfe is unduly neglected, but I think his reputation is not as high as I myself would have expected; probably because he doesn’t believe in making life easy for his readers.

  102. John Cowan says:

    Tolkien’s essay “A Secret Vice”, the history of his personal conlanging, makes clear his view on Esperanto:

    Some of you may have heard that there was, a year or more ago [1930], a Congress in Oxford, an Esperanto Congress; or you may not have heard. Personally I am a believer in an ‘artificial’ language, at any rate for Europe – a believer, that is, in its desirability, as the one thing antecedently necessary for uniting Europe, before it is swallowed by non-Europe [by which I think he meant the U.S., but perhaps not]; as well as for many other good reasons – a believer in its possibility because the history of the world seems to exhibit, as far as I know it, both an increase in human control of (or influence upon) the uncontrollable, and a progressive widening of the range of more or less uniform languages. Also I particularly like Esperanto, not least because it is the creation ultimately of one man, not a philologist, and is therefore something like a ‘human language bereft of the inconveniences due to too many successive cooks’ – which is as good a description of the ideal artificial language (in a particular sense) as I can give.

  103. David Eddyshaw says:

    Insofar as I was serious at all (not very), I was thinking of

    Volapük, Esperanto, Ido, Novial, &c &c are dead, far deader than ancient unused languages, because their authors never invented any Esperanto legends.

    However, I think it is extremely unlikely that Tolkien had Esperanto in his thoughts at all when creating the Black Speech. If he meant anything ideological by it at all, it was presumably as sort of Sapir-Whorfy idea that evil creatures express themselves in evil languages and vice versa.

    I do think there are interesting parallels between the failure of Esperanto and its cousins and the failure of the Black Speech to become the unified idiom even of the limited cultural domain of Evil. It just goes to show that even if you are a horrifyingly powerful demonic Supernatural Prescriptive Overlord, you are ultimately powerless against the forces of linguistic change. Perhaps things might have been different if Sauron had achieved his ambition of recovering the One Ring. Alas, we shall never know.

  104. However, I think it is extremely unlikely that Tolkien had Esperanto in his thoughts at all when creating the Black speech. If he meant anything ideological by it at all, it was presumably as sort of Sapir-Whorfy idea that evil creatures express themselves in evil languages and vice versa.

    It was exactly this. It’s hard to believe he didn’t see that “durbatuluk” and “nazg” would be evocative of Turkish and the many languages it influenced. But I suppose that fits with the whole “dark skinned foreigners are evil” theme running through LOTR.

    There is an awesome book called the Last Ringbearer, written by a Russian author and for copyright reasons never published in English, that is a Grendel-like retelling of LOTR; anyway, “Orc” is revealed to be not a subhuman monster race but simply the racist Gondorian term for foreigners.

  105. David Eddyshaw says:

    powerless against the forces of linguistic change

    This is often expressed as the orcs “corrupting” the Black Speech, but I think we good descriptivists can agree that this merely reflects Tolkien’s often-remarked orcism.

  106. The best literary antithesis to Newspeak I’ve ever come across is the Ascian language in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun

    I love Wolfe and have been holding The Book of the New Sun in reserve for years, but I may have to break down and start reading it.

  107. There is an awesome book called the Last Ringbearer, written by a Russian author and for copyright reasons never published in English, that is a Grendel-like retelling of LOTR; anyway, “Orc” is revealed to be not a subhuman monster race but simply the racist Gondorian term for foreigners.

    The book has its own Wikipedia page, and the author is Kirill Eskov; Eliot Borenstein is working on a book, Russia’s Alien Nations: The Secret Identities of Post-Socialism, that has a whole chapter called Russian Orc: The Evil Empire Strikes Back, and since he’s putting the book online as he writes it (see About page; he’ll take it down when publication approaches), you can read it starting here (keep clicking on the “Next” links).

  108. John Cowan says:

    Borenstein is obviously clueless about Tolkien, as opposed to Tolkien’s public image, about which he seems to know plenty. But he can’t even have read Tolkien’s preface, which explains the differences between WWII and the War of the Ring, never mind the more general discussion in “On Fairy-Stories”. A book with Boromir and Saruman in it is simply not starkly dualistic, but the nondualism is subtle, as is natural in a book about war, inherently a dualistic activity.

  109. David Eddyshaw says:

    There’s some good stuff there, though. You’ve got to like a series of postings when one is entitled “The Hobbit Menace.” And there is a lot of stuff which (for me at any rate) is illuminating (admittedly in a “how can people be so ineffably stupid?” way, but illuminating nonetheless); like

    The equation between Russians and Orcs is all but unknown in the West, but it spreads in Russia largely due to the efforts of those who claim to be offended by it.

    I’m not altogether convinced that the moral vacillation of some characters shows that the background of LOTR is not dualistic; that would take some suggestion that there was in fact something to be said for Sauron’s point of view, not just the sight of some characters struggling in vain with temptation. But I quite properly recused myself from commenting on the merits of LOTR; I was smugly content to run it down until I read Michael Moorcock’s dreadful Epic Pooh and fled screaming from the ugly reflected image I saw in that particular mirror. He convinced me I was missing something important.

  110. Western Russophobia does come very close to racism, but not quite. (’cause Russians are, in fact, white).

    Historically, I think western Russophobia was modeled on Spanish Black Legend.

    All the ingredients are there – powerful military empire, check, sinister plot for world domination, check, claims of “uniquely evil” cruelty, check, feared secret police*, check, plans of invasion of the free world, check, and for all the military might, the empire and its people are backward, poor and incompetent, check.

    * “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

  111. Hence, the Russian Orc theory is wrong.

    Russophobia works differently.

  112. David Eddyshaw says:

    I particularly liked Borenstein’s analogies between different sorts of nationalism and different sorts of fandom:

    https://www.russiasaliennations.org/blog/2019/8/19/the-fandom-menace

  113. David Eddyshaw says:

    @SFRreader:

    Borenstein is not talking about actual Western Russophobia at all: he’s talking about a Russian nationalistic imaginary kind of Russophobia (as the lines I cited show), which mutates (apparently) into some of the racist nationalist tropes currently so very familiar all over the world, not least in the UK and the USA.

    BTW, the fact that Russians are “white” has no bearing at all on whether Western Europeans can harbour racism towards them. The concept “race” has no biological basis, and racism is entirely free-floating: in our sad UK it’s gone from targeting Jamaicans to targeting South Asians to targeting hard-working Catholic Poles every bit as pale as their persecutors. Racists are not interested in genuine anthropology, either biological or cultural. (That is the domain of rootless cosmopolitan race traitors like me.)

  114. I know, but such attempts to explain other people’s prejudice by their nature are always simplistic and lacking in nuance.

    “They hate us for our freedoms” kind of explanation.

  115. David Marjanović says:

    There’s some good stuff there, though.

    Best part so far: “Presumably, Darth Vader’s genocidal home base would have been as powerful symbol as anything associated with Mordor, but Death Stars, like old Soviet color televisions, have an unfortunate tendency to explode.”

    (I admit, I just like explosions.)

  116. David Marjanović says:

    But he can’t even have read Tolkien’s preface, which explains the differences between WWII and the War of the Ring

    He does accept that “Tolkien himself was adamantly against political or allegorical interpretations of his work”, before simply changing the topic to why post-Soviet readers would interpret Mordor as Russia.

  117. Borenstein is obviously clueless about Tolkien

    But he’s not writing about Tolkien, he’s writing about Russian reception and modification of Tolkien (as filtered through various filters); knowledge of Tolkien himself and his own ideas is irrelevant here.

    Hence, the Russian Orc theory is wrong. Russophobia works differently.

    Have you actually read the series of posts? He knows a lot about this stuff and has read a lot of Russian books and internet posts and watched a lot of movies; he’s not some random Westerner spouting off. Maybe don’t be so quick on the Russophobia trigger and try to appreciate his discussion on its merits?

  118. David Marjanović says:

    Anyway, the important thing is that crocodiles are longer than green and greener than wide.

  119. John Cowan says:

    I’m not altogether convinced that the moral vacillation of some characters shows that the background of LOTR is not dualistic

    Oh, the background is dualistic all right. The Fall of the Angels is firmly dualist, with the Devil and his servants (of whom Sauron is one) definitely on the side of Evil, though we are told that God tells the Devil that everything he does will redound to God’s glory in the end. That’s mere Christianity. But the Fall of the Elves and the Fall of Man (the latter happens offstage) are much more ambiguous, and it seems fairly clear that Tolkien, while no universalist, is no Augustinian either: I see nothing of original sin in his mythos. What was originally the Gift of Men, namely the immortality of the soul, is later known as the Doom of Men, and it’s not whether but how we endure it.

    (Sorry for being so scattered; my brain is probably broken at the moment.)

  120. David Marjanović says:

    The Doom of Men.

    (When you get bored, skip to 9:59:35.)

  121. David Eddyshaw says:

    We have now managed to cover the entire alphabet from Linear A to Invader Zim.

  122. Have you actually read the series of posts?

    Yes.

    Very shallow treatment of an interesting phenomena.

    There is Russophobia in the West and public in Russia is struggling to understand it. And failing like in this example.

    There is nothing unusual. Cultures misunderstand each other all the time.

    It would have been interesting to analyse why exactly such misunderstanding occurs and how it becomes popular.

    But of course, it is easier just to repeat cliches about Russian “paranoia”.

  123. BTW, the fact that Russians are “white” has no bearing at all on whether Western Europeans can harbour racism towards them

    I think the term is “xenophobia” rather than “racism”.

    or is it that “racism” now covers the field, and the concept of xenophobia is now extinct?

  124. racism and xenophobia are related (and possibly morally equivalent), but they work differently.

    in my view, there is a basic Western cultural stereotype about Russians. It is not very flattering and assumes Western cultural superiority over Russians, but is not inherently anti-Russian.

    Russophobia is basically a phenomenon of state war propaganda. It feeds, of course, on preexisting stereotypes and assumptions of inferiority/superiority and tries to turn them into actual hatred of the Russian enemy. (and when the war propaganda machine stops, Russophobic sentiment quickly disappears as happened in America during short period in 1990s)

    In one case, there was an actual attempt to create something resembling real racism on the basis of Russophobia.

    I am talking, of course, of the Nazi Germany’s racial theory about Russians being Slavic subhumans (Untermenschen). This can be understood as a deliberate attempt to recreate New World racism on European soil despite lack of obvious racial differences between Russians and Germans.

    However, Nazi war propaganda was relatively short-lived (opinions vary about its effectiveness).

    Cold War era anti-Soviet propaganda never reached that level again. It was mostly political in nature and theme of Russian racial inferiority didn’t feature in it much. Though, it is true that Western propaganda was fed to some degree by Eastern European prejudices about Russians which had some racial overtones.

    There is an attempt (misguided, I believe) in Russia to equate Western Russophobia with Nazi racism towards Russian “subhumans”.

    It is understandable given the traumatic experience of the Great Patriotic War, but factually wrong.

    And just like Jesimin believes that black orcs in Tolkien are uncomfortably similar to her own people – the African Americans, for Russians too, the notion of subhuman orcs is too close for Nazi propaganda about their own grandparents to stomach.

  125. David Marjanović says:

    or is it that “racism” now covers the field, and the concept of xenophobia is now extinct?

    What’s going on is that there barely was any xenophobia in the US in the late 20th century, so, to understand xenophobia elsewhere, Americans resorted to the familiar concept of racism.

    That has changed. Trump, Miller, Bannon et al. have imported xenophobia from Europe (Le Pen, Haider et al.) and added it to the homegrown racism. For the first time since WWII, there are again people in the American political landscape who want to decrease the annual number of legal immigrants. Haider proclaimed Nullzuwanderung “zero immigration” as his goal decades earlier.

    This can be understood as a deliberate attempt to recreate New World racism on European soil despite lack of obvious racial differences between Russians and Germans.

    I agree.

  126. January First-of-May says:

    Anyway, the important thing is that crocodiles are longer than green and greener than wide.

    The joke as I learned it (from the sadly late Vitaly Arnold) continues with proofs that crocodiles are wider than green and greener than long (essentially the exact same arguments, but now in opposite order).

    Actually, the original Russian (again, for the joke as I learned it) is длиннее, чем зеленее “wider than greener” (and so on) – both forms are comparative (even though this is ungrammatical).

  127. David Eddyshaw says:

    The problem with distinguishing between “racism” and “xenophobia” is that you can only draw the line by adopting the racists’ own invented definitions of what they falsely claim to be biological realities.

    When walking about in rural Greece as a teenager I got used to small boys shouting out “Yermanikos!” after me in precisely the same way as in West Africa years later I got used to small boys shouting out “Bature!” or “Nasara!” It is indeed the case that I would have had little more chance of passing for a Greek than passing for a Kusaasi. But I very much doubt if the Neo-Nazis of the Golden Dawn regard themselves as of a different “race” from freckly blond high-skin-cancer-risk Celtic me.

    You could perhaps keep “xenophobia” for racism expressed towards foreigners who live somewhere else, and “racism” for racism expressed (on the same grounds) towards fellow-citizens and/or residents among you.

  128. PlasticPaddy says:

    @de
    Regarding kids (or even adults) calling epithets I find it hard to regard this as racism/xenophobia without a context in which there is threat involved. I have a friend who gives a good impression of my speech but thought she did it badly when I grimaced. I explained that she did it well, but that as a boy I had found that when someone sat opposite me and imitated my speech, it was often a prelude to physical violence☺

  129. David Eddyshaw says:

    I don’t regard it as racism or xenophobia either (just perfectly normal unenlightened small-boy behaviour); I see that I was being unclear. All I meant by the comparison is that the racists’ favourite criterion of profound biological difference, superficial appearance, in fact cuts right across their own fantasy divisions of the human race.

    Being informed by small African kids that I am a white man never much bothered me*; preferable to the response commonly experienced by some admirable German nurses I met in Burkina Faso, who used to visit villages so remote that the small children had never actually seen a European before: the typical response was screaming and running away. That does tend to make you feel unwelcome.

    *It did bother a Sri Lankan colleague, who got quite cross at being lumped in with Western Europeans into an undifferentiated “white man” category. He didn’t get far with trying to convince them the he was, in point of fact, not white at all.

  130. David Eddyshaw says:

    (I have never much minded being taken for a German, either, which is just as well as I almost always am. I suspect it has something to do with my dress sense. When in Berlin a couple of years ago I was asked directions, by Germans, several times a day. Or perhaps it has to do with the long-honed professional ability to radiate a spurious confidence that I know what I’m doing bzw. where I am.)

  131. There is Russophobia in the West and public in Russia is struggling to understand it. And failing like in this example.

    But he’s not talking about Russophobia in the West; as far as I recall, he has nothing to say about it. His subject is Russian attitudes towards themselves and their past and their use of Western cultural items to express them.

    It would have been interesting to analyse why exactly such misunderstanding occurs and how it becomes popular.

    That’s what he’s doing. You’re free to disagree with his analysis, of course, but not to claim he’s doing something different.

  132. J.W. Brewer says:

    The focus on the orcs is interesting not least because Tolkein already has a whole separate group of Actual Humans (the Easterlings of Rhûn) that reflect traditional Western/Central-European stereotypes about primitive barbarians from the unknown Eastern steppes who intermittently sweep out of the steppes to wreak havoc on the civilized world on behalf of some evil cause. The only reason for a Russophobophobe looking for an occasion to take offense to think that the orcs, rather than Easterlings, are the ones standing in for Real-World Russians is ego, i.e. the Easterlings are undeveloped bit players in the plotline.

  133. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    some admirable German nurses I met in Burkina Faso, who used to visit villages so remote that the small children had never actually seen a European before: the typical response was screaming and running away.

    In 1985 our daughter went to Chile for 15 months with my wife. (She needed to live there for a sufficient period to establish her right to Chilean nationality when she became an adult.) At the nursery school that she went to in Birmingham before then there were plenty of black children, including a little black boy that she was good friends with. In those days there were no black people in Chile (now there are: if you see a group of black people digging up the road on a very hot day they will be Haitians), and when she went back to the same nursery school after 15 months she didn’t want to stay there as she thought the black children were very dirty. Once my wife worked out what the problem was she invited a little black boy and his mother to our apartment, and after that she was willing to go back to the nursery school..

  134. His subject is Russian attitudes towards themselves and their past and their use of Western cultural items to express them.

    But it is in direct response to Western attitude towards Russians, namely perceived Western Russophobia.

    Omitting that important fact makes no sense.

    When Russians are describing their own country as Mordor, it’s a sarcasm, a parody of tiresome Western propaganda which literally claims that Russia is an Evil Empire.

    In other words, these Russians didn’t decide to identify with orcs just for the fun of it. That’s by the way the exact picture a reader will get from Borenstein’s account.

    No, they actually did it, because they believed that’s how they were already portrayed in the West.

    It’s an understandable angry (but misguided, I agree) counter-reaction to war propaganda.

    You say we are Mordor? We will show your Mordor….

  135. Tolkein already has a whole separate group of Actual Humans (the Easterlings of Rhûn) that reflect traditional Western/Central-European stereotypes about primitive barbarians from the unknown Eastern steppes

    That doesn’t fit Russian perception of themselves.

    Primitive barbarian tribes are not Russian (perhaps 6th century primitive Slavic tribes would fit this description, but they are long forgotten).

    Gondor actually would fit better. Despite its overall Germanic character, it does resemble the Byzantine empire (and by extension, the czardom of Muscovy).

    And it’s armies are led by Boromir Boromirovich….

  136. David Marjanović says:

    The problem with distinguishing between “racism” and “xenophobia” is that you can only draw the line by adopting the racists’ own invented definitions of what they falsely claim to be biological realities.

    I think I can draw a different line: racism when you can (or have convinced yourself you can) classify people by just looking at them, xenophobia when you can’t (or are aware that you can only statistically); racism when you think the undesirable traits are all innate and biologically heritable, xenophobia when you think it’s possible to escape at least over generations.

    He didn’t get far with trying to convince them the he was, in point of fact, not white at all.

    The little race map in my middle/high school atlas called him either “Europid” (northern India) or “mixture of Europid and old-layer races” (southern India). Totally “white”, then.

    When Russians are describing their own country as Mordor, it’s a sarcasm, a parody of tiresome Western propaganda which literally claims that Russia is an Evil Empire.

    In other words, these Russians didn’t decide to identify with orcs just for the fun of it. That’s by the way the exact picture a reader will get from Borenstein’s account.

    No, they actually did it, because they believed that’s how they were already portrayed in the West.

    It’s an understandable angry (but misguided, I agree) counter-reaction to war propaganda.

    You say we are Mordor? We will show your Mordor….

    Uh, Borenstein spells all this out.

  137. Blok was just being outrageous and wanted to shock.

    The defining feature of Russian national character is its adherence to strong state and powerful army.

    Even the Pugachev revolt of Cossacks, peasants and non-Russian minorities in 18th century which Pushkin described as “Russian mutiny, cruel and senseless” managed to recreate its own little Russian state complete with military-industrial complex and organized bureaucracy led by State Military Collegium.

    Happy libertarians they are not.

  138. David Marjanović says:

    Да, Скифы — мы! Да, азиаты — мы, —
    С раскосыми и жадными очами!

    I think that’s Dugin’s Eurasianism: both and neither Asiatic horde and European.

    Держали щит меж двух враждебных рас —
    Монголов и Европы!

  139. Blok was just being outrageous and wanted to shock.

    No, it was much more complicated than that, and it wasn’t just him — there was a whole movement that felt that way. “You call us wild Asiatics? OK, that’s what we are, and we will bury you!” (so to speak).

    Edit: I think that’s Dugin’s Eurasianism

    Exactly.

  140. Edit: I think that’s Dugin’s Eurasianism
    Which is in that case different from Gumilev’s Eurasianism, which proclaimed the unity of the Modern (post-13th century) Russian ethnos with the people of the steppes.

  141. And ideal in each variety of Eurasianism was a strong military state (in Gumilev/Trubetskoy version modeled on Mongol empire of Genghis Khan).

    So Gondor or Mordor, take your pick, but it has to be an empire.

  142. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think I can draw a different line: racism when you can (or have convinced yourself you can) classify people by just looking at them, xenophobia when you can’t (or are aware that you can only statistically); racism when you think the undesirable traits are all innate and biologically heritable, xenophobia when you think it’s possible to escape at least over generations.

    I see what you mean; but I don’t think these are actually equivalent definitions (in the minds of racists/xenophobes.) And indeed the sort of Russophobia that paranoid Russians apparently attribute to Westerners seems to fall into the category of innate hereditary inescapable differences of temperament and character which are not visible on inspection (and presumably are all the more sinister for being thus concealed from casual view.)

    You probably can make a useful distinction between bigots who object to real or imaginary inherited biological traits and bigots who object to real or imaginary cultural differences; my experience suggests that actual members of the bigot community are not very interested in such distinctions except insofar as pretending to be the second sort when they are in fact the first can be strategically useful.

    I typed xenophone by mistake the first time. I suppose the boring meaning would be “someone who speaks a foreign language” (all of us here) but I prefer to think of it as a musical instrument. I see that some dull synthesizer has taken the name: the word should be repurposed for some much more interesting instrument. You would play xenophones at Stand Up to Racism rallies.

  143. “Paranoid” Russians is a racist stereotype, in my view.

    Forms an integral part of Western discourse on Russia and you can find it mentioned in every second article on Russia in western media.

  144. Everyone’s paranoid; the difference is in what people are paranoid about. In the U.S., for example, people are paranoid about Mexicans (among other things, of course).

  145. David Eddyshaw says:

    @SFReader:

    I meant “paranoid Russians” as opposed to the great majority of non-paranoid Russians, of course. Your response is surely a bit …

    Actually, there is an interesting linguistic point in this. Had I meant to imply that all Russians were paranoid, I would have written “the paranoid Russians.” I think this would be clear to L1 English speakers, but it doesn’t seem at all obvious given the usual uses of “the.” In fact I’m not sure that I can easily explain why that’s the implication of using or omitting “the” in this context. I can readily imagine even a highly competent L2 speaker (like you) missing the nuance.

    On the other hand, you may simply be winding me up.
    (A third possibility relates to the impossibility of proof-reading your own work: when you read something you wrote yourself, you see only the meaning you had in mind when your wrote it, no matter how it actually reads to someone without privileged access to your thought processes. I certainly had no intention of implying that all Russians are paranoid …)

  146. Of course, you weren’t. It’s just a propaganda cliche, but very successful.

    Don’t recall paranoia being attributed to Russian national character in 19th century.

    Must have been Cold War invention.

  147. the impossibility of proof-reading your own work: when you read something you wrote yourself, you see only the meaning you had in mind when your wrote it,

    There’s always the risk of a restrictive adjective being (mis-)interpreted as attributive. I don’t think the (non-)nativeness of the reader has much to do with it. So you could put on your sub-editor hat and rephrase as “those Russians who are paranoid” vs “the Russians, who are paranoid, …”.

  148. David Eddyshaw says:

    Don’t recall paranoia being attributed to Russian national character in 19th century.

    In Britain, we’re saving up the paranoia for after Brexit.

  149. David Marjanović says:

    I see what you mean; but I don’t think these are actually equivalent definitions (in the minds of racists/xenophobes.)

    Yes, they’re actually two different lines.

    Forms an integral part of Western discourse on Russia and you can find it mentioned in every second article on Russia in western media.

    I’ve never seen it, frankly. All I’ve seen is the claim that Putin personally was paranoid about being ousted by a “color revolution”, especially one engineered by Hillary Clinton, and before that the trope that the ruling apparatus of every dictatorship – the Soviet Union in this case, not Russia since then – is paranoid about traitors & spies on every corner.

    So you could put on your sub-editor hat and rephrase as “those Russians who are paranoid” vs “the Russians, who are paranoid, …”

    The original is unambiguous in English, German and French: the sort of Russophobia that paranoid Russians apparently attribute to Westerners has paranoid Russians, “the paranoid ones among the Russians”, “any Russians who are paranoid”, not the paranoid Russians “the Russians, as a definite entity, who are paranoid as a single entity”.

  150. John Cowan says:

    I have never much minded being taken for a German

    Oh! I thought “Yermanikos” must just be a general slur (or even neutral term) for Westerners, like the use of “Ionian” for Hellenes in Persia and points east, or “Greek” in Italy and points west.

    As for “Russian paranoia”, fear of Russia must date to Napoleon’s time if not earlier, and Russian xenophobia is no doubt a result of the Polish, Swedish, French, American, and German invasions. “Even paranoids have enemies”, and “Bullies forget, victims remember” are, I think, applicable.

  151. David Eddyshaw says:

    general slur (or even neutral term) for Westerners

    Frangos, of course: right up to the nineteenth century (and beyond, for all I know), we were all Franks to the Greeks. The word migrated far, via Turkish and Persian. But I expect you knew that.

    These lads were, alas, to young too call me Frank.

    Trust not for freedom to the Franks—
    They have a king who buys and sells;
    In native swords and native ranks
    The only hope of courage dwells:
    But Turkish force and Latin fraud
    Would break your shield, however broad.

  152. John Cowan says:

    Frangos, of course

    Sure. But that probably changed about the time Otto the Barvarian [sic] ascended to the throne of Greece.

    Frangovlakhika was the collective name for the ad hoc romanizations of Greek used in the bad old days before the Unicode dispensation. And while you may or may not be a Frank, you are certainly a Vlakh.

  153. David Eddyshaw says:

    Interestingly, there is a suggestion here that ABdeP Johnson’s first language may in fact be Linear A:

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/10/boris-johnson-jcb-polystyrene-bricks-campaign-john-crace-sketch

    This may provide the key to the puzzle at last.

  154. David Marjanović says:

    “British politics – when done right! – can be very fun.”

  155. @David Eddyshaw: If I had ever known about the British genre of “Parliamentary sketches,” I had entirely forgotten about it; so that link was a real off-the-wall treat.

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