Amorite-Akkadian Bilinguals!

Andrew George and Manfred Krebernik have an article in Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale (116 [2022]:113–166), “Two Remarkable Vocabularies: Amorite-Akkadian Bilinguals!” Here’s the abstract:

This article presents two previously unpublished Old Babylonian tablets on which are inscribed similar bilingual vocabularies. The language in their right-hand columns is Old Babylonian Akkadian. The language in their left-hand columns is mostly North-West Semitic, with some admixture of Akkadian. Editions of the two tablets are accompanied by a commentary which finds parallels for this language in the grammar and vocabulary of other Semitic languages. Evaluation of the results of this enquiry lead to the conclusion that the language of the left-hand columns is a variety of Amorite. The main part of the article concludes with consideration of the two vocabularies’ content, composition and intellectual background. An appendix offers an edition of a Middle Babylonian synonym list related in part to Malku V. It contains a passage on domestic and wild animals which collects mainly North-West Semitic words for domestic and wild animals and probably provides several further items of Amorite vocabulary. Finally we add an index of the words in the Amorite columns of the two Old Babylonian vocabularies.

The article itself is paywalled, but there’s a popular summary at Haaretz, “Two 3,800-year-old Cuneiform Tablets Found in Iraq Give First Glimpse of Hebrew Precursor“:

The two tablets were found in Iraq during the Gulf War and were transferred (some would say stolen) from there to a safe place overseas. However, they subsequently got swallowed up among thousands of other documents and archeological findings from the field. Only recently, more than 30 years after their discovery, did they catch the eye of two researchers. “Andrew George of the University of London and Manfred Krebernik of Germany’s University of Jena are the Ronaldo and Messi of the archeology world,” says Wasserman, as a way of making his field of scholarship more relatable for the wider public. […]

Cohen transcribed the Amorite/Canaanite text from cuneiform into Hebrew letters and presented a modern Hebrew translation. The result speaks for itself. The line ti -nam me -e la – a – i -de -ni translates to ten mayim al yadenu (“Give water on our hands”); ia – a – a -nam si -qí-ni – a -ti becomes yeinam shiqiniti (“Pour us wine”); si – ḫa šu -ul – ḫ a -nam is have et hashulhan (“Fetch the table”); la – a ḫ -ma -am bi -lam na – a -NAM is have lehem eleinu (“Bring us bread”); and bi -ik -ra -ti -ia za -ba – a – ḫa a -na DI ĜIR -ia la -am – [ti] -in equals et zevah bikurai lo eten le’eli (“I will make a sacrifice to my god”).

Thanks, Y and Dmitry!

Comments

  1. Ronaldo and Messi – Ronaldo Nazário or Cristiano Ronaldo?
    One is Роналдо, and the other is Роналду. Of course we say Рональдо and Рональду – without a dark l – but Wikipedia reserved Рональдо for numerous spanish-speaking football players….
    (And who of them is Рональдиньо?)

  2. Stu Clayton says

    Perhaps the tablets are commentaries on football games. “Domestic and wild animals” would have been the contemporary idiom for distinguishing the national team from those of other countries.

  3. Wait, Amorite was SOV like Akkadian? That’s spectacular – and rather awkward for the syntactic reconstruction of proto-Semitic… Talk about burying the lede, Haaretz.

    Ok, not strictly SOV – from the phrases they cite it looks about 50:50. Still not what I would have expected for a relatively westerly West Semitic language.

  4. Also remarkable to see the typically East Semitic preposition ana “to” alongside la-a for “on”. Can’t wait to find a PDF of this.

  5. As for the whole spiel about how Hebrew it is, that’s unfortunately par for the course – call it an effort to make it relatable. From the examples cited, the language doesn’t look any closer to Hebrew than, say, Ugaritic.

  6. Is there information about where the tablets were found? I take Old Babylonian to refer to the version of Akkadian, or possibly to the empire, but not to the city of Babylon. “Found during the Gulf War” is pretty vague.

    This tweet has the first page of the article, with interestying details but ultimately nothing on provenance.
    https://mobile.twitter.com/gbarnea/status/1615278641369186304

  7. Hmm.
    https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P411253

    Game-changing document of uncertain provenance that showed up during a war?

    Maybe more caution is due?

  8. No documentation, but there is a tax write-off scandal.
    https://marketmassdestruction.com/cornell-cuneiform/

    But who am I to question the Ronaldo and Messi of archaeology?

  9. As for the whole spiel about how Hebrew it is, that’s unfortunately par for the course – call it an effort to make it relatable.

    Yeah, I rolled my eyes at that too.

  10. Jim Davila’s take. He has the stature to challenge “Messi and Ronaldo”.

  11. Well, he’s not debunking it, just urging caution: “In sum, this announcement is probably very good and important news. But let’s take our time and vet it thoroughly before we get too excited.”

  12. That’s true.

  13. Being a professor of Jewish studies, no matter how eminent, would not remotely give anyone “stature to challenge” leading experts on Akkadian regarding the interpretation of a cuneiform tablet. Let’s see what other Akkadianists have to say.

    (Full disclosure: I very very slightly knew Andrew George at SOAS, before the university took the maddeningly philistine decision to axe the whole subject for not bringing in enough money. I was rather impressed by the range of his knowledge and interests.)

  14. “It requires years of expensive specialized training to be able to read cuneiform tablets” (the link “apparently” in the post) – What? I mean, of course, years, and I doubt there are many people fluent enough in both Akkadian and comparative Semitic. But the author believes that knowlege of cuneiform is a luxury good.

  15. Of course it’s a luxury good; what else could it be? If someone’s scrabbling to put food on the table and keep a roof over their head, they’re not going to waste time learning cuneiform. It’s a luxury good pretty much by definition, like my shelves of Russian literature.

  16. the whole spiel about how Hebrew it is,” – some of this is due and would be if it were Ugaritic (though, ”paradigm change”…).

    I don’t know why they classify it as “Amorite”, but I think parallels between “Amorite” and Canaanite vocabulary have been noted. Others say that Knudsen drew it together with Canaanite based on this. Knudsen’s books are not available to me (and pirates)

  17. @LH, what annoys me is the word “expensive”. I keep reacting at this attitude to knowlege the same way as I would react at people who say “sex is expensive” because they pay money for it.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    Perhaps hat, at least, meant “expensive” (ETA: okay that was not the word he himself used … so by implication …) not so much necessarily in a cash-outlay sense, but in an opportunity-cost sense?

  19. Yes, exactly. If you’ve got the time and energy to expend on learning cuneiform, however little you spend on the materials, you’re indulging in a luxury.

  20. @drasvi: Classifying it as Amorite is probably an artifact of the fact that the “Amorites” are (uniquely?) recorded as a West Semitic people having been in contact with both relatively early Mesopotamians and later Israelites. However, as I previously noted, the precise degree of cultural continuity between these documented contacts is unclear.

  21. @JWB, LH,
    same with sex. And for the same reason, offending.

    (and yes, we are dealing with cultural difference here, namely my Soviet background. But the example with sex is also an example of cultural difference)

  22. Nonsense. Pretty much everyone needs sex (or feels they do); almost nobody has any interest in cuneiform, let alone needing it.

  23. “almost nobody has any interest in cuneiform, let alone needing it.”

    @LH, yes. But it is an attitude to knowlege, not to knowlege of a specific narrow field in particular. Don’t say that poor people can’t have exotic interests.

  24. Esperanto
    amorite past adverbial passive participle of amori
    amori (transitive, intransitive) to engage in sexual activity (with), to make love, to have sex

  25. > Being a professor of Jewish studies, no matter how eminent, would not remotely give anyone “stature to challenge” leading experts on Akkadian regarding the interpretation of a cuneiform tablet

    Sure. But I didn’t mean on interpretation of the text. I meant that he had reservations concerning provenance.

  26. The fact that it’s obviously a tablet looted in the post-invasion chaos certainly raises ethical issues, and means valuable data about the context is lacking. But the idea that it could an incredibly sophisticated fake seems paranoid. No point in going to the trouble of faking a whole West Semitic conlang unless you make your buyer aware of it so he can pay you more – and if that had happened, it wouldn’t have spend the last 20 years sitting in an archive.

  27. Classifying it as Amorite is probably an artifact of the fact that the “Amorites” are (uniquely?) recorded as a West Semitic people having been in contact with both relatively early Mesopotamians and later Israelites

    which is to say: it’s the only(?) available option that meets the ideological imperative required to get this kind of write-up in Haaretz, and to have access to a significant set of potential sources of funding (both state-based and private). it’s not a hidden dynamic – Haaretz certainly isn’t coy about it, and it’s not like the ways archaeology in bilad as-shams is shaped by the overlapping interests of christian messianism and zionism are at all subtle or new.

  28. > No point in going to the trouble of faking a whole West Semitic conlang unless you make your buyer aware of it

    Sigh. It’s a great point I didn’t consider. But also the sort of point I might have expected a prof. whose field is ancient documents to consider before posting that he had reservations. I suspect the closer your field is to Biblical archaeology, the more gun-shy you become about forgeries. Maybe sometimes excessively.

  29. J.W. Brewer says

    Random sentence from wikipedia: ‘The view that Amorites were fierce, tall nomads led to an anachronistic theory among some racialist writers in the 19th century that they were a tribe of “Aryan” warriors who at one point dominated the Israelites. The theory originated with Felix von Luschan, and did fit then-current models of Indo-European migrations; Luschan later abandoned this theory.’

    I imagine Luschan was theorizing before it was first proposed that Hittite was the “Aryan”-affiliated language among those of the peoples mentioned in the Old Testament … although apparently whether the “Hittites” mentioned in the OT spoke the language referred to as “Hittite” by modern scholars is disputed.

  30. “Aryan” warriors

    Cyrus?

  31. Herr F. von Luschan: Die anthropologische Stellung der Juden.
    here

    “…sie ist so verlockend und dabei so völlig verkehrt, dass sie nicht oft genug zurückgewiesen werden kann.”

    Cruel. (about the theory that blondes originated in Scandinavia…)

    P.S. about the language of Hittites “Nur sprachlich ist die Kette noch nicht geschlossen; noch haben die hethitischen Hieroglyphen ihren Champollion, Grotefend oder Lassen nicht gefunden; noch wissen wir nichts positives von der Sprache der alten Hethiter; aber der nächste Spatenstich kann uns in Sendschirli die lang ersehnte hethitisch-semitische Bilinguis an den Tag bringen und damit die Hethiter auch sprachlich in den alarodisch-armenischen Kreis einfügen.”

  32. @Brett, there is a corpus of Semitic names like “Hammurabi” that are not Akkadian. When this was noticed – and it was not hard to notice – parallels were found in all over Semitic (Hebrew, Arabic, Old South Arabian itself somehow related to Jews and Arabic) and speakers classified accordingly.
    Then references to people of Amurru were found in Akkadian texts and the designation “Amorite” was adopted.

    Who were these foreigners, that have been designated by different scholars as Canaanites or Arabs or Amorites — who were they, and from what land did they come? We have seen that they were Semites, and have found that many of their names are similar to Arabic, some to Hebrew and Phenician, etc., names. Consequently to speak more definitely of Arabs or Canaanites would involve one in the same difficulties. We have apparently a mixture of elements known to us from the later Arabic as well as from the Canaanite languages. But we are in the fortunate position to know at least the name by which the Babylonians of that time called these foreign invaders.

    https://archive.org/details/babylonianexped15hilpgoog/page/n52/mode/2up

    From this passage we learn that the native Babylonians called these foreign cousins, who had become residents in their country, by the name of “mârê Amurrum,” i.e., “children of the Westland.”

    What I don’t understand is based on what the language of these two tablets is compared to Amorite: specific shared features or just any Semitic authomatically is named “Amorite”?

  33. Charpin quotes an exchange between “Amorite” [in the modern sense] kings about Amorite [in their sense] languge:

    ‘[You wrote to me] to send you a man who [is able to decipher] Sumerian. What! Instead of [claiming] a man who [can decipher] Sumerian, [you] learn to speak Amorite!”‘

    Used to be on HAL, now jstor (sci-hub) p 70 (in German)

  34. “From the examples cited, the language doesn’t look any closer to Hebrew than, say, Ugaritic.”
    It seems to me like moderate mutual intelligibility is the most they’re meaning to imply. I’m no expert but I had learned that Hebrew and Ugaritic are a bit intelligible even to modern speakers.

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    Must be one of those asymmetric situations. I’ve never met a Ugaritic speaker who said that they could understand modern Hebrew. A matter of relative prestige, I imagine.

  36. ’cause everyone literate in Hebrew watches Ugaritic soap operas.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    That long-running Baal-Anat-Athirat telenovela does have an addictive quality to it.

  38. “The view that Amorites were fierce, tall nomads led to an anachronistic theory among some racialist writers in the 19th century that they were a tribe of “Aryan” warriors who at one point dominated the Israelites. The theory originated with Felix von Luschan, and did fit then-current models of Indo-European migrations; Luschan later abandoned this theory.”

    @JWB, the fragment you quoted seriously surprised me, but the next line (that you did not quote) explains everything:
    Houston Stewart Chamberlain claimed that King David and Jesus were both Aryans of Amorite extraction.

    In brief, von Luschan’s speech is totally cute. Can’t say the same about The Foundations Of Nineteenth Century.

  39. J.W. Brewer says

    @drasvi: I plead guilty to selectively quoting the “cuter” part. Chamberlain was not a “scientific racist” in the sense that Luschan may have been but merely an unsavory crackpot. I suppose his theory that King David was an Aryan balances out his theory that Kaiser Friedrich III was a Jew?

  40. Aryan Jesus was also a popular theory among at least some Nazis, because it allowed them to reconcile being Christians with race-based antisemitism.

  41. Not to mention the paintings of blond Aryan Jesus so popular in the (Euro-American) Christian world.

  42. Regarding Luschan’s theory “that Kaiser Friedrich III was a Jew,” a rumor circulating at the court of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was that Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1819-1861) was the son not of Ernest I of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (his “official” father) but of Friedrich Blum, a Jew who was an official at the court. If so, Albert and all his lineal descendants (including Friedrich III) are partly of Jewish descent.

    The rumor was based on the fact that when Albert’s mother became pregnant with him (the date can calculated with a good degree of accuracy from the date of his birth), his mother was not on speaking terms with his official father but, rather, was having an affair with Blum.

    For details, search for: Prince Albert Jewish ancestry?

  43. That sounded fun, maybe worth an update to the Adam Sandler Hanukkah song? How many European royals might that have ramified across! But Kaiser Friedrich III seems to have been born in 1831, 12 years after the Albert I think you’re talking about. Do I have the wrong Albert or Friedrich?

  44. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    The years of that possibly-Jewish Albert are those of him what Victoria married. Hmm…

    Also there don’t seem to be any Saxe-Coburg & Gothas in the patrilinear ancestry of the Kaisers. But Frederick III did marry Albert’s daughter, maybe she’s the one the rumour was about. Or Wilhelm II who was his grandson..

  45. You’re right, Ryan. I thought that Friedrich III was the SON of the Victoria who was the daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of the United Kingdom, but he was actually her HUSBAND.

  46. Regarding Luschan’s theory “that Kaiser Friedrich III was a Jew,” ” – Luschan has nothing to do with this claim:(

    Is it because Luschan is “von”? First WP, then JWB, then M…

  47. David Eddyshaw says

    Houston Stewart Chamberlain

    His elder brother was the entirely worthy scholar of Japan and the Japanese language, Basil Hall Chamberlain.

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

    So much for genetic determinism …

  48. “Crackpottery” is how he identifies Aryans (he prefers “extravagance”). There is no greatness without it.

    “Worthy” is for Hittites…

  49. @JWB, “cute” because he observed that Armenian noses are not unlike Jewish noses.

    von Luschan’s points are:

    (1) Jews have mixed ancestry, just like Germans

    (2) he thinks he has discovered a substrate population which he would love to call “protocappadocian” (hätte ich vielleicht protokappadokisch nennen können, doch habe ich damals, um ja strenge innerhalb meines persönlichen Arbeitsgebietes, der vergleichenden Rassen-Anatomie zu bleiben, den Ausdruck armenoïd für dieselbe in Vorschlag gebracht) that he thinks has to do with Alaroid langauge family proposed by Hommel

    Google Translate:

    “But now it was a wonderful coincidence that at the same time and completely independently of each other and of me Hommel and Pauli on the way of linguistic studies to the assumption of a pre-Greek and not Aryan language family, which Hommel calls the Alarodian family and also includes Basque, just like I, for my Armenoïde native population of Asia Minor, point to the apparent relationship with the small brunette round heads of Western Europe the Dissentis type and with the Savoyards.

    There is now hardly any doubt that Hommel‘s Alarodiers and my Armenoïden completely coincide and that they must also be brought together with the Pelasgians, whose special position H. Kiepert already has recognized a generation ago. ”

    Are not they
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_European_Farmers ?

  50. For people who think that “pure blood” is a good thing, of course a claim that Jews are not a race is not good.

    And compare Maurice Fishberg, Jews, Race, and Environment: “Origin of the blonde Jews.—One of the most important problems in the anthropology of the Jews has been the origin of the Jews with fair hair and eyes ….” (link)

    Von Luschan’s view is not that Jews have been mixing with Europeans. He belives that the blonde component is original. Jews are his protocappadocians with old Semitic and Aryan admixtures.

    Here he differes form rozele, and I also think many Jewish anthropologists would like neither his ideas nor hers.

    Nazi, in turn, liked the idea.

    Compare The Foundations Of Nineteenth Century.:

    “The chief result of this anatomical survey is that the Jewish race is in truth a permanent but at the same time a mongrel race which always retains this mongrel character. In the former chapter I have tried to make clear the difference between mixed and mongrel races. All historically great races and nations have been produced by mixing ; but wherever the difference of type is too great to be bridged over, then we have mongrels. “

  51. Well honestly, the author is just какой-то укурок.

  52. J.W. Brewer says

    When I said “his theory” re Friedrich, the intended antecedent of “his” was Chamberlain,not Luschan, although I guess the recent mention of two male persons created some potential for ambiguity. Friedrich was publicly philo-Semitic and publicly anti-anti-Semitic at a time when anti-Semitismus was becoming a more powerful force in German politics. Presumably some anti-Semites took anti-anti-Semitism as evidence of being a secret Jew? OTOH, Friedrich may have been influenced in this regard by his wife, daughter of Prince Albert and thus (according to the rumor adverted to above) 25% Ashkenazic via her “real” paternal grandfather.

  53. Blonde Amorites:

    Sigmund Feist referenced in WP attributes the observation to the French, von Luschan ascribes identification of “Japhetites” with “Tamehu” to Brugsch (and blonde “Amorites” to Egyptian depictions) and Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906 says:

    Of these the Amorites are most frequently mentioned, and are ethnologically the most interesting if, as is claimed for them by Sayce, they were of light complexion and blue-eyed, besides being dolichocephalic or long-headed. This description, however, has been based on the colored pictures of Amorites found on the Egyptian monuments (W. M. Flinders-Petrie, “Racial Types from Egypt,” London, 1887), and which to a certain extent are conventional.

    “Sayce” – Sayce, Races of the Old Testament (search for Amorite blue)

  54. von Luschan ‘s reaction on Hrozny’s “discovery” of Hittite:

    https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_d07WAAAAMAAJ/page/n173/mode/2up

    1. first he puts scarequotes around “the” Hittite (because the texts can be written in many languages).
    Note that he is one of the first people who excavated Hittite ruins.
    2. second, he finds it hard to believe that big-nosed Hittite people could speak a European language
    3. …if they did, the language must have been brought from elsewhere by another people.
    4. fourth he puts scarequotes around “discovery” for these European words can actually be borrowings.

  55. To clarify: I wrote “cute” because of noses and because the talk is not racist at all: he speaks of Jews and Germans working together for greater good, he defends Semites (from Renan), he compares Aryan savages to African savages etc. But towards the war he wonderfully combined these views with militarism. His speech in 2011 must sound to an English (or Russian) speaker not unlike that of a Klingon scientist.

  56. Some initial in-depth commentary on the Amorite from a specialist, here, and here, and here.

  57. thanks, Y!
    one piece of terminological clarification from the tweets:

    Amorite is “what we call West Semitic attested in Akkadian texts of this time”

    so, pretty arbitrary (‘conventional’, if you prefer), and not necessarily tied to a specific polity or group of people.

  58. Yes, “Amorite” is this.

    But “The language in their left-hand columns is mostly North-West Semitic, with some admixture of Akkadian. Editions of the two tablets are accompanied by a commentary which finds parallels for this language in the grammar and vocabulary of other Semitic languages. Evaluation of the results of this enquiry lead to the conclusion that the language of the left-hand columns is a variety of Amorite. ”

    implies that they didn’t just say “NW ergo Amorite. QED”…. As far as I understand, “Amorite” known to us is just names (and loans), no texts.
    So it is an exciting discovery irrespectively of what the langauge it is, if it is not plaibn Akkadian which it is not:)

    The interesting question (but not for Twitter) is not whether they are right are wrong, but rather (1) are speakers named in the text? (2) any other interesting information? (3) what it shares with “Amorite” and where it diverges? (and the same question for, say, Ugaritic:))

    P.S. (and presumbly the anwser to this question is the paper itself…)

  59. John Huehnergard (in lectures, not in print) defined Amorite as ‘everything written in Akkadian which isn’t Akkadian’, and this made it into my “Essentialist Explanations”.

  60. David Marjanović says

    His speech in 2011 must sound to an English (or Russian) speaker not unlike that of a Klingon scientist.

    What a roller-coaster!

    Starts out all modern, keeps so for pages (apart of course from outdated science in places)*, suddenly jumps into turn-of-the-millennium xenophobia, in the middle of a paragraph switches to interwar fear of race mixture, and then goes, yes, full Klingon.

    …although there, despite the author’s explicit protestations, we can see precisely where WWI was about to come from.

    * “the only savages in Africa are certain white men with ‘Tropenkoller'” – madness from suddenly being in the tropics, like Höhenkoller “delirium from lack of oxygen at great heights” and the like.

  61. suddenly jumps into turn-of-the-millennium xenophobia

    Turn-of-the-millennium?

  62. David Marjanović says

    Some initial in-depth commentary on the Amorite from a specialist, here, and here, and here.

    As usual, the “further tweets that might contain insulting content” don’t.

  63. David Marjanović says

    Turn-of-the-millennium?

    The turn from the 2nd to the 3rd millennium. Jahrtausendwende. Haider, Le Pen, Trump, AfD.

  64. David Eddyshaw says

    What a roller-coaster!

    Indeed. It confirms the melancholy fact that racism was so mainstream in those days that even a plainly openminded and generally sensible scientist took to it as naturally as breathing, despite repeatedly pointing out its absence of any scientific basis.

    I was naturally struck by

    These Hamites had already a greatly refined language, with an admirable grammar

    Perfectly true, of course (whoever these “Hamites” may be.) He just hasn’t gone on to the equally valid point that all the non-Hamites (whoever they may be) have admirable grammars too.

  65. Stu Clayton says

    What wouild it mean to have an “admirable” grammar ? Grammar textbooks can be admirable or despicable, but not grammar. As to “greatly refined language”, I am immediately reminded of courbé sous les exactions de la nuance.

  66. David Eddyshaw says

    All natural languages have admirable grammar. The term is, accordingly, of little practical utility in this context.

  67. The turn from the 2nd to the 3rd millennium.

    My confusion was due to the fact that the speech was made in 1911.

  68. David Marjanović says

    He was ahead of his time in at least two quite different respects…

  69. Given that, in those pre-Chomskyan days, syntax was basically a minor appendix to the study of grammar, I would guess he means they have admirably complicated morphology. Yoruba or Chinese – or for that matter English – would be less likely to receive such an accolade…

  70. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve no doubt but that is exactly it. The Bantu languages, in particular, were held to be Advanced and generally Admirable on account of all their wonderful morphology, and contrasted with all those degenerate “Sudanic” languages which were thought to lack such marks of high cultural worthiness.

    The attitude was very slow to die: even Guthrie himself refused to accept Greenberg’s perfectly correct classification of Bantu along with (West) Sudanic on grounds which were really not much different.

    The poster child for Advanced Admirability among West African languages was Fulfulde, which certainly makes even a typical Bantu language look practically isolating. It doesn’t have tones, either, which, as Meinhof points out, are a sign of degeneracy in themselves.

    I daresay it might have made some difference if any of the Oti-Volta languages had been described at that point, but I imagine that even then they would have been shoehorned into the general imaginary-races-based scheme somehow. (In fact, I can see exactly how it would have gone: the chiefly clans of the Mossi-Dagomba states claim descent from horseriding conquerors from east of Lake Chad: it would have been obvious to nineteenth/early twentieth century scholars of this type that these conquerors brought their admirable grammars with them and thereby improved the mere Sudanic speech of their subjects by the example of their superior inflecting ways.)

  71. The literal meaning of “courbé sous les exactions de la nuance” is clear enough (‘bent under the exactions of the nuance’) but how is the phrase used?

  72. Stu Clayton says
  73. Now that I’ve read it… ouch. You can see exactly how WWI inspired such bizarre outbreaks of excitement among people who should have known better.

  74. At the same time, credit where it’s due: seeing morphological complexity as the hallmark of admirability is actually pretty reasonable if you have no notion of syntactic complexity that could compensate for it, and applying that standard consistently to African languages certainly beats finding excuses for why it doesn’t yield the results a racist would want there. (The notion that grammatical gender is uniquely Admirable, on the other hand – implied by his remarks about Masai – seems hard to defend even from a 19th century level of knowledge about language.)

  75. i think the admirability of morphological complexity is just part of the race-science (social darwinist subdivision): stephen jay gould has a wonderful analysis & demolition somewhere (i think in both an essay and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory?) of the idea of greater complexity as marking life forms as “more evolved” and thus inherently superior. which is as absurd when examined (at any given moment, natural selection has been operating on everything for the same amount of time, by definition) as it is – still – baked into all kinds of ‘common sense’ thinking.

  76. Stu Clayton says

    a wonderful analysis & demolition … of the idea of greater complexity as marking life forms as “more evolved” and thus inherently superior. which is as absurd when examined (at any given moment, natural selection has been operating on everything for the same amount of time, by definition) as it is – still – baked into all kinds of ‘common sense’ thinking.

    Part of the reason for that is that the notion of complexity is too simple. A single word covers it.

  77. David Marjanović says

    stephen jay gould has a wonderful analysis & demolition somewhere (i think in both an essay and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory?) of the idea of greater complexity as marking life forms as “more evolved” and thus inherently superior.

    It’s in Full House* and probably elsewhere, too.

    * I’ve read that one, in translation. It explains evolution through baseball. I understand evolution now. I still don’t understand baseball.

  78. David Eddyshaw says

    Insofar as there is any correlation at all between “advanced” in the modern-nation-state-technological sense and language complexity, it actually seems to be an inverse one. The languages which are the most beautiful examples of polysynthesis and other high degrees of morphological complexity are largely spoken by small and marginalised groups, and the more wildly successful languages are at most fairly middle-of-the road on this metric (like Hausa and Swahili.)

    (It’s actually fairly easy to invent just-so stories to account for this, too.)

    I don’t think these guys really even meant morphological complexity in any fundamental sense, really, though: they meant, “morphological complexity of that particular kind that reminds us of Latin or German.” I’m fairly sure that they would have unhesitatingly regarded noun incorporation, for example (so far as they were aware of its existence at all) as “primitive.”

    The obsession of these gentlemen with grammatical gender (of the particular sort that puts biologically male and female persons into different grammatical genders) is very striking. It’s characteristic of Meinhof’s meanderings about Fulfulde, for example, that he bizarrely took its initial mutation system to be a relic of such a gender system, because it was specifically that that was important. It all seems to link into the pervasive notion that real “primitives” are incapable of abstraction (like sex-marking grammatical gender, apparently.)

  79. Stu Clayton says

    I understand evolution now. I still don’t understand baseball.

    Was the guiding idea that baseball evolved from other game forms ? At this level of generality, there’s not much to understand. Complexity has been reduced – that’s the point of generalization, right ?

    You’re now batting for Team Evolution. You’re a natural !

  80. “Grammar textbooks can be admirable or despicable, but not grammar.”

    All grammar textbooks are beautiful in their own way, they are products of creativity of beautulf individual human beings.

    Grammars, in turn are made by communities.
    And we know that when humans gather together and form a crowd, all bad things start: nations, wars, prejudices, grammars…

  81. I’m fairly sure that they would have unhesitatingly regarded noun incorporation, for example (so far as they were aware of its existence at all) as “primitive.”,

    Dunno what Meinhof would have made of it, but von Humboldt seems to have been rather impressed by the equivalent phenomena in Nahuatl and Delaware, leading him to consider them as clearly superior to Quechua and Burmese respectively despite their speakers being (in his view) less civilised.

  82. David Marjanović says

    Was the guiding idea that baseball evolved from other game forms ?

    No, it was about batting averages and their – superficial – changes through time.

  83. David Eddyshaw says

    von Humboldt seems to have been rather impressed by the equivalent phenomena in Nahuatl and Delaware

    True.

    Meinhof and his ilk were a major retrogression from Humboldt, though. His wibblings about tone, for example, were just plain stupid even in terms of contemporary linguistic knowledge. Another illustration of the Enoch Powell syndrome, viz: a person can be simultaneously breathtakingly intelligent and daft as a brush.

  84. thanks, DM! if i’d been less interested in the baseball, i’d’ve remembered that Full House is the one that does that kind of canard-shooting! unfortunately, i was raised in greater boston by a brooklyn dodgers fan, so i had no choice.

  85. @DE:

    and every textbook and linguistics class that – still, how many years later? – uses “grammatical gender” to refer to noun classes follows in exactly those shmucks’ footsteps and reinforces their project of projecting their christian/roman gender ideology into the structure of languages even they knew have absolutely no truck with it (which is precisely why they considered them “primitive”, just as balboa, cortes, and their ilk knew the “primitive” nature of the peoples they massacred by their different gender systems).

  86. @DE, not relic: he believed that

    classes > person – thing / large – small > women are frequently included in “thing” class with the development of economical relations.
    Then Europeans arrive and call these two classes “masculine” and “feminine”, even though the second class corresponds to our neuter (I guess “ein Mädchen”).

  87. (“development of economical relations” is my sarcasm)

  88. David Marjanović says

    I guess “ein Mädchen”

    No, that’s a neuter because and only because it’s a diminutive. What you’re looking for is Weib, the cognate of wife; that’s neuter for no transparent reason.

    (It used to be the, uh, neutral word for “woman”. In that function it’s thoroughly obsolete. Today it’s a very vague slur meaning “woman I don’t like”, too vague to shout after someone.)

  89. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Danish viv is common gender, FWIW.

  90. @DM, more explicitly: I think, such examples could have inspired his comparison with neuter, if not the whole theory of semantic development. He speaks about a contrast between persons and things with “associated” contrast of large and small so that the resulting contrast is “fourfold”. Mädchen still fits the second part of the scheme, the association woman-diminutive-neuter. Though the direction is not (a) “feminine marker expresses diminution”, but rather (b) “neuter diminutive sticks to ‘girl'”, what he proposes for Hamitic is (c) “neuter-diminutive class attracts words for women”, quite similar to (b).

    I didn’t think about Weib:/ Thanks.

  91. David Eddyshaw says

    If we’re still talking about Meinhof, drasvi, you undoubtedly know more about his views than I do: I have really no interest in pursuing his rebarbative thought processes. However, he was as a matter of plain fact wrong even about Fulfulde: the patterns of initial consonant mutation don’t even correlate with human versus non-human (and of course, the language makes no grammatical distinctions based on biological sex at all, and shows no association whatsoever between “female” and “neuter”/non-human.)

    Meinhof knew enough about Fulfulde to know that he was wrong. But he was determined to shoehorn the facts into his racist theories anyway. Pseudoscience at its worst.

    Incidentally, there are two-gender systems in which “female” correlates with (non-human) “big” rather than “small.” There is no universal “female-small” grammatical association.

    But none of this would have troubled Meinhof. He was not interested in the facts of the matter at all. This was a man who reckoned that the presence of contrastive lexical tone in a language showed a lack of analytical ability on the part of the speakers. He did good work on the facts of Bantu morphology. But his views on linguistics in general are valueless. He was completely determined not to know what he was talking about.

  92. If we’re still talking about Meinhof” – You wrote about Meinhof, and I added a detail (because I think “relic of gender” is somewhat inaccurate).

    …, you undoubtedly know more about his views than I do:” – He is a Bantuist. You are familiar with his Bantu reconstruction. And we both saw that popular book.

    I have really no interest in pursuing his rebarbative thought processes.” – “I have no interest in Meinhof!’, “no, I have no interest in Meinhof” “No, I have no interest in Meinhof!”:-)

  93. David Eddyshaw says

    It appears that we are once again in complete agreement.

  94. No, we are again in complete agreement! We! We! We!

  95. David Eddyshaw says

    That too.

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