Hand of Irulegi.

Several people have sent me links to this Sam Jones story in the Guardian about a surprising find:

More than 2,000 years after it was probably hung from the door of a mud-brick house in northern Spain to bring luck, a flat, lifesize bronze hand engraved with dozens of strange symbols could help scholars trace the development of one of the world’s most mysterious languages.

Although the piece – known as the Hand of Irulegi – was discovered last year by archaeologists from the Aranzadi Science Society who have been digging near the city of Pamplona since 2017, its importance has only recently become clear.

Experts studying the hand and its inscriptions now believe it to be both the oldest written example of Proto-Basque and a find that “upends” much of what was previously known about the Vascones, a late iron age tribe who inhabited parts of northern Spain before the arrival of the Romans, and whose language is thought to have been an ancestor of modern-day Basque, or euskera.

Until now, scholars had supposed the Vascones had no proper written language – save for words found on coins – and only began writing after the Romans introduced the Latin alphabet. But the five words written in 40 characters identified as Vasconic, suggest otherwise.

The first – and only word – to be identified so far is sorioneku, a forerunner of the modern Basque word zorioneko, meaning good luck or good omen.

Javier Velaza, a professor of Latin philology at the University of Barcelona and one of the experts who deciphered the hand, said the discovery had finally confirmed the existence of a written Vasconic language. […]

[Read more…]

Medieval Archive in Romanian Church.

Medievalists.net (no author named) reports on a recent find:

A team of researchers in Romania has discovered over 200 books and manuscripts in a church in Mediaș. It includes dozens of early printed works and manuscript fragments dating back to as early as the 9th century.

The research team, led by Adinel C. Dincă of Babeș-Bolyai University, found the cache in the Ropemakers’ Tower of St. Margaret’s Church in Mediaș, a town in central Romania. Biblioteca Batthyaneum, a branch of the National Library of Romania, announced the discovery on its Facebook page earlier this month. They reported that the find included 139 printed books dating to between 1470 and 1600, two manuscripts from the early 16th century and about sixty more charters and other documents dating to between the 14th and 16th centuries. Furthermore, they found several manuscripts fragments that were kept inside parish records, the earliest of which is from the Caroliginian era and may date back to as early as the 9th century. […]

St. Margaret’s Church, also known as Margarethenkirche, dates back to the early 15th century and was established by the Transylvanian Saxons, a community of Germans who settled in this region of Romania in the Middle Ages. The collection of books seems to have been left in the church’s tower for at least decades, perhaps to protect them during the First or Second World War. However, Professor Dincă believes they may have been placed here much earlier. […]

These items may have been part of a much larger library collection within the church. Professor Dincă notes that a catalogue published in 1864 lists around 7,700 books held by the library, including dozens of early printed works by Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and Philip Melanchthon. The research team will now be working to match up the discovered books with those listed in the catalogue. […]

The research team is now working to better understand the collection and help with its preservation, and they hope that it can be kept in a local library with digitization to give it wider access. Professor Dincă believes that this discovery will allow historians to better reconstruct the literacy and the intellectual life of the Transylvanian Saxons as well as the local medieval manuscript tradition.

I love stories like this; it’s nice to look forward to more discoveries. (Transylvanian Saxons were featured, among many other topics, in this great 2004 thread.)

Weak Coffee.

The radio show A Way With Words (featured here in 2007) has done a segment on a horrifying topic:

Listeners are sharing their favorite terms for coffee that’s weak, including warm wet, branch water, pond water, scared water, and in the immortal words of Ani DiFranco, just water dressed in brown. One listener has a friend in North Dakota who reuses the same coffee grounds all day and refers to the watered-down beverage as Wabash coffee. This may be connected with the use of wabash as a verb to refer to adding water to a sluggish liquid such as ketchup or shampoo to stretch it out a bit longer. There are plenty of other terms for “weak” or otherwise disappointing coffee around the world. In German, it’s sometimes called Blümchen-kaffee, literally “flower coffee.” In the Hopi language surukaphe means “tail coffee,” or coffee watered down to make it go further. In Brazilian Portuguese slang, chafé means “bad coffee,” a blend of the words for “tea” and “coffee.” Then there’s cholo in Louisiana French, from chaud-l’eau, or “hot water.” A Japanese word takes a dig at American coffee, combining the Japanese word for “American” and the Dutch word koffie.

My Norwegian-American mother used to call it sukkervatn (‘sugar-water’). And I still have flashbacks to a cup of alleged coffee I was served in Chicago in the mid-1980s that you could literally read through (there was lettering on the bottom of the cup). Young People Today have no conception of what the world was like before Starbucks came along; say what you will about how they overroast their beans or whatever refined complaints you have, they made it possible to dependably get a decent cup of coffee anywhere you went.

Adjective Order Redux.

Back in 2013 I posted about Cooper and Ross’s paper “World Order” (“We began the present study by asking, as some linguists have asked before us, why the ordering of certain conjoined elements is fixed”), but the thread immediately turned to the order of the elements in “Watson and Crick”; I’m now presenting Mark Liberman’s very interesting Log post responding to a question about a recent Saturday Night Live sketch using the phrases “big dumb hat” and “dumb little dog”: “Whither English’s rigid adjective order?” Mark says:

There’s a long history of work on related topics, starting with Pāṇini. A classic and accessible reference is Cooper and Ross’s brilliant 1975 paper “World Order“. They focus primarily on the order of elements in conjunctions (“bigger and better”, “fore and aft”, “cat and mouse”, “now and then”, “here and there”, …), and describe a complex web of semantic and phonological influences. They cite Jespersen in support of the idea that such “freezing” also applies “in compound words, particularly compounds involving reduplication” (“namby-pamby”, “razzle-dazzle”, “hickory-dickory-dock”). And they also note (pp. 94-96) that “It seems safe to conclude […] that at least some of the principles governing the ordering of conjuncts and the ordering of prenominal adjectives are the same.”

On the phonological side, they list the following constraints (p.71):

Compared to place 1 elements, place 2 elements contain, other factors being equal:

1.   more syllables (Pāṇini’s law)
2.   longer resonant nuclei
3.   more initial consonants
4.   a more obstruent initial element, if both place 1 and place 2 elements start with only one consonant
5.   vowel containing a lower second formant frequency
6.   fewer final consonants
7.   a less obstruent final segment, if both place 1 and place 2 elements end in a single consonant

It’s complicated, as he says (there are more subtleties at the link), and also a good example of how messy language can be.

Porto Scrisori.

My wife and I watched the 1963 movie Charade for the first time in decades; it’s been called “the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made,” and it holds up pretty well despite a fair amount of silliness — it’s worth seeing just for the Paris setting, especially the scene set in Les Halles (stupidly demolished in 1973). But what I’m posting about is a plot point involving stamps, specifically one that was said to be the rarest in the world; it bore the Cyrillic inscription ПОРТО СКРИСОРИ (i.e., PORTO SKRISORI) and was so primitive and odd-looking I thought perhaps it had been invented for the movie (especially since I, a stamp collector in my youth, had never heard of it). But Google told me it was a real thing, a Moldavian Bull’s Head; it looked just like the first illustration at that Wikipedia article except that the number was 82 instead of 27. (You can read about the philatelic aspects in this post by Frank Moraes; the real “cap de bour” had a face value of 81 paras, not 82, and “Strangely, the 1858 Romanian 81 Parale Blue that was worth the most in the film, is worth the least in reality.”)

The important thing here, of course, is the inscription, which represents the Romanian phrase porto scrisori; scrisori (which has only two syllables — the -i indicates palatalization of the r) is the plural of scrisoare ‘letter,’ and Wikipedia says:

Around this circle, in the interior above the head, are the Romanian Cyrillic letters ПОРТО СКРИСОРИ (PORTO SCRISORI; “letters to be paid for by the recipient”). The use of the word PORTO is a mistake; FRANCO denotes letters where the postage has been paid by the sender, as was the case for letters using these stamps.

I’m not exactly sure how the word PORTO got there (as far as Wiktionary knows, it means ‘port wine’ in Romanian), but there must have been a good reason.


This seems to be Ancient Week at the Hattery; after Greek and Latin shorthand and the Canaanite comb, we come to Enheduanna, the Woman Who Was History’s First Named Author, as the NY Times puts it (archived):

It was a random morning in November, and Enheduanna was trending.

Suddenly, the ancient Mesopotamian priestess, who had been dead for more than 4,000 years, was a hot topic online as word spread that the first individually named author in human history was … a woman?

That may have been old news at the Morgan Library & Museum, where Sidney Babcock, the longtime curator of ancient Near Eastern antiquities, was about to offer a tour of its new exhibition “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia, ca. 3400-2000 B.C.” Babcock was thrilled by the attention, if not exactly surprised by the public’s surprise.

Ask people who the first author was, and they might say Homer, or Herodotus. “People have no idea,” he said. “They simply don’t believe it could be a woman” — and that she was writing more than a millennium before either of them, in a strikingly personal voice. […] “It’s the first time someone steps forward and uses the first-person singular and gives an autobiography,” Babcock said. “And it’s profound.”

[Read more…]

A Canaanite’s Wish to Eradicate Lice.

A Canaanite’s Wish to Eradicate Lice on an Inscribed Ivory Comb from Lachish” (Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology 2 [2022]: 76-119), by Daniel Vainstub, Madeleine Mumcuoglu, Michael G. Hasel, Katherine M. Hesler, Miriam Lavi, Rivka Rabinovich, Yuval Goren, and Yosef Garfinkel, might seem to the profane eye much ado about a few words scratched on a broken comb, but the few words are very interesting (as, I gather, is the comb to those whose remit, unlike mine, goes beyond the linguistic). The abstract is strikingly short:

An inscription in early Canaanite script from Lachish, incised on an ivory comb, is presented. The 17 letters, in early pictographic style, form seven words expressing a plea against lice.

The body of the paper begins with a discussion of dating and context, proceeds to a detailed description of the comb (made from elephant ivory), and on p. 90 gets to what interests me, the inscription:

The inscription contains 17 tiny letters that vary in width from 1 to 3 mm, engraved on the not-completely-smooth surface of the comb. The letters form seven words that for the first time provide us with a complete reliable sentence in a Canaanite dialect, written in the Canaanite script.

On pp. 91-102 the individual letters are analyzed (“our letter is most probably the first known example of the Canaanite letter ś”), pp. 103-107 deal with the vocabulary, and pp. 107-108 the grammar. I was particularly interested in the word qml:
[Read more…]

The Benefits of Cursing.

The Cleveland Clinic’s healthessentials article published October 31, 2022 (no author given) discusses studies that “have linked profanity to health benefits — like pain relief — and traits — like honesty”; it starts with the 2015 study by Kristin L. Jay and Timothy B. Jay which we discussed here, concluding “there isn’t enough evidence to suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between profanity and brain power,” and continues as follows:

While much of the literature on the benefits of cursing is theoretical, some ideas have been put to the test. Scientists have found correlations between cursing and:

Honesty. Profanity has been positively correlated with honesty and integrity across three different 2017 studies.
Creativity. Unsurprisingly, researchers also used tests like the COWAT to measure creativity. Equally unsurprising: They found the same positive correlation between swearing and creativity that they found between swearing and intelligence. Doctors have also observed that people who experience aphasia after a stroke oftentimes retain their ability to curse like sailors. There are a lot of reasons that might happen. One theory is that cursing and other “automatic language” lives in the right side of your brain. For better or worse, we commonly regard the right side of the brain as the “creative side,” therefore, cursing is a sign of creativity.

It’s fun to talk about whether or not bad language = good people at a party, but the science to support those ideas is ultimately quite thin.

Instead, try discussing the findings around the impact of cursing on pain tolerance. They’re much stronger, and — depending on your luck— might come in handy someday.

[Read more…]

Ancient Greek Shorthand.

Candida Moss has an extraordinarily interesting Daily Beast piece on something I hadn’t been aware of:

Several years ago, Ryan Baumann, a digital humanities developer at Duke University, was leafing through an early 20th-century collection of ancient Greek manuscripts when he ran across an intriguing comment. The author noted that there was an undeciphered form of shorthand in the margins of a piece of papyrus and added a hopeful note that perhaps future scholars might be able to read it. The casual aside set Baumann off on a new journey to unlock the secrets of an ancient code.

Initially, Baumann told me, he thought that perhaps everything had been deciphered. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, it’s been about 100 years, maybe someone has figured it out!’ So, I looked into it, and to my delight, the system of ancient Greek shorthand does seem to have been largely figured out.” To his dismay, though, this century-spanning scholarly achievement has also been largely overlooked and underexplored. Very few people are interested in shorthand.

Why does this matter? Well, ancient Greek and Latin shorthand (also known as stenography or tachygraphy) were the bedrock of ancient writing and record keeping. The scripts that emerged in the first century BCE allowed people to record things faster than “normal.” Just like today, said Baumann, stenography was “crucially important” for recording courtroom proceedings and political speeches, but dictation was also used to compose letters, philosophy, and narrative. Everything from ancient romance novels to foundational political theories were first transcribed in shorthand. Often this would have happened on erasable wax tablets (we have many examples from archaeological excavations), but shorthand was also used on papyri and parchment.

[Read more…]

Collins Dictionary Words of the Year.

I usually ignore these “word of the year” stories, which are basically clickbait for lexicographers, but hell, this one (by Helen Bushby for BBC) includes splooting (“The act of lying flat on the stomach with the legs stretched out” — see this LH post), so how could I not post it? This one is useful:

Carolean: Of or relating to Charles III of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or his reign.

And the story also gives me a hook to vent about the repulsive term “quiet quitting,” defined as “The practice of doing no more work than one is contractually obliged to do, especially in order to spend more time on personal activities” — in other words, what I would call “doing what you’re paid to do.” The modern world has many terrible features, but one of the ones that makes me grind my teeth the hardest is the general acceptance of the idea that you owe your employer every speck of your time and brainpower (and this has, of course, only gotten worse with everyone being eternally connected). You’re probably not paid enough anyway, unless you’re a CEO or entertainment star; you don’t owe them a damn thing beyond what you were hired to do. Solidarity forever! (Thanks for the link go to the excellent cuchuflete, who is of course not responsible for my wild-eyed ranting.)