on the non-antiquity of the inflected languages

this is a response to mainstream proto-indo-european theorists. they are imo up to their necks in fundamental error. their scholarship is hidebound. most of its fundamental principles were already laid down by the nineteenth century, and have never been questioned from any academic position that i could call valid, and okay, i’m finicky, but i’m not that finicky.

the earliest inventors of the art of ‘comparative philology’ (now called ‘comparative historical linguistics’) were free-thinkers ahead of their time, but they had gone under the spell of the keepers of the traditional, mostly sanskrit literature of india. their work won great acclaim and came under the scrutiny of european universities which were heavily committed to church dogma. though the bravest intellectuals involved in the early development of ‘comparative philology’ as a scholarly pursuit were humanists, and not committed to defending these dogmas, the universities were tightly controlled by the church and committed to the fundamentalistic church dogmas of the time. as the universities took it up, perforce they warped the study around ‘established’ biblical dogmas as if they were beyond question, god’s own words, ‘gospel’. they were more naively creationistic than current creationists are. Archbishop James Ussher’s creationistic chronology

now, this was before darwin’s work was accepted so there was no scientfic refutal available yet. humanism was not yet a mainstream option in influential circles.  

it wasn’t all right to doubt the biblical scholars until the middle of last century. it was blasphemy to hint that it ‘ain’t necessarily so’. i remember the bold, rash feeling there was to it too, as if you looked around in fear to see if you were going to be struck down by a thunderbolt for blaspheming. those were superstitious times.

the birth of jesus, calculated from biblical evidence and the dogma and folklore concerning them, was and still is what biblical scholars declared to be slap bang in the epicentre of the one and only time scale for all earthlings for all time, though not marked on that scale, the zero point at the fag-end of a dying sinful era, BC, standing between it and the birth of another, AD. however, it was calculated using the same techniques that give the world an age of 6000 years or so. no one would mind it at all if this religious focus were confined to the church along with its jurisdiction over its own voluntary congregations, but universities really need to reassess the validity of this calendar.

into this intellectually timid atmosphere came this new, exciting/dangerous idea of tracing the origins of words by comparing them and working out how they came to be different and from what common ancestor they diverged, and the belief that you’d soon find that original, perfect language that god and adam spoke in the newly created garden quickly distorted it. it succumbed to the challenge of the humanists who believed in a proto-indo-european language with the attendant extension of the hypothetical chronology back a few thousand years or so. this was made not so very long ago, and is, i believe, as unrealistic as the original belief. they seem to be searching for a kind of grunt language, such as cavemen must have spoken. but they were probably correct to be using comparative techniques, albeit with fantasised chronology and an unrealistic belief in the accessibility of the causes of variation in language, in their search. the chronology should be observed to be projected backwards from the renaissance, because no manuscript texts in any language predate the renaissance, and it is dangerous to assume that their subject matter might be very much older than surviving copies. the common language we should be looking for would be a literary one, since we only have written records and illiterate speakers didn’t leave any. perhaps it would be more realistic to search for a kind of pre-renaissance patois, since abundant evidence suggests that such a thing did once exist.

don’t get me wrong – i’m not saying the universities haven’t progressed. they’re no longer expecting to find adam’s own language. they know about laetoli and the ice-ages etc. they’ve got quite articulate about analysing the results of processes. so what harm does insisting on the infallibility of sacred texts and the sacred traditions concerning them do? it violates the rules of academic reasoning. simply that. ecclesiasts can teach what they like to their willing believers, but universities owe us straight, academic reasoning.

the scene is set in william jones’s famous statement that reflects very much the spirit of his age:

“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident…” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Jones_(philologist)

let’s unpack it. ‘more perfect than the Greek. . . more exquisitely refined than either’  refers us at once to the conviction then held that extinct, tightly conjugated languages (and he might have added Hebrew) were the original, superior languages from which the uninflected languages had deteriorated into their present forms.

latin and greek were both taught in european schools as models of excellence to attune the mind to all that is holy and good. english school children’s greek text-books used to promise their pupils that they were about to learn the very language that god chose to tell us all about his son. practically angel-speak.

James doesn’t regard latin as ‘perfect’, just ‘copious’, reflecting the idea that latin was less holy – ‘god’ had preferred the greek version to the latin vulgate. his hyperbole ‘more exquisitely refined’ indicates that he expected to find people ready to agree with him – slightly disenchanted with the ‘classics’, but still seeking the elusive ideal, and expecting to find it further a-field.

upon this vacuous piety alone is based the almost sacred dogma that now declares sanskrit the older language, with speculative chronologies cobbled up by a sort of committee and extended back in time in the same way as the biblical ones were.

the oldest datable examples of writing we have are not earlier than the renaissance, and while we can date parchment and ink, we can’t date the actual content. no spoken examples date from before the invention of the phonograph. carvings on stone are notoriously difficult to date. carbon dating is sometimes farcically inaccurate, as are all other methods of dating carved inscriptions.

read don quixote for a contemporary account of publishing at the time of the renaissance, and also the salvaging old texts from the burnings of those times. it gives a wonderful account of publishing, translating, getting away with appearing learned to people who aren’t and then making it up as you go along and being paid for it, and the haphazard hermeneutics of the age are all exquisitely there.

analysis and a modern education shows how they must have come into being. until quite recently both modern and ancient languages were taught in neat paradigms. then, immersion and/or wider experience of the language filled this out. you can imagine this potted approach narrowing down to the pure condensed form of paradigms: the conjugations of verbs and declensions of nouns and adjectives, and vocabulary lists, such as are still found in grammar books for students in the 21st century. while the language us extant, its grammar-book paradigms can be seen to be skeletal sketches, as the inflectioned paradigms of the antique languages, extinct in the wild, were no longer understood to have been. school languages like latin and greek came in chantable paradigms, and vernacular english didn’t – you learnt it from your mum and dad, siblings and peers. so latin and greek had prestige and english didn’t.

so while the idea that the inflected languages are superior to the vernaculars is no longer taken seriously, the idea that they are older than the non-inflected ones is still fondly and firmly held today. yet there is no evidence to support claims re the antiquity of the inflected languages. none at all.

irish old texts that may have originated in gaul describe the Scythian school which taught the twenty noble languages to trainee officials who would then be sent to the places in which these languages were spoken to live and work there, in positions of high authority – like an english speaking scholar taking german before going to teach geology at a german university. the date is now not knowable, but evidence i’m seeing places it in the middle ages, not too long before the Norman invasion in England.

i’ve been making a sort of study of anc gk textbooks of the 19th and early 20th. they keep turning up in op-shops and they’re much easier to learn anc gk from than the latest textbooks which have become imo a little ‘conceited in their wisdom’. the old-fashioned first form grammar is naïve and pure, with the only spin on it being the pro-biblical one, before it was obscured by all the modernistic (and post-) spins of the 20th century, all despite the honest attempts to eliminate spin from language teaching; so the politics in them is glaringly evident.

from these older highschool textbooks it is possible to understand what it means that school languages like latin and greek were taught as second languages from the chantable paradigms and equally chantable vocabulary lists into which the originals had been potted up by the scholars responsible, possibly the scythians. a student who learnt a language in this way never heard the natural language until sent out into the field, so the pupils, though children of native speakers, often had to learn the potted-up version as if a foreign language, so different was the school-learned version from the native language it tried to represent.

regular language change was then as now faster than textbooks could keep up with, and with intermarriage, settlement of soldiers in foreign lands and fosterage of foreign children, it was even more dramatic. so teachers educated in this way, the learned celts who educated young romans for example, were having to continue to teach native speakers from the same textbook, long after the language had become almost unrecognisableas their own. the text book, the chantable paradigm version, which had only ever been a very imperfect misrepresentation of a snapshot in time of a rapidly evolving language, even began to glow with a sort of sacredness the more antiquated it became, though seldom more than two or three generations old, until a virtual fossilisation occurred in the renaissance. the result was a thoroughly artificial language, yet it carried so much prestige that the natural speakers of the original were regarded in some instances (eg greek) as inferior languages and were replaced by the chantables in schools for the elite, which over the generations provided a leg-up into civilisation for the locals by teaching it to them until the original language at last died out.

this system disappeared when the church gained dominion and attempts at reconstruction were made during the renaissance. the most recent instance of this we have is the ancient greek, which we are told was reconstructed from the old texts that surfaced after the fall of Constantinople. many of these texts were translated inexpertly around the fantasies of impassioned reconstructionists, whose work has never been checked except tautologically, according to the lexicography and grammar they themselves invented, all debate being knock-out competition instead of respectful consideration of all viewpoints.

there’s more coming, but it’s a good beginning if you can loosen up on believing the textbooks on the antiquity of the inflected languages.


darn! the panting syllable

the great adventure began one day when bluestocking the bard was looking something up in the local library. discerning that the book she needed wasn’t there, she muttered under her breath, ‘darn!’, and it’s a good thing it wasn’t something stronger, for it echoed rather loudly, as stage whispers do, in the still, stiff silence of that stern and sullen place. at once the woman behind her, who had been poking about in some of the dustier, cobwebbier shelves, abandoning all decorum, screamed ‘yoicks!’ spun on her stubby high heel and stared bluestocking full in the face. ‘tally ho!’ she added, remembering almost to whisper. she beamed and nodded. ‘darn,’ she said. ‘just the one i’m after.’

    ‘one what?’ asked bluestocking.

    ‘panting syllable. that’s what ‘darn’ is to me. and i’m after that little one. i’ve been on is track a long while and i know im well. you can catch scent of im from donegal to china and all the way up the danube and down the dnieper changing from tin to tan and from tan to can and every which way and now ere e is ere: darn.’ she was short and muscular with big bowling-ball breasts, powerful thighs and thick, white fingers. ‘etty moloji,’ she concluded proffering that hand. bluestocking shook it and smiled her widest, and would have said, ‘oh, how interesting,’ but the librarian caught her eye with a sombre glare and she only nodded. but as she left the library, she found etty beside her, tugging her sleeve. ‘you see i need to know why you said “darn” instead of “blast” or “shit” or something. where and when did you first hear it, used how, and by whom, and when and where and why did you first start using it yourself. and much more. may we walk together a space.’

    ‘certainly. why, i’d be helping scholarship. i first heard darn from my mother and father when i was little, and i asked them what it meant and they said it had no meaning: it was just something you say. i suppose it must have been some old reference to the goddess dana. she’s well-documented anyway. where would you like to walk?’

    ‘cornwall? there’s such lots of lovely runnable syllables there. and you often catch glimpses of our darn.’

    ‘well, that’s fine with me,’ said bluestocking the bard. ‘my great grandfather was a Cornishman.’

    ‘well, you mean a den, then?’

‘a dane? no, a cornishman.’

‘the cornish word for man is den.’

‘oh, i see, it only sounds like dane.’

    ‘well, i wouldn’t say only. it’s going beyond the evidence to say they’re the same word, but we should not rule out the possibility, which is rather strong in this instance, although whether dane came from den or vice versa, or whether both came from a common source extinct or extant can’t be guessed at yet. added to which there are other possibilities, some of them equally strong. greeks intermarried with britons long ago, though the history documenting it has not been understood.’

    ‘oh, are you going to refer now to the danaans? because weren’t greeks once called danaans?’

    ‘well, it’s not as simple as that. i was thinkin of tirant lo blanc. but it goes back further, you see: it’s about tin. now, ere in cornwall’ (which is where they now were) ‘they ad a tin-trade, and people came from everywhere, all of them talking their eads orf an in all sorts of languages and foreign accents, ship-board creoles, pidgins and things. among them they’d’ve pronounced tin in every possibly way: tin, tan, ton, tyn, tun, twn, tn, and then some said chin and gave us china (there was also a pottery industry, making fine china, too; some said can, cen or even sin, and there’s the cin of incinerator. there’s shine, sheen and then other metals, zinc, tungsten and other industries that use tin, or other metals, such as dying, paint-making and leather-making give us tint, tan, tone and so on. and then all kinds of containers are made of metals, some of them named for the metal: tins, cans, tanks, and here’s a verb: contain and, depending what you put in em and how long it pullulates, stench, and stink. even the noise it makes is a din. and that’s only the english words. Cornish has tan, meaning fire, and tinn or dinn, meaning hard, stern, and uncompromising, and related to the english stern. . . ‘

    ‘what’s fire got to do with it?’ bluestocking couldn’t help asking.

    ‘they made their fires in tins.’

    ‘who did?’

    ‘the people who used the word tin to mean fire. they heated their spaces by lighting a fire inside a tin. that would get hot and warn the room. light the fire would mean the same as light the tin. some people would still say that today. the irish word for fire is tine, sometimes pronounced like chin-é or chin-ye. maybe even chimney means fires. -ne or -ney is a plural ending in some old dialects. it’s like the irish –anna. means the same as the english any in some instances.’

    ‘and stern too? where does the s come from?’

    ‘that’s a long story,’ said etty. ‘let’s call in at the diwotti and talk about it over pastiow ha pott te.’

    ‘good idea,’ said bluestocking, and into the diwotti they went.


don’t miss the next exciting instalment: where the s came from




there’s a new book on the market, a hermeneutical work, and everybody’s talking about it, so i’ll be having a peruse of it as soon as i can get hold of a copy. for those of you clambering for my wise help and guidance, i’ll let you know whether it’s worth a gecko or not. shlomo zand or sand is the author, and The Invention of the Jewish People is the book. i’ve ordered the paperback -paupers must live like paupers – so watch this space.

without knowing what zand has said, i have to applaud his title. i’ve always been a great believer in the invention of, not the jewish people, but of the popular notion of the jews, as a fantasy to sustain the bible account of creation. but the real, original jewish people are elusive enough.

on the subject here’s an interview i did with etty moloji, while researching the exodus of cornish people from exeter, which our history bod, Hiss, Dorian tells me is dated to the 10th century, but dates that far back can’t be considered reliable because every household kept different records and even if they had any calendar at all, they weren’t synchronised. so the chronologies are a bit of a giggle. lights! action!

herman newt: good day to you, etty, i’m seeking insight into the reality of the character behind the name tewdar. he became the leader of the cornish when, in driving them out of exeter, aethelstan’s soldiers killed his father. can you help us with the etymology, etty?

etty moloji: ooh heaven’s yes, there’s such a lot of it there, herman. panting syllables as far as the eye can see. now the first thing to do, ooh thank you, is that elderflower? how refreshing, all sparkly. now the first thing to do is to hold the word down with one foot, and divide it carefully into its written and spoken components. the written bit is hard and firm, so we hold it by that, and now squint about for the phonetic possibilities. say it. how would you say that, herman? t*e*w*d*a*r?

herman newt: well, i’d say tew rhimes with dew, or it’s stew without the s, so i’d go for chew for the first syllable, and d@ for the second, and i’d put the emphasis on the first. chewdah. oh i get it. in cornish that’s mutate to jewdah. like judah.

etty moloji: only if they spelt it chewdar, but they didn’t. that doesn’t mean they never did, only that we haven’t recorded it. but you could bet your last mudworm at least some of them would have and yes, that does support the hypothesis of a link between the two. but can you think of any other ways? for example, your assumption that tew rhymes with dew or stew is pretty packed for an etymological foray. it assumes that the t is, like that in stew or like the d in dew, slender. perhaps it was at least sometimes, but let’s feel about for all the possibilities and see what sort of contexts they guide us to. you see the spelling must have the power to represent the sounds it represented in some way to the writer, bearing in mind that, for example in modern english, spelling gets almighty surreal sometimes, so we can assume a range of pronunciations loosely referred to at least by the letters.

herman: oh, i see. yes, well tew, as in ‘’e didn’t tew me why’.

etty: that’s it. and of course the vowel will vary from speaker to speaker e, o, i, a, @, u, etc. you see spelling was well, idiosyncratic, and writing was getting a tad cryptic. butcher’s hooks, you know. rows and rows of them, and when you get ms and ns and and vs and us and ws and double ls and double is and things like that all in a row its anybody’s guess, especially when you’re learning the school language out of text books, like they did latin, and gaulish and oh, all the inflected ones, for chrissakes they’re not old, they’re jerrybuilt from potted grammars, and you could so easily get taught the wrong word and there’s your tell turned into a tew before you know it.

herman: is this what happened?

etty: oh no! woah, hold your horses, herman! this is only one possibility. but we’ll come back to it. let’s now glance at http://wapedia.mobi/kw/Tewdar where we see this:

Furv Latin y hanow a via nepprys Teutharius, nepprys Theodoricus. An Frankyon a’s galwa Thierry, ha’n KembroyonTewdr

lynn gwyst translates that for us as ‘the latin form of his name would be sometimes teutharius, sometimes theodoricus. the franks called him thierry, and the welsh, tewdr.’ this gives us a glimpse of the sort of range of phonetic possibilities.

herman: um, this isn’t exploring the relationship between the names tewdar and judah, etty.

etty: well, not yet, but there’s a lot of work to do and a lot less if you do it right the first time. and it’s probably just as relevant and to the point to pick up the word jew and consider its relationship to the french word dieu, the irish día, the jo of joseph(us) and diel, devil, deva, devon and all. we’ll look at other aspects next time.

herman: well, all right, class. Etty has given you your homework: making copious reference to at least a good beginner’s knowledge of at least six languages including hebrew, cornish, ancient greek, old irish and english, french, spanish, morroccan, dutch, gothic, persian and german, explain the relationships between these several words: the word jew, the french word dieu, the irish día, the jo of joseph(us) and diel, devil, deva, devon tracing their origins and noting every appearance in the literature. note any overlap in distribution with the words tewdar, judah, and tudor. try not to leave england yet. for next week, have read about athelstan and the expulsion of the cornish under tewdar from exeter. more wine, etty?

etty: no thank you herman. i am not a lush. (fading out)

erm, herman isn’t here right now, so it’ll have to be history, instead. we’re looking at byzantium by john julius norwich.
it’s in three volumes:
the early histories.
the apogee.
the decline and fall.

it was first published by viking in 1988, reprinted by penguin in 1990, and in its fourth printing by 2007, dorian’s is the folio edition, all covered over with little bits of gold and lots of glossy pictures of antiquities tucked in here and there between carefully designed pages of text.

here glanced into by the renowned historian dorian hiss, or, as he is more likely to be referred to in citations, bibliographies and indexes, hiss, dorian, known affectionately to his friends as hissy. a graduate of st custards, as was the celebrated nigel molesworth, dorian obtained his phd SUMMA CUM LOUDER from the iona gwersity (you don’t pronounce the g and the w is a labio-dental) of wyeuro in 2008, and has been serving on committees and writing blogs ever since. (whether there is any truth in the rumour that hissy is really aka the ‘truly appalling vyvyan ogma wyverne’ as oxford scholar mark williams aka megli of the message boards once called her on the celtic-l list, is a matter for further research. dorian himself knows nothing of such rumours and anyway prefers to keep to the facts. what’s of more interest to us here are hiss, dorian’s thoughts about norwich, john julius’s three volume book. i’ll hand you over to hiss.

hem hem, as for byzantium – it’s a proud book, with some of the most conceited modesty i’ve ever encountered. don’t even think to compare him to gibbons, he implores in his intro, but since gibbons has declined and fallen in most historian’s esteem these days, at least, so we hope, it would do but little harm if we did. like gibbons, he truly believes that most of what has happened so far in history is a blessed relief because if anything had happened differently it would not now be like it now is, and then where would we be – christ alone knows, maybe it would be different or something, saints preserve us. he starts his chapter one with “in the beginning was the word”, without attribution – ’nuff said. anyway, he got good marks in history to the tune of a phd in it i daresay, though there’s no mention of it in this edition, pry as i might between the pages and even down the back of the spine, but he was a good friend of somebody influential to do with the new yorker and had visited istanbul in 1954, and he has (or anyway expresses) strictly orthodox views – that’s why his book got published at all – so he’s representative, if not definitive, and that makes him a fair target for the likes of me.

i’m going to take a fairly detailed look at some of the things he says in chapter one, just as they come up. even before the plagiarism of his first sentence, he quotes for us a slab of a quote from constantine himself which he found in eusebius’s de vita constantine. it includes the simple direct assertion that ‘beginning at the remote ocean of britain. . . with god’s help i banished and eliminated every form of evil then prevailing. . .’ without mentioning where it all ended. i warn you that this is a quote from a quote from a quote, and while we can be sure that i have copied it pretty accurately from norwich, john julius, and that he has copied it pretty nearly verbatim, or even to the letter, from a translation by williamson, g a of eusebius’s history of the church from christ to constantine, there’s no knowing how accurately williamson translated it from the latin, and even less knowing how accurately it was translated into the latin from its original source. then, how reliable were his sources as a truthful account of the exact words of constantine the great? eusebius swears blind that the author of that history knew the ‘victorious emperor’ personally. but was the ‘glorious emperor’ referred to constantine? and was eusebius the author of that particular history?

i refer you to my colleague, the distinguished moloji, etty, for a brief etymology of the chap’s monicker. over to you, etty.

moloji, etty: no. no, really dorian. no.

hiss, dorian: what? what do you mean, know?

moloji, etty: just that. i mean nobody ever believes anything i say. they all get it off the web and the web just gets it off the universities and the universities all get it off each other and . . . and . . .

hiss, dorian: please don’t snivel, etty.

moloji, etty: . . . and they never stop to think.

hiss, dorian: well, you do, etty, i know you do.

moloji, etty: well, you see, they all think eu is greek and means sweet, good and nice and all that. they think the hellenes were naïve, but they weren’t, they were half-educated braggards. worse still, they think the hellenes were greeks.

hiss, dorian: yes, but don’t tear your hanky dear. tell us what eu really was.

moloji, etty: well, i could if i could only get you to believe just one little thing – no, two.

hiss, dorian: try us, etty.

moloji, etty: well, the hellenes were british, or anyway, celts from britain; that’s the first.
and the second is that just as now in the britain of today, half of ‘em couldn’t say ‘l’ except before a vowel and half of ‘em could. the ones who couldn’t pronounced it w, which was spelt variously w, u, oo, or o. eu.

hiss, dorian: are you sure of this, etty?

moloji, etty: blood oath.

hiss, dorian: so what does eu mean?

moloji, etty: hell. they also dropped their ‘h’s half the time, some of ’em.

hiss, dorian: hell?

moloji, etty: yes, for feic’s sake, as in hellenes.

hiss, dorian: but eusebius was a roman.

moloji, etty: nngggghhhnghhhhnghhhhh. i’ll say that again. nngggghhhnghhhhnghhhhh. nngggghhhnghhhhnghhhhh. nngggghhhnghhhhnghhhhh.

hiss, dorian: well, what then?

moloji, etty: eu means el, which means hell, as in hellene. You see it was originally pol, as when everyone used to put up the central pole of a proposed building to proclaim a new polis. polis was a plural form of a word ancestral to and very similar in meaning and pronunciation to the modern english word pole – a wooden post. perhaps the original polis was a wooden structure, like the iron-age hill forts which had wooden ‘palisades’ (polis is palace in england, palais in france, baile in ireland, but the meaning varies a bit) and pales and poles and palings are all to do with wooden posts. polis means poles. but the meaning got transferred to any polis or palace whatever it was made of, and because stone ones lasted better and were harder to burn than wooden ones, and the forests were diminishing anyway, the wealthier ones stopped using wood, even when wood was available and they had to import the stone from far away. but then when the far north was colonised, they sent brides for the norse men from the warm south to the snowy northern extremes and they all got terrible frostbite and lost their lips. read about the medusa for example. here’s a link to that brilliant scholar, the truly appalling vyvyan ogma wyverne’s brief, easy to read, ground-breaking essay on the subject. needs revision but it makes its point:


the fathers took little interest in their children’s education and may have been absent, fishing or hunting, or working outdoors while the children were small, so the brides taught them to speak. how do you teach a child to say ‘polis’ when the nearest you yourself can get is chailleach, or kali, or coll, and sometimes even the l was reduced to a y or j, when it wasn’t just a w or a u or a oo anyway. and these kids taught their kids the language their mothers taught them. so they became the original q- celts though i prefer to refer to their language as a-labiate as distinct from the labiate forms that the p-celts with their full lips were having no trouble at all with. so when they came south and found their mothertongue strangely be-p’d they rejected the notion that their q-forms were wrong, and so the battle was on. depending on who your companions were it was either poll or coll, and where fists were knuckly and tempers uncertain it wasn’t worth your while to be wrong. homer probably knew that apollo was achilles, (the vowels went every which way under the influence of different accents) but today’s historians and mythologists, your good self excepted, and others who have had the simple sanity to read and agree utterly with the article at still haven’t penetrated to that juicy little piece and sucks to them for their stupidity, i say.

hiss, dorian: now, now, etty, i say, that’s a bit strong.

moloji, etty: well it’s so very provoking. one hesitates to say ‘they are all dickheads’, but . . .

hiss, dorian: look, we’ll have to stop here, etty. we’re already five hundred words over the limit and. . .

moloji, etty: wait on. i haven’t got to the main point yet. you see, frost-bite wasn’t all. there was sunburn, too, affecting the p-celts, and making them say f and v for p and b. and by the time they all got together, they had a full array of syllables all meaning the same or nearly the same, either a polis or some feature of it, or a person from a polis. they had kells and kils and cells and sells and sols and suls and syls and sals and thells and theos and dells and dals and dails and thales and zells and zeals and challs and hells all over the map. they had pells and polises and palaces and piles and bells and bailes and old baileys and bols and bills and fells and filidh and villas and phillys and files and fools, and mills and mulls and maels and and mhaols, pronounced like wheels, and williamses and oh, mobs more, and to stop fights, or because lip damage and its consequences had been so extreme, some of them reduced all cs and ps to hs or just dispensed with them altogether.

you see the polis was the main identifier of any person, so polglas, for example identified a person as a glass polis person – the glass trade was very rich, but the word comes from older words related to class and classic, and were educational as much as commercial, though often enough both. achilles just distinguished any polis person from someone who wasn’t a polis person, and the labiate form was apollo. but names like golgotha, helvetia, ballinderry, kildare etc specify which polis, using the local variant of the original pole word. so if you dropped the first letter, whichever it was, you tended to get a neutralish vowel which was so often prefixed to a noun of some sort that in some speeches (in spanish and arabic for example) it became a definite article, while in greece it became a prefix denoting general niceness or superiority. so euserbius’s first syllable meant either pole, pleasant or the. if anyone tells you they know better send ’em to me. tell ’em i’ve got a black belt in karate and . . .

hiss, dorian: thanks etty. shall we leave the rest till. . .

moloji, etty: and the second syllable means serb, aka sab, serf, seraph, sherrif, and any number of rellies, and the third one, ius, started out as a frost-damaged poles reduced to hells, with the vowel changed to i, as in hills, and the h dropped, and the ll reduced to u, as in ius, used as a suffix with its origin forgotten by the committee that put together euserbius’s name. so it means the serb. but serb hadn’t yet come to mean a citizen of serbia yet. there were serbs/serfs/seraphs/siabhras etc all over southern europe, and their extent has not yet been mapped. it’s a scandal, it really is.

hiss, dorian: well, thanks, etty. bBut I really must stop you here, though you’re obviously busting with more to say on the subj. sorry, you lot, we didn’t really get very far down page one, did we. oh well, more next time.

for homework, read homer on apollo and achilles and compare and contrast the two. then read the myth of the medusa and google the old ventriloquists’ song ‘can you say bread and butter without moving your lips’ and try it. try also ‘my mum made me mumble’.

The first person to assume the title Rex Anglorum (King of the English) was Offa of Mercia.

ahem, morning everyone. emerging from my silurian slime is getting easier since the drought broke, and i’ve been noticing that more and more, the historians and interpreters of old texts both long and short, (texts and interpreters come in all lengths and widths), both in the past and the present, and yes the future too, all seem to be needing a bit of help with it and that’s what i’m here for.

so you can all heave a great sigh of relief that the really murky problems of history have been taken out of the sticky fingers of the homo sapiens and handed to us newts, who are bound to do less mischief with them. this we amphibious axolotlene neotenites undertake for the good of all earthlings out of the pure goodness of our hearts. so take your pencil out of your ear, michael, and don’t chew your nails in class please susan.

today we’re going to look at the above quote which comes from wikipedia’s beautifully crafted web-page at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_monarchs where it appears about four lines down from the top after the bit that warns you about not counting ethelreds, egberts and things. good advice it is too and i’d strongly advise you all not to take any of it too seriously until i’ve written things in the margins as a guide.

for now we’re going to look appalled, gaze aghast, if you like, upon the horrific mess the experts are making of english history because of a simple oversight which we shall find revealed in all its gaspworthy shockingness when i part the murky waters for you with my spatulate fingers to show you the true meaning of the quote above and to trace for you some of the implications of it.

offa was a king back in the eighth century ad, or so they say, though i wouldn’t trust ’em. before the renaissance, during the renaissance and right up until after the renaissance, there were more calendars than you can shake a stick at, and they had to be reconstructed anyway from entries in tomes, and you couldn’t always tell entry numbers from year numbers nor could you tell page one of a given book from year one of the founding of the city, monastery, tower or school that kept it, nor could you be sure you had the first book of a series or the fifth, seventeenth or zillionth. then even when the calendars were sorted out, historians and recorders of events were undisciplined in their attempts at chronology, and were often ambiguous or made errors. in other words, all english dates before round about the first of the georges are suspect.

furthermore, even when you know the date of a book, you don’t know when the entries carefully copied into it were first written. many a beautifully bound book of gloriously prepared parchment was made at the capture of a castle or monastery, country house or church, and all the papers and parchments in it gathered into a neat pile, translated and often quite freely edited, often ineptly by people who did not know the language well and were too proud to admit it, (see keating’s account of this in the history of ireland and the coming of the cruel false st patrick who replaced the earlier beloved one) and sometimes even sarcastically (see cervantes accounts of this in don quixote). i mean, o ye earnest questers after truth, trust not the chronologies. however, for now they’re not relevent to today’s discussion.

nor the spellings neither. they hadn’t learnt the rules yet, and they also hadn’t learnt that bbc english as we find it in the oed is the (only correct) way to go and all the rest is bad english, or unlearned or rough english, or very very ignorant english, so spellings were everywhere and any which way, with even the sloppiest speakers thinking their way of saying fings was right and finking it was all right to spell it like it sounded and as you can expect, even respectable monks were making the most godawful mess of it and look, if you will – jane and anthony i’ll talk to you after class and if you don’t mind i’ll confiscate that astrolabe right now you can have it back at the end of term – look if you will, i say, at the consequences and no, james, they aren’t funny, it’s just a pity that a few have to spoil it for the rest of us.

all right, now, take out your exercise books and we’ll do a little experiment. i’ll adopt a really really cute english accent of the sort where a simple ah for artichoke is pronounced just like an o for otter, quite posh really, and then i’ll add in the little quirk we often see among poms in their own land who seem unable to pronounce a th and so say f instead. ve very fought of it might bovva some, but uvvas will be fomiliar wiv ve occent i mean. i fink it’s extont somewhere in london. now i’ll give you all a spelling test. i want you to write down the words i say in your best bbc english.


what have you written felicity? mother? good girl.

next, fovva

paul? father? good boy.

next. offa.

geoffrey? stocks what stocks? who would put you in the stocks?

charles? don’t be ridiculous, there is no rack any more.

no, maureen, they don’t burn heretics at the stake anymore – this is a perectly safe exercise. you would not be burned for a truthful try.

ouch, that hurt, nigel! those are very heavy objects you are hurling! ouch! i say, sit down everyone please. please, get back to your desks. hey, drop that gun! stop, i say! all right, you asked for it: hand me the capsicum spray, etty. thank you. there! and there! and there! gaynor, run and get nurse to look at phillip’s head, it looks nasty – who did it now? gloria, is this your ipod? i’ll see you after.

now sit quietly and answer my question. did anyone even try? amanda? yes, correct arthur!!!!!!!

now for homework write a fifteen hundred word essay on ‘how trustworthy are the chronologies relating to king offa of mercia aka king offa of england, and why would anyone even care?’ have on hand a large box of tissues for crying into, and remember there’s a helpline available for if you get dizzyings and swoonings or a fit of the vapours from staring into the turgidity of it at all. i recommend a sprig of parsley behind the ear for those with weak constitutions.


Hallo, me darling ones. Here at last is a photo of me, Herman Newt, with Axol O’tl, who spoke to us last time so memorably. I am here alone today to talk of fairies and elves, and despite the slander and defamation of character, I’m adopting a fairly newt-ral stance on it, tiny amphibious fingers clinging to the bark of a partially submerged branch, body flat, tail dragging in the ooze.

In th’olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,
of which the Britons speken greet honour,
al was this land fulfild of fairye
The elf-queene with her joly compaignye
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede,
This was the old opinion, as I rede…
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

That’s the start of the Wife of Bath. It tells us newts a lot about Chaucer’s times and his view of what was then to him, Britain’s past; and however distant or recent the past described, it might as well as well have been ancient, so strange the people and scenes described in the written and oral traditions of the time seemed to the Normanised English people of his day. As the Wife of Bath points out, elves were no longer to be seen in her day in England. These days, most people take this to mean that elves, along with fairies, never really existed, although some believers in parallel universes might believe that they were ‘supernatural’ beings viewed sometimes when the magic was right, and now in occultus. Yet although I have not checked every instance of elves in texts, so far nothing disturbs my sense that all references to elves in the pre-Renaissance texts and the oral traditions were to real solid flesh and blood human beings. Periodic reworking of texts as their language became old-fashioned, quaint and sometimes inaccessible, introduced hermeneutical errors which were woven into the fabric of the tales giving them a magical or miraculous atmosphere that they did not have for their original authors.

If in a song the ‘elf-king’s daughter did appear…’ an ambiguity arises for some listeners accustomed to eerie tales – ‘did appear’ can mean ‘appeared suddenly’ or ‘became briefly visible’ implying ‘out of thin air’. So a magical attribute is imputed to the elf, which then is said to have the magical power to appear and disappear at will. This makes it a supernatural being, and for those who don’t believe in such things, throws doubts on the possible value of the entire document dealing with elves, fairies and the like. I shudder to think how often such judgments have deprived us in the centuries following of truthful historical texts that could have told us so much discarded to be lost or burnt because a conqueror did not believe them…

Let’s imagine that the authors of these old texts that mention elves did not think of them as supernatural beings, but as real flesh and blood people with the ordinary powers of mortals. How does that song go? Steele-Eye Span used to sing it, and very nicely too, with eerie, supernatural wailing music in the back ground… I think it was on ‘All Around My Hat’.

A knight he rode his lonely way
Thinking about his wedding day
As he rode by a forest near
the Elf-king’s daughter did appear
Out she stepped from the Elfin band
smiling she held out her hand,
Welcome sir knight, why such speed
Come with me the dance to lead…

So far nothing magical at all, but the word ‘appear’ does become a little ambiguous when we hear that it’s an elf doing it. But watch what happens in the refrain:

Dance dance, follow me,
all around the greenwood tree
Dance dance, while you may,
tomorrow is your dying day
Dance with me, Dance with me…

Is this elf prophecying (a magical act but one that quite real prophets can do) or is she threatening (implying that she could bring about his death ) ? If it’s an elf, you can accuse it of anything, and any reconstruction of its song undertaken in the past when elves were feared would make the sinister worst of it. If it were not an elf, it might be easy to believe that his dying might be her intention from a quite unmagical murder, ‘dance with me and/or I’ll kill you’, but it’s also possible that it’s not a dying at all. There are I believe many instances of ritual and ceremony that are referred to in words that subsequent historians have mistaken for words for death and killing, because of semantic shifts that we now have no records of. We talk of ‘gilded’ youths, but no longer remember that gilding was the same as schooling. For some people the only instances of attention from the guilds they belonged to was at their birth and at their death, so for them any guild ceremony was likely to be a funeral. Think of Kells, Cille, and Kil-, all meaning ‘church’. Think of the Irish ‘bas’ death and compare with imbas, the Cornish abbas words to do with religion that changed meaning as they travelled. So it’s possible that this song records that in the two languages of the knight and the elf, the elfin word for a wedding was like the knight’s word for dying. (I see linguistic confusion like this in The Taming of the Shrew, where the bride is forced to learn to call the sun the moon just to please her husband.)

In the song this elf offers the knight spurs of gold, a shirt of moon-bleached silk, and a crown of gold, which may have been wedding gifts (in which case it’s a garbled wedding song, in which a fatal misunderstanding between bride and groom resulted in a murder, or a gift of recruitment – the elf trying to recruit a knight whose loyalties are elsewhere. She lives in the forest, she has all the trappings of high and courtly civilisation and she wishes to enlist a knight. I believe it might be an initiatory ceremony, in which the traditional three gifts are tokens: the spurs signifying a horse and a place in her cavalry, the shirt her livery or uniform, and the crown a series of intitations amounting to an education, with a crown to certify him a leaned knight. Our knight refuses to dance and refuses the first two gifts, but he wants the crown, and therefore she proclaims that ‘a plague of death shall follow’ him. Now that’s a fairly nasty accusation to make about someone who isn’t here to defend herself. Maybe it was a ‘series of ceremonies’. Here’s how it was carried out anyway:
‘Between his shoulders a blow she dealt,
such a blow he never felt’
Now if he couldn’t feel it, it didn’t hurt him, did it. So maybe she wasn’t dealing death, just ‘killing’ him softly (ie, initiating him) with a ritual stroke in preparation for his marriage.

There’ll be more on this subject soon.

I hope you’ve all read Nicholas Ostler’s, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World.
Published to much acclaim was this book, and certainly he’s put a lot of work into it, but he’s made a mistake or two and it is surely incumbent upon every newt astute enough to perceive them to mention them to anyone who, without the many benefits of eye-of-newt hermeneutical techniques, might be seduced by the hype and claim to high authority of this extraordinarily well-written book, into believing that it is academically adequate. My darling little efts, eggs and variously educated and mis-educated entities, it absolutely isn’t. And the way it fails of academic excellence has some, er… interesting political implications.

It begins with a Preface which gives us a laudably post-modern (at long last) glance at an idea of ‘language’ as distinct from ‘languages’, and then in the Prologue he bids a cavalier farewell to Commonsense, and with it 20th/1st Century hermeneutics and along with them both all claim to credibility as a scholar. Yes, in the very next pages he gives a poignant account of the meeting between Hernán Cortés and Moteukzoma (Montezuma) on the causeway across the lake to Tenochtitlán that has never been subjected to rigorous, academic scrutiny, but its sources are always treated as impeccable eye-witness accounts not ever to be doubted in any detail on any account whatsoever.

Now I doubt not that this man Ostler is a well-loved person making valued contributions to the saving of threatened languages, and no doubt he is personally charming and good-natured – I would hope so. I know he is a real, warm, honourable, loving, caring person, and I wish him health and prosperity in all his good dealings and kindly correction in all others, as I would wish for myself, and it is his relative merit that has brought his prologue under the lens today. I find fault with it, and I shirk not.

Any real hermeneuts among you will not fail to notice the many grand and glorious ideas for PhD theses to be plucked from the many hermeneutically astounding, rich and myriad-faceted details and levels as we flick the sludge from our gills and enter this exquisite little text. Accompanying us today will be Axol O’Tl, famed neotenous newt of the luminous lake (willing to answer any questions, and even if we ax a lot’ll answer ‘em all 🙂 )! There’s bags of stuff about the who, what, when and where that we could detail and mountains more that we have yet to get articulate about, and that’s only in locating the current publication and its author and his informants and their sources. And every step of the way there’s politics, religion, and other forms of vested interest at every turn. Not just baggage, but there’s some hard-driving stuff in there, and some of it impacts powerfully on peoples lives. Whether for good or ill, let’s look…

First, let’s cut through the heavy hermeneutical work without too much attention to detail, lifting it gently out of the matrix, chipping off the rust and coral, wiping away the muck. Here we have a text (the prologue) within a text (the book) which discusses a text (a written account of a dialogue between Cortés and Moteukzuma taken from a text (the contemporary encyclopaedia of Aztec culture, General History of the Affairs of New Spain ) which was selected from many other contemporary texts which also record, it after having been taken down by a recorder from bilingual utterances a portion of which are interpreted. Ostler is writing in English from sources including many key sources originally in Spanish, except for the Nahuatl sentences attributed to Moteukzoma.

Now the Prologue itself is a simple account purporting to be factual of the meeting of two cultures whose languages, Spanish and Nahuatl, were mutually unintelligible. The meeting was mediated by a Nahuatl speaker from Coatzacoalcos, a good deal more than the length of England from Tenochtitlán, who had been ‘traded’ as a child to Xicalanco 200 miles west Tenochtitlán, and so understood Yucatan Maya, and a Spanish priest who had lived for eight years in a Mayan village after being ship-wrecked. Moteukzoma spoke in Nahuatl, the Yucatan speaker translated it into Yucatek Maya and the priest translated from the Mayan to the Spanish. The Mexican chieftain welcomed Cortés as a god, or at least a mighty Lord, and yielded his authority to him without hesitation. And without so much as an academic qualm, Ostler believes it, O ye beauteous ones, totally unhermeneuted as it is. (Yes, Elaine, I did, I coined that word, but you may use it free of charge if you wish, just mention this URL when you do.)

Hmmm. Well, questions do arise in the hermeneutical mind, and not least among them, why haven’t the academics asked any of them? Let’s ask that miracle of neoteny, Axol O’Tl Axolotl.

Herman Newt: Welcome to our tasteful little blog on the edges of Academica here, ah, Axol O’Tl. Has anyone got a clear account of the linguistic situation back then, late 15th, early 16th century?

Axol O’Tl: Well, I can’t explain why no-one’s asked until now, unless they’re still too enchanted by Cortés’s account of himself, or complicit in his fraud, but since you ask, nope. The information we have is very, very sketchy. There’s been a lot of sickness, genocide, social disaster and cultural collapse since then, and the Nahual that survives has evolved. And the languages of Central America, like those of southern North American and Northern South America were always very fluid and complex, with most people belonging to several linguistic groups at various stages of their lives. Political boundaries have never coincided with linguistic boundaries, and within any geographical area uniformity and immutability of a speech is rare, even when languages remain clearly distinguished in the minds of most speakers. Most population centres would have several languages. There were lots of lineages, all proud and competitive and mixed marriages wove them together, along with their languages. So while most people spoke more than one language, many individual languages came into being and died out within a generation. Some of these were prestigious and others had great local or widespread influence on other accounts.

Herman Newt: How easily would native speakers of Nahuatl from centres six or seven hundred miles apart have understand each other at a first meeting?

Axol O’Tl: Well it’s bloody obvious isn’t it, I mean, how likely is it? Hmmm? They’re further apart than London and Scotland, for example, and a good rural Scotch burr takes some getting used to if say, rural Somerset’s your English, though they’re both ‘English’. Even some old dialects much closer to London were impenetrable until you’d lived with them for a while. And this Yucatan speaker, now how old was she when she was ‘traded’? Had she but fading memories of infantile Nahuatl? Or had she been traded as part of a group, for wives maybe, in which case she may have been able to keep it up pretty well. Obviously, with the information we now have, we’re left guessing. But since nowhere else in the world does it occur that two diverging forms of a language that distant in a culture that various and changeable remain mutually intelligible for long, it seems highly unlikely that she’d have been much help.

Herman Newt: How likely is it then that her Yucatan would have been identical with, or intelligible to natives of the village in which the priest had lived for 11 years?

Axol O’Tl: How would anyone know? How well did the priest learn Yucatan during his stay? Was he alone among them, in which case he’d have picked up some, or was his whole crew there, in which case the pressure to learn to speak it well would have been a lot less. No-one knows.

Herman Newt: The speeches attributed to Moteukzuma have been recorded in Spanish by scribes perfectly unacquainted with the Nahuatl language then?

Axol O’Tl: Yes.

Herman Newt: And were taken down from the dubious translation of a dubious translation?

Axol O’Tl: Yes.

Herman Newt: And this translation is the one still being offered to us as the correct one! Does this agree with the modern Nahua?

Axol O’Tl: Nobody’s ever asked. They take Cortés at his word.

Herman Newt: No! No historian would! No scholar would!

Axol O’Tl: You’d think, wouldn’t you.

Herman Newt: So, is tot¬eukyoe, otikmihiyowiltih otikmoziyawiltih really what was said? And does it really mean ‘Our lord, how you must have suffered, how tired you must be…?’

Axol O’Tl: No, Herman it doesn’t. The second two words are a pair, variants, in fact, of a single sentence. Observe that otikm__iy_wiltih are identical in each. Vowels only have to be unstressed to vary a lot. Where one spelling give o and the other I, you can posit a schwa. It’s a Spaniard writing it, and there are several Spanishes now, and there were more back them. Z and th and h are confusable in the old ship-board creoles. So otikmihiyawiltih is the same as otikmoziyowiltih. The scribe recording this was evidently trying out different spellings, which a recorder of rapid speech eye-witnessing a historic first encounter between two civilizations would have been most unlikely to have time for. So no, it doesn’t mean ‘Our lord, how you must have suffered, how tired you must be…?’

Herman Newt: So what does ‘toteukyoe, otikmihiyowiltih otikmoziyawiltih’ really mean?

Axol O’Tl: Who can guess? They’ve had to make something up. Nobody really believes that Moteukzuma really surrendered to Cortés believing him to be a superior being. Cortés was in a position to lie like a pig in slush and get away with atrocities. No one knew enough to contradict. By the time Nahuatl had been practically reinvented to accommodate fraudulent translations like this, it was impossible to tell how what words got into which lexicons and entered the language that way, as a contaminant. And the normally fluid Nahuatl language went on evolving, and now just shakes its head, same as the native Irish speakers with old Irish. But while they have something, anything, to support it they can get away with it. Especially if you can get ’em for atrocities – cannibalism, human sacrifice, anti-Semitism…
No record at all exists of what was said there. The only texts they have are no more transcripts of real conversations between people up against seriously daunting linguistic barriers than my back foot.

Herman Newt: Thank you, Axol, for your time.

Axol O’Tl: My pleasure!

Well, everybody, Lynn Gwyst’d be the one to ask. Maybe next time. For homework, read Four Masterworks of American Literature: Quetzalcoatl, The Ritual of Condolence, Cuceb, The Night Chant. Edited by John Bierhorst. University of Arizona Press / Tucson 1989 ISBN 0-8165-0886-0. Write a nine and a half thousand word essay on why you think Quetzalcoatl sailed from Cornwall in a ship, showing your hermeneutical workings out in the margins and lots and lots of foot-notes and bibliogs, and what has any of it got to do with Penn Bran yn y Gyst (Head of Bran in its chest). Mention evidence of race-memory-trace links to the folk-song, The Irish Rover: ‘She was an iligant craft, she was rigged fore and aft/and how the tradewinds drove her…!’


H: Hallo again, it’s me, Herman. I’m back.
Etty Moloji who spoke to us once or twice a while ago would like to introduce us to her good friend and colleague Lynn Gwyst, who wants to talk to us today about sex.

E: Hallo everyone. I and my partner Dorian Hiss email: hissdorian@Yoohoo.com have had some wonderful intercourse with Lynn concerning the politics and sociology of language evolution, and what she doesn’t know about the ins and outs of tongues is nobody’s business. It’s fascinating stuff, so I’ll get out of your way.

L: Good day, Herman and Etty. I’m very pleased to be here today. I’m interested in general linguistics. I want to look at three words in particular: sex, gender and the other one’s too rude. Um, sorry Herman, I don’t think I can go on.

H: Ahem, a euphemism, perhaps, Lynn?

L: Oh, I couldn’t, not in all honesty, Herman. A euphemism is a kind of lie.

H: Well, yes, but sometimes they’re warranted.
Euphemism, me for use ‘em!
You-know-what you-know-who’s-‘em!!!
How about: “Sex, Gender and Rolling in the Hay?”

L: Well, really now, Herman, what are you suggesting? Euphemisms do terrible things to languages – like runs in stockings. You’ve got a good stout word for – erm, you know – and you suddenly declare it obscene, taboo, illegal. This is because what it means is too rude. So you replace it with a word that means something else that only indirectly alludes to it until that gets the same meaning, which is too rude so that gets killed too, so you replace that too with some innocent word that gets contaminated, until someone thinks up a way of saying it (or not saying it in the case of words like coitus = a going together) in Latin, because nothing is obscene if you say it in Latin. Which is just as well because until then it’s just a running sore in the language, contaminating and morbidifying word after word. Think of all the words for toilet, and what they originally meant, if you know.

E: Rut’s all right, I think, Lynn.

L: Oh yes, certainly, Etty. Rut’s all right, if you’re ungulates. But as you go north in England, the vowel alters, and so does the meaning, and you’re not talking about deer anymore, you’ve got humans in mind and well, that’s vastly too rude. Unless you mean a plant’s feeding organ, which isn’t quite as bad.

H: Well, what about a Latinisation…

L: All right: Sex, Gender and Erotica. Howzat?

H: Mmmm, what do others think?

E: Erotica? Why. The e is obviously an old definite article, and rot is probably originally pronounced just like its too-rude English equivalent, and the -ic just adjectivalises it so that you can make a noun out of it bu adding –a; and the noun, EROS EROTIS (m) has been commandeered as a name for a god. Why not just call it rut?

L: Well, all right. Ah hmmm. I’d like to talk to you all about Sex, Gender and Rut.
Now to begin with, sex is whether an animal, flower or flower part is male or female – boy or a girl – a daddy or a mummy. It is not rut. Rut is the reproductive act in its many and varied contexts, from flirtation to – erm…

C: Try to keep it clean, please, Ms Gwyst.

L: Who are you?

C: The censor.

L: Oh. Well, all right, there’s really no need for it to be disgust. I mean discussed. You see, I’m really eager to get at this Gender. Shall we?

H: Oh yes, do please, Lynn.

L: Gender is a grammatical term. It is not a biological term. It doesn’t mean sex.


L: Oh, look, if you’re all going to be beastly…

H: No, no, no, Lynn. Etty’s only teasing you. Tell us all about Gender.

L: Honestly, class, Gender started out as a grammatical term. Do you think French tables are girls while Irish tables are boys? Do you think a spear reminded the Romans of girls, while a flower looked manly to them? And did they denote a lack of either masculine traits or feminine ones in a building, a column of soldiers, or a javelin, or were these felt to be more neutral in some way? No, of course not. Yes, girl at the back? Yes, you are quite correct. We don’t know what native speakers of Latin thought about it at all. We don’t know whether they thought of the different genders of nouns as being related to sexual qualities they felt or thought they felt that certain ideas or things had – proof of an archaic animistic tendency still lingering in the ‘older’ languages (which aren’t really all that old if they’re honest about it). But it’s highly unlikely in view of the fact that an altogether more mundane and relatively modern circumstance sexualised the innocent genders of the pure and simple words that became Latin, French, Irish, or whatever. Can anyone guess what it is? No Robert, not reconstructionist time-travellers from the 22nd century. No, Sylvia, nothing to do with the animistic nature of words driving the evolution of words such that they trying to become life-forms and reproduce like animals, although it’s worth a glance, that idea, now that you come to mention it. No one else? Give up? All right, I’ll tell you. It was – erm…

E: Oh, Lynn.

L: …well, you know.

H: Do you mean…

L: Yes, Herman, I do. You see, males and females er…

H: Marry?

L: Yes, that’s the word. And they have children. And if they’re inbred, their off-spring become small and infertile. So communities distant enough to be speaking different languages arrange to marry each others’ merry merry maids to each others’ merry merry men and set up a new colony in a convenient place. Husbands speak one language, wives speak another. Wives rear children to age seven or so, so they grow up fluent in their mother-tongue. Fathers take the sons at age seven and they learn the father-tongue while the girls stay with their mother-tongue. The original husbands can’t understand the women, but their sons grow up speaking both languages well. You still have two distinct languages for a few generations, but after a while, many structural features would coalesce. But you’d still have a memory of which words came originally from the women and which words came from the men. (Also treatments of words, case-endings etc.) Yes, Edwin, I’ve thought of that too, of how the neuter came into being in languages like Latin, German and Greek, and why it isn’t there in French, Irish, and Spanish (well hardly at all). A neuter is added when large amounts of vocabulary enter the language through some means other than by inter-marriage – through mercenaries and other military allies, educators, priesthoods etc for example.

H: Well, the idea’s ridiculous of course, Lynn – you won’t mind me saying that, will you. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language doesn’t mention it anywhere, so we can safely dismiss it, can’t we?

E: Yes, Herman’s right, I think, Lynn. In fact I think we should, straight away, before it gets mistaken for a useful insight leading to really worthwhile discoveries about the linguistic situation of pre-renaissance europe, and thence to understanding of the social and political forces driving language evolution in those times, and from there all the way to new insights about the mind and manners of our ancestors. That would spoil it for those who like their history deep, dark, and mysterious,which is to say unintelligible, so as to remain free to fantasise about it at great public expense.

H: Thank you Etty, for those thoughts, and thank you Lynn Gwyst for your illuminating chat. For homework, class, I’d like four and a half to five and a half thousand words on ‘whether ancient Romans thought of the different genders of nouns as being related to sexual qualities they felt or thought they felt that certain things or ideas had – and whether or not this is evidence of an archaic animistic tendency still lingering in the ‘older’ languages. (HINT: try to avoid facts, since there aren’t any which support this theory and there are several which gravely endanger if not vanquish it.)

getting nitty-gritty critical

my compliments of this very fine morning to mr christopher snyder, who is a very highly qualified historian, and a writer of history books.
as an undergraduate (a mere eft, indeed, had he been, like me, a newt) he collaborated on a book about king arthur which was successfully used as a university text book. which is a terrible pity because if it was anything like his second attempt (and one likes to imagine that scholars evolve with age) it helped to perpetuate the shabby traditions of bad history. pollutes the pond, so to speak.
he’s a busy academic. in 2000, when he published ‘exploring the world of king arthur’, he was a fully metamorphosed specimen, chair of a virginian university’s history and politics department and doing all sorts of other very learned things too, such as serving on editorial boards and being a fellow of one society or another of the sort that takes a deep interest in antiquities. i mean, he more than gets away with it.
no, peer review just isn’t quality control, amanda, it just isn’t, when any ‘peer’ is in effect ‘peer-reviewed’ as ‘unsound’ if they disagree too much with the hegemony. so he not only gets away with it, he’s promoted for it, and if he did anything else but proudly perpetuate the pollution of the ponds of popular and professional perceptions of the past he’d be promptly punished and possibly even persecuted with professional peremptoriness by his powerful peers and put into the pits where he’d be hard put to procure a publisher.
now i’m a fair-minded newt and it is no wish of mine to single out one scholar among so many who are all participating in the producing of such vast vistas of such simplistic pseudo-knowledge that keeping track of it all is a full-time highly paid job for our most highly educated scholars. but it happens that he sometimes writes books intended for the intelligent lay reader, not for scholars, although perhaps they might be thought useful for serious students as well. so he is paid to produce a packaged product, and i’m appalled that there’s no quality control in academic offerings to the public who pays them at all.
so okay he is a professional historian with a high reputation and i am but a humble amphibian. but many things are seen through the eye of a newt that are not visible to the eye of a professional historian, and that is why i feel it encumbent upon me that i should save you all, oh my valued readers, yes, john, you, and even, raymond and alison, you two, who would learn more if you listened and didn’t dandle each others handies in the back row, from the dangers of falling for the frauds and errors that he, poor chap has fallen for.
what is wrong with his work? here’s my assessment.
epistemology: no marks.
hermeneutics: no marks.
yes, anthea? what is epistemology? phyllis? that’s right, good girl! epistemology is the theoretics of knowledge; that is, a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, studies its premises, considers deeply the veracity of its parts, and regulates with simple sanity the tousling out of the implications of known facts. it distinguishes with great nicety between fact and theory, and deals with the production of academically sound theory by valid logic from sound bases. that is to say, basises. ahem.
and what is (or are) hermeneutics, other than the study of newts called herman? look it up in your dictionaries, yes, that’s right, simon – the methods by which scholars interpret texts. and no, murray, not specifically ‘sacred’ texts, and it is nothing to do with the extracting of abstruse ‘sacred’ sense out of all but unintelligible texts which make no sense at all to non-specialists – what did god mean when he said ‘all flesh is grass? for example. reading a text is a hermeneutical act. the words have meanings, the meanings are interrelated according to the logic of the sentences as indicated by the grammar. so it matters a lot. i don’t believe snyder has done his own translation, so i can’t hold him personally responsible for the errors of his sources, but i did take a mark off for his indiscriminate use of tricky and treacherous translations more titillating than truthful, in the face of glaring evidence of their inaccuracy.
for example, if you turn to page 80, where he is introducing us to geoffrey of monmouth, he notes that that learned author of a history of the kings of britain described himself as a PVDIBVNDVS BRITO which means, christopher has the face to assert, ‘a modest briton’. PVDIBVNDVS BRITO. a glance at that tells the average 1st former of forty odd years ago, when latin was a compulsory subject for all matriculants, that this guy wasn’t speaking classical latin. they’d’ve learnt by chanting, like i did, that BRITANVS –I (m) is the word for a briton. but all right, we might perhaps allow that there’s a reasonably high probability that BRITO (presumably) BRITONIS (m) is a dialect form of BRITANVS –I (m), but PVDIBUNDVS –A –VM means humble?
well of course he’s supported – and kept erroneous – by the lexicography, and the less we look at that the less we start to grin and giggle. i mean, julia, it is in dire and drastic need of wholesale radical revision. it is the major tool of hermeneutics, and since hermeneutics is ‘understanding’ and that’s what we’re after, let’s start rejecting what our remote ancestors bequeathed us in the way of a lexicon. lexicography must leap into the 20th century without fear or favour, and learn the art of itself, before presuming to slither it’s perverse and deviant way into the 21st. having glanced but once, or made ourselves quite queasy with looking, let’s politely look the other way.
you can of course see the reasoning behind this translation. anyone who knew good classical roman latin but not much of the other sorts, would be given pause by this little oddity and would immediately resort to good old-fashioned comparative philology as it used to be called, and they’d see its resemblance to PVDENDA, which we all know (and we doubt at our peril) means ‘requiring to be rePVDiated’. after all, it’s all about about PVD, and that of course is something too shameful to go into here. so it follows that PVDIBVNDVS would mean an abundance of PVD, i.e., shameful stuff.and ashamed of one’s abundance of PVD would equivalate approximately enough to humble, so humble is what it means. hmmmm. perhaps he even had a consciousness of having PVVD.
hey look, there’s nothing wrong with resorting to comparative philology, or historical linguistics as it is trying to get called these days – and succeeding in some circles – as long as it’s quality comp phil you’re doing. and there’s no professional historical linguistics being done on the ancient texts that isn’t based on the comp. phil. of the early twentieth and nineteenth century and earlier, when all scholars were required to swallow whole and without a murmur of protest the lexicography of the middle ages, especially that pertaining to the interpretation of ancient greek and latin texts. the need to believe that they are clearly understood, despite readily findable evidence to that they are not, has served as a kind of neurotic retarder of progress in history doing.
i mean, young efts and elvers and everyone listening to me today, current lexicography even manages to sustain some passages of the bible if – and only if – you squint and look sideways, and take the word of the copious note providers that it doesn’t look as if it means what they say it means because you just haven’t learnt enough greek – the really hard stuff that only really really learned beings know, to wit: the stuff that is totally at variance with what you learn in the first six forms of school and thereafter the next three to six years at university, in other words, they’re lying in their gills – i mean teeth!!!
and it’s the likes of them who write those lexicons, popping geoffrey of monmouth’s little gem confidently and unresponsibly in with all the good stuff with fine medieval panache. we have to go back and look at it all with very great care. imo, as they say on the message boards, of course!
fair question, samuel, what does PVDIBVNDVS mean? up until now i’ve been reserving the roman alphabet for the latin language, using an cells (uncials) only for english and other modern languages. but now i’m (exceptionally) using it to shout. NOBODY HAS THE FAINTEST I-BLOODY-FAHKEN-DEA! now that’s, epistemologically speaking, a fact.
and it is because you haven’t penetrated the enchanting mystique of the lexicography of the past, christopher snyder, that you lost one of the two marks for hermaneutics. you lost the other for jumping to silly conclusions and then stirring up the mud around you so that no one could see that that was what you’d done. we’ll talk more about why you lost the other mark some other time.
for homework, re-read nicholas nickleby, for a fine description of a yorkshire boarding school that faintly recalls its medieval origins just as it reaches its 19th century demise. it’s fascinatin’ stuff.

painters paint, builders build and archers…

er, well, no, lisa, they don’t arch, they… er, practice archery.
is archery the art of making arches then, or of arching? well, not one would think, primarily. one’s intention would be, you are correct, i think, lisa, to forcefully project aimed arrows point first at the highest possible speed at a target in order, ideally, to pierce it. one would get around to observing that this involved making arches as a sort of secondary consideration, wouldn’t one?

so why call it archery and not bowery or arrowery, or bow-and-arrow-ery, or something like that? did archer come from arch or arch from archer? has archer got some other meaning besides the perfectly serviceable bowman (or bowperson, to update to gender inclusive language)? let’s investigate.

now in this flat expanse of mud i’ve just cleared with a few deft swishes of my tail, i’m going to draw with one of the tiny almost translucent fingers of one of the tiny hands on the end of one of my tiny front legs the letters that spell the word archer. ARCHER there, i’ve done it, in roman letters, not uncials, just to show you that i can.

look at it, get the feel of it, let it speak to your soul. then, i want you all to take out your favourite voice-recording device, plug in the mike, switch it on to record, press start and say it out loud. “archer”. then play it back to yourself a few times, listening carefully.

in past exercises of this sort i’ve asked you to pronounce the word under the lens (or under the eye of newt, as in this instance) in as many ways as you have ever heard it said, or can imagine that it could ever have been said. but this time, just say it once, casually, sneaking up on it, so to speak, in your own native or foreign (if english is not your native language) accent.

then, take out your favourite coloured pencil, crayon or texta, or just use your toe if you prefer, and write, in any alphabet known to have been in use by english-speaking populations when the word ‘archer’ was first coming into general use, phonetically – according to whatever phonetic values are known to or can reasonably be argued to have been represented by the letters of that alphabet – your representation of the sounds you hear yourself producing when you read it.
for example, if you pronounce the r in archer, your phonetic representation will include a sign or character for the sound r, but if you don’t, it won’t. if you represent the sound of the first vowel as a long u for umbrella, doubling it to show length, uu might be your symbol, or if you use a for aha instead with an h to show lengthening, you might use ah for the first vowel.

for vast numbers of literate english speakers, past, present and future, the lengthening of the a would be indicated by following it with an r.

no, phillipa, the phonetic alphabet won’t help you in this exercise – the writers of old, middle-aged and ancient texts didn’t use it – they spelt ‘phonetically’ as above or obeyed book-learned spelling rules that are now not easy to relate with any certainty to any actual, hands-on, down-and-dirty speech sounds, so it’s worse than over-kill. it supports some delusional historical linguistics without clarifying the real stuff.

within living memory, when phonic values of letters were taught to small children, they used to chant things like:
‘æ’ and a ‘rrrr’ make the ‘aah’ in ‘archer’. they’d have added moreover, with reference to the second syllable that ‘eh’ and a ‘r’ make the ‘ah’ in archer, having also noted that ‘k@’ and a ‘h@’ make the ‘tch@’ in archer (where @ = eu as in…er…, sometimes named schwa, but don’t squint too closely at the rationale of it – it’s an infant science, linguistics).

i should here remind you that, incarnating for the good of all beings (albeit most inconveniently) as a juvenile human in a rural south oz primary school (after two years of kindy) i, herman newt, have first-hand experience of this, indeed, i chanted along with the rest (and what a weird mob of kangaroos, sheep, red-back spiders, king brown snakes, newts, cuttlefish, kittens, puppies and tommy-the-toy-trucks we were – but that’s dreamtime stuff, y’know, and i only mention it to explain how a newt came to be chanting english-language phonetical propositions as a five-year-old human in one of the classrooms of a small rural school way out in the spinifex), and can assert that i, this wet little amphibian in mufti, would have been at the time struggling (and i add, winning the struggle) to get the letters to spell a word that would perhaps have been spelt more phonetically as ‘aacha’. but that’d make it look dutch and so in english, you have the option of using a line above the vowel to indicate lengthening, so it looks like this: ācha.

isn’t that gorgeous? – ācha

now this little exquisitude instantly sends the newt diving into the oh so intelligible murk of its database where, while it’s gone, i, blue-stocking the bard (bardly treated as i am still being on account of not seeing the value of using the international phonetic alphabet to minutely describe the phonic values of words whose pronunciation can only be guessed at) shall hum you a few bars of that hoary old ballad, ‘bold robin hood and the impertinent 21st century ballad-singer’, although i’d just like to mention that if this blog doesn’t support the æ and the ā symbols, you’d no doubt guess, wouldn’t you, what they were meant to be.
hmm mmmmm hm hmmmmmmm
hmmm hmmmmmm hmhmhm hmm
hmmm……… oh, look, the newt, it’s surfacing. i’ll get out of your way.

thank you, bluestocking!

yes, ācha.

most of you will easily recognize there, in the written form now under our newt’s-eye lens, the irish plural ending –acha, which as nobody any longer disputes at least not with any conviction, is a form of the english –age, which denotes a collective, as in baggage, rather than a plural. in irish now and perhaps but not necessarily in the past, the ch of –acha is pronounced as if spelt with a greek chi, (poor blogger can’t manage the font), that is, like the crunching of something crisp but juicy, an apple, or carrot(eh, what’s up, doc?), or something like that.

these irish ch’s tend to turn up in english as a sound like the tch in church. old irish chach (pronounced ‘tchutch’, with ‘u’ as in ‘uh huh’) is english church, for example, notwithstanding the DIL’s insistence on preserving as sacred the errors of past translators who thought it meant, aah, eeny meeny miney mo, not church, not each, but battle, at least wherever possible, twist the rest of the text as it might, thus sustaining the otherwise unsustainable notion that the irish always were ire-ish, i.e., warlike, and were therefore always at war, not pious, gentle people as they often are now, fond of their churches and reluctant to fight.

(it isn’t that i don’t know that, in hermeneutics which, for those of you who’ve just arrived, means the interpretation of texts, we’re all sometimes reduced to eeny-meemy-miney-mo-type lexicography sometimes, but it’s post-modern to admit it when we are, and not try to destroy all evidence of possible error by poisoning newts. i mean, stop the pollution of waterways and give us newts a chance!)

now in irish, much more than in english, there are many different ways to form a plural. as well as -acha, there is –anna, for example, an english variant of which is ‘any’, related, as you will instantly see, to the variant which occurs in english as ‘one’ and all its cognates in other languages. it’s also related to english and celtic articles an and na. there are other common plural endings as well, but we’ll focus on these two.

the early comparative philologists left us with a legacy of belief in a totally unbelievable tree of language which never did explain gendering of nouns or the varieties of ‘declensions’ of nouns within a language. you can go so far with such a model, even if you allow much pleaching due to intermarriage, conquest and other mergers, but after a while, there you are weaving baskets, probably with waves, and in the best(??!!) ‘academic’(???!!!!)tradition, there’s still a knock-out competition on to decide which theory is right.

last time i looked (and i’m a fastidious newt with a sensitive soul and easily shocked, so i don’t often), i noticed that they’d come up with an extraordinary way of managing the conflict: you acknowledge that the tree-form doesn’t work and declare the wave model therefore the ‘winner’, BUT, and i mean that cyril, so i’ll say it again with emphasis, BUT!!! all current historical linguistics including all the proto-indo-european root words, the gaulish ‘dictionary’, and much other equally dark and desperate lexicographical work on old texts of many languages, assumes a tree, and so we can’t just replace the tree model with a wave one even though as the winner of the power-struggle, it’s ‘right’, because bang would go the entire PIE, and along with it, most ancient history, and wasn’t it hard enough when prasto bit the dust?

so we know that it’s wrong, but it sustains current dogmas upon which so many have built so much, in the way of theories, careers, ego-trips etc, so rather than go to all the trouble of revising it all from the ground up, we’ll keep doing it anyway and ridicule any other theory to death with scorn…

this newt declines to accompany them.

preferring instead the company of frogs, wyverns and other inspired visionaries.

in short ye who have noticed that an awful lot of marrying went on back then, and if you marry continually into your own clan, disaster tends to strike you fair in the gene pool; so when an already dangerously inbred man starts wanting a girl, he starts looking about for a girl just a bit less like the girl that married dear old dad, and marriages probably were made in emhain, or heathen, or edin or eden, or else arranged by taut old tarts and tyrants in all sorts of towers, tars, tour, tarots, turrets, tias, tuas, tewes and tiwas all over the planet. and they usually saved time, money and energy, and acres of achingly pure white, or scarlet, or purple linen, cotton or silk, by marrying them off a hundred or two or four or five couple at a ceremony after giving them a week or so to socialize (grab your partner here we go) – or not as the political climate of the time allowed.

there’s a gorgeous example in the story of the duke of warwick, when the king of england with all his retinue married the princess of france with all hers.

further input would come from the militia, armies sent to defend some far distant land,who were rewarded for service with land and grateful, enamoured wives when the war was over. the school systems and fosterage also mixed languages, and so did the customs of conquest and subjugation.

now if you can get either a tree or a wave out of all that i’ll go he! i mean there’s trees, waves, clouds, flowery meadows, oceans, rivers, bogs and thank gaia, lovely murky streams and ponds of the sort that newts delight in, geysers, volcanoes, glittering mica deserts, and oh my one and only indefinable undivided infinite, eternal god that has no face but all faces, no sex but all sexes, no shape but all shapes, no substance but all substances (aren’t we getting ‘ancient-celtic’?), sort of amenable to every possible sort of metaphor; and none of them fit perfectly.

not one. not even bubbles in a cauldron, desmond. not even dragons in full battle-rage.

but looking at language itself as revealed so imperfectly and so fragmentarily and fragmentedly through written texts and the oral traditions, it’s clear that some people who used –acha as a pluralizing ending fetched up cheek by jowl with others who used the ending ‘–anna’ (reduced, it seems, to ‘–ne’ in old english), and it would seem reasonable in referring to them to distinguish between them by calling the –acha-ans ‘achaäns’, or ‘achaeans’ for convenience, and the ‘-anna-ans’ as the annaäns or annaeans. (–an is of course another variant of the complex that the english word ‘any’ is a variant of.)

es, -s, -ith, -the, -adh and more are variants of an ancient es, and the ones who used it would be called ess-ans, (essene, if you spell -anna –ene) and those using a lisped variant would be athene, wouldn’t they?

-achaeans, they’re greeks, aren’t they? athens – that’s hellenic, isn’t it? well, spotted there, deborah, but no, not greek, and yes, hellenic, that is to say, hellish, or of hell. and where on the map do you find hells full of people speaking the languages whose ancient and aging texts have surfaced in the far west of europe? that’s right, wales. cornwall. england.

they tend to spell it heylin, or heyl or hel, hill, hol, hall or hull, or drop the h and spell it ell or el, as in eliseg, ellis, elys etc, and often it is obscured as part of another word, such as llanelli, or pwllheli, or minstrel (minster-hel). it’s a form of hill, and used to be a name for what is now called a hillfort.

helledh was a welsh princess. without the lisp, that’s a lot like hellas. helston is in cornwall, not far from st austell. eolas which is as near to hellas as you can get in irish, means knowledge or information. it turns us as ollamh in irish, meaning a highly educated person (hells were schools very often – refer rhonabwy at the house of heilyn in the welsh tale, the dream of rhonabwy.) ollamh is olaf in the north, and elf or aelf, in english. aelfred, aelfric, you know who i mean, and yes, that’s true, gerald, hellenes are hellenes and aelfs is elfs, and you have to draw the line somewhere, but where, i ask you? where?

nigel, put that comic away or i’ll confiscate it.

that’s right, celia, the –amh, reduced to an –f in english, is doing the work of an old ‘of’ word or ancestor of ‘of’. so yes, i suppose you could say that an elf, ollamh or alvin is a ‘scholar from hell’, but why would you bother????

to sum up, and i’m over my self-imposed thousand word limit by about one thousand one hundred words already, so i’d better be concise:

achaeans, athenians, essenes and the anaeid (id is a form of idh or ith, cognate with the modern english ‘(-e)s’ and denoted a plural or collective noun) were all exported to the east in the form of piles of books. oh, by their human manifestation of course!

but the main thrust is that the achaeans were archer-ans, taken to greece by the charming breton knight himself, and guess what, the ancient greek word for a bow is ‘toxa’, of two forearms’ length, no doubt, which is close enough to t-acha, allowing for a greek accent grappling with brythonic sounds and bewildered by the ‘the’. (they dispensed with the th in their own forms of the).

we’ll look closer at the athenians, who seemed to have colonized greece earlier on (unless the greeks sent atha-ans to briton and everyone’s forgotten about it), later.

and for homework, well, prep if you like, julia, i’d like you all to read once again tirant lo blanc, that bit where he does a convincing impersonation of alkibiades the general who married the king of greece’s daughter after defeating the persians for him, and marries carmesina, the king of greece’s daughter, after she’d handed him macedonia as a gift in order to make him a duke so that she didn’t have to marry a boring old general/captain, and besides, she was besotted with him, he was such a hunk, and besides, he helped her father to defeat the persians – perhaps he resembled george harrison of the beatles… or robin hood. or prince andrew in his youth.

then, in the remaining ten minutes write a twelve page essay on what is the relationship between the ancient greek word ‘damar’, a wife, and the cornish/english river ‘tamar’, (the t mutates easily to d in cornish) and the english, french and germanic words ‘dame’. (hint: start by leniting the ‘m’)