A sidenote: on the value of political correctness

On the value of political correctness

It is an undeniable fact that we now live in a world that is rapidly undergoing profound social change. Although contact between different cultures and peoples has existed for as long as human society itself, it can be said with certainty that the degree to which intercultural contact exists nowadays is unprecedented. Not only the time that takes us to move from one place to another has decreased dramatically, also the relative financial and psychological loads are at an unprecedented low. In other words, we are capable of travelling further, faster, and more cheaply than ever before.

Of course this relative comfort comes at a certain price. Mark Twain is famous for many things, but also for saying that travel is fatal for prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Although I do not doubt that this can be the effect for those doing the travelling, it is different question altogether how this affects the local population. I fear that those who did not reap the benefits of the ongoing fading of the relative importance national borders (in the physical, not the legal sense) find themselves perplexed and frustrated by the apparent fact that the values and customs they grew up with are now considered anathema.

I will freely admit that I am sympathetic to this notion. Although I was born the result of a mixed marriage, my upbringing took place in a white environment. I went to a white school, I had white friends, and I played sports overwhelmingly played by white people (field hockey and tennis). Growing up in this kind of surrounding in the Netherlands during the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s, it was relatively easy not to be aware of just how quickly society was changing. Of course, events like the attack on the Twin Towers, and the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh had an impact, although in a sheltered environment it was difficult to judge the effects. As a child, in late November and early December I looked forward to celebrating Sinterklaas, a traditional holiday that has recently come under serious criticism due to the fact that the Saint’s servants evidently represent Africans. Logically, I joined many of my compatriots in collective (bemused) outrage when it was brought to our attention that our beloved tradition contained racist elements. We would consider ourselves victims and we wallow in our self-pity. Self-pity is a very comfortable state to be in. This same kind of idea, that it is actually “us” who are being victimized is visible in many places in the world: one can still find it in the Lost Cause narrative in the American South, in the expansionist rhetoric of post-Soviet Russia, and among various groups, ranging from political Islamists to the European New Right. These narratives are all loaded with the notion that “we are unjustly victimized and are simply trying to restore the status quo”.

As a result this frustration, undoubtedly borne from a sense of societal loss of direction is channelled towards whatever considered responsible or representative of this loss, either the “media” or “the government” or something related. The notion being that there is a “ban” (although poorly enforced) on words considered offensive. These words can vary from place to place and in perceived degree of offensiveness, but for now I will tak ethe word negroneger  in Dutch, neeger in Estonian. The idea is that the word, when speakers of these two languages learned it, was not considered offensive and that it is only due to “political correctness” that we can no longer use it. Some of the more intellectually minded defenders of this word will argue that the original word “simply means black”. The fact that this is a poor argument should be clear to anyone, so I will not even discuss it further.

However, it is obvious to anyone that the vast majority of people who use this word this word will not see any legal repercussions for its usage, as it rightly should be. I do not believe that what is and what is not considered offensive is something that is possible to regulate by law. What is considered offensive is and must remain the domain of civil society, and it must be the unalienable right of every individual to use whatever words they want, regardless of their perceived offensiveness. However, this is where the crux of the matter lies: although the right to use such vocabulary is reserved to everyone; they have duty – not a legal, but a societal one –  to account for this. In short, it is the right of every individual to decide whether or not they want to participate in polite society.


The Estonian adverb: the difference between ‘Being in town’ and ‘seeing in town’

Recently I’ve had many discussions with friends about why it seems that under certain circumstances, originally genitive nouns are used in adverbial usage in Estonian. Basically in Estonian, there are different strategies to create adverbs: generally, the noun stands in adessive case, e.g.:

  • me olime  hommiku-l        linna-s              |   ta   reisis         öösel          Riiga
    we were   morning-add.  city-inessive    |   he  travelled  night-add.  Riga.illative

‘We were in the town in the morning’      |  ‘He travelled to Riga at night’

However, in vernacular usage (and in many, many Estonian dialects) the adverb appears to have been based on the genitive instead:

  • hummog-u      ao-aigo                     sõit peigmiis (South Estonian)
    morning.gen  time.gen-time.prt. drove bridegroom

‘In the morning, from time to time, the bridegroom would drive […]’

  • ommik-u         akkasime lõikkama   õhtass               ol’id  lõegattud (Western Estonian)
    morning-gen we.began to.cut         evening.trans. were cut.passiv

‘In the morning, we started to cut; by the evening, it would be cut’

  • aga ommukk-u     kui      sii       tüdrik  üless  tõus’i       ütle (Eastern Estonian)
    but morning-gen when the(?) girl       up      rose         said

‘But in the morning, when the girl got up, she said’

You get the picture. Now, I’ve had many different discussions with different people about this subject already. Some of them argued that the underlying form must have been the adessive, but that the final consonant was simply elided (lõpukadu). Although this is definitely not impossible, I would point out that it is much more common for final vowels to be elided rather than final consonants, although I realize that this is not necessarily a very strong argument (especially considering how, for example, this is exactly what happened to the old genitive in Estonian, namely n > ø).

Maybe a better argument is that if we do assume that the underlying form was the adessive, then we would find a significant distribution of adessives. However, a search for adverbs with the underlying form hommik*+adv gives 283 results, of which only 17 (arguably up to 21) actually reflect the adessive, about 6% of all adverbs. It’s even worse for underlying päeval, ‘during the day’; where have only one attestation of the adessive out of 63 total forms. For underlying õhtul, ‘at night’ we have 7-10 adessives out of 245 total (2.8%) and for underlying öösel we find 10 adessives out of a total 293 (~3%).

I think that such a low frequency of adessives is significant, so I started thinking of reasons as to how this phenomenon actually came to be. Because I like language contact, I initially thought that it’s possible that the replacement of the adessive with the genitive was due to Russian or German influence. It’s worth pointing out that when talking about times of the day, German also uses the genitive, e.g.:

  • Morgens         und im Winter würden sie
    morning.gen and in   winter will.subj. you

‘In the morning and in winter you may [also bring your children without a ticket]’

Although it’s true that Russian generally uses the instrumental in temporal expressions, e.g. утром, ‘in the morning’, it has been pointed out on various occasions that constructions like на утра до вечера, ‘from the morning until the evening’ take the genitive ending as well (Launer 1973:302-4), and so it’s possible that these forms arose due to contact linguistics. A pretty good argument against this idea is that you would then expect this same temporal adverb on the genitive to also occur in written Estonian, due to the not insignificant influence of German and Russian on the Estonian written language. Despite that, this construction is considered purely colloquial (cf. hommiku, päeva, “Eesti keele seletav sõnaraamat“).

My idea right now is that the form actually reflects an internal development in Estonian, in which the object of verbs with ambiguous valence were reanalyzed as adverbs, which were then generalized and applied in every situation. For example, when we have a phrase like veetsime hommiku (gen.) linnas, ‘we spent the morning in town’, it is possible to interpret hommiku as the direct object of the verb veeta ‘to spend’, but similarly, simply as an adverb. This reminds me, that in English we could agree that ‘the morning’ is the object of the phrase ‘we spent the morning in town’; but who would respond to the question ‘what did you spend in town’ with ‘the morning?’

Either way, this system was then generalized and applied everywhere, potentially initially in phrases with intransitive verbs, e.g. rong sõitis terve päeva, ‘the train rode all day’. In written Estonian this is still perfectly acceptable, but the moment a transitive verb is introduced, the temporal adverb must stand in the adessive, e.g. nägin hommiku-l oma sõpru, ‘I saw my friends in the morning’. It’s possible that the form of the genitive in dialectal Estonian reflects a natural development of the temporal adverb, and that written Estonian stopped this development in order to avoid possible confusion of the object with the adverb.

Launer, M. (1973) Prefixal and suffixal derivation in the Russian adverb.

Something weird about the prolative case in Estonian.

Let’s go back to Estonian for a second.

Estonian has a pretty extensive case system: it innovated a number of cases originally not reconstructed for Protofinnougric, and then introduced some other cases through grammaticalization, such as the comitative. In total, most linguists would say that Estonian has 14 productive cases.

In Estonian, the genitive functions as an oblique case to which other case endings are added, so for example:

  • hommik (nom), ‘morning’
  • hommik-u (gen.)
  • hommik-u-l (gen+adessive) ‘in the morning’

Basically, this system works for every case. This means that whatever case ending you want to add to the noun, it will be based on the genitive case. A notable exception to this is the old prolative case, which is no longer productive as a case (but occasionally found as a suffix), basically expressing the means by which something is done, which is formed using the suffix -ti/-si/-tsi (apparently going back to Protobaltofinnic -ci).

Examples of the prolative are for example jalgsi, ‘by foot’; käsitsi, ‘by hand’; himuti, ‘lustily’. People who know Estonian will undoubtedly have noticed that the formation of this case ending is apparently based the nominative rather than the genitive. Although I don’t really know Finnish, I understand that a similar case exists there as well, e.g. meritse, ‘by sea’; maitse, ‘by land’; jäitse, ‘by ice’ (which were later borrowed wholesale in Written Estonian). However, there are also various cases of the prolative being based on the genitive as well. For example, we find forms like hommikuti not *hommiksi, küljetsi/külitsi not *külgsi, õhutsi, not *õhksi.

The reason for this variation is not entirely clear to me. Although it is obvious that there are some phonological constraints at work, resulting in the adding of an epenthetic vowel after some consonant clusters, such as hetketi (rather than *hetkti) (itself the result of the loss of final vowels after non-short syllables in Estonian), this does not explain why some forms are based on an oblique genitive case even when there are no phonotactical constraints, such as with näotsi, which would otherwise be *nägutsi; or alati rather than *algsi. Similarly, it does not even seem that phonotactics are that big of a deal, considering the attestation of the form holpsti ‘with a jump’, where we have four consecutive consants.

So I decided to look a bit further and to see if there are some general trends as to which form has an oblique nominative, which one has an oblique genitive, and which form has something else altogether. It turns out that forms with –si are always based on a nominative oblique, e.g. jalgsi, ‘by foot’; silmsi, ‘with [your own] eyes; eye to eye’; pimesi, ‘blindly (‘in the dark’)’; vägisi, ‘by force; involuntarily’; eksi, ‘mistakenly; erroneously’. As far as I know, there are no exceptions to this rule.

Both -(s)ti and –tsi are usually based on the oblique genitive, e.g. hommik-u-ti, ‘in the morning’; ilusasti, ‘beautifully’; kahe-ti, ‘from two sides (<kaks, ‘two’); in pairs’, libe-da-sti, ‘smoothl‎y’, and kao-tsi, ‘having disappeared’ (<kaduma, ‘to disappear’); küljetsi, ‘sideways’ (<külg, ‘side’); näo-tsi, ‘face-to-face’ (<nägu, ‘face’).

Moreover, there’s a whole list of prolatives that appear to be formed on another base altogether.For example, we find talviti, ‘each winter’ (<talv, ‘winter’; prt.pl talvi); keeliti ‘from language to language’ (<keel, ‘language’; prt.pl keeli). Where it gets really interesting, however, is with adverbs apparently based on the partitive plural, but whose internal morphology changed due to consonant gradation. Examples of these include põsitsi, ‘cheek-to-cheek’, of which the nominative singular is põsk, the genitive singular is põse, and the partitive plural is põski. Other examples of this include rinnutsi, ‘breast-to-breast’, nom.sg. rind, gen.sg. rinna, part.pl. rindu; and külitsi, ‘sideways’ (see above).

These forms have to be based on the historical partitive plural, although I’m not yet sure at which point the internal consonants underwent gradation, which is something that I will have to come back to at a later point.

Arabic ’alladī as a demonstrative

While I was reading through Li Guo’s edition of the mercantile letters from Quseir, Egypt, I noticed something interesting about the use of the Arabic terms ’alladī. In Classical Arabic, ʾalladī is an inflected pronoun that is used to introduce a relative phrase after a determinate antecedent, so for example you would say: al-rajul ʾalladī raʾaytu-hū fī l-sūq, ‘the man whom I saw in the market’. In some few cases, this relative pronoun can be elided, such as in the Qurʾān: ka-matal l-ḥimār yaḥmilu l-ʾasfār, ‘[they are] like donkeys [who] carry books’.

It’s been pretty well-described that in some cases, the relative pronoun ʾalladī was reanalyzed as a conjunction instead, such as in the following Classical Arabic phrase:

al-ḥamdu          li-llāh               ʾalladī ḫalaqa                l-nās
def-praise       prep-god         rel       he.created     def.man
‘praise be to God, who created mankind’

Which can be reanalyzed as:

al-ḥamdu          li-llāh               ʾalladī   ḫalaqa           l-nāS
DEF-praise       PREP-God         CONJ.  he.created     DEF.man
‘praise be God, that he created mankind’

Examples of this happening are all over the place: we can find it in Judaeo-Arabic letters from the 13th century (for example, in the phrase fəraḥnā ʾalladī ğamaʿ llāh šəlāmnā fī məkān wāḥəd, ‘we are glad that God put us all safely(?) in one place), as well as currently in the spoken dialects of Egypt and the Levant (as Phillip Stokes pointed out: ’anā mabsūṭ ʾillī ğīt, ‘I’m glad that you came’), so I’m not going to really spend more time discussing this.

So we know that Arabic ʾalladī can be used to 1) introduce the relative phrase (as in Classical Arabic) and 2) as a conjunction (in Middle Arabic and the Arabic dialects). However, these two functions do not seem to be sufficient to explain its usage in these two 13th century documents from Qusayr. Let’s look at what they say:

  1. wa-mā sayyarnā hādā ʾillā tasāʿdnā ʿalā ʾalladī fa-llāh allāh (135-36)
    ‘and we will not sent it unless you help us with [ʾalladī]. Oh God, oh God […]’
  1. ʾalladī ʾaʿlam bih al-ʾaḫ ʾaḥmad ʾan […] (240-41)
    ‘[ʾalladī] I inform the brother of Ahmad this, that […]’


What’s odd about these two phrases is that ʾalladī can not really be taken here as a relative pronoun: in example 1 because there is no following determining clause. The editor argues that it is a case of ellipsis, in that ʾalladī actually refers back to what is being discussed in the letter (a shipment of some sort), but I’m not so convinced. I think in this case it would be more logical to expect a resumptive pronoun with ʿalā. Considering the context, it’s not likely that ʾalladī was being used as a conjunction either, considering how this is the end of the sentence (as indicated by the particle fa-).

As for example 2, if ʾalladī was supposed to introduce a relative clause, then where is the antecedent? The letter itself starts with ʾalladī, so I’m not really sure what it’s supposed to refer to. A conjunction is similarly unlikely, considering the presence of the pronominal suffix -h after ʾaʿlam.

So my suggestion is that the use of ʾalladī reflects another function, that of a demonstrative pronoun (maybe distal, maybe proximal?), so we could translate the two phrase as following:

  1. wa-mā sayyarnā hadā ʾillā tasāʿdnā ʿalā ʾalladī fa-llāh allāh
    ‘and we will not sent it unless you help us with this/that Oh God, oh God.
  2. ʾalladī ʾaʿlam bi-h al-ʾaḫ ʾaḥmad ʾan […]
    ‘This/that, that I inform the brother Ahmad of that he’ […]

There are, of course, problems with this hypothesis. Firstly, I’ve only encountered ʾalladī like in this particular environment, and mercantile letters can reflect a specific kind of linguistic usage that is not representative of how people actually speak. Secondly, the corpus is rather thin, so I would definitely need more examples to make a stronger case about this. However, of two things I’m convinced: firstly, you cannot have a relative pronoun or a conjunction at the very end of a phrase; nor at the very beginning.


Some lists make me upset (why don’t we have an etymological dictionary of Arabic yet?)

About a year ago, there was a Dutch blogpost from historiek.net going around on Facebook; I remember looking at it at the time and getting a bit frustrated with some things, but at the time I didn’t have this blog so..yeah. I don’t mean to be pedant, but there are some things that I want to point out. Sure, many of the words they mention are genuine Arabic, but a considerable number of them were borrowed through Arabic and are, in fact, not actually Arabic. Several of these words have very doubtful or different etymologies as well. Let’s look at some of the worst offenders:

            vizier (18): Yes, well, I guess this term for “minister” is well-known from the Arabic sources, but it was actually borrowed into Arabic from Middle Persian, as was already pointed out by the famous orientalist Paul de Lagarde in his Übersicht über die im Aramäischen, Arabischen, und Hebräischen übliche Bildung der Nomina, in 1889. In the Middle Persian texts, it’s supposed to mean something like “judge; arbitrator“, which semantically fits much better than the Arabic “carrier [of the Prince’s duties]”.

            caravan (3): Same case as above, although possibly not even borrowed through Arabic. Klein’s Etymological Dictionary of English states that the term was borrowed during the crusades, so it might have actually been taken directly from Persian. Attested in Middle Persian as well (kʾlwʾn).

            luit (36): Obviously the word for lute is derived from Arabic al-ʿūd, which is fine. But then the author goes on to say that the English word wood (as in forest) is derived from Arabic, which seems a bit..odd, considering that we have cognates of wood in Old Norse (although interestingly, German Walt and Dutch woud are not related!). So this is just really stupid. I’m not really sure how that kind of mistake would (hah) creep in there.

            douane (46): Pretty much the same story as vizier, except that its origin is much cooler! The word dīwān is derived from Persian, already attested in Middle Persian, apparently going all the way back to the Sumerian word dub “clay tablet”, borrowed into Old Persian through Akkadian. François de Blois wrote about this in the Enyclopaedia Iranica, which is available online for free. Check it out. The term for the supportless bed somehow came into being due to the association of this object with the rooms they were placed in.

            oasis (22): Already attested in Latin, which borrowed it from Greek, in the exact same form. The Greeks got it from Demotic wḥj, which itself reflects a development from Egyptian. The Arab word was probably also directly taken from Demotic.

            mumm (16): The Arabic mūmiyāʾ actually reflects the Persian noun mumyā, ‘asphalt’, attested in a variety of Iranian languages as well as Armenian, and derived for the word for wax, mūm. Although it’s been suggested that the Iranian form was borrowed from the Semitic word for “water” (mā(y)?).

            koffie (2): Coffee. I’ve thought about this, and I really don’t think the form is Arabic for several reasons. Firstly, coffee is not indigenuous to the Arabian Peninsula, but was imported there from Ethiopia by Late Antiquity (5th-6th centuries). Although it’s held that the Arabic qahwa originally meant wine (which it probably did), it seems much more likely that the term was derived from the name of the city Kaffa in Ethiopia (compare also the drink port, fortified Portuguese wine). When it was borrowed into Arabic, they probably associated the drink with what they already knew, and so forth. So through Arabic,  not from Arabic.

            koepel (37): I’ve saved the absolute worst for last. Koepel, (“dome”) they say, is derived from Arabic al-qubba. I have two problems with this assertion: firstly, what happened to the Arabic definite article al-, which was maintained in virtually all other borrowings from Arabic (almanak, elixir, algebra, arsenal, and so forth) and secondly, where did the final l come from? The term, as it turns out, has a perfectly fine Latin etymology, as the fine people of the Meerten’s Institute point out: either the word was borrowed through French coupole (“small barrel; dome”), or directly from Italian cupola, reflecting a Late Latin diminutive of the noun cūpa, “barrel; cup”.

Some more words that really aren’t of Arabic origin are: suiker (sugar, eventually from Sanskrit), kabel (cable, actually Indoeuropean; how would Arabic be borrowed with [k]?), gitaar (guitar, probably from Greek), and masker (masque, Latin or Occitan), and then there are the significant amount of words they included that are not actually Arabic, which they state by their own admission (checkmate, orange, maffia, giraffe, andives, gazelle, azure).

I understand if people think I’m just complaining, but it’s really not hard to look stuff like this up. I also understand that fifty is a nice number to write a list about, but at least eightteen of them cannot really be considered Arabic in origin. It’s fine that there are many words, in various European languages, that were derived either directly or indirectly from Arabic, but sometimes I get the feeling that we tend to treat it as something of a magical language from which everything is derived. The underlying message usually is “look at all the things the Arabs have given us”, which is also OK, it just shouldn’t stand in the way of reality.


Also see:


Klein’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language

MacKenzie’s Dictionary of Pahlavi


When case collapses: an example from spoken Estonian

The purpose of language is to transfer information from one person to another. Some languages do this by changing the shape of words to show how they relate to one another, such as Latin, Icelandic, German, Classical Arabic, Finnish, most Slavic languages, and so forth. Other languages attribute meaning to words and phrases by heavily relying on word order, such as English, French, vernacular Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and others.

            Many languages of the former sort changed into forms of the later through the passing of time: many languages that once contained case endings have either lost them altogether (Swedish), or only contain vestiges (Dutch, English).

            In Estonian, there is an intersting example of partial loss of case with regards to the interrogative pronoun mis, “what”. It can be inflected for most cases (except nominative and partitive plural), although in common speech, nominative singular is used virtually everywhere. For example, you could say:

mis teed, “what are you doing” (for (partitive) mida teed);

mis päeval on ta tööl, “what day are they working?” (for (adessive) millel päeval on ta tööl);

mis päevani (or mis päevani jääme, “until what day are we staying” (for terminative mille päevani jääme)

And so on, and so forth. What’s interesting though, is when mis gets inflected, the meaning of the sentence actually changes. When we go back to the first example, mis teed, I’m sure that most Estonians would say it’s a pretty neutral phrase, most accurately translated with “what’s up”; when the form is inflected its meaning changes: mida [sa] teed is a much stronger way of asking what someone is doing, like a mother asking her children why their room is a mess, or maybe catching your significant other in an intimate position with your best friend.

            I guess what I like about this is the fact that even in situations where case has become more-or-less redundant, they can still convey different meanings. Other examples would be from Dutch, where the genitive case is only really used for humorous effect (you know, to sound old-timey). I’m hoping there are more examples of languages that ascribe meaning to case even in the case (hah) when they are no longer grammatically necessary.

The Arabian Nights and rotten vegetables

As most of my friends know, I am writing my Master’s thesis on two grammatical constructions in the Arabic version of the Arabian Nights, in an edition prepared by Muhsin Mahdi in 1984. Logically, this means that I spend most of the time just reading this edition without really focusing too much on the actual content. From time to time, however, there are things that make me go “huh, that’s interesiting/weird”, which distract me then for at least a few hours.

One of these things is a name mentioned in passing, when on the fourty-third night (the story of the first darvish), one of the characters introduces herself as “the daughter of a king called <ʔftymʔrws>, lord of the island of ivory” (ibnat malik yuqāl lah(ū) ʔftymʔrws ṣāhib ğazīrat al-ʾabnūs). A friend suggested that this “island of ivory” might refer to the city Elephantine in Upper Egypt, although I thought that maybe it could have referred to Punt in the Horn of Africa, which may have been considered an island at the time.

What’s interesting about the name, though, is that it seems very Greek; possibly (e)φθημαρος “(e)Phthemāros”; or (ε)φθιαμαρος ((e)Phthiamāros). Considering the location (Southern Egypt/Nubia), it’s possible that the name refers to a king of Ethiopia or Makuria, several of whom took on Greek names. This being said, I haven’t been able to find any person that actually had this kind of name, nor anything similar. It’s possible the name reflects some kind of compound, but searching for its meaning in any Classical Greek dictionary hasn’t really led to anything. So far, for the first part I’ve found:

  1. phtē, a Homeric Greek form of the verb phtánō, “to arrive/be first” (verb)
  2. Phthia, a city in ancient Thessaly (modern Phtiotis)
  3. phthisis, “a perishing”

For the second part, māros(?), there seems to be a kind of sage (the plant, not the wise person) called māron; otherwise, it may be a shortened form of maroúlion, “lettuce”; so most likely the king was named himself after a rotten plant.

All jokes aside, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to figure out this name at one point. If anyone has a clever idea, then tell me!