My book in a strange tongue

Last Friday I received a copy of WEIT that had been translated into a foreign tongue. I didn’t recognize it at all, and couldn’t remember all the languages into which it’s been translated (there are fifteen now).

Basque

Pretty weird cover, eh?

Opening up the book, I found pages that looked like the one below.  Well, it wasn’t Finnish, because I have that edition.

I finally to identified the language by looking up the publisher on the front page and then going back to my list of commissioned translations.

But without that information, can you recognize this language?

Now give it the old college try: look at it and try to figure it out before you go to the comments. Maybe most people will recognize it, and I’m just bad at this stuff, but it baffled me. I’d never seen anything like it:

Basque 2

Well, I’m glad they translated this into ******, but I wonder if there are enough native speakers to make its publication worthwhile.

186 Comments

  1. Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    This is Basque, spoken in the Basque Country, divided between France and Spain. It is an official language in the autonomous Basque region of Spain.

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      By the way, it’s one of the few non-Indo-European languages spoken in Europe (other examples: Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian and Turkish).

      Cheers!

      • Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        Ah, I was going to guess Turkish, but I don’t suppose non-Indo-European means these are actually related… ?

        /@

        • Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

          Nope. Just not relate to Indo-European languages :)

          Basque and Turkish are as distant from each other as English from Basque.

          • Posted January 23, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

            “By the way, it’s one of the few non-Indo-European languages spoken in Europe (other examples: Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian and Turkish).”

            “Ah, I was going to guess Turkish, but I don’t suppose non-Indo-European means these are actually related… ?”

            “Nope. Just not relate to Indo-European languages :)”

            Not exactly. Estonian and Finnish are quite close, bordering on mutually understandable. Maybe like German and Dutch. Hungarian is distantly related. Turkish is even more distantly related. All of these came to Europe from Asia (well, Turkey is not really in Europe) in relatively modern times. There are many languages in central Asia more or less related to Turkish, and other languages in northern Europe and Asia related to Finnish. In particular, the Sami language is distantly related to Finnish. However, it arrived much earlier and is not even close to being mutually intelligible. Basque is not related to any of these, nor to any other language, as far as we know.

            “Basque and Turkish are as distant from each other as English from Basque.”

            Yes, which is to say completely unrelated, as far as we know. (And even if they are distantly related, it doesn’t matter in any practical sense.)

        • Marella
          Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

          Basque doesn’t appear to be related to any other language. I think it’s probably the language spoken by the hunter gatherers who lived in the region when the Indo-European farmers invaded about 6,000 years ago.

          • Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

            Perhaps Basque could have originated in the language spoken by the Cro-Magnon.

            This Wikipedia article contains some interesting information, some of which I had heard many years ago – i.e. the Cro-Magnon ancestry of the Basque people:

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_the_Basques

            • Marella
              Posted January 21, 2014 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

              That would be really exciting!

            • Posted January 22, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

              That is not the consensus among students of Basque history. Even if it were the case that Basque is a direct lineal descendant of the speech of Cro-Magnon humans, it would have changed beyond all recognition by the time the first inscriptions in Vasconic languages were recorded in the Roman period, so it wouldn’t be exciting at all (and it is in any case completely unverifiable).

              Genetic evidence suggests a possible late prehistoric Balkan origin for Basque speakers. Given that no related languages are known aside from those in Aquitania (modern Gascony – Gascon being a corruption of Vasconice, the late Latin name for the land of the Basques), with none known at all in the Balkans, it is hard to tell. But, nevertheless, the proto-Vasconic language reconstructed by linguists contains plenty of words for metals and metalworking that are not related to anything Indo-European so, as some scholars have noted (Larry Trask, Jean Manco), Basque is very much a metal age language.

              The idea that any pre-Indo-European language in Europe must be a relic of pre-agricultural times doesn’t square with the facts known from archaeology and population genetics that show Europe as having been constantly penetrated by new migrations from a variety of locales. There’s really no reason at all to suggest that Basque is somehow a Paleolithic relic, and I don’t know why such a view is so prevalent.

          • Slumbery
            Posted January 22, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

            There are genetic studies on this matter, since we already have analysed DNA segments from West European Hunters and Basques do not seem to be closer to Mesolithic Hunter-Gatherers than their Indo-European neighbours even in a wider area. Their language can be a different story, but there is simply no reason to assume that it has anything to do with the language of the ancient hunters.

            This region was reached by farmers earlier than 6000 BP and there is absolutely zero data about the language spoken by the first farmers of this (or any other European) region. Still Basque is more likely the descendant of the language of some early farmer groups, since the majority of the experts seem to think that most of the first farmers of Europe were not Indo-European speakers.

            BTW I suspected the text is Basque. I eat some chocolate to reward myself. :)

            • Posted January 22, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

              Early farmers is one possibility, and clearly the presence of farming non-Indo-European speakers speaks against the likelihood that Indo-European spread with agriculture (as Colin Renfrew and Peter Bellwood claim, against the evidence). But there is the possibility, based on recent genetic evidence (specifically, IIRC, ancient DNA), that the ancestors of the Basques were relatively recent migrants to southwestern France, coming originally from the Balkans. Hard to say for sure, obviously.

            • Marella
              Posted January 22, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

              Do you have any links to information on these ideas? Who were the farmers before the Indo-Europeans?

              • Muhry
                Posted January 22, 2014 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

                The neolithic farmers were near eastern, likely from around Anatolia.

                A new paper titled “Ancient human genomes suggest three ancestral populations for present-day Europeans” might be of interest to you.

                http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2013/12/23/001552

              • Marella
                Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

                Thanks!

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 12:35 am | Permalink

                The dominant theory is that Indo-European originated north of the Black and Caspian Seas in the Chalcolithic/Eneolithic (at the very end of the Neolithic), c.3200 BCE, with the Sredny Stog and Yamnaya archaeological cultures. Farming arrived in Europe long before this, with the arrival of farmers from early Neolithic Anatolia beginning c.8000 BCE. Peter Bellwood claims that proto-Indo-European was spoken in Anatolia by the first farmers, but this definitely isn’t true, as PIE has words for metals, wheeled vehicles, and wool production, all developments after 4000 BCE. (There are other reasons why Neolithic Anatolia is an improbable origin for IE, but the linguistic point is the most important).

                So all of the farmers in Europe before 3200 BCE spoke non-Indo-European languages, whether associated with the Linearbandkeramik (LBK), Cris, Cucuteni-Tripolye, or other pre-Indo-European archaeological cultures.

  2. Yofi
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know of course but it sort of feels like Estonian….

  3. Fazufazu
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Is it Estonian?

  4. Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Now I’ve worked this out (or think I have), I shall sit back and bask in the satisfaction of having solved it…

    • Trophy
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      +1

  5. Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I suspected it was Basque and google translate appears to confirm this. Or at least the title page!

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I can’t get past the cover. It’s creepifying!

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s nice symbolism. Creepy, but nice.

      /@

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      My thoughts exactly, Diana.

    • Alektorophile
      Posted January 22, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      I saw the Italian version of the book in a bookstore not long ago. The cover shows a suit-wearing person with an ape mask looking lost in a rapeseed field… Not sure what to make of that symbolism, either.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 22, 2014 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        That is quite odd!

  7. Luis
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Mmmm. I don’t think it is Estonian. To me it looks like Basque.

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it looks like Basque.

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

      Estonian looks a lot like Finnish (since they are closely related) – and Estonian and Finnish both look a little like Tolkien’s High Elvish (Quenya) because he derived that language along Finnish principles (Low Elvish, ir Sindarin, was derived from the same root language as Quenya, but based on Welsh).

  8. BilBy
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Euskara

    • James Walker
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      +1

      • James Walker
        Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        Or rather, euskera

  9. Hempenstein
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    No diacritical marks, so that excludes many languages. And the part about paucity of native speakers excludes many more guesses.

    Yiddish written / transliterated in Roman letters?

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      Yiddish? Neyn, es iz nit di mameloshn.

      • Jonathan Dore
        Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

        Yiddish is just a dialect of German, so pretty easy to identify.

        • Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

          Yiddish is actually a language of its own, though there are major similarities with modern German as well as Yiddish words that made it into the German language which makes this an easy mistake to make. While Yiddish and German share a rather recent common ancestor, they are different branches of the evolutionary tree of languages.
          Yiddish itself diversified into several different dialects, depending on their environment – that is, the home countries of the Jews speaking it.
          As of today, there is no region in the German speaking nations where it is still spoken, safe for very narrow circles like families. I assume that Israel is the country with the highest amount of Yiddish speakers today.
          Sadly, it is a dying language, despite laudable efforts by some philologists to postpone its extinction.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

            I good book about Yiddish is Born to Kvetch. The cover is pretty funny too!

            One part of the book talks about how there was a conscious effort to rid Yiddish of the Polish influences. I had a dark joke that even the German language just has to over power Polish! I thought for sure the author was going to remark on it, but I think he missed it.

            When my nana died, we found a book in her house that no one could figure out. It looked like it was written in Hebrew and we gave it to a friend who took it to his daughter, who couldn’t figure it out so he took it to his Rabbi. It ended up being Yiddish written in Hebrew. I guess it was a tricky code LOL! We kept joking that the book was cursed because my nana had died & then right after, the rabbi died. I’ve had it for many years though & so far so good.

            • Posted January 21, 2014 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

              Printed Yiddish is conventionally written in Hebrew characters. The transliteration into Roman characters is much more recent.

              Actually, the number of Yiddish-speakers in the world is going up, not down. It is used within many of the “black hat” orthodox sects, who have large numbers of children. What is dying out is the secular and literary Yiddish in which the mid-1800s to mid-1900s Yiddish literature of the “Haskalah enlightenment” was written. The black-hat types won’t allow their people to read that literature. They are also all creationists, and these days are getting their arguments about that straight from Christian creationists.

  10. Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I thought Finnish at first sight, but maybe Estonian which is similar?

    Basque seems like a good contender too!

    As long as they won’t publish WEIT into Etruscan(which is extinct), nothing wrong with translating it into the non-Indo-European languages of Europe.

  11. mattpenfold
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    I am pretty sure that for the language in question there is funding available to subsidize the cost of translation as there is for a number of minority EU languages.

  12. Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Had no idea, but google translate does… says it’s B*****.

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      Oh and it is lucky that we all read and inwardly digest the earlier posts in a thread isn’t it?

  13. Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Icelandic?

    • Hempenstein
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      No.

  14. NewEnglandBob
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  15. gbjames
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Weird cover, indeed.

  16. Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Whoa ! Stunning. NO idea.

    But.

    IF its folks are ‘tween Spain ‘nd France, as others discern of this lexicon, then terrific !

    cuz of any o’ the European – like areas still requiring enlightenment, likely many of ‘em .there. are mighty in need o’ it. Yet.

    Blue

  17. gravityfly
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    No idea what that language is.

    That cover is creepy!

  18. alphazulu99
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    It’s Greek to me…….

  19. Antonio Guillén
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    It is Basque language (Euskara in Basque). It is spoken by about one million people. Today most Basque speakers live in an area of northern Spain (The Basque Country, Euzkadi in Basque, and the Northwestern area of Navarra autonomous region, Nafarroa in Basque), and one French department. Some Basque people (but not all) may disagree with the idea that these territories should be politically part of Spain or France. Although there are some disagreements (hopefully nevermore violent) about the convenience of an independent Basque country in a multicultural democratic Europe, it is very good that the book is traslated into Basque, since Basque people has a unique cultural heritage, and language is a fundamental part of culture and a fundamental vehicle for culture. Well, and a culture without language, fades away. Basque language is a cultural treasure that contributes to the undestanding of human history. TONI

  20. stephen
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    It’s all Basque to me! ;-) I considered Albanian, but I’ll go with Basque.

  21. John Yarzagaray
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Since my surname is basque, I’m ashamed to admit that I guessed wrong. My wild guess was Hungarian. Oh well. Minus 10 points for me.

  22. Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    So the tree’s roots are part of Darwin’s beard, and his lips are sewn with a double-helix — fortunately — as he almost put a foot in his mouth. Operation Mindscrew on a biology book cover.

  23. Richard Olson
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    I hope the artist who conceived and executed the cover illustration posts a an explanatory comment here. I quite like it, and I’m very curious about the shaft piercing/connecting the tree trunk and a human leg.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      Seconded.

  24. Richard Olson
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Notify button.

  25. pktom64
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I live in the Pays Basque (and even have a Basque grandfather) but doesn’t speak it… but it looks very similar to what I can see on road signs, welcoming signs or official publications where Basque is present.

    I vote Basque! :)

    And about the few people speaking it: it’s true but there are bilingual schools here (French-Basque) and a few non-Basque friends send their kids there, as being immersed in a foreign language at such a young age can only be of benefit (or so they think and I agree).

    • pktom64
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      doesn’t speak it should read “don’t speak it”… anyway, seems like I don’t speak English either. Sticking to French now.

    • ROO BOOKAROO
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      pktom64

      “and a few non-Basque friends send their kids there, as being immersed in a foreign language at such a young age can only be of benefit.

      Those “non-Basque” friends must be French or Spanish, obviously living in Basque country.

      Agreed with the second language at a young age for quickening of the mind. But why, oh why,…Basque? Of all languages in the world?

      Why not ancient Greek, or Latin? Which open the mind to a fantastic, nearly magical world.
      Ancient Greek is the clearest, most logical, most articulate language. No wonder science and philosophy started with it. The language of rationality and beauty.
      Probably they are no longer offered in that Basque region.

      Barring that, why not German? or Italian? Some are brave enough to consider Russian or even Chinese (good luck) or Japanese as an enriching second language.

      The question is: what is offered locally? Wasting precious years of a kid’s youth learning Basque is such a monumental waste. Ravel was born in Basque country, but never learnt the language. He invested his time in music instead.

      Going for Basque is nearly as bad as learning Dutch. Which is useless anyway because the Dutch have understood that nobody in his right senses is ever going to learn Dutch, so they embarked on learning other people’s language, whatever it is. Any educated Dutch knows 4 languages at least.
      Same thing with Hungarians, as nobody sane is going to try to learn Hungarian.

      • Posted January 22, 2014 at 12:09 am | Permalink

        Why should those children learn Basque? Apart from its being the language spoken locally? Because preserving linguistic diversity is an admirable aim. Because its grammar is very different from Indo-European languages (it’s Ergative-Absolutive rather than Nominative-Accusative, so the differences, even without the vocabulary, would be obvious from the start), which will give them a taste of the ways in which languages vary.

        • Darkwhite
          Posted January 22, 2014 at 2:26 am | Permalink

          Preserving linguistic diversity guarantees that most people in the world will have no way of communicating with each other.

          Given that the children won’t be learning every language in the world, the ones they do learn have an opportunity cost. The question isn’t whether there is -any- value to learning Basque; the question is whether other languages would be more worthwhile.

          • pktom64
            Posted January 22, 2014 at 3:20 am | Permalink

            As I just said below, those children won’t be “stuck” with French and Basque.
            They will have to learn English and most probably another language… usually Spanish around here.

            Somehow, with French, Basque, English and Spanish in their bag, I don’t worry too much about them being able to communicate with other people in the world.

            • Posted January 22, 2014 at 3:29 am | Permalink

              Basque provides them a “secret” language when there’re abroad amongst French, English and Spanish speakers!

              /@

            • Darkwhite
              Posted January 22, 2014 at 4:02 am | Permalink

              I don’t worry too much, myself; whether they learn Basque or not will not be decisive for their adult lives.

              I personally think the children would have rather learned a language which is widely spoken, maybe even by people they otherwise would have no language in common with – preferably a language with a rich body of literature, movies, games and science. Russian, Arabic and Japanese all spring to mind.

              Instead, they seem to be learning Basque for no other reason than Basque nationalism.

              • pktom64
                Posted January 22, 2014 at 6:43 am | Permalink

                Again: Basque immersion schools exist and Russian/Arabic/Japanese don’t (for such young children anyway).

                As for the Basque nationalism part: I don’t understand where you get that from… (I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that my comment don’t indicate any such thing).

      • M'thew
        Posted January 22, 2014 at 2:23 am | Permalink

        As a Dutchman who had to learn ancient Greek in school, I couldn’t disagree more with your comment.
        ;-)

      • pktom64
        Posted January 22, 2014 at 3:18 am | Permalink

        Those “non-Basque” friends must be French or Spanish, obviously living in Basque country.

        Yes, they’re French like me.
        We live in the Pays Basque Nord (as opposed to Sud)… you have to be careful about calling it Pays Basque Français or Pays Basque Espagnol… The Pays Basque is neither French nor Spanish ;)

        But why, oh why,…Basque? Of all languages in the world?

        Well, I can’t speak for them but I gather the fact that there are Basque immersion schools as opposed to Latin immersion schools or even German or Italian ones (or the other languages you mention) around here.
        Those children will then have to learn English in school and then choose at least one other language, usually Spanish or German. (except, maybe, if they choose a technical path).
        And they will have the option to take up Latin or Greek as an optional course.

        Do we really have to choose a language for the practical use it will have later in life? Why not learn it for the sake of it (and, as someone pointed below/above, for preserving a rather interesting language).

        • ROO BOOKAROO
          Posted January 22, 2014 at 6:54 am | Permalink

          pktom64:

          But is not learning Basque for “preserving a rather interesting language” also a “practical use”, and mostly for professional linguists?

          How about learning Ancient Greek or Latin in order to “preserve two rather interesting languages?”
          In fact they are so interesting that they became the base for many of the European languages we now know and use, including English and American (amusingly labeled “Merkan” by late linguist William Safire).

          On any range of criteria you may choose, learning Ancient Greek or Latin scores much higher than learning Basque.
          Learning Basque makes sense only if you belong to a family or community immersed in Basque culture by reason of geography or cultural descent.

          For a non-Basque linguist learning Basque makes sense, hey, it might be easier than learning Sanskrit, or even Chinese.
          But for the young child of the non-Basque linguist to be obliged by his parents to choose Basque as a second language, given the extraordinary range of competing choices, to me makes no sense. This kind of abstract decision only elicits sadness at the waste of infinitely valuable years of childhood when the famous “linguistic windows of the brain” are open to ANY second language.

          Preserving Basque can only be a community project of the Basque people themselves. It’s their affair.
          The non-Basque are simply curious outsiders. Even the Basque-learning linguist is nothing more than a scientific observer, not an activist fighting for the survival of a minority language.

          Activism? Then, how about fighting for the survival of English, which is also a “rather interesting language”?

          French is a goner. Too difficult for the modern French who simply don’t know it any more, and don’t learn it in French schools.
          A little bit of the same is happening in American high school, where “Merkan” is taught by teachers who don’t know it well either.

          • pktom64
            Posted January 22, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

            As I answered above, the schools are available for Basque but not for Greek or Latin (or anything else).
            So the choice is between an immersion in a Basque school or no immersion at all.

            Besides, about your point that this is a Basque affair only: this is only your opinion (what’s wrong with being a curious outsider?) and, further more, those kids were born here so they’re Basque. So I guess it is their problem after all.

            I’m sure that having learned 4 languages but the time of going to university, if they want to learn a fifth it won’t be that difficult (or so I heard but I may be wrong).

            We’re just adding knowledge here people…

            And I didn’t understand what you said about French not being teached in French school (which is obviously wrong)…

          • E.A. Blair
            Posted January 22, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

            How about learning Ancient Greek or Latin in order to “preserve two rather interesting languages?” In fact they are so interesting that they became the base for many of the European languages we now know and use, including English and American (amusingly labeled “Merkan” by late linguist William Safire).

            There’s a lot wrong with this, starting with the fact that Classical Greek and Latin, being dead languages*, are as well-preserved as they’ll probably ever be (barring the discovery of a hoard of previously unknown documents and manuscripts that contain previously unknown vocabulary and other features). Although Latin is undergoing something of a revival, its current popularity does little to contribute to what we already know of it. Then, the “base” of English (in all forms) is not Latin or Hellenic, but Germanic. Although all three of those subgroups are Indo-European, they have diverged significantly enough that the linguistically naive have trouble seeing the relationship.

            Of course the events of 1066, when England was forced to relax its immigration quotas, resulted in the influx of a lot of loan words from Norman French. But they remain that – loan words. The core vocabulary of English is still Germanic (and a lot of Old Norse words got in, too**). Furthermore, when medieval grammarians, who were mostly schooled in Latin, set out to codify Germanic and English grammars, they did so by wrapping the trappings of Latin grammar around languages that didn’t fit the mold. This is why many students of yore who had Latin as a required course, claimed that English grammar didn’t make sense until they learned Latin – it’s because English grammar isn’t really English.

            *However, there are those who feel that, “Soli linguæ bonæ sunt linguæ mortuæ”.

            **As James Nicoll so famously said, “English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary”

            • E.A. Blair
              Posted January 22, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

              One thing I forgot to mention is that I can’t decide whether the post I replied to is expressing language snobbery or language bigotry. Even the most obscure languages have features that are worth studying.

              • ROO BOOKAROO
                Posted January 22, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

                E.A. Blair:

                So, once you’ve made up your mind, what will result? Another moralistic condemnation? To what use? Another affirmation of political correctness in linguistics?

                And who on earth is going to devote his time to the “most obscure languages” for their “features that are worth studying”? but professionals, like the experts of the British Museum, the British Library, or the Metropolitan Museum?

                Is it fair or does it make any sense to have a young child start the study of one of those “obscure languages” as a second language for the sake of satisfying the linguistic political correctness of the father (or mother? but mothers are more practical on that subject)?

                And no, languages are not preserved as books and manuscripts on the shelves of universities, they are preserved only insofar as they are studied, read and practiced, and owned by living people. Cataloguing them the same way as dead butterflies in the drawers of museums is not “preserving” them, but collecting their skeletons.

                Yes, Museum directors do keep ancient tablets full of characters nobody can verifiably read or understand. But that is not the kind of language “preserving” I was mentioning.

                Of course, when I said that Greek and Latin are at the base for many of the European languages we now know and use, including English and American (“Merkan”) I did not mean the historical root (I have on my shelf above my desk David Crystal’s “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English language”), but the fabric and structure. And, no doubt, in the case of English, you are right, I should have been more specific by saying as “a base of our vocabulary”, since I did not intend to go into a pedantic diatribe about grammar.

                But, looking at your own comment, I can’t help noticing that nearly 50% of your words are of Latin origin (couldn’t see too many of Greek origin). And that is the proof of the pudding.
                And that is exactly what I meant even if I was too lazy to make things strictly explicit by starting another sentence to distinguish the case for English.

                Thanks for pointing out the too quick writing.

              • E.A. Blair
                Posted January 22, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

                The proof is not in the pudding. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

                Most of the “Latin” words in English came by way of Norman French. Most of the words that came into English directly from Latin or Greek are technical or scientific terms that are not part of everyday usage. I still maintain that you have a warped sense of judging the utility of a language. The number of speakers or the geographic distribution has no bearing on a language’s value as an insight on human thought.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 22, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

                Of course I agree because I have a somewhat esoteric interest in languages. I wanted to take every language I could when I was in university, but I couldn’t fit them all in. The ones I missed out on were Russian, Hebrew & Mohawk.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 22, 2014 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

                I wanted to learn Gaelic There was a program that let you go to Nova Scotia in the summer but it wasn’t just language you learned, as they made you learn how to make kilts so I didn’t want to go. I hate making things. I sucked in home ec & shop. I just wanted to learn Gaelic!

            • Posted January 22, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

              Old Norse is a Germanic language too, so what you really mean is that English is basically West Germanic – more specifically, Anglo-Frisian, the sub-family from which Old English comes. Old Norse was incredibly influential on the development of later English: egg, bag, sky, etc, are all Norse words, and so are the words ‘are’ and ‘they’, which are pretty basic vocabulary items. Not sure what it means to say that English grammar isn’t really English.

              English isn’t especially mixed. French is full of Frankish words, Russian is full of Uralic (e.g., Mordvin, Udmurt, Veps, etc) and Turkish, Chinese seems to have a fair few Austroasiatic items, Malay is full of Sanskrit, Arabic, etc, Arabic has Greek, Berber… No language on earth is ‘pure’, and evidence of loanwords can be found in most securely reconstructed protolanguages, indicating loans, calques, and other kinds of borrowings far back in prehistory.

              • Posted January 22, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

                Aren’t the languages spoken by the Australian Aborigines, by the San (Bushmen), by the Sami, by the Inuit, by tribes in the Amazon and other isolated tribes around the world pure?

              • E.A. Blair
                Posted January 22, 2014 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

                The Old Norse contributions to English qualify as loan words since they were adopted after a time when the two had diverged sufficiently to be considered separate languages. Similar words in two languages that are derived from a common root are called cognates. For example, ‘hand’ means the same in German and English (although they are pronounced slightly differently) so they are cognate. English ‘head’ is not cognate with German ‘kopf’, but us cognate with ‘haupt’, which also means “head” not not in a bodily sense.

                The Old English (or Anglo-Saxon, if you prefer) form of the second person singular of ‘to be’ (‘beon’) is ‘eart’ with gave rise to both the archaic ‘art’ and modern ‘are’. It’s interesting to note that the verb ‘to be’ is an irregular verb in all Indo-European languages. My point, however, was that when scholars codified English grammar, they used a Latin-based framework to describe it instead of laying out a uniquely Germanic one.

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 1:18 am | Permalink

                ‘Eart’ is actually the third person singular of wesan, not beon, and an Old Norse origin for plural ‘are’ (‘you are’, ‘they are’) is the most commonly accepted view. Regardless, Old Norse had such a profound impact on the development of English that, whether you think of them as loanwords or not, a large amount of basic English vocabulary is of Norse origin – in contrast to Latin, Greek, or for that matter, Mayan contributions.

                Scholars didn’t codify English grammar; all languages have grammar whether someone codifies it or not, and English shows its West Germanic origin in its syntax and morphology. Latin influence is limited to such silly rules as ‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition’ and ‘don’t split infinitives’ (perfectly acceptable in English, impossible in Latin).

                As for Australian languages, etc: there is every reason to believe that languages spoken all around the world have borrowed words from other languages. For instance, the Yolngu (a Pama-Nyungan language spoken in Arnhemland, Australia) word for paper has an Arabic origin, via Buginese, and there is some degree of hybridisation between Pama-Nyungan and non-Pama-Nyungan languages in northern Australia.

                There is plenty of evidence of sharing and mixing between Arawak languages and Tukanoan, Panoan, Carib, Tupi-Guarani, and plenty of other South American languages families. Amazonia is actually full of situations of language contact and cultural assimilation, and it’s certainly not an area of ‘pure’ languages.

                Saami is an Uralic language, like Udmurt and Finnish, and proto-Uralic is believed to have been influenced to some degree by proto-Indo-European, including the possible introduction of a word for water, rivers, and other key features. It has also been influenced by Swedish and Finnish.

                San ‘bushmen’ speak Khoesan languages, and Khoesan languages are interesting for several reasons. One is that proto-Khoesan has words indicating a familiarity with cattle and herding, which shows that the narrative of San people living a timeless, primordial hunter-gatherer existence is probably false, and that this lifestyle is a comparatively recent adaptation. Most Khoesan languages also show considerable influence from and on the Bantu languages of southern Africa, which arrived relatively recently from the northwest. I’m not sure, because I’m not an expert on this part of the world, but there may also be some Cushitic or Nilo-Saharan influence as well, both of which come from northeastern Africa (Maasai is a Nilo-Saharan language, for e.g.).

                It would be extremely rare for a language to be ‘pure’, whatever that might mean, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the languages of foragers and herders are ‘purer’ than those of farmers or even people in post-industrial societies.

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 1:20 am | Permalink

                Oops, eart = 2nd person singular. But it’s still wesan.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 22, 2014 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

              The “soli linguae” Latin you mention used to be my signature file on my old UNIX account. :)

              English is indeed a Germanic language but unlike other Germanic languages, its words take a lot from Latin and I suspect this is because the intelligentsia of the time, who came up with these words, felt Latin was the vocabulary they should use. For this reason, I’ve always felt somewhat distanced from my native language, a distancing that I don’t believe is the case for other Germanic speakers.

              To illustrate my point, consider mundane examples like television. This word, though we know what it means is constructed of Latin to mean “to see far”. In German, television is Fernsehen. It’s the exact German word for “to see far”. When I was in high school and learning both Latin and German, I learned this German word and found it funny because the word “television” had no meaning for me. It wasn’t until I realized that television also meant “to see far” that I realized how separated I was from the meaning of my own language.

              I suspect this is why Krankenwagen on the side of a German ambulance makes me laugh because our word, “ambulance” is divorced from the true meaning of the word. It’s why English speakers find a lot of German words funny. Germans can’t understand why we laugh at these normal words and I know many an English speaking child of German parents who laughs at these German words to the perplexity of their parents. :)

              Lastly, consider exit. The signs we see everywhere! A pure Latin word!

              • E.A. Blair
                Posted January 22, 2014 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

                Diana, most of the Latinate common words in English came by way of Norman French, a Romance language influenced by Old Norse (“Norman” = “North-man”). The nobility spoke French, so when the two began to merge into what became Middle English, many words of French/Latin origins won out because they were more hoity-toity. This is why farmers (i.e., peasants) raise cows, sheep and pigs while city folks eat beef, mutton and pork. Poor people shit, rich people defecate. Poor people fuck, rich people copulate. Think of German ‘Rindfleisch’ and ‘Schweinfleisch’.

                Here’s another interesting borrowing – ‘window’ comes from the Old Norse word ‘vindauga’ that meant “wind-eye”. The Old English equivalent was ‘eagþyrel’ which meant “eye-hole”*. the word ‘þyrel’, “hole” survives in the Modern English word ‘nostril’, originally ‘nosþyrel’, which meant “nose-hole”.

                *I guess this says something towards the probability that windows in early Scandinavia had no glazing.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 22, 2014 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I’m aware of the history of English and Harold taking it in the eye and so forth but “television” is definitely not a Latin word we got through the Normans. This was a word applied consciously.

                Further, the Latin influence, even though indirect, still dilutes English sufficiently that it is ironically more foreign to the native speaker than other Germanic languages.

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 12:23 am | Permalink

                Latinate words in English obscure the mistakes of early chemists. We don’t give a second thought to “oxygen”, but Germans are confronted by this “acid-stuff” that isn’t common to all acids.

                /@

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

                Maybe that was the plan of the scientists all along. :) Well played.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted January 23, 2014 at 12:48 am | Permalink

                @ ant

                Yeah but our (English) perplexity is not far removed – consider oxidising agents that contain no oxygen – such as ClF3 which is possibly the most ferocious oxidising agent known. It will happily oxidise oxides.

                The early chemists’ mistakes are still there, written all over the subject.

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 4:39 am | Permalink

                I dont see that as a mistake, just an extension of the original sense of oxidise.

                /@

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 4:56 am | Permalink

                Wouldn’t the very long Roman occupation of Britain have also infused the language with many Latin words, followed by the even longer dominant presence of Catholicism?

              • E.A. Blair
                Posted January 23, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

                Probably not for two reasons:

                1. At the time of the Roman occupation of Britain, the native population were of primarily Celtic derivation and spoke a Celtic language; the Anglo-Saxons, and their language, came later.

                2. Although Britain became Catholic, Latin was the language of the clergy and the educated, not the commons. It would not have influenced the language any more than it did the American Catholics of my parents’ (and, briefly, my) generation, who simply sat in the pews and listened to a babble they didn’t understand (as opposed to now, when they sit in the pews and listen to a babble they barely comprehend).

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

                I used to think that and perhaps it had influences on Anglo Saxon but the occupation was only in London and who knows what it did with Anglo Saxon in London especially….though I think under the Romans they people there were Celts speaking a Gaelic language and Anglo Saxons came later. I’m sure the Gaelic spoken by the Britons is long lost.

                This is just my reasoning – I’ve not verified my speculation.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2014 at 6:00 am | Permalink

                During the period of Catholic dominance in Europe, Latin was not that big an influence on “non-dead” languages if only because it’s use was confined to ecclesiastical contexts. Relatively few people knew it. The better to keep the mystery alive.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

                Ooops E.A. Blair answered already. Hey, looks like my speculation was right though! Whoo hooo! Yay reason! :D

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

                Diana,

                The Welsh language is what became of British Celtic.

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

                I’d have thought it would be Cornish.

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornish_language

                When I was in Cornwall in 1968, I often saw Breton (from Brittany, France) sailors and fishermen speaking with Cornish sailors and fishermen, in their common Gaelic language which is fairly different from Irish and Scottish Gaelic, or so was I told.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

                No way! I suspect the Britons in London lost their language when the anglo saxons came. Welsh is a particular type of Celtic language spoken in Wales, like Irish Gaelic is spoken in Ireland and Scots Gaelic in Scotland.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

                I thought Cornish had totally died out, but it seems that it isn’t quite extinct, although it had been so declared. Welsh has considerably more speakers: 750,000 or so.

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

                Breton is a direct descendant of the language spoken in Roman Britain, and arrived in Brittany around the time of the Anglo-Saxon migration/invasion/whatever you want to call it. Welsh and Cornish are also direct descendants of different Brythonic dialects with ancestors certainly going back to the time when almost all of Great Britain south of the wall was governed from Rome, so the ancient British language isn’t lost at all. It certainly wasn’t Gaelic, though; Scottish Gaelic and the Irish language are in a different branch of Celtic. Cornish died out as a first language in the eighteenth century, but it has been revived in more recent times as a way of differentiating the Cornish locals from the English holidaymakers…

                And there was probably no British Latin influence on the development of English. British Latin died out entirely, I think. There’s precious little evidence of Celtic influence, actually, although the way you ask questions in English – ‘do you like ice cream?’ – with the ‘do’ at the beginning of the question probably comes from a Celtic precedent. It’s very unlike other West Germanic languages and much more like Welsh.

                There are a few words in English that come from very early Latin influence on Germanic. ‘Cheese’ is one, from Latin caseus – probably entered West Germanic or late proto-Germanic before spreading out in the Age of Migrations.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

                “No way!”

                Way!

        • ROO BOOKAROO
          Posted January 22, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

          In the same context, I can’t help adding a link to this fascinating article from the Harvard Medical School on how infants learn languages and what they absorb while doing it. It’s much more than words.
          That’s why the choice of childhood languages has vital importance, not to science, not to any wider anthropological or social research, but to the very future life of that infant. It will become part of his/her fundamental “Sitz im Leben” (existential position).

          http://hms.harvard.edu/news/harvard-medicine/harvard-medicine/handed-down/way-words?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=01.22%20(1)

      • Alektorophile
        Posted January 22, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        I couldn’t disagree more. Wasn’t it Charles V who said that learning a new language meant acquiring a new soul? I am not sure learning any language is a “monumental waste of time” for kids, every language is a window on a different culture and way of thinking. And there isn’t of course a set limit to the number of languages a person can learn or even just be familiar with, so no need to weed out the world’s languages and make everyone speak the same 2 or 3. I myself am fluent in half a dozen, and familiar enough with another half a dozen or more (and also took Latin, ancient Greek and some Old English in school). My son at age 3 is fluent in Italian and English, gets by with German and French, and for some reason I constantly have to read him Anders And comics we picked up on a trip to Copenhagen, even though neither of us speaks dansk. A kid’s curiosity and ability to learn is immense, and the more languages they are exposed to the better. I wouldn’t mind learning some Basque myself.

        The world is losing so many unique languages every day, no need to accelerate that process by driving everyone to speak English, Spanish, or Mandarin only. English and French (and often German or Spanish) are sooner or later often taught to children anyway (in Europe, that is), and if not, they, like almost everyone else, will pick up enough English later in life to be able to communicate with any monolingual anglophone tourist they happen to cross paths with.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted January 22, 2014 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

          I absolutely agree.

          I was ‘forced’ to learn French in school (didn’t like it, what use was it, I had better uses for my time yadda yadda) but over the years I occasionally saw a sentence in French which I could half understand. Then when I was in France for a holiday last year I found (much to my surprise) that I could understand a surprising amount (schoolboy French coupled with words that are similar in English) so since coming back to NZ I’ve taken a couple of French courses and quite liked it. (The teacher who taught us using ‘immersion’ was tough, though).

          In between, several decades ago, I made a rather futile attempt to learn Rarotongan – which had some limited utility since I was living there at the time. Didn’t get very far, since everyone in Raro also speaks English so they would always speak to me in English! But what did impress me was that grammatically Polynesian languages are totally different from English (unlike French which is very similar); and the language betrays a very different way of looking at life. I think it’s a valuable experience just for that – to bring home that there’s more than one way of looking at things.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

            I would like to learn a Polynesian language. We have friends who are Maori speakers but I’m in Canada. :)

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:43 am | Permalink

              Interestingly enough, Rarotongan (and I guess the others) is not a gendered language – that is, they don’t have the him/her problem. (Nor are most names gender-specific either). So Rarotongan speakers when speaking English have the same trouble I have with nouns in French – and they solve it the same way, just select a gender at random. But I have been a bit startled when Mrs II says on occasion things like “Tere will lend me his dress for the party”. Err yes dear, fine….. what?!

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 6:13 am | Permalink

                Indonesian is like that. I have a friend that is always mixing up he/she etc. who is Indonesian.

              • E.A. Blair
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

                Gender in language is not related to sexual gender (although in Indo-European languages it might look that way). The grammatical term gender has its roots in the Latin word ‘gens’, which means ‘kind’ or ‘type’. Many Indo-European languages have three genders; English only retains it in its pronouns. I think the record for genders is 27 in an African language (I don’t have time to look for the reference right now). Some languages (and Basque is one) have two genders: animate and inanimate.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

                Yes, she is referring to the gender as pronouns and often confuses this. I’m sure she doesn’t actually confuse the sex of the people.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

                @Diana

                Yes, quite right, she’s just mixing up the pronouns, not the sex.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

                Mrs II, I mean, I’ve just realised you were talking about your Indonesian friend. Same goes for them both, obviously.

                (WP.. edit function… when?)

      • Posted January 23, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        “Going for Basque is nearly as bad as learning Dutch. Which is useless anyway because the Dutch have understood that nobody in his right senses is ever going to learn Dutch, so they embarked on learning other people’s language, whatever it is. Any educated Dutch knows 4 languages at least.
        Same thing with Hungarians, as nobody sane is going to try to learn Hungarian.”

        Some confusion here. Yes, many Dutch speak several languages. Yes, in part this is because that many foreigners don’t want to learn Dutch. However, some do (I am currently taking two Dutch classes) and of course children in the Netherlands learn Dutch.

        In contrast to Hungarian, Dutch is relatively easy to learn for many speakers of European languages.

        • ROO BOOKAROO
          Posted January 23, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          Wish that you had explained clearly your motivations for learning Dutch (perhaps Dutch ancestry?)

          My point was more simply whether it made any sense to select Dutch (or Basque, or Creole, or Patagonian) as a second language for an (English-speaking) child who may have the choice of such momentous life-enhancing windows as Ancient Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, or perhaps Japanese or Chinese. If the child is not English speaking, any reasonable parent would advise without hesitation to make it English.

          There’s a huge scholarly payoff in knowing Dutch. It’s in being able to read the works of the famous “Dutch Radical School”. It is a handful of epoch-making Dutch academics of the 1870-1950 era who pursued the radical thesis that not only was Jesus a mythical personage, but so was Paul (and all the apostles), and that the so-called epistles of Paul were not writings from the 1st c., but forgeries from the 2d c. (Marcion?).

          Arthur Drews, the German philosopher who supported many of their views in his sensational book, “The Christ Myth” (1909), which made the Western world aware that Jesus was most likely a mythical figure, was impressed by the work of those Dutch radicals. Drews corresponded with them only in German. He never bothered to learn Dutch, preferring to invest his time in Ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, English, and French.

          A few of those important Dutch works were translated into German, a few others appeared in English, but the vast bulk of this extraordinary maverick research has remained in Dutch (this is easily verifiable on WorldCat) and totally unknown of scholars in the rest of the world. No scholar anywhere has had the guts of sacrificing his time and life to learning Dutch in order to translate this tremendous store of research.

          It is condemned to remain ignored by all other scholars in Britain, the US, Germany and France (the four key nations interested in the question of the historicity of Jesus).

          This translation work should come from a Dutch translator interested enough in the formidable task. But the Dutch, once the Radical School closed shop, have evinced less interest in the Dutch Radicals and the “Frage nach der Historizität Jesu” than in their new child opera singer Amira Willighagen (Amira is in fact much more interesting than any lucubration about Jesus).

          These remarkable works may never be translated, unless a rich foundation (from a convinced Jesus denier) offered special funding for such a project. (Would any Philips or Royal Dutch Shell foundation ever bankroll such a project? In our dreams, perhaps.)

      • Posted January 23, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        “Why not ancient Greek, or Latin? Which open the mind to a fantastic, nearly magical world.
        Ancient Greek is the clearest, most logical, most articulate language. No wonder science and philosophy started with it. The language of rationality and beauty.”

        Because they are dead languages. Life is short. If you are interested in languages, then by all means learn some, and it is worth doing so. But, unless you are interested in historical or systematic linguistics from a scientific standpoint, ancient Greek and Latin are a waste of time. Will knowing Latin help you learn Spanish or French? Sure, but knowing Portuguese will help you more and you know an additional living language to boot. But if you want to learn Spanish and French, the quickest way is to learn Spanish and French.

        As to ancient Greek being a “good” language: typical chauvinism.

        • ROO BOOKAROO
          Posted January 23, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

          Phillip Helbig:

          That is what I surmised. The major interest in those arcane, marginal languages comes essentially from professional scientists studying linguistics.

          It has nothing to do with the value of the choice of a second-language to a child who is just starting in life, unless he is pushed by his linguistic professional Daddy.

          For most people who are not professional linguists, studying those marginal languages is a huge waste of time that nobody sane ever contemplates.

          Most people on the Lexington Avenue Line or walking on Broadway, or playing in Central Park have barely heard of them. The few people aware of their existence are a few souls strolling uptown in the campus of Columbia (and downtown at NYU).

          I knew one guy who became a specialist of Aztec culture (and language) and made a beautiful career out of it. But I have met many Sanskrit Ph.D.s who complain that they are doomed to a life of poverty as only one academic job opens once in a while for the few dozen students of Sanskrit in the US).

          Amusingly, I have met a few men and women who possessed the three languages in depth: Italian, French, and Spanish. It had come to a point in their lives where they did not know any more in what language they were speaking: Italian, French, or Spanish, mixing vocabulary and grammar with total abandon. I remember one case at Hunter College in Manhattan, who tried using his Italian all the time.

          And no, Ancient Greek is NOT a “good” language. It is the supreme language of clarity and reason.
          But linguists have no time for the history of ideas, the history of rationality, and the history of science. Academic departments have to remain well separated and focus on their primary interest.

          Alas, we, outsiders, have little time for Basque, Aztec, or Bantu. Life is too short.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

          Put it this way – knowing Latin and Greek give me a richer understanding of English and all other languages. I wouldn’t get the richer understanding of English from studying its related languages (like German). Moreover, because I know Latin, I find I can understand Spanish in a “good enough” way. I had a professor who read and reviewed an entire book in Spanish because she was fluent in Latin (Latin fluency means you can read it without translating). It also makes learning all Romance languages easier especially because of its similar cases. You could argue that you could learn Spanish instead but it still wouldn’t give me the understanding of English that Latin does.

          Moreover, you can out Latin your dentist – you know what those words are they are using. You can also out Greek your dentist when you learn Greek and of course learning Ancient Greek (the hardest Greek) makes learning the grammar of modern Greek much easier and the reading of Russian much less foreign.

          I like languages so I will learn any of them given the opportunity. I tend to have esoteric tastes anyway so often those languages tend to be esoteric. I like to learn to think in the way a person thought by using their language – you can understand Cicero by learning Latin.

          • gbjames
            Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

            Wow! I have a dentist who speaks English and we communicate just fine. ;)

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

              Ha ha! Don’t you hear them using dental words to their hygenist. My big beef was when they talked about a bruxism device. I think it should be an anti-bruxism device. Damn, cocky Greek using dentists! :D

          • ROO BOOKAROO
            Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            Diana:

            Thank you for explaining. I didn’t have the courage to go into all this, which is so obvious to those few who have been lucky to learn Ancient Greek and/or Latin in childhood.

            But to a linguist, any language is like a butterfly in its case in the drawers of museums. It is no more interesting than the next butterfly in its case, except for some special anatomical reason.
            To the linguist, all languages are equal, and equally interesting.

            But the truth of history is that some languages are more equal, and for us in the West, it is incontrovertibly Ancient Greek and Latin that are more equal than the others.

            For a few cognoscenti (not in the linguistics Dep’t), Ancient Greek is the MOST EQUAL, no contest. Better than chess or mathematics to train the mind.
            So, Diana, thank you for being a witness and reporting on your experience.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 23, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

              Yes, I agree. For the West, Latin and Greek: their language and civilization is important to us from a linguistic and cultural perspective but I was Classically educated so I’m biased. :)

            • Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

              Greek is just a language. If you think it’s great for ‘training the mind’, then you’re right – but this is true of every language. And anything rational can be written or spoken in any language. Greek isn’t particularly special, although it does exhibit some interesting features that distinguish it from other Indo-European languages.

              But Greek is so similar to Latin and Sanskrit in grammar that to single out Greek for special treatment is absurd. If you think that only an elaborate case system, grammatical gender, aorists, and lots of irregular verbs make for a perfect scientific language, then perhaps you should look at Sanskrit too. And if you want to be recursive about it – if you want to analyse language using the perfect scientific language – then maybe you need to read Panini.

              You’ve just fetishised a normal human language much like all the rest. No linguistic determinism can be invoked to explain superior technological or intellectual development in ancient Greek-speaking communities. It is, of course, entirely irrational to fetishise a language in this way, and it therefore undermines your view that Greek is such a rational language to fetishise it in such a way. You could use Nuer words to explain scientific concepts quite easily, and no language has a monopoly on reason or anything similar. Such an idea is clearly ridiculous and irrational.

              • E.A. Blair
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

                I find it interesting that people evince language chauvinism – the idea that one language is “better” than another for one reason or another. One thing is true: languages adapt to fit the cultures that speak them. English, by virtue of its absorbtive nature, has acquired a vocabulary that outstrips other languages, but to say that it is better than another is wrong. There are languages that are spoken by fewer than a thousand people that have features that can teach us volumes about how better to communicate.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

                You have a bizarre view of linguistics and a very silly and irrational view of language as a whole. You like Greek; I like Malay, as it happens (I find it lyrical and pretty). Neither language is objectively better than the other, or any other for that matter, even if you prefer it. And, of course, the main reason for preserving small languages is that they tell us about a) human diversity and b) human (pre-)history, not that they can help us communicate better.

                Remember: languages don’t express things. People express things. Language is just a means, and people are good at expressing what they mean using the means available to them. A scientist can speak Dinka and rational thoughts can be expressed in Welsh without problems. Your fetish for Greek is no more than a fetish.

          • Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

            Then you should try your hand at Rhaeto-Romance, aka Romansch or Rumantsch :)

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romansh_language

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 23, 2014 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

              It would be interesting but harder for me as for some reason Romance languages aren’t as easy for me as Germanic ones. You’d think this is because English is my native language but many other English speakers feel the opposite (they find Romance languages easy and Germanic ones hard).

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

                I was referring to what you wrote:

                Moreover, because I know Latin, I find I can understand Spanish in a “good enough” way. I had a professor who read and reviewed an entire book in Spanish because she was fluent in Latin (Latin fluency means you can read it without translating). It also makes learning all Romance languages easier especially because of its similar cases.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 23, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I know but I still have my own limitations.

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

                Don’t we all!

                What is interesting about Rhaeto-Romance is that it is deemed to be the Latin that Romans spoke at the time of the Roman Empire.

                This is how it sounds.

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

                I think this is a better example as the previous one seemed to have quite a few Swiss German-sounding words.

                Apparently, Romanians can understand quite a bit of Rumantsch and vice versa, even though the pronunciation of Romanian is fairly different from that of Rumantsch. Both languages, of course, are directly descended from the Roman Empire’s Latin as spoken by the people (rather than by the elite)

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanian_language

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 23, 2014 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

                I always thought Italian was the direct descendant of Latin. :)

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

                Certainly, but it is apparently more different from Latin than are Rumantsch and, to a lesser degree, Romanian, or so was I told. I speak fluent Italian but never understood what Catholic priests were babbling about when I was taken to Catholic churches in my childhood when Latin was still the exclusive language of that Church. I still don’t whenever I come across spoken Latin (and written Latin too, but have little problem understanding written Italian).

          • gbjames
            Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

            You may want to also study up on Proto-Indo-European.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 23, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

              Proto Indo-European would be cool to learn.

  26. Dom
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I’m still waiting for the french version of your book :) I’ve read it in english, but it pains me to see that a few author like you and Harris are never translated in french.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      Wow! I’m surprised no French! That means all of Quebec is missing out too!

      • Dom
        Posted January 21, 2014 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

        Yeah Diana, I live in Quebec and there is no french version of any of Sam Harris books, only God is not great from Hitchens, a few from Dawkins, none from Dennet, and forget about PZ Myers and all the others or The manual to create atheists (that I’ve just ordered from amazon).

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 21, 2014 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

          That’s terrible! You’d think the Canadian government would pony up for some translations or at least have money set aside as grants for such things. Or at least you’d think France would’ve had them translated!

  27. docbill1351
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Meh. You haven’t hit the big time until it gets translated into Klingon.

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      There has to be a way of crowdsourcing that amongst Trekkies/Trekkers.

      /@

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      Klingons don’t believe in evolution. They have always been the master species in the universe.

      • Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

        Well, Bing translate doesn’t have a Klingon word for “evolution”.

        This is a “we don’t know the meaning of ‘fear’” thing, isn’t it?

        /@

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      Ha ha! If you consider that big time. LOL!

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      If the gods are merciful, that won’t happen.

      And if the gods aren’t merciful but have even the slightest sense of decency, they won’t let the Klingon edition be turned into an opera.

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Lurker111
      Posted January 22, 2014 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      It’s a good thing I did a Find first. I would have repeated your joke! ;)

  28. George
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Another anti-xian book written by someone at the University of Chicago that promotes the decadent science of biology will be getting renewed attention. Neil Shubin will host a three part PBS series based on “Your Inner Fish” starting in April. The web site for the series is already up – and is very good –
    http://www.pbs.org/your-inner-fish/home/

    Let us all get ready to join with the Discotute to protest this squandering of taxpayers money (PBS still gets a few bucks from the government) to promote hostility to religion.

    Or even better, read or reread the book.
    http://tiktaalik.uchicago.edu/index.html

    I assume that everyone here has read Jerry’s book. If not, WHY NOT?

    • George
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      Something of interest I found through the PBS site was a link to:
      http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive

      BioInteractive
      Free Resources for Science Teachers and Students
      from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

      If Texas keeps trying to mandate creationism in text books, we need resources to combat them.

      BTW, HHMI started as a tax dodge by Howard Hughes has become critically important to biomedical research in the US.

      • Felipe
        Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        The HHMI has a tablet app called Earthviewer. Very, very good. Worth checking out.

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      The PBS link gives me “403 Forbidden”.

      /@

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        Yeah me too. :(

      • George
        Posted January 21, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

        I just checked it. It seems to work. Are you connecting outside the United States?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 21, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

          Yep – Ant is in the UK & I’m in Canada.

          Damn, thwarted!

          • George
            Posted January 21, 2014 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

            That may be the problem. The link just went live in the past day or two. I learned of it in a tweet from Carl Zimmer. Check back in the next few days. A lot of good information on the site.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      Oooo looking forward to that! Thanks for mentioning it!

  29. Robert MacDonald
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    The Canadian nature writer Farley Mowat sailed a decrepit, feisty Newfoundland schooner called Happy Adventure in the 1960’s. During a sojourn in St. Pierre and Miquelon it got re-christened in Basque as Itchatchozale Alai.

  30. Mary L
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    It has my father’s nickname! He was Rudolph, and was called Rudy, or Utz! His parents were Estonian.

  31. David Duncan
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    My first thought was Dutch, then Indonesian.

    Yes, very strange cover.

  32. Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    With the weird book cover and the strange tongue, I thought it was Elvish! :)

  33. Natifftoffe
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    I am somewhat puzzled that your book still hasn´t been published in German. I read it in English, but if I want to recommend an evolution book to a religious fellow German, I still have to go with Ernst Mayr. Dawkins would obviously be difficult, especially as “The greatest show on earth” is entitled in German “The creation lie” (Die Kreationismuslüge). It would help a lot to have a German translation of WEIT!

    • Alex
      Posted January 22, 2014 at 2:37 am | Permalink

      “especially as “The greatest show on earth” is entitled in German “The creation lie” (Die Kreationismuslüge).”

      Was für ein sensationsgeiler Schmarrn! Wenn ich den Verleger treffe, breche ich ihm die Nase (metaphorisch versteht sich)!

      But anyhow, I’m surprised as well. Pretty much everything by Dawkins is available in German, and “God is not great” as well (In German it has the rather cute title “The Lord is no sheperd”)

      I don’t know how big the market among the mostly already Evolution-believing Germans, Austrians and Swiss is, but surely enough to warrant a translation!

      • Natifftoffe
        Posted January 22, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        About two years ago I asked Dawkins at a public discussion in Mülheim a.d.Ruhr if he was aware of the unfortunate German title and if he possibly had approved to it. His response: There are things between an author and a publisher…

        • Natifftoffe
          Posted January 22, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

          Ahem, “approved of it”, that is.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 22, 2014 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

        Oh dear that is unfortunate! I wonder why they named it such when they could have kept the title intact!

  34. Anita
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    Could it be Basque?

  35. E.A. Blair
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    I guessed Basque by looking at the word endings. They seemed somewhat familiar (I had some exposure to Basque in some of my linguistics classes).

  36. Posted January 21, 2014 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Hi Dr Jerry Coyne ..

    Here is another translation coming soon in Bengali; here is the link to five chapters,I am in communication with your agent to secure Bengali Translation right.. thank you for this wonderful book..

    http://wp.me/P1KdC9-zy

  37. BilBy
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    By the way, there are Basque communities in surprising places: in Boise, Idaho, there is a Basque street complete with social clubs, murals, plaques and Gernika – a bar that served damn good Spanish tortillas.

    • Richard Olson
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

      Bar Gernika serves tasty stuff, and so do quite a few Basco restaurants from California’s Sierra Nevada’s north through the Owyhee’s in Nevada and the Idaho Sawtooth’s up to Canada. Maybe some Canadian reader’s know about any Basque community presence there. A Basque attorney was a 2-term (D) mayor of Boise beginning this century. Get up into the Sawtooth’s today when sheep are herded from one place to another and it ain’t a bad bet a Basque owns them. You might come across a Peruvian on horseback playing a pan flute, too.

      http://www.cowboyshowcase.com/basque.htm

      • JBlilie
        Posted January 22, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        Lots of Bascos in that part of the world (intersection of ID and OR and UT and NV)

    • ROO BOOKAROO
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      Some Facts and Trivia on Basque People

      There’s a very interesting story of Basque immigration to the US in

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basque_American

      According to the 2000 US census, there are 57,793 Americans of full or partial Basque descent.
      Of them,
      41,811 people claimed to be simply Basque American,
      9,296 claimed to be originating from Spanish Basque Country,
      and the others 6,686 claimed to be originating from French Basque Country.

      The states with the largest Basque-American populations are:
      California (20,868),
      Idaho (6,637),
      Nevada (6,096),
      Washington (2,665)
      and Oregon (2,627).

      Many Basque immigrants were employed as sheepherders.
      Paul Laxalt, Governor of Nevada (1967-1971), was the son of Basque sheepherders
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Laxalt

      The famous musician Jose Iturbi was also of Basque origin. But it is nearly impossible to determine what influence, if any, the Basque language or culture, had on his performance as a musician.

      Maurice Ravel, the composer of the well-known Bolero, was born in French Basque country from a Spanish Basque mother, and a Swiss father. He became the best internationally known composer of French origin, and the wealthiest.

  38. luis
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Clearly euskera or basque: the rh- language :-)

  39. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted January 22, 2014 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    I’m pretty darn sure it’s not Finnish (not enough k’s in it, and almost no L’s except in ‘borrowed’ words). One of my compulsive-reading habits is to read all the 27 different language disclaimers that come on little slips of paper packaged with electronic gadgets – but I’ve never seen anything like the page Jerry quotes.

    If it is Basque, then truly Basque is like no other language I’ve seen.

    • Darkwhite
      Posted January 22, 2014 at 2:31 am | Permalink

      If you want to recognize Finnish at a glance, look for:
      – long words
      – umlauts: ä, ü, ö
      – frequent doubled vowels

      The complete lack of umlauts is enough to rule out Finnish.

      • Simple biologist
        Posted January 22, 2014 at 4:32 am | Permalink

        “umlauts: ä, ü, ö”

        -Finnish doesn’t use ü.

        -Ä and Ö are used in finnish language, Å is in the finnish alphabets, but its there only for writing swedish names and place names. Thanks to being part of the swedish empire for most of the historic period.

        – Finnish has umplauts only in the interweb-speak sense of english speakers, ie.’Funny A and O with stuff added on top’, but it doesn’t have umlauts in the proper meaning of the word. Unlike english, which has umlauts, but lacks alphabets to mark them. Ä and Ö are proper indivudual letters with unique pronounciation in finnish, instead of being used as marks for umlauts/vowel shifts. There’s no german(ic) style A/Ä and O/Ö vowel pairing.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umlaut_%28linguistics%29

  40. TJR
    Posted January 22, 2014 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    I guessed something central asian and turkic, but should have guessed Basque. Too many z’s and not enough k’s to be Finnish, but I’m surprised how few x’s there are for Basque, given that Basque footballers often have x in their names.

    Bilbao is in the Basque country and most signs are bilingual, but amusingly the name is locally written as “Bilbo”. I looked around for a nearby village called Frodo but sadly couldn’t find one.

  41. Felix
    Posted January 22, 2014 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    Btw, when will the Dutch version appear?

  42. Dominic
    Posted January 22, 2014 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    It may interest readers that the Gascon dialect just over the border is based on vulgar Latin with a substrate of Basque or ancient Aquitanian (they were related). according to Bernadette of Lourdes, the virgin Mary spoke to her in Gascon!

  43. Fré Hoogendoorn
    Posted January 22, 2014 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    Well, now at least you can Basque in the glory of another translated edition.

  44. Posted January 22, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Consensus on Basque? Hm! My naive googling suggested a Polynesian language of some kind … But I thought that was absurd, so I didn’t know what to make of it.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 22, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

      Not remotely Polynesian. Far too many very long words, not enough short conjunctions, no strung-together vowels. And a Polynesian language would have a lot of R’s or a lot of L’s but not both (since R in some Polynesian languages/dialects is the equivalent of L in others). Also you ‘never’ find two consonants together – they are always separated by a vowel – and words always end in a vowel, never a consonant. So ‘zenbait’ would have to be something like ‘zenabaita’. (I’m not sure if any Polynesian dialect has the letter ‘b’ in it, either – but if so, it would probably be an analogue of ‘p’ in most dialects).

      • Posted January 23, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        I was guessing based on the area of the websites returned by googling a few words – a very silly way to proceed, admittedly.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:52 am | Permalink

          Google Translate, on the other hand, if fed the very first sentence, says “Basque detected”. But that’s cheating and anyway I don’t wish to criticise, this ‘spot the language’ is rather fun.

  45. JBlilie
    Posted January 22, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I highly recommend Mark Kurlansky’s book The Basque History of the World.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 22, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      I second this recommendation. (And Kurlansky’s book Salt which, with Cod and the Basque history form a sort of trilogy.)

      • Richard Olson
        Posted January 22, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        Aha! I read both Salt and Cod, and all the comments about Basque cultural uniqueness were tickling some of my dwindling memory cells. It was because of those two Kurlansky books. I’d completely forgotten the author’s name. Time to finish a trilogy I didn’t even know existed.

        I was standing at a busy street corner in Barcelona one weekday in 1978 during evening rush hour traffic, one of hundreds of pedestrians on every visible sidewalk. A black sedan sped through a red light and braked to a stop just in front of the bumper of the front car in a lane beginning to move forward on green.

        All four doors of the sedan opened and four men wearing suits ran to the lead car, pulled its door open, and dragged the driver out and onto the street. The sedan driver returned to his seat behind the wheel while the other three passengers beat and kicked the guy on the street for ten seconds or so.

        The three suits kicking the shit out of the guy on the pavement then lifted him into the back of the sedan. Two got into it, the third climbed into the driver’s seat of the victim’s car, and both vehicles hauled ass, tires screeching and motors roaring. The whole thing lasted maybe 30 seconds.

        My attention was completely fixated on these events. When the two cars passed from view, I noticed how comparatively quiet the street now was. I looked around, and the few pedestrians still in view in every direction all had their backs turned toward me as they hurried away, and they were all walking very damned fast.

        The next morning I was at work on my USN ship, reading message traffic from the previous 24 hours. A lead item was the capture in Barcelona of an ETA member wanted in several bombings.

        The fleeing pedestrian witnesses from the capture event? Some time not long later, a story broke that this capture was another in a series of shady State suppression efforts against Basque Separatists. There were many acts of terrorism undertaken by both sides during that dispute, and bad news could come for witnesses from either direction.

  46. marvol19
    Posted January 22, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Basque – I didn’t get that, but the clues are in the weird words with X’s – baxura, itxian, which I might have connected to the Basque names I know (from cycling and playing for Basque football teams).

    Odlly similar to the native language, in that respect, to that spoken on Sardinia, just across the water, with stuff like Xu Nuraxi.

  47. Galand
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Looks like the Basque language

  48. Posted January 25, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Your well deserved readership is growing, Mr. Coyne! It is unfortunate that you have chosen to use that readership to argue against obvious things like the existence of the self and the existence of libertarian free will. I think your otherwise all encompassing commitment to basing your beliefs on observation will set you straight in the end.


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