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Six Languages that Changed the World Ian Roberts

The Idea n  n  n  n 

Myself, Dr Bert Vaux (Cambridge Linguistics) and Dr James Clackson (Cambridge Classics) History of Ideas in 50 Languages Inspired by BBC Radio 4’s History of the World in a Hundred Objects (Neil MacGregor) Today we’ll just look at six languages


Sumerian n  When:

Attested from 3350 BC. Effectively extinct from about 2000-1800 BC; used as classical language until about 100 AD. n  Where: Mesopotamia (Iraq) n  Importance: first known written language


A 26th-century BC Sumerian document


The oldest known writing in the world: the Kish tablet (3500BC)


The writing system: logographic cuneiform n 

n  n 


Logographic scripts: symbols correspond to words (or morphemes), derived from earlier pictograms Egypgtian heiroglyphs, Chinese, Mayan… Rebus principle: a logographic symbol with a given phonetic value is re-used just for the phonetic value C U l8r 6

Cuneiform n  Wedge

(Latin cuneus) shape (Lat. forma) n  Markings made on clay tablets with a reed stylus n  Developed further by the Akkadians (Semitic), Hittites (Indo-European) and others


The language itself n  An

isolate (no proven related languages) n  agglutinative split-ergative, subject-objectverb (SOV): lugal-e e mu-un-du "the king built the house“ lugal ba-ĝen "the king went" 8

Sumerian aliens? n 

Our clearest record of a long-term alien presence on our planet is contained in the thousands of cuneiform clay tablets written by the ancient Sumerians. These records tell not only of their alien-inspired culture but also contain information about the “gods” who created them and lived among them for thousands of years before moving off-planet to let the human species develop on their own.


aliens-where-to-look-for-the-proof.htm 9

Sanskrit n  स"#क%तम्

saṃskṛtam [səәmskr̩t̪əәm], originally स"#क%ता वाक् saṃskṛtā vāk, "refined speech" n  WHEN: 1500BC (Vedic hymns) – present (one of 22 “scheduled languages” of India) n  WHERE: originally Northern India, but spread with Buddhism to all of India, South-East Asia (Singapore) and beyond. 10


Sir William Jones (1746 –1794)

Roberts: Finno-Ugric etc


The origins of comparative philology? 12

The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family. (Third Anniversary Discourse to the Asiatic Society, 1786)

Roberts: Finno-Ugric etc


What he meant … n  n  n 

“foot”: Skt pád-, Gk poús/podos, Lat pēs “ten”: Skt dáśa, Gk deka, Lat decem “bear”: Skt bhar-, Gk phérō, Lat ferō

Result: “No-one now rejects the suggestion that German and Sanskrit are related, and continue an earlier Indo-European language” (MorpurgoDavies 1998:20). 13

The Indian Grammarians


Pānini (fl 4th century BC) n  n  n  n 

His Aṣṭādhyāyī ("Eight-Chapter Grammar"), c500BC “the Indian Euclid” (Frits Staal) a formulation of 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology, syntax and semantics more advanced than any pre-20th-century grammatical theory


Pānini and formal systems n  n 



Pāṇini's grammar is the world's first formal system (the next one was developed in 19th century Germany) In designing his grammar, Pāṇini used the method of "auxiliary symbols", in which new affixes are designated to mark syntactic categories and the control of grammatical derivations. This technique was rediscovered in the mid-20th century and is now standard in designing programming languages. Pānini’s grammar was what is now (sine the 1950s) known as a context-sensitive grammars. 16

The language itself n  Indo-Iranian

branch of Indo-European (closest relatives Avestan and Old Persian; descendants include all the vernaculars of North India, notably Hindi) n  Richly inflected (more than Greek and Latin) n  Fairly free word order 17

And it’s still very much alive today... n  A

Philip Glass opera n  two recordings by Madonna n  Movies including Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Star Wars (Episode One), Battlestar Galactica


Nahuatl n  WHEN:

7th-century AD – present n  WHERE: Central Mexico n  The language of the Aztecs and the official language of New Spain from 1570 to 1696.


Moctezuma II and Hernán Cortés


November 8, 1519 n  Moctezuma

and Cortés meet at the entrance to Tenochtitlán and exchange gifts n  They communicated through two interpreters, Malin-tzin (Doña Marina to the Spanish) translated Nahuatl to Yucatec Maya and Fray Géronimo de Aguilar translated from Maya to Spanish 21

The exchange n  M:

“For I have long .. been anxious to look far away to the mysterious place whence you came, in the clouds, in the mists. So this is the fulfilment of what the kings have said ..” n  C: “..certainly we are come from where the sun rises, and we are vassals and servants of a great lord .. Don Carlos” 22

The colonial period n  n  n 


Spanish monks wrote dictionaries and grammars of Nahuatl and other indigenous languages Wrote Nahuatl in Latin script Andrés de Olmos (1547) Arte para aprender la lengua Mexicana, predates earliest grammar of French The earliest grammatical description of an indigenous language of the New World



The language itself n  n  n 

Uto-Aztecan, originating in SW USA most closely related to the Pipil group in Mexico Polysynthetic word structure: ¨  ni-mits-teː-tla-makiː-ltiː-s ¨  I-you-someone-something-give-CAUSATIVE-

FUTURE ¨  "I shall make somebody give something to you"


Uralic n  WHERE:

Scandinavia, North Russia,

Siberia n  WHEN: 7000BC – present n  The earliest ancient language grouping to be demonstrated by linguists (at least 20 years before Indo-European)



The Uralic Languages

Roberts: Finno-Ugric etc



Some Uralic cognates English Uralic

Finnish Estonia Udmurt Hungar Nenets n ian

“water” *weti










śim/ śimn-










“to go”



minema myn-

megy-/ men-


Roberts: Finno-Ugric etc



“The Finno-Ugric family was established before Indo-European was; the comparative linguistic work on these languages inspired investigators of IndoEuropean and was highly influential in the development of comparative linguistics generally� (Campbell & Poser 2008:88)

Roberts: Finno-Ugric etc



Founders of Finno-Ugric n Sebastian

Münster (1480-1522): Finnish, Estonian and Saami n Michael Wexionius (1609-70): Karelian, Livonian n Bengt Skytte (1614-83): Hungarian (Ugric) n Nicolaas Witsen (1641-1717): Mordvin, Cheremis (now Mari) Roberts: Finno-Ugric etc


Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) 31

Roberts: Finno-Ugric etc



Leibniz the Linguist n Collected

word lists of many languages n Grouped Samoyed and Finno-Ugric together n “an early step towards the recognition of Uralic” (Campbell & Poser 2008:91) n Etymology was the key to “wonderfully illustrate the origins of nations” (1692) Roberts: Finno-Ugric etc


The language itself n  Proto-Uralic

is a language “reconstructed” by linguists on the basis of comparison of the existing languages and their older phases n  Quite complex inflections (six cases, complex verb conjugations) n  Subject-Object-Verb order 33

Singlish n  WHEN:

sometime prior to 1965 to the

present n  WHERE: Singapore n  An English-based creole n  Similar to Malaysian English (Manglish) n  An example of the “New Englishes” emerging around the world 34

Some background n  4

official languages of Singapore: English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay n  Singlish vocabulary based on English, Tamil, Malay and varieties of Chinese (Hokkien, Cantonese, Chaozhou) n  Grammatical features clearly show Chinese influence 35

A sociolectal continuum Acrolect: close to Standard English “This person’s Singlish is very good.” n 

Mesolect: mixture of English and Singlish “Dis guy Singlish damn good eh.” n 

Basolect “Dis guy Singrish si beh zai sia.” n 


Singlish Phonology n  No

“th” sounds n  “l” and “r” not systematically distinguished n  Vowels simplified (especially length) n  Chinese words retain their tones n  Consonant groups simplified n  Intonation strikingly different to British English 37

Singlish Grammar n  Plural-marking

on nouns optional n  Tense-marking on verbs optional n  The verb to be often “dropped” (Dis house very nice) n  Reduplication of verbs: You go ting ting a little bit, maybe den you get answer 38

Singlish Vocabulary Various “sentence particles” with hard-totranslate meanings, borrowed from Cantonese or Hokkien: lah, mah, lor, le, meh. n  meh (/mɛ́/), from Cantonese (咩, meh), is used to form questions expressing surprise or scepticism: They never study meh? – Didn't they study? (I thought they did.) n 



And finally n  One

of the world’s oldest-attested languages n  The language with the largest number of native speakers n  The principal language of the world’s second-largest (and soon to be largest) economy 41


谢谢 43

Six languages that changed the world - Festival of Ideas 2013  

Slides accompanying a talk at the Festival of Ideas 2013

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