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Ask me about language(s)

Discussion in 'Research' started by Rabenfeld, Mar 22, 2016.

  1. Rabenfeld

    Rabenfeld New Member

    Hi everyone,

    as you can probably see on the left, I'm new to this fine forum and just browsed through some of the threads. Having no own questions at the moment (though they sure are about to come), I asked myself what I could possibly contribute in terms of advice. Well, I am what you may call a linguaphile - I am heavily interested in foreign languages, hell, even in this beautiful, arcane phenomenon that is human language itself: how it works, what it is made of, what it is used for, how it changes over time, what the differences and similarities are between the world's many tongues. I believe that language is an - if not THE - ability that makes us human. Language shapes our thoughts and our understanding and interpretation of reality, therefore, learning about language is learning about mankind, about history, society, and culture. This is the main reason why I study linguistics the third year now and it is in fact also a reason for my interest in history, mythology and fantasy.

    Furthermore, I dare say that language is a key element of every culture, some would even argue that the way a certain language works depends on culture (and/or vice versa). Since many of us in this forum are eager to create entire worlds with an abundance of different, exotic, interesting cultures in it, I want to offer some help when it comes to language.

    So please, feel free to ask everything even vaguely language-related. I have a solid knowledge about most Indo-European languages but also some insight into very different ones, spoken far away or long ago. Maybe you want to base character and place names on a real-world language. Maybe you want to know about vocabulary or sounds of a certain unusual and less known language. Maybe all this theoretical linguistic stuff in my head will prove useful, at last, and I can help with the creation of a fictional language. ;)

    Hope, I can be of use!
    Gwynndamere and intipablo like this.
  2. intipablo

    intipablo Scribe

    Can you tell me anything you know on the language(s) of the Ancient Scythians (or nomadic tribes in that area)?
  3. Rabenfeld

    Rabenfeld New Member

    The Scythian language most likely belongs to the Indo-Iranian (and therefore to the larger Indo-European) family. I say "most likely" because there seem to be only very few sources, just some hieroglyphic inscriptions containing mostly personal names and place names. Most of what is known about Scythian comes from the Greek, especially from Herodotus, who studied bits of their language. If you are interested in things like the names of gods or certain places, check out what he wrote about the Scythians. But as I said, the things we know about this language are far too few to reconstruct something like a lexicon or a complete grammar.

    The traces I found on the internet look quite similar to Avestan, which isn't much of a surprise since these two are closely related. The Avestan language is much better preserved and researched as it was the sacred language of Zoroastrianism, a widespread and influential religion from 2000 BC onwards. It became the state religion of the Persian empire and was also practised in surrounding areas until it was replaced by Islam at the beginning of the Middle Ages. The holy scriptures of Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism, are called Avesta, hence the name of the language.

    Modern languages related to Scythian include for example Pashto in Afghanistan, Farsi (modern Persian in Iran), Kurdish and Ossetian. Ossetian is commonly regarded as the successor of Scythian. As you said, the Scythians were nomadic people and reached into what is now Turkey, Russia and Macedonia by the 8th century BC before being assimilated by the Hunns and Turks around the 6th century BC. Ossetian, spoken in a part of the Caucasus called Ossetia, is the lasting imprint of the Scythian influence in this area. Today it is written with Cyrillic letters but used Greek script in ancient times. Over the centuries it became similar to the surrounding Caucasian languages (non-Indoeuropean) in terms of phonology, but grammatically speaking still bears close resemblance to e.g. Kurdish.

    I don't know much about other nomadic tribes in that area but most of them seem to have spoken other Eastern Iranian languages and dialects, the influence of examples like Bactrian or Sogdian even reached as far as northwestern China. Especially Sogdian offers a much larger corpus than Scythian but as these folks were mainly traders along the silk road, I doubt that they were nomades. With the rise of many mighty empires in this region, I would also expect a certain influence of languages such as Sanskrit, Persian, maybe Greek and of couse Arabic from 600 AD onwards.

    So if you are looking for examples of what Scythian looked like I would suggest samples of Avestan, Persian and modern day Ossetian. Regarding the linguistics, as all those Iranian languages are at their core Indo-European, they are somewhat comparable to European languages but with a far richer morphology (that is the formation of words, like adding suffixes to a word to change its meaning or grammatical value) than, for example, English. In this respect they are closer to classic languages like Latin or Ancient Greek. Ossetian, for example has nine cases, the other Indo-Iranian languages (at least the ancient, extinct ones) vary between 7 and 11 or so. This is quite a number compared with modern European languages which have either abandoned case like English or around 4 like German. In terms of sound, all the Iranian languages I know are quite rich on vowels, consonant clusters (like in the English word "strength") are rather uncommon. The most common vowel seems to be 'a' which at least in Modern Persian is pronounced as an open, rounded 'o' in most dialects (like in "often" when pronounced in British Received Pronounciation). The inventory of consonants is similar to European languages, the 'r' is trilled as in Spanish, they use the English "th" sound and the "ch" as in Scottish "loch" or German "Bach". The only Scythian text sample I could find on the internet is this inscription:

    Partitava xšaya dahyupati xvaipašyam
    "King Partitavas, the masters of the land property"

    Where x = ch as in "loch" and š = sh as in "show". As I said, quite similar to Avestan or Old Persian where "great king" is "xšayathiya". While Scythian used mostly hieroglyphs on the rare occasion it was written down, Avestan had its own letters and other Iranian languages often used alphabets of surrounding cultures like Sanskrit, Greek and later Arabic.

    I hope this is of some use to you!
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2016
  4. intipablo

    intipablo Scribe

    Thankyou Rabenfeld, I was aware that the we don't know much about the languages of that area but I haven't taken the time to do much research on it.

    I have indeed looked into Herodotus, a lot of my Scythian information has come from him.

    I'll look into the other languages you suggested, especially Caucasian/Ossetian and Avestan (connected with my WIP novel) and a couple others. It sounds like you did a fair bit of research so thanks for that, it's much appreciated.

    Also, I didn't quote you because your post was really big!
  5. ChasingSuns

    ChasingSuns Sage

    Could you possibly enlighten me on languages that use apostrophes when translated to English? I have heard that Arabic uses apostrophes when translated, but I don't know much about what the apostrophe is meant to represent in this case.
  6. Rabenfeld

    Rabenfeld New Member

    @intipablo: You are welcome, good luck with your research and your novel!

    Usually the apostrophe represents something called a "glottal stop", which is a sound used in many languages including most Semitic languages like Arabic or Hebrew. Now, this might sound surprising at first, but it actually does exist in English, too. It is produced by pressing the vocal chords together, therefore closing the glottis (the passageway in your larynx through which air passes when you speak or breath), building pressure underneath the glottis and, finally, releasing the air which produces a quiet, kind of crackling sound. This sounds complicated but it is basically the sound you make at the beginning of a word starting with a vowel (though that might vary from dialect to dialect). For example, try to say "apple" but stop before you actually articulate the "a". You might notice a "squeeze" in your throat making it impossible to breath - that's the closed glottis. As an alternative, try to notice the "clicking" sound at the beginning of the syllables in "uh-oh" - this is a glottal stop. The glottal stop is actually quite common in some English dialects like Cockney or generally British working class accents where it often replaces a "t"-sound (butter --> bu'er, What? --> Wha'?).

    But in English, this sound isn't necessary to distinguish between words (like /b/ and /s/ are to distinguish between "bad" and "sad", for example). This is the reason why we don't have an own letter for it. Other languages like the mentioned Arabic DO use the glottal stop as an important, distinguishing sound. Here, the glottal stop can also stand inside or at the end of a word while in English it's only articulated at the beginning of some words, the only example that comes to my mind right now is "al-qara'a" ("the act of reading"). If you want to pronounce it (more or less) correctly, you can start with saying "al-qara" and then uttering the last "a" as if it was a new word. Since we don't have a letter for this sound in our Latin alphabet, we usually use an apostrophe to mark a glottal stop.

    Furthermore, in most conventions for transcribing Arabic using the Latin alphabet there are two apostrophes - ` and ´, one pointing to the left and one to the right (this is clearer in other fonts). The one pointing left stands for the already mentioned glottal stop. The other one for a so called voiced laryngeal fricative. This is a much more uncommon and complicated sound and neither can I myself articulate it nor can I give a description of how to. Just imagine it as a hissing sound produced far back in the throat, like the "ch" in "loch" only even further down. It is also voiced, meaning that the vocal chords vibrate while articulating this sound. This is clearly one of the toughest sounds to make if you are not a native speaker.

    By the way, if you are familiar with the Arabic alphabet, ` correspondes to hamzah, ´ to ´ayn. The only other, non-Semitic language I know that uses an apostrophe to indicate a glottal stop is the language of the Navajos but there are many more for sure.

    Hope, I explained everything clearly :)
    Lohengrin and ChasingSuns like this.
  7. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Anyone familiar with ancient Greek?

    Would it be fitting to collectively call patriarchs and matriarchs as genarchs? Not a pretty word, but unless I made a mistake, I think it's meaning should be very clear.

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