Allegorical Nonsense

An allegory. Nonsense. Put them together. Okay, not really.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Holding our Fingers

My boss at work just called me to let me know that they are מחזיקים את האצבעות ("holding their fingers") for me, that I may do well in my exam tomorrow. While thanking him for the thought, I couldn't help thinking about this phrase, which I had heard previously, but never got around to writing about (and thought, unblogged, is such a fleeting thing, don't you find?).

The question is, I think, obvious - what is the relationship of the above to the phrase "crossing our fingers"? The wise web-page "Words to the Wise: Your Etymological Queries Answered" offers the far-less-certain-than-I-would-have-expected hypothesis that the latter is connected to the crucifixion of Jesus, with possible pagan precursors (cf. on both counts "touch wood" - see, for instance, this potentially unreliable resource which backs me up), which would then suggest that the Hebrew phrase is a modern spin-off with the deletion of the Christianity reference (cf. the "plus" sign used in some Israeli text-books, which is missing the "south" pointing axis, leaving it the shape of an inverted squat upper case "T").

And from here, I throw the floor open to anyone who can shed further light on the origin of the Hebrew phrase. I hope there are some interesting answers - otherwise, what a waste of a post (after all, blogspace is not cheap) ...


Friday, October 27, 2006

Some Hebrew linguistic questions

Some questions for any adventurous Hebrew linguists out there:

1. Where does מו come from, as in במו עיניי ("before my very eyes")? Is it related to עצמו in any way? I would presume not, as I presume עצמו comes from עצם ("bone") even if I fail to see the semantic connection.

2. Where the hell does אדרבה ("on the contrary") come from? Sounds very Aramaic to me. Unless it's "until 4:00" ...

3. Something about למחוא כפיים ("to applaud", literally "to strike two palms") always seemed weird to me. Shouldn't למחוא by itself be enough? Can you do anything else with כפיים other than למחוא them?

4. In מלכתחילה ("from the beginning"), where the hell does the כ come from? A ה I could understand, but a כ?

I'm full of such questions. These are but a few that I have managed to spew out at this ungodly hour. While we're at it, why is it "ungodly hour" and "untimely death" and not the other way around? Okay, that's not a real question - feel free to ignore it.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Academic Honesty

I have a dilemma.

A certain young gentlemen whose acquaintance I have not made other than in this virtual world of almost friends and not-quite communities, owns and operates a small web-log by the delightfully paronomastic name of "De-Lingu-ent: Latin Language Defective".

In the blog's profile, the young gentleman (who goes by the odd pseudonym of "500.50.100", and whom for convenience I shall therefore call "Five"), describes his self-assigned task as follows: "a Spartan in Rome investigates language – mediaeval and classic Latin, slang, Ecclesiastical Latin, Etruscan, Monasterish, and more - with an eye on etymology. I'm not a professional linguist, and will be using this blog to explore my own questions, and I welcome yours as well." He does not address the question of why he uses the word "defective" in the name of the blog, possibly on the assumption that we, his readers, will understand that he, being of Greek heritage, has been "tainted" by his deep interest in a language not his mother tongue.

A certain other gentleman, who calls himself merely "Phaedrus", regularly posts comments on the blog of this magnanimous host. In his comments to the blog, he not only expresses great wonderment at the etymological findings of the blog's author (which are indeed of some academic merit), but also adds certain hypotheses of his own as to connections between some of the Latin roots in question and other, quite different words, often in other languages.

For instance, where Five might construct a post about the Latin word "dat" ("he gives"), its etymological sources, its change in use over time, and its connection to other Latin words, Phaedrus might open with a compliment to his host as to the latter's enlightening insight, and follow with the tasty suggestion that perhaps the same word is somehow connected to Hebrew's "דת" ("religion") – after all, religion is something that the gods "gave" to humanity, and the similarity in pronunciation is just uncanny. Phaedrus presents his hypothesis as just something which sprang to mind, and indeed we are inclined to believe that he is merely another enthusiastic amateur throwing ideas around the intellectual ball-park.

By chance, after noticing a certain way of thinking and writing in Phaedrus' comments, a recollection itched its way to the forefront of my memory, whereby I had met colleagues of Phaedrus' (if not Phaedrus himself) in the past, and been exposed to their ideas. This had occurred back in my university days, when I had been studying linguistics, a field in which I was then (as now) keenly interested.

These colleagues were spear-heading a linguistic theorem known as "Aeneidics", under whose banner they posited that all the world's languages sprang from one original source, and that only over time did they mutate into the almost unidentifiable bastard descendants that they are today. That original language, according to this school of thought, was the proto-Latin language of Aeneas, son of the goddess, and founder of Rome. And using certain proprietary techniques, so they claim, it is still possible to see and hear the Aeneidic source in a great number of words commonly used in every modern language in existence (though due to the practicalities of research, most of the examples they have come up with to support their claim are in the Hebrew language).

On this basis, the proponents of Aeneidics would persuade the world that Venus is the one true goddess, Vergil's Aeneid is literally true (after all, in Book X, this dispersion of languages from one original source is foreseen with uncanny perspicacity: "Speak the same language … and Rome's immortal majesty remain"*), and all people of intellectual honesty and goodwill (in particular, Hebrew speakers) ought therefore to subjugate themselves to the rightful dominion of the Roman Empire.

And now to the dilemma.

Being of the opinion that:

(i) Phaedrus is a proponent of a theory, the theoreticians of which are so strongly motivated to prove their desired conclusion, that serious questions may arise as to their adherence to objective scientific method; and
(ii) Phaedrus seems not to have been heretofore open as to his membership of this club, instead posting what I consider "teasers" to lure unsuspecting amateur linguists to his way of thinking;

do I have some kind of moral obligation to unmask Phaedrus in the name of academic honesty?

If so, what does this obligation contain? To publicly connect Phaedrus with his colleagues (all it would take would be providing a link to their website)? To privately notify Five of my take on Phaedrus' intentions, by way of a friendly "heads-up"?

Or is the above approach merely arrogant and rude? Ought I respect Phaedrus' right to hold and freely purvey his opinions as any vendor in the great marketplace of ideas that is this worldwide web? A fortiori, given that Five seems also to be somewhat of a follower of the goddess of Rome? Ought I allow (or even participate in) academic debate to take on Phaedrus' arguments on their own merits, without prejudicing the forum by denigrating Phaedrus' intentions as I perceive them? Should I, in short, mind my own business?

Your suggestions would be appreciated.

* From the Project Gutenberg translation of the Aeneid.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

On flossing

I was advised by my dental hygienist yesterday that, amongst other ungainly activities, it would be advisable for me to take up flossing. At least four times a week, she said.

My first reaction was, where does this four times a week thing come from? Is it possible that she is using a psychological trick on me, whereby if she had said "once a week" or "every day" I wouldn't have taken her seriously, but because she came up with the unlikely, and therefore scientific-sounding "four times a week", I am more likely to treat her as the serious professional she is, and take her at her word?

My second reaction occurred only now, when I remembered to floss in a systematic manner for the first time. And that reaction was - this is a really unpleasant activity. It is like taking nose-picking (which is actually quite pleasurable) to a whole new level of pedantry, where rather than just shoving your finger in and having a good scratch of the passages, you are forced to meticulously clean nasal hair by nasal hair, every femtometre of the membranous lining, with an awkward tool unsuited to such tasks (in the way that the human finger, thanks to the miracles of evolution, unquestionably is). It is also excruciatingly boring. And I am speaking as someone with patience of steel - indeed, I once had a job where for three months I had to check that documents (128 boxes of documents, to be precise) were arranged in (seven-digit) numerical order.

I don't know how long this flossing this is going to last. I will be sure to keep you posted.


What I don't like about books

When they're not good, they don't end. When they are, they do.

It's enough to give a person an abandonment complex.