Lesson #419: The Oldest Palimpsest

I was reading an article this week about the only known palimpsest that effaced the Bible to create a copy of the Koran. Which got me wondering about the oldest known palimpsest.

A quick note for those of you who don’t read a lot about religious history: a palimpsest is any document in which the original text has been scraped off and replaced with a later text and in which the original text may be read — in the days before technology, this often had to be done by eye, but now technology allows for the original text to be read more easily and without damaging the current text. Palimpsests are often religious in nature — the largest collection (around 130 texts) is at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt — particularly on the surface text, but don’t necessarily have to be. Palimpsests are usually written on parchment, though some have appeared on paper or papyrus. The reason parchment is the most frequent source of palimpsests is a combination of both its durability and its cost. Because parchments were expensive and in short supply and because they were durable, the original writing could be stripped from the medium (using oat bran and milk) and a new document could be written over top.

As for the oldest known palimpsest, this is a bit tricky. Of the known palimpsests, many — including the Archimedes Palimpsest — originated in the 4th – 6th and 9th and 10th centuries BCE. From what I can find, the oldest is a second century BCE Greek grammar text produced for the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which is housed in Vienna.

You can read more here, here, and here.


Lesson #418: The Korean Languages

For some reason, the first thing I thought of when I saw the photos of the leaders of the two Koreas meeting today was about how the languages differ. Given what I know of the evolution of English in the last twenty years and North Korea’s isolation from the world, the languages have to be very different by now. My assumption was that North Korean Korean is a lot like Canadian French in its rejection of English loanwords in favour of Korean — though this is probably less rejection of loanwords and more a lack of exposure to them at all — but that their isolation may also mean they’re missing cultural touchstone words entirely.

There are times when living in the age of information is wonderful. There aren’t a lot of solid academic sources to clarify this, but there are plenty of common sources that discuss it from an experiential standpoint.

This article is probably the best side-by-side comparison of the anglicized South Korean and Korean North Korean words for the same thing, the outdated use of some language in North Korea, and the cultural touchstone words that are missing from North Korean Korean as a result of its isolation. For me, the most interesting part of this is which words take the English in Korean compared with which do in Continental French. Self-service makes sense as a loanword. Skin lotion does not.

This is an article on the linguistic struggle North Korean defectors face in a globalized South Korean culture. There’s an app for that. Because of course there’s an app for that.

This article addresses the discrimination defectors can face, especially as a result of their accents. This is a point that’s reflected in a lot of other cultures. But I find especially interesting in the face of knowing what it’s like to try to soften your accent in a place where you speak the language.*

*There are lingering effects of that. It’s an affectation in how I speak that I know is there, but I got so practiced at it that parts of it are still there. I’ve noticed one of the hangers-on starting to slip out of use recently, so it’s an evolution.

Lesson #411: Why September Is Not the Seventh Month

I was doing some things with larger numbers this week. Septillion through decillion large. Which got me onto how September’s name implies it is the seventh of something, but it’s the ninth month in the Gregorian calendar. October is not the eighth month, November is not the ninth month, and December is not the tenth month.

So how did we get here, misnaming our months?

The answer is actually pretty simple. In the ten-month, lunar-based Roman calendar, September was the seventh month of the year and was followed by October, November, and December. Then, when the Roman calendar was replaced by the Julian calendar in the first century BCE, no one thought, “hey…this doesn’t really follow anymore”. Or, more likely, no one listened to the pedants who no doubt raised the very logical question of why we were mis-numbering months.

More on the Roman Calendar here and here.

Lesson #405: Creole Languages

Sometimes I arrive at a lesson in a very roundabout way. I’ve been preparing to transition at work tomorrow, so my learning has been limited this week to finding out the physical fitness requirements for Survivor contestants.* (There was context for this, but it’s inconsequential.)

That’s not so interesting, so I sat down today, decided to mess around on Wikipedia (completely unsuccessfully) and eventually got to thinking about Belgium, which took me to Flemish, which took me to Afrikaans, which took me to creole, which is apparently not just a French thing.

I think most people’s understanding of creole is the French-based creole languages of the Caribbean — particularly Haiti, but also Guadeloupe — and/or Louisiana. But creoles are actually any stable language (meaning it has native speakers) with an advanced vocabulary and grammar structure (not pidgin) that emerged suddenly at a specific point in time and is influenced by another language or languages. Creole languages exist almost exclusively in former colonial territories and developed, necessarily, as lingua francas. Linguists estimate around 100 creoles have emerged since 1500. Technically speaking, Afrikaans is a creole language, developed in South Africa in the late 17th century and incorporating aspects of Southern African languages into Dutch, though it is more typically considered a daughter language to Dutch.

For academic sources (journal articles) on creole languages, see here,  here, and here.

For quicker, less detailed reading on creole languages, see herehere, and here.

*For the record, the best information we could find came from the Australian incarnation of the show and involves surprisingly little — mostly, the ability to carry a small amount of weight over a short distance, to get up from a prone position on your own power, to squat and recover…basically everyday motions we all execute without much thought.

Lesson #94 Redux: Being Linked

This blog has never been anything more than a way for me to just vomit random information for about a dozen people who know and love me to read if they’re interested. I teach you things because I like to know things. Because my parents like to know things.

Apparently, though, I’m only mostly just a tiny little internet blip vomiting knowledge and good research. I’m super late to the game on this — mostly because this little endeavour lay dormant for three years while I did my second master’s and then didn’t have a need for this sort of intellectual stimulation in the following year and a half. But here we are just into 2018, and I’m looking at the stats page and notice a weird referral.

Most people who wind up here came either because they’re subscribed to it (Hey, guys! Thanks for still being here!) or because they’re googling whether a. they can legally go to Paraguay for that dual they’re itching for (Put the gun down!) or b. their untreated syphilis will make their nose fall off (There are drugs for this! Go see your doctor! And wear a condom next time!) However, since 2015, a perplexing number of people have ended up here thanks to…The Guardian?

Like…the reputable British news site, The Guardian. As you can imagine, this was confusing. How on earth did so many people end up here because of a British newspaper to which I have zero affiliation? It turns out that in 2015, someone writing over there went to the Google machine whilst writing an article on the revival of Manx Gaelic and found my post on the same. What I find hilarious is that the statistic to which I’m linked is pulled from the fifth chapter of a book from a 1990 conference on Minority Languages that literally took me all of about 90 seconds to find, in full, from the moment I clicked off my blog to the citation.*

But…I rather suspect I was linked because I’m much more concise and easier to read than the author of the original paper (one Dr. Wilf Gunther of Lancashire Polytechnic in Preston, about whom a cursory search reveals surprisingly little outside of acknowledgements by other authors, which makes me think he may not still be alive), which is heartening. The original article is interesting, but dense. I’ve broken the information down into just a few paragraphs, and being linked by a source like The Guardian means the work I’m putting into learning about these things and making them digestible pieces of knowledge for non-academics is effective and useful.**


*It would have been faster if the initial citation to which I linked had been more complete. What should have been a two-step process turned into a five-step process. So it took a minute and a half instead of 15 seconds.

**I’m sure there’s a discussion to be had on the decline of our attention spans to the point where valuable academic information needs to be broken down into a few easily digestible paragraphs, but I’m not here for that right now. Or ever, really, I guess, given that this entire blog is easily digestible knowledge designed for people who aren’t inclined to spend an hour or two or three (depending on the lesson) reading up on a subject for no reason other than “I was curious”.

Lesson #404: Order of Definitions

Happy 2018, everyone! I’m a bit late to the game, in part because I’ve been a bit all over the place with other things going on last week. Monday was a holiday. Everyone I know had a birthday (not literally speaking, but there was much birthdaying to be done). The World Juniors hockey tournament was happening. The Swede had a baby — well, his wife actually *had* the baby. The swim team I help with were back from break. I was busy just trying to keep up with life, you guys! But my goal for the year is to make weekly posts. I’ve got a post backdated for last week that’s still kind of spastic, so I may or may not post it…we’ll see. Moving on to week #2…

A friend in a major city in the Northeast sent me a message today asking if I knew the order for dictionary definitions. I thought she was going to enlighten me. She did not. She was asking because she didn’t know.

So, naturally, I went looking.

My initial guess was chronological, but that seemed not-quite-right, given the ever-changing nature of language.

It turns out that most major dictionaries, such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster do, in fact, list definitions in chronological order. Which is apparently done for exactly the reason I expected it wouldn’t — to maintain a timeline for the way we use language. Others, like the American Heritage Dictionary use a commonality order, which lists definitions based on usage in language.

For the OED, see here, under Chronology and the Historical Method

For the M-W dictionary, see here, under Order of Senses

For the American Heritage dictionary, see here, under Order of Sense

Lesson #387: Amok

Because you probably don’t live in isolation, you’re likely familiar with the phrasal verb “to run amok”. Our friends Messrs. Merriam and Webster have four related definitions for amok. The second, the one we know best, “in a wild or uncontrolled manner”, is of Malay origin and dates to the early 1670s.

However, the earlier (1665) definition,  “a murderous frenzy that has traditionally been regarded as occurring especially in Malaysian culture”, is apparently a thing that still exists that is bound almost entirely to Malaysian culture, but has also shown up in cases in the Philippines and Puerto Rico. It’s a rare madness — and is therefore classified as a mental illness — where someone will just completely lose his (or her) mind and causes serious bodily harm or straight up murders someone for no reason.

I can’t be the only person to notice that all three of these places are islands, right?

You can read more on Amok here.

M-W definition here, Etymology here.