The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Non-native pronunciations

It's a commonplace that systems of writing are invented and/or adapted by people speaking one language, and then speakers of another language pick up those systems and Do It Wrong.

Take the Semitic languages. They are best handled by trilateral consonantal roots, marked up with suffixes and vowels. Aramaic makes this abstraction so blatant that even the consonants are pronounced differently depending on whether there are vowels nearby. The Greek and Latin alphabets just don't do well when transcribing the Semitic languages. That's because the Greek and various Italian languages aren't Semitic. The Greeks and Etruscans overhauled the old Canaanite alphabet because they had to.

Recently I've grown interested in how the Indo-Europeans handled other Indo-European words. The famous "First Clash" pitted the later Achaemenids (Dareids, in fact) against the Ionian Greeks, more-or-less led by Athens. The Greeks might have bested the Persians on the field of battle, but, oh my, they really couldn't handle Iranian speech. They demonstrably botched that worse than the Septuaginters botched Diaspora Hebrew.

For Uvaxštra they got Κυαξάρης. For Dārayava'uš they got Δαρεῖος. Xšayaṛšā became Ξέρξης. For Artaxšaça? Ἀρταξέρξης. The names 'Xerxes' and 'Artaxerxes' are related on xša / ξέ (this Iranian root deals with kingship); but otherwise the Greek transcribers - literally - X'ed out the rest.

So, that explains why you see those odd little dots and wiggles in Western-language scholarly literature on Arabic and Persian. We're doing the best we can with our alphabets. Better than the Greeks did, at least.


posted by Zimri on 19:50 | link | 0 comments

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