Confounded Languages

28 06 2007

I was brushing up on my Coptic and I came upon the following sentence:

When did she give birth to her son?

Transliterated, the Coptic reads “h!n aš !nweiš asmise !mpesšeire” (the exclamation marks indicate the supralinear stroke), and readers of Greek will note that all bar two of those letters are also in the Greek alphabet. As a matter of fact, the Coptic alphabet is pretty much identical to the upper-case Greek alphabet, barring the inclusion of the Greek “lunar” sigma and the addition of six extra letters of which “Shai” Shai and “Hori” Hori are two.

The first of the three words that features Shai is a two letter word pronounced “ash”, with a short /a/ vowel such as features in the English word “cup”. It is an interrogative pronoun meaning “what”, but here features as part of an expression. The overall meaning is “When [lit. ‘at what time’] did she give birth to her son?”

I mention this because I often find myself making mistakes when I read Coptic, assuming that what I am looking at is a familiar Semitic language and not an unfamiliar Egyptian one. Consider my surprise when, instead of mistaking any of the words within this short sentence for a Semitic word, I found myself puzzling over the word Ash and wondering what the clause meant.

You see, “ash”, so far as I was concerned, meant “one”. It was the first of the Coptic counting numbers and I could not understand what its meaning was within this construction. I had to check after a while and found that “wa”, not “ash”, was the Coptic word for “one” and that “ash” meant something else entirely. From where had I received this strange notion in the first place? And then it hit me! “Ash” means “one” in the Black Speech of Mordor!

Ash nazg durbatulûk; ash nazg gimbatul
One ring to rule them all; one ring to find them…

I must say, I’ve confused plenty of languages before in my time, but never that one!

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8 responses

28 06 2007
Robert Mileham

Left a picture for you on my blog. Don’t think my text was that difficult!

Hope you are keeping well.

29 06 2007
Amanda J. Sisk

Lovely are the fragments upon your pages; I cannot decipher their meaning(s), but they please the eye.

29 06 2007
Simon Holloway

Thankyou! It is strange to look at an unfamiliar language and consider that, for some, its arbitrary symbols hold meaning. The works of art on your blog are very beautiful for precisely that reason. I cannot “read” an artwork as you can, but they are captivating nonetheless.

29 06 2007
Amanda J. Sisk

Thank you, Mr. Holloway. An artist often reads with her hands as well as eyes…a sort of Braille, perhaps? I find that each material I use is a different tongue, but bound together in the way that the Romance languages are, enabling me to move from drawing and painting to printmaking to sculpture in the way one might shift from French to Italian or Spanish. At the end of the day, all is Vulgar Latin.

4 07 2007
Ariel S

Funny. I stumbled upon this place entirely by coincidence (I was looking for Davar Aher the late satirical supplemental.
The interesting thing about ‘ash’ is that ‘ash’ also exists with the same meaning in Moroccan Arabic, as in “Ash Hbarak?” “How are you?”. Correct me if I’m wrong. I wonder if these two phonemes are related. Did “ash” find its way from Egyptian to Moroccan through the years?
BTW, if i remember right, Coptic is supposed to be a Afro-Asiatic language, if i remember right, just like Arabic, so I wonder if this phoneme is that ancient (probably not).

4 07 2007
Ariel S

i meant, morpheme.

4 07 2007
Simon Holloway

It’s rather unlikely. You see, Coptic is an Afro-Asiatic language but, unlike Arabic, Coptic is a development of Late Egyptian and Demotic and is thus an Egyptian language, not a Semitic one. There are some points of commonality between Egyptian and Semitic, but they are primarily lexical and the chances that a question-word like “ash” would have been shared are pretty remote.

Still, I don’t know enough about either language to be able to discount it completely: do you know of any other types of Arabic that also use this word?

4 07 2007
Ariel S

I know Egyptian is not Semitic, duh! ;)

I don’t know much Arabic and really cannot say if ‘ash’ also exists in Egyptian Arabic. My guess is that it doesn’t, because Moroccan Arabic is known to be quite distinct from other Arabic dialect. The thing is that, AFAIK, Moroccan’s distinctness stems from Berber influence, not Coptic. So it would make sense if ‘ash’ found its way into Egyptian, not Moroccan.

BTW, in Palestinian Arabic “what “is “shu”. as in “shu hada?” “what’s this?”. Is ‘shu’ related to ‘ash’? No idea.

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