Modern Latin

Latin is in a sense a dead language, and in at least two other senses a living one. It’s a dead language in the sense that any children today growing up speaking Latin as their only first language are likely either to be subject to questionable parenting or have parents who have ended up speaking Latin to each other due to not being fluent in each others’ languages. There are a few people who speak Sanskrit, and a few more who speak Esperanto, as a first language, so it’s conceivable that there’s a teensy number who speak Latin that way too. I’m not one to judge such parenting decisions, but even so I’d hope that people who do opt to bring up their children speaking Latin at least make the additional decision to make them bilingual. Judging by my own experience in bringing children up speaking languages other than the dominant ones in their community, English is the language, French and Spanish (not so much Castilian) are also spoken by people around them, but German was just this funny noise I made at them which didn’t really catch on, except that it’s alleged that our daughter does speak German in her sleep.

But how is Latin alive? In at least two ways, as I said. Firstly, looking at the map above, most of the western half of the continental Eurasian portion of it still more or less speaks Latin. Every generation would have understood what the previous one was saying all the way back to the point where they would’ve been speaking Latin, or a dialect of it, at the time represented by this map, which is CCXVII ANNO DOMINI, or DCCCLXX ANNO URBIS CONDITÆ. The kind of prescriptive “correction” of pronunciation and grammar rife in probably most human communities would’ve been going on back then. In Italia and Dacia, parents would’ve been having a go at their kids for pronouncing C as “ch” before E and I or missing the S or M off certain words, and in Hispania perhaps complaining about this new trend of saying “you will be” instead of “you are”. Then eventually they would’ve given up and died, and only the church people and nobles would have noticed anything unusual about the language they were using, until eventually they were calling their languages Italiano, Português, Castellano, Français, Català, limba română and so on (not sure about capitalisation here), and couldn’t understand Latin very well at all.

Latin, though, was and is still alive. It’s still spoken fluently, for example, in the Roman Catholic Church and much Latin terminology is used in technical discourse. I always write prescriptions in Latin and British herbalists communicate with each other in the likes of Italy and Czechia in Latin. I’ve done so myself, although my attempt at talking to a herbalist in Rome using Latin didn’t work at all. I can look into the back garden and see Euphorbia helioscopia and Fragaria vesca aplenty, and don’t even bother to think what they might be called in English most of the time. The first of these, of course, is Latinised Greek and therefore possibly a poor choice but the point is I do this, as do many others, and this is the legacy of the Roman Empire.

However, the question I want to ask here is this: what would Latin be like today if it had continued to be a vernacular language? Ecclesiastical Latin survived of course, but that has some peculiar features such as the palatisation of C and G before E and I (to “ch” and “j” sounds) which even now one Romance language at least, Sardinian, doesn’t always have. This form of Latin probably doesn’t represent how it would be today as a widely spoken language as it is formally taught and frozen in some ways, although it adopts modern vocabulary such as helicopterus. It also ignores the difference between long and short vowels. Classical Latin had five long and five short vowels and some of the diphthongs, including Æ, AV and Œ, had already become single vowels by the Augustan period from which today’s academic pronunciation is derived. This was from 710 to 771 AUC, the period during which Jesus was born and ending maybe a decade before he was killed. The vowels of Latin, however, didn’t undergo this particular type of merging because the formerly long and short vowels, although they became levelled in length, also changed pronunciation while they were doing so and therefore remained distinct.

The question arises, though, of how these circumstances might arrive. It really amounts to the Empire not falling, and in order to imagine how it might persist one has to have some idea of why it fell in the first place. I personally think it was a combination of the adoption of Christianity and some kind of issue related to physical resources such as the need to continue to conquer land to retrieve food over increasing distances until it was no longer possible to transport them economically, but I’m no historian. The question also arises of what kind of world we’d be living in now if this had happened. For instance, would slavery still exist and would the Empire have continued to expand? For the sake of simplicity, I want to assume the following state of affairs:

  • The Empire didn’t split in half after the death of Theodosius I in 395 CE (1148 AUC). This could mean the eastern Empire was less dominated by Greek, and the Byzantine Empire survived until 1453 CE.
  • Christianity was not adopted. Perhaps it just didn’t exist.
  • Slavery was abolished in any event fairly early. This is because without that, technological progress would be much slower since there would be no direct connection between the experience of people working in particular industries and “thinkers” who could pass on what they learnt from their work, and there would be more motivation to invent labour-saving devices. This would give the Empire technological and therefore military superiority over their neighbours and strengthen its prowess in the long term.
  • The Empire eventually became global and there is a single state, the world ruled from Rome.

I am aware that all of this might not result in a particularly marvellous world order but I also think this world, with no European Dark or Middle Ages and the continuing innovation of the Greek part of the Imperium, would be many centuries ahead of our own technologically. I’m going to conjecture that slavery was abolished in about the year 500 CE, followed by an industrial revolution in about 600, leading to a twentieth century level of technology by 800, meaning that there would be weapons of mass destruction and the conquest of the entire planet around then. By today, Rome would have dominated the world for twelve centuries. Note that this may very well not be a utopia, although it’s worth asking whether it’s even possible for a society like this to exist without being a utopia because I am confident that anything other than a utopia-like civilisation could exist for long and still be industrialised, so I imagine that of necessity such a world would perhaps have begun as an oppressive régime, but ceased to be so after a fairly short period of time, perhaps because the level of education required is incompatible with maintaining that level of technology. All of this is interesting and worth exploring in itself, but for now I simply present you with the global official language of the 28th century AUC.

Today’s Romance languages are descended from Vulgar Latin. For example, the Castilian words calle, casa and caballo now mean “street”, “house” and “horse”, but originally meant “dirt track”, “hut” and “nag”, or rather they descend from such words. If the Empire had survived, it seems likely that some of the prestige register would have continued and the words via, domus and equus would have been the source of the modern words. In some cases these have survived anyway in some form. Italian still calls roads “via” and the Castilian word for “mare” is yegua. Domus, on the other hand, seems to have died out. Similarly, the French for “head”, tête, originally meant “pot”, but caput survives in the Castilian cabeza, and also in the French chef, where however it doesn’t mean “head” in the literal sense. Hence one major feature of 28th century Latin to my mind would probably be that the vocabulary was taken from classical rather than vulgar sources, although there would probably have been some infiltration from the lower classes, particularly if the society it was spoken in had become more egalitarian. On that matter, would there now be a communist society in which it had become routine for people to refer to each other by a word translatable as “comrade”, such as “amica”?

The purest Latin in the real Empire was said to be spoken in what is now the south of France. This may be surprising, but it was probably due to the fact that the other Italic languages, related to Latin but not descended from it, had been spoken in the rest of the Italian peninsula and influenced the way it was spoken there. Centuries later, it was agreed that the most accurate Latin was spoken in Britain, and this was because the first language spoken by the peasants here was not closely related to it and therefore didn’t influence it. In general, the further one went from Rome, the more divergent the Latin was, with the proviso that in Italy itself the language was somewhat different from the standard upper class register. One of the features of the Roman dialect of Latin was that it seems to have changed L to I in some places, as for example with “fiore” in modern Italian rather than “flos”, becoming “*flore”. And this underlines the fact that Italian is not modern Latin. The chief differences from a kind of “central” standard include its distinctive double consonants and the fact that most words end in a vowel.

Now would be an appropriate point to highlight many of the differences of today’s Romance languages from classical Latin in the sense of being actual divergences from a standard which are not present in all cases:

Italian shows the influence of other Italic languages, such as “I” replacing “L”, which I seem to recall is from Faliscan. There’s also the so-called “Tuscan throat”, which is the tendency to change /k/ to a guttural fricative, said to be inherited from Etruscan, this being however a dialectal feature. Apart from that is the doubling of consonants and the use of vowels at the ends of most words. The general rhythm of the language is similar to that of Modern Greek and may also not be original.

Spanish, by which I mean all of Castilian, the other dialects of the Spanish part of the Iberian peninsula except for Catalan/Valencian and Gallego, and the language of first-language Spanish speakers of the Americas and other former parts of the Spanish Empire, is divergent in two major ways. Firstly, it has adopted a fair bit of Arabic vocabulary due to the Moors dominating the region for much of what would be considered the Dark and Middle Ages in much of the rest of Europe. Secondly, during the second Christian millennium it became phonetically quite divergent, particularly in Castille, where J came to be pronounced “kh”, C before front vowels and Z “th”, F became H and was eventually completely dropped and so forth. In non-Castilian dialects, C in those circumstances stayed as “s” but “LL” became “y” (I’m using English spelling conventions here rather than IPA). Spanish also uses the verbs “ser” and “estar” to express what appear to be mainly necessary and contingent states, and has personal “a” for the accusative, which as far as I know is unique, and uses “haber” to express the perfect but never an existential verb.

As far as Portuguese is concerned, and here I’m including non-European varieties again, there’s again considerable divergence in pronunciation, but the spelling is conservative, making the written language look closer to Italian and Latin than Spanish does. The most distinctive features of that pronunciation are the nasalisation of vowels, the contrast in pronunciation according to whether the syllable is stressed or not, which incidentally is also present in English, and the tendency to palatise, which gives it a superficially Slavic sound. Brazilian Portuguese, which is generally more conservative than European, also has a uvular R like the French one. N’s also get turned into M’s sometimes. As far as grammar is concerned, it uses “ter”, from the Latin “tenere”, meaning “to hold”, as an auxiliary verb for past tenses and has the unique feature of the personal infinitive, where personal endings are added to the infinitive in hypothetical situations. Portuguese and Spanish are the closest national languages to each other in the group, but Portuguese also shares features with Catalan which Spanish lacks. It and Romanian are the two least similar languages of the lot. I’m not sure about this, but I get the impression that Portuguese vocabulary is almost as pure as Italian’s.

This brings me to boring old French, and I know I’m being unfair here but its ubiquity in secondary schooling for an Englander of my generation lends it a patina of tedium. French is quite divergent because it descends from Latin spoken far from its native territory, which also suggests that the extinct British Romance language which vanished without trace after the Germanic invasions would have been “even more French”, since it was spoken on an island, but since it quickly died out it probably didn’t have much chance to change that much. French is probably the language whose pronunciation is both furthest from its spelling and classical Latin pronunciation, and the grammar is extremely simplified. It seems to have been influenced in two major ways. One is that it was spoken in a formerly Celtic-speaking area and although I’m not sure I think that its tendency to run words into each other and have them influence its pronunciation may date from that stage. The other is that the Franks, who spoke a Dutch-like language, also had a major hand in its form. For instance, the French vowels “eu”, “u” and “œ” are found in no other national Romance language but are common in Germanic ones. The other notable feature of French pronunciation apart from elision and liaison is nasalisation, which is accompanied with a vowel shift. Although nasalisation wasn’t as important an element in Latin, it did exist in words which ended in M, and therefore is in a sense a conservative feature.

Romanian is generally the most divergent language of the group but is also the most conservative grammatically. It’s the outlier for two reasons. Firstly, it borrowed a lot of vocabulary from eastern European sources, and secondly it’s part of the Balkan Sprachbund, entailing that it has unusual features such as a tendency to avoid the infinitive and having suffixed definite articles. Compared to its relatives, it’s closest to French and shares with French what appears to be an original tendency to have a slower rhythm than Italian and Spanish. It still has the grammatically neuter gender and case endings, and its verb conjugation also tends to be quite conservative, but is extremely irregular.

Romanian and French, although not close to each other, share a few features. Romanian seems to have borrowed a lot of French vocabulary, and French case endings fell into the same two cases as now exist in Romanian. There’s also the tendency to use schwa (the murmured final vowel in “Sparta”) and the general prosody of the languages. Some of these features are clearly radical but the rhythm and case endings clearly are not. Romanian also preserves the way the vowels changed from Latin in the Eastern Roman Empire and Sardinia, which is different from the rest of the group.

French, Spanish and Portuguese also form a kind of block with similar features, although of the three French is closer to Italian in certain characteristics, though not the ones found in Portuguese. These include the universal noun plurals in “-s”, and incidentally in “-x” in French, which is a spelling convention.

Catalan has the distinction of being the “most central” Romance tongue. It has more in common with the other languages than any of the others have with each other. There are two fairly striking features. One is that words have a tendency to be quite short, and the other is that there is an unusually large number of personal pronouns. Incidentally, it’s the most widely spoken language in Europe which is not the official tongue of any recognised state and has more speakers than a number of other languages which are official elsewhere. Being the “central” one, it may have the best claim to being today’s version of Latin.

There are a number of other languages in the group and also some extinct ones, some of which have vanished without trace. The most conservative of these is Sardinian, which however is also influenced by Catalan. It forms the definite article in a distinctive way, from “ipso”, the reflexive pronoun “itself”, unlike all the others which got it from “ille”, meaning approximately “that”. It also still pronounces C as “k” in all positions. It’s generally considered closest to Latin of all the Romance languages but does have influences from extinct sources which have altered it somewhat. It also does things no other language in the group does, such as changing initial V to F.

I’ll just mention Ladino in passing as I already went into it in some depth here. It has more conservative pronunciation than Spanish, which is because it split off before Spanish took its foray into weirdness. Ladino is kind of more “normal” than Spanish in that respect because it’s conservative.

There are several isolated Romance languages spoken in the Alps, mainly in Switzerland, including Ladin, Rumansh and Friulian. At a cursory listen to these, about which I don’t know much, they sound rather like Spanish to me.

Dalmatian is a bit like a missing link. It was spoken in the region between Italy and Romania until rather dramatically its last speaker died in a road-building explosion. I’ll cover the rest here. Provençal is the most successful historically, and has a number of peculiar features. It used case endings for longer than any other Western Romance language, it has oddly swapped gender endings – O for feminine and A for masculine – and has no nominative personal pronouns at all. Finally there are four extinct languages of which there is little or no written record: British Romance, African Romance, Moselle Romance and Pannonian. These can be detected through placenames, words borrowed into other languages and errors made in documents.

I would like to claim that Modern Latin would, unlike other surviving Italic languages, be descended from classical rather than Vulgar Latin, and would combine features currently found in all surviving Romance languages otherwise, but that it would be more conservative. It would also have borrowed terms directly from other languages which Latin as a living language never encountered such as Australian Aboriginal or North American First Nation languages.

This, then, is what I think it would be like and why:

  • A tendency to use vocabulary derived from classical Latin where surviving Romance languages have used vulgar, such as “caput” for “head”, “equus” for “horse”, “via” for “street” and “domus” for “house”.
  • No definite or indefinite articles. Latin itself had no word for “the” and whereas other Italic languages now use them, they are not entirely consistent in their etymology or placement. Sardinian uses “ipso” and Romanian suffixes them.
  • A future tense based on suffixing “habere” to the infinitive in most cases with the exception of “esse”. Romanian seems to be the only one which hasn’t done this and this is probably due to being in the Balkans.
  • Three genders. Romanian retains the neuter gender and others have a kind of neuter pronoun. However, since the form of the masculine and neuter nouns is often similar, the distribution of those genders would seem arbitrary to someone ignorant of the history of the language. Feminine would be more definitely separate.
  • Two cases for the nouns. This crops up in Old French, Provençal and modern Romanian. They’re likely to be absolute and oblique.
  • C and G would be palatised before E and I, and V would be pronounced “v”, unlike in Latin.
  • A nasal vowel would occur at the end of certain words but there would be no other nasalisation.
  • R would be trilled.
  • There would be a distinct future tense for “esse” but for no other verbs. “Stare” would not be used as an existential verb.
  • The general rhythm of the language would be slower than Italian and more like French.
  • The personal pronouns would include dative forms.
  • Vowels would have collapsed in the Western Romance manner rather than the Eastern.
  • Word order would be SVO except for pronouns.
  • Past tenses would be realised using “habere” as an auxiliary verb before the past participle.

There would be a number of other deducible features, but probably the best way to approach this is to produce a passage in the actual language. Although this is a world without Christianity, the Pater Noster, or “Our Father” prayer, more commonly known in English as the Lord’s Prayer, is a reliable source of the form of most written languages, and it’s therefore worth trying to reconstruct it here. I think it would look something like this:

Padre nostro, qui es in cielo, sanctificato sia nome tuo.

Venga tuo regno, sia facta tua voluntatem, come in cielo e come in terra.

Da nobis odie nostram panem quotidianom, e pardone nos de nostras debitas, come nos pardonemos nostros debitores

E non duca nos in tentationem, ma libera nos de mal. Amen.

I’m not sure how closely I followed the recommendations here. However, I have attempted to include a number of grammatical points. The absolute case is distinct from the oblique, the subjunctive third person singular of “estre” is “sia”, possessive adjectives can occur either side of the noun. “Nobis” is the dative of “nos”. The neuter and masculine singular oblique ends in a M, but this serves to nasalise the vowel and is not pronounced as a consonant. Likewise, “GN” is a palatised N like in French and Italian. H’s are silent, if they ever occur – in fact there may simply be no letter H, except in foreign loanwords. “And” is “e”, and consequently there’s no ampersand. The penultimate line uses the same form as the English version which has “debts” and “debtors” rather than “sins” or “trespasses” and the awkward “those who trespass against us”. Finally, I’ve missed off the doxology, but it would be something like “car regno, potentia e gloria son tue, a seculas de secula.”, but I’ve just thrown that together at the last moment.

A short note on loanwords. They would have tomatlas, patatas, minuas (kangaroos), dovaques (boomerangs) and so forth. These would mainly be neuter, as the languages they were borrowed from would usually lack grammatical gender entirely.

In conclusion, I think this is an entirely feasible if somewhat arbitrary conjecture as to what Latin would look like today if it had been in continuous use since Roman times as a vernacular. The written numerals would be different as they would probably have been adopted from a different source, possibly India, but Roman numerals would doubtless have been abandoned early, and there would be no Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Baha’i or Sikh religions. Other than that, I don’t know what the world would look like today, except that it seems likely that the human race would be found on other planets and in space habitats by now. But whatever, this is how they’d be talking, or somewhere near.

Esperantotago – Esperanto Day

Today is Esperanto Day, the anniversary of Zamenhof’s 1887 CE publication of ‘La Unua Libro’, the “first book”, setting out the principles of the Esperanto language. Now I’ve mentioned Esperanto rather a lot on here so I won’t be going into it in the same way as I have before, except to note that it has external history, and to a limited extent internal history too, in common with other international Jewish languages. And I use that phrase “Jewish languages” positively, as the invention of Esperanto represents the internationalism, altruism and desire for peace which is such a central part of Jewish faith and culture.

It’s been said many times that Esperanto has a Western Indo-European bias, that it’s sexist and that it’s poorly designed. One of the problems with it is that it ignores sandhi. Sandhi is the way pronunciation changes due to sounds next to each other, either inside a word (internal sandhi) or between them (external sandhi). Sandhi is originally a concept made up by Sanskrit-using linguists in South Asia, and the well-known ‘Teach Yourself Sanskrit’ book I bought back when I was twelve or so out of fascination with the apparent exoticism and complexity of the language has a fold-out table listing all of the combinations which change the sound. Esperanto is at the opposite end of the spectrum regarding grammatical complexity in many ways, making it easier to learn, but it has led to ignorance of sandhi, which makes it either difficult to pronounce or easy to pronounce but harder to understand the spoken language. For instance, the word “kvankam” – “although” – would probably be pronounced “kfangkam” by people whose first language has those sandhi rules, such as devoicing a fricative after a voiceless stop and making a nasal velar before a velar consonant, /kfaŋkam/, but the rules in other languages may be different and it could be pronounced “gvantam” for example, or a vowel could be inserted between K and V if someone isn’t used to pronouncing consonants together. Zamenhof doesn’t seem to have been aware of this issue. However, the probable consequence of this would be that people speak it with slightly different accents.

Another significant issue with Esperanto for many is that it uses no fewer than six participles. Compare this with English, which uses two – present active and past passive. I suspect that this is the result of Zamenhof being fluent in the highly inflected Polish, which divides them into adverbial and adjectival, perfective and imperfective and active and passive, which to my naïve non-Slavic speaking brain seems to multiply up to eight, that is, two by two by two categories. This is not the kind of thing you generally see in KENTUM languages such as German, Italian or Welsh. However, Zamenhof did not incorporate the perfective/imperfective aspects common to Slavic, where the imperfective sets the scene and the perfective is more like a past continuous tense, though neither are actually tenses, presumably because he knew how confusing they would be to many Western Europeans.

Zamenhof’s focus was substantially on Europe at the time. Current affairs in the region would certainly seem to concentrate the mind on the potential for achieving peace among what might be looked at as our various warring tribes whose languages differ and that this incomprehension and struggle to communicate probably would make things worse. Douglas Adams, of course, had a go at this with the Babel Fish, whose use causes terrible wars because people actually understand what aliens are saying about them. This is along the lines of Monty in ‘Withnail & I’ listening to Withnail and Marwood:

 “Perhaps it is just that the eavesdropper should leave as his trade dictates, in secrecy and in the dead of night. I do sincerely hope that you will find the happiness that has sadly always been denied me. Yours faithfully, Montague H. Withnail.”

If people are speaking secure in the belief that they will not be overheard and understood by others they don’t wish to include, there’s an argument that if they are understood, it won’t make those who understand them happy. Speaking Esperanto, ironically, is a good way of ensuring that nobody will understand what you’re saying because you can pretty much guarantee that no-one else will have learnt it, so perhaps it does actually work quite well as a way of avoiding conflict.

Rather surprisingly, the Western bias of Esperanto doesn’t seem to be perceived as a problem by native speakers of non-Indo-European languages. For instance, it’s relatively popular in the Far East. This brings up the question of evaluation of different cultural practices by outsiders. A few years ago, there was controversy online about a White American woman who wore a Chinese-style dress to a prom, as some Chinese people saw this as cultural appropriation, but others saw it as complimentary, as she had adopted part of their own culture which she admired. On my YT video about Carvaka, I’m accused of cultural appropriation for mentioning Carvaka and Samkhya, both distinctively South Asian ontologies, but I don’t see how intellectual discourse can operate if such things can’t be discussed openly. That said, it does seem inappropriate to me for a White person to have dreadlocks induced in a hair salon even though dreadlocks are part of White Western European culture and arguably sanctioned by the Tanakh. Likewise, I sometimes wonder if the idea of cultural appropriation is itself Western, and cultural imperialism conversely could be as well to some extent. I feel uncomfortable saying this, and in fact the truth is probably more nuanced, but it’s at least interesting that Westerners often seem more concerned about the idea of Esperanto’s Western bias than other groups of people are. This is not entirely true, however. Baha’i prophets in the Middle East have praised the idea of Esperanto while saying that it would still be better for a constructed international auxiliary language to have less of a KENTUM, and in fact there is a fruitful source in Arabic for such a language, since it has had such a strong influence on languages such as Indonesian, Urdu, Spanish, Swahili, Farsi and Turkish. Attempts have in fact been made to construct such a language, known as Dunia, from the Arabic word for “world”. Ironically, such a language would probably be more comprehensible to first-language Hebrew speakers than the Jewish invention of Esperanto. I actually had a go at a constructed language based on Arabic which I called Dunijaluga, without being aware that it was tried, possibly later on, by someone else, and I mention it in ‘Replicas’.

I used to think of Esperanto as a Romance language. Certainly the majority of its roots are from Romance, and it has a kind of Italian sound to it although without the double consonants and with only five vowels rather than seven. However, a quarter of its root vocabulary is Greek, which actually works quite well due to the tendency for international terms in technical vocabulary to be taken from that language along with Latin. The quality of Esperanto in design terms is kind of intermediate. Some aspects are well thought through, others are linguistically naïve and there are biasses which can be perceived more easily from today than when it was first invented, and it’s been suggested that this intermediate nature is an important element in its failure to be adopted more widely. J R R Tolkien also famously invented a culture to go around his constructed languages, and Klingon also has this advantage. Esperanto, however, isn’t entirely lacking in this respect although most of that culture is firmly in the inter-war years and was subject to persecution by the Nazis. It had a hard task being adopted in such an extremely nationalistic Europe.

The language is said to be learnt on average four times faster than other languages, although this is of course somewhat spurious because the languages already known by the learner would strongly influence that. A first-language Greek or Italian speaker would probably pick it up very quickly, but if your mother tongue was Malay or Mandarin Chinese, I would expect you to take far longer.

There are a number of associations with Esperanto which developed from its invention into the 1930s. These included two global currencies, the speso and the stelo, the Baha’i faith, pacifism, vegetarianism and the philosophy of Homaranismo. None of these are inevitable, and it’s possible that these associations reduced its appeal by making it seem less neutral, although many of these things are in a way manifestations of neutrality.

The Speso is a thousandth of a spesmilo, a currency invented in 1907 by René de Saussure which was actually accepted by some banks before the First World War. The spesmilo is the practical unit. It used the gold standard and its value is fixed at 733 milligrammes of pure gold, which at the time was around two shillings sterling, or four dozen US cents. The speso itself was deliberately made very small to avoid the use of fractional denominations like the ha’penny and farthing. It has its own symbol: ₷, which can be seen on the right of the shield on the above coin. Today the face value of a spesmilo is just under £31 or €36.14. The adoption of the speso in any form was prevented by the onset of the First World War.

In 1946, a second attempt was made with the stelo, whose price was fixed at one standard loaf of bread. This is quite difficult to comprehend today due to the diversity of consumer products nowadays, but this seems to be roughly a pound if by “standard” one means unsliced white loaf bought from a supermarket. The motivation for the issuing of the stelo was similar to that of Esperanto: to demonstrate that separate currencies caused international conflict and economic pressure. As can be seen in the flag above, the pentagram is a symbol of Esperanto. The International Esperanto League also used coupons valued in steloj for its internal activity until the 1980s. The one stelo coin on the left here was bronze, the five stelo on the right was brass and there was also a cupronickel 10 stelo coin. In 1965 a twenty-five stelo silver coin was introduced. In 1974, the connection with the price of bread was ended and it was instead pegged to the Dutch guilder at a value of two steloj to one guilder. This changed again in 1977 to a percentage of the average monthly purchases of a family, in order to avoid inflation, which was a major issue at the time. Incidentally it’s always struck me as very strange that this is not how exchange rates are defined, and I assumed for a long time that it was.

Another major connection exists between Esperanto and Baha’i. Baha’i is a religion founded in the nineteenth Christian century now based in Israel which teaches the unity of all people and the equal value of all faiths. It comes across today as being kind of nineteenth century liberal, a little like Jehovah’s Witnesses but more open. For instance, Baha’i teaches that women and men are like the two wings of a bird, without which she couldn’t fly, but this is not the same as sexual egalitarianism as most might understand it today. More problematic is its firm commitment to homophobia. The Universal House of Justice, which is their governing body, does not allow female members even though it says gender equality is fundamental to the unity of the human race. Abdu’l-Baha also bans women from military service as he saw the killing of other human beings as incompatible with the station of motherhood. For me, the surprising aspect of this is that Baha’i is not universally pacifist. Regarding homosexuality, Baha’i officially sees it as an aspect of the innate human inclination towards evil, believes sexual orientation can and should be changed and excludes practicing homosexuals from full membership of the faith on the grounds that they are not living in accordance with its principles, in a similar way to how they would exclude people who drink alcohol. Another issue is that it doesn’t impose vegetarianism on principle, although of course this isn’t unusual. What this probably illustrates is the kind of approach which the Old Left had from the century following 1850 CE or so, where it continued to be just as sexist and homophobic, and in some cases even racist, as we now expect the Hard Right to be.

Lidia Zamenhof, Ludwik’s youngest child, was born in 1904, and died in Treblinka Concentration Camp in 1942. She took over the rôle her father and mother had before of spreading Esperanto, and the secularisation of the family led her to become increasingly isolated from both the Jewish community and of course Gentiles. She lost her belief in God in 1925. Soon after, however, she became Baha’i and mixed the two. She didn’t feel like she’d given up her Jewishness either as she saw that as ethnicity and heritage. She met Shoghi Effendi, the then leader of the faith, and said in one of her talks:

“The international language is part of the Divine Plan which is given effect in the era of Bahá’u’lláh. And the creation and spread of Esperanto are proofs of the creative power of Bahá’u’lláh’s words.”

In November 1939, Lidia was arrested by the Nazis on the grounds of travelling to the United States to spread anti-Nazi propaganda and she was sent to live in the Ghetto on Ogrodowa Street. Shoghi Effendi and others attempted to get her out of Poland but failed, and in June 1942 she was sent to Treblinka and murdered.

It’s important to bear in mind that although Baha’i has major conservative and intolerant elements, Baha’is are also persecuted, and have been persecuted since the start. Lidia’s optimism about the divine plan seemed to have been refuted by the Holocaust, and even today they are oppressed in Iran, where they are the largest religious minority. There have been government land-grabs, they are seen as a political group, and the stated aim of the government is “To gain control over the misguided movement of the perverse Baha’i sect”, according to a leaked document. The homes of Baha’is have been destroyed and many of them have had to flee the country. Baha’i cemetaries are steamrollered as well. To take another example, like many other non-Christian religions, Baha’is haven’t been permitted to have religious assemblies in Romania since 2007.

The oldest continuously active vegetarian organisation in the world is the Tutmonda Esperantista Vegetarana Asocio, founded in 1908 and articles about vegetarianism were being published in Esperanto before the language was a decade old. Lev Tolstoj was honorary president of the TEVA. Their website is here.

I’ve tried to be brief here, but I would like to finish by outlining what seemed to be a common Esperantist vision of the world. Everyone would speak Esperanto as a second language, there would be no more nation states but a single world government, world peace would prevail, most people would be vegetarian and there would be a universal currency proof against inflation. All faiths would be recognised as one. Modern Esperantists are likely to add more to this, but it should also be recognised that Esperanto peaked at a time when women were seen as slaves to biology and therefore restricted in ways men weren’t, and homosexuality was at best understood to be a mental illness. However, the thing about all of these movements taken together is that they are all in a sense moderate. Esperanto is an international language, but not an ideal one and still quite Westernised. Baha’i is somewhat more liberal than most conservative religion but maintains sexism and homophobia. Vegetarianism is not veganism. The international currencies were actual currencies rather than LETS or post-scarcity working for the common good having superceded money. Nonetheless, taken together, even the inter-war consensus of these movements combined is better than what we have had at any point since the War in the world on the whole. Maybe we shouldn’t let the best be the enemy of the good.

The Thoughts Of A Starfish

Imagine yourself standing in front of a mirror. You know the deal, if you can see. Everything which is to your left is to your right in a mirror and vice versa. But in a flat mirror, your head doesn’t become your feet and if you lie down in front of it, your head and feet are at the same ends as in the reflection. Your back and front have swapped sides of course, and this is related to left and right swapping.

We’re usually roughly bilaterally symmetrical and our eyes are not on flexible stalks. However, our fingertips kind of are. It may just be me, but when I read braille on a box of pills, if the writing is at the back of the box it appears to be mirror writing. I presume this is how everyone experiences braille. From this it appears correct to deduce that if my eyes were on stalks and I were to extend one and look back at myself, I would appear to be seeing a reflection. I’m not sure there’s even a way for such a being to look at itself and see itself the “right” way round. Because we’re nearly bilaterally symmetrical, we consider ourselves to have a left and right, and therefore our perceptual world. Most writing is said to run from left to right or right to left, but some is vertical and some is written in various forms of boustrophedon, where the writing alternates direction and in some cases turns upside down as well. Motorists drive on the right or left side of the road and pedestrians do whatever is the opposite in their part of the world. Clearly, although it can’t be accounted for in geometry or other kinds of mathematics, we are able to consider our world as being the right way round compared to a reflection, but there isn’t anything which says which way round it is. There is no cosmic “THIS SIDE UP” sign or anything else like that.

It’s established then that we tend towards being bilaterally symmetrical animals with two forward-facing eyes which cannot swivel round and are set in sockets. It doesn’t seem inevitable that we would be like this though. Back to the M`ubv, as mentioned in yesterday’s post. These were my imaginary pentaradiately symmetrical aliens with five sexes, although they’ve turned out to have eight, I came up with when I was twelve. At the time, to me the most important difference between them and us is that we’re bilaterally symmetrical and they’re pentaradiate, like starfish. This means they don’t really have left and right sides to their bodies, or a back and front, and to be honest I’m happy to add eyes on stalks to their body plan to see what happens. They do, however, have a top and bottom to their bodies and this raises the question of where the food goes in and if and where it comes out when they’re done with it. Although echinoderms have an oral and aboral surface, with the oral corresponding to the bottom, for a land animal this would be inconvenient as it would mean they’d have to excrete through their heads and it would probably end up all over them. Then again, maybe their etiquette is different and they don’t mind. It still seems unhygienic though. Therefore I’m going to put their mouths and genitals at the tops of their bodies and their main excretory organs at the bottom. This will enable two of them to make love face to face regardless of the genders involved.

The question arises of whether they have strong concepts of left and right. If two of them are facing each other, one might say to the other, “it’s to your left” or “to my right”, but this would be a temporary situation which would change if the conversation was taking place in a different orientation. There’s an Australian aboriginal language which lacks ways of expressing left and right and uses something like compass directions instead. This would, I presume, work fine for the M`ubv and in fact would be less ambiguous, although at first it might be expressed as something more like “towards the mountain” or “towards the coast”. Giving directions would be different. The question arises of whether they’d even have words for the ideas, and also of what would happen with their writing. It isn’t easy to think of a way of writing which wouldn’t in some way be linked to notions of left and right. Vertical writing would still proceed across the page line by line and spiral or circular writing direction would always be clockwise or counterclockwise, at least within the line, or rather circle. It’s possible that concepts could be built up by superimposing or modifying existing characters, but even then at some point a new character would be needed and that would have to be situated elsewhere. When zoologists began to describe the anatomy of radially symmetrical animals, they found themselves introducing the terms “oral” and “aboral”, but these are technical terms and usages which aren’t part of most people’s everyday language. It might turn out that the interior of such an organism is asymmetrical, in which case perhaps “left” and “right” would become largely medical terms. There would also be hazier notions of front, back, forwards and backwards, and these would influence the way position was expressed in their languages. This would presumably go on to influence figurative uses of the same concepts. For instance, we think in terms of progress and setbacks. Would they? They would, though, share ideas of up and down, and of the tops and bottoms of things, upper and lower and so forth. Hence their vertical understanding could be directionally similar to ours, but horizontal understanding would be more like compass directions, refer to landmarks and would be able to express inner and outer and distance from the speaker, but would they even do that? Would their way of expressing other positional concepts influence those too?

This morning I said “I’m going to wash my glasses”, meaning all of the pairs of spectacles I use, and was acutely aware of how English lacks an easy way to express the dual as opposed to the plural. Many languages do have this facility, which they sometimes confine to items which are more often found in pairs but also sometimes more generally. Later stages of a language tend to use these only for the former. Were it common to have five members or organs rather than pairs, there would probably be languages with special inflections for five of something, but the question then arises of whether there’d be a paucal number too. Would there be separate forms for the singular, paucal (two to four items), quintal (five) and plural, or would there be forms for each of the numbers from singular to plural? In this situation, five would be the most frequent number other than singular and plural. English retains traces of the dual in words such as “alternative” and “either”. These might have special forms for five options as well as two, or might have three different forms: one for two to four, one for five and one for many.

Then there’s the question of grammatical gender and noun classes. Although Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages are characterised by a form of gender which distinguishes between females and males as well as other items in the same class, many languages, such as the Niger-Congo family, instead have a similar arrangement to grammatical gender which, however, doesn’t always make a distinction between the sexes. The situation here is that there are eight biological sexes. A possible origin for Indo-European grammatical gender is that women have historically tended to be referred to by what they are seen to be while men have tended to be referred to by what they are seen to do. Hence the old system of having separate classes for adjectival and agent nouns has turned into something referred to as grammatical gender but not necessarily having much to do with gender in the social sense. For the M`ubv, this would depend on whether a similar cultural tendency existed for all eight “genders”, plus perhaps the inanimate. On the other hand, variation of that type might lead to a situation where there wasn’t much distinction between them. If the association did occur, though, languages with at least nine genders would be common, and these could extend beyond the species. This would have the advantage of reducing ambiguity because there could be separate pronouns and grammatical forms, if this is what they had, for up to nine separate referents in the same phrase. Considering pronouns, this means that for each person there could easily be thirty-six distinct pronouns, and in the case of the second and first the question of clusivity and differently-gendered groups could also arise. This might also extend to verbs.

All of this would seem intuitive. So far I’ve been assuming that these are kind of five-sided human beings with eyes on stalks because it makes things simpler. In fact, these concessions to humanoid appearance would probably be unrealistic. The question also arises of what different insights this species might have compared to us. Although it can be conjectured that they might lack quotidian concepts of left and right, the chances are they would have additional concepts which we lack, and this brings me to the embodiment thesis, which is significant for us too, and presumably any embodied being.

So far so science fictiony, but there is a more mundane point to be made here. A popular philosophical slogan which I even use myself sometimes is, “I am my brain”, but in fact I’m not. I am more likely to be either less than or more than my brain, both for social reasons and because I am a body. Experiments have shown that if a subject smiles or frowns artificially, they tend to get positive or negative sentences more quickly respectively. Logical behaviourism attempted to claim that verbal thinking was nothing other than sotto voce vocalisation. If you open your mouth and think the word “bubble”, you will tend to get a sensation in your throat, which is said to be caused by the slight movement of the speech muscles. These are both aspects of what’s known as “embodied cognition”. If getting there is half the fun, the distance probably appears to be shorter, but if you’re on your way home from a hard day’s work it’s probably longer even if it’s the same route. We tend to outsource mathematical thought when we count on our fingers, and when we write notes we’re outsourcing our memories. There’s a sense, nowadays, in which our memory has become part of the internet, but this is relatively innocuous in principle considering that probably the first outsourcing of memory was the development of spoken or signed language. Chimpanzees are noted for having much better short term memories than humans, possibly because they don’t usually use our kind of language, although they do have their own signing to some extent. In linguistic terms, we talk about warming to people or being cold, or by contrast, cool. Our emotions partly depend on the physical sensations associated with them such as heartrate, blushing, shaking or breathlessness. This is one reason for suspecting that artificial intelligence would need to be embodied if it were at all humanoid, as emotions inform reasoning. We talk about being down, and oppressed, or oppressed, all of these being spatial metaphors. Looking (and there’s another sensory metaphor) at cognition in this way contrasts with the previous “computing”-type metaphors popular in cognitive science. If you’ve ever been subject to the comment “if we cut your hands off, you wouldn’t be able to talk”, that particular element of language will not escape you, and similar gesticulations, perhaps toned down in public, can occur with internal monologue, which is therefore not really all that internal. Pacing up and down is another aid to thought. Then there are the mirror neurons which activate when we do physical things ourselves and also when we experience others doing them. It also means that we may not in fact have a genuine impression of psychophysical dualism (a soul and a body) unless we already tend to live in our heads a lot.

Beyond embodied cognition lies enclothed cognition. A cis friend of mine once observed that she felt more feminine when wearing a dress, a phrase which is meaningless to me but I take her word for it. Clearly something like clothing sensitivity and the topic I addressed in this post makes the influence of such things very evident. Physically wearing a lab coat or a uniform can help someone adopt a genuine role – looking the part is important to the person who looks it.

We don’t know everything about how our bodies influence how we think because we are not often subjectively disembodied, although we can become depersonalised, as I often did. When it comes to contrasting a human body with a possible or actual non-human one, such as a dog with a much better sense of smell, or a bat or dolphin moving in three dimensions and using echolocation virtually as an extra sense, or for that matter a M`ubv or other hypothetical different body plan, there would still be aspects of such entities’ being which are inaccessible to us which make fundamental differences, such as the idea of left, right, front and back, and perhaps in the case of bats and dolphins even top and bottom to some extent, and all sorts of other things. And we have deficits ourselves which they do not have, such as the superior chimpanzee short term memory. Put all these together and the very concept of intelligence seems to have holes in it, and from a vegan perspective this is quite positive. But it still makes me wonder what obvious, and for others’ intuitive, aspects of reality we’re missing out on.

The Afrikaans Language

There’s a rather minor movement, with which I comply, to spell Afrika with a K. I’ve written about this previously on here but I can’t find it. I have certain issues with it because it doesn’t seem entirely coherent to me. The claim is that no native Afrikan language spells it with a C, and therefore to do so is colonialist. There’s a similar argument applied to the spelling of Mexico with an X or a J, which incidentally even extends to Texas/Tejas. However, since there are several native Afrikan scripts which don’t even have these letters, and other non-Latin scripts used there which lack them too, the very use of the Latin alphabet to write the name of the continent could be seen as imperialist since it’s originally a European alphabet. But there’s another more complicated issue, which at first seems very different to how it turns out to be on closer examination: the Afrikaans language.

Certainly to me in the 1980s, and I presume also to others who were involved in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Afrikaans language, which first arose in South Africa before it actually was South Africa among the White invaders in I think the eighteenth century, symbolises White imperialism and the oppression of the indigenous people. Now I’ve never been to South Africa so I’m talking about this from a great distance conceptually and geographically, but one of the notable things Afrikaans does orthographically is to spell “Afrika” with a K. Therefore you have a situation where Francophone Black Afrikans spell it with a Q and Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Black Afrikans spell it with a C. Swahili does spell it with a K. In Namibia, the Küchendeutsch spoken there also spells it with a K. Hence the Germanic languages spoken in Southern Afrika, both of which could be seen as colonial interlopers, use a K. But it’s not that simple.

It’s probably worth briefly sketching the nature of Afrikaans before I go on. Afrikaans is probably the easiest of all foreign languages for a first language Scots or English speaker to learn. It would presumably be even easier for a Dutch speaker because it could be argued to be merely Dutch. The irony for an Ingvaeonic language speaker such as myself (Scots, Yola, English, Frisian, Tok Pisin and some other creoles) is that it’s probably easier to speak and understand Afrikaans than even the more closely related Frisian, because the process of creolisation simplifies grammar in the same direction as English, which may also be a creole (Danish-Anglosaxon), has evolved. Hence the oft-quoted sentence “my pen is in my hand”, which is the same in English and Afrikaans, though differently pronounced. Two notable features of Afrikaans are that it’s simplified Dutch and that its grammar is practically analytical – it expresses ideas with separate words which don’t change much. The verbs are, as a rule, even simpler than in English, lacking the strong conjugations we have with verbs such as “drive” and “take”. It isn’t the same language as Dutch though, because although Dutch people could understand Afrikaans speakers with ease, the reverse isn’t true because of the more inflected grammar.

However, Afrikaans is not purely Dutch. It also borrows from Malay because of the Malay community in the Cape colony, who were not in fact always Malay but used the bafflingly easy Malay language as a lingua franca. I don’t know much about the history of Malay, but its simplicity, though shared with many other Austronesian languages, is so extreme that I wonder if it has itself become creolised at some point.

Afrikaans was originally a pidgin spoken between the Dutch invaders and the San and Bantu people of the Cape which is said to have evolved within a generation of the Dutch arriving there because of the use of Bantu and San house servants to care for White children. Quite remarkably, in spite of its external image as the language of the White Apartheid régime, the majority of Afrikaans speakers are non-White: 60% in fact. It’s spoken mainly in the west of the country, and it’s also spoken in a small town in Kenya called Eldoret, which was founded by Afrikaners. Outside Afrika, Australia is the country with the most speakers. It’s given English a few words, including “aardvark”, “aardwolf” and “veldt”, and South African English, unsurprisingly, has considerably more. Unsurprisingly, it has borrowed from Khoisan and Bantu languages but also from Portuguese. The Oorlams dialect, spoken in Namibia, even has clicks, since ethnically they are descended mainly from the San. This probably means, though I haven’t tested it, that there are two completely separate sources of clicks in that dialect. In the fairly closely related German, clicks occur as allophones weakly between words ending in T and words beginning with K within phrases, and this seems to happen in English too, so it can be expected to happen in Afrikaans. More on the possible connection with Khoisan later.

It’s said to be a myth that the language was ever majority White, connected to the idea of White settlers “civilising” the area. The earliest written records use Arabic script and were written in a madrasa, again bringing it closer to Malay. The Cape Malays in fact used Afrikaans extensively. Due to White Afrikaner nationalism, Afrikaans was portrayed as a purely Germanic language. It was famously used as a weapon in 1974 when it was imposed as a medium of education, which led to the Soweto uprising, and this further stigmatised and polarised the language as belonging to Whites.

As a foreigner, one thing that strikes me about the language is that it seems to have greater contact with the San community than with speakers of Bantu languages. Afrikaans is in a sense a Khoisan language, as fifty percent of them speak it. Ethnically, that’s substantially where it belongs, and I suspect this shows in its structure. Bantu languages are grammatically quite complex and heavily inflected. There’s a large number of noun classes, nouns are inflected using prefixes and verbs are conjugated for subject and object. Khoisan languages are very different, although they may not be closely related to each other at all, which may reflect the extremely ancient heritage of the San. They have more consonants than any other spoken languages and it’s as if all the meaning and energy is piled into these sounds, because grammatically they’re isolating. The Bantu language Swahili, spoken well outside South Africa, has many Arabic words and inflects them as if they’re native. Had Bantu languages been a strong influence on Afrikaans, it could be expected to do similar things to the language as Swahili has done to words of Arabic origin, but it doesn’t. Most creoles, with the exception of one spoken in Canada, simplify grammar, so it’s hard to disentangle, but the isolating nature of Khoisan languages seems to me to be a possible candidate for their influence on Afrikaans, and I suspect that White Afrikaans speakers would have preferred to have thought that their language was White when in fact the influence of the San is clear in the grammatical structure.

What I don’t understand, probably because of my ignorance of South African history, is why Khoisan seems to have been so much more influential on the language than Bantu. Even Malay seems to have more sway over it. Anyone wiser than I willing to give an explanation?

Startling Semitic-Celtic Parallels And Overinterpretation

Some time ago in the 1980s I think, I made one of my many attempts to learn Gàidhlig and noticed something rather strange. I already had some knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic from when I was younger, and it suddenly struck me that the Celtic language shared some remarkable unusual features with the other two. From what I can recall, these included verb-subject-object word order, two genders – feminine and masculine – and something I can only vaguely remember about how prepositions and pronouns work. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed to be more than a coincidence because three always counts to my mind as more than chance allows, but it was difficult to think of a way of how it could’ve happened. I eventually settled on a rather vague conclusion that maybe Semitic language speakers had travelled north from the Maghreb into Iberia, which Q-Celtic languages are sometimes claimed to originate, and that they then influenced the ancestor of the Irish language in some way. However, this doesn’t work particularly well as it fails to explain how Welsh and Cornish also have these features. After a while, I just put it down to coincidence and my tendency to see patterns where none exist other than the ones my mind has imposed upon them.

At this point I’m going to veer off into probability to illustrate why three things in common is my threshold for statistical significance. It’s common to plump for one in twenty as the point at which something is considered significant, and scientific experiments often use this. In recent years I’ve seen rather too many dubious-looking scientific papers which seem to go for a much lower limit and I now wonder if there has been a new development in statistical theory which justifies this, or whether it’s more to do with “publish or perish”. Anyway, probabilities multiply, so if you flip a fair coin three times and it comes up heads every time the probability of that outcome is one in two times one in two times one in two. 2³ is eight, still below the point when one decides something is significant, but the probability of something happening is not always one in two. For fair dice, you’d only need to throw a six twice for it to become significant: one in thirty-six is six squared. Taking this the other way, the mean probability for three events to multiply up to one in twenty is of course the cube root of twenty, which is just over one in 2.7. However, this reasoning is faulty because we see patterns as opposed to the absence of patterns, so given the large number of other grammatical features one could pluck out of Celtic and Semitic languages, the ones that don’t fit might be ignored and the calculation then becomes extremely complicated because one then has to consider how to delineate specific grammatical features and how to count them, then work out what the chances are that two sets of languages share three grammatical features based on this and the number of possible options. For instance, with syntax the options, assuming a largely fixed word order which doesn’t always happen, are SVO, SOV, OVS, VSO, VOS and OSV, which is one in six. However, other features are quite arbitrary. There are languages out there with more than two dozen grammatical genders, for example. It’s possible to imagine a language whose every noun has a different gender.

Another pattern which definitely is meaningful which can be plucked out of Celtic languages as they are today is the fact that they and Romance languages, more specifically Italic languages, which are Romance languages plus Latin and its closest contemporary relatives, are closer to one another than they are to other branches of the Indo-European language family. Some of these features are the result of parallel evolution. For instance, all of the surviving six Celtic languages have two grammatical genders consisting of feminine and masculine, and this is also true of all Western Romance languages (though not of Romanian, which still has neuter). Besides this, other Indo-European languages tend to use an ending like “-est” to express the superlative of adjectives, but Italic and Celtic tend to use something like “-issimum” – “best” versus “bellissimo” for example. There are a number of other similarities which may be preserved ancient features lost from the other languages, features acquired because they were neighbours or features acquired in their common ancestral language. These are, though, easy to account for because Italic and Celtic just are obviously related, were spoken near each other and so on. The idea of a parallel between Celtic and Semitic is much harder to explain, which is why it might not exist at all.

Recently, I discovered that my personal will o’ the wisp is not in fact just mine. Professional linguists have noticed this too, and there are even theories about how it might have happened and a number of other features in common. VSO and inflected prepositions are just two of several parallels. I should explain that in Gàidhlig and its relatives, prepositions vary according to who they refer to, so for example “agam” means “at me” and “agat” “at thee”. The origin of these is easy to account for, that the words have simply been run together over the millennia, but few other languages do this. Arabic and Hebrew, on the other hand, do. The languages also do things with these prepositions which other languages don’t. They express possession and obligation with them. “The hair on her” – “am falt oirre” is “her hair” and “I need/want/must have a knife” is “tha bhuam sgian” – “there is from me (a) knife”. That “(a)” indicates something else they have in common: they all have a word for “the” but none for “a”. It’s unusual for a language to have a way of expressing definiteness without indefiniteness. Interestingly, Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, both spoken in these isles, also had a way to say “the” but not one to say “a(n)”, and this may be a clue as to how these apparent coincidences happened. Breton, however, does have an indefinite article. Likewise, all the languages repeat the pronoun at the end of a relative clause – “the chair which I sat on it” and not “the chair (which) I sat on”. There’s also the way the word for “and” is used, or rather, a word for “and”: “agus” in Gàidhlig (there’s another word, “is”) and “wa” in Arabic (“ve” in today’s Hebrew). In English, “and” is a simple coördinating conjunction like “or” and “but”, but in the other languages it can also be used as a subordinating one. It can also mean “when” or “as”. This is also unusual. “Agus”/”ve” can also be used to mean “but” or “although”, and in fact as I understand it, the Arabic “wa” is the only option to express “but”. Besides this, there’s what’s known as the construct state genitive in English descriptions of Hebrew grammar. Arabic doesn’t say “the man’s house” but “man the house”, or “taigh an duine” in Gàidhlig – “the house man”. This is in spite of the fact that the language in question has a genitive form for the noun in question. This makes approximately eight features found in Celtic and Semitic languages but only rarely in others.

And there’s more. The surviving Celtic languages are unusual among Indo-European languages in having these features, and are in general quite aberrant compared to the others. That said, there are branches of the family which have unusual features for it, such as Armenian, which has grammar more like other languages than Indo-European in that it hangs successive suffixes off the ends of words per idea as opposed to having combined ideas in each suffix (in English we have, for example, a final S for genitive (possessive) and plural and don’t need anything extra). Even so, were it not for the known history and the fact that so much Celtic vocabulary is clearly similar to that of other European languages, nobody would guess Celtic languages were Indo-European. In fact, the very features which they share with Semitic languages are the ones which make them unique in the Indo-European family.

They are also emphatically not related to each other, or at least so distantly related that there are languages native to Kenya and Tanzania which are closer to Hebrew and Arabic and a dead language spoken in present day China which is closer to Welsh (and in fact English) than they are to each other. Semitic languages are part of a family now referred to as “Afro-Asiatic”, which also includes Tamazight, a Berber language, and Ancient Egyptian, spoken five thousand years ago and still nowhere near the speech of the Kurgans at the time which are ancestral to Celtic, Germanic and the like. There are, however, a few theories about how this has happened.

One apparently anomalous circumstance which can be seen from the New Testament is that Paul wrote a letter to the Galatians. These lived in Anatolia, the Asian portion of present-day Turkey, and they spoke a Celtic language. This language was clearly in close proximity to the Semitic lingua franca of that region at the time, Aramaic, as well as various others such as Assyrian. It’s therefore been suggested that the whole of the Celtic branch was influenced by this local connection, all the way across to Ireland in the end. To me, this seems a little far-fetched, but it is true that there’s a concentration of a particular set of genes which marks the Irish, and incidentally myself, as possible wanderers from the Indo-European ancestral land who went as far as possible at the time. This may make the so-called Celts the ultimate invaders in a way and contradicts the common mystical, matriarchal and peaceful image some people seem to have of them. This migration also forms part of another theory, that farming, having been invented in the Fertile Crescent where Semitic languages were spoken, then spread culturally across Europe to these islands and took linguistic features with it. Either of these ideas being true could be expected to imply that all Celtic languages, not just the modern survivors here and in Brittany, had these features in common.

Significantly, the speakers of Celtic languages were probably the first Indo-European speakers to arrive in Great Britain and Ireland. Prior to that, clearly there were other people living here who had their own spoken but unwritten languages. It’s possible that traces of these may survive in place names. It used to be thought that the Picts spoke a non-IE language, possibly related to Basque, but this has now been refuted. The features Irish, Welsh and the rest have in common with Hebrew and Arabic are also apparently shared with Tamazight and other languages of the Maghreb, although to me that’s hearsay – I haven’t checked them out. Consequently, one rather outré theory, is that before the Celts got here the folk of Albion and the Emerald Isle spoke a Semitic language, and Celtic was influenced by this when it got here. However, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to suppose this to be so other than the connection.

Leaving those theories aside, I would bring up the issue of linguistic universals, and particularly implicational universals. Some features are common to all spoken languages. For example, every known spoken language has a vowel like /a/ as in “father” in it, every language which distinguishes questions tonally involves changing the pitch of the voice towards the end of the sentence, and every language has at least some plural pronouns. There’s a particular set of implicational universals around SOV languages which they tend to have in common, such as being exclusively suffixing, to the extent that it used to be thought that there was a so-called “Altaic” language family including Turkish and Mongolian, and some would even include Japanese and Korean in that, but they’ve turned out not to be closely related but have sometimes grown more alike through contact, but they also have many of these implicational universals, suggesting to me some kind of possible “standard” human spoken language with those grammatical features. I would tentatively suggest, and I may well be wrong, that the features Celtic and Semitic languages share are in fact similarly implicational universals. Both of them have an unusual syntax and this may lead them both down the same path.

But there’s an extra layer to this which intrigues me. There used to be a famous Hebrew teacher who introduced the subject as “Gentlemen, this is the language God spoke” (yes, this is extremely sexist but it was a long time ago), and similarly Arabic is considered a particularly sacred language almost designed by God to write the Qur’an. Hence the features mentioned are used in two very important sacred texts, and if I’m going to go all religious and mystical on you, just maybe the Celtic and Semitic languages have a special place in spiritual practices, and this is about that. But leaving that aside, it still seems to me that the most likely explanation for the things they have in common is simply that they are a particular “type” of language, just as Japanese and Turkish are, without needing to have any genetic relationship.

They’re also both really annoying!

The issue of overinterpretation will have to be held over until tomorrow, sorry.

Neanderthal Pinhead Brains And The Sentient Internet

Stereotypically, Neanderthals tend to be presented as the classic “cave man” caricature, usually male, clubbing their female partners over the head and dragging them off by their hair, somewhat hairy themselves and of course notably unintelligent, oh, and living in caves. I’ve had a go at this stereotype and the other one about dinosaurs previously, but before I get down to things I may as well go through it briefly again.

First of all, dinosaurs are often used as a metaphor for something which is clumsy, overgrown and unable to adapt to a changing world. This really owes more to the Victorian image of dinosaurs as giant lizards than what’s known about them nowadays. Dinosaurs really got lucky, then got unlucky. The mass extinction at the start of their reign helped them take advantage of their various ecological niches, then the mass extinction at its end killed them off because many of them were very large. Many of the smaller ones survived as birds. If humans had been around at the end of the Cretaceous, we too would’ve bitten the dust.

Neanderthals are a kind of blank slate to many people onto which various things can be projected, and I may well be doing the same. Their brains were often larger than ours, but that doesn’t mean they were more intelligent. The probable cause of their brain size was to do with a bulkier body and the need for more pathways to help control and perceive that body. Whales have larger brains than we for similar reasons, although in their case that isn’t all there is to it. Nonetheless, when one considers that orang utan, gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees are all capable of sign language, and chimps have learned to speak a few words but lack the vocal apparatus to master human speech effectively, this automatically places their “IQ” above that of the severely learning disabled. Note that I’m extremely sceptical of IQ as a concept. If orang utan intelligence is sufficiently similar to human to be assessed and rate above thirty on an IQ scale, Neanderthals are bound to be at least that intelligent. It’s also thought that human short term memory has suffered at the expense of developing language, as that of chimpanzees is far better than ours. Hence when Neanderthals come into the picture, it can be assumed safely that they would also have been capable of language and perhaps actually used it. The crucial final step in physical capacity for phonation – producing speech sounds with the vocal tract – is the position of the hyoid bone in the throat, which allows attachment for the larynx, glottis and tongue, and needs to be in a particular position to enable its owner to speak. The problem is that the hyoid is perhaps unique in having no articulation with any other bone in the body, and therefore tends to get lost in fossils. Consequently Neanderthal hyoids are often missing and it took until 1989 for it to be established that they were like ours.

A couple of issues are going to come up in this post which are probably going to be considered idiosyncratic on my part. Here’s the first. Although I am aware that the FOXP2 gene is considered important in human capacity to use language, and Noam Chomsky believes in an innate capacity for language as a distinctive feature of the human species, I have issues with this as potentially speciesist and am disappointed that such a clearly politically radical figure as he would promote this view. I believe humans stumbled upon language before we had a special ability to use it. There are examples of other species being able to use spoken and signed language as language, as opposed to merely imitating it, notably Psittacus erithacus, the Afrik/can Grey Parrot, who presumably had no predisposition in their genes for using it beyond the ability to produce speech sounds and so forth. Clearly a certain kind of cognition is necessary for this to happen, along with the ability to produce the sounds physically, and once spoken language exists it’s going to be selected for compared to individuals who don’t speak, and this will lead to some kind of marker in the genes – perhaps we are better at producing or hearing a wider range of speech sounds than other species for example – but the initial moment when the first baby made a sound like “mama” whose parent then interpreted it as a reference to her, which was perhaps the beginning of language, did not in my opinion depend on very specific physical traits and could have occurred in another species.

The genomes of living humans include a few genes from the Neanderthals and it’s thought there was hybridisation tens of millennia ago in our history. To a very limited extent, we are therefore Neanderthals ourselves unless we’re Afrikan. The highest percentage of Neanderthal genes is found in East Asians and they’re usually absent from people all of whose heritage is from Afrika south of the Sahara. Neanderthals would probably have been fair-skinned and maybe also blue-eyed, and have had straight hair. I personally wonder if they had epicanthic folds, which of course have a higher incidence among East Asians but are also found in Caucasians without any Asian ancestry, and I’m guessing that those people might also have inherited that trait from Neanderthals. Recently the Neanderthal genome has been in the news for conferring greater resistance to SARS-CoV2.

Now for the reason I’m writing this today.

In recent years it has become possible to culture brain cells in Petri dishes. This isn’t the same as growing an entire human brain in a vat, but involves producing pinhead-sized agglomerations of cells. Recently, a gene linked to brain development in Neanderthals has been spliced into human cells and grown in such a dish. For many people this has a high yuck factor. The specific gene involved is NOVA1, on the long arm of chromosome 14, which is associated with various cancers but also nervous system development. There’s an indirect connection between familial dysautonomia and the NOVA1 gene which primarily involves the autonomic nervous system and insensitivity to pain and sweet tastes, among other things, but as far as I know doesn’t influence cognition, so that doesn’t necessarily give us a clue, although it’s possible I suppose that the inability to taste sweet might be related to Neanderthal diet in some way. That’s a bit of a reach. Whatever else is so, mini-brains with the archaic NOVA1 variant look rougher to the naked eye than the smoother versions which have the variant common in today’s population. The archaic version developed more quickly than the unaltered one and started to show electrical activity sooner. In write-ups of this experiment, we’re assured that these mini-brains are not conscious.

I have a major issue with that assertion.

The question of the existence of consciousness is sometimes referred to as the “hard problem”. It’s been suggested that it may even be so hard that it’s beyond the capacity of the human mind to account for it. At the same time, there’s a recent strand in philosophical thought, characterised by Daniel Dennett, which is sceptical about the very idea of consciousness as an irreducible property. I can’t take Dennett’s views here seriously, for the following reason. He has made a very good argument for the idea that dreams are not experiences but false memories present in the brain on awakening onto which the mind then projects the impression of previous events. I take this idea fairly seriously although I don’t do the same thing with it as he does. It’s one reason why I recount dreams in the present tense. However, a good counter-argument to this is that lucid dreams – dreams in which one knows one is dreaming and is able to control the dream world – aren’t experiences either. Although he does produce an argument for this, I believe that his reason for making this assertion is kind of ideological, because we practically know that lucid dreams are experiences. They might not be dreams in the same sense as non-lucid ones are, but they are experiences to my mind, and claiming they aren’t seems to be part of his attempt to shore up his view of the nature of consciousness.

Dennett is sceptical about qualia. These are things like the “sweetness” of sweetness, the “purpleness” of purple and so on. They’re what people are talking about when they say “my red could be your blue”. His doubt about their existence is based on the idea that they are not a definable concept. This to me is a silly denial of subjectivity which makes no sense in itself. Dennett’s motivation for believing that dreams are not experiences, qualia don’t exist and that even lucid dreams are not experiences is based on a more general view of psychology that consciousness is a specific faculty within the brain which may have evolved and has selective advantages. This thought leads one into seriously murky ethical waters because it seems to be a rationalisation of the idea that some other species of animal are not conscious, which is suspiciously convenient for non-vegans. It just so happens that the voiceless don’t suffer because they don’t have a voice. How very useful this is for someone who eats meat. Kind of as useful as believing Black people are not conscious would be for a racist.

My own view of consciousness, panpsychism, tends to be seen as equally silly by some people. It’s my belief that consciousness is an essential property of matter rather like magnetism is. A ferromagnet is a particular arrangement of charged particles whose domains within, say, a lump of iron, are aligned and it’s able to attract ferrous metals such as steel. There are other, similar magnets, such as rare earth magnets, which are magnetic in the same way but contain no iron at all. On a subatomic scale, magnetism is manifested by elementary particles with spin and axes which amount to tiny electrical circuits, and I have to admit that my understanding of actual, fundamental magnetism is not very good, but there are clearly non-magnetic substances too, such as granite and most blood (unless it’s infected with malaria). Even these non-magnetic substances, though, do consist of magnetic particles.

Consciousness is the same, to my mind. Everything material is conscious, but in order for that consciousness to become manifest, matter needs to be arranged in a particular way, such as a human nervous system. However, just as there are magnets which are not made of iron, so there could be sentient beings who are not made of the same stuff as we are. Objects which have nothing like sense organs or motor functions are in a sense severely disabled entities, but they’re still conscious. This is my panpsychism.

I should point out too that panpsychism is unsurprisingly quite controversial and often ridiculed in philosophical circles, although good reasons for doing so are sometimes lacking. Even so, there are other accounts of consciousness, one of which involves the idea that it’s generated by a network of “black boxes” interacting with each other, which in the case of the human brain amount to nerve cells. You don’t have to believe in panpsychism to assert that a tissue culture is conscious, and to me it’s entirely clear that the assertion that anything made of matter is not conscious is not based on any kind of evidence but a bias towards the kind of view of the mind-body problem asserted by Dennett and others.

Consequently, it definitely isn’t safe to say that these “Neanderthal” mini-brains are not conscious, or that the ones based on unaltered Homo sapiens cells are not conscious. Before I go on to talk about the internet as potentially sentient, I feel a strong urge to go off on a tangent about my experience of the Mandela Effect.

I have several more detailed posts on this issue on this blog, here, here and here for example, but in the meantime I will sum up what it is before going on. The Mandela Effect is the situation where a number of people agree on a memory which is markèdly different from the consensus or establishment version of that memory. Most of the time, this is about minor details such as spelling of brand names or the appearance of brand logos, but occasionally the discrepancy is more significant. It’s named after the impression many people had that Nelson Mandela had died in prison in the 1980s, and sometimes that this led to a revolution which overthrew apartheid in South Africa. History clearly appears to record a very different chain of events involving Nelson Mandela being released from prison in 1991 and becoming president of South Africa soon after. I think that’s it anyway. There are various unusual reasons why I take this seriously which are largely based on Humean scepticism about cause and effect and the existence of possible worlds, which means I tend to deprecate accounts which merely refer to confabulation as an explanation – the construction of false memories due to misconceptions. There is some evidence against this being true, such as the fact that when the position of landmasses on maps varies, it always does so along the direction of continental drift and never at an angle to it.

I have a few personal Mandela Effects (MEs) which are rare but shared with at least two other people, and they tend to have things in common with each other. One of these is that a science museum had a planetarium like robot which responded to heat, light and movement and was run by a minibrain grown from cultured mole nerve cells, in the mid-1970s. Two similar MEs of mine are that in the late ’70s a process was devised to measure intelligence via brain scans which was used in selective education by the DoE in England to replace the 11+, which was later exposed as unreliable and discontinued, though this was a scandal because it adversely affected the lives of many people who were children at the time. A third one was to do with some guy who designed and built a domestic robot which was able to read aloud by 1975. These are three of many, and they are conceptually connected by being about intelligent-seeming neural processes. If they happened, they would’ve required an understanding of neurology which was absent at that time, in the case of the domestic robot presumably via some kind of reverse engineering. I accept that hardly anyone else has these memories, but it’s still odd that two other people who had no strong connection with me at the time do have them. And the thing about these memories, particularly the museum robot, is that they could potentially be realised by this kind of culture of brain cells in a Petri dish.

Now for the idea that the internet is sentient.

It was once asserted that the last computer a single individual could fully understand was the BBC Model B, a microcomputer which came out in 1981. There are a couple of problems with this statement. One is, what is meant by “fully understand”? It’s certainly possible, for example, for someone to hold the network of logic gates which constitutes the BBC Micro’s 6502 microprocessor in their head at the same time as the structure on that level of the 6845 chip responsible for its graphics capabilities and the SN76489 chip responsible for its audio, and then extrapolate from that to the machine code of the system software in its interaction with the motherboard and memory mapping of these various bits of hardware, although it would take some doing for most people. However, if I did that I would have a vague understanding of how the NPN transistors work, involving electron holes and their relay-like behaviour, but to be honest my understanding of silicon doping, for example, is pretty limited. When one says that the BBC Micro can be completely understood by one person, is that supposed to include the aspects of materials science which make the production of its hardware possible, or the mechanical properties of the springs in its keyboard? What does it mean to “fully understand” something? The other problem with this assertion is that the BBC Micro, as I understand it, isn’t essentially more complex than the original IBM PC. The latter has more memory and a more complex and faster processor, and its system software is usually PC-DOS or CP/M-86 and more advanced than the BBC’s MOS 1.2 and Acorn DFS, but it can still be understood and it lacked the built-in graphics and sound hardware of the eight-bit computer which ended up on the desks of so many British secondary schools. Later on, with sound and graphic cards added, the latter including the very same 6845 as used in the BBC, it still wouldn’t’ve been as complex and would still have been comprehensible. It seems to me that the ability to comprehend these devices fully in that sense probably ended around the time Windows 3.0 was released in 1990. But whatever else is the case, the point at which any one person could be said to understand a device including both hardware and system software is now decades in the past.

Now take these two facts together. Firstly, we really don’t know what makes consciousness possible. Secondly, the internet, a network of billions of devices hardly any of which are understood to a significant extent by any one person, is extremely complex and processes information it gathers from its inputs. And yet it’s often asserted that the internet is not sentient, as if we know what causes sentience. At the same time, there are many internet mysteries such as Unfavorable Semicircle and Markovian Parallax Denigrate, which can often be tracked down to some set of human agents, but nobody has a sufficient overview to be confident that every single one of these mysteries has a direct human cause, or even that a fraction of them have.

Hence I would say that we might suppose that the internet is neither conscious nor sentient, but in fact we don’t really have sufficient evidence that it isn’t. It really has quite a lot in common with a brain, in any case we don’t know why anything is conscious, and it’s even possible that everything is. Therefore, just maybe, the internet is sentient and nobody can confidently say it isn’t.