What did your language sound like 1,000 years ago?

Greek: 1000 years ago, the language was already Early Modern Greek. Unfortunately, we have very very very few records of the vernacular to sift from, out of the archaic Greek everyone was writing.

  • We have the Bulgarian Greek inscriptions from 1200 years ago, but by 1000 years ago, the Bulgars were using Slavonic.
  • We have vernacular phrases being quoted hither and thither from 900 years ago.
  • We have vernacular texts that we kinda sorta date from 900 years ago, but their language is probably closer to what the scribes wrote in the copies we have, which is nearer to 700 years ago.

So pinning down the vernacular from 1000 years ago is tricky.

The closest I’ll mention here is this snippet of a song about Alexios I Komnenos escaping a conspiracy from 1031, recorded (with much embarrassment about the vulgarity of the language) by his daughter Anna Comnena in her Alexiad:

Το Σάββατον της Τυρινής
χαρής, Αλέξη, εννόησές το
και την Δευτέραν το πρωί
ύπα καλώς, γεράκιν μου.

On Cheesefare Saturday
rejoice, Alexi, you worked it out.
And on Monday morning
fly well, my hawk.

In Contemporary Greek that would be:

Το Σάββατο της Τυρινής
να χαρείς, Αλέξη, το κατάλαβες
και τη Δευτέρα το πρωί
πήγαινε καλά, γεράκι μου.

Quite close; and for all that I changed two words, the first word (εννόησές) could still be used. The second word (υπάγω > ύπα) is still used, but its conjugation has changed, so people wouldn’t understand it.

The only phoneme to have changed since was υ (and οι), switching from /y/ to /i/. (So ύπα for “go!” was /ypa/.) In fact, we have a poem from 1030, making fun of a hillbilly priest pronouncing upsilon as /i/: so the modern pronunciation was already around at the time of the song snippet.

The only substantive difference, really, is all the final n’s being dropped. My guess: Modern Greek speakers would be reminded of Cypriot, which is phonologically conservative. (It also keeps double consonants; I have no idea when they disappeared from the rest of Greek, but I suspect it was later.)

Oh, that song snippet? Anna Comnena was not going to leave it alone in such vulgar garb. She appends a translation into something more decent:

κατὰ μὲν τὸ Τυρώνυμον Σάββατον ὑπέρευγέ σοι τῆς ἀγχινοίας, Ἀλέξιε, τὴν δὲ μετὰ τὴν Κυριακὴν Δευτέραν ἡμέραν καθάπέρ τις ὑψιπέτης ἱέραξ ἀφίπτασο τῶν ἐπιβουλευόντων βαρβάρων.

On the Saturday with the name of cheese, much commendation for your sagacity, Alexius. And on the day of Monday after the Sunday, just like some high-flying hawk, you have flown away from the barbarians who meant you harm.

What are topics you consider yourself knowledgeable in but don’t discuss often on Quora?

Flattered you’ve A2A’d me, Habib. You’ve A2A’d some good people.

I program; I don’t program well or often, and I mostly program in antiquated languages (I maintained C code from 1985 for a decade, and Perl is my default language), but I program, sometimes even for my day job—my CTO has forced me to pick up Ruby and Golang. Miguel Paraz has been bemused that I don’t post about that, and gratified that I’ve started to (very little). I’m slowly getting back into NLP, and I may end up using the resources here for that.

The techo Quora is rather different to the humanities Quora, btw. The style’s more wooden. 🙂

School sector IT policy, and educational IT standards. By a strange set of happenstances, they’re my day job, and I’ve actually gotten reasonably knowledgeable about them over the past five or six years. It’s fairly niche stuff, so I haven’t had much excuse to talk about them here—although I’ve managed to talk shop with Scott Welch about them.

Artificial languages, including Esperanto, Lojban, and Klingon. They’ve taken up a huge chunk of my youth, and my online fame; and speakers of all three are on here. But they haven’t generated the traffic for me to get into them often.

I do talk a whole lot about topics I am not knowledgeable about, to compensate. I know how to use Wikipedia constructively…

Were all books of the New Testament written in perfectly correct Koine Greek?

Revelation is notorious for its grammatical errors; google Revelation and Solecism (fancy Greek for “bad grammar”) or Barbarism (fancy Greek for “L2 Greek”). You’ll see lots of attempts at explaining it, from the straightforward “he barely spoke Greek” to “he was cutting and pasting bits of the Septuagint without adjusting the grammar” to “there’s a deeper theological reason for it”.

Someone recently did a PhD on it, which seems to get a bit too theological for even theologians, as seen in this review of Morphological and Syntactical Irregularities in the Book of Revelation.

If atheists are proven wrong, how will they explain to God why they never bothered believing in him?

My time for struggling with that question, like so many others’, was high school.

I did not have Augustine to debate with, as Michael Masiello did. But it was pretty painful.

I looked over the poems I wrote at the time, to see if I had an answer at the ready back then. To my surprise, I think I did. I’ll append the Esperanto original in comments.

You, who guard the souls turned to shades,
treat them well.
They’ve lived through hell, they’ve missed beatitude;
let them at least find
some kind of rest with you, who
guard the souls turned to shades.

In your night-black cloudless reign,
let some light through now and then,
that the souls turned to shades may move more lightly,
even if, despite it all, still
with no hope, while hope is missing in your
night-black cloudless reign.

You will smash our life’s work to dust, you have had final victory,
you are rotting away all beauty.
Be contented and be compassionate, Great Source of Fear,
for already you are no longer feared
by those you guard, having smashed
their life’s work to dust, having had final victory.

How has pronunciation vs written form evolved in the History of English? Why is it so confusing, to the point that you have spelling contests?

Up until the late Middle Ages, English spelling (at least, as we reconstruct it) is not that bad. It is internally consistent, and, importantly, it varies from region to region, because they actually spoke different dialects from region to region. Yeah, the mute final <e> was an annoying way to indicate that a vowel was long, but you’re not left completely in outer space.

A sequence of bad things happened at around the same time in the 1500s.

Printing was invented, which motivated standardising spelling. And freezing it in time. Not as frozen as we now think, there was still plenty of variability, but the 1500s is the last time English spelling makes sense.

Unfortunately, the 1500s was a bad time to be fixing the spelling of English. It was halfway through the Great English Vowel Shift. It was at the start of a bunch of other sound changes, some of which were pretty radical. What happened to <gh> was nuts, which is why the pronunciation of <gh> now makes no sense.

(That <gh> was a /x/, like the <j> in Spanish. So throughout used to be pronounced /θɹuːxuːt/. Seriously.)

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the learnèd folk of the English language rediscovered Latin and Greek. So they started attempting to spell words in a fashion more appropriate to their Latin and Greek roots. And occasionally, even getting it right.

Sounds kept changing; English spelling didn’t. They changed pretty recently. Cue Samuel Johnson:

I remember an instance: when I published the Plan for my Dictionary, Lord Chesterfield told me that the word great should be pronounced so as to rhyme to state; and Sir William Yonge sent me word that it should be pronounced so as to rhyme to seat, and that none but an Irishman would pronounce it grait. Now here were two men of the highest rank, the one, the best speaker in the House of Lords, the other, the best speaker in the House of Commons, differing entirely.

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, won—which, I guess, makes Irishmen of us all. (That’s why Reagan is pronounced Raygun. And why the Irish have a cup of tay.)

But we didn’t change the spelling of great to match; we still spell it as if it rhymes with seat.

Why no spelling reform in English, then? Well, as English-language spelling reform says, it could have been even worse. There was some 17th century reform: we don’t use warre or sinne or toune any more. Webster did, well, some things in the US. But really, the opportunity was lost in the 16th century, and we do lack the kind of centralised control that made centralised spelling reform possible elsewhere.