Zeep, Odor, and Spock

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September 20, 2019 by libroshombre

“Im mel a man parv” is how you say “I love a good book” in Elvish, which J.R.R. Tolkien invented for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. American linguist John McWhorter described Elvish as, “A constructed language, or ‘conlang’; it’s more than a code, like Pig Latin … Constructed languages like Elvish are real languages, made up of thousands of words created by by fantasy writers, linguists, and fans, with real language rules.” A University of British Columbia professor, Christine Schreyer who was hired by a movie producer to create an “authentic,” or at least convincing conlang for a movie set in the ice-age 20,000 years ago, noted that “We don’t have fossils of language.”

How prehistoric speech sounded and worked is unknown, so Schreyer, “who calls herself a language fan-girl” and created the Kryptonian languages for the 2013 Superman movie “Man of Steel,” according to a Canadian Broadcasting article, began by studying Proto-Nostratic, a protolanguage, or “a hypothetical lost parent language from which actual languages are derived” that includes many indigenous language families of Eurasia, including Indo-European, the source for English and most other modern Western languages. Based on that she made educated guesses and “imagining the priorities in which the speakers live.”

I’m sure the Dutch are glad to have another language to worry about. In “Dutch Language Besieged by English at University,” a BBC.com article, Anna Holligan wrote that “Sixty percent of masters programs offered at Utrecht University are in English,” and “at the highest honors level, virtually no courses are taught in Dutch.” The Dutch are among the most proficient English speakers in the world, and “so extensive is the spread of English at Dutch universities, a group of lecturers has predicted a ‘linguicide’ and demanded that the government in the Hague impose a moratorium” on any additional English-based courses. Hopefully Dutch won’t die out, for it possesses some great words. Their bathrooms alone feature the “tandenborstel” (toothbrush), “nagalknipper” (nail clipper), and “geneeskunde” (medicine) as well as “zeep” (soap).

We English-speakers shouldn’t swell up with pride. As Ptahhotep, a 25th century BCE Egyptian administrator and author noted in his “Maxims of Ptahhotep,” a form of “wisdom literature” intended to lead young men to proper behavior, “Do not be arrogant because of your knowledge … Good speech is more hidden than malachite, yet it is found in the possession of women slaves at the millstones.”

But our land abounds in unwarranted arrogance, like that of Tom Brady. Already a suspicious character in the eyes of many, the professional quarterback known for deflating footballs had the temerity last June to try to trademark “Tom Terrific.” Every good Goldpanner and Mets fan, as well as the Washington Post, will tell you that Tom Terrific is “a nickname most commonly associated with legendary pitcher Tom Seaver,” who didn’t find cheating necessary to succeed. Fortunately, Brady’s “silly” trademark application was denied last month. His shaky excuse? “I was actually trying to do something because I didn’t like the nickname and I wanted to make sure no one used it because some people wanted to use it.”

The proudest are sometimes blind to also being the most egregiously arrogant. Take Ohio State University; its representatives enjoy referring to it as “The” Ohio State University so much they tried to trademark the word “the” in August. In 2017 they attempted trademarking “OSU,” but the folks at Oklahoma State University objected. Despite that setback, OSU owns 150 trademarks in 17 countries, and is trying to include coach Woody Hayes’ name.

Texas Ranger baseball fans are meek creatures as a rule, and consequently, perhaps, more sensitive to unwarranted pride, but we read Levi Weaver’s recent column in TheAthletic.com with interest about a promising player (Roughned Odor) suddenly performing very poorly. “This game is really hard,” Odor stated. Weaver, an unusually erudite sportswriter, wrote the team’s manager agreed with Odor, “even as his finger seemed to be etching ‘Meme, mene, tekel, upharsin’ on the clubhouse wall.” Weaver left it up to readers to know, or look up, the meaning of “Meme, mene, tekel, upharsin.” It refers to Belshazzar’s feast from the Bible’s Book of Daniel in which an ethereal hand wrote the mysterious message on overly-arrogant Belshazzar’s dining hall wall. Summoned to decipher it, Daniel translated it as “mene” means your kingdom’s days are numbered, “tekel” means “you have been found wanting,” and “upharsin” and God will destroy you.”

Dick Wilson wrote in BibleStudyTools.com that pinpointing the meaning is difficult, because it’s from mixed Babylonian and Aramaic sources. Interestingly, the University of Toronto is exploring widespread translation of ancient Babylonian and Assyrian writing. The ancient script is so difficult to decipher that 90 percent of the many thousands of tablets written in ancient cuneiform remain untranslated. The Toronto researchers are creating algorithms that can read tablets to reveal how the Babylonians lived, before their supposedly eternal empire crumbled. The lesson: “be not proud,” or as Spock would phrase it, “Nam-tor ri yaut.”


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