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Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in Indo-European languages

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Our God Is a Solid Hill-Fort

Last Samhain having marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, here in Minnesota—the Holy Land of American Lutheranism—it was All “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” All the Time.

It might have been irritating, but instead I found myself reflecting on the ways of the ancient ancestors.

Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott: so begins Luther's marching-song of Protestantism Militant. The tune is a good, rousing, beer-swilling one, the lyrics a paraphrase of the Biblical psalm 46. The Hebrew begins: Elohim lanu mahase va-'oz, “Elohim [is] to us a protection and strength.” By the rules of Hebrew poetry, one could also translate, “Elohim [is] to us a strong protection.”

So Luther doesn't just translate, he Germanizes: “Our god is a solid burg.” Burg can mean “protection, refuge,” but primarily it means “castle, fort.”

It's an ancient word, from the depths of the Indo-European past. Originally, it meant a “hill-fort.” The Bronze Age having been a time of demographic upheaval, you can trace the spread of the Indo-European-speaking ancestors by the hill-forts that they left behind them.

In any given tribal territory, the largest hill-fort (in Irish, it would have been called a dún) marked the seat of the chieftain, or king (or, sometimes, queen). Here on a hill was found the Royal Hall, safe behind its solid concentric earthen walls. Most people lived dispersed throughout the territory, but in times of war they could gather together safely behind the walls of the burg.

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Rhymes with 'Art'

The ancestors were practical people.

When linguists discovered that, by comparing words from daughter languages, they could reconstruct a vocabulary for a language from some 6000 years ago, predating the invention of writing, they were ecstatic.

In our understanding of the past, archaeological artifacts will take us only so far. To really understand how a culture thinks, we need to know what it says.

To the scholarly world's everlasting disappointment, what we can reconstruct of the Proto-Indo-European language really tells us very little about the ancestors' society, culture, or religion.

What we do know is that they had two words for, shall we say, “breaking wind.”

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
We Call It Yule

In the old Witch language, they called it Géol.

The Vikings called it Jól.

The Goths—the Elder, not the Latter-Day, kind—called it Jiuleis.

All three names descend from the Proto-Germanic Jehwla (or Jegwla), the great Midwinter festival of Germanic-speaking peoples some 2300 years ago.

No one knows what it originally meant. That, of course, doesn't stop the storytellers. If anything, it encourages us.

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  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien says #
    Huzzah! I love your blogs, especially the historical minutia and word etymology. Warm Yule greetings from blessedly rainy Califo

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Mother Tongue

We don't know what language was spoken by the Copper Age peoples of what Marija Gimbutas called “Old Europe.”

But whatever it was, we still—in a sense—speak it today.

English is an Indo-European language. The Indo-European languages all descend from a language spoken during the late Stone Age on the prairies (“steppes”) between the Black and Caspian Seas. This language was spoken by a milk-drinking, pastoralist people who domesticated the horse and invented (and named) the wheel. (Our wheel comes ultimately from their word *kwelkwlos, literally a “turn-turn.”)

Their nearest neighbors, to the southwest, in what is now Ukraine, Poland, and Rumania, were the Cucuteni-Tripolye cultures made famous by archaeologist and feminist ideologue Marija Gimbutas. These were settled farmers, eaters of bread and beans, whose bold, swirling designs, striking ceramics, and fetching little female figurines still speak directly to us today.

These two, the Indo-European and the Old European, were, in effect, our Father and Mother Cultures.

And we still speak their languages today.

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
O God

For all its recent history, the English word “god” is a fine old pagan word with a long, long pedigree.

Cognates occur in all Germanic languages (German Gott, Icelandic guð, etc.), and in all Germanic languages, interestingly, it was this word that was chosen by early missionaries to denote the Christian god. How and why this came to be is in itself an interesting question which would well merit further study, but that's not my intent here.

For historical reasons—largely because of its Christian associations—we've come to think of “god” as (connotatively, if not grammatically) masculine. I suspect that among English-speaking pagans this masculinization has been emphasized by the word's implied pairing with “goddess.” English lost its grammatical genders after the Norman invasion, but the other Germanic languages have kept all three of them (masculine, feminine, and neuter), and in all of them (again, for Christian reasons) the word god has become a grammatically masculine noun.

But that's not how the ancestors saw it.

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Yan Tan Tethera: 1-20 in Witch

 Yan tan tethera pethera pimp

 sethera methera hovera covera dik

 yan-a-dik tan-a-dik tethera-dik pethera-dik bumfits

 yan-a-bumfits tan-a-bunfits tethera-bumfits pethera-bumfits figgits

 And figgits have a notch

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The writing scripts of humankind may look completely different from one another, but the sounds formed by human mouths can be very similar. For example, the sound Ma—and variations thereof—mean Mother all over the world. 

J. Robert Oppenheimer said that when the first atomic bomb was detonated, he remembered a quote from the Bhagavad-Gita: "Now I have become Death, destroyer of worlds." That ancient sentiment was written in Sanskrit—not the oldest language of humankind, but one of the few which are still in use today. 

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  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis says #
    Ted, lovely article, thank you! I love Latin, and learning more about its roots was awesome. I also loved hearing about the Cel
  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor says #
    Francesca - It's a lonely feeling, to be ahead of your time with ideas that you can't get anybody to listen to - and then to find
  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis says #
    Ted, you are so sweet, thank you. Yeah, it does get lonely, as you clearly have experienced. But I am also grateful for deep think
  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor says #
    Blessed Be to you, too.
  • Greybeard
    Greybeard says #
    Despite a century of misinterpretation, humans are not evolved from chimpanzees. We both share ancestry with some common ancient

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