linguistics blog

2019 > 04

Words for Easter in Eurasian languages, defined by their meaning. Words for Easter in Eurasian languages, defined by their meaning.
This week, also known as the Holy Week, is part of the holiday that in English goes by the name of Easter. Easter, which is celebrated throughout all of the Judaeo-Christian world, is one of the most important festivities of the year, marking the beginning of spring or summer and the resurrection of Christ. Like most Christian holidays, the roots of Easter go back into pagan times. In particular in Northern Europe, many of the mysterious habits of an ancient spring festival have survived until today. Children chase an unvisible easter hare, which puts candy-filled eggs in the grass. Birch twigs are compiled, taken indoors, and ornamented with painted eggs and feathers. Children also dress as witches or 'easterhubbies' (the difference is whether you wear a scarf or a hat), painting their faces with red dots, and go from door to door asking for candy. Afterwards, they are supposed to fly on their brooms to Brocken. Fires and fireworks are lit, and, most importantly, enormous quantities of egg, fish, meat, and candy are consumed.

So, which are the terms we use for this festival? Most languages have form of the Greek (via Latin) word paskha, itself borrowed from Aramaic (Hebrew Pesach), meaning 'passover'. The West Germanic terms, such as English Easter and German Ostern, go back to a Common Germanic goddess of spring, Old English Eastre, which is identical to the Indo-European goddess of dawn *h2éus-ōs (Sanskrit uṣās, Latin aurōra). Other languages have words that in various ways relate to the basically biblical rituals of Easter, including 'sacrificial animal', 'taking of the meat', 'resurrection', 'great day' or 'great night', or 'liberation'.

Just as with the Christmas words (see http://www.gerdcarling.se/i/a32842142/2018/12/), the map of meanings of Easter unveil important information about various cultural spheres, as well as exceptions in the form of islands of different usage.

With this little etymological overview I would like to wish you all a Happy Easter!

Sources:
Lubotsky, Alexander. Brill Online Dictionaries: Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries Online (https://dictionaries-brillonline-com.ludwig.lub.lu.se/iedo). Accessed 2019-04-17.
Troels-Lund 1932. Dagligt liv i Norden på 1500-talet. VII Årets fester. Stockholm: Bonniers.
Andersson et al 1968. Kulturhistoriskt Lexikon för Nordisk Medeltid XIII. Malmö: Allhems förlag.

I thank Ante Petrović for assistance with compiling/checking data for the Easter map.

Wikipedia has an excellent overview of names of Easter: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_Easter
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Heatmap of frequency of source and target language of loan events in our data, defined by language power and population size (from 1-5). Graph  by Johan Frid. Heatmap of frequency of source and target language of loan events in our data, defined by language power and population size (from 1-5). Graph by Johan Frid.

In the previous blogpost, I started a compilation of safe loans from and into Tocharian. I will continue this work in the next post. In this post, I will talk about loan directionality, since I am currently completing a paper (with several co-authors) on lexical borrowability in Eurasian languages. I want to say a few word about this project.

We have compiled and extracted all loan events in the lexical database, and tested various statistical measures on this data. Worth noticing is the directionality of loans in contrast to language power as well as the differential source languages of the families. As I have described in recent posts, our data set on lexical data compiles culture concepts, i.e., words for farming, technology, hunting, and war, which have a presumed age that go at least back to the Chalcolithic. This means that this vocabulary is not representative for the entire lexicon, only these specific domains. Loans are also extended over long periods, at least back to antiquity. If we look at the source languages, we notice that they differ between families. In Indo-European, Latin is most frequent, followed by Middle Low German, French, Old French, Slavic, Classical Greek. In Caucasian, Turkic languages dominate, followed by Persian, Georgian, and Arabic. In Uralic, Scandinavian languages dominate, which is mainly due to the fact that our Fenno-Ugric languages dominate in our data (see pictures below).

The correlation between loan directionality and language power and populations size is also noteworthy. We define the power of languages by a quantitative rank based on several features, including literary power, economic power and population size. This we plot against the occurence as source and target language in loan events (see graph above). All languages are equally likely to be target languages, but the most powerful languages are more likely to be source languages. This is a significant correlation. The most frequent loan event is from a very powerful language to a very weak. The second most frequent language is from a medium powerful to a weak. The third most frequent loan is from a medium powerful to a medium powerful language. In scrutinizing the data, we observe that this type of loan event is almost entirely restricted to the middle ages, which is also an interesting result. Unequality between languages seems to be specific to the antique and modern periods, whereas language contact in the middle ages was more distributed between languages of equal power.

Graph illustrating the most frequent source languages in Indo-European (top), Caucasian (middle), and Uralic (bottom) families.
Graph illustrating the most frequent source languages in Indo-European (top), Caucasian (middle), and Uralic (bottom) families.
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