Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Czechs Mix

I've changed my mind about the Dvořák symphonies. After a half dozen listenings, the early ones have grown more and more charming.

Nonetheless, typing the haček over the r in his name is a pain in the ass (as is typing the haček over the c in haček), so I won't be writing much about the guy. (If you want to hear how it's pronounced, here you go).

Czech also (I'm aware I'm rambling) uses a vocalic "r", which means what we call a consonant can serve as a vowel all by itself. This was a feature of Proto-Indo-European, where you could use "m" "n" "l" "r" et al as vowels (this occurs in English in limited contexts: the vowel in the second syllable of "button," for example, is essentially just an "n"). In PIE, it gives a nice primitive sound to the language, but the effect was unstable: the daughter languages tended to develop actual vowels around these half-vowels. For example, *wĺ̥kʷos in PIE (the "l" is a vowel) developed into *wulfaz in Germanic, "gorg" in Persian, волк (volk) in Russian, lupus in Latin, etc.

But Slavic languages are notoriously conservative. Indeed, "wolf" in Czech is "vlk", which is amazingly close to its PIE ancestor.* Czech's preservation of the vocalic "r" gives us the fun vowel-free tongue twister "Strč prst skrz krk", meaning "stick your finger through your throat," which is, incidentally, exactly what you have to do to pronounce it correctly.

Anyway, my point is, the Sibelius Violin Concerto is awesome.

*This is interesting, but misleading. "Vlk" comes from the Proto-Slavic *vьlkъ (asterisks in front of words, by the by, mean the language wasn't written down, so these are reconstructions based on other sources). That "ь" between the "v" and "l" indicates a vowel of some sort, probably something close to [i] or [ɨ], which means after PIE a vowel snuck into the word and then snuck right on out again. Query whether something similar happened to all the vocalic consonants in modern Slavic languages.

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