14 August 2011

Transatlantic Style: Classical Greek and Classical Nahuatl

I've taken a bit of a break from working up texts for Aoidoi.org for a while, instead working on some fun prose reading more for practice than anything. Lucian is fun, and the True Story edition by Nimis and Hayes is a nicely portable version. I've also recently started to study Classical Nahuatl, now that a more approachable textbook has finally come out, a translation and adaptation of Launey's standard Introduction, produced by a classicist no less, Christopher Mackay. There are a few other textbooks available in English for Classical Nahuatl, but they are pretty unsatisfactory, for reasons too tedious to go into here.

Apparently, Nahuatl poetry can be as opaque and obscure as Pindar, but I'm not really ready to step into that. Instead, I have been trying my hand at a few of Aesop's fables, which got a linguistic and cultural translation into Nahuatl (see Google Books, A. Peñafiel and the ms. transcription from Amoxcalli.org.mx). Keeping notes on my work with these has forced me to learn a few new LaTeX packages, so I now have a good setup to do Aoidoi-style notes on prose, something that has eluded me for years. I think I may migrate some of my prose work from Scholiastae to this format, which is just nicer to read and to edit.

To classicists (amateur or professional) who want to learn an interesting literary language with a entirely different tradition, I highly recommend Classical Nahuatl now that better learning materials are available for it. The morphology is not as complex, but in some ways studying it reminds me of studying Classical Greek. In particular, that vague anxiety and sinking feeling one gets upon learning yet another particle and when seeing yet another novel chain of particles.

In my brief Nahuatl studies so far, I have noticed a few turns of phrase which have close parallels in Classical Greek, or Indo-European, stylistics. There have in the past been unfortunate attempts to relate Nahuatl to Indo-European — I will leave that to you to hunt down in Google Books. I just thought these parallel developments were interesting.

Throughout the Mesoamerican cultural zone, the merism is a major stylistic device. They can be more metaphorical, and is usually called difrasismo in this context. Some are fairly obvious, and others are more obscure —

in xochitl in cuicatl the flower, the song : poetry
in cuitlapilli in ahtlapalli the tail, the wing : the common folk
yohualli ehecatl night, wind : invisible, or intangible

The first parallel to Indo-European habits is the difrasismo in axcaitl in tlatquitl which together are a general term for "property." The parallel comes in in tlatquitl which is derived from the verb itqui, which means to carry something. This doesn't perfectly match any mersim in IE literature, but it does match a stylistic preoccupation with movable vs. immovable wealth, Avest. pasu.vīra "cattle (and) men", Umbr. ueiro pequo "men and cattle." English goods and chattels almost gets there, since chattels includes the notion of movable property.

Finally, there's the difrasismo I recently ran into, which reminded me of Michael Gilleland's list of asyndetic, privative adjectives. Now, asyndeton is quite common in Nahuatl, and certainly in difrasismo, so this isn't particularly marked stylistically. But the double negative struck me in in ahcualli in ahyectli, "immorality." The ah- element (here, "h" is the glottal stop) is the negative, and has been attached to cualli "a good thing" (in the sense of fitness for a purpose or pleasant) and yectli "a pure thing."

Now if only I could find a collection of difrasismos. Current dictionaries tend not to focus on these.