Easter was not how you pronounced Ishtar. This meme has been reappearing at the end of Lent these past few years and I never say anything but today all those dull linguistics book I’ve read are screaming in protest because Easter was never the way one pronounced Ishtar. Nowhere in the ancient Middle East did Akkadian speakers–and just about everyone in Mesopotamia spoke Akkadian four thousand years ago, it was the hip tongue of early civilization—did people dance and screw and celebrate the goddess of sex and fertility every spring and call her Easter. They called her Ishtar, which was pronounced–hang on– ish-tar. Ish like in fish and tar like in tardy. Ishtar. Akkadian, though long gone, was a Semitic language like Arabic and Hebrew and ancient Egyptian, heavy on the consonants, light on the vowels, lots of lip popping and gakking. Dig that crazy voiceless postalveolar fricative. When you shhhhhhh someone you are shaming them with a voiceless postalveolar fricative. No, you don’t need to know that just to get somebody to shut up (though I used to get voiceless postalveolar fricativized during bass solos in jazz clubs.) Easter, on the other hand, is a word that comes from the ancient German (as does English, actually), so it was an Indo-European language, lots of consonants but a lot of vowels, too, and Easter was pronounced something like e-oster, and it contains, instead of a voiceless postalveolar fricative, a voiceless alveolar sibilant followed immediately by a voiceless retroflex stop. That’s the st sound. You don’t really need to know any of that either. But add a voiceless bilabial stop–the p sound–to that voiceless alveolar sibilant and voiceless retroflex stop and you get psssssst, like trying to get somebody’s attention in a library, but not like getting drunk and trying to get somebody’s attention in a library. That would be pssssht, a voiceless bilabial stop-voiceless postalveolar fricative-voiceless retroflex stop, and someone else drunk in the library would voiceless postalverolar fricative back even louder and everything would be all fricked up.

Ishtar was originally the Sumerian goddess of love and sex and fertility (among other things, she must’ve been quite the multitasker) and Sumerian was utterly unlike Akkadian, just as complicated but not the least bit Semitic, words lolling in vowels. Thus Ishtar’s original Sumerian name, Ianna, sort of rolls across the tongue. She was quite the looker, Ianna, if you don’t mind weird bird feet, she was tall and slender and stacked and not too into lots of clothes. One gets the impression the Sumerians really loved love making. And the sounds in Ianna seems to fit her much better than than the sounds in Ishtar. I suppose that’s just my Indo-European prejudices, we like vowels. We like consonants too—consonants are certainly funnier—but vowels seem to do a better job of evoking a tactile feeling. They’re softer, rounder, gentler. Ahhh.

It seems such a shame that the Sumerian language died out, leaving no descendants. Hell, they invented civilization speaking it. They invented writing writing it. Now no one speaks it. No one writes it. A couple English words go back to the Sumerian, though. Canal is one. Five thousand years ago it meant canal, pronounced sort of gina, hard g sound, both vowels short. The Sumerians did wonders with canals. The main drag in Ur wasn’t a street, it was a canal. And they scientifically laid out a network of irrigation canals across the plains, carrying water from the Euphrates into distant, lush fields. They really knew their canals. Some are still in use. Five thousand years later we still use their word, though the hard G has become a hard C sound, and an L sound was attached to the end. Their gina (with the i not an ee, but schwa-ish), our canal. Nearly identical in sound, and completely identical in meaning. That’s some continuity, in sound and concept, a word as old as civilization itself.

Not much else in the Sumerian language survives in English, though, mostly words that began as canal, became metaphors, and wound up things like canonize. There are probably a lot more old Sumerian words in Arabic and Farsi, even Hebrew. Propinquity, you know. But Ianna’s lovely name did not survive the end of Sumerian, and she became Ishtar. Same lovely appearance, same loving and humping and baby making, but with a voiceless postalveolar fricative. Shhhhhh.

Every time I see that ridiculous Ishtar-Easter meme, I wonder how the hell anyone could think an SH was pronounced like ST, unless they were drunk. Drunks would say Eashter. Drunks and people with bad false teeth. Drunks and bad false teeth and Eashter bunnies. Meanwhile somewhere drunk people are writing memes, and the world is believing every voiceless postalveolar fricative of them.

You know, indigenous Australians had neither a voiceless alveolar sibilant (or any sibilants at all) and no voiceless postalveolar fricative, and could not have said Ishtar or Easter, let alone psssst or shhhhhh. They would not have been reading those memes. But they could say ingoorrooloorrloorroona noorroo.

And that you do need to know.

Ishtar. Dig those crazy feet. Though it might be Ishtar’s older sister Ereshkigal, who got the ruling the Underworld gig while her little sister was up above making love and babies. This is from about four thousand years ago and the artist no doubt spoke Akkadian, not Sumerian.

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