Archive for Language and biology

Toxic clams

Photograph of a sign at Sequim Bay, Washington taken by Stephen Hart:

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Whistled language

In “Transcendent Tonality” (11/5/15), we examined this topic a couple of years ago.  That post focused more on the philosophical and ethereal aspects of this type of communication, although it also introduced some of the basics of interhuman whistling and its congruence with melodic musicality.

Additional research takes us further toward understanding the linguistic, neuroscientific, and evolutionary biological dimensions of articulate whistling, as reported in this BBC article:

The beautiful languages of the people who talk like birds:  Their unusual whistled speech may reveal what humanity’s first words sounded like. (David Robson, 5/25/17)

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Caucasian words for tea

In Appendix C of The True History of Tea, a book that I wrote with Erling Hoh, I showed how all the words for “tea” in the world except two little-known Austro-Asiatic terms can be traced back to Sinitic.  The three main types of words for tea (infusion of Camellia sinensis leaves) may be characterized as te, cha, and chai.  I won’t repeat all of the philological and linguistic data in this post, but you may find the essentials nicely summarized here:

An evening with Victor Mair” (“Pluck Tea”, 6/1/11), also in this Wikipedia article, and in this blog post on Languages of the World by Asya Pereltsvaig:  “What will you have:  tea or chai?” (9/28/14).

Here’s a map of words for tea in European languages.

If you want more detail, go to Appendix C of the book, but — unless you have exceptionally good eyes — you’d be well advised to enlarge it on a photocopier because that part of the book is in double columns of very fine print.

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Words for cereals

Over at this post — “Of shumai and Old Sinitic reconstructions” (7/19/16) — last week we had a lively discussion on Eurasian words for “wheat”.

I’d like to pursue the subject now on a slightly different, but related, tack.

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Poem or list of band names?

A few days ago, we looked at a propaganda poster in Beijing: “‘Dangerous love’” (4/19/16).

In continuing research on this poster, I discovered that at one site where it was pasted on the wall, there was an enigmatic sequence of lines on another piece of paper pasted on the wall just to the right of the 16-panel poster that the whole world was talking about:


Sources: here and here (close-up).

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Of felt hats, feathers, macaroni, and weasels

In my work on the Bronze Age mummies of Eastern Central Asia (ECA), one of the attributes that has struck me perhaps more powerfully than any other is their stupendous felt hats.  Here’s a photograph of some of them:

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“Butterfly” words as a source of etymological confusion

Nick Kaldis writes:

I’ve started buying English etymology books for my 8-year-old daughter and I to explore; today we discovered that “butterfly” comes from “butter” + “shit”, because their feces resemble butter.

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Is it necessary to invent a new Chinese character for “ivory”?

In a recent post, we discussed the creation of hitherto unknown Chinese characters:

How to generate fake Chinese characters automatically” (12/30/15)

In that post and in other Language Log posts, we have mentioned how artists and language enthusiasts sometimes make completely new characters, whether out of whimsy or out of a genuine felt need (as though there were not already enough characters).

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A Vietnamese etymology for the Chinese word for “pineapple”?

In “Shampoo salmon” (2/10/14), I called attention to the variety of opinions concerning the origins of the Chinese word bōluó 菠萝 / variant bōluó 波萝 (“pineapple”).  Tom Nguyen suggests that another possible source is from Old Vietnamese *bla (> dứa /z̻ɨ̞̠ɜ˧ˀ˦/ with Northern accent – note the process of “turning into sibilant” of initial consonant cluster bl- in Vietnamese).

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Of mynas and miners, bells and whistles

Over at Spicks & Specks, Greg Pringle has a virtuoso post on “The Bell Miner:  How orthography and ornithology catalysed a new folk etymology” (8/9/15).  It’s about an Australian honeyeating bird — Manorina melanophrys — that used to be called the Bellbird, but was renamed Bell Miner through association with the South Asian bird called in Hindi the mainā मैना (” starling”).

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More Chinese characters in nature

Chips Mackinolty sent in this intriguing photograph from Peter Cooke Darwin’s tumblr, Life Is A Carnivore:

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Moth onomastics: Chinese Character (Cilix glaucata)

“Chinese character” is the name for a moth in this Wikipedia article.  At first when I read the article, I thought that there must have been an error.  But when I started to check around, I discovered that the same English name for Cilix glaucata occurred all over the place.

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Chinese words and characters for “gizzard”

Having immersed myself in Korean gizzard terminology for the past week, I now turn to Chinese gizzard terms, which are every bit as curious and varied, if not so intermittently scatalogical.  Whereas the problems with Korean terms for gizzard centered primarily on their imprecision and vulgarity, the difficulties with Chinese terms for gizzard have more to do with pronunciation, topolectal variation, and the characters used for writing the various terms.

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