Some notes on the origins of the words and characters for wheat, flour, and noodles in Turkic and Sinitic languages
On the Xinjiang Studies list, a number of questions about noodles and the words for them in Sinitic and other languages have come up.
First of all, Sue Naquin called to my attention this article which seems to show a connection between Uyghurs and the invention of pulled noodles (lāmiàn), which the Uyghurs call laghman:
Amy Qin, "Q. and A.: Jen Lin-Liu on Noodles and Their Origins".
I replied to Sue:
No, that's much too late.
Jen Lin-liu's right in looking toward the northwest, but there were noodles in that area long before the Uyghurs got to Eastern Central Asia (around the middle of the 9th century).
Then, hoping to elicit some evidence for the origin of the Uyghur word "laghman", I posted this note on the Xinjiang Studies list:
Laghman and lamian ("pulled noodles")
This section of the Wikipedia article on lamian is confused and unnecessarily contentious toward Uyghur cuisine.
Before I suggest revisions to the editors, do members of this list have any particular suggestions on how to improve it?
BTW, I've always felt that "laghman" and "lamian" must be related words, but which one came first?
At this point, a member of the list interjected:
Is there a possible connection between Uyghur lagman and Korean lengmian (which is translated as "cold noodles"?)
N.B.: I think they meant naengmyeon (랭면 [North Korea], 냉면 [South Korea]), also known as raengmyeon (in North Korea), naeng-myeon, naengmyun, or naeng-myun.
To which I replied:
I doubt that, since the same expression exists in Chinese, lěng miàn 冷面 (i.e., it is Sino-Korean vocabulary) and means something very different from lamian.
Then another member of the Xinjiang Studies list asked this big question:
Is MIAN ("noodles; flour") a Chinese word in origin or was it borrowed from somewhere else?
This is my answer to that question:
The character miàn 麵 ("flour; noodles") is not among the oracle bone and bronze inscriptions, nor is it in Shuowen jiezi, so there's probably no legitimate, original seal form either. The first we encounter it is the History of the Qi 齊書, "Treatise on Rites" 禮志, which would put it in the early medieval period at the time when north(west)ern peoples from the steppe were occupying the heartland of what is now China.
Its variant 麪 is even later.
The simplified form 面 originally meant "face". While that is old, and has Tibeto-Burman cognates, it has nothing to do with flour or noodles, and was only employed in the construction of the character miàn 麵 ("flour; noodles") as a phonophore (sound-bearing component).
Nearly two decades ago, I wrote a very long and detailed proposal for considering the Sinitic word mài 麥 ("wheat") as having been derived from an Indo-European source. This is on pp. 36b-38a of "Language and Script: Biology, Archaeology, and (Pre)History," International Review of Chinese Linguistics, 1.1 (1996), 31a-41b.
I think that it is possible that miàn 麵 ("flour; noodles") may well be a nasalized cognate of the IE word for "wheat". After all, we do know that wheat came to China from the west, and we also know that wheat was an important item in life and death for the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Tarim Basin, whose language was likely to have been Indo-European. If anyone wants references, I can provide them.
At this point, James Millward commented on the Xinjiang Studies list:
I had assumed that laghmen was a Uyghur adoptation of lamian, and that it dated to the 18th century Qing conquest and subsequent migration of Han and Chinese Muslims to the Xinjiang region. Given that the dish as currently made relies pretty heavily on tomatoes and peppers (both new world crops) that would suggest a relatively modern development of the dish as we know it, or at least with its sauce.
Here are a couple things that would be useful to know:
1. What is the earliest Turkological reference to "laghmen" and / or anything noodle-like? Would Mahud Kashgari's dictionary have anything?
2. Since Victor was flashing his linguistic chops, is that "gh" in "laghmen" a possible clue for the age of the word? It seems very strange to have that back consonant come into the Uyghur word if it is a borrowing from Chinese lamian in recent centuries: a time when at least in Mongolian the "gh" was dropping out (though that's in inter-vocalic environments, which Laghmen is not. Still, in Kazakh etc. we have tau, vs. tagh in Uyghur, so that gh consonant doesn't seem very stable in these Altaic languages.) But I'm thinking of all those bakshi, baghshi，hakusei and similar words for doctor / shaman in many surrounding languages, which all began with the Tang era Chinese pronunciation of the characters we now read as boshi 博士. Did la 拉 have a velar or other back stop as a final consonant in medieval or earlier Chinese? If so, that would suggest an earlier borrowing.
Back to Victor's link to the wikipedia post that started all this: the author there refers to Central Asian Uyghur laghmen; I'm sure many on this list know that the version from former USSR is often very different from that served in Xinjiang. It's soupier, and seasoned with dill, and thus somewhat Russified.
I published a laghmen recipe in Millward, James, "Chiles on the Silk Road." Chile Pepper Magazine, December 1993. Don't run out and try to find this rare article, though, since it was severely modified by the editors for American kitchens, and I didn't really have a good informant on how to make it in the first place.
The final word for today before I post this comes from Leopold Eisenlohr, who is at this moment in Qinghai eating real halal noodles:
Lagman or laghman?
It should be with an h to indicate the غ. It's spelled لەغمەن which I would transliterate as läghmän, while others would go with leghmen.
What I want to know is how lāmiàn 拉面 and Xīnjiāng bànmiàn 新疆拌面 (VHM: "noodles mixed with sauce") are distinguished and why. In Qinghai it seems more common to call Uyghur noodles banmian than lamian. I think they are the same thing.
Noodles may seem prosaic, but there are many questions about them that remain to be answered.