Part 1 in this series was posted here on 3/8/16 and dealt with a sword called Mòyé 鏌鋣 / 莫邪. The post was followed by a vigorous discussion that revealed the existence of a large number of words for "sword" in other languages that sound like the reconstructed Old Sinitic form (roughly *mˤak-ja or /makzæ/), stretching westward across Eurasia. Surprisingly, such words were found prominently in Slavic and Finno-Ugrian languages, but these were determined to be of Germanic origin. There were also parallels in Caucasian languages. All of this strongly suggested the possibility that further research along these lines would be rewarding.
Naturally, I hope that we will be able to make further breakthroughs in determining precisely how it could be that the name of this ancient (well over two milliennia ago) Chinese sword, Mòyé 鏌鋣 / 莫邪, could resemble so many west Eurasian words for "sword" and related terminology. Greater attention to archeology, metallurgy, history, and so forth will undoubtedly be helpful in that regard.
Now I'd like to try the experiment again with another Chinese sword from antiquity whose name is clearly a transcription: Jìnglù 徑路. The normal meaning of jìnglù 徑路 is "path(way); shortcut", and it had this meaning already in ancient texts dating back to the I ching (1st millennium BC). But jìnglù 徑路 also has another meaning, and that is the name of a type of sword favored by the Xiongnu 匈奴 (Old Sinitic /qʰoŋ.nˤa/, Wade–Giles Hsiung-nu, cf. Sogdian xwn]), a large confederation of Eurasian nomads who dominated the Asian Steppe from the late 3rd century BC to the late 1st century AD. Their name is probably related to that of the later Huns (1st-7th c.) and perhaps also that of the Huna (5th-6th c.), but the composition of the people who made up the latter two groups — judging from historical, archeological, and physical anthropological sources — had changed by the time they ranged respectively as far west as Europe and the northwestern part of South Asia.
Among the Xiongnu, Jìnglù 徑路 was the name of a god whom they worshipped, so we may think of Jìnglù dāo 徑路刀 as "numinous / spirit-like sword". Thus, although both are transcriptional names of precious swords in ancient China, the situation regarding Jìnglù 徑路, which is an epithet applied to a sword, is rather different than that regarding Mòyé 鏌鋣 / 莫邪, which essentially means "sword".
I recall reading somewhere long ago that jìnglù 徑路 is a transcription of an Iranian word for a type of dagger or short sword whose Greek form is akinakes (ἀκινάκης; cf. unattested Old Persian *akīnakah) and that its Turkic analog was supposedly kingrak, but I can't remember where I read that.
An alternative way of writing Jìnglù 徑路 as the name of a precious ancient sword is Qīnglǚ 輕吕. On the surface, qīnglǚ 輕吕 doesn't really mean anything sensible: "light pitch-pipe / musical note". From the contexts in which it occurs (see here and here), however, we know that it must mean a sword of some sort.
Next step: determining the Old Sinitic reconstructions of jìnglù 徑路 and qīnglǚ 輕吕. As I pointed out in the first post of this series, there are a number of reconstructions of Old Sinitic. Last time I cited the reconstructions of Baxter and Sagart and of Jonathan Smith. This time I will cite the "minimal" reconstructions of Axel Schuessler. For jìnglù 徑路 Schuessler gives / kêŋh râkh / and for qīnglǚ 輕吕 he gives / keŋ(h) raʔ /.
As I mentioned before in the first post in this series, if we have multiple written forms for a term that superficially do not make any sense when we interpret the characters one at a time, then we can suspect that they are serving to transcribe a borrowing. As was the case with Moye, it is also in all likelihood true of jìnglù 徑路 / qīnglǚ 輕吕
As I was poking around and about to wrap up this post, by chance I came upon this blog post:
The post is an extended quotation from Ancient History of China to the End of the Chóu Dynasty (1908), pp. 65-70, by the great German-American Sinologist, Friedrich Hirth (1845-1927). Since I did read Hirth once upon a time, this must be where I first encountered the Jìnglù dāo 徑路刀 ("numinous / spirit-like sword") of the Xiongnu.
Although I have enormous respect for Hirth, as I do for many other of my Sinological forefathers, I disagree with him in referring to the language in question as "Turkic", since I do not believe that there is any evidence by means of which we can document the existence of the Turkic peoples before about the 5th c. AD. Of course, many words from the Xiongnu and other early nomadic groups during the first half of the first millennium AD must have fed into the vocabulary of the emerging Turkic ethnos.
Naturally, that leads us to wonder what type of people the Xiongnu were and what sort of language they spoke. As for what kind of people the Xiongnu were, one can do no better than to consult the excellent book by the Austrian-American scholar, Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen (1894-1969), The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973). As for what sort of language the Xiongnu spoke, we only have a few words to go by, one being jìnglù 徑路 / qīnglǚ 輕吕, whose roots and affinities we have just today begun to look at seriously.
The other probable Xiongnu word that I can cite off the top of my head is the one that ultimately yielded English "horde" (though most etymological dictionaries only trace it back to Turkic languages). In a Language Log comment nearly three years ago, I wrote about it thus:
Positing a steppe origin for the word "horde" makes a lot of sense, since it ultimately goes back through Mongolian orda, a sociopolitical and military organizational structure, to a Xiongnu (parallel to, but not identical with "Hun") word referring to the camp or headquarters of a chieftain.
A few more strictly phonological notes.
Axel Schuessler has written a magisterial review of Baxter and Sagart in Diachronica, 32.4 (2015), 571-598.
For another review of Baxter and Sagart, see Ho Dah-an “Such errors could have been avoided: Review of Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction”, Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 44.1 (January, 2016), 175-230.
This one is in Bailey's Khotanese Texts volume. The Old Chinese reconstructions would be 徑 *kjáŋs and 路 *ráks . During the course of the Han period the -s final (written in superscript) would shift to -h with the concomitant loss of the stop coda -k in 路. The -ja- in 徑 would often have been articulated closer to -e- (as the front vowel hypothesis reconstructs it) but underlyingly it would have been -ja- and it is this -j- glide that is carried over to the coda in Middle Chinese. Interestingly it is the inability of non -velar codas to support a -j- glide that accounts for their convergence in rhyming categories such that Baxter artificially separates -am and -jam into two rhymes -am and -em where traditionally there was just one, whereas -aŋ and -jaŋ (Baxter's -aŋ and -eŋ) have always been separated traditionally.
One of my next posts will use language to document Eurasian connections via hats, but in a quite different way from these two on ancient swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions.
[Thanks to Edward Shaughnessy, Tsu-Lin Mei, and Michael Carr]