Archive for Names

The order of surnames and given names in East Asian languages

From Frank Chance:

I have complained for years about the reversal of Japanese names in the Western – and Japanese – media.

If China can dictate pinyin, as it essentially did in 1979, Japan can lead in the change to respect the original language.

Here's an article that speaks to this issue:

"Japan asked the international media to change how we write their names. No one listened", by James Griffiths, CNN Business (3/21/20):

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More on Persian kinship terms; "daughter" and the laryngeals

Following up on "Turandot and the deep Indo-European roots of 'daughter'" (3/16/20), John Mullan (student of Arabic, master calligrapher, and expert chorister) writes:

As someone who's studied a bit of Persian and a few other Indo European languages, I've always found it odd that most all of the kinship terms in Persian—mādar, pedar, barādar, dokhtar, pesar (cf. 'puer' in Latin and 'pais' in Greek, I assume)—have easy equivalents to my ear, /except/ 'khāhar,' sister. Wiktionary suggests it's still related.

One quite recent finding of mine in PIE. As you probably know, 'Baghdad' is not an Arabic name, but a Persian one. It's composed of 'Bagh,' God (not the word used today), and 'Dād,' Given/Gift. Now I'm familiar with Bagh, ultimately, from listening to way too much Russian choral music and hearing Church Slavonic 'Bozhe.' Similarly, in the deep corners of my Greek student mind I remember names like 'Mithradates'—gift of Mithra or something along those lines—popping up as rulers/governors of city states in Classical Anatolia. What I /didn't/ pick out was the exact same construct as 'Baghdad' hiding in front of my eyes all along. There are two active NBA players named 'Bogdan(ović).' It's the same name as the city, only it's popped up in Serbo-Croatian. Funny stuff.

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Turandot and the deep Indo-European roots of "daughter"

In recent days, the famous aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot, "Nessun dorma" (Italian: [nesˌsun ˈdɔrma]; English: "Let no one sleep"), has surfaced as part of a worldwide movement to encourage the Italian people in their struggle against the novel coronavirus (see here, here, and here).  This article by Claudia Rosett gives the backstory:

"An Uplifting Moment, in the Time of Coronavirus", PJ Media (3/14/20)

This led me to ponder the origins of Turandot's name, especially since the operatic version of the story is set in China and she is alleged to be a Chinese princess.  Right away, I was in for a jolt, since "The name of the opera is based on Turan-Dokht (daughter of Turan), which is a common name used in Persian poetry for Central Asian princesses." (source)

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Chinese coronavirus linguistic war

From a Taiwanese colleague:

In the struggle against Wǔhàn fèiyán 武漢肺炎 ("Wuhan pneumonia"), Taiwan has to fight the war on three fronts: (1) trying to stop the virus at its borders; (2) trying to join the WHO for world-wide collaboration and disease information; and (3) fighting against the Communist Chinese dictatorial linguistic policies.  The linguistic policy on disease terminology is really weird; it smacks of George Orwell's 1984.

He cites this article in Chinese and this facebook page (also in Chinese).  Here's another article in Chinese from Taiwan that sticks to "Wuhan pneumonia" despite the pressure from WHO and the PRC government to adopt a name that is not transparent with regard to the origin of the disease.

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Brain Brian

Alan Kennedy, a dealer of Oriental art based in Paris, New York, and Los Angeles, who was a student of the polymath Schuyler Van Rensselaer Cammann (1912-1991; "Ki" to his friends and acquaintances) at Penn half a century ago, and who is a regular reader of Language Log, sent me this message:

I see a comment from Brian Spooner, and had no idea that he was still at Penn.  Decades ago, one of his students told me that he was sometimes called Brain in Afghanistan.  Apparently someone there had transposed the 'a' and the 'i' in writing his name.

My reply to Alan:

Hah, that's an appropriate transposition!

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A different perspective on family name distributions

Michael Ramscar, "The empirical structure of word frequency distributions", arXiv 1/9/2020:

The frequencies at which individual words occur across languages follow power law distributions, a pattern of findings known as Zipf's law. A vast literature argues over whether this serves to optimize the efficiency of human communication, however this claim is necessarily post hoc, and it has been suggested that Zipf's law may in fact describe mixtures of other distributions. From this perspective, recent findings that Sinosphere first (family) names are geometrically distributed are notable, because this is actually consistent with information theoretic predictions regarding optimal coding. First names form natural communicative distributions in most languages, and I show that when analyzed in relation to the communities in which they are used, first name distributions across a diverse set of languages are both geometric and, historically, remarkably similar, with power law distributions only emerging when empirical distributions are aggregated. I then show this pattern of findings replicates in communicative distributions of English nouns and verbs. These results indicate that if lexical distributions support efficient communication, they do so because their functional structures directly satisfy the constraints described by information theory, and not because of Zipf's law. Understanding the function of these information structures is likely to be key to explaining humankind's remarkable communicative capacities.

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Two-fifths of the people in Vietnam have the surname Nguyen. Why?

In "Why 40% of Vietnamese People Have the Same Last Name", Atlas Obscura (3/28/17), republished in Pocket, Dan Nosowitz tells us:

In the U.S., an immigrant country, last names are hugely important. They can indicate where you're from, right down to the village; the profession of a relative deep in your past; how long it's been since your ancestors emigrated; your religion; your social status.

Nguyen doesn't indicate much more than that you are Vietnamese. Someone with the last name Nguyen is going to have basically no luck tracing their heritage back beyond a generation or two, will not be able to use search engines to find out much of anything about themselves.

This difference illustrates something very weird about last names: they're a surprisingly recent creation in most of the world, and there remain many places where they just aren't very important. Vietnam is one of those.

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Agu hair bian

Here I am standing in front of a hair salon near the south gate of Kansai University in Osaka, Japan two days ago:

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Tibet water

Ben Zimmer was just passing through Hong Kong Airport, where he got a bottle of Tibet 5100 spring water, complete with Tibetan script:


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Blue-Green Iranian "Danube"

A curious phenomenon of Old European hydronymy that I've noticed for a long time is that many of the most important rivers in Central and Eastern Europe — Danube, Don, Donets, Dnieper, Dniester, and others — all have names that derive from the ancient Iranian (Scythian) word for "river" (cf. don, "river, water" in modern Ossetic).  Source

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Gomphocarpus physocarpus

Here's what it looks like (click to embiggen for necessary detail):

Photograph by Yixue Yang, who gave it the name "spiked lantern".

Quiz:  before going to the next page, please give it whatever name you think is most appropriate, based on its shape or whatever other attributes you can glean from the photograph.

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Ad hoc Romanization for Mandarin: 2022 Winter Olympics

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Awesome sushi barbecue restaurant

From Nora Castle, who came across this restaurant which has just opened in Coventry, England:

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