Archive for Names

Respect the local pronunciation: runza and Henri

After I left Omaha and headed westward on Route 30 / Lincoln Highway, I began to notice that every little town along the way with a population of around three thousand or more had a restaurant called Runza.  My instinct was to pronounce that "roon-zuh", but the people around here say "run-zuh".

Because I was not familiar with them, at first I didn't pay much attention to the Runza restaurants, but then I saw a sign that said they made legendary burgers.  Since I'm a burger freak, always in quest of a superior hamburger, by the time I reached Cozad — which somehow has captured my heart, for more than one reason — I decided to stop in and try one.

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Unknown language #10, part 2

[This is a guest post by Martin Schwartz.]

"Unknown language #10" (12/1/17) left all stumped, including a broad range of superb scholars of many languages.  I have no Rosetta Stone for it, but have something that may be called a Russetta or Rusetta (as in ruse) Bone.

First, the mystery text, which was the focus of Language Log Unknown Language #10,  I reproduce it here as was transmitted there:

Ukhant karapet qulkt kirlerek
Iqat ighun chapuq sireleq,
Poghtu Paghytei Piereleq
Azlayn qoghular eliut karapet.

Now, to the above I give a set of verse found in Aleksandr Kuprin's Russian novel Jama ('The Pit'), 1909-1915:

U Karapeta est' bufet
Na bufete est' konfet,
Na konfete est' portret
Ètot samyj Karapet.

'Karapet has a buffet
On the buffet is a bonbon (vel sim.)
On the bonbon is a portrait,
It's the very same Karapet.'

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Language Log asks: Mari Sandoz

In preparation for my run across Nebraska during the month of June, I'm boning up on the land, culture, and history of the state.  It wasn't long in my researches before I encountered the esteemed writer Marie Sandoz (1896-1966).  Hers is one of the most touching stories about a writer, nay, a human being, that I have ever read.  She has much to tell us about her language background and preferences, and how she had to struggle with her publishers to retain them in the face of standardization.

She became one of the West's foremost writers, and wrote extensively about pioneer life and the Plains Indians.

Marie Susette Sandoz was born on May 11, 1896 near Hay Springs, Nebraska, the eldest of six children born to Swiss immigrants, Jules and Mary Elizabeth (Fehr) Sandoz. Until the age of 9, she spoke only German. Her father was said to be a violent and domineering man, who disapproved of her writing and reading. Her childhood was spent in hard labor on the home farm, and she developed snow blindness in one eye after a day spent digging the family's cattle out of a snowdrift.

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Taiwanese in France

On a wall at INALCO (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales [National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations]) (established 1669) in Paris:

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Café Sogdiana

Photograph by Paula Roberts taken in Samarkand (4/29/24)

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The call / name of the gecko

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Nest: a rare and perplexing surname

By chance, I came across the surname "Gnaizda".  Its phonological configuration puzzled me for a while, but then I began to formulate hypotheses about its origin.  I briefly thought that it might have been Semitic and considered the possibility that it was cognate with "genesis".  It was easy to rule out "genesis", though, because that goes back to the PIE root *gene- ("give birth, beget").

Rather than making stabs in the dark about what language Gnaizda might derive from, I thought it would be more sensible to search for individuals with that surname and see whether there were any pertinent biographical, genealogical, or onomastic information available about them.

The most prominent Gnaizda I found was the civil justice advocate, Robert Gnaizda (1936-2020), who was the General Counsel and Policy Director for the Greenlining Institute based in Berkeley, California.  There are many references to him on the internet.  Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article on Robert Gnaizda does not provide any etymological information about his surname.

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Sound over symbol (and meaning)

Zach Hershey called to my attention a phenomenon about the relationship between speech and writing (and meaning) that I long suspected might well be true, and I even collected plentiful evidence in support of it, but I was never absolutely certain that it was true, namely, that in many cases speakers of Sinitic languages have in mind sounds over characters.  Now, with information provided by Zach, we have proof that Sinitic speakers in some cases are indeed thinking of sounds separately (apart from) hanzi.

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Whimsical surnames


Because surnames of immigrants in a melting pot like America often end up getting distorted, bowdlerized, prettified, and otherwise transformed from what they were in their original homelands, we cannot take their current form as gospel linguistic truth.  Nonetheless, people who encounter them cannot avoid taking them at their face value, which may cause much merriment or consternation.  Here I will list several puzzling, unusual surnames I have known, but will not make an assiduous effort to arrive at a definitive explanation of their etymology, morphology, or phonology

In grade school, there was a classmate with the surname "Hassapis".  We all assumed that it meant something related to Manneken Pis (like, he couldn't wait), which I wrote about recently.  After googling around for a few moments, I found that a lot of people from Cyprus have that surname, but couldn't find a hint of its meaning.  After still more googling, I found that a variant seems to be "Hasapis", which may be derived from the Greek word "hasapi", meaning "butcher", though I'm not so sure about that. (source)  Other, more fanciful, derivations have been proposed, but I am inclined to believe that it does have something to do with the Greek word for "butcher":

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Butter chicken

Who owns it?

It's sort of like who owns kimchee, Koreans (of course!) or Chinese — we've been through that many times — except that the question of who has the rights to claim they invented butter chicken is ostensibly internecine / intranational rather than international (but maybe not [see below]), as is the case with kimchee.

"India’s courts to rule on who invented butter chicken:  Two Delhi restaurants both claim to have the right to call themselves the home of the original butter chicken recipe" by Hannah Ellis-Petersen, The Guardian (1/25/24)

Judging from the account in The Guardian, the squabbling between the two Delhi restaurants is both picayune and misplaced:

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"Sheep-dog", spindle whorls, and meditation

Some people call it a "woolly dog", but that's more a description of what it's like.  That's not its name.  And it's not a "sheepdog" or "sheep dog", like a border collie.

Before I go any further into the nomenclature of canines, I want to recognize that they're all the same species:  Canis lupus familiaris.  No matter what their size, shape, coloration, or behavior, from the chihuahua to the great dane, they are all the same species:  Canis lupus familiaris.  It's only their breed that is different.  That is to say, they are bred to enhance different characteristics and to emphasize diverse traits.

Conversely, there are thousands of different species of birds.  It has always puzzled me why there is only one species of dog, but thousands of species of birds (upwards of 10,000), but I'm sure that somebody on Language Log will have the precise answer.  Is it that dogs are selectively bred by humans, whereas birds do their own thing?

The dog I'm talking about here — although extinct now — was raised for thousands of years for its wool!  It was carefully kept apart from other types of dogs to enhance its wool-bearing capability.  Like a sheep.  That's why I like to call it a sheep-dog, albeit somewhat jocularly.  It's a dog, but it has the wool producing characteristics of a sheep.

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"Tibet" obliterated

The name "Tibet" has been outlawed in the PRC.  Henceforth, Tibet (the name by which it has been known to the world for centuries) is to be called by its newer Chinese name, Xizang ("West Zang") — even in English. 

Chinese state media drops ‘Tibet’ for ‘Xizang’ after release of Beijing white paper

    Use of the name ‘Xizang’ when referring to the Tibet autonomous region has risen dramatically in English articles by China’s official media
    It comes after the State Council releases a white paper on November 10 which replaced ‘Tibet’ for pinyin term ‘Xizang’ in most instances

Yuanyue Dang, SCMP (12/10/23)

China’s official media has dramatically increased its use of the term “Xizang”, rather than “Tibet”, when referring to the autonomous region in western China in English articles, after a white paper on Tibet was released by China’s cabinet, the State Council, in early November.

The white paper, titled “CPC Policies on the Governance of Xizang in the New Era: Approach and Achievements”, outlines developments in Tibet since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

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Writing indigenous names in Taiwan

In Taiwan, a woman from the Bunun tribe is pushing to have her name given just in the Roman alphabet, not in combination with or substituted by Chinese characters presenting a Mandarinized form.  (Bunun language here.)

My Bunun name is …

Pinyin News (11/27/23)


A candidate for the Indigenous constituency in Taiwan’s Legislature has, in protest over government policies mandating the use of Chinese characters, changed her name to “李我要單列族名我的布農族名字是 Savungaz Valincinan,” which translates as “Li I want to list my tribal name separately; my Bunun name is Savungaz Valincinan.”

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