Archive for Etymology

Om, sumo, and the universality of sound

From Zihan Guo:

A Japanese expression I came upon in a reading from Takami sensei's class reminded me of the "om" you mentioned weeks ago in our class.

阿吽の呼吸(aun'nokokyū あうんのこきゅう)
 
It refers to the synchronization of breathing of sumo opponents before a match. I read about this in an article about an interview with a sumo wrestler. But the "aun あうん" part lingered in my mind. Then I realized that it was the Japanese transliteration of the "om" that you were telling the class that encompassed all sounds:  "a" and "un" signify the beginning and end of the cosmos respectively, or so wikipedia explains. The Japanese phrase means a harmonious, non-verbal communication.

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Backhill, Pekin, Peking, Beijing

Yesterday, while doing research for a paper on medieval Dunhuang popular narratives (biànwén 變文 ["transformation texts"]), I did a Google search for the Peking Library, where some of the bianwen manuscripts are kept.  Instead of the national library of China in Peking / Beijing in the PRC, I was led to the Pekin Public Library in Illinois.  That prompted me to ponder the fact that this Illinois city followed the French pronunciation, Pékin, of the Chinese capital when it took its name, rather than the English Peking.

Following the official Hanyu Pinyin Romanization of the PRC, English now transcribes 北京 ("Northern Capital") as Beijing (Běijīng [pèi.tɕíŋ]).  But until recently this was not always the case for English, much less for dozens of other languages around the world.  Thirty-one years ago, in "Backhill / Peking / Beijing" (see "Selected readings" below), Bosat Man wrote (p. 6):

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A poster with an uncommon character denoting a common Cantonese word

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Cantonese ad for teppan steak

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Another early polysyllabic Sinitic word

In various publications and Language Log posts over the years, I have collected scores of old polysyllabic words (e.g., those for reindeer, phoenix, coral, spider, earthworm, butterfly, dragonfly, balloon lute, meandering / winding, etc.), which proves that Sinitic has never been strictly monosyllabic, although that is a common misapprehension, even among many scholars.  The reason I call the one featured in this post "another early polysyllabic Sinitic word" is because I don't think I've ever pointed it out before.

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Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

Given this:

"Measure words for robots" (9/4/21)

and this:

"Arigatō" (9/3/21),

I could not help but think of this:

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Arigatō

There's probably no other Japanese word that is better known to the world than "arigatō".  In this little essay, Kaki Okumura attempts to explain why "there is difficulty" means "thank you".  This is something that I have often pondered myself, but is that all there is to it?  And what about the alleged Buddhist aspects of the expression?

Even the rather full etymology I've quoted below doesn't do full justice to the word.

"The Strange Thing About Writing ‘Thank You’ in Japanese:  When life is full of good miracles"

Kaki Okumura, Medium (8/27/21)

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Reinterpretation of Xianbei qifen ("grass") and its reflection in Mongolic

[This is a guest post by Penglin Wang]

The Chinese transcription of foreign words has made a unique and valuable contribution to our understanding of linguistic situations in early Inner Asia, but it was sometimes inevitably fraught with logographic confusion and scribal errors. Even given quite advanced word-processing and printing in modern times, one can hardly prevent miswriting or misspelling from happening. In ancient China, presumably, it was historians and other authors who heard foreign words spoken and jotted them down, and then further changes developed through the involvement of scribes, typographers, and printers, with each possibly committing their own miswritings and infelicities. It is therefore necessary to reinterpret certain transcriptions on the basis of the known philological and linguistic relevance of what came to be written down.

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Shandong vernacular, then and now

A week ago, Julie Lee made this interesting comment on Language Log:

…when I studied Yuan dynasty drama and had books from the library, my husband (a physicist) picked them up to read and was amazed at the 13th century dialogue. "That's just the way we spoke at home in Shandong", he exclaimed. He grew up in Tengxian County*, Shandong, and went to school in Qingdao. I couldn't understand his Shandong speech. I too was amazed that Chinese colloquial speech (in Shandong) lasted from the 13th century till the 20th century — 700 years. The dialogue in Yuan drama was popping with lively expressions.

[*Likely the birthplace of the populist, egalitarian, pragmatic, empirical, scientific minded philosopher, Mo Zi / Micius (ca. 470-391 BC.)]

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Ambling, shambling, rambling, wandering, wondering: the spirit of Master Zhuang / Chuang

All the talk of moseying and ambling propelled me into a customary mode of mind.  Those who have taken classes with me know that, though I may start at a certain point in my lectures, it is difficult to predict how we will get to our intended destination, though we are certain to pass through many interesting and edifying scenes and scenarios along the way.

As I have stated on numerous occasions, my favorite Chinese work of all time is the Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu 莊子 (ca. 3rd c. BC).  The English title of my translation is Wandering on the Way.  The publisher wanted something more evocative than "Master Zhuang / Chuang" or "Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu", so I spent a couple of days coming up with about sixty possible titles, and they picked the one that I myself preferred, "Wandering on the Way", which is based on the first chapter of the book:  "Xiāoyáo yóu 逍遙遊" ("Carefree wandering").

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Mosey

This is both one of my favorite words and one of my most enjoyable modes.  Although I am normally very active and highly goal oriented, and walk almost as rapidly as a Singaporean (fastest in the world), occasionally I simply want to unwind a bit, especially when I'm with a like-minded friend, and just stroll about in a leisurely fashion.  Thus, for example, I will say, "Let's mosey on over to the Art Museum", and it will take us an hour or two, whereas if we walked at a normal pace and went straight to our destination, we might get there in half an hour.

Since "mosey" is a curious sounding word, one might well be tempted to look up its exact meaning and etymology.  If you do so, you'll likely be surprised and flummoxed, for its derivation and definition are both fuzzy, like the word itself.

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Xiongnu (Hunnic) Shanyu

One of the most hotly debated questions in early Chinese studies is the origin and pronunciation of the title of the ruler of the Xiongnu (Huns), which is written with these two Sinographs, 單于.  The current scholarly consensus is that the Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) pronunciation should be chányú.  Although it is much contested, the current scholarly consensus for the pronunciation of the name of the son of the first Xiongnu ruler, Tóumàn, is Mòdú (r. 209-174 BC): 

Modun, Maodun, Modu (simplified Chinese: 冒顿单于; traditional Chinese: 冒頓單于; pinyin: Mòdùn Chányú ~ Màodùn Chányú, c. 234 – c. 174 BCE), also known as Mete khan across a number of Turkic languages, was the son of Touman and the founder of the empire of the Xiongnu. He came to power by ordering his men to kill his father in 209 BCE.

(source)

The following is a guest post by Penglin Wang, which takes a different approach, and for the first time offers a novel source for the Hunnic title.  The state he refers to is Shanshan, better known as Loulan, which would make its language Indo-European (Tocharian or Gandhari Prakrit), for which see here.

For caṃkura as a Gandhari Prakrit title, see A Dictionary of Gāndhārī here.

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Ashkenazi and Scythians

It is not my intention to stir up a firestorm, but I have for decades suspected that the names "Ashkenazi" and "Scythian" are related.  Now, after having sat on this for years and letting it gnaw away at my inwyt for far too long, I've decided to seek the collected expertise of the Language Log readership to see if there really is something to my suspicion.

Ashkenazi Jews (/ˌæʃ-, ɑːʃkəˈnɑːzi/ ASH-, AHSH-kə-NAH-zee), also known as Ashkenazic Jews or, by using the Hebrew plural suffix -im, Ashkenazim[a] are a Jewish diaspora population who coalesced in the Holy Roman Empire around the end of the first millennium.

The traditional diaspora language of Ashkenazi Jews is Yiddish (a Germanic language with elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic languages), developed after they had moved into northern Europe: beginning with Germany and France in the Middle Ages. For centuries they used Hebrew only as a sacred language, until the revival of Hebrew as a common language in 20th century's Israel. Throughout their time in Europe, Ashkenazim have made many important contributions to its philosophy, scholarship, literature, art, music and science.

The term "Ashkenazi" refers to Jewish settlers who established communities along the Rhine river in Western Germany and in Northern France dating to the Middle Ages. Once there, they adapted traditions carried from Babylon, the Holy Land, and the Western Mediterranean to their new environment.  The Ashkenazi religious rite developed in cities such as Mainz, Worms, and Troyes. The eminent French Rishon Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (Rashi) would have a significant influence on the Jewish religion.

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