Archive for Etymology

Black hair and cattle

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“Who Dey?”

You'll be hearing a lot of that Cincinnati Bengals chant today.

What does it mean?  How did it originate?

To understand the meaning, you have to put it in the context of the whole chant:

"Who dey, who dey, who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals?" Fans then roar: "Nobody!"

So it's a rhetorical question.

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Nose, iris, pupil

Last week, a master's student went to the board to write the Chinese character for "nose" (bí 鼻), but forgot how to do so.  There is no simplified version.  The form of this character differs slightly between China and Japan:  in China it is 鼻 and in Japan it is 鼻.  Can you spot the difference?

Believe it or not, the top part of the character depicts a nose.  Here's the small seal script form, about two millennia ago (the bottom part is the phonophore, which was added long after the top part was invented):

鼻-seal.svg

Glyph origin

Phono-semantic compound (形聲, OC *blids): semantic (nose) + phonetic (OC *pids).

(OC *ɦljids) originally meant “nose” but came to be used to mean “self”, so the sense of “nose” has been replaced by (OC *blids). Some scholars interpret (OC *blids) as a combination of a nose ( (OC *ɦljids)) and two lungs ( (OC *pids)).

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The cattle-keeping Bai of Yunnan

The province of Yunnan in the far south is home to more ethnic minorities and languages than any other part of China (25 out of 56 recognized groups, 38% of the population).  The Bai are one of the more unusual groups among them.


Bai children—in Yunnan, China

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Greek and Latin in China

Stimulating, substantial article by Chang Che in SupChina (1/13/22):  "China looks to the Western classics".  Here are the first three paragraphs:

A block east of Tiananmen Square, in a classroom last July, Chinese school children were singing the nursery rhyme “Old McDonald Had a Farm” in Latin: “Donatus est agricola, Eia, Eia, Oh!” The students, aged 11 to 17, were taking an introductory Latin class with Leopold Leeb, a professor of literature at the prestigious Renmin University.

Every weekday during the summer, from nine a.m. to noon, Leeb holds a public class in a marble white church just a stone’s throw away from Beijing’s central government. On the day I attended, Leeb had given each student a Roman name. There was a Gaius, a Flavius, a Monica, and two sisters, Amata and Augusta. The sisters came from Changping, a two-and-a-half-hour train ride away. They sat in the front row and took naps during the 10-minute breaks.

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The foreign origins of the lion dance and words for "lion" in Sinitic

Here at Language Log, we have shown how the most common word for "lion" in Sinitic, shī 獅, has Iranian and / or Tocharian connections (see "Selected readings").  The etymological and phonological details will be sketched out below.  For a magisterial survey, see Wolfgang Behr, "Hinc [sic] sunt leones — two ancient Eurasian, migratory terms in Chinese revisited", International Journal of Central Asian Studies, 9 (2004), 1-53.  This learned essay has appeared in multiple guises and many places (I knew it originally and best while it was still in draft, perhaps back in the 90s), so I don't know which one the author considers to be the most authoritative version.  Perhaps he will enlighten us in the comments to this post.

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Revisiting ursine terminology in light of Sinitic cognates: semantics and phonetics

From Chau Wu:

I have always wondered about the deep gulf of variations in the sounds of "néng 能 -bearing" characters, that is, the variations in the onsets and rimes (shēng 聲 and yùn 韻):

néng 能  n- / -eng (Tw l- / -eng)  [Note: 能 orig. meaning 'bear'; nai, an aquatic animal; thai, name of a constellation 三能 = 三台]

xióng 熊  x- (Wade-Giles: hs-) / -iong [熊 Tw hîm; the x- in MSM xióng is due to sibilization of h- caused by the following -i.]

pí 羆  ph- / -i  (the closely related p- onset is also seen in 罷, 擺)

nài 褦  n- / -ai  (the same onset n- is seen in 能)

tài 態  th- / -ai (the same th- onset is seen in 能)

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Year of the tiger in Japan

The tiger is the coming year's representative in the sexagenary cycle, the 60-term cycle of twelve zodiacal animals combined with five elements / phases in the traditional Chinese calendar; currently used in Japan for years, historically also for days; widely applied in Chinese astrology. (source, see also here, here, here, and here)

In Sinitic languages, the 60-year cycle is known as gānzhī 干支 (Sino-Japanese [on'yomi] pronunciation kanshi), i.e., "(calendrical) heavenly / celestial stems and earthly / terrestrial branches".  In Japanese [kun'yomi], 干支 may also be read as "eto", but that is usually written in kana as えと.

I've often wondered about the etymology of the "eto" pronunciation of 干支.  Here is what Wiktionary tells us:

The combination of (え, e; elder brother) and (と, to; younger brother); the original meaning is 兄弟 (brother). Derived from this term, the elder is adopted as "positive" and "heavenly stems", the younger is adopted as "negative" and "earthly branches".

Not sure I can follow all of that, but at least it is something.

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Fierce, ferocious, formidable; awesome, amazing, astonishing

If there's any Mandarin word that I often wish I could use in English, it is "lìhài 厲害 / 厉害" ("intense; fierce; ferocious; formidable; strict; stern; severe; shrewd; sharp; smart; serious [as of an illness]; cruel; terrible; powerful; amazing; fantastic; impressive"), with tones of "awesome" — and many other nuances, implications, and connotations.

Example sentence:

"Zhège rén hěn lìhài 这个人很厉害 / 這個人很厲害" ("This person is great / amazing", and lots of other things, many of them not so flattering, depending on the context).

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Child child child child child child child child child child child child child

Following on the hoofs of "Sumomomomomomomomo" (11/17/21), here's another good one, from rit majors:


(source)

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The linguistic origins and affiliations of Zen

In the fifth comment to "Artistic Sinograph: Buddha" (11/11/21), stephen reeves says he'd like to hear about the origins of Zen.  This has always been one of my favorite topics, so I'm more than happy to tell it.

"Zen" entered the English lexicon already by 1727.  Here's a succinct, serviceable, popular explanation of its derivation:

[Japanese zen, from Early Middle Chinese dʑian, meditation; also the source of Mandarin chán), from Pali jhānaṃ, from Sanskrit dhyānam, from dhyāti, he meditates.]
 
Word History: Zen, a word that evokes the most characteristic and appealing aspects of Japanese culture for many English speakers, is ultimately of Indo-European origin. The Japanese word zen is a borrowing of a medieval Chinese word (now pronounced chán, in modern Mandarin Chinese) meaning "meditation, contemplation." Chán is one of the many Buddhist terms in Chinese that originate in India, the homeland of Buddhism. A monk named Bodhidharma, said to be of Indian origin, introduced Buddhist traditions emphasizing the practice of meditation to China in the 5th century and established Chan Buddhism. From the 7th century onward, elements of Chan Buddhism began to reach Japan, where chán came to be pronounced zen. The Chinese word chán is a shortening* of chán'nǎ "meditation, contemplation" a borrowing [VHM:  transcription] of the Sanskrit term dhyānam. The Sanskrit word is derived from the Sanskrit root dhyā-, dhī-, "to see, observe," and the Indo-European root behind the Sanskrit is *dheiə-, *dhyā-, "to see, look at." This root also shows up in Greek, where *dhyā- developed into sā-, as in the Common Greek noun *sāma, "sign, distinguishing mark." This noun became sēma in Attic Greek and is the source of English semantic.

Source:  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

*The same thing happened with the Chinese transcription of "Buddha", as we saw in the previous post.  The Chinese have a low tolerance for maintaining the full transcriptions of words from other languages, usually shortening them by one or more syllables.]

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Another early Sinitic disyllabic morpheme: "(unopened) lotus blossom"

I take great pleasure in finding morphemes in early Sinitic that are disyllabic, i.e., neither syllable of which means anything by itself, but acquires meaning only in combination with another morpheme to which it is customarily linked.  I have found hundreds of ancient terms composed of such morphemes and have written about many of them on Language Log ("grape", "coral", "lion", "reindeer", "macaque", "earthworm",  "spider", "phoenix", "sinuous, winding", "awkward", "knot", "pimple", "balloon lute", "harp", and so on and so forth).

There are two main reasons why I pay particular attention to such disyllabic morphemes:

1. Their numerousness certifies that early Sinitic was not exclusively monosyllabic (a widespread misconception), if we go by its Sinographic form in the latter part of the first millennium BC.

2. Many of these disyllabic morphemes have cognates (i.e., originate) in non-Sinitic languages (e.g., Iranian, Tocharian), which shows that Sinitic language (and culture) did not develop in isolation, but evolved in close association with other languages and cultures.

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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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