Archive for Borrowing

Ask Language Log: The Dry / Solitary Tree

From Adrienne Mayor:

I am writing about The Dry Tree or Solitary Tree, associated with Alexander the Great in medieval Alexander Romance and in Marco Polo, who located it in Khorasan.

Later, the Bavarian explorer Johannes Schiltberger trekked across Khorasan in about 1405-25 and reported that the Muslims called the tree “Kurrutherek” or “Sirpe,” meanings unknown.

Do the words ring any bells for you?

Could they be transliterated from Persian, Arabic, Turkic, perhaps phonetically?

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Prince of pronunciation

Many people have the (mis)perception that the French (mis)pronounce all languages with a heavy accent.  It turns out that the gold standard for correct pronunciation of borrowed words is a French gentilhomme /ʒɑ̃.ti.jɔm/.

How to Pronounce the Trickiest English Words: Ask This Frenchman

Millions of Americans, the curious and the insecure, consult Julien Miquel for help with words such as Worcestershire, macabre, and Siobhan

By Joe Pinsker
WSJ, Oct. 30, 2023

Read / listen to this article.  You're in for une gâterie.


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Mental anguish from having too many English words in Japanese

One thing I revel in about the English language is the huge number of loanwords it has:  French, Latin, Greek, Native American, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, Irish, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Maori, Hebrew, Yiddish, Afrikaans, Zulu, Swahili, and so on and on and on.  English has words from more than 350 languages, and they amount to 80% of our total vocabulary. (source)  Not to worry, however, that English will lose its innate identity, since around 70 % of words in a typical text derive from Old English. (source)

I've also long admired Japanese for its rich assemblage of foreign words, perhaps next to English in having the largest proportion of borrowings.  That's quite the opposite of written Sinitic, which has relatively few recognizable foreign words for a major language.  I attribute the difference to Japan having the easy ability to borrow words phonetically via kana and rōmaji ローマ字 ("Roman letters"), whereas the morphosyllabic Sinoglyphic script has not yet developed an officially sanctioned standard for transcribing loanwords directly into Chinese texts.  Informally (on the internet, in private correspondence, etc.), however, writing in China is gradually moving toward a digraphia of Sinoglyphs and the Roman alphabet.  (See the second part of "Selected readings" below.)

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Some Old Chinese terms relating to religion, mythology, ritual

[This is a guest post by Axel Schuessler]

Some Old Chinese (OC) words that relate to religion, mythology and ritual, and words found in ritual literature (Yijing, Liji, Zhouli), have no Sino-Tibetan (ST) roots, but instead have connections with other language families.

    For comparison, the first section of this paper will list (§1) Sino-Tibetan words, i.e., ones with Tibeto-Burman (TB) cognates. Then: (§2) Mon-Khmer words from the state of Chu and mid-Yangtze region. (§3) Miao-Yao (Hmong-Mien) and area words, perhaps also from the mid-Yangtze. (§4) Tai/Kra-Dai items from the Huai River basin. (§5) The Gou-language(s), so called because among its prefixes stands out a conspicuous syllable gou (see Schuessler forthc.). These languages were in prehistoric times spoken from at least Yue in the South in the vicinity of the Coast all the way to Song and Qi. Their connection with known language families is unknown. (§6) The last section is dedicated to the mythological figures Xi and Hé 羲和.

    About the hypothetical early historic locations of these language families, see Schuessler forthc. (“Tigers, and the languages of ancient Chu, Wu, and Yue”). Outside of China, the items under consideration tend to be ordinary, mundane words, but in OC they often acquire a narrow meaning just for ritual use. This identifies them as loans.

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How do you say "polo", "logo", and "erase with Photoshop" in Chinese?

"Hebei official’s shirt logo removed for ‘aesthetic reasons,’ triggering speculation among netizens"

By Global Times (Sep 05, 2023)

Official photos of a city Party chief in North China's Hebei Province, with his shirt's logo removed by editing, have sparked a wide-ranging discussion among Chinese netizens, with some speculating that it was a move to obscure the price of the clothing. 

In an article posted via Nangong city's official WeChat account on Sunday, the official's daily work was released, with one picture of his shirt logo in, followed by another two pictures without shirt logo. Some netizens questioned the reasons why they removed the shirt logo, and some checked the similar coat prices online discovering the high retail price for the item, according to media reports.

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I've always been fond of this pretty, little word, but I seldom use it in my own speech (maybe once every five or ten years), because it seems too triumphant.  This morning, however, after a long, numerical list of steps that some colleagues and I need to take, followed by a conclusion we wished to reach, I just blurted out "Voilà!" and felt good about it.

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"Stooping" in China

I never heard of it in America or Europe (seems to be a quite recent phenomenon — by that name — but see below for the deeper history of the activity).  Apparently it has taken off in China during the last year:

Stooping Takes China by Storm as Zoomers Scour the Streets for Junk

Cash-strapped young Chinese have developed a sudden passion for furnishing their homes with discarded items found on the street. Their parents are horrified.

By Fan Yiying, Sixth Tone (Jul 18, 2023)

Stooping has its roots in New York, where there is a long tradition of people leaving unwanted furniture on the stoops of their apartment buildings. The name “stooping” was coined in 2019 by a couple from Brooklyn, who set up an Instagram account sharing photos and locations of discarded items in the city. The feed — Stooping NYC — has amassed nearly half a million followers.


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Another of those kraftvoll German words that grips you viscerally and won't let you go, like Schadenfreude (memes).  Naturally, you could also say "Eskapismus", "Wirklichkeitsflucht", or "Weltflucht" to get across roughly the same idea, but it just wouldn't have the oomph of Realitätsflucht.

What made me think of "Realitätsflucht" at the present juncture?  This article by john Schindler:

Top U.S. Spies Warn: War with China Looms…And It’s Not Looking Good

The intelligence alarm is pinging Red in the Western Pacific – but is anybody, even the White House, paying attention?

Top Secret Umbra (7/18/23)

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"Throw a photo" in South Florida English

Article by Phillip M. Carter in The Conversation (6/12/23):

"Linguists have identified a new English dialect that’s emerging in South Florida"

Beginning sentences:

“We got down from the car and went inside.”

“I made the line to pay for groceries.”

“He made a party to celebrate his son’s birthday.”

These phrases might sound off to the ears of most English-speaking Americans.

In Miami, however, they’ve become part of the local parlance.

According to my recently published research, these expressions – along with a host of others – form part of a new dialect taking shape in South Florida.

This language variety came about through sustained contact between Spanish and English speakers, particularly when speakers translated directly from Spanish.

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Old Sinitic "wheat" and Early Middle Sinitic "camel"

[This is a guest post by Chris Button]

OC uvulars tended to condition rounding (e.g OC q- becoming EMC kw-). In the case of ʁ-, we sometimes get m- (for a modern-day example, note how惟, which also had a ʁ- onset in Old Chinese, gives an m- reflex in Fuzhou Min). The classic example is 卯, where Pulleyblank once postulated ʁ- and Li Fang-kuei notes lack of evidence for a cluster, such as ml- or mr-, in its Tai loan. Unfortunately Li’s Tai evidence tends to either be ignored (e.g. 丑 hr- is often erroneously reconstructed with a nasal hn- based on misleading xiesheng evidence) or overly literally interpreted (e.g. 戌 χ- being treated as something like sm-).

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"Steak the First"

Enlightening article by Peter Backhaus in The Japan Times (6/9/23):

"Za grammar notes: How to properly handle the 'the' in Japanese"

Japanese seems to be able to assimilate any English word, including the ubiquitous definite article "the", which is unlike anything in Japanese itself.

If there’s something like a Murphy’s Law for syntax, the name of this restaurant near my school is a pretty good example of it. Reading “Steak The First,” it always makes me wonder how these three words came to be aligned in just that order. “The first steak,” “first the steak,” “the steak first” — all of these seem safe for consumption. But “steak the first”?

In order to understand what’s going on here, we need to appreciate the very specific way the little word “the” is used in Japanese, where it is normally pronounced ザ (za). Note that the reading may change to ジ (ji) when the following word starts with a vowel, as in the name of the invincible Japanese rock band The Alfee, which officially reads ジ・アルフィー (ji arufī).

But since Japanese is a language that normally gets along perfectly well without articles, it’s a bit challenging to understand what use it can make of ザ in the first place. Even more puzzling is that, more often than not, ザ shows up in places where English syntax wouldn’t want you to put an article at all.

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Greco-Sinitic ψάμμος / ʃˠa mɑk̚ ("desert")

[This is a guest post by Chau Wu]

The psammo- component of the winning word in this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee, psammophile, is of interest to me because it is a good example of European-Sinitic lexical correspondence. The Ancient Greek word psámmos (ψάμμος) means ‘sand’.  When used together with a definite article (ἡ ψάμμος), it also means ‘the sandy desert’. Examples can be found in Herodotus: ‘the sandy desert’ of Libya (4.173), Ethiopia (3.25), and Egypt (3.26). In Sinitic, ‘sandy desert’ is 沙漠 (MSM shāmò / Tw soa-bô·). From psammos to shāmò, it is easy to see three processes of simplification that may have taken place to transform the Greek loan: simplification of the initial cluster ps- > s-, that of the medial -mm- > -m-, and the loss of the final -s. The simplification of ps- > s- is also seen in Greek derived English words such as psyche, pseudo-, and psalm.

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Chickee cakes

Taken at a restaurant in Hangzhou:

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