Archive for Language and art

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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Mother's tongue

[This is a guest post by Chips Mackinolty.]

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Faux Manchu: Ornamental Manchu II

[This is a guest post by Jichang Lulu]

In “Ornamental Manchu: the lengths to which a forger will go” (LL, April 24), Professor Mair discussed a handscroll with faux-Manchu inscriptions. Although the writing clearly imitated Manchu, the imitation was so liberal and the forger so unfamiliar with the Manchu script that hardly any word was intelligible even to eminent Manjurists consulted for the post.

As a non-Manjurist, I found the text only more puzzling, but was able to identify its model by comparing a a conjectural reading of a non-recurring word in it to a published text of a Manchu translation of the Heart Sutra (Fuchs, Die mandjurischen Druckausgaben des Hsin-ching (Hṛdayasūtra) (non legi), transcribed in Hurvitz, “Two polyglot recensions of the Heart Scripture”, J Indian Philos 3:1/2 (1975)). That guess I shared in a comment embedded in the post, elaborated under it with the likely source text. That presumably settled the question, but, with the source given in transliteration only, didn’t make it any easier to appreciate the hilarious cavalierness of the copy without an ability to mentally untransliterate it back into the Manchu script.

Professor Kicengge has now compared the text to a Manchu-script rendition of the sutra and composed an image that juxtaposes the copy to its model. The juxtaposition verifies the identification of the source text: not only does the text (very roughly) match, so does its division into columns.


The handscroll’s faux Manchu and its model, juxtaposed. Supplied by Kicengge.

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The vocabulary of traditional Chinese thought and culture

I recently got hold of an electronic copy of this book:

Zhōngguó chuántǒng wénhuà guānjiàn cí (Hàn Yīng duìzhào) 中国传统文化关键词(汉英对照) (Key Terms of Traditional Chinese Culture / Key Concepts in Chinese Culture [original English title] [Chinese-English])

Beijing:  Wàiyǔ jiàoxué yǔ yánjiū chūbǎn shè 2019 外语教学与研究出版社 2019 (Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 2019)

Here is a one-drive link to the whole book.

It has been scanned by OCR, so the entire contents can be searched by simplified Chinese characters, but accuracy is not guaranteed.

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Ornamental Manchu: the lengths to which a forger will go

An anonymous collector recently sent me photographs of a handscroll featuring eight manifestations of Guanyin (Skt. Avalokiteśvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion painted on silk, circa 1940s.  A striking feature of this handscroll is that each painting of one of the manifestations is accompanied by a vertical Manchu inscription on the upper right side.  The Manchu writing looks genuine, but it has some characteristics that give one pause.  The paintings also have some aspects that are disquieting.  In this post, l will reproduce only the first and last paintings, but will also provide some other illustrations for comparative purposes.

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Zoroastrianism and Mazdaism: Evidence from Sogdian and Pahlavi

Since we've been having, and will continue to have, a series of posts on Zoroastrianism and related topics, this is a good opportunity to review a recent, substantial publication related to this subject:

Barakatullo Ashurov, "Religions and Religious Space in Sogdian Culture: A View from Archaeological and Written Sources", Sino-Platonic Papers, 306 (December, 2020), 1-41. (free pdf)

[The following is a guest post by Richard Foltz in reaction to the above paper.]

I cannot understand why scholars (and others) insist upon talking about Sogdian "Zoroastrianism", even while presenting evidence that usually suggests it was something else. Ashurov goes so far as to call it the "national religion" of the Sogdians, despite noting that they had no supreme deity such as Ahura Mazda. The term "mazdayasnish zarathushtrish", used as the self-identification in the Pahlavi texts, means literally "[we who] sacrifice to Mazda [in the manner prescribed by] Zarathushtra". So if a religion doesn't demonstrably consist of performing sacrifices to Mazda by following the liturgical prescriptions of Zarathushtra, then what is the basis for calling that religion Zoroastrianism? The Sogdian Ashem Vohu prayer discussed at length by Ashurov could indeed seem to provide evidence of the presence of a Zoroastrian rite among the Sogdians, but this isolated example can hardly justify calling Zoroastrianism the Sogdians' "national religion". We don't know the context for this prayer, whether it was part of a full Sogdian liturgy (which we do not possess), or represents an attempt by Sasanian missionaries to impose their form of religion on Sogdiana, or (as Gershevitch suggested) was part of a Manichaean text. Meanwhile the bulk of textual, iconographic and architectural relics from Sogdiana show devotional practices which were either their own particular expressions of pan-Iranian religiosity (Siyavash, Nana/Anahita) or — the cult of Vakhsh, for example — entirely local in nature.

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The (alleged) untranslatability of Chinese poetry, part 2

[This is a guest post by Leanne Ogasawara]

After reviewing David Hinton’s latest book, China Root, for the Asian Review of Books, a friend pointed me to this discussion at LL. I was so happy to see old friends (Hi Bathrobe!) and wanted to leave a comment. Sadly, because I was so late in the game, I was unable to do so. But then, our wonderful host invited me to leave my comment as a guest post—thank you VM!!

I am a Japanese translator and an old friend of LL. For twenty years now I have been working on one particular modern Japanese poet, Takamura Kotaro. I started my translations of his Chieko Poems in Grad school and have been steadily working on them ever since, publishing a few here and there over the years. I would never have continued this if I thought Japanese poetry is untranslatable. And indeed like so like many people here, the article on the NYRBs drove me up the wall. Part of the problem is that it leads to discussions like we saw on the blog on September 26—discussions which inevitably started revolving around a bit of a straw man, since no one reasonable has ever said that Chinese poetry is “untranslatable." What people say is that something will be lost. And how much? This is the “traitor” in translation. And it is a valid thing to ask in English translations in a language like Japanese or Chinese. In this case, the writers mentioned in the article— Eliot Weinberger, Lucas Klein, Burton Watson, Stephen Owen, and David Hinton, among others— are concerned with the Chinese characters. And in Japanese this is further complicated by the choices authors make in using kanji as opposed to hiragana and katakana—how to ever convey that in English?

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Trefoils across Eurasia: the importance of archeology for historical linguistics, part 4

Hour-long video:  "A Sacred Emblem: Trefoil in Early Korean Metalwork and Beyond":

October 8, 2020 – Trefoil or “three-leaved plant” is a stylized form found in artifacts and architecture across culture and time. Dr. Minjee Kim begins the story with her first encounter with a gold headdress ornament of the Balhae kingdom (698-926) and traces the migration of its trefoil form throughout the 4th-6th century across Asia. Then, she travels to France, where “fleur-de-lis” adorned French crowns, clothing, textiles, and furniture as a symbol of royalty, leading to its wide contemporary appropriation by many Western institutions. The journey ends with the long and rich tradition in Kyrgyzstan where the motif is still strongly embedded in various realms of material culture of the people. While offering a view on Korean artifacts within a wider context of material resonance in human history, Dr. Kim highlights the way these artifacts adorned the body and how the craftsmanship was employed to articulate the social hierarchy.

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Headless men with face on chest

The hapless condition of headlessness may be a physical phenomenon, but it may also be a grammatical or orthographic category in linguistics, and we have dealt with both kinds on Language Log, e.g.:

Now, what shall we make of the following?

Xingtian as drawn by Jiang Yinghao, 17th century; there are many different versions of this figure, but all basically with the same features and pose.

One of the Blemmyes, from a map of 1566 by Guillaume Le Testu. Among the scores of Blemmye representations I've seen, they're all roughly of this nature.

Both figures are pictured on a flat space amidst mountainous terrain.  Both have a weapon in their right hand and a shield / pail in their left hand.  Both have their right leg raised / advanced.  Both have their face on their chest and lack a head.  Etc.  I doubt very much that they could have arisen completely independently.

The Blemmye is associated with the word Scythe, an Iranian people who traversed the vast lands between Crimea and Korea.  More than any other group in the first millennium BC, which was so crucial for transeurasian exchange during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, the Scythians were responsible for the transmission of cultural products across Eurasia.  This was due to their mastery of horse riding, advanced weaponry, and organizational and mental prowess.

This fits with the paradigm of long distance transmission of culture and language that I've been developing for decades in scores of posts, articles, and books.

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National Security Law eclipses Hong Kong

What the people of the former British colony dread:

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Hong Kong: language, art, and resistance

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"Andy's chest"

Notice the button on Andy Warhol's jacket:

Source:  The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 4 (Paintings and Sculptures Late 1974-1976).

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Winnie the Flu

Tweet from Joshua Wong 黃之鋒, Secretary-General of Demosistō:

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