Archive for Classification

Sinitic topolects

Tweet by Chenchen Zhang:

For Hmong-Mien and Tai-Kadai languages, follow the thread.

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Another Northeastern topolectal term without specified characters to write it

Yesterday Diana Shuheng Zhang and I went to a Trader Joe's and saw some pretty, gleaming yellow berries for sale.  Diana was delighted because it reminded her of the same type of berries she used to eat when she was back home in the Northeast of China.

I asked her what they were called in Northeast topolect (Dōngběi huà 东北话).  Her answer both intrigued and amused me:

They are called gu1niao3 or gu1niang3; either way is fine and either way is used by many people interchangeably. Even for myself, I sometimes say the first one, sometimes the second one, depends on… well, randomly. Haha!
 
Then the inevitable question:  how do you write gu1niao3 and gu1niang3 in characters?

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Some citrus terms in Sinitic: today and in the past

From the time I started learning Chinese more than half a century ago, I had a hard time lining up the many Chinese terms for different types of citrus with the corresponding words in English.   For example, I always wanted to call oranges "júzi 橘子", but it is technically (botanically) more correct to call them "chéngzi 橙子".  As for what júzi 橘子 should be called in English, they are, well, "mandarins" or "mandarin oranges".  Ahem!  As L said in this comment several years ago, "…in NZ, any small, peelable orange is a mandarin! And would never be considered an orange."  (From "Really?!" [12/27/16]).

Then there are tangerines, clementines (cuties), and satsumas, just among closely related varieties of citrus fruits, and I won't begin to get into grapefruit, pomelo, yuzu, citron, bergamot, kumquat, tangelo, kabosu, orangelo, hyuganatsu, rangpur, sudachi, kawachi bankan, etc., etc., and dozens of other types.  My old friend, the late Elling Eide (1935-2012), a specialist on Li Bo (701-762) had a grove on his estate in Sarasota, Florida where he cultivated about fifty different types of citrus fruits.  What a joy it was to walk through the grove and sample tree-ripened mandarins, tangerines, clementines, grapefruits, pomelos, and all manner of other citrus to satiety!

Be it should be noted that Elling could have all that richness of citrus because Sarasota has a humid subtropical climate bordering a tropical savanna climate, with an average of only one frost per year and rarely drops below freezing (which nonetheless always concerned Elling greatly).

But now we must turn to the main thrust of this post, which is a discussion of the etymology of gān 柑, another name for mandarin(e) (orange), often appearing in the disyllabic form gānjú 柑桔, which includes several closely related subspecies.

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COVID-19 testing: a warning

Everyone is talking about the importance of more extensive COVID-19 testing in determining who is infected, and (eventually) who has been infected.

But nearly all the discussion that I've heard and read has been based on the assumption that the relevant tests are accurate.  And this assumption is false — the available tests for this condition seem to be even less accurate than medical tests generally are. Thus Saurabh Jha, "False Negative: COVID-19 Testing's Catch-22", Medpage Today 3/31/2020:

In a physician WhatsApp group, a doctor posted he had a fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit and muscle ache, gently confessing that it felt like his typical "man flu" which heals with rest and scotch. He worried that he had coronavirus. When the reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) for the virus on his nasal swab came back negative, he jubilantly announced his relief.

Like Twitter, in WhatsApp, emotions quickly outstrip facts. After he received a flurry of cheerful emojis, I ruined the party, advising that despite the negative test, he assumes he's infected and quarantine for two weeks, with a bottle of scotch.

It's believed that the secret sauce to fighting the pandemic is testing for the virus. The depth of the response will be different if 25% of the population is infected than 1%. Testing is the third way, rejecting the choice between death and economic depression. Without testing, strategy is faith-based. But what'll you do differently if the test is negative?

That depends on the test's performance and the consequences of being wrong. Though coronavirus damages the lungs with reckless abandon, it's oddly a shy virus. The Chinese ophthalmologist who originally sounded the alarm about coronavirus, Li Wenliang, had several negative tests. He died from the infection.

In one study, RT-PCR's sensitivity – that's the percentage of infected testing positive – was 70%. Of 1,000 with coronavirus, 700 test positive but 300 test negative.

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Seke, an endangered language of Nepal, in Flatbush, Brooklyn

As a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal (1965-67), I have a particular interest in all things Nepalese, especially language.  Now comes report of a spectacular linguistic phenomenon related to Nepal, and it is situated less than a hundred miles from where I'm sitting in Philadelphia.

"Just 700 Speak This Language (50 in the Same Brooklyn Building):  Seke, one of the world’s rarest languages, is spoken by about 100 people in New York", by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, NYT (1/7/20):

The apartment building, in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, is a hive of nationalities. A Pakistani woman entered the elevator on a recent afternoon with a big bag of groceries, flicking a dupatta over her shoulder as a Nepalese nurse and the janitor, a man from Jamaica there to mop up a spill, followed her in.

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Living fossils: Taiwan tea and salmon

Two articles in Chinese (here and here) recently brought news of an indigenous type of tea and referred to it as a rare type of salmon.  Trying to figure that out led to two linguistic puzzles:

1. Making sense of the unusual name for the salmon:  yīnghuā gōu wěn guī 櫻花鉤吻鮭 (lit., "cherry-hook-kiss / mouth-salmon"; i.e., the Formosan landlocked salmon).

2. Understanding how, even metaphorically, a kind of tea would be referred to as a type of salmon.

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Gomphocarpus physocarpus

Here's what it looks like (click to embiggen for necessary detail):

Photograph by Yixue Yang, who gave it the name "spiked lantern".

Quiz:  before going to the next page, please give it whatever name you think is most appropriate, based on its shape or whatever other attributes you can glean from the photograph.

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“Tocharian C” Again: The Plot Thickens and the Mystery Deepens

[This is a guest post by Douglas Q. Adams]

Readers of this blog may remember the excitement generated a few months ago by the announcement that “Tocharian C,” the native language of Kroraina (Chinese Loulan) had been discovered, hiding, as it were, in certain documents written in the Kharoṣṭhī script ("Tocharian C: its discovery and implications" [4/2/19]). Those documents, with transcription, grammatical sketch, and glossary, were published earlier this year as a part of Klaus T. Schmidt’s Nachlass (Stefan Zimmer, editor, Hampen in Bremen, publisher).  However, on the weekend of September 15th and 16th a group of distinguished Tocharianists (led by Georges Pinault and Michaël Peyrot), accompanied by at least one specialist in Central Asian Iranian languages, languages normally written in Kharoṣṭhī, met in Leiden to examine the texts and Schmidt’s transcriptions.  The result is disappointing, saddening even.  In Peyrot’s words, “not one word is transcribed correctly.”  We await a full report of the “Leiden Group” with a more accurate transcription and linguistic commentary (for instance, is this an already known Iranian or Indic language, or do the texts represent more than one language, one of which might be a Tocharian language?). Producing such a report is a tall order and we may not have it for some little time.  But, at the very least, Schmidt’s “Tocharian C,” as it stands, has been removed from the plane of real languages and moved to some linguistic parallel universe.

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A quantum leap in the Chinese toilet revolution

A friend was visiting in Lijiang, Yunnan Province (southwestern China) earlier this week.  She stayed in Yuhu 玉湖 village where Joseph Rock (1884-1962; the famous Austrian-American explorer, geographer, linguist, and botanist) lived nearly a century ago at the foot of Yulong 玉龙 Mountain.  The area around Lijiang has become a famous tourist destination, not only for the beauty of its natural scenery, but for the richness of its local culture (more about that below).  While in Lijiang, my friend was surprised to come upon signs for unisex toilets:

Here is some signage for such toilets in China:

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Tocharian C: its discovery and implications

[This is a guest post by Douglas Q. Adams]

For over a hundred years now linguists have known of a small Indo-European family comprised of two closely related languages, Tocharian A and Tocharian B, in the Tarim Basin of eastern Central Asia (Chinese Xinjiang). Tocharian B speakers occupied the northern edge of the Tarim Basin, north of the Tarim River, from its origin at the confluence of the Kashgar and Yarkand rivers eastward to about the halfway point to the Tarim’s disappearance into Lop Nor. Politically Tocharian B speakers were certainly the major constituent of the population of the kingdom of Kucha and natively they called the language (in its English form) Kuchean. To the east-north-east, in the Karashahr Basin, were speakers of Tocharian A, centered around Yanqi (Uighur Karashahr, Sanskrit Agni). On the basis of the Sanskrit name this language is sometimes referred to as Agnean, though we do not have any direct or conclusive evidence as to what the speakers themselves called it. To the east-south-east of Kuqa, along the lower Tarim was the historic kingdom of Kroraina (Chinese Loulan < Han Chinese *glu-glân). The administrative language of Loulan was Gandhari Prakrit, obviously imported into the Tarim Basin along with Buddhism from northwestern India. In documents of the Loulan variety of Gandhari Prakrit are non-Gandhari words that have been attributed to the native language of the area. Some of those non-Gandhari words look like Tocharian (e.g., kilme ‘region’ beside TchB kälymiye ‘direction’) and it has seemed a reasonable hypothesis that the native language of Kroraina/Loulan was another Tocharian language, “Tocharian C.” (That the native language of Loulan was Tocharian was first suggested by Thomas Burrow in his The Language of the Kharoṣṭhī Documents from Chinese Turkestan, 1937.) This is a reasonable hypothesis, for which the evidence is admittedly meager, and many have been (reasonably) dubious or unconvinced.

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Ubykh: requiem and revival

I begin with an e-mail from Martin Schwartz, sent to me on 3/14/16:

Last September in Istanbul a fair-haired academic there, a colleague of my wife, said she is of Çerkes background, and went on to say a relative of hers was the last Ubykh speaker.  Dumêzil had been to her family's home, grouchy that there were apparently no Ubykh speakers to be found, when the Ubykh speaker knocked on the door….

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An army and navy

See, I didn't even quote the whole quip, and you already knew that this post is about Max Weinreich's ubiquitous saying:  "A language is a dialect with an army and navy".  It may well be the most frequently invoked formula in all of linguistics.  Readers of Language Log are certainly no strangers to it, since we've written a number of posts that are about the adage or mention it prominently (see Readings below), and it is often cited in the comments, even when there is no conceivable rhyme or reason for doing so.

Actually, it wasn't Max Weinreich (1894-1969), a specialist in sociolinguistics and Yiddish, who dreamed up the army-navy quip, but — by his own testimony — someone who attended a series of his lectures and mentioned it to him after one of them.  Subsequently, however, Weinreich did make a point of popularizing the saying, so it is not entirely wrong to associate it with him.

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On the propinquity of Vietnamese and Sinitic

Several comments to this post raised the issue of the closeness of Vietnamese and Cantonese:

"Cantonese is not the mother tongue of Hong Kongers" (5/4/18)

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