Archive for Classification

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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Cantonese is not the mother tongue of Hong Kongers, part 2

Half a day after the first part of this series, "Cantonese is not the mother tongue of Hong Kongers" (5/4/18), was posted, someone unhelpfully and snarkily asked, "…but are we sure he used the English word 'dialect'?"

That's not the point.

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Mighty Maithili, monstrous Mandarin

In case you're in need of some intensely elegiac and panegyric reading material, this lovely volume just might fit the bill:

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Tangut workshop at Yale

On the weekend of January 19-20, 2018, there was a Tangut Workshop at Yale University.  Organized by Valerie Hansen and sponsored by the Yale Council of East Asian Studies, this was an intense, exciting learning experience for the 35 or so people who were in the room most of the time.

Many readers may be scratching their heads and asking, "Tangut?  What's that?  And why should we at Language Log be concerned with it?"

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Varieties of Mandarin

Speakers of Northeastern / Dongbei topolect and Putonghua (Modern Standard Mandarin) speaking very common equivalent expressions and holding up cards with the written forms of what they are saying:

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Sinitic is a group of languages, not a single language

Pro-Cantonese sign in Hong Kong:


A man holds a sign professing his love for Cantonese as he attends a Hong Kong rally in 2010 against mainland China's bid to champion Mandarin over Cantonese. Picture: AFP

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Plum > apricot and wine > brew: the language of poetry and painting

[This is a follow up to "Preserved wife plum" (7/12/17), after which there ensued a vigorous and enlightening discussion on the terminology for plums, apricots, pastries, and so forth.]

My wife was born in Shandong in 1936, but fled from the Japanese with her family to Sichuan before she was one year old, and she spent the next eleven years of her life in Sichuan, before fleeing once again with her family, this time from the Chinese Communists, to Taiwan.

One of the last things Li-ching did before passing away in 2010 was write her childhood memoirs in Hanyu Pinyin (see here, here [three items], and here).  At this moment, I do not recall if she mentioned it in her memoirs, but one of her fondest recollections of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan where she and her family lived (it was also the wartime capital of the Republic of China — now on Taiwan) was the làméi 臘梅 / 腊梅 (Chimonanthus fragrans / praecox).  In English, the làméi 臘梅 is referred to as wintersweet, Japanese allspice (despite the attractive name, it is not edible), calyx canthus, and mistakenly — but still quite commonly — as "wax plum" (look it up on Google Images under this name for pretty pictures of the blossoms).   In Japanese this plant is called rōbai 蝋梅, although it used to be written 臘梅 and 蠟梅 (nowadays it is normally written in kana alone:  ろうばい · ロウバイ).

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