Archive for Classification

Aspects of Maltese linguistics

[Full disclosure:  the reason I am so consumed by the Arabic vernaculars is because of their own inherent, intrinsic nature, but I must confess that I'm also preoccupied by their comparative parallelism with the Sinitic "topolects".  The workings of both are extremely difficult to comprehend.]

This post is to follow up on VHM's "Arabic and the vernaculars, part 6" (5/12/24) and Mark's "Maltese Arabic: Correction?" (5/13/24), plus J.W. Brewer's excellent first comment to the latter.

Mark ends his post thus:  "…it seems entirely wrong to exclude Maltese from a taxonomy of Arabic 'colloquials' or 'vernaculars' (i.e. Arabic languages), purely on the grounds of its borrowings from Italian."  I would not want to do that.

To provide for a more nuanced evaluation of the position of Maltese vis-à-vis the Arabic vernaculars, below I cite several scholarly accounts of the subject and related issues.  Extensive coverage of the history of the languages on Malta is provided.

Britannica

Maltese language, Semitic language of the Southern Central group spoken on the island of Malta. Maltese developed from a dialect of Arabic and is closely related to the western Arabic dialects of Algeria and Tunisia. Strongly influenced by the Sicilian language (spoken in Sicily), Maltese is the only form of Arabic to be written in the Latin alphabet."

That's the bare bones.  As we shall find in the following paragraphs, the complexities of Maltese are far greater than can be told in such a capsule description.

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Arabic and the vernaculars, part 6

This post grew out of a comment I was making yesterday to a previous post about a wall at INALCO (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales [National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations]) (established 1669) in Paris that listed the many languages taught at that venerable institution.

As my eyes surveyed the mass of names on the wall, one thing struck me powerfully:  the large number of different Arabic languages.  This raised an interesting question:  common "wisdom" is that there is only one Arabic language, viz., Modern Standard Arabic [MSA], so how come there are so many different Arabic languages taught at INALCO?

Since the Arab vernaculars have been one of our favorite foci here at Language Log (see "Selected readings" below), I was interested to see how many different varieties of Arabic are represented on this wall:

Judéo-Arabe, Moroccan Arabic, Algerian Arabic, Libyan Arabic (but that is MSA), Yemeni Arabic (also MSA, though it is generally considered to be a very conservative dialect cluster), Lebanese Arabic, Palestinian Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, Arabe Littéral (which I take to signify written / literary MSA) in contrast to dialectal Arabic (though I'm not sure how it differs from regular MSA; perhaps it is hyper-conservative to a degree that it it not really "sayable", i.e., "writable but not sayable", cf. "Sayable but not writable" [9/12/13]; i.e., MWA [Modern Written Arabic]?).

I do not include Maltese because of the Romance superstrata, nor do I include Sorabe because that only refers to the script used to write the Austronesian language known as Malagasy, much as the Perso-Arabic script is used to write Sinitic Hui (Muslim) Mandarin.

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The future Sinitic languages of East Asia

Is monolingualism a normal, natural, necessary state of affairs for human beings?

Can you imagine a world in which there were only one language?  How is that even possible?

These are questions that come to mind after reading Gina Anne Tam's deeply thought provoking "Mandarin Hegemony: The Past and Future of Linguistic Hierarchies in China", pulse (4/18/24).

Tam begins with a gripping, hard-hitting scene that we at Language Log were already well aware of last fall:  "Speak Mandarin, not Cantonese, even in Macau" (10/31/23).  Here are the opening paragraphs of her article:

At a concert in Macau in the autumn of 2023, Cantopop superstar Eason Chan used an interlude to talk about his songwriting process. Suddenly, shouts from the audience interrupted his soliloquy, as a few fans demanded that he shift from speaking in his native Cantonese, the majority language in Macau, to Mandarin, the Chinese national language. Chan stopped and quickly launched into a multilingual lecture, reprimanding those who deigned to tell him what to speak. In English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Thai, he defended multilingualism for the freedom it grants: ‘I love speaking in whatever way and language I want’ (Huang 2023).

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The whimsicality of names for Erythrina trees in southeast China

A little over a month ago, People's Daily published an article featuring drone photography of the coastal city of Quanzhou in Fujian Province:

Aerial view of legacies along ancient Maritime Silk Road in China's Fujian Xinhua (12/16/23)

Upon reading the article, I commented:

Journey to the West

Sun Wukong and Hanuman

This article is especially significant for many reasons, and is personally poignant for me because of its prominent coverage of the magnificent stone pagodas at the Kaiyuan temple in Quanzhou.  It was here that, among other important material, I found visual evidence for a connection between the monkey king, Sun Wukong, in the famous Ming novel, Journey to the West, and the simian hero, Hanuman, in the Indian epic, Ramayana.

If you do a google search on      kaiyuan pagoda quanzhou victor mair    (no quotation marks)   you will find many references to what I discovered.

The article also affords ample coverage of the architectural wonders (bridges, houses, city gates, residential areas, canals, etc.) of Quanzhou and other cities of the region. 

I wish to make a special note of the Hindu associations of the Kaiyuan temple, which help to explain and underscore the appearance of Hanuman and other Indian iconography on its famous stone pagodas.

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"Sheep-dog", spindle whorls, and meditation

Some people call it a "woolly dog", but that's more a description of what it's like.  That's not its name.  And it's not a "sheepdog" or "sheep dog", like a border collie.

Before I go any further into the nomenclature of canines, I want to recognize that they're all the same species:  Canis lupus familiaris.  No matter what their size, shape, coloration, or behavior, from the chihuahua to the great dane, they are all the same species:  Canis lupus familiaris.  It's only their breed that is different.  That is to say, they are bred to enhance different characteristics and to emphasize diverse traits.

Conversely, there are thousands of different species of birds.  It has always puzzled me why there is only one species of dog, but thousands of species of birds (upwards of 10,000), but I'm sure that somebody on Language Log will have the precise answer.  Is it that dogs are selectively bred by humans, whereas birds do their own thing?

The dog I'm talking about here — although extinct now — was raised for thousands of years for its wool!  It was carefully kept apart from other types of dogs to enhance its wool-bearing capability.  Like a sheep.  That's why I like to call it a sheep-dog, albeit somewhat jocularly.  It's a dog, but it has the wool producing characteristics of a sheep.

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Sumerian and Sinitic

This amounts to an afterword to this post:  "Hype over AI and Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic" (11/9/23)

Four decades ago, when I was trying to determine what type of language Sinitic was (synthetic, analytic, inflected, isolating, agglutinative, fusional, polysynthetic, etc.), from a survey of all the world's languages that I could get a grasp of, I came across Sumerian, which seemed to have many features that were similar to Sinitic, so I decided to look into that a bit more deeply.

Fortunately, I discovered this excellent book, which had just come out around that time:

Marie-Louise Thomsen, The Sumerian Language: An Introduction to Its History and Grammatical Structure (Mesopotamia Copenhagen Studies in Assyriology, Volume 10) (Akademisk Forlag, 1984).

In it, she said,  "…the study of the Sumerian language is not easy: the meaning of many words and grammatical elements is far from evident, the writing is defective…".  She also declared, "The orthography of the Old Sumerian texts is rather defective."

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A new Indo-European language

Many LL readers are familiar with the archeological site of Boğazköy-Hattusha in north-central Turkey, which was the capital of the Hittite Empire and the place where the Hittite Royal Archives (17th-13th c. BC) were discovered, making it the oldest historically attested Indo-European language (scattered Hittite words in Akkadian documents stretch back to the 20th c. BC).

"New Indo-European Language Discovered"

Presse- und Öffentlichkeitsarbeit der Uni Würzburg (09/21/2023)

"New Indo-European Language Discovered during Excavation in Turkey." PhysOrg, September 21, 2023

Includes an aerial photograph of the excavation site with the following caption:  "At this excavation site at the foot of Ambarlikaya in Boğazköy-Hattusha in Turkey, a cuneiform tablet with a previously unknown Indo-European language was discovered. (Image: Andreas Schachner / Deutsches Archäologisches Institut)"

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The spiny terminological conundrum of ekhidna and ekhinos

[This is a guest post by Stewart Nicol]

Greek particles

I am a zoologist and comparative physiologist who has worked extensively on the monotremes, the platypus and the echidna. I have been putting together some notes on the naming of the these animals. After originally being placed in the genus Myrmecophaga with the other, totally unrelated, anteaters, the echidna was given the specific name Myrmecophaga aculeata (prickly anteater) by George Shaw in 1792.  It was named Echidna histrix by Georges Cuvier, misspelling Hystrix (Greek for porcupine). In 1811 Johann Illiger published an overhaul of the Linnaean system and replaced Cuvier’s genus name Echidna with Tachylossus (fast tongue) making the full binomial Tachyglossus aculeatus. The Genus name Echidna would have had priority but it had previously been applied to a genus of Moray eels, so the echidna became Tachyglossus aculeatus, but popularly known as the echidnaCuvier doesn’t say why he used the name echidna, but the general assumption is that it alludes to a monster in Greek mythology , ἔχιδνα or ekhidna, half woman (mammal) and half snake (reptile), because the echidna was believed to combine characteristics of reptiles and mammals. Unfortunately, the word ekhidna is very similar to the ekhinos (ἐχῖνος) which is the Ancient Greek word for hedgehog, and appears in the names echinoderm and echinacea because they have spines, giving rise to the misapprehension that the name echidna means spiny.

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How Many Languages Are There in China?

At least three hundred.

I like the title, not the one on the first panel, but the one at the top of each frame, which I have also given as the title of this post.

You probably don't have time to watch the whole video (13:54), but it's pretty good:

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The Complexities of Eastern Slavic

After reading this post — "Ukrainian at the edge" (10/30/22) — Peter B. Golden appended the following comment to it:

A few notes: krai (край) means "edge, border" and "territory, land, country" in Russian as well. There are numerous overlaps in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian – and a number of "false friends.” All three languages derive from Eastern Slavic, the language of the Kyivan Rus' state (Novogorod, in what is now northwest Russia was the second city of that state). The literary language of Kyivan Rus’ was heavily influenced by Church Slavonic and with slight variants remained the literary language of the Eastern Slavs in the aftermath of the Mongol conquest as well as the Lithuanian and Polish takeover of what became Belarus’ and parts (western) of what became Ukraine. The Old Belarusian/Rus' language became the primary written language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Texts in those languages are mutually intelligible, indeed, barely differentiated. It was the shattering of an already fragmenting Kyivan Rus' state produced by the Mongol conquest and the Lithuanian and Polish gobbling up of those lands that the Mongols did not take, that over time produced three distinct peoples: Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. Dialect divisions were already apparent in the Kyivan period and a number of scholars have argued for the existence even then of "Old Ukrainian" etc. Some of the dialect divisions cross "borders." The dialect associated with the Chernihiv (Chernigov) principality of Kyivan Rus', now in Ukraine, extends into Belarus'. The dialect of Chernobyl' (of sad fame) in Ukraine is virtually identical to the dialect of the area of Rogachov, Belarus. I know this from personal observation. The career of Feofan Prokopovich/ Prokopovych, d. 1736 who moved easily between Moscow and Kiev (and other places) and helped to shape the modern Russian literary language is typical of more than a few who are called "Ukrainian" or "Russian" depending on the stance that one takes. Ahatanhel Krymsky of Crimean Tatar (paternal) and Polish (maternal) origin, became one of the leading Ukrainian Turkologists-Orientalists was not an ethnic Ukrainian, but identified as Ukrainian – and was ultimately accused of Ukrainian nationalism (1941) by the Soviet government and died in exile in Kazakhstan in 1942. More than a few families in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus’ have branches in all three areas (mine does). Yes, today, Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian are separate and distinct languages and their speakers take national identities accordingly…but not always what one would expect. National identity, so often the case, had to be taught or situationally adopted. In the pre-Soviet era there was much movement between Belarus’ and Ukraine. Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus’, has a typical Ukrainian last name and is vaguely aware of distant Ukrainian origins…and is much more at home speaking in Russian than in Belarusian. He is far from unique.

Putin is a KGB thug and now a war-criminal with a Soviet elementary school understanding of Russian history and of the peoples that comprised the Soviet Empire for which he has such nostalgia (shared by some older Russians). If you are interested in serious studies of the formation of the Ukrainians (and Belarusians) read the works of Serhiy Plokhy.

[Not long thereafter, Peter wrote to me saying that he "was just getting warmed up :)" and sent me the following, which, with his permission, I'm making into a guest post:.]

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Ukrainian at the edge

The war drags on, and once again one wonders how different Ukraine is from Russia, Ukrainian from Russian.  This superb article will help us get a handle on what the issues at stake are:

"A short history of language in Ukraine"

Norman Davies, Spectator (2 October 2022)

The article is so richly illuminating and timely that it deserves to be quoted in extenso:

After six months of war in Ukraine, most observers agree that the roots of Russian aggression lie in the country’s deep-rooted attitudes to culture and history. In line with Russia’s nationalist traditions, Putin denies any place for a separate Ukrainian identity.

The Ukrainians, in contrast, see themselves as a proud nation with their own history, culture, centuries long struggle for independence, and, of course, language. And while Ukrainian has been dismissed as a dialect of Russian in Moscow, it in fact has a long history – and is very much a language in its own right.

That independence can be seen in the genesis of the word ‘Ukraine’ itself. In most Slavonic languages, the letter ‘U’ – and written in Cyrillic as У – is a preposition of location; according to context it can be translated as ‘in’, ’on’ ‘at’ or ‘near’, and it is followed by nouns in the genitive case. In Ukrainian, the word Kray means ‘edge’ (although in Russian it means ‘land’ or ‘country’). So ‘U Krayu’ stands for ‘At the Edge’, and Ukraina for ‘the Land on the Edge’ or ‘Borderland’. It is very similar to the American idea of the ‘Frontier’.

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Is Korean diverging into two languages?, part 2

To make sense of the story that follows, one must understand that the Korean word "agassi 아가씨" used to refer to a young lady from the upper class, but now in North Korea means “slave of feudal society” and has a very negative connotation there.

"Hidden meaning of Korean term 'agassi' leads to murder", by Choi Jae-hee, The Korea Herald (5/3/22)

Because the linguistic psychology that lies behind the tragic crime recounted in this article is intricate and subtle, it is necessary to recount it at some length:

An error in a mobile translation application recently prompted a 35-year-old Chinese man in Jeongeup, North Jeolla Province, to murder a Korean resident.

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Heavy Velar vs Meager Bilabial Articulations in Xiongnu Language

[This is a guest post by Penglin Wang]

            The great difficulties we have with trying to study Xiongnu language persist from trying to glean Xiongnu words, especially the glossed ones, in early Chinese sources for comparison in order to know what linguistic affiliation it seems to have in the central Eurasian region. Since these difficulties cannot be overcome at all owing to its extinct status a millennium plus ago, an alternative approach could be to recognize that there are different components of language regardless of living or extinct and attempt to observe how different components can differ from one another yet still be entities that most researchers would want to treat as linguistic data or facts rather than imaginations for a comparative purpose. It could then be possible to open up a window to contribute to a solution of some classic problems in Altaic comparative studies. One such attempt is to examine the available Xiongnu words from the perspectives of articulatory phonetics and phonotactics. Concern for these is characteristic of Xiongnu studies. Pulleyblank (1962:242) has insightfully observed “only *b- initially, never *p-” in the Xiongnu transcriptions.

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