Archive for Language and food

Whole wheat partially

Package on a grocery store shelf:

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Sumerian beer

There is a clear resemblance between the Sumerian and the Chinese glyphs for "beer", both of which depict a jug with a pointed bottom and an extended narrow neck (here, here). It's interesting that the oracle bone forms (second half of second millennium BC) for 酒 all have the three drops of water as a semantophore, whereas the bronze inscriptional forms (first millennium BC) and even some of the seal forms (latter part of the first millennium BC) lack the three dots for liquid, making the character for jiǔ 酒 identical to that for yǒu 酉 ("an ancient vase used in making and storing fermented millet liquors") — for all these forms, see here.

Wanting to investigate more deeply the Sumerian side of the equation, I asked my colleague, Philip Jones, a Sumerologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, for more information about the Sumerian word for beer, kaš.  He replied:

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Old Ukrainian windmills and Old Sinitic reconstructions

VHM somewhere in Ukraine, probably late summer 2002:

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Patty Cake, Patty Cake

The story begins here — "Polished pan cake" (2/20/22) — which shows two dessert items on a menu.  In Chinese, one is described as a guō bing 锅饼 (lit., "pot / pan cake / pie") and the other is called a jiānbing 煎饼 (lit., "fried cake / pie"), two different kinds of bǐng 饼.

In the English translations on the menu, those two different varieties of bǐng 饼 are respectively rendered as simply "cake" and "pan cake".  I won't go into their fillings, since they have more or less been adequately covered in the earlier post.

We have the testimony of Charles Belov who ate one of the latter at the very same restaurant where the menu came from and declared that "pan cake" turned out to be a fried glutinous rice ball partially covered in granulated sugar.  A commenter to the post stated, "My understanding of 饼 was always just 'it means round food'".

I wonder where / how he got that "understanding".

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P.O.S.H. tea in Chicago

From Miffy Zhang Linfei:

I went to Chicago over the weekend, and look what I found in a small European vintage shop named P.O.S.H.

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Fresh bacteria soup

From John Dankowski via Dave Thomas:

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Ginger tea

[This is a guest post by Mark Swofford]

Those who have never lived in northern Taiwan during the winter may scoff at the idea that 11 °C (52 °F) can seem miserably cold. But cold it is here nevertheless, especially during a week of seemingly endless rain.

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Etymologizing and fantasizing: economy and relish

Figuring out the etymologies of words has always been one of my favorite things in life, almost as much as eating flavorful food.  All the way back in second grade of primary school, my Mom gave me a Merriam-Webster dictionary, and I treasured it above all my other belongings because of its etymological notes.  Much later, when The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language became available, I was euphoric, since then I was able to trace words to their Indo-European and Semitic roots.

In between, though, I came up against the pseudo-science of Chinese character etymology, which should better be called "Chinese character construction".  Despite almost universal misunderstanding to the contrary, Chinese characters have no direct connection to the sounds and meanings of words.  If you want to analyze the history of the development of how individual Chinese characters acquired their shapes and sounds, all well and good, but that's a different matter from how the sounds and meanings of Chinese words evolved through time.  Always and ever, I emphasize over and over the primacy of sounds for conveying meaning, the same as with all other living, spoken languages.  The writing systems are only there as a makeshift, always catching up and inevitably imperfect means for recording the sounds of the languages.

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Polished pan cake

From a restaurant menu:

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Black hair and cattle

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Topolectal transcription

Part of a menu in Taiwan:


(Provided by Grace Wu)

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“Who Dey?”

You'll be hearing a lot of that Cincinnati Bengals chant today.

What does it mean?  How did it originate?

To understand the meaning, you have to put it in the context of the whole chant:

"Who dey, who dey, who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals?" Fans then roar: "Nobody!"

So it's a rhetorical question.

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The cattle-keeping Bai of Yunnan

The province of Yunnan in the far south is home to more ethnic minorities and languages than any other part of China (25 out of 56 recognized groups, 38% of the population).  The Bai are one of the more unusual groups among them.


Bai children—in Yunnan, China

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