Archive for Language and biology

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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Year of the muroid

Many people have asked me, should it really be the lunar new year of the rat?  Such a disgusting creature!  Or should it be the year of the mouse?  Although we do our best to trap them and otherwise keep them out of our living spaces, mice are much cuter than rats, and some people even have special mice as pets, plus there are folk tales and songs and proverbs about adorable little mice, and who doesn't love Mickey and Minnie?

In contrast, in lore and literature, rats are invariably cast as tricky at best and villainous, criminal types at worst.

So, if I had to choose between Year of the Rat and Year of the Mouse, I would definitely pick Year of the Mouse.  Alas, most people choose otherwise (I know not why):

Year of the Rat — 44,000,000 ghits

Year of the Mouse — 6,300,000 ghits

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Sino-Semitica: of gourds, cassia, and hemp and Old Sinitic reconstructions

In a personal communication, Chris Button recently reminded me that I had once (more than two decades ago) written about the possible relationship between Semitic and Sinitic words for "gourd":

You might remember a while back I was asking you about your Southern Bottle Gourd Myths paper.

Recently, I've been working a little more on the 瓜 series in my dictionary and have ended up with it as an etymological isolate (bar the obvious relationship with 壺). So, I started looking for an external origin. Your note on the Arabic form qarʿa jumped out at me as being strikingly similar to my reconstruction of 瓜 as qráɣ and very supportive of the areal associations you outline in the paper.

That would add to the other two Semitic loanwords 麻* and 桂** here.

The merger of *-r with *-l in Old Chinese means 麻 *mrál could have gone back to an earlier 麻 *mrár which then aligns very nicely with the Semitic source to support Prof. Mair's suggestion.

We already have a precedent for a borrowing of this nature in 桂 *qájs "cinnamon, cassia" which could regularly go back to *qjáts and is likely associated with Hebrew qetsia "cassia

source of last two ¶s

[VHM:  *má ("hemp")]

[VHM:  **guì ("cinnamon, cassia")]

I had an old, learned German friend named Elfriede Regina (Kezia) Knauer (1926-2010) who was very much aware of the Semitic origins of her nickname and often asked me about its Sinitic parallels (see here, here, here, here, and here).  Hebrew קְצִיעָה‎ ("cassia tree"). Compare cassia. From Latin cassia ("cinnamon"), from Ancient Greek κασσία, κασία, κάσια (kassía, kasía, kásia), from Hebrew קְצִיעָה‎ (qəṣīʿā), from Aramaic קְצִיעֲתָא‎ (qəṣīʿătā), from קְצַע‎ (qṣaʿ, "to cut off") (source).

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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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Bear words

In "Dynamic stew" (10/24/13) and the comments thereto, we had a vigorous discussion of words for "bear" in Korean, Sinitic, Tibetan, and Japanese,  And now Diana Shuheng Zhang has written a densely philological study on "Three Ancient Words for Bear," Sino-Platonic Papers, 294 (November, 2019), 21 pages (free pdf).

Let's start with the basic word for "bear" in Sinitic:  xióng (MSM) 熊.

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Mare, mǎ ("horse"), etc.

[This is a guest post by Robert Hymes]

I just happened to be reading your Language Log post from April, "Of horseriding and Old Sinitic reconstructions." I too have always been sympathetic to the possibility of a mare-馬 connection, which I've tended to assume would have happened through a Chinese borrowing from Indo-European either directly or mediatedly, though as you point out the problem of the "mare" root's presence in only Germanic and Celtic is, well, a problem.

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Some Mongolian words for "horse"

This is a follow-up post to "'Horse' and 'language' in Korean" (10/30/19).  The two main words for "horse" in Mongolian that we will consider are mor' and adyy, though we will also touch upon others.

My original inquiry:

If you know, please tell me the difference between морь / mor' and адуу / adyy.

Is it true that морь means "gelding" (to be ridden) and адуу means horses in general, but not for riding.

Any other nuances of these two words that might be useful for me to understand how they are thought of by Mongolian people?

I presume that Manchu "morin" is borrowed from Mongolian.

Many correspondents kindly replied to my inquiry concerning the difference between adyy and mor.  Because most of their responses are brief and informal, I will not cite all the respondents by name, though I will list them in the acknowledgements.

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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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New drug for medical burnout

"FDA approves first novel drug to treat medical burnout":

TWISP, WA – The US Food and Drug Administration today approved Peaceaudi (Idongivafumab) injection for intravenous use for the treatment of medical burnout.

"Medical burnout is a serious condition, which affects thousands of doctors across the country. The effects of burnout have untold consequences, and could significantly shorten the careers of physicians if untreated," said Arnold J. Palmer, MD, assistant to the regional manager for drug development of the FDA.

"This announcement marks the first time a drug has been specifically approved to treat medical burnout. Idongivafumab's unique ability to target and inhibit C-suite peptides, as well the entire electronic health record (EHR) cascade, represents a quantum leap in burnout science."

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Mycological meandering: vernacular variora

The surname of the mayor of Prague is Hřib (Zdeněk Hřib [b. May 21, 1981]):

"Zdeněk Hřib: the Czech mayor who defied China"

By refusing to expel a Taiwanese diplomat, the Prague mayor has joined the ranks of local politicians confronting contentious national policies

Robert Tait in Prague
The Guardian, Wed 3 Jul 2019 01.00 EDT

The surname Hřib, though unusual, struck me as familiar.  Jichang Lulu observes:

Hřib is the regular Czech reflex of the Proto-Slavic source of, e.g., the Russian and Polish words for "mushroom" (гриб, grzyb). The Czech form, however, has a more specific meaning (certain mushrooms, e.g., Boletus). On the other hand, the further origin of Slavic gribъ has long been a matter of much debate, and I'm not aware of a generally accepted Proto-Indo-European (or other) etymology.

That set me to wondering whether there are cognates in other IE branches.

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Insect name

How would you respond in your native language if someone walked up to you and asked (in your native language or in English or some other language which both of you know), "What's the word for 'the insect that eats wood and destroys walls'?".

A friend of mine in China did that with eight of his colleagues, and not a single one of them could remember the Chinese name for "the insect that eats wood and destroys walls".

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Of horse riding and Old Sinitic reconstructions

This post was prompted by the following comment to "The emergence of Germanic" (2/27/19):

…while riding horses _in battle_ is post-Bronze Age (and perhaps of questionable worth at any time), I think riding in general is older, and probably (assuming the usual dating of PIE) common Indo-European.

The domesticated horse, the chariot, and the wheel came to East Asia from the west, and so did horse riding:

Mair, Victor H.  "The Horse in Late Prehistoric China:  Wresting Culture and Control from the 'Barbarians.'"  In Marsha Levine, Colin Renfrew, and Katie Boyle, ed.  Prehistoric steppe adaptation and the horse,  McDonald Institute Monographs.  Cambridge:  McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2003, pp. 163-187.

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Q-TAXI

From a correspondent in Taiwan:

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