Archive for Language and biology

The Emperor is an organ of the state

Jim Unger sent me this mystifying note (7/25/20):

The other day, my wife called my attention to the fact that the ‘organ theory of the emperor’ (Tennō kikan setsu), for which Minobe Tatsukichi (1873-1948) was prosecuted in the 1930s, is written 天皇機関説.  This is odd since ‘organ’ in the medical sense (the apparent source of Minobe’s metaphor) is currently written 器官 whereas 機関 is now pretty much ‘engine’.  Since it is inconceivable that generations of historians writing in English have simply been perpetuating a mistranslation, it appears that either 器官 is a later coinage or that 機関 narrowed in meaning sometime later, or both.  I am not particularly interested in untangling this mess, but it might be worth studying because it seems to be a case of one or more Sino-Japanese compounds undergoing semantic change within Japanese, which, of course, ought not happen if every kanji were a logogram of fixed meaning.  Do both these words occur in Chinese?  If so, have they ever overlapped in meaning in Chinese?  Is one or the other a 19th or 20th century neologism?

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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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"Carrot" in Persian, Urdu, Uyghur, Sinitic, Vietnamese, etc.

From David Brophy:

I’ve often wondered why the Uyghur word for carrot is sewze, etc., which comes from P. sabz “green”. I know carrots range from orange to yellow, and maybe occasionally purple, but I’m pretty sure there’ve never been green carrots.

It's a good question.  

One thing I do know is that, whenever I go to an Indian restaurant, I find sabzi, also spelled sabji, as a vegetable cooked in gravy

I think maybe the word originally just meant "veggies" in Persian, and then developed the specialized meaning of "carrot" in Turkic and other languages.

Ghormeh Sabzi (Persian: قورمه‌ سبزی‎) (also spelled as Qormeh Sabzi) is an Iranian herb stew. It is a very popular dish in Iran.

——

Ghormeh is derived from Turkic kavurmak and means "braised," while sabzi is the Persian word for herbs.

Looking at Wikipedia, it does say that carrots are likely originally from Persia where they were probably first cultivated for their leaves (which are green).

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Bats in Chinese language and culture: Early Sinitic reconstructions

The May 2020 issue of a scientific journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, shows a rank badge of Qing Dynasty officialdom.  There are five bats in this piece of ornate embroidery (can you spot them?):

Artist Unknown. Rank Badge with Leopard, Wave and Sun Motifs, late 18th century. Silk, metallic thread. 10 3/4 in x 11 1/4 in / 27.31 cm x 28.57 cm. Public domain digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.; Bequest of William Christian Paul, 1929. Accession no.30.75.1025.

(Source)

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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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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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