Archive for Language and biology

Digital Humanities for the study of traditional Asian medicines

A guest post for The Digital Orientalist (4/10/24), under The Magic of Philology and Indexing, Polyglot Asian Medicines (Foundational Resources and Digital Tools), by Michael Stanley-Baker, Christopher S.G. Khoo and Faizah Zakariah (all three are based at academic institutions in Singapore), "Tracking Drug Names Across Language, Time, Space and Knowledge Domains to Produce New Visions of Traditional Medicine".

This is a richly detailed article with many links and citations.  I will not attempt to cover, much less extensively quote, lengthy portions.  Instead, I will begin with the authors' general introduction, note the main sections of the article, refer to the graphs, and quote one typical section to show what the authors' approach can accomplish.

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Cucurbits and junk characters

Christopher Rea came to Penn a few weeks ago and delivered this lecture:

"From Zhuangzi’s Gourd to Cinderella’s Pumpkin:  Gua 瓜 as a Vehicle for the Imagination"


The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi tells us that one remedy for a lack of imagination is to take your gourd for a ride. Confucius makes a point about usefulness by comparing himself to a calabash. Gua —which include gourds, melons, pumpkins, squash, and bitter melon—abound in Chinese philosophy, art, poetry, historiography, and storytelling, notably in late imperial novels such as Jin Ping MeiJourney to the West, and Story of the Stone. Why? Christopher Rea argues that gua have several qualities that account for their enduring popularity in the figurative imagination, including their sound, shape, seasonality, variety, and abundance.

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Cetacean needed

From Philip Taylor:

A nice pun on Wikipedia’s ubiquitous "citation needed"

Wikipedia's list of cetaceans, which reads (in part):

Tamanend's bottlenose dolphin Tursiops erebennus
Cope, 1865
NE Unknown     [cetacean needed]

Lovely pun indeed!

Tamanend's bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops erebennus) is a species of bottlenose dolphin that inhabits coastal waters in the eastern United States. This species was previously considered a nearshore variant of the common bottlenose dolphin Tursiops truncatus.


Tamanend's bottlenose dolphin does indeed belong to the Infraorder Cetacea.

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Symposium on Indo-European food

Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)

Symposium on April 11, 2024

Registration by 4th April at the latest

11 April, 11:15 a.m. SYMPOSIUM

Indo-European Food: Linguistic, Archaeological and Biomolecular Perspectives


The symposium Indo-European Food – Linguistic, Archaeological, and Biomolecular Perspectives aims to explore the intricate relationships between the spread of Indo-European languages, the archaeological evidence of food production and consumption patterns, and biomolecular insights into ancient diets. This interdisciplinary event brings together leading experts from linguistics, archaeology, and biomolecular sciences to discuss the latest research findings and theoretical frameworks that illuminate the role of food in the migration, settlement, and cultural integration of Indo-European populations.

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Wheat and word: astronomy and the origins of the alphabet

Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-forty-first issue:

"On the Origins of the Alphabet: Orion/Osiris in Need of a Head/Seed, the Roots of Writing, the Neolithic Europe Word as Sun/Seed System (NEWS), and a Solution to the Tartaria and Gradeshnista Tablets," by Brian R. Pellar.

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Shoebox skull: an old neologism

"Bones from German cave rewrite early history of Homo sapiens in Europe", by Will Dunham, Reuters (1/31/24)

Bone fragments unearthed in a cave in central Germany show that our species ventured into Europe's cold higher latitudes more than 45,000 years ago – much earlier than previously known – in a finding that rewrites the early history of Homo sapiens on a continent still inhabited then by our cousins the Neanderthals.

Scientists said on Wednesday they identified through ancient DNA 13 Homo sapiens skeletal remains in Ilsenhöhle cave, situated below a medieval hilltop castle in the German town of Ranis. The bones were determined to be up to 47,500 years old. Until now, the oldest Homo sapiens remains from northern central and northwestern Europe were about 40,000 years old.

"These fragments are directly dated by radiocarbon and yielded well preserved DNA of Homo sapiens," said paleoanthropologist and research leader Jean-Jacques Hublin of Collège de France in Paris.

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The cry of the cicada

Get ready!  They're coming, and they will make a huge amount of shrill, raucous NOISE.  They are most prevalent in the eastern half of the United States on a rolling basis for different regions, but this year, they will be positively overwhelming in the corridor from Northern Illinois to Arkansas and thence along the Southeast mountainous band stretching up to Virginia.

"Where billions of cicadas will emerge this spring (and over the next decade), in one map:  Cicadas will hear the call of spring. And then you’ll hear their mating calls, too."  By Brian Resnick, (1/23/24)

For 17 years, cicadas do very little. They hang out in the ground, sucking sugar out of tree roots. Then, following this absurdly long hibernation, they emerge from the ground, sprout wings, make a ton of noise, have sex, and die within a few weeks. Then, their orphan progeny return to the ground and live the next 17 years in silence. Rarer are the 13-year cicadas, which do the same, but in a little more of a hurry — spending just 13 years underground.

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Ask Language Log: Manchu Blue Dragon

Continuing our series on dragons, this note and illustration come from Juha Janhunen, the Finnish linguist:

Happy Blue Dragon Year to everybody! Below is the official flag (1889-1912) of the Manchu Empire (in the west misleadingly known as "China"), which happens to have a blue dragon on it. Manchu muduri 'dragon' still seems to lack an external etymology. Any suggestions?

(See at the very bottom of this post for a possible connection to "otter".)

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Carrier pigeons between Taiwan, India, and Mount Ararat

Or, what makes a turtle a dove?

When I was teaching at Tunghai University from 1970-72, naturally I spent the bulk of my time in Taichung ("Tai Central"), but I would regularly visit my in-laws in Taipei ("Tai North"), 160 km to the north.  They lived in a part of the city that was situated midway between National Taiwan University and Taiwan Normal University, where there were still many grand, old, wooden Japanese-style houses.

There were lots of memorable happenings in those neighborhoods, but one which struck me to the core is when people who raised flocks of pigeons would let them out for a spin, so to speak.  The pigeons — a dozen or so (?) — would whir out of their dovecotes and flutter off into the sky in ever distancing gyres.  I would stand on the fourth floor roof of our new reinforced concrete building (the first in that part of the city) and watch them as long as I could.  Usually, however, I would lose track of them after several minutes.  Eventually, the flock would miraculously return and settle down on their perches and in their nests, cooing contentedly.

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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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Fungal language

[Several days ago, I had prepared a post on this topic, but Mark scooped me with his "Mushroom language?" (1/9/24).  His coverage of the counterposed Adamatzky and Blatt, et al. papers is superior to mine, so I will just strip out that part of my post and leave the remaining observations with which I had bookended my discussion of the two contesting studies.]

This is a question that I have often pondered myself, viz., how do colonies of more or less loosely associated cells communicate among themselves so that they can become tissues, organs, and so forth:

Under a microscope, the first few hours of every multicellular organism’s life seem incongruously chaotic. After fertilization, a once tranquil single-celled egg divides again and again, quickly becoming a visually tumultuous mosh pit of cells jockeying for position inside the rapidly growing embryo.

Yet, amid this apparent pandemonium, cells begin to self-organize. Soon, spatial patterns emerge, serving as the foundation for the construction of tissues, organs and elaborate anatomical structures from brains to toes and everything in between. For decades, scientists have intensively studied this process, called morphogenesis, but it remains in many ways enigmatic. (source)

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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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Some Old Chinese terms relating to religion, mythology, ritual

[This is a guest post by Axel Schuessler]

Some Old Chinese (OC) words that relate to religion, mythology and ritual, and words found in ritual literature (Yijing, Liji, Zhouli), have no Sino-Tibetan (ST) roots, but instead have connections with other language families.

    For comparison, the first section of this paper will list (§1) Sino-Tibetan words, i.e., ones with Tibeto-Burman (TB) cognates. Then: (§2) Mon-Khmer words from the state of Chu and mid-Yangtze region. (§3) Miao-Yao (Hmong-Mien) and area words, perhaps also from the mid-Yangtze. (§4) Tai/Kra-Dai items from the Huai River basin. (§5) The Gou-language(s), so called because among its prefixes stands out a conspicuous syllable gou (see Schuessler forthc.). These languages were in prehistoric times spoken from at least Yue in the South in the vicinity of the Coast all the way to Song and Qi. Their connection with known language families is unknown. (§6) The last section is dedicated to the mythological figures Xi and Hé 羲和.

    About the hypothetical early historic locations of these language families, see Schuessler forthc. (“Tigers, and the languages of ancient Chu, Wu, and Yue”). Outside of China, the items under consideration tend to be ordinary, mundane words, but in OC they often acquire a narrow meaning just for ritual use. This identifies them as loans.

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