Archive for Language and biology

Sperm whale talk

Animal communication is not a favorite topic here at Language Log, but according to the following account, one project concerning it seems serious and is being conducted by credible scientists.  Although their claims for its ultimate significance may be inflated, I believe the research they are undertaking is worth considering, especially after hearing the clicks and codas of the sperm whales, which do appear to be communicating data.

Can Understanding Whale Speech Help Us Talk to Aliens?

Biologist David Gruber thinks decoding the language of whales could be just the first step in understanding what other lifeforms are saying—in this world and out of it.

Alexandra Marvar, The Daily Beast (5/13/23)

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Lecture on the anatomical origins of language

[Please read all the way to the bottom of this post.  There are some big surprises here, including references to a book and an article on linguistics by the novelist Tom Wolfe (1930-2018), who's clearly on the wrong side of the political fence.  Despite the spate of mostly unremittingly anti-Wolfe comments, many important issues about the field are raised there.]

Monday, Mar 6, 5:15 pm-7:15 pm – Seminar 5

Mercedes Conde-Valverde, University of Alcalá, Alcalá de Henares (Spain)
Title: Sounds of the Past

Speaker: Dr. Mercedes Conde-Valverde
Title: The Sounds of the Past

Lecture via Zoom;

Class meets in S2-259


One of the central questions in the study of the evolutionary history of human beings is the origin of language. Since words do not fossilize, paleoanthropologists have focused on establishing when the anatomical structures that support human speech, our natural way of communicating, first appeared and in which species of human ancestor. Humans differ from our closest primates not only in the anatomy of the vocal tract, which enables us to speak, but also in the anatomy and physiology of the ear. Our hearing is finely tuned and highly sensitive to the sounds of human speech, and is clearly distinct from that of a chimpanzee.

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Polynesian sweet potatoes and jungle chickens: verbal vectors

To this post made more than half a month ago, "The invention, development, and decipherment of writing" (12/30/22), after a couple of important comments on other subjects (Phrygian inscriptions; Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese stimulus diffusion of writing), R. Fenwick made the following vital remarks, and just in the nick of time before comments closed:

@David Marjanović:
Heyerdahl obviously demonstrated that such a voyage wasn't physically impossible. There's just no reason to assume it actually happened.

Except that it actually did happen. It's true that Heyerdahl's specific settlement model has subsequently not held water – we know now that Polynesia was settled rather from the western Pacific and ultimately Taiwan – but at least one successful return voyage in the other direction was almost certainly achieved. And we do have at least one very powerful reason to conclude that it was: sweet potatoes. They've been widely cultivated by eastern Polynesian peoples since well before European incursion into the Pacific (the earliest ¹⁴C dates we have on sweet potato remains are from c. 1210—1400 AD, on the Cook Islands), but sweet potatoes are native to South and Central America, and early Polynesian seafarers most likely took on sweet potato cultivation as a result of direct trade with the Inca. There's even a singular but stark linguistic footprint of the interaction, as Proto-Eastern Polynesian *kumara "sweet potato" (cp. Māori, Rarotongan kūmara, Rapanui, Tuamotuan kumara, Marquesan kūma‘a, Hawaiian ‘uwala) is virtually identical to terms for sweet potato in the Quechuan languages (e.g. Cuzco khumara, Ayacucho kumar, Northern Pastaza kumal, Colonial Chincha cumar).

Other evidence for Polynesians visiting South America is unfortunately very thin, but I've read reports from a couple of archaeological excavations – in Chile, I think – where small quantities of avian bone have been recovered that are consistent with domestic chickens, a south-eastern Asian domesticate that formed a key part of Polynesian diets. I'll have to look into the literature a little further and see if the situation on the ground has improved regarding pre-Columbian chickens. There's also a recent study that also claimed a South American genetic component in portions of the Polynesian human population, but I haven't read the article yet.

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Glat perch and medicare yam

Glat perch

Label in a Chinese fish market:

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Tea map

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Jichang Lulu

That's the name of a treasured Language Log reader and contributor (see under "Selected Readings").  When I asked him how to write that in Sinoglyphs, he told me that it is this:

飢腸轆轆 / simpl. 饥肠辘辘

Wanting to get the tones, I typed "jichanglulu" into Google Translate (GT), but forgot to click the space bar to make the conversion to characters with Hanyu Pinyin transcription complete with tones.  When I pressed the speaker button to hear how that sounded, what came out was something like Mandarin with an English accent, but still perfectly intelligible:  "jichanglulu".  It resembled the Mandarin produced by the strangers on the street who read off the Pinyin texts handed to them by my wife, Li-ching Chang.  She was always delighted when she heard them pronouncing Mandarin without ever having studied it.  "Jichanglulu" — see, you can say it too!

Adding the tones, we get jīcháng lùlù.  What does this somewhat odd assortment of sounds signify?

GT says "hungry", more literally, "hungry intestines are rumbling".

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Conehead cabbage

A new kind of cabbage for me:

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The giraffe, a supposedly composite creature with a complicated nomenclature

The giraffe is such an outlandish animal that many otherwise sensible people have thought that it must be a combination of several species.

From the concept of a giraffe being an amalgam of several animals jointly; compare Persian شترگاوپلنگ(šotorgâvpalang, giraffe, literally camel-ox-leopard) and Ancient Greek καμηλοπάρδαλῐς (kamēlopárdalis, giraffe).


زَرَافَة (zarāfaf (plural زَرَافَات(zarāfāt))

    1. group of people, cluster of people, body of people
      زَرَافَاتٍ وَ‌وُحْدَانًا‎ ― zarāfātin wa-wuḥdānanjointly and severally; in groups and alone


The name "giraffe" has its earliest known origins in the Arabic word zarāfah (زرافة), perhaps borrowed from the animal's Somali name geri. The Arab name is translated as "fast-walker". In early Modern English the spellings jarraf and ziraph were used, probably directly from the Arabic, and in Middle English orafle and gyrfaunt, gerfaunt. The Italian form giraffa arose in the 1590s. The modern English form developed around 1600 from the French girafe.

"Camelopard" /kəˈmɛləˌpɑːrd/ is an archaic English name for the giraffe; it derives from the Ancient Greek καμηλοπάρδαλις (kamēlopárdalis), from κάμηλος (kámēlos), "camel", and πάρδαλις (párdalis), "leopard", referring to its camel-like shape and leopard-like colouration.


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Sino-Semitica: of cinnamon, cassia, and katsura and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 2

If you stroll through the grounds of the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, you may come upon this phenomenal tree:

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The birth of Spanish

New article by Johnson in The Economist (4/23/22):

On the origin of languages
It is tempting to think that they have clear beginnings. They don’t

First two paragraphs:

IN A CHURCH hewn out of a mountainside, just over a thousand years or so ago, a monk was struggling with a passage in Latin. He did what others like him have done, writing the tricky bits in his own language between the lines of text and at the edges. What makes these marginalia more than marginal is that they are considered the first words ever written in Spanish.

The “Emilian glosses” were written at the monastery of Suso, which was founded by St Aemilianus (Millán, in Spanish) in the La Rioja region of Spain. Known as la cuna del castellano, “the cradle of Castilian”, it is a UNESCO world heritage site and a great tourist draw. In 1977 Spain celebrated 1,000 years of the Spanish language there.

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Fresh bacteria soup

From John Dankowski via Dave Thomas:

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Nose, iris, pupil

Last week, a master's student went to the board to write the Chinese character for "nose" (bí 鼻), but forgot how to do so.  There is no simplified version.  The form of this character differs slightly between China and Japan:  in China it is 鼻 and in Japan it is 鼻.  Can you spot the difference?

Believe it or not, the top part of the character depicts a nose.  Here's the small seal script form, about two millennia ago (the bottom part is the phonophore, which was added long after the top part was invented):


Glyph origin

Phono-semantic compound (形聲, OC *blids): semantic (nose) + phonetic (OC *pids).

(OC *ɦljids) originally meant “nose” but came to be used to mean “self”, so the sense of “nose” has been replaced by (OC *blids). Some scholars interpret (OC *blids) as a combination of a nose ( (OC *ɦljids)) and two lungs ( (OC *pids)).

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Revisiting ursine terminology in light of Sinitic cognates: semantics and phonetics

From Chau Wu:

I have always wondered about the deep gulf of variations in the sounds of "néng 能 -bearing" characters, that is, the variations in the onsets and rimes (shēng 聲 and yùn 韻):

néng 能  n- / -eng (Tw l- / -eng)  [Note: 能 orig. meaning 'bear'; nai, an aquatic animal; thai, name of a constellation 三能 = 三台]

xióng 熊  x- (Wade-Giles: hs-) / -iong [熊 Tw hîm; the x- in MSM xióng is due to sibilization of h- caused by the following -i.]

pí 羆  ph- / -i  (the closely related p- onset is also seen in 罷, 擺)

nài 褦  n- / -ai  (the same onset n- is seen in 能)

tài 態  th- / -ai (the same th- onset is seen in 能)

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