Archive for Language and biology

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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Korean words for "bottle gourd"

I spent much of the summer in Vermont ensconced in a hermit's cottage reading, writing, and, of course, running through the Green Mountains and verdant woods.  When I left last week to come back for the fall semester at Penn, I brought with me about fifty bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) that had been abandoned by the side of the road.

My purpose in bringing so many bottle gourds back to Philadelphia is that I wanted to give them to the new graduate students in my department.  It has been my habit for many years to present something exotic / esoteric and regionally meaningful to the students in Asian studies.  Usually it's edible, such as camel's milk cheese from Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, but sometimes it's more on the edifying side.  Such is the case with this year's bottle gourds. 

How so?

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Skunk stunk

Two nights ago, it was raining heavily, with lightning and thunder every so often.  As I was peering out into the blackness of my backyard, all of a sudden, a bright light flashed on.  At first I thought it was lightning, but then I realized that someone or something had set off the light.  It didn't take long for me to spot a gleaming, coal black skunk crawling around through the brush.

Most striking were the narrow, white stripe on its forehead and along the length of its nose and the two broad swaths of white fur along its back.  It was so beautiful, all soaked in the rain, that I wanted to go out and get a closer look (make friends with it, so to speak), but my companion said, "No way!"

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Elk topolects

Who would have thought?

Even North America’s Elk Have Regional Dialects

Why do Pennsylvania elk sound different from Colorado elk?

By Kylie Mohr, The Atlantic Monthly (July 16, 2023)


It’s a crisp fall evening in Grand Teton National Park. A mournful, groaning call cuts through the dusky-blue light: a male elk, bugling. The sound ricochets across the grassy meadow. A minute later, another bull answers from somewhere in the shadows.

Bugles are the telltale sound of elk during mating season. Now new research has found that male elks’ bugles sound slightly different depending on where they live. Other studies have shown that whale, bat, and bird calls have dialects of sorts too, and a team led by Jennifer Clarke, a behavioral ecologist at the Center for Wildlife Studies and a professor at the University of La Verne, in California, is the first to identify such differences in any species of ungulate.

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Old Sinitic "rice", with an added note on "leopard"

We've had extensive discussions about the Old Sinitic reconstruction of the Sinitic word for "wheat".  Although we've been circling around it for quite some time now, we haven't yet nailed it down securely, but we're close.  While we're still occupied with "wheat", Martin Schwartz sends in this terse, seemingly cryptic, but extremely interesting information about words for rice:

Sorry I can't help by citing the reconstruction I saw in Boodberg

which looked like it was compatible with PIIr. *wrinźh.

Before digging into the implications of PIIr. *wrinźh for our ongoing quest to find archeolinguistic links between eastern and western Eurasia, I'd like to say a few words about Peter Alexis Boodberg (1903-1972), whose hallowed name has come up several times on Language Log (see here and here [vigorous discussion in the comments]).

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The spiny terminological conundrum of ekhidna and ekhinos

[This is a guest post by Stewart Nicol]

Greek particles

I am a zoologist and comparative physiologist who has worked extensively on the monotremes, the platypus and the echidna. I have been putting together some notes on the naming of the these animals. After originally being placed in the genus Myrmecophaga with the other, totally unrelated, anteaters, the echidna was given the specific name Myrmecophaga aculeata (prickly anteater) by George Shaw in 1792.  It was named Echidna histrix by Georges Cuvier, misspelling Hystrix (Greek for porcupine). In 1811 Johann Illiger published an overhaul of the Linnaean system and replaced Cuvier’s genus name Echidna with Tachylossus (fast tongue) making the full binomial Tachyglossus aculeatus. The Genus name Echidna would have had priority but it had previously been applied to a genus of Moray eels, so the echidna became Tachyglossus aculeatus, but popularly known as the echidnaCuvier doesn’t say why he used the name echidna, but the general assumption is that it alludes to a monster in Greek mythology , ἔχιδνα or ekhidna, half woman (mammal) and half snake (reptile), because the echidna was believed to combine characteristics of reptiles and mammals. Unfortunately, the word ekhidna is very similar to the ekhinos (ἐχῖνος) which is the Ancient Greek word for hedgehog, and appears in the names echinoderm and echinacea because they have spines, giving rise to the misapprehension that the name echidna means spiny.

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The scatology and physiology of push and pull

Having just written about "Drainage issues" (6/25/23), with a graphic depiction of what causes the problem with the drainage system in question, I am emboldened finally to answer a question that one of my graduate students has been asking about for several years.  Namely, why do Chinese say "pull poo / shit / excrement" (lāshǐ 拉屎 / lā dàbiàn 拉大便)?  What's the logic of that usage?  How can one pull excrement when one defecates?  Wouldn't it make more sense to say "push" (tuī )?  Think about it.  A bowel movement involves peristalsis,

the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wave-like movements that push the contents of the canal forward.
(Oxford Languages on Google; emphasis added)

And what do doctors (and husbands) always say to a woman in labor?  "Push", of course.  And the baby comes out from the birth canal.

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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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