Archive for Language and religion

Narts, Ossetians, and other peoples of the Caucasus

For many reasons, here at Language Log we have had a longstanding interest in the Narts, their language, literature, and lore:

The Nart sagas (Abkhaz: Нарҭаа ражәабжьқәа; Nartaa raƶuabƶkua; Adyghe: Нарт тхыдэжъхэр, romanized: Nart txıdəĵxər; Ossetian: Нарты кадджытæ; Narty kaddžytæ; Nartı kadjıtæ) are a series of tales originating from the North Caucasus. They form much of the basic mythology of the ethnic groups in the area, including Abazin, Abkhaz, Circassian, Ossetian, KarachayBalkar, and to some extent ChechenIngush folklore.

The term nart comes from the Ossetian Nartæ, which is plurale tantum of nar. The derivation of the root nar is of Iranian origin, from Proto-Iranian *nar for 'hero, man', descended from Proto-Indo-European *h₂nḗr. In Chechen, the word nart means 'giant'.

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Misbehaving mediums

https://twitter.com/C_M_Churchman/status/1543548736663474176?s=20&t=2MgZwvO2bGO9cDgP4H6lIg

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Capitals and upper case letters

I am a fan of capital letters.  They let us know when a noun is a proper noun — the name of a person, a place.  But I also have to admit that they are something of a bane at times.  For example, I grew up learning that one should capitalize all terms in a title except for prepositions, words of three letters or less, definite and indefinite articles, and so forth.  For many publications, however, including here at Language Log, it seems to be house style not to capitalize all the terms of a title over three words in length, unless they are proper nouns.

This indefiniteness about whether or not to use capitals in titles gives me lots of headaches.  Because I'm a stickler for bibliographical exactitude, when I'm preparing my list of references and footnotes, it causes me much grief to decide whether to include capitals or not when different sources threat them dissimilarly.

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Arabic and the vernaculars, part 4 — the case of Bible translations

Again, to refresh our collective memory and to provide the context for the present post and the other posts in this series, I repeat the following questions:

1. Is there such a thing as "Classical Arabic"?  If there is, how do we describe / define it?

2. What is "Standard Arabic"?

3. What is Quranic Arabic?  How different is it from Standard Arabic?

4. How many vernacular Arabic languages are there?  Egyptian? Syrian?  Lebanese?  Are they quite different from Standard Arabic?  Are they mutually intelligible?  Do they customarily have written forms and a flourishing literature?

You may also wish to revisit the introduction with which the first post in the series began.

Heather Sharkey offered the following eye-opening response:

You have opened a can of worms! Or many cans of worms!

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Arabic and the vernaculars

With this post, I will begin a series on the nature of the Arabic group of languages.  My reason for doing so is that many people are badly confused about just what "Arabic" (a Semitic group) signifies when it comes to language, almost as badly confused as most people are about "Chinese" (linguistically more properly referred to as Sinitic).

For a basic, foundational statement, here are the opening two paragraphs of the Wikipedia article on "Arabic":

Arabic (اَلْعَرَبِيَّةُ, al-ʿarabiyyah [al ʕaraˈbijːa] (audio speaker iconlisten) or عَرَبِيّ, ʿarabīy [ˈʕarabiː] (audio speaker iconlisten) or [ʕaraˈbij]) is a Semitic language that first emerged in the 1st to 4th centuries CE. It is the lingua franca of the Arab world and the liturgical language of Islam. It is named after the Arabs, a term initially used to describe peoples living in the Arabian Peninsula bounded by eastern Egypt in the west, Mesopotamia in the east, and the Anti-Lebanon mountains and northern Syria in the north, as perceived by ancient Greek geographers. The ISO assigns language codes to 32 varieties of Arabic, including its standard form, Modern Standard Arabic, also referred to as Literary Arabic, which is modernized Classical Arabic. This distinction exists primarily among Western linguists; Arabic speakers themselves generally do not distinguish between Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic, but rather refer to both as al-ʿarabiyyatu l-fuṣḥā (اَلعَرَبِيَّةُ ٱلْفُصْحَىٰ "the eloquent Arabic") or simply al-fuṣḥā (اَلْفُصْحَىٰ).

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Miniature Votive Stupa

One enigmatic artifact combines so many of my favorite things:  Dunhuang, Yi jing, Buddhism, cosmic symbols (e.g., Kunlun)….

clevelandart.org

[For an enlargement, click on the photograph to go to the thread, then click on the photograph again. It will be large enough to make the inscription legible.]

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Naxi writing

From S. Robert Ramsey:

The Naxi Story of Creation and the Great Flood

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Matteo Ricci's tombstone

Epigraph on the Tombstone of Matteo Ricci in the Zhalan Cemetery in Beijing:

Inscription on the tomb of Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), black-and-white photograph, unknown photographer; source: with the kind permission of the Ricci Institute, University of San Francisco.

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The linguistic origins and affiliations of Zen

In the fifth comment to "Artistic Sinograph: Buddha" (11/11/21), stephen reeves says he'd like to hear about the origins of Zen.  This has always been one of my favorite topics, so I'm more than happy to tell it.

"Zen" entered the English lexicon already by 1727.  Here's a succinct, serviceable, popular explanation of its derivation:

[Japanese zen, from Early Middle Chinese dʑian, meditation; also the source of Mandarin chán), from Pali jhānaṃ, from Sanskrit dhyānam, from dhyāti, he meditates.]
 
Word History: Zen, a word that evokes the most characteristic and appealing aspects of Japanese culture for many English speakers, is ultimately of Indo-European origin. The Japanese word zen is a borrowing of a medieval Chinese word (now pronounced chán, in modern Mandarin Chinese) meaning "meditation, contemplation." Chán is one of the many Buddhist terms in Chinese that originate in India, the homeland of Buddhism. A monk named Bodhidharma, said to be of Indian origin, introduced Buddhist traditions emphasizing the practice of meditation to China in the 5th century and established Chan Buddhism. From the 7th century onward, elements of Chan Buddhism began to reach Japan, where chán came to be pronounced zen. The Chinese word chán is a shortening* of chán'nǎ "meditation, contemplation" a borrowing [VHM:  transcription] of the Sanskrit term dhyānam. The Sanskrit word is derived from the Sanskrit root dhyā-, dhī-, "to see, observe," and the Indo-European root behind the Sanskrit is *dheiə-, *dhyā-, "to see, look at." This root also shows up in Greek, where *dhyā- developed into sā-, as in the Common Greek noun *sāma, "sign, distinguishing mark." This noun became sēma in Attic Greek and is the source of English semantic.

Source:  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

*The same thing happened with the Chinese transcription of "Buddha", as we saw in the previous post.  The Chinese have a low tolerance for maintaining the full transcriptions of words from other languages, usually shortening them by one or more syllables.]

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Artistic Sinograph: Buddha

On the wall of an apartment complex in Dali, Yunnan, southwestern China:

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Graphic forms for wú ("none; no; not") and qì ("vital energy") in ancient Chinese texts

[This is a guest post by Denis Christopher Mair]

Regular character versions of the Yijing (Classic / Book of Changes) use the character 旡 instead of 無 for wú ("none; no; not; nothing; nihility"). So 旡 is not really a simplified character. I have seen 旡 in Daoist contexts. The character 旡 evokes an atmosphere of antiquity. Some Daoist texts have two different words for qi/ch'i ("vital energy"). One is written 氣, and the other is written with 旡 over a four-dot fire radical. (Some Daoist texts use 炁 wherever the context is about internal disciplines.) This distinction is sometimes explained by saying that 氣 is "acquired" (hòutiān 後天) energy, and 炁 is "innate" (xiāntiān 先天) energy. In Tiāndì jiào 天帝教 ("Lord of Universe Church," a religious organization in Taiwan), the phrase qì qì yīnyūn 氣炁氤氳* sometimes comes up: "the intertwining of acquired and innate energies," which is something that happens in meditation. Sometimes it is fancifully likened to ground mist mingling with low clouds.

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The Ossetes

Here at Language Log we know our Ossetes and have been learning much about Scythians (see "Selected readings"), so it is good to have this new (forthcoming) book by Richard Foltz: 

The Ossetes: Modern-Day Scythians of the Caucasus
New York / London: I. B. Tauris / Bloomsbury, 24 February 2022

Publisher's description:

The Ossetes, a small nation inhabiting two adjacent states in the central Caucasus, are the last remaining linguistic and cultural descendants of the ancient nomadic Scythians who dominated the Eurasian steppe from the Balkans to Mongolia for well over one thousand years. A nominally Christian nation speaking a language distantly related to Persian, the Ossetes have inherited much of the culture of the medieval Alans who brought equestrian culture to Europe. They have preserved a rich oral literature through the epic of the Narts, a body of heroic legends that shares much in common with the Persian Book of Kings and other works of Indo-European mythology. This is the first book devoted to the little-known history and culture of the Ossetes to appear in any Western language. Charting Ossetian history from Antiquity to today, it will be a vital contribution to the fields of Iranian, Caucasian, Post-Soviet and Indo-European Studies.

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Emoji Heart Sutra

From the Library of Congress International Collections FB page (Saturday 7/17/21):

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