Archive for Historical linguistics

Heavy Velar vs Meager Bilabial Articulations in Xiongnu Language

[This is a guest post by Penglin Wang]

            The great difficulties we have with trying to study Xiongnu language persist from trying to glean Xiongnu words, especially the glossed ones, in early Chinese sources for comparison in order to know what linguistic affiliation it seems to have in the central Eurasian region. Since these difficulties cannot be overcome at all owing to its extinct status a millennium plus ago, an alternative approach could be to recognize that there are different components of language regardless of living or extinct and attempt to observe how different components can differ from one another yet still be entities that most researchers would want to treat as linguistic data or facts rather than imaginations for a comparative purpose. It could then be possible to open up a window to contribute to a solution of some classic problems in Altaic comparative studies. One such attempt is to examine the available Xiongnu words from the perspectives of articulatory phonetics and phonotactics. Concern for these is characteristic of Xiongnu studies. Pulleyblank (1962:242) has insightfully observed “only *b- initially, never *p-” in the Xiongnu transcriptions.

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Old Ukrainian windmills and Old Sinitic reconstructions

VHM somewhere in Ukraine, probably late summer 2002:

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Strange tales and labiovelar transcriptions

East Asians have been addicted to strange stories for millennia.  Many of these fall under the rubric of guài 怪 ("strange"), e.g., zhìguài 志怪 ("records of anomalies"), the name of one of the earliest genres of strange stories in China.

One of the strangest aspects about East Asian strange tales is that perhaps the most famous collection of all was written by a Westerner, Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904).

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The mystery of the decay

Recent email from a colleague reminded of a series of posts documenting a general tendency for the relative frequency of the English word the to decline over the past couple of centuries:

"SOTU evolution", 1/26/2014
"Decreasing definiteness", 1/8/2015
"Why definiteness is decreasing, part 1", 1/9/2015
"Why definiteness is decreasing, part 2", 1/10/2015
"Why definiteness is decreasing, part 3", 1/18/2015
"Positivity?", 12/21/2015
"Normalizing", 12/31/2015
"The case of the disappearing determiners", 1/3/2016
"Dutch DE", 1/4/2016
"The determiner of the turtle is heard in our land", 1/7/2016
"Correlated lexicometrical decay", 1/9/2016
"Style or artefact or both?", 1/12/2016
"Geolexicography", 1/27/2016
"The accommodation", 3/14/2017
"Decreasing definiteness in crime novels", 1/21/2018

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A new discovery about the history of English

In the comments on yesterday's post "Language development", Olaf Zimmermann pointed us to this recent Onion scoop — "Newly Uncovered Manuscript Reveals China Invented English Language 700 Years Before Western World", The Onion 1/13/2022:

BEIJING—Shedding new light on the origins of the world’s most popular language, an international team of linguists announced Thursday that a newly uncovered manuscript confirms China invented both spoken and written English 700 years before the Western world. “These remarkably well-preserved bamboo slips appear to show that Zhou dynasty scholars developed the English tongue as far back as the third century BC, long before the language arose in Britain,” said Li Zhang, a professor of comparative linguistics who examined the text, which outlines the alphabet and basic grammar rules of English, in addition to including the first known uses of words such as “barbecue” and “philanthropy.” “By the time Anglo–Saxons began cobbling together their language from Latin, French, and Germanic sources, the Chinese had already mastered it. There are even some passages in this manuscript that appear eerily similar to the work of Shakespeare, though they are of far superior quality.” Li went on to explain that the Chinese gradually abandoned the English language, finding its 26-letter alphabet too limiting and opting instead for the convenience of Mandarin’s more than 50,000 characters.

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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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Growing up Chinese in Uyghurstan

This post was inspired by Bruce Humes' "Growing up Uyghur in Xinjiang: 'Setting Sail in a Chinese-language World'” (12/22/21):

In China’s Minority Fiction, Sabina Knight notes how China is pushing its ethnic minorities — particularly the Uyghur in Xinjiang — to master Mandarin:

“The question of cultural survival haunts Patigül’s Bloodline《百年血脉》(2015). The novel situates the narrator—who, like the author, is half-Uyghur and half-Hui—within the matrix of the Han majority’s aggressive promotion of Chinese:

As my father, he needed to demonstrate that he knew about Chinese, but . . . his knowledge was [just] bits and pieces he’d picked up from other Uyghurs in the village, and he still spoke Uyghur most of the time; I, on the other hand, went to a Chinese school and was setting sail into a Chinese-language world. (trans. Natascha Bruce)

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Tang (618-907) poetry in Min pronunciation, part 2

This is a supplement to "Tang (618-907) poetry in Min pronunciation" (10/14/21).  The following remarks are by Conal Boyce:

So far it seems the artist’s viewpoint is missing from the discussion. At the top of the thread, Victor Mair mentions two musical compositions of mine, and also kindly cites my unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in References. But the music and the thesis (both of 1973-1976 vintage) are almost wholly unrelated. (What is related tangentially to my compositions from that period is my paper called ‘Min sandhi in verse recitation,’ Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 1980, 8:1-14.) What do I mean by ‘the artist’s viewpoint’? My main task during 1973-1976 in Taiwan was to finish writing my dissertation on the rhythms used by my informants in their recitation of Sòngcí ([VHM:  Sòng lyric meters] sometimes in MSM, sometimes in Min) — nothing to do with music per se (except the abstract connection through ‘rhythm’).

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Educated (and not so educated) guesses about how to read Sinographs

Here is a painting that is being exhibited in Taipei now:

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Backhill, Pekin, Peking, Beijing

Yesterday, while doing research for a paper on medieval Dunhuang popular narratives (biànwén 變文 ["transformation texts"]), I did a Google search for the Peking Library, where some of the bianwen manuscripts are kept.  Instead of the national library of China in Peking / Beijing in the PRC, I was led to the Pekin Public Library in Illinois.  That prompted me to ponder the fact that this Illinois city followed the French pronunciation, Pékin, of the Chinese capital when it took its name, rather than the English Peking.

Following the official Hanyu Pinyin Romanization of the PRC, English now transcribes 北京 ("Northern Capital") as Beijing (Běijīng [pèi.tɕíŋ]).  But until recently this was not always the case for English, much less for dozens of other languages around the world.  Thirty-one years ago, in "Backhill / Peking / Beijing" (see "Selected readings" below), Bosat Man wrote (p. 6):

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Another early polysyllabic Sinitic word

In various publications and Language Log posts over the years, I have collected scores of old polysyllabic words (e.g., those for reindeer, phoenix, coral, spider, earthworm, butterfly, dragonfly, balloon lute, meandering / winding, etc.), which proves that Sinitic has never been strictly monosyllabic, although that is a common misapprehension, even among many scholars.  The reason I call the one featured in this post "another early polysyllabic Sinitic word" is because I don't think I've ever pointed it out before.

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Shandong vernacular, then and now

A week ago, Julie Lee made this interesting comment on Language Log:

…when I studied Yuan dynasty drama and had books from the library, my husband (a physicist) picked them up to read and was amazed at the 13th century dialogue. "That's just the way we spoke at home in Shandong", he exclaimed. He grew up in Tengxian County*, Shandong, and went to school in Qingdao. I couldn't understand his Shandong speech. I too was amazed that Chinese colloquial speech (in Shandong) lasted from the 13th century till the 20th century — 700 years. The dialogue in Yuan drama was popping with lively expressions.

[*Likely the birthplace of the populist, egalitarian, pragmatic, empirical, scientific minded philosopher, Mo Zi / Micius (ca. 470-391 BC.)]

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Prefixes "yǒu" ("to have") and "wú" ("to not have") in Old Sinitic

My brother Denis and I have long been intrigued by the use of the prefix yǒu 有 ("there is / are / exist[s]") in a wide variety of circumstances in Old Sinitic:  e.g., before the word for family temples (yǒu miào 有廟), before the names of barbaric tribes (yǒu Miáo 有苗), and before place names (yǒu Yì 有易).  We wonder whether similar constructions exist in other languages.

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