Archive for Historical linguistics

Indo-European "cow" and Old Sinitic Reconstructions: awesome

For at least four decades, I have suspected that IE gwou- ("cow") and Sinitic /*[ŋ]ʷə/ (< uvular? [Baxter-Sagart]) ("cow") are related.  Some new scientific research makes this surmise all the more believable.

More than three decades ago, Tsung-tung Chang already published on this idea in his "Indo-European Vocabulary in Old Chinese", Sino-Platonic Papers, 7 (January, 1988), p. 18 (of i, 56), citing Pokorny 482 gʷou and giving "gou" as his OS reconstruction.

Looks pretty simple and straightforward, doesn't it?  Well, it isn't simple at all

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (2)

The Tocharian A word for "rug" and Old Sinitic reconstructions

There's a Chinese character 罽 (Mandarin jì, Old Sinitic *kràts), which means "rug, carpet; woolen textile; fish net").  On the basis of its sound, meaning, place, and date of occurrence, it would seem to be related to Toch. A kratsu "rug".

This raises two questions:

1. Does this Tocharian word have cognates in other IE languages?

2. Who borrowed it from whom?   Sinitic from Tocharian or Tocharian from Sinitic?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (10)

Beneath modern Melbourne lie(s) clues

Bob Ladd sent in a screenshot from the Guardian, with the message:

I think this suggests that, except with auxiliary verbs, subject-verb inversion is not really something that is fully a part of English speakers' competence any more. The agreement discrepancy of "clues" and "lies" would be instantly detectable in most other contexts, but not when it's required by residual English verb-second constraints.

He notes that the screen shot came "from first thing this morning UTC, but it was still up and uncorrected at mid-afternoon UTC". And he suggests that things would be very different with a copula or auxiliary verb, e.g. "Beneath modern Melbourne is two of the richest hoards of pirate gold ever found".

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (8)

The Mandarin grammatical particle "le" — one or many?

When I was learning Mandarin over half a century ago, the more grammatically minded Chinese language teachers argued that historically and functionally there were multiple "le" particles that just happened to end up being written with the simple two-stroke character 了.  Then a contrary movement set in, and linguists tried to prune down all the "le" into two or even one, claiming that all of the different 了 developed out of an ur-了.

The irony of it all is that, before the 20th century, there was no established, systematic, explicit grammar for Sinitic languages in indigenous sources.

See, inter alia, Victor H. Mair (1997), "Ma Jianzhong and the Invention of Chinese Grammar," in Chaofen Sun, ed., Studies on the History of Chinese Syntax. Monograph Series Number 10 of Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 5-26.  (available on JSTOR here)

Mǎshì wéntōng 馬氏文通 (conventionally rendered as "Ma's Grammar", though it would probably be closer to the original meaning in Chinese to translate it as "Written Language Unobstructedness"; 1898)

Just as we have seen in a recent post, before the 20th century there was no Chinese concept of "word":

"HouseHold GarBage" (12/6/19)

Which leads to the question:  can you have grammar without words?

There have been countless papers, articles, dissertations, and monographs on le 了.  Here I'm going to introduce two dissertations on le 了 written within the last few decades and the latest monograph on le 了 as representative of what has been happening with regard to the conceptualization of this protean particle in recent times.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (42)

"Horse Master" in IE and in Sinitic

This is one in a long series of posts about words for "horse" in various languages, the latest being "Some Mongolian words for 'horse'" (11/7/19) — see also the posts listed under Readings below.  I consider "horse" to be one of the most important diagnostic terms for studying long distance movements of peoples and languages for numerous reasons:

  1. In and of itself, the horse represents the ability to move rapidly across the land.
  2. The spread of horse domestication and associated technology such as the chariot is traceable, affording the opportunity to match datable archeological finds with linguistic data.
  3. The symbolic, religious, military, political, and cultural significance of the horse is salient in widespread human societies outside the normal ecological reach of the animal itself.  In other words, the horse is treasured in areas far beyond its natural habitat (the Eurasian steppeland), such that it is a symbol of royal, aristocratic power and prerogative.  Indeed, for many societies, it is a sacred animal imbued with divine power.
  4. In studying the words for "horse" in various languages, we have been fortunate on Language Log to benefit from the expertise of historical linguists who have been providing cutting edge analysis of data drawn from numerous languages belonging to different groups and families.

And so forth.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)

"Horse" and "language" in Korean

A Korean student was just in my office and saw this book on my table:  mal-ui segyesa 말의 세계사.

She said, "Oh, a world history of words!"

But I knew that couldn't be right because the book is a world history of horses.  It's actually a Korean translation of this book by Pita Kelekna:

The Horse in Human History (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2009)

So what happened?  Did the student make a mistake?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (48)

A disyllabic autantonymous stative verb

Lucas Klein and Nick Williams asked me about this interesting word:  落魄.

It can mean either "free-spirited" or "downtrodden", which appear to directly contradict each other, and it has at least three variant pronunciations (luòpò, luòbó, luòtuò).  Source

Negative meanings:  "down and out; in dire straits; abject".

Positive meanings:  "unrestrained; unconventional; untrammeled by convention; casual".

Seems to be a literary term.

Source

Goes all the way back to Shǐjì 史記 (Records of the [Grand] Scribe / Historian; completed ca. 94 BC), scroll 97, "Lì Shēng zhuàn 酈生傳" ("Biography of Li Sheng").

Can also be written 落拓 (cf. 落魄 above and note that both the semantophores and the phonophores of the second characters of the two variants are starkly different).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (12)

"Tocharian C" Again: The Plot Thickens and the Mystery Deepens

[This is a guest post by Douglas Q. Adams]

Readers of this blog may remember the excitement generated a few months ago by the announcement that "Tocharian C," the native language of Kroraina (Chinese Loulan) had been discovered, hiding, as it were, in certain documents written in the Kharoṣṭhī script ("Tocharian C: its discovery and implications" [4/2/19]). Those documents, with transcription, grammatical sketch, and glossary, were published earlier this year as a part of Klaus T. Schmidt's Nachlass (Stefan Zimmer, editor, Hampen in Bremen, publisher).  However, on the weekend of September 15th and 16th a group of distinguished Tocharianists (led by Georges Pinault and Michaël Peyrot), accompanied by at least one specialist in Central Asian Iranian languages, languages normally written in Kharoṣṭhī, met in Leiden to examine the texts and Schmidt's transcriptions.  The result is disappointing, saddening even.  In Peyrot's words, "not one word is transcribed correctly."  We await a full report of the "Leiden Group" with a more accurate transcription and linguistic commentary (for instance, is this an already known Iranian or Indic language, or do the texts represent more than one language, one of which might be a Tocharian language?). Producing such a report is a tall order and we may not have it for some little time.  But, at the very least, Schmidt's "Tocharian C," as it stands, has been removed from the plane of real languages and moved to some linguistic parallel universe.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (16)

Corpora and the Second Amendment: "keep and bear arms" (Part 2)

An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.

COFEA and COEME: lawcorpus.byu.edu.

This post will complete my analysis of the Second Amendment—for now. So far, I've focused almost entirely on the Second Amendment's specification of the right that it protected—the right of the people, to keep and bear Arms—and have said little or nothing about well regulated or militia. That doesn't mean I have nothing to say about those expressions, it just means that I'll defer that discussion until sometime in the future.

Meanwhile, here in the present, this post will try to answer the question that I raised in the last post: whether the Supreme Court was right in saying that the fact that bear arms appears in the phrase keep and bear arms means that bear arms couldn't have been used in its idiomatic military sense:

[If bear arms were given its idiomatic meaning,] the phrase "keep and bear arms" would be incoherent. The word "Arms" would have two different meanings at once: "weapons" (as the object of "keep") and (as the object of "bear") one-half of an idiom. It would be rather like saying "He filled and kicked the bucket" to mean "He filled the bucket and died." Grotesque.

It's true that interpreting bear arms as having been used idiomatically would mean that arms conveys two different meanings (a phenomenon known as copredication). But as explained in my last post, that doesn't rule out such an interpretation. Now, in this post, I'll argue that interpreting bear arms in that way is more than just a theoretical possibility. I'll discuss evidence that makes it reasonable to think keep and bear arms was intended to convey such a meaning, and that such an interpretation would have been more likely than the alternative.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (7)

Corpora and the Second Amendment: "the right (of the people) to … bear arms"

An introduction and guide to this series of posts is available here. The corpus data can be downloaded here. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.

New URL for COFEA and COEME: https://lawcorpus.byu.edu.

Having dealt in my last post with how bear arms was ordinarily used and understood in 18th-century America, I'll turn in this post to the question of how it was used in the Second Amendment.

I'll begin by considering how the right to bear arms would most likely have been understood during the Founding Era. As I will explain, I think it would have been understood to mean something along the lines of 'serve in the militia.' I'll then ask whether that conclusion is changed by the fact that the right to bear arms is described in the Second Amendment as belonging to "the people." My answer will be that my conclusion is unchanged.

My next post will wrap up my examination of the Second Amendment by considering whether my interpretation is ruled out by the fact that the Second Amendment deals not simply with the right of the people to bear arms but with their right to keep and bear arms. And again, the answer will be no.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (6)

Corpora and the Second Amendment: "bear arms" (part 3) [UPDATED]

[Part 1, Part 2.] An introduction and guide to this series of posts is available here. The corpus data can be downloaded here. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen. 

New URL for COFEA and COEME: https://lawcorpus.byu.edu.

From The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut
From October, 1735, to October, 1743, Inclusive

—♦—

THIS WILL BE my final post about bear arms, and it will be followed by a post on the right of the people to … bear arms and another on keep and bear arms. These posts will directly address the linguistic issues that are most important in evaluating the Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller: how bear arms was ordinarily used in the America of the late 18th century, and how the right of the people, to keep and bear Arms was likely to have been understood.

As I've previously explained, the court held in Heller that at the time of the Framing, bear arms ordinarily meant 'wear, bear, or carry … upon the person or in the clothing or in a pocket, for the purpose of being armed and ready for offensive or defensive action in a case of conflict with another person.' In my last post, I discussed the uses of bear arms in the corpus that I thought were at least arguably consistent with that that meaning. Out of the 531 uses that I identified as being relevant, there were only 26 in that category—less than 5% of the total.

In this post I'll discuss the other 95%.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (17)

Linguistic purity in the EU

"Europe heroically defends itself against veggie burgers", The Economist 6/29/2019:

The european union gets a lot of flak. All right, it isn't literally blasted with anti-aircraft fire, but you know what we mean. One ongoing battle (ok, nobody died) involves the use of words. Earlier this year, the European Parliament's agriculture committee voted to prohibit the terms "burger", "sausage", "escalope" and "steak" to describe products that do not contain any meat. It was inspired by the European Court of Justice's decision in 2017 to ban the use of "milk", "butter" and "cream" for non-dairy products. Exceptions were made for "ice cream" and "almond milk", but "soya milk" went down the drain, lest consumers assume it had been extracted from the soya udder of a soya cow. The court has yet to rule on the milk of human kindness.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (41)

An Indo-European approach to the alphabet?

[Update by Mark Liberman: Knowledgeable commenters have serious objections to the content of this guest post (e.g. John McWhorter, Sally Thomason), and others cite apparently racist content and publication location in other writings by John Day (e.g. Suzanne Kemmerer, Jamie). It was a serious mistake to have given this work a platform on this blog, which tries to present reputable linguistic perspectives in a public-facing way. I'm not going to delete it, since the comments are worth preserving, but it's important to put this warning up front. We'll try to avoid such mistakes in the future.]

[This is a guest post by John V. Day]

John V. Day, The Alphabet Code: The Origins of Our Alphabet and Numbers (Kindle 2018).

At present, almost every scholar follows Herodotus about the Greek alphabet being created by non-Indo-European Phoenicians (despite an earlier tradition attributing the invention of writing to the legendary hero Palamedes). Whereas my book, The Alphabet Code, argues that Indo-Europeans created the alphabet.

One problem with the orthodox story, as Isaac Taylor pointed out in the 19th century, is that the Greek letters and their alleged Semitic forerunners suffer from a 'nearly absolute dissemblance of form': for example, zēta and Semitic zayin, mu and Semitic mem; san and Semitic tsade; rhō and Semitic resh.

Furthermore, as Barry Powell admits, 'The signs of the West Semitic signaries bear little resemblance to the objects they are said to name.' Α, for example, supposedly depicts the head of an ox, although only after being rotated by 180°; Β, a house; Θ, a hand; Π, a mouth. Yet no one doubts the Phoenician hypothesis.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (101)