Archive for Language and history

The E-V22 haplogroup and its East Asian congeners, ancient and modern

[This is a guest post by Matthew Marcucci]

Population genetics is proving to be astonishingly useful in aiding the study of history, linguistics, archaeology, anthropology, and other disciplines.  One means of studying ancient human migrations is analysis of the so-called yDNA haplogroup.  In reviewing the modern-day distribution of my own yDNA haplogroup, I have come upon a fascinating contemporary Chinese lineage that may ultimately derive from an ancient or medieval Iranian or Caucasian source population.

Briefly, yDNA haplogroups result from the following basic process:  All men inherit Y-chromosomal DNA from their own fathers.  Random mutations in this yDNA are then passed on to the sons of those in whom they first occurred, and the process repeats ad infinitum.  (An analogous process occurs in women's mitochondrial DNA, which is transmitted to both sons and daughters.)  Through the approximate dating of these mutations, men can be differentiated into groups一so-called “haplogroups”一demarcated by their most-recent shared paternal-line ancestor.  Here, for example, is a recent paper published in the Journal of Human Genetics that analyzes the yDNA haplogroup frequencies among modern Japanese men.  A handy way to represent this pattern of genetic inheritance that ultimately links all men back to a “Y-chromosomal Adam” is by means of a phylogenetic “family” tree.

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China Babel

My basement is full of unpublished manuscripts.  I call it the "Dungeon", because it is dark, dank, and crowded with books and papers — much worse than my office, which has achieved a fabled reputation for its crampedness — and very cold in the winter, though it does have a wonderful bay window on the eastern side where I can look out at the flora, fauna, and foliage to rest my eyes and mind from time to time.

Three of the most significant manuscripts in the Dungeon that remained unpublished for decades are:

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Scythians between Russia and Ukraine

To situate the Scythians linguistically, before delving into their history and culture, let us begin by noting:

The Scythian languages (/ˈsɪθiən/ or /ˈsɪðiən/ or /ˈskɪθiən/) are a group of Eastern Iranic languages of the classical and late antique period (the Middle Iranic period), spoken in a vast region of Eurasia by the populations belonging to the Scythian cultures and their descendants. The dominant ethnic groups among the Scythian-speakers were nomadic pastoralists of Central Asia and the Pontic–Caspian steppe. Fragments of their speech known from inscriptions and words quoted in ancient authors as well as analysis of their names indicate that it was an Indo-European language, more specifically from the Iranic group of Indo-Iranic languages.


Everyone will recognize the current avatar of this ancestress of the Scythian nation:

Source:  The Mixoparthenos (half-maiden), a hybrid creature from the Black Sea, limestone sculpture, 1st-2nd century AD, from Panticapaeum, Taurica (Crimea)

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Thought panzers

Vacillating Chinese terminology for think tanks

Mark Metcalf wrote to tell me:

Global Times*just ran an article that might be of interest regarding PRC think tanks and a new book related to this topic: “Researchers, scholars explore methods to boost China’s influence of thoughts”.

*an appendage of People's Daily

I was caught up short by the clumsy expression "influence of thoughts".  But something else about this new development bothered me much more.  Mark tracked down the title of the book in question:

《Sīxiǎng tǎnkè: Zhōngguó zhìkù de guòqù, xiànzhuàng yǔ wèilái 思想坦克:中国智库的过去、现状与未来》("Thought tanks [armored vehicles]: the past, present, and future of China's wisdom warehouses"]) [VHM — intentionally awkward translation for special effect, to be explained below]

What jumped out at me in the title was the use of tǎnkè 坦克 for (think) tank. In my Chinese studies, I learned that tǎnkè 坦克 was a military weapon and not a repository. And when you Google images of tǎnkè 坦克, all you see are images of tracked vehicles. That's how all my Pleco dictionaries translate the term, as well. However, when you put the term into Google Translate, it provides both the tracked vehicle and an alternative translation: "a large receptacle or storage chamber, especially for liquid or gas" with yóuxiāng 油箱 ("oil / gas[oline] / fuel tank") as a synonym. Yet GT can't translate the term sīxiǎng tǎnkè 思想坦克.  [VHM:  And well it should not.  See more below.]

Going out on a limb, could the expression sīxiǎng tǎnkè 思想坦克 have the dual meaning (i.e., a pun) for an offensive organization ("vehicle") that is used to control / defend the narrative of the CCP?

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The consequences of interpreting: the Qianlong Emperor, Lord Macartney, George Staunton, and Li Zibiao

I'm led to this topic by a consideration of one of the six books that made the short list for the Wolfson History Prize, which is the UK's most prestigious history book prize, as introduced by Sudhir Hazareesingh, who is interviewed by Sophie Roell, in "The Best History Books of 2023", Five Books (11/12/23).

Because this is Language Log, we skip directly to Henrietta Harrison’s The Perils of Interpreting, which is about a key episode in Chinese history when, in 1793, the British envoy Lord Macartney (1737-1806) was rebuffed by the Qianlong emperor (1711-1799). Roell prompts Hazareesingh to tell her about this book, what it’s about, and why the judges liked it.

Hazareesingh responds (with slight amplifications and modifications):

In a narrow sense, this is a twin biography. It’s about two translators who are actors in this big drama of the encounter between the British and Chinese empires in the late 18th and early 19th century—from the 1790s through to the Opium Wars in the late 1830s.

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Shimao, graphic arts, and long distance connections, part 2

Intercultural connections imply crosscultural communications.

In my estimation, Shimao is the most important archeological site in the EEAH (Extended East Asian Heartland) from B.C. times, with enormous implications for the origins of Sinitic civilization.  Shimao is a recently discovered archeological site, brought to light roughly a dozen years ago, but still very much under excavation.  Its coordinates are 38.5657°N 110.3252°E, which put it on the mid-eastern edge of the Ordos Desert that lies within the great, rectangular bend of the Yellow River called the Ordos Loop in English or Hétào 河套 ("Yellow River Sheath") in Chinese.  I often think of the Ordos as the omphalos of the EEAH, ecologically a part of the Eastern Gobi desert steppe that has been lassoed ("lasso" is another meaning of tào 套) into the cultural orbit of the Yellow River Valley, which is the center of the East Asian Heartland (EAH) proper.

For the concept of East Asian Heartland (EAH) and Extended East Asian Heartland (EEAH), see Victor H. Mair, "The North(west)ern Peoples and the Recurrent Origins of the 'Chinese' State", in Joshua A. Fogel, The Teleology of the Modern Nation-State:  Japan and China (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), pp. 46-84.

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The Tocharian Trek: PIE and migration across Eurasia

In recent weeks and months, Language Log has been quite active in discussions on Tocharian and its relationship to other members of Indo-European.  Today's post takes a different approach from this post made just yesterday and many earlier posts.

"Europe's ancient languages shed light on a great migration and weather vocabulary"

by Ali Jones, Horizon: The EU Research & Innovation Magazine (8/15/23)

Painstaking archaeological exploration is a familiar, often widely admired, method of unearthing history. Less celebrated, but also invaluable, is the piecing together of fragments of ancient languages and analyzing how they changed over thousands of years.

Historical linguists have reconstructed a common ancestral tongue for most of the languages spoken today in Europe and South Asia. English, German, Greek, Hindi and Urdu—among others in the Indo-European family of languages—can all trace their origins to a single spoken one named Proto-Indo-European (PIE).

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The origins and affinities of Tocharian

I asked several IEist colleagues:

Of all the IE languages, which one is Tocharian closest to?



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Central Asian Kharosthi script on an ancient knife hilt found in Austria

Astonishing demonstration of East-West interaction during Roman times (with an equally mind-boggling demonstration of the occasional, yet horrendous [defying common sense], ineptitude of AI translation):

"Geheimnis um Messergriff aus dem römerzeitlichen Wels gelüftet"

Ein vor über 100 Jahren entdeckter Elfenbeingriff mit rätselhafter Inschrift aus dem antiken Ovilava gehörte wohl einst einem Besucher aus dem fernen Asien

"The mystery of the Roman period Wels knife handle revealed"

An ivory handle with a mysterious inscription from ancient Ovilava discovered more than 100 years ago probably once belonged to a visitor from distant Asia

Thomas Bergmayr, Der Standard (7/28/23)

Before presenting the remarkable findings reported in this important article, just a short prefatory note about the AI translation of the title.  Three of the main online multilingual neural machine translation services (Google Translate, Baidu Fanyi, and DeepL) mistranslated "Wels" (the eighth largest city in Austria [ancient Ovilava]) as "catfish" (only Bing Translator got it right).  Given the object that we're dealing with, that is a genuinely bizarre rendering of the word, especially since the material of the handle is identified as ivory and the artifact as coming from Ovilaval in the subtitle.  (It is all the more perplexing that three of the four services are consistent in making the same strange mistake [well, not so strange after all, since "wels" really does mean catfish in German].)  Fortunately, the machine translators do a better job in the body of the article, where there is more context.

For the purposes of the rough translation of the German article, I have relied mainly on GT, with occasional assistance from the other translation services, and some good old human input from my own brain.  Please bear in mind that the translations proffered below do not pretend to be polished, flawless English renderings of parts of the German article, but only to give a functionally useful idea of its content.

N.B.:  Two photographs of the knife handle are provided near the bottom of this post.

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Knowledge and skills contributed by enslaved Africans

The recent controversy about Florida's new State Academic Standards for Social Studies leaves something out, in my opinion. The point of contention is the assertion (p.6) that "Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit". Critics have taken this as an inappropriate pitch for the benefits of slavery, evoking the "Slavery as Positive Good" viewpoint that was common in the American south before the Civil War.

Missing from the discussion is the fact that the transfer of crucial skills sometimes went in the other direction. In the 17th and 18th centuries, enslaved Africans brought with them the technology that enabled wet rice cultivation in South Carolina and Georgia. Needless to say, the British colonizers knew nothing at all about how to grow rice, especially in converted mangrove swamps. This imported technology led to lucrative rice-cultivation plantations that were essential to Britain's colonization of North America.

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Kushan inscriptions from Western and Southern Central Asia (WCA, SCA)

The article I am calling to your attention in this post is of extraordinary importance for its potential to link together many of the themes we have repeatedly investigated during nearly the last two decades on Language Log (see the bibliography below for a sampling of relevant posts).

To make it easier for non-specialist readers, here are a few brief identifications of essential languages and peoples (all late Classical and early Medieval):

Bactrian (Αριαο, Aryao, [arjaː]) is an extinct Eastern Iranian language formerly spoken in the Central Asian region of Bactria (in present-day Afghanistan) and used as the official language of the Kushan and the Hephthalite empires.

The Kushan Empire (Ancient Greek: Βασιλεία Κοσσανῶν; Bactrian: Κοϸανο, Košano; Sanskrit: कुषाण वंश; Brahmi: , Ku-ṣā-ṇa; BHS: Guṣāṇa-vaṃśa; Parthian: , Kušan-xšaθr; Chinese: 貴霜; pinyin: Guìshuāng) was a syncretic empire, formed by the Yuezhi, in the Bactrian territories in the early 1st century. It spread to encompass much of what is now Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India, at least as far as Saketa and Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares), where inscriptions have been found dating to the era of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka the Great.

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Tasting History

That's the name of a viral YouTube channel that I had never heard of, and now a popular book that Barbara Phillips Long called to my attention:

My son gave me a copy of Tasting History, by Max Miller, which takes very old recipes and gives modern approximations of them. The book is handsomely printed, well illustrated, and fun, with a wide range of random food trivia and loads of food history. You might find it intriguing.
There's a raspberry shrub recipe from 1911; I seem to recall Language Log having a post about shrubs and their origins.
There are also ten recipes credited to the Near and Far East, including recipes from Egypt, Baghdad, the Mughal Empire, India, China, Korea, and Japan.
So far, I have only read part of the book, although I paged through the whole thing. I did like this quote:
They say "history is written by the victors," but in my experience, history is written by those who write stuff down, and food is no exception.

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Revelation: Scythians and Shang

I was stunned when I read the following article in the South China Morning Post, both because it was published in Hong Kong, which is now completely under the censorial control of the People's Republic of China (PRC) / Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and because it raises some disturbing political issues and troubling linguistic problems.

"Why the rewriting of China’s history 3,000 years ago still matters today"

Confucius uncovered the truth of the Shang dynasty but agreed with King Wen and the Duke of Zhou to cover up disturbing facts
Beijing’s claimed triumph over Covid-19, for instance, may not echo with all who endured the draconian quarantines.

Zhou Xin, SCMP (4/25/23)

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