Archive for Language and history

Nomadic affinity with oracle bone divination

Anyone who has studied the history of writing in China is aware that the earliest manifestation of the Sinitic script dates to around the 13th century BC, under the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600- BC).  It is referred to as jiǎgǔwén 甲骨文 ("oracle bone writing") and was used primarily (almost exclusively) for the purpose of divination.  The most ideal bones for this purpose were ox scapulae, since they were broad and flat, and had other suitable properties, which I shall describe below.

The bones used for divination were prepared by cleaning and then having indentations drilled into their surface, but not all the way through.  A hot poker was applied to the declivities, causing cracks to radiate from the heated focal point.  This cracking was called bǔ卜, a pictograph of the lines that form in a heat-stressed bone.

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What happened to the spelling bee this year?

Like so many other good things in this annus horribilis, COVID killed it.

For quite a few years now, I have reported on the national spelling bee (usually in May).  This has been such a dismal year that I didn't make an effort to inquire about what happened with it this spring.  Now, however, as I am preparing a post on Indian feats of memorization, I could not help but wonder about the fate of the 2020 national spelling bee.  Here's what I found out.

"Tough words, little drama, familiar champ in virtual bee"May 29, 2020)

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Jipangu = Japan Country?

This was supposedly Marco Polo's word for Japan.  It has recently come back in vogue for films, games, etc.  It would seem that "Jipangu" (also spelled "Zipangu") is cognate with Jap. Nihonkoku / Nipponkoku, Ch. Rìběnguó 日本國, Kor. Ilbon-guk, Viet. Nhật Bản Quốc , but in none of the Chinese topolects I'm aware of does it sound quite like that.  Certainly it would not work for the southern or other topolects that have an entering tone final -k (or some -t) for the last of the three syllables.  Ditto for Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Even the Sinitic topolects without an entering tone final don't have the right vowel shape / quality at the end to match the -u of Jipangu.

Maybe Marco Polo got it from Persian, the lingua franca of international diplomacy in his time.  Could it be that the phonotactics of Persian could not tolerate / represent any of the Sinitic topolectal forms of 國 directly but transformed one of them into something that sounded to Marco Polo like -gu?

Did Marco Polo get "Jipangu" from the Mongols?  If so, from whom did the Mongols get it?

Wiktionary entry for 日本國.

Wiktionary entry for .

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Trefoils across Eurasia: the importance of archeology for historical linguistics, part 4

Hour-long video:  "A Sacred Emblem: Trefoil in Early Korean Metalwork and Beyond":

October 8, 2020 – Trefoil or “three-leaved plant” is a stylized form found in artifacts and architecture across culture and time. Dr. Minjee Kim begins the story with her first encounter with a gold headdress ornament of the Balhae kingdom (698-926) and traces the migration of its trefoil form throughout the 4th-6th century across Asia. Then, she travels to France, where “fleur-de-lis” adorned French crowns, clothing, textiles, and furniture as a symbol of royalty, leading to its wide contemporary appropriation by many Western institutions. The journey ends with the long and rich tradition in Kyrgyzstan where the motif is still strongly embedded in various realms of material culture of the people. While offering a view on Korean artifacts within a wider context of material resonance in human history, Dr. Kim highlights the way these artifacts adorned the body and how the craftsmanship was employed to articulate the social hierarchy.

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"Inshallah"

You've probably heard about this — Teo Armas, "‘Inshallah’: The Arabic ‘fuggedaboudit’ Biden dropped to blast Trump on tax returns", WaPo 9/30/2020:

Midway through Tuesday night’s chaotic presidential debate, as President Trump vowed to release his still-private tax returns, Joe Biden shot back at his opponent with a particularly sarcastic jab.

“Millions of dollars, and you’ll get to see it,” Trump said of the amount he claims to have paid.

“When?” the Democratic presidential nominee interjected. “Inshallah?”

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Manchu "princess" speaking English

"Is your English better than that of this Qing dynasty ‘princess’?" (YouTube 1:01)

(Source)

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Ethnogenesis of the Mongolian people and their language

The late 13th and 14th c. portraits of the Mongol khans and their wives often show them with rather light (hazel or greenish) eyes.  For example, the 14th c. portrait of Ögedei Khan (1186-1241) clearly depicts him as having greenish blue eyes and a reddish (definitely light colored) mustache and beard.


(National Palace Museum)

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Pugu, boga, beg

From Pamela Crossley:

Just read again Chao Wu’s perplexing post on An early fourth century AD historical puzzle involving a Caucasian people in North China. it mentions “pugu” as “a Hu title.”  This made me wonder about possible connection of “pugu” (however it was originally pronounced) and related series of titles boga / bojilie / beyile, beg / begler, boyar, etc., but can’t see this having been done on the site.  Not being a linguist, I can only express curiosity. but I wonder if “pugu” is an early citation of these medieval Eurasian titles.

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Idle thoughts on "gelding"

The title and the following observations come from Rebecca Hamilton:

I was reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's Between the Woods and the Water: on Foot to Constantinople, as I convalesce from COVID-19 (I've had a hard time of it), and I stumbled upon an aside he made about the French "hongre," meaning "gelding," as does the German "wallach." He made this comment – without further explication – in the context of a discussion of the ethnographic roots of Hungarians, Wallachians, and Rumanians (in particular, the latter as being descendants of Roman occupation, if not Romans themselves). What all this means, I cannot say. It seemed like a topic you would know something about. Because I am confined to bed for the moment, if you could be so kind as to forward me some reading material, I would be very grateful. Also, anything about "Wales" or "Welsh" sharing etymological roots with "Wallach," and how "wether" fits into all this would be great.

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Tilting vessel

Earlier this year, we had a post about a fascinating new Wikipedia article on "Goblet word" (5/30/20).  That post was about a vessel that served as an analogy for a rhetorical device called zhīyán 卮言 ("goblet word").  Now we have another magisterial Wikipedia article by an anonymous master of Chinese esoterica.  It's about another name for a similar type of vessel called qīqì 欹器, "tilting vessel".

The qīqì (欹器, "tilting vessel" or "tipping vessel") was an ancient Chinese ceremonial utensil that automatically overturned and spilled its contents once it reached capacity, thus symbolizing moderation and caution. Both Confucian and Daoist Chinese classics include a famous anecdote about the first time Confucius saw a tilting vessel. In the Confucian tradition (e.g., Xunzi) it was also named yòuzuò zhī qì (宥座之器, "vessel on the right of one's seat"), with three positions, the vessel tilts to one side when empty, stands upright when filled halfway, and overturns when filled to the brim—illustrating the philosophical value of the golden mean. In the Daoist tradition, the tilting vessel was named yòuzhī (宥卮, "urging goblet" or "warning goblet"), with two positions, staying upright when empty and overturning when full—illustrating the metaphysical value of emptiness, and later associated with the Zhuangzian zhīyán (卮言, "goblet words") rhetorical device.

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"Between the Eyes and the Ears": SPP turns 300

There is a phenomenon in Japanese publishing called "san-gō zasshi  三号雑誌", which refers to a short-lived magazine that puts out three issues and then folds.  Sino-Platonic Papers, a scholarly journal I started in 1986, just put out its 300th issue, and we're still going strong, with about ten more issues in the pipeline, and others lined up to come after that.

The latest issue is "Between the Eyes and the Ears: Ethnic Perspective on the Development of Philological Traditions, First Millennium AD", by Shuheng Zhang and Victor H. Mair, which appeared yesterday (July 19, 2020).

Abstract

The present inquiry stands as a foray into what may be thought of as a “Summa Philologica Sinica.” To be more precise, this paper is about the study and developmental trajectory of philology rather than philology per se. The approach here, drawing on the prefaces and comments of primary historical resources, conceives of philology as subject to the transitions of philosophy, an amalgam within which variegated traditions and schools contend and consent with each other, rather than as a static, ahistorical antithesis between the study of script and that of sound. The bifocal panoply behind philological texts and the s 勢 (“immanent configuration”) that oscillates between indigenous systems of thought and foreign philosophy, defense of nationality and openness to foreign voices, reflected in the realm of language studies, presents itself as focused on characters (eyes) versus sounds (ears).

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The geographical, archeological, genetic, and linguistic origins of Tocharian

[The following is a guest post by Douglas Adams.]

Key words:  Eastern Central Asia (ECA); Tarim Basin; Dzungarian Basin; Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) Anatolian; Proto-Indo-European; “standard average Indo-European” (“SAIE”); Hittite; Iranian; Sogdian; Khotanese; Bactrian; Avestan; Saka; Indo-Aryan; Mitanni; Assyrian; Indo-Hittite; Fertile Crescent: Yamnaya; Sintashta; Andronovo; Afanasievo; Minusinsk Basin; Qäwrighul; genetics; Yanqi Basin; Ili Valley; Yuezhi; Xiongnu; Turfan Basin; stockbreeding; barley cultivation; millet; irrigation technology; donkey; camel; brick; arrow; irrigation technology; Russian; Kazakhstan; Indo-Iranian; Sanskrit; Massagetae

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Below is a host of questions, implied questions, and questionable statements. I’m trying to get my head around the prehistoric interrelations of pre-Proto-Iranians and pre-Proto-Tocharians based on different “age-levels” of linguistic borrowing and match them with some plausible geographical / archaeological contexts. There are some conundrums here: (1) how did early borrowings from the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) folks get so quickly, by so round about a way, into Tocharian, and (2) why does Tocharian B have an irrigation vocabulary so reminiscent of Central Iranian languages (Sogdian/Avestan; not Saka), borrowed (on phonological grounds) a thousand years (at least) after Tocharians were already knowledgeable about irrigation.

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Passes: gates and barriers

A key term in Chinese historical geography is guān 關 ("pass").  You can see from the shape of the character that it is framed by the two panels of a door, left and right, and that it has two upright, elaborated bars that could impede progress through the gate (I am thinking of the early forms of the character).  The flanking door panels constitute the semantophore (radical, classifier) of the character, and the bars inside are the secondary semantophore, but may also simultaneously function as a phonophore.

A pass serves both to facilitate and block movement along key routes leading into and out of a country or regions within a country.

Just as I was thinking about writing this post on passes, I synchronously and serendipitously received from Alan Kennedy a reference to this highly technical article on Silk Road travel:

Irina Tupikova, Matthias Schemmel, Klaus Geus, "Travelling along the Silk Road: A new interpretation of Ptolemy’s coordinates", Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte / Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Preprint 465 (2014), 73 pages.

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