Archive for Language and history

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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Know your Narts: cattle rearing and cattle raiding

We here at Language Log know our Ossetians:  see "Know your Ossetians" (2/17/20), and be sure to read the informative comments to that post.  Today, let us go one step deeper into their language and lore.  We shall do so through getting to know some basic things about the Nart sagas (Abkhaz: Нарҭаа ражәабжьқәа; Nartaa raƶuabƶkua; Adyghe: Нартхымэ акъыбарыхэ; Nartxıme aqıbarıxe; Karachay-Balkar: Нарт таурухла; Nart tawruxla; 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 tribes 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 origin 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'.

Source:  Nart saga

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Khmer historical phonology

[This is a guest post by John Whitman]

I have a Thai student writing a dissertation on Khmer historical phonology who wrote a qualifying paper using the Zhenla Fengtuji 真臘風土記, a late 13th century gazetteer on Cambodia written by one Zhou Daguan, who was sent to the Angkor court as an emissary. The most cited source on this text is a 1951 translation by Pelliot There is a more recent English translation by Harris (2007), but it relies on Pelliot for linguistic matters. Pelliot identifies and transcribes 37 of the 44 Khmer words in the text.

Like Chinese (but probably slightly later), Khmer was undergoing loss of its voicing distinction in obstruents, but in a different way: Old Khmer voiceless obstruents became implosives, and voiced obstruents voiceless. For reasons that he doesn’t explain very well, Pelliot assumed that Zhou was using early Mandarin values for his Chinese transcription characters, with aspirated Chinese initials representing Old Khmer voiceless initials, and unaspirated initials to represent OK voiced initials. This leads to chaotic correspondences with the Khmer material.

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European slaves in the year 1000

Valerie Hansen has a new book just out:

THE YEAR 1000: When Explorers Connected the World — and Globalization Began.  New York:  Scribner, 2020.

A NYT review of Hansen's landmark volume is copied below, but let's first look at some interesting language notes concerning the background of the word for "slave" (Chapter 4 is on "European Slaves"; the quotations here are from pp. 85-86).

The demand for slaves [in addition to that for furs] was also high, especially in the two biggest cities in Europe and the Middle East at the time–Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire, and Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, in present-day Iraq. The residents of Constantinople and Baghdad used their wealth to purchase slaves, almost always people captured in raids on neighboring societies.

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"The old man at the pass loses his horse"

For many years, Melinda Takeuchi, professor of Japanese art history at Stanford, regularly competed with horse and carriage in combined driving events.  Here's an example of what the sport looks like.

Not long ago, her carriage driving days came to an abrupt end due to an accident, which she describes thus:

I had a horrendous carriage wreck a couple of years ago — 5 dashing deer spooked my horse and she bolted. carriage flipped. i was life-flighted to stanford emergency where they discovered 8 broken ribs and a malignant cyst in the pancreas. by one of those crazy serendipitous miracles, the cancer was discovered in time to blitz it. so i survived against all odds, but my daredevil days are over. thank the goddess for horses in these days of shelter in place.

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The importance of archeology for historical linguistics

The last two comments, here and here, to this post ("Once more on Sinitic *mraɣ and Celtic and Germanic *marko for 'horse'" (4/28/20), like hundreds of others that have been posted on Language Log over the years, show how linguists need to at least think about the significance of archeological findings for their deliberations.  It would be folly to completely ignore evidence from archeology when attempting to clarify the development of language.  Indeed, archeological materials that are securely dated and identified with regard to culture type provide a benchmark for historical linguistic research.

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Wolf Warrior Diplomacy

A little over two years ago, I made a rather detailed post on Lycogala epidendrum, commonly known as wolf's milk or groening's slime, and its metaphorical applications in China:

"Wolf's milk, a slime mold attractive to young Chinese?" (4/7/18)

During the interim, the popularity of this lowly amoeba has only grown, until it has become the model for an aggressive style of diplomacy on the world stage called in Chinese "zhàn láng wàijiāo 戰狼外交" ("wolf warrior diplomacy").  Synergistically, it has joined forces with another microoranism, this one called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), also known as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and a host of other names that I will refrain from mentioning here for fear of pushing the wrong buttons (this is highly fraught topic, one that must be treated delicately, lest one stirs up a hornets' nest of conflicting onomastic opinions).  Together, COVID-19 and wolf warrior diplomacy have brought the world to the brink of pandemic strife.

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"Forty Days and Forty Nights"

The old hymn and blues song of that title have been very much on my mind during the last couple of months.

George Hunt Smyttan (1856)

Forty days and forty nights
You were fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights,
Tempted, and yet undefiled….

Muddy Waters (1956)

Forty days and forty nights, since my baby left this town
Sun shinin' all day long, but the rain keep falling down
She's my life I need her so, why she left I just don't know….

These are very different kinds of songs, yet they are both focused on a period of forty days and forty nights.  I've been thinking about these songs a lot in the current climate of far-reaching quarantines against the novel coronavirus epidemic centered on Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.

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Know your Ossetians

We here at Language Log know our Ossetians:

"Blue-Green Iranian 'Danube'" (10/26/19)

"Sword out of the stone" (8/9/08)

And we know our Scythians, who are closely linked to the Ossetians, too:

"Of reindeer and Old Sinitic reconstructions" (12/23/18)

"Horses, soma, riddles, magi, and animal style art in southern China" (11/11/19)

"Of armaments and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 6" (12/23/17)

"Of horse riding and Old Sinitic reconstructions" (4/21/19)

"Of jackal and hide and Old Sinitic reconstruction" (12/16/18)

Now Richard Foltz (a cultural historian specializing in ancient Iranian religion), on his blog, "A Canadian in Ossetia:  Life in the central Caucasus", has given us the opportunity to greatly expand our knowledge of Ossetian / Ossete / Ossetic and the Ossetians who speak it with two new, substantial articles:

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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

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The Hu: a wildly successful Mongolian rock band

Here's the official video of their viral hit, "Wolf Totem":

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A museum for the languages of Taiwan

Language Log readers will be aware that "Chinese", i.e., "Mandarin" (Guóyǔ 國語), is not the only language on the island.  Indeed, it is a Johnny-come-lately, having become the official language of the Republic of China on Taiwan in 1945, and was strongly enforced as such after 1949 when the retreating mainland KMT armies of Chiang Kai-shek occupied the island.

The earliest indigenous languages of Taiwan (Formosa) were Austronesian.  And we should not forget that there was a period of partial Dutch rule (1624-1662), especially in the south, and Spanish Formosa (Formosa Española) was a small colony of the Spanish Empire established in the northern part of the island from 1626 to 1642.  Consequently, both Dutch and Spanish had an impact on the linguistic development of Taiwan during the 17th century.  The first Europeans to take notice of Taiwan, however, were the Portuguese who, passing Taiwan in 1544, recorded in a ship's log the name of the island as Ilha Formosa ("Beautiful Island").

Taiwan was a dependency of Japan from 1895 to 1945, during which period Japanese was the official language.  As such, it was important for the development of language on the island, and its significance lasts till today.

The influence of English in Taiwan has been enormous during the last two centuries.

See "Languages of Taiwan".

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New Years party themes

Today's xkcd:

The mouseover title: ""Off-by-one errors" isn't the easiest theme to build a party around, but I've seen worse."

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