Archive for Language and history

Slaves and clients; Arabic Mamluks and mawlas: a fishy Turkic tail

From my 10th grade high school world history class in 1959, I was intrigued by the evocative, mysterious Mamluks.  I was impressed by their achievements in statecraft, art, architecture, and many other fields.  Thus Mamluk is a word that is very well known in English, even to a rural highschooler in Osnaburg Township of Stark County in northeastern Ohio, but I never imagined that their name meant "slave".  Rather, I thought of the mighty Mamluks as military forces who were like knights, and in some cases were  even rulers who founded states of their own.  That they were, but I didn't realize they were of slave origin.

Mamluk (Arabic: مملوك mamlūk (singular), مماليك mamālīk (plural), translated literally as "thing possessed", meaning "slave", also transliterated as Mameluke, mamluq, mamluke, mameluk, mameluke, mamaluke, or marmeluke) is a term most commonly referring to non-Arab, ethnically diverse (mostly Turkic, Caucasian, Eastern and Southeastern European) slave-soldiers and freed slaves to which were assigned military and administrative duties, serving the ruling Arab dynasties in the Muslim world.

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The Wool Road of Northern Eurasia

We all know about the Silk Road (which is actually a recent term), and some of us also know about the Bronze Road, the Iron Road, the Horse and Chariot Road, the Fur Road, the Glass Road, the Spice Road, and the Tea Road.  Now we really have to take seriously the existence of a Wool Road.

As I have often noted, I began my international investigation of the mummies of the Tarim Basin as a genetics project in 1991, since that was around the time that it became possible to study ancient DNA.  After four years of diligent collection and analysis, I grew disenchanted with the expected precision of genetics research, and in 1995 I returned to Eastern Central Asia (ECA) with Elizabeth Barber and Irene Good, prehistoric textile specialists, to study the archeologically recovered textiles of the region.  The results of their work turned out to yield tremendously valuable and revealing results about the origins and technology of the ancient textiles we examined.

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"Configurations of the earth" and "patterns of the heavens" in Sinitic toponymy

The latest issue of Sino-Platonic Papers:

James M. Hargett, "Anchors of Stability: Place-Names in Early China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 312 (April, 2021), 1-41.  (free pdf)

ABSTRACT:

The use of place-names in China predates its written history, which extends back at least 3,500 years. While the basic principles of toponym formation in ancient China are similar to those in other cultures around the world, early in its history a process took place that led to a standardization of the practices by which place-names were formulated. The central argument in this essay is that the essential features of place-name nomenclature in China were already in place before the Qin unification in 221 BCE.

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The "genetic singularity" of the Basque people

Linguistically, Basque is generally thought of as an isolate with a very deep history.  Consequently, Basque people are also often presumed to have been genetically singular for thousands of years as well.  A new study, however, calls this presumption into question:

"Basque 'genetic singularity' confirmed in largest-ever study:  The new research shows that this difference only began to emerge 2,500 years ago as a result of centuries of isolation", by Manuel Ansede, El Pais (English) (4/1/21)

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Clumsy classicism

In his addresses to the Liǎnghuì 兩會 (Two Sessions), annual plenary meetings of the national People's Congress and the national committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference that have just concluded in Beijing (March 4-11), Xi Jinping repeatedly stressed “guó zhī dà zhě 国之大者”.  The grammar is clearly literary, with the first character a monosyllabic version of vernacular "guójiā 国家" ("country"), the second character a classical attributive particle, and the fourth character a classical nominalizing particle. Thus the phrase stands out like a sore thumb midst the matrix of vernacular in which it is mixed.  What's worse, even fluent readers of Mandarin generally misinterpret what it means.  Most educated persons to whom I've shown the phrase think that it means "big / large / powerful / great country", "that which (can be called) a big / large / powerful / great country"), etc., when in fact Xi intends for it to mean "something that is important for the country", "that which is important for the country" "things that are important for the country", etc.

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Mongolian museum mystery

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Kunlun: the origins and meanings of a mysterious place name

A recent post introduced the evocative place name, Kunlun:

"Kunlun: Roman letter phonophores for Chinese characters" (2/16/21)

As we learned from the previous post, Kunlun is known from historical and fictional sources dating to the last two millennia and more to refer to mythological and geographically locatable mountains in Central Asia and in the far west as well as to vague places in Southeast Asia and blacks associated with them.

Simply because of the wide range of referents, one cannot help but be intrigued how it transpired that the same unusual name, which mostly refers to mountains, can be so broadly dispersed.

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Persian peaches of immortality

When I visited Samarkand about 35-40 years ago (before digital days), I ate some of these luscious, mythic peaches:

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Involution, part 2

[This is a guest post by Diana Shuheng Zhang.  It was prompted by "'Involution', 'working man', and 'Versailles literature': memes of embitterment" (12/23/20), where we discovered that the word "involution", which is little known in English-speaking countries, except in highly specialized contexts, has gone viral in China in a sense that is barely known in the West.]

The resource curse of Chinese textualism and Sinology's paradox of involuted plenty

I. Hyperabundance of texts

To me, the predicament of Sinology seems like a resource curse. The "paradox of plenty”. “Paradox of plenty” is an economic term, referring to the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources tend to have worse development outcomes than those with fewer natural resources. I have been thinking about this in my head for a few days. The “resource curse” for China studies is that Chinese culture, especially Classical Chinese-based culture of writings, has too many raw texts. The discovery of the Dunhuang manuscripts has added even more to the already abundant, if not excessive, textual residue that scholars devote their lives to, accumulating and laying out textual evidence before they can reach the point — maybe they never can if they do not intend to — of analyzing, integrating, utilizing, and theorizing them.

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The "whole mess" of Old Sinitic reconstruction

In the comments to "The Altaic Hypothesis revisited" (12/10/20), Peter Golden, a Turkologist, mentioned that, as a non-Sinologist, he uses the reconstructions of the following scholars — Karlgren, Pulleyblank, Schuessler, Baxter/Sagart, Kroll and Coblin — "to get some sense" of the Old Sinitic, Late Han, Middle Sinitic (Early Middle Sinitic and Late Middle Sinitic) sounds that are "masked" by the Sinographic renderings of foreign names.  Alexander Vovin raised the problem of the inadequacies of the reconstructions of Christopher Beckwith, saying that it "is not a reconstruction at all, at least not in the sense of Karlgren, Pulleyblank, Baxter/Sagart, Zhengzhang Shangfang, Li Fang-Kuei, Coblin, etc."  Vovin continues:

I think that Beckwith is a very interesting historian (as far as I can judge, not being one myself — some of his books are very interesting reading, imho), but when he starts to talk about historical linguistics, whether it is Chinese, Japanese, Turkic, Mongolic, etc., it is methodologically simply not acceptable and it is further aggravated by the corruption of data.

The question of Beckwith's reconstructions being ad hoc in nature was also raised.

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"Clear" and "turbid" in Chinese phonology, part 4

[This is a guest post by W. South Coblin in response to these questions which I asked him about the distinction between qing 清 ("clear") and zhuo 濁 ("muddy; turbid") in Chinese language studies:

1. when and how it arose

2. how it functions within traditional Chinese phonology

3. how it correlates with concepts in modern linguistics]

What you’re asking for would require a treatise, or maybe even a monograph on these things, and I must pass on that assignment right now. But I can help you out a little. First of all, these points are dealt with in two handy sources. The first is Jerry [Norman]’s book Chinese, Chapter 2. The index to the book will lead you to the relevant parts of the chapter. The other source is a full exposition of traditional medieval Chinese phonology by Guillaume Jacques. You will find it here.  Start reading on p. 6 and then read as much as you find useful.

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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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