Archive for Language and history

Shandong vernacular, then and now

A week ago, Julie Lee made this interesting comment on Language Log:

…when I studied Yuan dynasty drama and had books from the library, my husband (a physicist) picked them up to read and was amazed at the 13th century dialogue. "That's just the way we spoke at home in Shandong", he exclaimed. He grew up in Tengxian County*, Shandong, and went to school in Qingdao. I couldn't understand his Shandong speech. I too was amazed that Chinese colloquial speech (in Shandong) lasted from the 13th century till the 20th century — 700 years. The dialogue in Yuan drama was popping with lively expressions.

[*Likely the birthplace of the populist, egalitarian, pragmatic, empirical, scientific minded philosopher, Mo Zi / Micius (ca. 470-391 BC.)]

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Prefixes "yǒu" ("to have") and "wú" ("to not have") in Old Sinitic

My brother Denis and I have long been intrigued by the use of the prefix yǒu 有 ("there is / are / exist[s]") in a wide variety of circumstances in Old Sinitic:  e.g., before the word for family temples (yǒu miào 有廟), before the names of barbaric tribes (yǒu Miáo 有苗), and before place names (yǒu Yì 有易).  We wonder whether similar constructions exist in other languages.

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The Ossetes

Here at Language Log we know our Ossetes and have been learning much about Scythians (see "Selected readings"), so it is good to have this new (forthcoming) book by Richard Foltz: 

The Ossetes: Modern-Day Scythians of the Caucasus
New York / London: I. B. Tauris / Bloomsbury, 24 February 2022

Publisher's description:

The Ossetes, a small nation inhabiting two adjacent states in the central Caucasus, are the last remaining linguistic and cultural descendants of the ancient nomadic Scythians who dominated the Eurasian steppe from the Balkans to Mongolia for well over one thousand years. A nominally Christian nation speaking a language distantly related to Persian, the Ossetes have inherited much of the culture of the medieval Alans who brought equestrian culture to Europe. They have preserved a rich oral literature through the epic of the Narts, a body of heroic legends that shares much in common with the Persian Book of Kings and other works of Indo-European mythology. This is the first book devoted to the little-known history and culture of the Ossetes to appear in any Western language. Charting Ossetian history from Antiquity to today, it will be a vital contribution to the fields of Iranian, Caucasian, Post-Soviet and Indo-European Studies.

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Xiongnu (Hunnic) Shanyu

One of the most hotly debated questions in early Chinese studies is the origin and pronunciation of the title of the ruler of the Xiongnu (Huns), which is written with these two Sinographs, 單于.  The current scholarly consensus is that the Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) pronunciation should be chányú.  Although it is much contested, the current scholarly consensus for the pronunciation of the name of the son of the first Xiongnu ruler, Tóumàn, is Mòdú (r. 209-174 BC): 

Modun, Maodun, Modu (simplified Chinese: 冒顿单于; traditional Chinese: 冒頓單于; pinyin: Mòdùn Chányú ~ Màodùn Chányú, c. 234 – c. 174 BCE), also known as Mete khan across a number of Turkic languages, was the son of Touman and the founder of the empire of the Xiongnu. He came to power by ordering his men to kill his father in 209 BCE.

(source)

The following is a guest post by Penglin Wang, which takes a different approach, and for the first time offers a novel source for the Hunnic title.  The state he refers to is Shanshan, better known as Loulan, which would make its language Indo-European (Tocharian or Gandhari Prakrit), for which see here.

For caṃkura as a Gandhari Prakrit title, see A Dictionary of Gāndhārī here.

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Ashkenazi and Scythians

It is not my intention to stir up a firestorm, but I have for decades suspected that the names "Ashkenazi" and "Scythian" are related.  Now, after having sat on this for years and letting it gnaw away at my inwyt for far too long, I've decided to seek the collected expertise of the Language Log readership to see if there really is something to my suspicion.

Ashkenazi Jews (/ˌæʃ-, ɑːʃkəˈnɑːzi/ ASH-, AHSH-kə-NAH-zee), also known as Ashkenazic Jews or, by using the Hebrew plural suffix -im, Ashkenazim[a] are a Jewish diaspora population who coalesced in the Holy Roman Empire around the end of the first millennium.

The traditional diaspora language of Ashkenazi Jews is Yiddish (a Germanic language with elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic languages), developed after they had moved into northern Europe: beginning with Germany and France in the Middle Ages. For centuries they used Hebrew only as a sacred language, until the revival of Hebrew as a common language in 20th century's Israel. Throughout their time in Europe, Ashkenazim have made many important contributions to its philosophy, scholarship, literature, art, music and science.

The term "Ashkenazi" refers to Jewish settlers who established communities along the Rhine river in Western Germany and in Northern France dating to the Middle Ages. Once there, they adapted traditions carried from Babylon, the Holy Land, and the Western Mediterranean to their new environment.  The Ashkenazi religious rite developed in cities such as Mainz, Worms, and Troyes. The eminent French Rishon Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (Rashi) would have a significant influence on the Jewish religion.

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Must be something in the water

As part of my run through the Western Regions (Xīyù 西域) of Pennsylvania, I wrote to Ed Shaughnessy asking him which town he was from, since I knew he came from somewhere around Pittsburgh, and it might be nice to be aware of where he grew up if I happened to run through that town.  Ed wrote back that he came from Sewickley, which lies 12 miles to the northwest of Pittsburgh along the Ohio River. 

Ed himself is a distinguished Sinologist, so it is remarkable that a little river town with less than four thousand population would also be home to other well-known China specialists, including J. Stapleton Roy (former US ambassador to China [1991-1995]) and his brother David Tod Roy (former professor of Chinese literature at the University of Chicago, where he was Ed's colleague [b. 1933-d. 2016]), Catherine Swatek (professor emerita of Chinese literature at the University of British Columbia), and Jon von Kowallis (professor of Chinese Studies at the University of New South Wales in Australia).

As Ed says, "There must have been something in the water (for your Language Log people, Sewickley is said to mean Sweet Water in one or another Indian language; I presume they were the ones who inhabited Mingo)".

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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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