Archive for Language and history

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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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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