Archive for Language and history

The Tocharian Trek: PIE and migration across Eurasia

In recent weeks and months, Language Log has been quite active in discussions on Tocharian and its relationship to other members of Indo-European.  Today's post takes a different approach from this post made just yesterday and many earlier posts.

"Europe's ancient languages shed light on a great migration and weather vocabulary"

by Ali Jones, Horizon: The EU Research & Innovation Magazine (8/15/23)

Painstaking archaeological exploration is a familiar, often widely admired, method of unearthing history. Less celebrated, but also invaluable, is the piecing together of fragments of ancient languages and analyzing how they changed over thousands of years.

Historical linguists have reconstructed a common ancestral tongue for most of the languages spoken today in Europe and South Asia. English, German, Greek, Hindi and Urdu—among others in the Indo-European family of languages—can all trace their origins to a single spoken one named Proto-Indo-European (PIE).

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The origins and affinities of Tocharian

I asked several IEist colleagues:

Of all the IE languages, which one is Tocharian closest to?



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Central Asian Kharosthi script on an ancient knife hilt found in Austria

Astonishing demonstration of East-West interaction during Roman times (with an equally mind-boggling demonstration of the occasional, yet horrendous [defying common sense], ineptitude of AI translation):

"Geheimnis um Messergriff aus dem römerzeitlichen Wels gelüftet"

Ein vor über 100 Jahren entdeckter Elfenbeingriff mit rätselhafter Inschrift aus dem antiken Ovilava gehörte wohl einst einem Besucher aus dem fernen Asien

"The mystery of the Roman period Wels knife handle revealed"

An ivory handle with a mysterious inscription from ancient Ovilava discovered more than 100 years ago probably once belonged to a visitor from distant Asia

Thomas Bergmayr, Der Standard (7/28/23)

Before presenting the remarkable findings reported in this important article, just a short prefatory note about the AI translation of the title.  Three of the main online multilingual neural machine translation services (Google Translate, Baidu Fanyi, and DeepL) mistranslated "Wels" (the eighth largest city in Austria [ancient Ovilava]) as "catfish" (only Bing Translator got it right).  Given the object that we're dealing with, that is a genuinely bizarre rendering of the word, especially since the material of the handle is identified as ivory and the artifact as coming from Ovilaval in the subtitle.  (It is all the more perplexing that three of the four services are consistent in making the same strange mistake [well, not so strange after all, since "wels" really does mean catfish in German].)  Fortunately, the machine translators do a better job in the body of the article, where there is more context.

For the purposes of the rough translation of the German article, I have relied mainly on GT, with occasional assistance from the other translation services, and some good old human input from my own brain.  Please bear in mind that the translations proffered below do not pretend to be polished, flawless English renderings of parts of the German article, but only to give a functionally useful idea of its content.

N.B.:  Two photographs of the knife handle are provided near the bottom of this post.

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Knowledge and skills contributed by enslaved Africans

The recent controversy about Florida's new State Academic Standards for Social Studies leaves something out, in my opinion. The point of contention is the assertion (p.6) that "Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit". Critics have taken this as an inappropriate pitch for the benefits of slavery, evoking the "Slavery as Positive Good" viewpoint that was common in the American south before the Civil War.

Missing from the discussion is the fact that the transfer of crucial skills sometimes went in the other direction. In the 17th and 18th centuries, enslaved Africans brought with them the technology that enabled wet rice cultivation in South Carolina and Georgia. Needless to say, the British colonizers knew nothing at all about how to grow rice, especially in converted mangrove swamps. This imported technology led to lucrative rice-cultivation plantations that were essential to Britain's colonization of North America.

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Kushan inscriptions from Western and Southern Central Asia (WCA, SCA)

The article I am calling to your attention in this post is of extraordinary importance for its potential to link together many of the themes we have repeatedly investigated during nearly the last two decades on Language Log (see the bibliography below for a sampling of relevant posts).

To make it easier for non-specialist readers, here are a few brief identifications of essential languages and peoples (all late Classical and early Medieval):

Bactrian (Αριαο, Aryao, [arjaː]) is an extinct Eastern Iranian language formerly spoken in the Central Asian region of Bactria (in present-day Afghanistan) and used as the official language of the Kushan and the Hephthalite empires.

The Kushan Empire (Ancient Greek: Βασιλεία Κοσσανῶν; Bactrian: Κοϸανο, Košano; Sanskrit: कुषाण वंश; Brahmi: , Ku-ṣā-ṇa; BHS: Guṣāṇa-vaṃśa; Parthian: , Kušan-xšaθr; Chinese: 貴霜; pinyin: Guìshuāng) was a syncretic empire, formed by the Yuezhi, in the Bactrian territories in the early 1st century. It spread to encompass much of what is now Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India, at least as far as Saketa and Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares), where inscriptions have been found dating to the era of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka the Great.

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Tasting History

That's the name of a viral YouTube channel that I had never heard of, and now a popular book that Barbara Phillips Long called to my attention:

My son gave me a copy of Tasting History, by Max Miller, which takes very old recipes and gives modern approximations of them. The book is handsomely printed, well illustrated, and fun, with a wide range of random food trivia and loads of food history. You might find it intriguing.
There's a raspberry shrub recipe from 1911; I seem to recall Language Log having a post about shrubs and their origins.
There are also ten recipes credited to the Near and Far East, including recipes from Egypt, Baghdad, the Mughal Empire, India, China, Korea, and Japan.
So far, I have only read part of the book, although I paged through the whole thing. I did like this quote:
They say "history is written by the victors," but in my experience, history is written by those who write stuff down, and food is no exception.

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Revelation: Scythians and Shang

I was stunned when I read the following article in the South China Morning Post, both because it was published in Hong Kong, which is now completely under the censorial control of the People's Republic of China (PRC) / Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and because it raises some disturbing political issues and troubling linguistic problems.

"Why the rewriting of China’s history 3,000 years ago still matters today"

Confucius uncovered the truth of the Shang dynasty but agreed with King Wen and the Duke of Zhou to cover up disturbing facts
Beijing’s claimed triumph over Covid-19, for instance, may not echo with all who endured the draconian quarantines.

Zhou Xin, SCMP (4/25/23)

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Insults, oaths, and curses in the Middle Ages


"By God’s Bones: Medieval Swear Words"

What were bad words in the Middle Ages? Cursing or swearing in medieval England was really different from today’s world.

May, 2023

The post begins:

Some historians have looked into the topic, such as Melissa Mohr, the author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. In her chapter on medieval England, Mohr explains that people back then did not have much of an issue with describing bodily functions in ways that we might find less appropriate. Going into a city you might find a street called ‘Shitwell Way’ or ‘Pissing Alley’. Open a medieval textbook to teach reading to children and you might find the words arse, shit or fart. If you saw ants crawling around you would most likely call them ‘pisse-mires’.

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Learning sinitic and sinoglyphic "zero"

Plus Indic, plus Arabic, Korean, Vietnamese, Hokkien (Taiwanese), Hakka, and Fuzhou (Eastern Min).

For an exciting read / ride, be sure to follow the whole thread, travelling through time and space.

Courtesy of Egas Moniz-Bandeira ᠡᡤᠠᠰ ᠮᠣᠨᠢᠰ ᠪᠠᠨᡩ᠋ᠠᠶᠢᠷᠠ

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"Shribe" in Mongolian historiography

A couple of days ago, I was having a conversation with one of my former students at a tea/coffee shop (that's what I call 'em because I don't drink coffee very often, almost never).

We were talking about a controversy in Mongolian historiography.  It was a question of whether it is ever suitable to use a certain term to describe the social organization of the Mongols.  He kept saying a word that sounded to me like "shribe".  Since I didn't know that word, I asked him to elucidate various aspects of the problem, and he kept saying "shribe" this, "shribe" that, e.g., that one side of the debate says you can't use the word "shribe" with regard to Mongolian history because "shribes" can't form states, but then that would be to deny the possibility of state formation to the Mongols.  The other side says that "shribes" can form states, so the Mongols could form states even though they had "shribes" in their social organization.  Or something like that.

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Diabolo: devil / yo-yo

The diabolo, sometimes called a Chinese yo-yo, is a two-headed top controlled by a string manipulated by two sticks, one attached to each end.  It is popular among jugglers.

Diabolo, commonly misspelled as diablo, was formerly also known as "the devil on two sticks" (Juggling Wiki).

In this post, I am concerned primarily with language issues and will not attempt to disentangle (if you've ever played much with a yo-yo, you'll be sensitive to this term in the present context) the evolution, relationship, and nature of the diabolo and the yo-yo.

I will begin by providing a few more or less random historical and cultural notes (the history of the diabolo / yo-yo is vastly complex), then move on to etymological observations.

"Earliest Record of Diabolo in the Chinese Classic – 帝京景物略"

International Jugglers Association (4/26/23)

Dìjīng jǐngwù lüè. Juǎn èr. Chūn chǎng”/ Liú Dòng, Yú Yìzhèng hézhù (1635 nián):  Yángliǔer huó, chōu tuóluó. Yángliǔer qīng, fàngkōng zhong. Yángliǔér sǐ, tī jiànzi

《帝京景物略.卷二.春場》/ 劉侗、於奕正合著 (1635年


“Whipping the top in the time willows revive; Playing the diabolo in the time willows green; Kicking the shuttlecock in the time willows wither.” – Imperial Capital Guidebook (1635 A.D.), Volume 2/ (translated by Mark Tsai)

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Comparative dialectology and romanizations for North and South Korea

[This is a guest post by S. Robert Ramsey]

Your Language Log coverage of the North Korean news item was chilling, but pretty much what we've come to expect of that outrageous regime. If ever there was a clearer contrast between the two worlds in conflict, I've never heard of it. South Korea is now such a star on the world stage and rising so fast, it must be a bitter pill for the regime in Pyongyang to swallow! 

Just a couple of things that occurred to me, though: (1) What authorities in Pyongyang do not recognize, or concede, is that though they point to the Pyongyang dialect as the basis of their standard, that very standard itself is based upon the earlier, traditional dialect of Seoul that represented the cultural and linguistic capital of the Joseon Period (–or "Choson" period, as DPRK spelling of the word would have it). 

And (2): While on the subject of spellings, it might be worthwhile to point out that the romanization the DPRK uses is based upon the McCune-Reischauer system still used by many Western academics. But the North Korean version is actually more pragmatic than Western academic usage in that the North Koreans eliminate the annoying diacritics of McR that have long exasperated so many Western romanizers–and which Seoul academics used as one of the justifications for the new Revised system they introduced in 2000–and which they so dogmatically insist on now.  

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Desultory philological, literary, and historical notes on Xanadu

Our previous post was on "Hallucinations: In Xanadu did LLMs vainly fancify" (4/3/23).  If you were wondering where such an evocative, exotic name came from, it has a direct lineage back to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) of China where it was called Shàngdū 上都 ("Upper Capital") in Mandarin, ultimately from early Mandarin ʂaŋ` tū.  The first Romanized form comes from Marco Polo's writings in Italian as Shan-Du. In 1617, Purchas his Pilgrimage [] by Samuel Purchas was published in London, containing the phrase “In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace” on page 472. This was the inspiration for Coleridge's poem which uses the spelling Xanadu. (source)

Location and basic history

Shangdu (Chinese: ; lit. 'Upper Capital'; Mandarin pronunciation: [ʂɑ̂ŋ tú]; Mongolian: Šandu), also known as Xanadu (/ˈzænəd/ ZAN-ə-doo), was the summer capital of the Yuan dynasty of China before Kublai decided to move his throne to the former Jin dynasty capital of Zhōngdū (Chinese: ; lit. 'Middle Capital') which was renamed Khanbaliq (present-day Beijing). Shangdu is located in the present-day Zhenglan Banner, Inner Mongolia.


It was 220 miles (350 kilometers) north of Beijing.

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