Archive for Language and animals

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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Daughter of Holy Cow

I was just thinking how important cows (and their milk) are for Indian people and was surprised that's reflected in such a fundamental word for a family relationship as "daughter" — at least in the popular imagination.  Even in a scholarly work such as that of D.N. Jha, The Myth of the Holy Cow (New Delhi:  Navayana, 2009), p. 28, we find:

Some kinship terms were also borrowed from the pastoral nomenclature and the daughter was therefore called duhitṛ (= duhitā = one who milks).

That somehow seemed too good to be true, a bit dubious on the surface.  To test the equation, I began by bringing together some basic linguistic information acquired on a preliminary web search.

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Idle thoughts on "gelding"

The title and the following observations come from Rebecca Hamilton:

I was reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's Between the Woods and the Water: on Foot to Constantinople, as I convalesce from COVID-19 (I've had a hard time of it), and I stumbled upon an aside he made about the French "hongre," meaning "gelding," as does the German "wallach." He made this comment – without further explication – in the context of a discussion of the ethnographic roots of Hungarians, Wallachians, and Rumanians (in particular, the latter as being descendants of Roman occupation, if not Romans themselves). What all this means, I cannot say. It seemed like a topic you would know something about. Because I am confined to bed for the moment, if you could be so kind as to forward me some reading material, I would be very grateful. Also, anything about "Wales" or "Welsh" sharing etymological roots with "Wallach," and how "wether" fits into all this would be great.

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Turkish "kedi" and English "cat"

In reacting to the fierce denunciation of Xi Jinping by Cai Xia (see bibliographical note at the bottom of this post), Conal Boyce mused:

Mind-boggling material. I had to do a double-take on the passage you show that contains both chǔn and jiāhuo (蠢家伙 ["stupid guy / fellow"]).  And sure enough, in the video, she actually uses the term zhèngzhì jiāngshī (政治僵尸 ["political zombies"]) more than once!

These are shocking terms, with a peculiar color all their own. They reminded me that, in a sense, there are no words that are actually 'equivalents' between two languages. For instance, the Turkish for 'cat' is 'kedi', which has a comfortable look of familiarity at first, because of English 'kitty', yet we suspect that the semantic range of 'kedi' in Turkish versus the semantic ranges for 'cat' and 'kitty' in English probably overlap in some unexpected Venn diagram style, with much of 'kedi' not immediately accessible to a speaker of English.

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Lactase and language: the spread of the Yamnaya

[This is a guest post by Doug Hitch]

I have had a theory for a number of years about the success of the IE (now Yamnaya) people in populating the world. Here I would like to survey some of the basic reasons for their demographic spread.

Populations in all species prosper when there is adequate food. If there is a surplus of food, the population will grow to meet it. When there is a shortage, populations shrink. There are well known population cycles for lemmings and rabbits. A peak in hare population is followed by a peak in fox population. Then, with more predation, the hares diminish, followed by a decline in fox numbers. In northwestern North America the Athabaskan populations were always small, often facing starvation. One group went south and adopted corn and beans, and later sheep. There are now more Navajo than all the other Athabaskans combined.

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Bats in Chinese language and culture: Early Sinitic reconstructions

The May 2020 issue of a scientific journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, shows a rank badge of Qing Dynasty officialdom.  There are five bats in this piece of ornate embroidery (can you spot them?):

Artist Unknown. Rank Badge with Leopard, Wave and Sun Motifs, late 18th century. Silk, metallic thread. 10 3/4 in x 11 1/4 in / 27.31 cm x 28.57 cm. Public domain digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.; Bequest of William Christian Paul, 1929. Accession no.30.75.1025.

(Source)

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Learning to speak Sicilian

Here's little two-year-old Leah having a discussion with her great-grandma (bisnonna). At a young age, Leah is already very aware of her cultural trait of Italian hand speaking.

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Cat chat and tax talk

Photograph of a campaign billboard in Taiwan showing President Tsai Ing-wen, who is up for reelection on January 11, with one of her two beloved cats:


(Source: anonymous colleague)

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Yorkshire Topolect

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Bear words

In "Dynamic stew" (10/24/13) and the comments thereto, we had a vigorous discussion of words for "bear" in Korean, Sinitic, Tibetan, and Japanese,  And now Diana Shuheng Zhang has written a densely philological study on “Three Ancient Words for Bear,” Sino-Platonic Papers, 294 (November, 2019), 21 pages (free pdf).

Let's start with the basic word for "bear" in Sinitic:  xióng (MSM) 熊.

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"Horse Master" in IE and in Sinitic

This is one in a long series of posts about words for "horse" in various languages, the latest being "Some Mongolian words for 'horse'" (11/7/19) — see also the posts listed under Readings below.  I consider "horse" to be one of the most important diagnostic terms for studying long distance movements of peoples and languages for numerous reasons:

  1. In and of itself, the horse represents the ability to move rapidly across the land.
  2. The spread of horse domestication and associated technology such as the chariot is traceable, affording the opportunity to match datable archeological finds with linguistic data.
  3. The symbolic, religious, military, political, and cultural significance of the horse is salient in widespread human societies outside the normal ecological reach of the animal itself.  In other words, the horse is treasured in areas far beyond its natural habitat (the Eurasian steppeland), such that it is a symbol of royal, aristocratic power and prerogative.  Indeed, for many societies, it is a sacred animal imbued with divine power.
  4. In studying the words for "horse" in various languages, we have been fortunate on Language Log to benefit from the expertise of historical linguists who have been providing cutting edge analysis of data drawn from numerous languages belonging to different groups and families.

And so forth.

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Some Mongolian words for "horse"

This is a follow-up post to "'Horse' and 'language' in Korean" (10/30/19).  The two main words for "horse" in Mongolian that we will consider are mor' and adyy, though we will also touch upon others.

My original inquiry:

If you know, please tell me the difference between морь / mor' and адуу / adyy.

Is it true that морь means "gelding" (to be ridden) and адуу means horses in general, but not for riding.

Any other nuances of these two words that might be useful for me to understand how they are thought of by Mongolian people?

I presume that Manchu "morin" is borrowed from Mongolian.

Many correspondents kindly replied to my inquiry concerning the difference between adyy and mor.  Because most of their responses are brief and informal, I will not cite all the respondents by name, though I will list them in the acknowledgements.

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Illegal dog names

This odd headline caught my eye:

"Man in China detained after giving dogs 'illegal' names," by Travis Fedschun | Fox News (5/15/19)

And what were the offending names?  Not what you might have thought:

Chéngguǎn 城管 ("Urban Management")

Xiéguǎn 协管 ("Assistant Management")

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