Archive for Language and geography

The Complexities of Eastern Slavic

After reading this post — "Ukrainian at the edge" (10/30/22) — Peter B. Golden appended the following comment to it:

A few notes: krai (край) means "edge, border" and "territory, land, country" in Russian as well. There are numerous overlaps in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian – and a number of "false friends.” All three languages derive from Eastern Slavic, the language of the Kyivan Rus' state (Novogorod, in what is now northwest Russia was the second city of that state). The literary language of Kyivan Rus’ was heavily influenced by Church Slavonic and with slight variants remained the literary language of the Eastern Slavs in the aftermath of the Mongol conquest as well as the Lithuanian and Polish takeover of what became Belarus’ and parts (western) of what became Ukraine. The Old Belarusian/Rus' language became the primary written language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Texts in those languages are mutually intelligible, indeed, barely differentiated. It was the shattering of an already fragmenting Kyivan Rus' state produced by the Mongol conquest and the Lithuanian and Polish gobbling up of those lands that the Mongols did not take, that over time produced three distinct peoples: Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. Dialect divisions were already apparent in the Kyivan period and a number of scholars have argued for the existence even then of "Old Ukrainian" etc. Some of the dialect divisions cross "borders." The dialect associated with the Chernihiv (Chernigov) principality of Kyivan Rus', now in Ukraine, extends into Belarus'. The dialect of Chernobyl' (of sad fame) in Ukraine is virtually identical to the dialect of the area of Rogachov, Belarus. I know this from personal observation. The career of Feofan Prokopovich/ Prokopovych, d. 1736 who moved easily between Moscow and Kiev (and other places) and helped to shape the modern Russian literary language is typical of more than a few who are called "Ukrainian" or "Russian" depending on the stance that one takes. Ahatanhel Krymsky of Crimean Tatar (paternal) and Polish (maternal) origin, became one of the leading Ukrainian Turkologists-Orientalists was not an ethnic Ukrainian, but identified as Ukrainian – and was ultimately accused of Ukrainian nationalism (1941) by the Soviet government and died in exile in Kazakhstan in 1942. More than a few families in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus’ have branches in all three areas (mine does). Yes, today, Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian are separate and distinct languages and their speakers take national identities accordingly…but not always what one would expect. National identity, so often the case, had to be taught or situationally adopted. In the pre-Soviet era there was much movement between Belarus’ and Ukraine. Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus’, has a typical Ukrainian last name and is vaguely aware of distant Ukrainian origins…and is much more at home speaking in Russian than in Belarusian. He is far from unique.

Putin is a KGB thug and now a war-criminal with a Soviet elementary school understanding of Russian history and of the peoples that comprised the Soviet Empire for which he has such nostalgia (shared by some older Russians). If you are interested in serious studies of the formation of the Ukrainians (and Belarusians) read the works of Serhiy Plokhy.

[Not long thereafter, Peter wrote to me saying that he "was just getting warmed up :)" and sent me the following, which, with his permission, I'm making into a guest post:.]

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Tea map

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Genghis Khan and Burkhan Khaldun

Every five years or so, popular science magazines have a "Genghis Khan tomb" story.

Here's a current iteration:

"Where is the tomb of Genghis Khan?"

By Owen Jarus, published 12 days ago

The location of the tomb of Genghis Khan (c. 1162 – August 18/25, 1227; the founder and first great Khan [Emperor] of the Mongol Empire) was certainly meant to be kept secret by those who buried him.  

Marco Polo wrote that, even by the late 13th century, the Mongols did not know the location of the tomb. The Secret History of the Mongols has the year of Genghis Khan's death (1227) but no information concerning his burial. In the "Travels of Marco Polo" he writes that "It has been an invariable custom, that all the grand khans, and chiefs of the race of Genghis-khan, should be carried for interment to a certain lofty mountain named Altai, and in whatever place they may happen to die, although it should be at the distance of a hundred days' journey, they are nevertheless conveyed thither."

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New open-access volume on Rusyn studies

Email from Wayles Brown:

I noticed the discussion on Rusyn that appeared on Language Log, and thought some participants might be interested in hearing more about the topic.

Here is a new book on Rusyn studies which just came out in Japan. [The back of the title page, in English, gives the year as 2021, but I gather that the front says "Sapporo, March 2022" in Japanese.] As you'll see, I wrote the introduction, having been interested in Rusyn for some time, and the articles are by people who know more about Rusyn than I do.

As you see from the letter from Mr. Fujimori of the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center at Hokkaido University, everyone is welcome to forward it to others who might be interested.

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From Rusyn / Ruthenian and Ukrainian, and on to Russian

[This is a guest post by Don Keyser, responding to Grant Newsham's "Rusyn" (3/22/22)]

This one brought back memories.

In 1959, my high school in Towson, just to the north of Baltimore, rose to the challenge posed by Sputnik and launched a Russian-language program. I had studied Latin for three years, and when invited to "enlist" (as a patriotic duty) in study of the enemy's language, I was delighted to abandon Latin … for my country, and otherwise. So I took two years of Russian in high school, and went on to study Russian language and Russian/Soviet area studies through undergrad and M.A. work. I only "defected" to Chinese/Japanese in PhD studies and thereafter in the U.S. government.

Anyway … my very first Russian language teacher was named Josef Glus. He had been teaching wood shop*, of all things, to kids not expected to go on to university. But he spoke Russian, and was tapped to teach the maiden course in that language offered by the high school. He was Ruthenian. I had to look up Ruthenia — in the days before a few taps of the fingers on a computer yielded up a map, the history, and so on.

[*VHM: For the concept of "shop" in the high school curriculum, see "The weirdness of typing errors" (3/14/22)]

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Tai People in South China

[This is a guest post by Bob Ramsey]


Fairy Tale-like Landscape in Guangxi

Millions in South China today, especially in Guangxi, are not Han Chinese at all, but “Tai.” Tai groups in China include, among others, the Dai, the Li, and the Zhuang. Culturally and linguistically related to the Thai (or Siamese) of Thailand, Tai in China don’t ordinarily stand out as different. They live among Han Chinese. Most look and act Chinese. They wear the same clothes. Most are bilingual in Cantonese or some other variety of Chinese. Nevertheless, the PRC classifies them as minorities, and some pose for the tourist trade, sporting exotic “native” clothes and putting on colorful festivals for paying visitors.

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South China becoming Chinese

[This is a guest post by Bob Ramsey]

Museum of Chinese Writing near Anyang*, in North China:

*First stable capital of the Shang / Yin Dynasty (c.1600-1046 BC) and the site of the discovery of the largest cache of oracle bone inscriptions (beginning of the Chinese writing system).

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Mind your PPs and QQs

Photograph of a menu board outside a Chinese restaurant:


(From an anonymous contributor)

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Moth eyebrows: lectio difficilior et tertium comparationis

Dieter Maue, a specialist on Old Uyghur, Tocharian, Sanskrit, and Brahmi script, wrote to ask:

The simile 'like the moon of the third day' (tertium comparationis: delicate, graceful; curved (eyebrows)) is currently occupying my mind. Attested in Tocharian A and in Uigur, it sounds, but it doesn't seem to be, Indian.

Tentatively I have translated Uig. üč yaŋıdakı ay täŋri ‘third day’s moon god’ into Chinese word for word; but sān rì yuè 三日月("moon of the third day") is not found in the dictionaries. In the Chinese Tripitaka, there is just one suitable instance. Elsewhere, the moon of the third day seems to be called éméi yuè 蛾眉月 ("moth eyebrow moon" — only poetically?). According to Giles (ChinEnglDict s.no. 7714 ): “ éméi 蛾眉 moth eyebrows, – alluding to the delicate curved eye-markings of the silkworm moth … moth-eyebrows is used figuratively for a lovely girl.   Also wrongly explained as referring to the small curved antennæ of the silkworm moth. ­ Éméi yuè 蛾眉月‚ the crescent moon’. “  The antennae of Bombyx mori are clearly visible, while I cannot find anything which corresponds to  the “eye-markings”. Do you have an idea how to solve the problem?

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China's Japan

According to this website of stars with the surname Chu 楚, Sara Chu was born in Japan, China:

Chǔ Jǐn (Sara Chu), shēngrì:  1974 nián 10 yuè 29 rì (xīngqí'èr), chūshēng dì: Zhōngguó Rìběn, xīngzuò: Tiānxiēzuò

楚谨(Sara Chu),生日:1974年10月29日(星期二),出生地: 中国日本,星座:天蝎座

Chu Jin (Sara Chu), birthday: October 29, 1974 (Tuesday), place of birth:  Japan, China, constellation: Scorpio

I've never heard of Sara Chu, and I've never heard of a place in China called "Japan", but it's possible that I missed both of them.

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The many sights and sounds of "Buchanan"

When I checked into a hotel on the east side of Pittsburgh yesterday afternoon, the manager told me he was from "Buckanen", West Virginia.  I just assumed that he was using some local variant of "Buchanan", and it sounded very unusual to me, since the only pronunciation of "Buchanan" I've ever heard is /bjuːˈkænən/.  When I started poking around and looking into the matter, however, it turns out to be not  at all that simple.

Unsurprisingly, the first person surnamed Buchanan I came across on the www was James Buchanan, Jr. (April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) , who served as the 15th president of the United States, from 1857 to 1861.  According to Wikipedia, his surname is pronounced /bʌˈkænən/ buh-CAN-nən.

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The Hu Line: The significance of geography for historical linguistics

I have lived a long time.  When I was in high school (1957-1961), geography was an important subject of the curriculum.  When I went to college (1961-1965), there were still departments of geography in many, if not most, self-respecting colleges and universities, but they were slowly starting to disappear.  Now, I suspect that there are very few, if any, schools, colleges, and universities that teach geography and train professors of that discipline.  Still, there are vestiges of the days in the first half of the twentieth century when geography was upheld as a princely pursuit.

At Penn, there is a building that once housed the geography department and still has markings that bear witness to its pedigree, but has now been swallowed up by the School of Engineering and Applied Science.  At Harvard, the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations (EALC) occupies what used to be the Department of Geography, in a building filled with geographical motifs that has a special history linked to the Widener family (who gave their wealth and their name to Harvard's main library in memory of Philadelphian Harry Elkins Widener (January 3, 1885-April 15, 1912) who went down with the Titanic at the age of 27.  The Widener family also gifted Harvard with the building that presently belongs to EALC, as part of an endowment meant to create a geography professorship for a member of the Widener family.  While I was teaching at Harvard, my office was in the penthouse of that building.  It was an eerie feeling to be situated all alone in that aerie above all my peers and superiors.

Despite the support of the Wideners and its illustrious past, geography did not thrive at Harvard, Penn, and elsewhere.  To me, this is cause for lament, and I have often pondered what forces have been at work that led to this unfortunate result.

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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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