Archive for Language and geography

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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"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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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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Against Spherespeak and Sino-speak

[This is a guest post by Ross King, replying to "On the origin of the term 'hanzi'" (2/3/21)]

This is very interesting. I am particularly pleased to see the caution against the term “Sinosphere.” In a related vein, and as a sort of teaser for the edited volume I am just now finishing (Ross King, ed., Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in the World of Wen: Reading Sheldon Pollock from the Sinographic cosmopolis. To appear in Brill’s new series, “Language, Writing and Literary Culture in the Sinographic Cosmopolis.” Approx. 600 pages.), here is an excerpt from my editor’s introduction (“Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in the Sinographic Cosmopolis and Beyond: Traditional East Asian Literary Cultures in Global Perspective”)

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Against Spherespeak and Sino-speak

Bruce Cumings (1998) called out a tendency in 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s academic and journalistic writing to engage in a discourse of “Rimspeak” which he faulted for constricting the public discourse around questions of space, the state, race, and political economy in the “Pacific Rim.” When it comes to how we study and imagine premodern East Asia, the stakes are admittedly lower, but with the terms “Sinographic Sphere” and “Sinosphere” I wonder if we are coming dangerously close to a sort of Spherespeak as well, where the “sphere” in these terms carries little indexical, explanatory or theoretical weight.[1]

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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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The geographical, archeological, genetic, and linguistic origins of Tocharian

[The following is a guest post by Douglas Adams.]

Key words:  Eastern Central Asia (ECA); Tarim Basin; Dzungarian Basin; Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) Anatolian; Proto-Indo-European; “standard average Indo-European” (“SAIE”); Hittite; Iranian; Sogdian; Khotanese; Bactrian; Avestan; Saka; Indo-Aryan; Mitanni; Assyrian; Indo-Hittite; Fertile Crescent: Yamnaya; Sintashta; Andronovo; Afanasievo; Minusinsk Basin; Qäwrighul; genetics; Yanqi Basin; Ili Valley; Yuezhi; Xiongnu; Turfan Basin; stockbreeding; barley cultivation; millet; irrigation technology; donkey; camel; brick; arrow; irrigation technology; Russian; Kazakhstan; Indo-Iranian; Sanskrit; Massagetae

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Below is a host of questions, implied questions, and questionable statements. I’m trying to get my head around the prehistoric interrelations of pre-Proto-Iranians and pre-Proto-Tocharians based on different “age-levels” of linguistic borrowing and match them with some plausible geographical / archaeological contexts. There are some conundrums here: (1) how did early borrowings from the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) folks get so quickly, by so round about a way, into Tocharian, and (2) why does Tocharian B have an irrigation vocabulary so reminiscent of Central Iranian languages (Sogdian/Avestan; not Saka), borrowed (on phonological grounds) a thousand years (at least) after Tocharians were already knowledgeable about irrigation.

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Passes: gates and barriers

A key term in Chinese historical geography is guān 關 ("pass").  You can see from the shape of the character that it is framed by the two panels of a door, left and right, and that it has two upright, elaborated bars that could impede progress through the gate (I am thinking of the early forms of the character).  The flanking door panels constitute the semantophore (radical, classifier) of the character, and the bars inside are the secondary semantophore, but may also simultaneously function as a phonophore.

A pass serves both to facilitate and block movement along key routes leading into and out of a country or regions within a country.

Just as I was thinking about writing this post on passes, I synchronously and serendipitously received from Alan Kennedy a reference to this highly technical article on Silk Road travel:

Irina Tupikova, Matthias Schemmel, Klaus Geus, "Travelling along the Silk Road: A new interpretation of Ptolemy’s coordinates", Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte / Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Preprint 465 (2014), 73 pages.

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Concentric circles of language in Beijing, part 2

From a Penn graduate student who recently returned to his home in Beijing, of which he is a born and bred native:

I'm now back at home in Beijing after a 14-day self-quarantine in Tianjin, which was designated as one of the 12 cities to receive all diverted international flights to Beijing because of imported coronavirus concerns. It was an unforgettable journey and a special experience to get back to China this time. I was surrounded by passengers wearing coverall medical protective suits and had been tested body temperature countless times, which, together with all other temporary measures by no matter travelers, crew members, or customs staff, reminded me of how the ongoing pandemic has changed the world and every single person's life. I have been tested negative for the coronavirus twice as required after I arrived in China, and everything has been going well.

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Concentric circles of language in Beijing

A lament for the passing of Pekingese (Běijīnghuà 北京话) —  for those who don't understand Mandarin, just listen to a bit of what the presenter is saying for the flavor, then skip down to the explanations below the page break to find out what it's all about:

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Brook, creek, stream, rill

Twitter thread on small waterway names:

 

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