Archive for Language and geography

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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Arrogant squid of North Texas

Joe Tello sent me this funny sign:

The line of Chinese at the top says "àomàn yóu 傲慢鱿" ("arrogant squid").  That's puzzling enough by itself, but I actually found the English to be even more mystifying.  It seems to be telling us that this place is in the East Location of the Southwest District of North Texas.  When I try to figure out on a map of Texas where that would put it, my imagination fails me.

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America as a multilingual nation

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