Archive for Language and culture

So spoke Zoroaster: camels and ancient Sinitic reconstructions

How did he speak?  What did he speak?  When did he speak?

There seems to be a lot of dissension, even among Iranists, concerning the basic facts of his life and times.  For the founder of a major religion, little hard evidence is available concerning the man and his message.  Of course, basic biographical data for the life of Jesus Christ are also scarce, including whether or not he was born on December 25, 0, and whether he died on Good Friday or on Holy Saturday before arising from the dead on Easter Sunday in AD 30 or 36?

From the time I first encountered Friedrich Nietzsche's book (1883-1885) in high school, I was puzzled by the archaic style of the title, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and the twin names of the founder of Zorastrianism, who was the namesake of the hero of the novel. 

Zoroaster (/ˈzɒræstər/, UK also /ˌzɒrˈæstər/; Greek: Ζωροάστρης, Zōroastrēs), also known as Zarathustra (/ˌzærəˈθstrə/, UK also /ˌzɑːrə-/; Avestan: ‎, Zaraθuštra), Zarathushtra Spitama or Ashu Zarathushtra (Modern Persian: زرتشت‎, Zartosht)

(source)

The full title of the novel in its original German is Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen (Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None).  It wasn't long before my etymological obsession led me to the explanation of the prophet's name as having something to do with camels (which would make sense for someone who hailed from the homeland of the Bactrian species).

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Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 7

[This is a guest post by Chau Wu, with additions at the bottom by VHM and others]

On the akinakes* (Scythian dagger / short sword) and Xiongnu (Hunnish) horse sacrifice

Chinese historical records suggest that the akinakes, transliterated from Greek ἀκῑνάκης, may be endowed with spiritual significance in the eyes of ancient Chinese and Northern Barbarians, for it was used in solemn ceremonies.  Let me cite two recorded ceremonies and a special occasion where an akinakes is used to “finesse” an emperor.

In the Book of Han (漢書), Chapter 94 B, Records of Xiongnu (匈奴傳下), we see an akinakes is used in a ceremony sealing a treaty of friendship between the Han and Xiongnu.  The Han emissaries, the Chief Commandant of charioteers and cavalry [車騎都尉] Han Chang (韓昌) and an Imperial Court Grandee [光祿大夫] Zhang Meng (張猛) visited the Xiongnu chanyu** (單于) [VHM:  chief of the Xiongnu / Huns] in 43 BC.  Han and Zhang, together with the chanyu and high officials, climbed the eastern hill by the river Nuo (諾水)***, killed a white horse, and the chanyu using a jinglu knife (徑路刀) and a golden liuli**** (金留犁, said to be a spoon for rice) mixed the horse blood with wine.  Then they drank the blood-oath together from the skull of the King of Yuezhi, who had been defeated by the ancestor of the chanyu and whose skull had been made into a goblet.  Essentially, this jinglu knife was a holy mixer.

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Kana, not kanji, for names

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Involution, part 2

[This is a guest post by Diana Shuheng Zhang.  It was prompted by "'Involution', 'working man', and 'Versailles literature': memes of embitterment" (12/23/20), where we discovered that the word "involution", which is little known in English-speaking countries, except in highly specialized contexts, has gone viral in China in a sense that is barely known in the West.]

The resource curse of Chinese textualism and Sinology's paradox of involuted plenty

I. Hyperabundance of texts

To me, the predicament of Sinology seems like a resource curse. The "paradox of plenty”. “Paradox of plenty” is an economic term, referring to the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources tend to have worse development outcomes than those with fewer natural resources. I have been thinking about this in my head for a few days. The “resource curse” for China studies is that Chinese culture, especially Classical Chinese-based culture of writings, has too many raw texts. The discovery of the Dunhuang manuscripts has added even more to the already abundant, if not excessive, textual residue that scholars devote their lives to, accumulating and laying out textual evidence before they can reach the point — maybe they never can if they do not intend to — of analyzing, integrating, utilizing, and theorizing them.

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Who created batik? Who appropriated batik?

This is something I wanted to write about back in mid-July, but it fell victim to my backlog of thousands of e-mails.  Now, slowly, slowly, slowly, I'm catching up, and I find that it's still a worthy topic to post on.

"‘China, master copycat’: uproar in Indonesia at Xinhua’s batik claim"

Xinhua released a video saying batik is a traditional craft ‘common among ethnic groups in China’, sparking protests by Indonesians on social media

There are long-standing disputes over the origins of food and traditions such as batik, rendang and nasi lemak among Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore

Randy Mulyanto, SCMP 7/14/20

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"Clear" and "turbid" in Chinese phonology, part 4

[This is a guest post by W. South Coblin in response to these questions which I asked him about the distinction between qing 清 ("clear") and zhuo 濁 ("muddy; turbid") in Chinese language studies:

1. when and how it arose

2. how it functions within traditional Chinese phonology

3. how it correlates with concepts in modern linguistics]

What you’re asking for would require a treatise, or maybe even a monograph on these things, and I must pass on that assignment right now. But I can help you out a little. First of all, these points are dealt with in two handy sources. The first is Jerry [Norman]’s book Chinese, Chapter 2. The index to the book will lead you to the relevant parts of the chapter. The other source is a full exposition of traditional medieval Chinese phonology by Guillaume Jacques. You will find it here.  Start reading on p. 6 and then read as much as you find useful.

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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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Horse culture comes east

In Friday's New York Times:

"A Record of Horseback Riding, Written in Bone and Teeth:  Close examination of horse remains has clarified the timeline of when equestrianism helped transform ancient Chinese civilization", by Katherine Kornei (11/13/20)

More archeological evidence that the horse, horse riding, and related equestrian technologies and culture came to East Asia from the Eurasian interior before the rise of extensive trade along the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-9 AD), and that these developments had a profound impact on the civilization and political organization of East Asia.

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Тяжёлый год – Hoy estoy peor que ayer – Fuck 2020


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"I stand corrected"

From Elizabeth Dreyer:

Ah!  Autant pour moi, as the French say for "I stand corrected": As much for me.  So much for me?  … I've just looked up the origin of this expression and in fact it's rather fascinating.  People write "autant pour moi" but that is a corruption, a miswriting of "au temps pour moi".  "Au temps!" is the order given in the military when one has to repeat a movement from the beginning because of an error.  I have absolutely never seen "au temps pour moi" in print and have seen "autant pour moi" many times.

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"Inshallah"

You've probably heard about this — Teo Armas, "‘Inshallah’: The Arabic ‘fuggedaboudit’ Biden dropped to blast Trump on tax returns", WaPo 9/30/2020:

Midway through Tuesday night’s chaotic presidential debate, as President Trump vowed to release his still-private tax returns, Joe Biden shot back at his opponent with a particularly sarcastic jab.

“Millions of dollars, and you’ll get to see it,” Trump said of the amount he claims to have paid.

“When?” the Democratic presidential nominee interjected. “Inshallah?”

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"Waiving goodbye"

Yesterday morning, two friends and I ate at Alma del Mar, a new Philadelphia restaurant, on an outdoor terrace featuring a mural unveiled just a few days ago.

There are three panels: on the right is a poem in Spanish by Carlos José Pérez Sámano; there's a fish skeleton in the middle; and on the left, an English version.

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