Archive for Language and culture

The Wool Road of Northern Eurasia

We all know about the Silk Road (which is actually a recent term), and some of us also know about the Bronze Road, the Iron Road, the Horse and Chariot Road, the Fur Road, the Glass Road, the Spice Road, and the Tea Road.  Now we really have to take seriously the existence of a Wool Road.

As I have often noted, I began my international investigation of the mummies of the Tarim Basin as a genetics project in 1991, since that was around the time that it became possible to study ancient DNA.  After four years of diligent collection and analysis, I grew disenchanted with the expected precision of genetics research, and in 1995 I returned to Eastern Central Asia (ECA) with Elizabeth Barber and Irene Good, prehistoric textile specialists, to study the archeologically recovered textiles of the region.  The results of their work turned out to yield tremendously valuable and revealing results about the origins and technology of the ancient textiles we examined.

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What a prehistoric pair of pretty pants can tell us about the spread of early languages

The following is a photograph of the world's oldest known pair of trousers:


(source)

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Synchronicity

Just a few minutes after I finished "Equal representation in the halls of quackery", this email arrived [names obscured to protect the guilty]:

Dear Dr. Liberman,

The journal P________ is currently running a Special Issue entitled "Molecular Dynamic Simulation for Food Products and Processes". Prof. Dr. A_____ S___ and Prof. Dr. V_____ R_______ are serving as Guest Editors for this issue. We think you could make an excellent contribution based on your expertise and your following paper:

Pitch-range perception: the dynamic interaction between voice quality and fundamental frequency. 17TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE OF THE INTERNATIONAL SPEECH COMMUNICATION ASSOCIATION (INTERSPEECH 2016), VOLS 1-5: UNDERSTANDING SPEECH PROCESSING IN HUMANS AND MACHINES 2016, 0, 1350-1354.

This Special Issue aims to present recent advances and breakthroughs in the application of MD simulations, in the development and maintenance of the safety and quality of food products and processes.

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Clumsy classicism

In his addresses to the Liǎnghuì 兩會 (Two Sessions), annual plenary meetings of the national People's Congress and the national committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference that have just concluded in Beijing (March 4-11), Xi Jinping repeatedly stressed “guó zhī dà zhě 国之大者”.  The grammar is clearly literary, with the first character a monosyllabic version of vernacular "guójiā 国家" ("country"), the second character a classical attributive particle, and the fourth character a classical nominalizing particle. Thus the phrase stands out like a sore thumb midst the matrix of vernacular in which it is mixed.  What's worse, even fluent readers of Mandarin generally misinterpret what it means.  Most educated persons to whom I've shown the phrase think that it means "big / large / powerful / great country", "that which (can be called) a big / large / powerful / great country"), etc., when in fact Xi intends for it to mean "something that is important for the country", "that which is important for the country" "things that are important for the country", etc.

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Radio Garden

In case you missed it — Radio Garden:

Radio Garden invites you to tune into thousands of live radio stations across the globe.

By bringing distant voices close, radio connects people and places. From its very beginning, radio signals have crossed borders. Radio makers and listeners have imagined both connecting with distant cultures, as well as re-connecting with people from ‘home’ from thousands of miles away.

Radio Garden is based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Our dedicated team is hard at work tending to the garden on a daily basis. Planting seeds for the future and keeping the weeds at bay.

[h/t Bradley Sherman]

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Mongolian museum mystery

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Kunlun: Roman letter phonophores for Chinese characters

Lucas Klein writes from Hong Kong:

I just read Don Wyatt’s Blacks of Premodern China (which I believe you published?), and I found that someone who had previously borrowed the book from the library had left a sticky note in it… and evidently whoever it was forgot how to write 崑崙, so wrote it out in pinyin with the mountain radical!

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Tsai Ing-wen's multilingual New Year's greetings

The multilingual part of this message from the President of Taiwan comes near the end of this 2:26 Twitter video:

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Ask Language Log: How Unusual Are N Consecutive Monosyllables in English?

From John Brewer:

I was recently listening to the Neil Young song "Barstool Blues" (first released 1975), which I have known and enjoyed since at least the late '80's, when I was struck by a particular line in the lyrics I didn't recall having focused on before. First I was noting the meteorological imagery, but then I noticed that it consisted entirely of monosyllables, thirteen of them in a row.

"Burn off all the fog and let the sun through to the snow."

This made me wonder how statistically improbable or unusual it was to have this long a sequence of consecutive monosyllables, with related wondering as to how that affected the chances that it had been done self-consciously by the writer or just happened without the writer noticing. I would think that LL headquarters might have access to appropriately-coded corpora resources that could address this question, with maybe even some indication as to whether unusually long strings of monosyllables are more common in some contexts or genres or registers than others.

Just to avoid apples-to-oranges comparison problems, I note that if you look at the end of the prior line and the beginning of the following line, these thirteen monosyllables are situated within a longer string of twenty. I personally find a complete semantic/syntactic unit of thirteen more striking than a string of twenty that crosses the boundaries between such units, but maybe the corpus data wouldn't bear me out on that.

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Dangerous heights and tipping vessels

Chris Button says that he was looking at the oracle-bone form for wēi 危 ("precarious, precipitous; perilous; high; ridge [of a roof]; dangerous") and noticed that Huang Dekuan (2007 mammoth dictionary of ancient forms of characters) treats it as depicting a qīqì 欹器 ("tilting vessel" or "tipping vessel").  This was:

…an ancient Chinese ceremonial utensil that automatically overturned and spilled its contents once it reached capacity, thus symbolizing moderation and caution. Both Confucian and Daoist Chinese classics include a famous anecdote about the first time Confucius saw a tilting vessel. In the Confucian tradition (e.g., Xunzi) it was also named yòuzuò zhī qì (宥座之器, "vessel on the right of one's seat"), with three positions, the vessel tilts to one side when empty, stands upright when filled halfway, and overturns when filled to the brim—illustrating the philosophical value of the golden mean. In the Daoist tradition, the tilting vessel was named yòuzhī (宥卮, "urging goblet" or "warning goblet"), with two positions, staying upright when empty and overturning when full—illustrating the metaphysical value of emptiness, and later associated with the Zhuangzian zhīyán (卮言, "goblet words") rhetorical device.

(source)

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Bronze, iron, gold, silver

In our ongoing quest to link up linguistics with archeology, we have had numerous posts involving Iranian-speaking peoples spreading from west to east and bringing culture and language with them.  When I say "culture", I mean technological as well as spiritual, artistic, architectural, and other aspects, plus social customs and political organization.  Because the Iranian-speaking peoples were so active in spreading diverse manifestations of culture, I often refer to them as Kulturvermittlers par excellence.

Among the more prominent features of culture that Iranian-speaking peoples transmitted across Eurasia was metallurgy.  That includes all four of the main metals:  bronze, iron, gold, and silver.  The first two were mainly for weapons and implements, and where they went, they transformed military affairs, agriculture, and daily life.  The changes that bronze and iron brought about amounted to revolutions of civilization.  Gold and silver were primarily for ornament and embellishment, and the Iranian-speaking people created breathtakingly beautiful works of art out of these precious metals

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Persian peaches of immortality

When I visited Samarkand about 35-40 years ago (before digital days), I ate some of these luscious, mythic peaches:

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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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