Archive for Language and culture

The importance of being and speaking Taiwanese

Meet Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan's de facto ambassador to the United States:

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Färm: rise of the eco-umlaut?

From Alex Baumans:

Recently a supermarket of this ecofriendly chain opened in my neighborhood. As the initiative seems to be francophone, I suppose the name is a superposition of the French 'ferme' and English 'farm' by way of German spelling. What struck me most was their unbounded enthusiasm for putting little dots on vowels. I can't imagine how most of them are supposed to pronounced, so the dots clearly only serve a decorative purpose. Is the eco-umlaut the successor of the hard rock-umlaut, I wonder. 

The (French) header of their web site:

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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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Obsolete communications technology

"Choke Point for U.S. Coronavirus Response: The Fax Machine", NYT 7/13/2020:

The machine at the Harris County Public Health department recently became overwhelmed when one laboratory sent a large batch of test results, spraying hundreds of pages all over the floor.

“Picture the image of hundreds of faxes coming through, and the machine just shooting out paper,” said Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of the department. The county has so far recorded more than 40,000 coronavirus cases.

Some doctors fax coronavirus tests to Dr. Shah’s personal number, too. Those papers are put in an envelope marked “confidential” and walked to the epidemiology department. […]

Health departments track the virus’s spread with a distinctly American patchwork: a reporting system in which some test results arrive via smooth data feeds but others come by phone, email, physical mail or fax, a technology retained because it complies with digital privacy standards for health information. These reports often come in duplicate, go to the wrong health department, or are missing crucial information such as a patient’s phone number or address.

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Chinese idol names

[This is a guest post by Alex Baumans]

I recently became aware of the Chinese idol survival programme 'Youth with you', which has resulted in the formation of the group The 9. I got to wondering about the members' names. The group consists of XIN Liu, Esther Yu, Kiki Xu, Yan Yu, Shaking, Babymonster An, Xiaotang Zhao, Snow Kong and K Lu. Of these, only Zhao Xiaotang strikes me as an original Chinese name. As my Mandarin is non existent, I can only guess at the derivation of the other stage names.

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Know your Narts: cattle rearing and cattle raiding

We here at Language Log know our Ossetians:  see "Know your Ossetians" (2/17/20), and be sure to read the informative comments to that post.  Today, let us go one step deeper into their language and lore.  We shall do so through getting to know some basic things about the Nart sagas (Abkhaz: Нарҭаа ражәабжьқәа; Nartaa raƶuabƶkua; Adyghe: Нартхымэ акъыбарыхэ; Nartxıme aqıbarıxe; Karachay-Balkar: Нарт таурухла; Nart tawruxla; Ossetian: Нарты кадджытæ; Narty kaddžytæ; Nartı kadjıtæ) are a series of tales originating from the North Caucasus. They form much of the basic mythology of the tribes in the area, including Abazin, Abkhaz, Circassian, Ossetian, KarachayBalkar, and to some extent ChechenIngush folklore.

The term nart comes from the Ossetian Nartæ, which is plurale tantum of nar. The origin of the root nar is of Iranian origin, from Proto-Iranian nar for 'hero, man', descended from Proto-Indo-European *h₂nḗr. In Chechen, the word nart means 'giant'.

Source:  Nart saga

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Mud season in Old English

[This is a guest post by Pamela Crossley]

I was recently doing something with my old undergraduate major, Old English, and was reminded of the word Salmonath (Solmonath), which put me in mind of this old conversation on your blog:

"Mud season in Russia: Putin, Rasputin" (3/31/18)

So you’ll like this one. Like the others we were discussing before, the Anglo-Saxons referred to a mud season, specifically the “muddy month” of February — Salmonath or Solmonath. There has been a lot of confusion about exactly what Salmonath means. A passage in Bede has been interpreted as saying that he translated “Salmonath” as “cake month,” but I think the passage only means that people also called Salmonath “cake month.” Somebody else said it was “Sol” as in the sun, obviously silly. Virtually everybody eventually agrees it means “muddy month” but they don’t go any further with what this “Sal” or “Sol” is supposed to be. The most illuminating discussion I have now read is in Wedgwood, A Dictionary of English Etymology (1865), Vol III, pp. 25-256, which you can now read online. Turns out, this word is very well attested in other Germanic languages. It is only very distantly related, if at all, to “soil,” which comes to English from French; “soil”’s original meaning was place, spot, ground, that kind of thing. Solid.

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Turkic kaymak and Sinitic sū: a dairy product and a food texture

From Jacob Reed:

Inspired by Miss Gao's 小高姐’s latest video, I've been trying to track down how 酥 acquired its present, seemingly contradictory connotations of "crispy" and "soft / relaxed". Paul Kroll's Classical / Medieval dictionary lists that it originally comes from the Persian for kaymak / clotted cream. 汉语大词典* indicates that this meaning is first attested during the Tang period.  Neither provide any indication of how we got from kaymak / clotted cream to "crispy" (the use of butterfat in pastry?).

In any case, I'm now curious if there's a more general trend of Sinitic dairy terms (like horse-related terms) coming from Central Asia, which would only make sense.

[VHM:  *Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 (Unabridged dictionary of Sinitic)]

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Preventive Care for Local Languages

February 21st is International Mother Language Day, proclaimed by the General Conference of UNESCO in 1999 and celebrated every year since, aimed at promoting linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. In honor of the day, the following is a guest post by Alissa Stern, the founder of BASAbali, an initiative of “linguists, anthropologists, students, and laypeople, from within and outside of Bali, who are collaborating to keep Balinese strong and sustainable.” BASAbali won a 2019 UNESCO Award for Literacy and a 2018 International Linguapax Award.


We’re told “Don’t wait” to treat our bodies, secure our homes, or maintain our cars. We should do the same for local languages.

Despite all the years of language revitalization, we are still losing about one language every two to three weeks.  In this century alone, the number of languages on the planet will be halved. A little preventive care would help.

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Year of the muroid

Many people have asked me, should it really be the lunar new year of the rat?  Such a disgusting creature!  Or should it be the year of the mouse?  Although we do our best to trap them and otherwise keep them out of our living spaces, mice are much cuter than rats, and some people even have special mice as pets, plus there are folk tales and songs and proverbs about adorable little mice, and who doesn't love Mickey and Minnie?

In contrast, in lore and literature, rats are invariably cast as tricky at best and villainous, criminal types at worst.

So, if I had to choose between Year of the Rat and Year of the Mouse, I would definitely pick Year of the Mouse.  Alas, most people choose otherwise (I know not why):

Year of the Rat — 44,000,000 ghits

Year of the Mouse — 6,300,000 ghits

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"The Two" and other poems

Yesterday Nick Montfort returned to Penn to give a talk under the title "Lean Computer-Generated Poetry as Exploration of Language, Culture, and Computation". The talk was basically a commentary on (some of) the contents of his interactive website https://nickm.com/, so you can explore the same material yourself, minus the commentary.

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MLK linguistics

There have been a few LLOG posts focusing on Martin Luther King Jr. over the years, notably "Martin Luther King's rhetorical phonetics" (1/15/2007), "Celebrating the Linguistic Significance of Martin Luther King Jr." (1/17/2016), and "There is No Racial Justice Without Linguistic Justice" (1/15/2018).

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New New Year's couplets

From a friend in Hong Kong:

The following pictures are from Shatin mall last night. They show people lining up to get individually calligraphed Chinese New Year’s couplets that take up the key slogan of the protests: “Restore HK’s glory: revolution for our times.” On the way up to mass today, we saw new slogans spray-painted calling for HK independence as “the only way out”. “It ain’t over yet.”

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