Archive for Books

Writing on things

If someone is investigating texts, they can concentrate on the subject / content / style / linguistic nature of the writing.  Increasingly, however, scholars have begun to concentrate on the objects and materials on which the writing takes place.  From this, they tease out all sorts of interesting information about the social, political, and economic aspects of the texts.  A new book on this topic is Thomas Kelly's The Inscription of Things:  Writing and Materiality in Early Modern China (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2023).

Why would an inkstone have a poem inscribed on it? Early modern Chinese writers did not limit themselves to working with brushes and ink, and their texts were not confined to woodblock-printed books or the boundaries of the paper page. Poets carved lines of verse onto cups, ladles, animal horns, seashells, walking sticks, boxes, fans, daggers, teapots, and musical instruments. Calligraphers left messages on the implements ordinarily used for writing on paper. These inscriptions—terse compositions in verse or epigrammatic prose—relate in complex ways to the objects on which they are written.

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The Syriac Script at Turfan

First Soundings

by Martina Galatello

This is the first book-length palaeographic study of about a thousand fragments in Syriac and Sogdian languages discovered between 1902 and 1914 in the Turfan area on the ancient Northern Silk Roads. This manuscript material, probably dating between the late 8th and 13th /14th centuries, is of utmost relevance for the history of an area that represents a crossroads region of various communities, languages and religions, not least the East Syriac Christian community. Palaeographic factors such as form, modulus, ductus, contrast, spaces between letters and ligatures have been examined. Particularly significant is a peculiar ligature of the letters sade and nun. One important observation that emerges from this research is the almost total absence of monumental script in favour of mostly cursive forms, most of them East Syriac cursive forms. These represent a valuable source for the study of the history of the East Syriac script due to the paucity of earlier and contemporary East Syriac manuscript evidence from the Middle East, at least before the twelfth century. Moreover, this research sheds light on scribal habits that are highly relevant for a better comprehension of the Sogdian and Syriac-speaking Christian communities, for the history of writing between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and for a greater understanding of the social context in which these and other communities in the same area read, wrote, and shared handwritten texts.

This study is part of the FWF stand-alone project "Scribal Habits. A case study from Christian Medieval Central Asia" (PI Chiara Barbati) at the Institute of Iranian Studies of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. 

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Sino-Iranica and Sino-Arabica

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Sinoglyphic scripts for Sinitic and non-Sinitic languages in East / Southeast Asia

Forthcoming from De Gruyter, July 14, 2024 (ISBN: 9783111382746):

Vernacular Chinese-Character Manuscripts from East and Southeast Asia, edited by: David Holm.

Volume 40 in the series Studies in Manuscript Cultures

Keywords: Asia; vernacular; ritual; library collections; recitation

Topics:  Asian Literature; Asian and Pacific Studies; Dialectology; Linguistics and Semiotics; Literary Studies; Literature of other Nations and Languages; Southeast Asia; Textual Scholarship; Theoretical Frameworks and Disciplines

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Ptahhatp's proverbs

From the Wall Street Journal:

‘The Oldest Book in the World’ Review: Also Sprach Ptahhatp

A set of maxims attributed to an adviser of an Egyptian pharaoh may be the world’s earliest surviving work of philosophy.

By Dominic Green

July 6, 2023 6:20 pm ET

What have we?  Philosophy in the Age of the Pyramids?  Philosophy before there were Greek philosophers?

Green launches his review:

In 1847 the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris acquired a 16-page scroll from the antiquarian Émile Prisse d’Avennes (1807-1879). He had bought it from one of the local men then excavating a cemetery near a pharaonic temple complex at Thebes in Egypt. The Papyrus Prisse, as it is known, contains the only complete version of a set of philosophical epigrams called “The Teaching of Ptahhatp.” Recognized upon its publication in 1858 as “the oldest book in the world,” the “Teaching” is attributed to a vizier to Izezi, the eighth and penultimate pharaoh of the Old Kingdom’s Fifth Dynasty, who ruled Egypt in the late 25th and early 24th centuries B.C.

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Revelation: Scythians and Shang

I was stunned when I read the following article in the South China Morning Post, both because it was published in Hong Kong, which is now completely under the censorial control of the People's Republic of China (PRC) / Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and because it raises some disturbing political issues and troubling linguistic problems.

"Why the rewriting of China’s history 3,000 years ago still matters today"

Confucius uncovered the truth of the Shang dynasty but agreed with King Wen and the Duke of Zhou to cover up disturbing facts
Beijing’s claimed triumph over Covid-19, for instance, may not echo with all who endured the draconian quarantines.

Zhou Xin, SCMP (4/25/23)

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Sinological formatting

I recently received this book:

Sūn Sīmiǎo, Sabine Wilms.  Healing Virtue-Power: Medical Ethics and the Doctor's Dao.  Whidbey Island WA:  Happy Goat Productions, 2022.

ISBN:  978-1-7321571-9-4


As soon as I started to leaf through the volume, I was struck by its unusual format and usages:  every Chinese character is accompanied by Hanyu Pinyin phonetic annotation with tones, and all terms and sentences are translated into English.  But that's just the beginning; after introducing the original author and the translator, I will point out additional features of this remarkable, praiseworthy monograph.

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Austronesian languages of Taiwan

Handbook of Formosan Languages (Online): The Indigenous Languages of Taiwan


Paul Jen-kuei Li, Academia Sinica
Elizabeth Zeitoun, Academia Sinica
Rik De Busser, National Taiwan Cheng-Chi University

Leiden:  Brill, 2023

Outright Purchase: € 2249 / US dollars 2495
Subscription: € 350 / US dollars 390

A print version is forthcoming (September 2023 ; 3 vols, ~ 2200 pp.)


  • The first comprehensive reference work on Formosan languages, relevant for decades to come.
  • Sketch grammars of almost all known Formosan languages, living or extinct.
  • Written by renowned scholars in the field from around the world.

Publication Schedule

Handbook of Formosan Languages Online was launched in May 2023 with 50% of the total content. The other 50% will be published in July 2023.

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Japanese book formats

Two days ago, a Penn freshman from China gifted me with a small format edition of the Guǐgǔzi 鬼谷子 (Master of Ghost Valley), a text that has long intrigued me.

Guiguzi (鬼谷子) is a collection of ancient Chinese texts compiled between the late Warring States period and the end of the Han Dynasty. The work, between 6,000–7,000 Chinese characters, discusses techniques of rhetoric. Although originally associated with the School of Diplomacy, the Guiguzi was later integrated into the Daoist canon.


Not only was I pleased by the content of the book, I was also charmed by its appearance.  Over the long decades of my career as a Sinologist, I have purchased thousands of Chinese books, but I had never seen one quite like this.  It has fine printing on good quality paper with a classy cover.  Its dimensions are small, 6 7/8ths inches (174.625 mm) by 4 1/4 inches (107.95 mm).  Published in 2015 (reissued 2019) (ISBN 978-7-101-10697-8) by the famous Chinese publishing house Zhōnghuá Shūjú 中华书局 (Chung Hwa Book Co.), it is part of a relatively new series called Zhōnghuá jīngdiǎn zhǐzhǎng wénkù 中华经典指掌文库 (Chung Hwa Classics Series for the Palm).  All the several dozen volumes in this series are premodern classics.

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Centuries-old Quran being treated in a Taiwan "book hospital"

Article in Taiwan News (4/9/23):

National Taiwan Library repairs 500-year-old Quran
'Book Hospital' tasked with repairing ancient Quran damaged by time, elements
By Sean Scanlan

500-year-old Quran being repaired (CNA photo)

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Review of Yoshida Yutaka's Lectures on Sogdian Grammar

Despite its being a Middle Iranian language that has been extinct for a millennium, we've often mentioned Sogdian on Language Log.  That's because of its intrinsic linguistic interest, but also because its speakers, as I have often said, were Eurasian Kulturvermittlers par excellence and outstanding socioeconomic entrepreneurs.

Now we have a comprehensive, reliable grammar of Sogdian, which is cause for celebration:

Yoshida Yutaka 吉田豊 2022. Sogudogo bunpō kōgi ソグド語文法講義
[Lectures on Sogdian Grammar]. Kyoto: Rinsen. iv, 500 pp.

ISBN: 978-4-653-04188-7.

Although this hefty tome is in Japanese, Adam Alvah Catt has written an informative review that enables those who cannot read it themselves to get a good idea of the book's contents.

Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, Volume 76: Issue 1 (March 17, 2023), 165-167



Here I will make available the first, next to last, and last paragraphs of the review.

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Catalogue of Sogdian Writings in Central Asia

Regular readers of Language Log will not be strangers to Sogdian, an extinct Middle Iranian language (see the list of "Selected readings" below).  The pace of research on Sogdian has picked up greatly in recent decades.  Now, with the publication of Catalogue of Sogdian Writings in Central Asia by International Institute for Central Asian Studies (IICAS) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, we are set for even more intensive studies on Sogdian in the coming years.

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Book price puzzle

On yesterday:

\$33,634.25 for a book that's in 464 libraries, and is available on for \$17.76 (at least it's not \$19.84 :-) or \$49.00 plus shipping?

I've seen unreasonable amazon prices for out-of-print books before, but in the thousands of dollars, not the tens of thousands.

Is this an out-of-control re-pricing bot? Or a money-laundering scam? Or what?

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