Words for cereals

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Over at this post — "Of shumai and Old Sinitic reconstructions" (7/19/16) — last week we had a lively discussion on Eurasian words for "wheat".

I'd like to pursue the subject now on a slightly different, but related, tack.

Let us look at the names for the most important cereals in English, Chinese, and Japanese*:

wheat // xiǎomài  小麥 (lit., "small wheat") // komugi こむぎ 小麦 (lit., "small wheat") — it's interesting that an archaic Japanese term for wheat is mamugi まむぎ 真麦 (lit., "real / true wheat"

barley // dàmài 大麥 (lit., "large wheat") // ōmugi おおむぎ 大麦 (lit., "large wheat")

oats // yànmài 燕麥 (lit., "swallow [the bird] wheat") // ōtomugi オートむぎ オート麦; karasu mugi からす麦 (lit., "crow wheat")

rye // hēimài 黑麥 (lit., "black wheat") // kuro mugi くろむぎ 黒麦 (lit., "black wheat"); rai mugi ライむぎ ライ麦

millet  xiǎomǐ // 小米 (lit., "little rice"); sù 粟; shǔ ; liáng 粱 ("fine millet") // kibi きび

sorghum // gāoliang 高粱 // morokoshi もろこし 蜀黍 (lit., "Sichuan millet"); takakibi たかきび 高黍 (lit., "tall millet"); sorugamu ソルガム

corn; maize // yùmǐ 玉米 (lit., "jade rice"); yùshǔshǔ 玉蜀黍 ("jade Sichuan millet / broomcorn") // tōmorokoshi とうもろこし 玉蜀黍 "jade Sichuan millet"); nanba[n]kibi なんば[ん]きび 南蛮黍 (lit., "southern barbarian millet")

rice // dào 稻 ("paddy; the plant growing in the field"); mǐ 米 (the husked grain) // tō トウ te ine いね ina いな- 稲 ("the rice plant"); kome こめ 米 (the husked grain)

*I am not entirely confident of all the Japanese terms, so if anyone spots errors, please do not hesitate to point them out.

Of course, there are other terms for these grains and their varieties, especially among topolects, but I think that the main ones mentioned here tell us some interesting things.  For instance, wheat, barley, oats, and rye all have separate, different words in English, but in Chinese and Japanese they are all considered as types of mài 麥.  In light of the fact that, as we saw last week, both the plant and the name for the plant came to East Asia from the west, it is understandable that mài 麥 would become a sort of general term for grains resembling wheat.

Second, in English we have two distinctly different words for the same plant, viz., "corn" and "maize".  The former is just a generic term meaning "grain" or "kernel" (all three from the same IE root)!  The latter is from an Arawakan (South American) word that came into English through Spanish.  The most frequently encountered Chinese term for corn / maize is yùmǐ 玉米, a term that — from the time I learned it in first- or second-year Mandarin — I always felt was quaint:  "jade rice".  Then, when I went to China and started to travel all around to various localities, I was stunned by the wild assortment of completely different names for corn / maize.  I believe that, both in the case of the English "corn / maize" split and in the "jade rice" plus proliferation of topolectal names for this cereal in Sinitic, the lack of unanimity for the name of the plant is due to its late importation from the New World.  We find the same pattern in names for other New World crops such as potatoes (especially the sweet varieties) and peanuts.

Third, it seems rather odd that millet, which we known to have been domesticated already by the Neolithic in China, nonetheless has four different names, three of which are quite old, and one which calls it "small rice".  This may be due to species variation, but I suspect that it is also due to the very wide geographical distribution of millets — all the way from west Africa to the northern part of East Asia already by six thousand or more years ago.

Fourth, the division between words for "millet" and "sorghum" is blurred, both in Chinese and in Japanese.

Fifth, something that intrigued me when I got beyond first-year Japanese and Chinese, is that at least a couple of names for cereals include the toponym Shǔ 蜀 /  Shoku (a part of the historical Sichuan), in the southwest of what is now China..

Sixth, the unanimity of European words for rice, all of which go back to Indo-Iranian, reflects the fact that it is an old import (already in Greek [oryza]).  By the same token, the fact that China has an old, unified word for rice that is distinct from the Indo-Iranian word indicates that it was a center for the early domestication of this cereal.

More could be said along these lines, but that is enough for this post.

This is not intended to be a systematic, comprehensive treatise on the names of cereals in a broad selection of languages.  All that I wish to do here is point out some striking features of the terminology for cereals in three important languages.  My purpose in doing so is to show how, even at this level of investigation, the study of cereal names can reveal much about the cultural and botanical history of the dissemination of the plants in question.

In the above remarks, I have barely begun to scratch the surface concerning what may be said about the names for cereals in various languages.  Indeed, it would not be difficult to write a long paper or even a book on comparative aspects of words for the cereals.  Perhaps, working together here on Language Log, we can lay down the beginnings for such a work.


  1. CuConnacht said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 7:04 pm

    "Potatoes (especially the sweet varieties)" really isn't right, and is something that probably only an English speaker would say. White potatoes, Solanum tuberosum, are quite unrelated to what we call sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas, and in most languages that I know have entirely distinct names. It's a little like saying "horses (especially the sea varieties)."

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 7:23 pm

    I am an English speaker, and we do say "sweet potatoes" in English. Moreover, sweet potatoes and potatoes are both tuberous crops, whereas horses and and sea horses are entirely different animals, so your parallel was hardly apt.

  3. Ari Corcoran said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 8:38 pm

    Somewhat off topic, but related to work on foods other than cereals. For example:
    Artichokes were brought to Sicily from Greece 3000 years ago, and their name in Sicilian dialect, i cacocciuliddi, derives from the Greek word for cactus (kaktos); northern Italy did not get this vegetable until the mid to late 1400s, and derives its name (al-hursufa and hence carciofo) from the Arabic traders who first brought artichokes to Spain and central and northern Italy.
    “New” foods have become available over millennia: carried on the back of trade and conquest from other parts of Italy and Europe; from the middle and far east; and from Africa and south America. These foods have slowly become part of local cultures and language.
    Foods "very new" to Sicily, e.g. post-World War II, do not have Sicilian dialect terms, and use northern Italian terms, for example "spinaci" for spinach (probably from Old French espinache).

  4. lateposter mcslow said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 9:02 pm

    To be fair I think CuConnacht has a point in that English may have simlar words for the two plants but botanically and culinarily (?) they are quite different plants (more so than many other crop groups mentioned here) and so it doesn't seem so surprising that they have a lack of unanimity as a *group*. The point still stands though as to their recent introduction being connected to a diversity of names.

  5. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 9:15 pm

    Thanks Victor for an interesting additional post to your fascinating thoughts on shumai! Suggest you add dao 稻 to the list as being the normal Chinese word for rice as a cereal (as distinct from mi 米, the shelled stuff one eats).
    Also, the naming of the other main cereal crops was similar in literary Chinese. I.e., you simply qualified the genetic (dao, mai, shu, etc) with big, small, wet, dry, etc., or place name. Francesca Bray's volume on "Agriculture" (1984) in "Science and Civilisation in China" makes much the same point about using the names to trace the history as you on page 463.
    Am I right in thinking that maize (御麦,玉麦,玉米, etc.) is a 16th century import and that rye (heimai 黑麦) is a 19th century import?
    If my memory is correct the current dialect names for the main cereals (or at least mai) are mapped in Iwata Ray's 岩田礼 ongoing bilingual "Hanyu fangyan jieshi ditu" 漢語方言解釈地図 (2009-). Alas a copy of which I do not have to hand.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 9:29 pm

    The terminology for potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, taro, etc. are jumbled up in Chinese and Japanese too. Just start with M. shǔ; J. imo / sho 薯, but there are many other terms that get thrown into the mix as well.

  7. Ari Corcoran said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 9:46 pm

    @lateposter mcslow
    "The point still stands though as to their recent introduction being connected to a diversity of names."
    On the contrary, I think it is the opposite: the more historically distant an "import" of a food is, the more likely a diversity of names. As foods have become locally endemic over time, there was a far greater likelihood of local names being adopted even if, as has been noted, between various foods (potato vs. sweet potato) there is no scientific connection.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 10:10 pm

    @Ari Corcoran

    On the introduction of new (in this case New World as well) crops, I can give you a case history reported by my father. He was born in 1911 in the little Tyrolean village of Pfaffenhofen, about 30 km from Innsbruck. He told me that, when he was a little boy, only one person in the village dared to eat a tomato. The other people in the village called her a witch for having done so and ran her off. I don't think my father ever at a tomato in his whole life.

    The German speaking people use the same Nahuatl (Aztecan) word (tomatl) as the basis for their word for tomato that we do in English.

    The Chinese words for "tomato" are very revealing:

    1. fānqié 番茄 — that basically means "barbarian eggplant"

    2. xīhóngshì 西红柿 — that basically means "western red persimmon"

    So far as I know, the Japanese mostly refer to the tomato by transcribing the English word as "tomato トマト", but they also speak of the akanasu あかなす 赤茄子, which would be either the Chinese scarlet eggplant (Solanum integrifolium);  tomato-fruit eggplant or tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum).

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 10:46 pm

    @Endymion Wilkinson

    Thank you for reminding me about dao 稻. I have added it to the list.

    What you say about the rough dates of the introduction of corn / maize and rye sound about right to me.

    When I first came to Penn in 1979, or shortly thereafter, a student named Laura Murray was writing her dissertation, which was about the impact of the introduction of New World crops into a single county in northwest China (I think that it was in Shaanxi province, if not then probably Shanxi province). Through a detailed study of local records, she showed how the population increased dramatically as the new crops were brought in. Not only did they grow well on marginal land, they were also exceptionally nutritious. This, if I recall correctly, was around the 16th-17th century, and it coincides with the beginning of the explosion of the Chinese population from around 200,000,000 in 1600 to around 450,000,000 in 1850. In the preceding millennium and a half, the population stayed mostly around 50,000,000 and only gradually worked its way up to 150,000,000.

  10. Ari Corcoran said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 11:38 pm

    @ Victor Mair on tomatoes. What a great story!
    The first tomatoes were brought back to Europe from Mexico by the Spanish, the first varieties—small, yellow—were first used in northern Italy as an ornamental plant—not as a food.
    The English word tomato, as you say, comes from the Spanish version of the Nuahatl word tomatl. In Italian, from the 1550s, the words pomi d'oro came to describe the new fruit: golden apples. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in 1692 in Naples, the city that would later become the progenitor of the pizza (and its tomato base!).
    But there are other versions of the meaning of the word. According to Francesco Pusateri, in the Trapani region of western Sicily the Trapanese dialect renders the fruit as pumadamuri: apples of love.
    I kinda like the Trapanese version!
    Shakespeare reckoned music was the food of love. Linguists map the love of food!

  11. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 12:19 am

    @Ari Corcoran replying to lateposter
    To simplify matters hugely, in Chinese there were at least two sets of registers of the language: (1) a more or less standard written language; (2) a host of regional and local dialects (or topolects as some prefer to call them). Imported things and the words for them differed in the two registers. In general, the older the loanword the more likely that a single standard way of referring to it in the literary language would gradually emerge. Eventually, this was incorporated into dictionaries. A similar process of standardization happened in the regional and local dialects: in general they tended to start off with dozens of ways of referring to an imported thing before settling for one main way of referring to it in their variety of the language (and this often differed from the loanword that finally became standard in the educated koine). In China before the nineteenth century this process of standardization (and often Sinicization) of loanwords in the two sets of registers could take centuries. During and after the 19th century because of the speeding up of communications and mass education the process was accelerated. Therefore in Chinese it is not true that the older the import the more varieties of loanword for it. In fact, the reverse was the case.

  12. Thomas Rees said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 12:40 am

    @Ari Corcoran

    What the ancient Greeks (Theophrastus) t κάκτος very well may have been artichoke (or cardoon); it certainly wasn’t what Linnaeus named Cactus, which is a New World plant.

    In Nahuatl, ‘tomatl’ is the small green tomato in a husk, in my topolect (US Spanish) ‘tomatillo’. The big red tomato is ‘xitomatl’. In standard Mexican Spanish they are ‘tomate’ and ‘jitomate’.

    ‘Pomme d’amour’ means candy apple.

    I can’t believe there isn’t a literature on comparative aspects of words for food plants.

  13. Ari Corcoran said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 12:53 am

    @ Thomas Rees
    I am sure you are right about "cactus" being Linnean, but the spikes on the artichoke may well have influenced him! And yes, there must be a literature on this: perhaps someone on LL can point to it!

  14. Ari Corcoran said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 1:00 am

    @ Thomas Rees
    According to Etymology Online: c. 1600, from Latin cactus "cardoon," from Greek kaktos, name of a type of prickly plant of Sicily (the Spanish artichoke), perhaps of pre-Hellenic origin. Modern meaning is 18c., because Linnaeus gave the name to a group of plants he thought were related to this but are not.

  15. rosie said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 1:52 am

    "Corn" is a generic term for cereal plants or their seeds. In the varieties of English used in various regions, "corn" might be applied more specifically to a cereal grown locally, e.g. wheat in England, oats in Scotland & Ireland, and maize in North America.

  16. Michael Watts said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 2:05 am

    According to the taxonomy, potatoes and sweet potatoes are less similar to each other (both order Solanales, but different families) than rice, wheat, corn, oats, millet, barley, rye, sorghum, etc. etc. etc. are to each other (all grass, family Poaceae). So any purported similarity is clearly not sufficient to justify using the same word. I'd bet on the massive dietary and societal unimportance of tubers as compared to grasses.

  17. Joseph said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 2:14 am

    I just want to recommend the following Japanese article as it is an excellent example of linguistic geographical analysis and the methods by which neologisms were formed for newly introduced food plants to China, in this case for potatoes and sweet potatoes.


  18. Bathrobe said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 2:26 am

    The Polyglot Vegetarian had some interesting posts back in 2007/2008. For example, watermelons, chili, potato, garlic, and spaghetti squash.

  19. Kenny Easwaran said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 3:03 am

    The latin name for tomato, "lycopersicon" (from which we get the word "lycopene" for their healthful chemicals) apparently means "wolf peach". Just like Italian "pomodoro", it is reminiscent of other fruit names like "pineapple" in English and "sinaasappel" in Dutch that take an existing fruit name and add some modifier.

    And should it be surprising that there are multiple words for millet? My understanding (as someone from a culture that almost never eats any millet) is that "millet" in English refers to many different grain crops, and it's conceivable to me that the different Chinese names are actually for different crops:


  20. Bob Ladd said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 3:36 am

    @Kenny Easwaran
    Tomatoes may be 'wolf peaches', but peach itself is originally an example of the process you mention – the Latin word persica (from which It. pesca, Ger. Pfirsich, etc.) just means 'Persian', and the full name of the fruit was malum persicum (plural mala persica), i.e. 'Persian apple'.

  21. Ari Corcoran said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 4:10 am

    Interestingly, Sicilian retains the full Latin, persica, while the Italian has abbreviated it. (or did the Romans adopt it from their southern province?)

  22. Bob Ladd said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 4:46 am

    @Ari Corcoran
    The "abbreviation" started early – I'm pretty sure PERSICA NON PESSICA is recorded in the Appendix Probi, a 3rd (?) century list of common errors in Latin that's a source of evidence about how Latin was actually spoken after the Classical period. The variation between RS and SS shows up in the modern Romance languages: Sardinian has pessiga but Romanian has piersică. French pêche (the source of English peach) comes regularly from a source PESCA, with the weak middle vowel of PESSICA lost, as in Italian. (The Appendix Probi has a number of cases of dropped weak middle vowels, too – I think OCULUM NON OCLUM is one of them, OCLUM being the source of Fr. oeil, Sp. ojo, and other Romance words for 'eye'.) In any case, I doubt that Sicily had any special role in determining the Latin form. Perhaps peaches came into the Roman world through Sicily, but German Pfirsich keeps the R too, and peaches certainly didn't come from Germania.

  23. Bob Ladd said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 4:50 am

    Sorry, the Romanian word for 'peach' is piersică, not the mess I left in my previous comment.

  24. Thomas Rees said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 6:29 am

    When I was a kid we called sorghum ‘milo’. Where does that come from?

  25. Peter Erwin said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 6:50 am

    Since (as Michael Watts pointed out) potatoes and sweet potatoes are both found within the same order, a more apt analogy might be "lions (especially the sea varieties)" (as lions and sea lions are both members of the order Carnivora).

  26. bobbie said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 7:15 am

    Not surprising that one Chinese word for tomato means "barbarian eggplant" — The tomato, potato, and eggplant are all in the Nightshade family. The plants belong to the scientific order of Polemoniales and the Solanaceae family of plants. The nightshades include numerous vegetables: potatoes, tomatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, tamarillos, pepitos, pimentos, paprika, and cayenne peppers. Sweet potatoes and yams are not included among the nightshades.
    Nightshade vegetables are often considered to trigger arthritis.

  27. Michael Watts said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 8:08 am

    Sweet potatoes and yams are not included among the nightshades.

    The fact that they're both "tuberous crops" notwithstanding, sweet potatoes and yams differ from each other at roughly the same taxonomic level that horses and seahorses do. In the words of wikipedia, "they are about as distantly related as two flowering plants can be".

  28. Victor Mair said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 8:35 am

    Speaking of taxonomic levels


    horse: class Mammalia || a quadruped that lives on the land

    seahorse: class Actinopterygii || a kind of fish that lives in the water


    potato: order Solanales

    sweet potato: order Solanales

  29. Jongseong Park said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 9:03 am

    Here is my contribution for Korean.

    The Korean spelling is followed by the pronunciation in square brackets where it deviates from the spelling. Revised Romanization of the modern Korean form in bold, Yale Romanizations of the modern and historical forms in italics. Middle Korean forms with archaic letters such as ᄡᆞᆯ psol might not compose correctly if you don't have the font support (the components should be stacked on top of each other to form a single syllabic block).

    wheat: 밀 mil mil < 밇 milh (능엄경언해 楞嚴經諺解 Neung'eomgyeong eonhae, 1461). Cf. Old Chinese *mrək (Schuessler) (see previous thread). Very rarely, wheat is also called 참밀 chammil chammil using the prefix 참- cham- "true", presumably to distinguish it from 호밀 hwomil "rye" (see below) as "true wheat".

    barley: 보리 bori pwoli < 보리 pwoli (구급방언해 救急方諺解 Gugeupbang eonhae, 1466). The dehusked grain is called 보리쌀 borissal pwolissal 보리ᄡᆞᆯ pwolipsol (동의보감 탕액편 東醫寶鑑 湯液篇 Dong'uibogam tang'aekpyeon, 1613) ← 보리 pwoli + ᄡᆞᆯ psol.

    oats: 귀리 [귀ː리] gwiri kwili < 귀우리 kwiuli < 귀보리 kwipwoli (동의보감 탕액편 東醫寶鑑 湯液篇 Dong'uibogam tang'aekpyeon, 1613). So this is 귀 kwi "ear" + 보리 pwoli "barley". The dehusked grain is called 귀리쌀 [귀ː리쌀] gwirissal kwilissal ← 귀리 kwili + 쌀 ssal.

    rye: 호밀 homil hwomil, which adds the Sino-Korean prefix 호- (胡-) hwo- "barbarian" (applied to a number of items brought into Korea through China) to 밀 mil "wheat". So it means "barbarian wheat" or "Chinese wheat".

    proso millet: 기장 gijang kicang < 기자ᇰ kicang (능엄경언해 楞嚴經諺解 Neung'eomgyeong eonhae, 1461). The dehusked grain is called 기장쌀 gijangssal kicangssal < 기자ᇰᄡᆞᆯ kicangpsol (구급방언해 救急方諺解 Gugeupbang eonhae, 1466) ← 기자ᇰ kicang + ᄡᆞᆯ psol.

    foxtail millet: 조 jo cwo < 좋 cwoh (구급방언해 救急方諺解 Gugeupbang eonhae, 1466). The dehusked grain is called 좁쌀 jopssal cwopssal < 조ᄡᆞᆯ cwopsol (구급방언해 救急方諺解 Gugeupbang eonhae, 1466) ← 좋 cwoh + ᄡᆞᆯ psol.

    sorghum: 수수 susu susu < 슈슈 syusyu (훈몽자회(예산 문고본) 訓蒙字會(叡山文庫本) Hunmongjahoe Yesan mun'go-bon, 1527) < Middle Mandarin 薥黍 (cf. Modern Mandarin shǔshǔ). The Sino-Korean reading of 薥黍 would be 촉수 chwokswu, so this must be a direct loan from Middle Mandarin or a similar Sinitic variety.

    maize: 옥수수 [옥쑤수] oksusu wokswuswu < 옥슈슈 woksyusyu (역어유해 譯語類解 Yeogeoyuhae, 1690). So this is Sino-Korean 옥 玉 wok "jade" + 슈슈 syusyu "sorghum".
    강냉이 gangnaeng'i kangnayngi is the more usual term for "maize" in North Korea. In South Korea, this usage is mainly regional, and many people use this word instead to mean popcorn-like snacks made of maize. We can deduce from dialectal variants including 강나미 kangnami and 강낭 kangnang that this name comes from 강남 江南 kangnam "river-south", Sino-Korean for the Chinese region of Jiāngnán south of the River Yangtze that sometimes stood for China as a whole, with the noun-forming -이 i suffix.

    rice: 벼 byeo pye < 벼 pye (훈민정음(해례본) 訓民正音(解例本) Hunminjeong'eum haerye-bon, 1446). This refers to the crop and the grain in general.

    dehusked rice: 쌀 ssal ssal < ᄡᆞᆯ psol (석보상절 釋譜詳節 Seokbosangjeol, 1447). This refers to rice with the hulls removed. So when we refer to rice as food (as opposed to a crop), this is the word to use. Broadly, as seen above, this can mean other rice-like grains with the hulls removed, as in 보리쌀 pwolissal for barley, 기장쌀 kicangssal for proso millet, and 좁쌀 cwopssal for foxtail millet (in this last case preserving the ps- initial in Middle Korean).

  30. K said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 10:42 am

    Sweet potatoes are order Solanales but yams are order Dioscoreales despite the fact that in the store sweet potatoes are often called yams.

    Anyway, comparing orders is only somewhat useful since how splitty biological classification is is highly variable roughly based on how familiar and important they were in the early days (mammals very splitty, lizards much less splitty)

  31. CuConnacht said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 11:17 am

    @Peter Erwin:

    If I had thought of sea lions I would have used that instead of the horses.

    In my defense, I did say that it was +a little+ like saying "horses (especially of the sea variety)," not exactly so or even nearly so.

  32. cameron said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 11:38 am

    It's interesting that both Chinese and Korean have different words for rice qua crop and rice qua food. Persian also has two such words for rice. The stuff growing in the field is berenj and the stuff on the plate is polo.

    Does anyone know of a language that maintains a distinction like that for any grain other than rice?

  33. Bob Ladd said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 11:49 am

    @cameron: It's not quite the same thing, but grass vs. hay comes close.

  34. Ari Corcoran said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

    @ cameron said
    polenta vs mais/granturco

    or for that matter, corn on the cob (pannocchia) vs mais/granturco

  35. Ethan said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 1:03 pm

    @cameron: oats in the field, porridge on the plate?

  36. Mr Punch said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 2:59 pm

    Maybe farro?

  37. David Marjanović said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

    European words for rice, all of which go back to Indo-Iranian

    Via Arabic – borrowed from there once in Sicily without the definite article, and once in Spain with the Arabic definite article still on (arroz).

    The German speaking people use the same Nahuatl (Aztecan) word (tomatl) as the basis for their word for tomato that we do in English.

    Except when they don't. The roughly Austrian term Paradeiser isn't quite extinct yet.


    Huh. Maize is the Gangnam-style cereal.

  38. Gene Callahan said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 9:43 pm

    @Ari: "Artichokes were brought to Sicily from Greece 3000 years ago, and their name in Sicilian dialect, i cacocciuliddi, derives from the Greek word for cactus (kaktos); northern Italy did not get this vegetable until the mid to late 1400s, and derives its name (al-hursufa and hence carciofo) from the Arabic traders who first brought artichokes to Spain and central and northern Italy."

    Do you know how this happened (or didn't happen)? Rome conquered Sicily in 242 BC. Why did it take artichokes another 1600 years to make it up to Rome?

  39. Ari Corcoran said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 2:35 am

    @ Gene Callaghan
    It is a puzzle. Rome largely depended on Sicily for timber and durum wheat (which had been brought from north Africa), and likely had no real interest in this unprepossessing thorny bush, the fruit of which would not have traveled well (that is speculation, I admit). Certainly Sicily derives much of ts food ultimately from trade through ancient Greece and hence Persia. Large parts of Sicily were part of Magna Graecia between the 8th and 3rd centuries BC
    The first citrus to come to Italy, the citron, is said to have been brought via Alexander the Great to the Middle East;and hence to Sicily and Calabria by Jews fleeing Jerusalem in 70AD. The Citron still plays a large role in Jewish religious life, but the citrus we are more familiar with such as lemons and oranges did not arrive till many years later (and originally from China and east Asia in any case).
    As for why the 1600 years break, I have no idea.

  40. Jongseong Park said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 3:28 am

    I was looking at which languages besides English might allow a locution like "potatoes (especially the sweet varieties)". In French you have patate douce "sweet patate" for sweet potato and patate is often used for potato in familiar usage, but pomme de terre "earth apple" is the more formal-sounding term.

    I don't know if the other patata-like terms in other languages have the same ambiguity. Simply looking at word lists, French was the only one I found where it was felt necessary to specify a "sweet" variety to refer to sweet potatoes—in most other languages, patata or its variants seem to mean sweet potatoes without need for disambiguation.

    Swahili has kiazi cha kizungu "European/white tuber", kiazi kitamu "sweet tuber", and kiazi kikuu "great tuber" for potato, sweet potato, and yam respectively.

  41. Alon Lischinsky said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 5:15 am

    @Victor Mair:

    He told me that, when he was a little boy, only one person in the village dared to eat a tomato. The other people in the village called her a witch for having done so and ran her off.

    that may be because some of the European cousins of the tomato plan, know as nightshades, tend to be very poisonous — and their berries can look very much like a cherry tomato.

  42. Jongseong Park said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 5:51 am

    @David Marjanović: Huh. Maize is the Gangnam-style cereal.

    강남 江南 Gangnam (Yale: Kangnam), literally "river-south", definitely went through a semantic shift in Korean. As I said, it used to be the understood to refer to the Chinese region of Jiāngnán south of the River Yangtze, which has the same name in Chinese characters. And because the Ming dynasty originally had its capital in this region at Nanjing, it often stood for China as a whole.

    There is a traditional saying 친구 따라 강남 간다 chin'gu ttara Gangnam ganda "following a friend to Gangnam" to describe doing something because of peer pressure. One also speaks of swallows going to Gangnam and returning in the spring: 강남 갔던 제비가 봄에 돌아온다 Gangnam gatdeon jebi-ga bom-e doraonda. In both these cases, Gangnam refers to the Chinese region of Jiāngnán.

    The kidney bean (Phaseolus vulgaris var. humilis) is known as 강낭콩 gangnangkong (Yale: kangnangkhong) in Korean. Prior to the 1988 reform that reflected the assimilated pronunciation, it was spelled 강남콩 gangnamkong (Yale: kangnamkhong) which even better reflected the etymology (강남 gangnam + 콩 kong "bean"). The Gangnam here also refers to China, through which the originally Central American bean reached Korea.

    Of course, nowadays, this sense of Gangnam is fairly obsolete in Korean. With the expansion of Seoul to encompass the areas south of the River Han, Gangnam came to refer to the south bank of Seoul, and especially the rich southeastern part. There are progressively narrower definitions of Gangnam, right down to the area around the Gangnam metro station. Because it is this definition of Gangnam that is now ingrained in Koreans (and made famous by a certain music video), there are many Koreans who puzzle at why a swallow would go to Gangnam in the winter when it is just as cold.

  43. Ari Corcoran said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 6:26 am

    @ Jongseong Park

    Italian, maybe, though not up on my tubers. La patata is straight forward as potato; la patata dolce for sweet potatoes … I have seen the latter also referred to as patata americana, which seems counter intuitive as that's where all spuds came from back in the day.

  44. Movenon said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 11:02 am

    @Jongseong Park thank you for your post

    Is there any older attestation of Korean barley 보리 beyond that 1466 구급방언해/救急方諺解? I'm just curious if it was ever some loanword from another language into Korean.

    I always thought it was interesting that 보리 sounds like English barley.

  45. Jichang Lulu said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 11:26 am

    Since Jongseong Park has provided such a cornucopia of Korean cereal names, I'd like to comment once again on Middle Korean 밇 milh 'wheat', discussed on the shumai thread and conceivably related to an Old Chinese form *mrVk.

    First, I was curious to see an occurrence of 밇 in its original context. One of the attestations given in the Naver dictionary is from the 1481 Du si eonhae 두시언해 杜詩諺解, a Korean commentary/gloss of Du Fu's poems. The 'wheat' word occurs in the translation of the poem 為農 (in Stephen Owen's translation: 'Being a farmer'), specifically this couplet:


    which Owen (The Poetry of Du Fu, vol. 2, p. 301) renders as

    Round lotus let their tiny leaves float,
    the thin wheat sheds its light flowers.

    Unfortunately I don't know how to input or display Middle Korean. The second verse is here, for the enjoyment of the less MK-challenged.

    Although 麥 in that verse is indeed translated as 밇, I think I've seen another 麥 in Du Fu gets translated as 보리 'barley' elsewhere in the Du si eonhae.

    As for the final -h in 밇 milh, it seems it could come from older -k. Many works on Korean mention that some early Chinese loanwords (already within the Sino-Korean vocabulary) are attested in MK with the ending -h corresponding to Chinese -k. An example is 笛 'flute' (modern Sino-Korean reading 적 jeok), which occurs in Middle Korean as 뎧 tyeh (e.g. in the Du si eonhae).

    I'm not able to say if those examples of MK -h < (Late) Middle Chinese -k can actually be used as support for milh < milk though. I guess that would depend on whether the change -k > -h happened before the borrowing (within Chinese) or after it (within Korean).

    Regardless of whether Korean 밀 'wheat' is ultimately a Chinese borrowing, several people have proposed a connection to Japanese むぎ mugi and words in Tungusic languages. This is summarised by Alexander Vovin in the first comment to this blog post. The most suggestive Tungusic word is probably Solon murgil, which Vovin calls a loan "from Manchu *murgi + collective Solon -l."

    I can't say much about Tungusic, but Dagur, a Mongolic language with many Solon loanwords, does have a word murgil 'barley', which I found everywhere I looked: the Dagur-Chinese dictionary by the Dagur scholar Engkebatu (Энхбат 恩和巴图, BJR vnggabadu), other works in Russian and Chinese, and even the forum on Dagur topics dawoer.com.

    Vovin talks of a Wanderwort behind these Japanese, Korean and Tungusic instantiations. He's sceptical about a borrowing from Chinese: quoting from the same comment,

    "I think it will present formidable difficulties from the phonological point of view to see it as a Chinese loanword: we probably have here *-rk medial cluster. Not to mention that vowels are different from OC schwa and they precede *-r-, not follow it."

  46. Christian Weisgerber said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 11:42 am

    David Marjanović on tomatoes:

    The roughly Austrian term Paradeiser isn't quite extinct yet.

    Also found in other languages of the former Habsburg Monarchy: Hungarian paradicsom, Slovenian paradižnik, Serbo-Croatian paradajz.

    @Jongseong Park:

    I was looking at which languages besides English might allow a locution like "potatoes (especially the sweet varieties)".

    German has Kartoffel (potato) and Süßkartoffel (sweet potato).

  47. Jongseong Park said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    @Movenon, there was at least one paper published in Korean that argued for a Sinitic origin of 보리 bori "barley", and which made even more far-reaching claims about shared etymologies with other language families (ultimately connecting it with English "barley"). I'll look it up.

  48. Jongseong Park said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 12:17 pm

    For those interested in Middle Korean, the citations of 밇 milh that appear in Jichang Lulu's link are:

    시혹 時예 ᄒᆞᄅᆞ ᄒᆞᆫ 열콰 ᄒᆞᆫ 밀ᄒᆞᆯ 머거도 그 얼구리 ᄉᆞᇙ지리니 sihwok 時yey holo hon yelkhwa hon milhol meketwo ku elkwuli solqcilini —능엄경언해楞嚴經諺解 Neung'eomgyeon eonhae (1461) 9:106

    ᄀᆞᄂᆞᆫ 밀흔 가ᄇᆡ 야온 고지 듣놋다 konon milhun kaboy yaon kwoci tutnwosta —분류두공부시언해分類杜工部詩諺解 Bullyu Du Gongbu si eonhae (초간본初刊本 1st edition)(1481) 7:5

    밀 오ᄇᆡᆨ 셤 ᄇᆡ 짐ᄒᆞ여 오라 mil woboyk syem poy cimhoye ola —이륜행실도二倫行實圖 Iryunhaengsildo (옥산 서원본玉山書院本 Oksan seowon edition)(1518) 42

    I've tried to give the Yale romanizations (which I'm not really happy with, but they're the only widespread romanizations available for Middle Korean). I'm making no attempt whatsoever at translation, but the second citation is the Du Fu line rendered "the thin wheat sheds its light flowers".

  49. Jichang Lulu said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 1:26 pm

    @Jongseong Park

    Is there perhaps a MK-capable font you could recommend? I've just installed UnJamoBatang but still can't get e.g. psol to stack up properly. (Not implying the font is necessarily to blame, of course.)

  50. Jichang Lulu said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 2:13 pm

    Sorted it out. UnJamoBatang works fine.

  51. gorram said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 6:24 pm

    @cameron – The most obvious examples of that sort of distinction that come to my mind aren't grains, but livestock: pork-pig, beef-cow, veal-calf, mutton-sheep. It's been theorized that that reflected the historical class strata of Norman England. Comparatively lower class were familiar with the livestock as animals and used germanic terms for them. Meanwhile, more aristocratic and/or wealthy people were familiar with the livestock as food and used French-derived terms for them.

    Perhaps there's a different explanation, but linguistically distinguishing between an unprocessed and processed item has generally been seen as demarcating a socioeconomic distinction between the people who grow/raise the food and those who only encounter it as a prepared food.

    Rice seems like it might be a different dynamic since it just plain requires a lot of processing to become edible. After all, in areas where wheat is the closest staple equivalent, we don't refer to bread or flour with the same words as wheat or grain. Cooked rice and rice that's unharvested or only harvested but uncooked aren't too much less different than those are from each other.

  52. January First-of-May said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 11:10 am

    Russian has просо for millet in the field and пшено for millet on the plate. My impression, though, is that the unhusked (yellow) grains are still called просо (and sometimes sold as such).

    Modern (late 20th century) Russian also has геркулес (literally "Hercules", not to be confused with Геракл, the Russian name of Hercules the hero) for oatmeal (apparently originally a brand name) – though the name coexists with descriptive овсяные хлопья (literally "oat flakes").

  53. Matt said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 8:52 am

    Re morokoshi and tōmorokoshi, the literal etymology is actually more like "China" and "Chinese China". For the former, although when used to refer to the grain the word morokoshi is written with the kanji 蜀黍, it's actually just a special usage of a word that refers to China generally (more often spelt 大唐). The etymology is a bit obscure but some think it might be a Japanese reading of 諸越, which is in turn supposed to be a variant of 百越 "Hundred Yue". Tōmorokoshi is the same thing but with or 唐 "China, or continental civilization in general" added for reasons that aren't clear.

  54. Jongseong Park said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 7:57 am

    As I promised a few comments ago, I've tracked down the paper that proposed an etymology for the Korean word 보리 bori (or pwoli in Yale Romanization, used hereafter for Middle Korean) for "barley".

    The paper is by Kim Wonpyo 김원표 and is titled "보리(麥)"의 어원(語源)과 그 유래(由來) Bori-ui eowon-gwa geu yurae "The etymology and provenance of 보리 bori (barley)" that appeared in Han'geul (Hangul) 한글 in 1956, which can be consulted here by clicking on the button "원문보기".

    According to Kim, barley was called 來牟 ca. 1100 B.C. during the Zhou dynasty in China. He reconstructs the Zhou pronunciation of 來 as 리 li so that 來牟 was 리모 limwo. But he guesses that the 北狄 Běidí "Northern Di" and 東夷 Dōngyí "Eastern Yi" would have used the form 牟來, 모리 mwoli (in today's Sino-Korean, 來 is 래 lay). 麰麥, which appears in Mencius, would have been 모리 mwoli or 보리 pwoli in old pronunciation according to Kim (instead of 모맥 mwomayk in today's Sino-Korean). Furthermore, Japanese むぎ mugi comes from 牟來 according to Kim.

    Kim does not stop there. He quotes a source called 사물 이명집 事物異名集 Samul imyeongjip "Collection of different names of things" (which I can't find on Google) to say that in Mongolian, 麥 was transcribed as 布亥 (보해 pwohay, although the more common Sino-Korean reading for 布 is 포 phwo). He says that in Russian, barley is пшеница pshenitsa (although Wiktionary tells me it means "wheat", from Proto-Slavic *pьšenica, which other sources connect to the Proto-Indo-European root *peys-), while in French wheat is also called froment (which Wiktionary confirms to be an old-fashioned word for "wheat", but gives Latin frumentum from fruor ("I use, enjoy") + -mentum (instrumental suffix) as the etymology). He discusses the etymology of English "barley", citing the Old English (bærlīċ, bere) and Gothic (*baris) forms. His implication is that they all share the same source.

    As ambitious and far-reaching as Kim's claims are, most of them don't seem to withstand closer scrutiny. Regarding the claim that 보리 pwoli came from 牟來, it doesn't seem supported by the historical Chinese phonology given what we've already been discussing about the reconstructed values of 麥 and 來—*mrək is a long way from Kim's 리 li. Kim cites the 漢英韻府 Hàn-Yīng yùnfǔ "A Syllabic Dictionary of the Chinese Language" (1874) as saying that 來 is pronounced li in Fuzhou. The Wiktionary entry on 來 gives lài as the Min Dong pronunciation, though I guess the pronunciation may have changed.

  55. Movenon said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 11:49 pm

    @Jongseong Park Thank you very much!

    來 is indeed pronounced lì in Fuzhounese as the common word for 'to come.' The lài reading is a literary reading.

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