Lord Millet and the empty orchestra

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Every week I bring floral arrangements to the main office of the UPenn Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.  This week, one of the vases will have two spikes of beautiful ornamental millet ("foxtail" is certainly an appropriate descriptor).

Millet has special significance for East Asia, since — along with rice — it is one of the earliest domesticated grains from that part of the world, dating back nearly 9,000 years ago.  Moreover, East Asian varieties of millet had spread to the area around the Black Sea by about 7,000 years ago, affording evidence of very early trans-Eurasian cultural exchange (wheat came in the opposite direction, from west to east, around the third millennium BC).  Before the introduction of wheat, millet was the original staple grain of North China.  No wonder that the mythical culture hero Hou Ji 后稷 ("Lord Millet"), the god of cereals or minister of agriculture, had that name.

Some characters in the same phonetic series as jì 稷 are 畟 (its archaic form; also cè "clear; distinct; in good order", and, when reduplicated as cècè, "ploughing deeply; sharp"), zé 溭 ("wave; ripple"), and sù 謖 ("to rise; to raise").  Their Old Sinitic (OS) reconstructions, from first to fourth, following Zhengzhang Shangfang) are:  *sklɯɡ, *sklɯɡ or *skʰrɯɡ, *sɡrɯɡ, and *sqʰruɡ (Schuessler, Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese:  A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa, p. 111, 5-25 / K. 922 gives tsək and tshrək / tsək for the first two items).

The derivation of "millet" is more straightforward:

From late Middle English, borrowed from Middle French millet; from Latin milium, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *melh₂- ("to grind, crush"), see also Ancient Greek μελίνη (melínē, "millet") and Lithuanian málnos ("millet").

Source

The main point I wish to raise in this post is that objects, technologies, cultural attributes, domesticated animals and plants, etc. do not just fly across vast distances by themselves.  They are carried by human beings, all of whom (except for those who are incapable of speech) speak one or another language.  When people take their objects, technologies, cultural attributes, domesticated animals and plants, etc., in their wanderings across vast expanses of land, they also take along the names for these objects, technologies, cultural attributes, domesticated animals and plants, etc., some of which are borrowed by the peoples whom they encounter in their wanderings.

Human beings are gregarious.  Moreover, they like to talk and they like to borrow and adopt the nice things that others have, including the words for them.  Just think of "karaoke", a global phenomenon that spread explosively from Japan in the 1970s.  Yet the name is only half Japanese (kara ["empty"]):

From Old Japanese (kara, "inherent quality"), from Proto-Japonic *kara. Cognate with Miyako から (kara), Okinawan から (kara).

Source

The other half is a truncated Japanese borrowing from Greek-derived "orchestra":

[English] Borrowed from Latin orchēstra, itself a borrowing from Ancient Greek ὀρχήστρα (orkhḗstra) (a derivative of ὀρχέομαι (orkhéomai, "to dance")).

Source

We're not done yet.  I recall the UCLA Hittitologist, Jaan Puhvel, about thirty years ago (?) demonstrating the origins of the word "orchestra" by doing a cute (bordering on salacious) little jig before an admiring audience at an Indo-European workshop at the University of Texas in Austin. Much to our amusement, he showed graphically the Greek basis for our English word (orkheisthai "to dance"). I think that Jaan added a colorful Hittite aspect to his exposition, but I forget exactly what it was (cf. Hittite arai- "to rise, arise; lift; raise"). In any event, I thought it was simply fascinating that the origin of "orchestra" has to do with dance rather than music.

Source

And then what happens when people write the word as "kara OK", using an English term whose fairly recent (first printed attestation 1839) origins are disputed but is nonetheless used throughout the world?

Is someone going to tell me that there's no possible connection, however remote, between Greek ὀρχήστρα (orkhḗstra) and Japanese [kara]ōkesutora [カラ]オーケストラ because they are thousands of years and thousands of miles apart?  This is a subject that has come up countless times on Language Log, and it will come up again and again in future posts.

 

Addendum

There are other Sinitic words for "millet":

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

I will not go deeply into these words here, but I suspect that their discussion may lead to some interesting crosslinguistic observations.

 

Readings



46 Comments »

  1. John Rohsenow said,

    October 6, 2019 @ 3:25 pm

    When students ask me what millet is/looks like, I usually refer them to
    bird seed, which one sometimes sees still on its stalk in bird cages.
    …btw: I had never heard of the grain 'rape' until I saw some in a (blingually labeled) exhibit at Tai-da. (Apparently it's 'rappe' in Italian.)
    I now see rape seed oil in stores next to the olive oil .

  2. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    October 6, 2019 @ 3:48 pm

    The origin of O. K. ~ O.K. ~ okay ~ OK was indeed disputed but after a series of articles by Allen Walker Read published in American Speech in the 1960s, it became clear that he had found it. I do not believe that any flaws can be found in his treatment of the word.

    For a summary, see here:
    https://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?id=O5055900

  3. unekdoud said,

    October 6, 2019 @ 4:43 pm

    The weird thing I find about karaoke is that it has a common English pronunciation so different (might I even say, so wrong) from the Japanese.

  4. John Swindle said,

    October 6, 2019 @ 5:07 pm

    Well, see, in Dust Bowl days people left Oklahoma in droves to seek a better life in California. Every Ford and Chevrolet that was headed west had to carry six to eight Okies, every one of 'em singing sad cowboy songs along with the radio. The whole operation was known as "carry Okie." People thought it was a Native American reference, since the Okies came from Oklahoma, but it wasn't, not specifically. It just meant "singing along with the radio." Later, when folks forgot what the radio was, it came to mean "singing out of tune to loud music in bars."

  5. Scott P. said,

    October 6, 2019 @ 10:10 pm

    Hmmm. I always heard that karate = "empty hand" and karaoke = "empty mouth". This from someone with at least some Japanese background. I guess that is incorrect?

  6. Laura Morland said,

    October 6, 2019 @ 11:49 pm

    John Swindle — so much to love in your story, but what warms my heart the most is the parenthentical "correction" of the false etymology.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 2:08 am

    No wonder that the mythical culture hero Hou Ji 后稷 ("Lord Millet"), the god of cereals or minister of agriculture, had that name.

    This appears to put the title in front of the name rather than behind the name. Is that normal? When did the positioning switch?

  8. Michael Watts said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 2:38 am

    I see on wikipedia that the Zhou kings (10th century BC forward) are today given titles that appear after their names: 周武王 "King (王) Wu (武) of Zhou (周)", and so forth. Is this how they appear in Zhou inscriptions?

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 6:06 am

    "The weird thing I find about karaoke is that it has a common English pronunciation so different (might I even say, so wrong) from the Japanese" — rather like hara kiri, in fact …

  10. Rodger C said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 6:43 am

    You mean "Harry Carey"?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Carey_(actor)

  11. KeithB said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 9:20 am

    While this post focuses on the language, it brings up the same points pressed in "Guns, Germs and Steel".

  12. Mark Hansell said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 10:07 am

    I have always thought that the most common American pronunciation of "karaoke" as [karioki] was in part due to contamination from the name of the old dance "Carioca". Otherwise it's very hard to explain the being pronounced as [i]. It strikes me as another example of the "it's a foreign word, so it must be pronounced like other foreign words" phenomenon that leads to pronunciations like
    "Beijing" with a French-like [ž] instead of English [dž].

  13. Mark Hansell said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 10:08 am

    Oops, typo…I meant "hard to explain the being pronounced as [i]"

  14. Michael Watts said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 10:19 am

    I have always thought that the most common American pronunciation of "karaoke" as [karioki] was in part due to contamination from the name of the old dance "Carioca". Otherwise it's very hard to explain the being pronounced as [i].

    Really? This was the explanation I had in mind:

    – While English is blessed with many, many vowels, almost all of those vowels cannot appear in unstressed syllables. The unstressed vowel inventory is limited to /i/, /oʊ/, and /ə/.

    – /oʊ/ and /ə/ don't contrast well with the vowel that is the third syllable of "karaoke", leaving /i/ as the only possible choice.

    This theory has some advantages in explaining "hara-kiri" too, though there's no phonological problem with using /ə/ there.

  15. Mark Hansell said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 3:07 pm

    I think Michael Watts' explanation makes a lot more sense than mine, though less obscure. (Whether obscure references add to or subtract from the charm of an explanation is perhaps a matter of taste…)

  16. Daniel said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 4:33 pm

    Michael Watts, I think you nailed it. I would only add that this same phenomenon is seen with the common mispronunciation of "Israel" as ['ɪz.ri.əl].

  17. Michael Watts said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 4:50 pm

    (Whether obscure references add to or subtract from the charm of an explanation is perhaps a matter of taste…)

    Undoubtedly so, but I wish other people would, as I do, prefer explanations based on whether they are correct as opposed to based on how they feel.

  18. Stephen Hart said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 6:26 pm

    Not to change the subject back to millet, but…

    Millet plays an important part in Seven Samurai 七人の侍 Shichinin no Samurai, when the group of farmers sent to recruit Samurai to defend the village, are revealed to be eating millet instead of rice so they can save their meagre purse for the Samurai they hope to recruit.
    It seems that millet was considered barely fit for human consumption in the period of the setting.

  19. Chris Button said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 6:27 pm

    For what it's worth, Laurent Sagart has been proposing an Austronesian connection with 稷 for a long time now.

  20. Julian said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 6:40 pm

    I'm surprised that no-one has asked for more about the salacious little jig. I don't have my ancient Greek etymological dictionary handy, but I'm thinking orchestra, orchid, orchidectomy … Am I warm?

  21. John Swindle said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 3:19 am

    Laura Morland, thank you for your kind words.

  22. Kate Bunting said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 3:41 am

    John Rohsenow – Rape is actually not a cereal but a cruciferous plant with bright yellow flowers. When it first appeared as a crop in British fields some 50 years ago, we supposed it to be mustard.

  23. Rodger C said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 6:52 am

    the common mispronunciation of "Israel" as ['ɪz.ri.əl]

    In what sense is this a mispronunciation? As just explained, it's the only one that fits English phonotactics. I've never heard it pronounced otherwise except in Anglican chant.

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 7:20 am

    Rodger — No idea where you live, but here (in Southern Britain) I hear only /ˈɪz reɪl/ (apart, of course, and as you suggest, from the tri-syllabic /ˈɪz reɪ el/ version characteristic of the English hymnal).

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 7:49 am

    Michael W (' – While English is blessed with many, many vowels, almost all of those vowels cannot appear in unstressed syllables. The unstressed vowel inventory is limited to /i/, /oʊ/, and /ə/.

    – /oʊ/ and /ə/ don't contrast well with the vowel that is the third syllable of "karaoke", leaving /i/ as the only possible choice.')

    In my pronunciation of "Karaoke", there are no unstressed syllables — only primary stress on syllables 1 and 3 and secondary stress on syllables 2 and 4, viz. /ˈka ˌɾa ˈ əʊ ˌkeɪ/. Never having heard a Japanese native speaker pronounce the word, I have no idea whether my pronunciation is even close to what it should be, but it is the natural pronunciation for me.

  26. Daniel said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 10:32 am

    Rodger C, I should have said it was a common pronunciation, not mispronunciation. It is, after all, how I usually pronounce it.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 1:04 pm

    Mark Hansell and Michael Watts: Some of my students pronounce "kiloohms" as "killyohms", even though /oʊ/ can occur in an unstressed syllable. Maybe it's just that some people find /i/ a good emendation to make an unfamiliar combination of vowels pronounceable.

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 1:12 pm

    Julian: Disappointingly, etymonline.com doesn't connect "orchestra" to "orchid, orchidectomy". .

  29. Rodger C said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 1:58 pm

    Daniel: Thanks.
    Philip Taylor: I am (like Daniel, apparently) an American. Outside Anglican chant (I was half-awake when I wrote that) I've also heard "Is-rye-el" in hymns. I do't think a dissyllabic pronunciation is prevalent over here, at least not in my vicinity.

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 2:08 pm

    Rodger C — Not entirely sure I understand your phonetics correctly, but if I do, then where you have "Is-rye-el" in Am.E., we tend to have "Iz-ray-el" in Br.E when sung and "Iz-rayl" when spoken. But there are quite probably also hymns where "Iz-rayl" is required for reasons of scansion.

  31. Chris Button said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 8:23 pm

    There are other Sinitic words for "millet":

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

    We could also add 穄 which is a tricky one since semantically (via millet being something milled as noted in the o.p.) it fits with 祭 *tsàts originally depicting a hand shredding meat (and ultimately realted to 殺 *sràt(s) "kill"). This would suggest a reconstruction of 穄 *tsàts, but Gordon Luce compares Written Burmese cʰap (i.e. *tsʰap) with a -p coda suggesting original *tsàps.

  32. Daniel said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 9:52 pm

    Jerry Friedman, I think the phenomenon with "kiloohms" pronounced like "killyohms" is due to avoidance of hiatus. Note that "the" sounds like "thee" before words that begin with a vowel sound.

    Rodger C, yes, I am American. For another example, I will usually pronounce Iran as "eye-ran" unless I consciously choose to use the more academic register and say "ee-ron".

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    October 9, 2019 @ 3:36 am

    When I was a practising electronic design engineer in the UK, both "kilo" and "mega" were abbreviated (in speech) when followed by "ohms", yielding "kilohms" and "megohms", usually abbreviated to / keɪ/ and /meg/.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 9, 2019 @ 8:35 am

    Philip Taylor: Thanks. I do say "megohms" and "kay", but some of my students don't pick up "kay" in the short time we spend on electronics in elementary physics classes. I think I'll start saying "kilohms". Oddly enough, this subject also came up in alt.usage.english yesterday, and I got the same suggestion there. (Though such things don't necessarily work. I say "ammeter" and that's what in the textbooks, but I've had students who conscientiously said "ampmeter". Don't get me started on "calorimeter".)

    Daniel: I agree that it's avoidance of hiatus, or unfamiliar hiatuses. The question is what vowel is substituted. In "killyohm" it's not the one suggested by the spelling.

  35. Michael Watts said,

    October 9, 2019 @ 10:30 am

    I agree that it's avoidance of hiatus, or unfamiliar hiatuses. The question is what vowel is substituted. In "killyohm" it's not the one suggested by the spelling.

    You can't use /oʊ/ when applying the kilo- prefix to ohm because ohm starts with /oʊ/, exactly the same as "oke" in "karaoke". If English had vowel quantity, that wouldn't be a problem, but it doesn't. So to pronounce kilo-ohm with an /oʊ/, you'd need to use a hiatus.

    I don't understand how this example is supposed to differ from "karaoke"?

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 9, 2019 @ 8:13 pm

    Philip Taylor: The only pronunciation of "Israel" (in speech) I remember hearing as an American is /ˈɪzriəl/, like "is real".

    Michael Watts: The difference between "kiloohm" and "karaoke" is supposed to be that in "kiloohm" one of your three possibilities for American English vowels in unstressed syllables is suggested by the spelling, but nevertheless some people choose a different one. Of course I can pronounce kiloohm with /oʊoʊ/, just as I can say "co-owner" (a word I've never heard anyone have any trouble with). It hadn't occurred to me that pronouncing /oʊoʊ/ might be difficult rather than just rare, but you may well be right about that.

    "Naomi" is usually pronounced /neɪˈoʊmi/or /naɪˈoʊmi/ in English. I wonder why that came out differently from "karaoke".

    Anyway, of your three choices, the only one I can remember hearing used as a substitute in an unfamiliar vowel combination is /i/. For instance, people who don't want to say "medieval" with four syllables just collapse the two /i/s into one; they don't replace the first one with /ə/ or /oʊ/. So I think there's an overall preference for /i/.

    And are /i/, /oʊ/, and /ə/ really the only vowels that can appear in unstressed syllables? What about "payola", and "duplicity" or "Louisiana"?

  37. Chris Button said,

    October 9, 2019 @ 11:32 pm

    We could also add 穄 which is a tricky one since semantically (via millet being something milled as noted in the o.p.) it fits with 祭 *tsàts originally depicting a hand shredding meat (and ultimately realted to 殺 *sràt(s) "kill"). This would suggest a reconstruction of 穄 *tsàts, but Gordon Luce compares Written Burmese cʰap (i.e. *tsʰap) with a -p coda suggesting original *tsàps.

    Takashima talks about this coda issue in his 2009 paper on the 祭 sacrifice and its broader word family including 殺. He cites a personal communication by Axel Schuessler that even if 穄 had originally had a -ps coda, it could have merged with -ts by the time of writing so the Burmese evidence does not necessarily support a -p in the larger phonetic series. This seems entirely reasonable. The only issue I see is that I think 穄 also belongs to the 祭/殺 word family (i.e., it's not simply a xiesheng/phonetic relationship) and an original -p coda would effectively nullify that relationship. Perhaps the semantic relationship of 穄 is coincidental or perhaps the similarity with Old Burmese *tsʰap is coincidental…

  38. Philip Taylor said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 5:09 am

    Jerry — if the only pronunciation of "Israel" (in speech) [that] you remember hearing as an American is /ˈɪzriəl/, how do you remember hearing the description of it citizens : were they /ɪz ˈriəl ɪz/. or /ɪz ˈreil ɪz/. or something else ? In the UK we know only /ɪz ˈreil ɪz/.

  39. Chris Button said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 5:36 am

    Might be worth adding that Written Burmese "c-" could have come from old Burmese *tsj- and *tj- as well as *ts-. In coda position, "-c" represents a palatal articulation (as its value *-c represents since it arose from the palatalization of *-t and *-k similar to Old Chinese) but in onset position, palatal *c- (from *tj- and *tsj-) and affricate *ts- were merged as "c-" in Inscriptional and hence Written Burmese, although the merger in articulation seems to have ultimately been as ts- instead to give modern Burmese s-.

  40. Chris Button said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 5:43 am

    If indeed they even completely merged at all before settling on modern Burmese s-

  41. Philip Taylor said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 6:26 am

    Sorry, wrong middle vowel in Br.E version : should have read /ɪz ˈreɪ lɪz/ or /ɪz ˈreɪ liz/ (the former rather more common than the latter, I think).

  42. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 8:30 am

    Philip: /ɪz ˈreɪ liz/. I don't know why it has a different vowel from that in "Israel".

  43. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 10:39 am

    @Jerry & Philip: I speech, I hear is-rail and is-reel at about the same frequency. The people are always is-rail-ees. Or is-rail-ites if Biblical. Like Jerry, I have no idea why the people are always rail but the country is sometimes reel.

    In song, it's usually is-rye-ell.

    Also: I've been watching a lot of British TV lately and have noticed "beth-lee-hem" where in the US I usually hear beth-luh-hem. Anybody know how it's pronounced in Bethlehem itself?

  44. Philip Taylor said,

    October 11, 2019 @ 7:24 am

    As a child, I learned /ˈbɛθ li hɛm/ (as do, I think, all British children) but much later in life heard "/ˈbɛθ lə hɛm/, decided that it was probably more authentic, and thereafter started ?hyper?-correcting myself.

  45. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 11, 2019 @ 12:56 pm

    Michèle Sharik Pituley: The Wikipedia article has a sound file for Arabic Bayta Laḥm and IPA for Hebrew Bet Leḥem: [bet ˈleχem].

  46. Trogluddite said,

    October 11, 2019 @ 9:46 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    The well-attested and centuries-old alternative spellings "Bethlem", "Bedlem", "Bedlam", etc. presumably indicate a once common di-syllabic pronounciation; as we still say "bedlam" today. So I wonder whether /ˈbɛθ li hɛm/ itself arose as a hyper-correction or shibboleth (certain Christmas Carols come immediately to mind, though I won't go so far as to pin the blame on them!)

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