A new discovery about the history of English

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In the comments on yesterday's post "Language development", Olaf Zimmermann pointed us to this recent Onion scoop — "Newly Uncovered Manuscript Reveals China Invented English Language 700 Years Before Western World", The Onion 1/13/2022:

BEIJING—Shedding new light on the origins of the world’s most popular language, an international team of linguists announced Thursday that a newly uncovered manuscript confirms China invented both spoken and written English 700 years before the Western world. “These remarkably well-preserved bamboo slips appear to show that Zhou dynasty scholars developed the English tongue as far back as the third century BC, long before the language arose in Britain,” said Li Zhang, a professor of comparative linguistics who examined the text, which outlines the alphabet and basic grammar rules of English, in addition to including the first known uses of words such as “barbecue” and “philanthropy.” “By the time Anglo–Saxons began cobbling together their language from Latin, French, and Germanic sources, the Chinese had already mastered it. There are even some passages in this manuscript that appear eerily similar to the work of Shakespeare, though they are of far superior quality.” Li went on to explain that the Chinese gradually abandoned the English language, finding its 26-letter alphabet too limiting and opting instead for the convenience of Mandarin’s more than 50,000 characters.

I dimly recall a meme from long ago about how the Russians invented X, for X = some characteristically American thing like baseball. And indeed it seems that this memory is based on at least one claim that actually happened, thus Bill Keller, "In baseball, the Russians steal all the bases", NYT 7/20/1987:

Consider the predicament of a Soviet baseball writer. How do you explain to red-blooded Russians that Soviet athletes have suddenly taken up the American national pastime?

Sergei Shachin's solution was a natural: Tell them Russians invented the game.

Mr. Shachin, citing cultural historians, insists that baseball descended from an ancient Russian game of bats and balls called lapta, brought by Russian emigres to what is now California some two centuries before the arrival of Dodgers and Giants.

"Baseball is the younger brother of lapta," Mr. Shachin explained to the eight million readers of Izvestia, advancing a theory that seems to be finding wide favor on the makeshift diamonds of Moscow. "This old, spirited game was taken to America by the first Russian settlers, and has now returned to us in a different form and with a strange, foreign name." 'It Is Just a Shame'

But a quick internet search turned up a more interesting meta-result about how the Russians invented memes — which has the added advantage of apparently being true. See Maria Sekirskaya, "How Russians invented memes in the 17th century: History of the ‘lubok’", Russia Beyond 8/31/2020:

Comic books became popular worldwide in the mid to late 20th century, while memes gained popularity in the 2010s. However in Russia, bright pictures with explanatory captions, which had the features of both comics and memes, had already appeared back in the 17th century. They were called ‘luboks’.

 



24 Comments »

  1. Victor Mair said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 7:01 am

    "The Out of Hunan Theory" (9/13/19)

    "Goropius Becanus Award nomination for 2019" (9/4/19)

  2. jin defang said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 7:44 am

    hmm….how come, then, that English is the global lingua franca, while the CCP is still struggling with making all its citizens speak mandarin? Perhaps the ancient Chinese should've stuck with their original invention.

  3. Luke said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 8:36 am

    @jin defang
    The Onion is a satirical news site, and not an actual newspaper, what's been posted is a joke article.

  4. Alex B said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 8:50 am

    The British comedy show Goodness Gracious Me had a running gag like this, with a character loudly proclaiming that everything under the sun was Indian.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olF4kpkiWys

  5. Laura Morland said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 9:07 am

    @Luke

    It's pretty clear — to me, anyway — that jin defang's comment is fully in the spirit of The Onion… that is, itself satirical, with a jab at the CCP thrown in.

    I wish I'd thought of it.

  6. David Marjanović said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 11:03 am

    I dimly recall a meme from long ago about how the Russians invented X, for X = some characteristically American thing

    Oh, it wasn't limited to that – apparently the Soviet Union under Stalin floated all sorts of claims that various technology had been invented there a bit earlier than elsewhere.

    The jokes go like this:

    A foreign visitor is led around Moscow State University, sees a big statue and asks who that is. "That's Comrade X! He invented [the radio or whatever]!" Farther inside the compound, he sees a more modest bust and asks who that is. "That's Comrade Y! He invented Comrade X!"

  7. Robert Coren said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 11:06 am

    With reference to the Russian/Soviet claim about baseball: Included in one of Walt Kelly's early Pogo books, published back in the 1950s, is a fantasy (acted out by characters from the Okefenokee) that culminates in Soviet strategists sending undercover agents to the US to introduce baseball, with the idea that it would divide the nation into "two bitter camps" and that "the gummint won't last more than two weeks". Somewhat ironic to think about that under current circumstances.

  8. Aaron said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 11:43 am

    On the original series Star Trek, there was a running gag where the character Pavel Chekov would sometimes claim that various items had actually been invented or discovered by Russians: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IC6W8J0j8Co

    https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Pavel_Chekov#Russian_heritage

  9. Chris Button said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 12:32 pm

    finding its 26-letter alphabet too limiting and opting instead for the convenience of Mandarin’s more than 50,000 characters.</blockquote

    So to add a somewhat serious response to this tongue-in-cheek statement, the question as to why the Chinese script is not a syllabary when the concept was clearly present (as attested by certain usage examples) in the minds of early inscribers of oracle-bones is a good one.

    And if any of the highly speculative proposal here ( https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=53265#comment-1591267 ) is to be believed, then alphabetic writing wasn’t something all that far removed either.

    It’s probably worth remembering that thr primary purpose of a script is not necessarily to be the most efficient form of written communication. There are often several other considerations at play.

  10. Chris Button said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 12:34 pm

    2nd attempt:

    finding its 26-letter alphabet too limiting and opting instead for the convenience of Mandarin’s more than 50,000 characters.

    So to add a somewhat serious response to this tongue-in-cheek statement, the question as to why the Chinese script is not a syllabary when the concept was clearly present (as attested by certain usage examples) in the minds of early inscribers of oracle-bones is a good one.

    And if any of the highly speculative proposal here ( https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=53265#comment-1591267 ) is to be believed, then alphabetic writing wasn’t something all that far removed either.

    It’s probably worth remembering that thr primary purpose of a script is not necessarily to be the most efficient form of written communication. There are often several other considerations at play.

  11. Doug said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 1:56 pm

    Some years ago, there was a joke that every invention goes through 3 stages:

    1. The Americans invent something.
    2. The Russians claim to have invented it 10 years earlier.
    3. The Japanese start exporting it.

  12. D.O. said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 2:39 pm

    Unfortunately, this days it is all reversed. Instead of claiming that mobile phones were invented in Russia or something, Russian government likes to deflect accusations of its authoritarian practices, like labeling insufficiently loyal citizens and organisations "foreign agents", by pointing out vaguely similar American laws.

  13. Pete Tsayolo said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 2:44 pm

    People who enjoy that sort of thing might also enjoy this 2011 advert:
    https://tube.cadence.moe/watch?v=KiLA6Bk_ivs
    It's nothing linguistic, though. It's a mockumentary based on the meme (not in the sense of "funny picture-with-embedded-caption" in which VHM uses the word in the OP) of "Koreans Invented Everything" popular in China, Japan and Taiwan at the time.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 3:22 pm

    As part of my rescue effort of the Slavic Studies library at Penn (described here), I got hold of the enormous Great Soviet Encyclopedia (GSE; Russian: Больша́я сове́тская энциклопе́дия, БСЭ, tr. Bolsháya sovétskaya entsiklopédiya, BSE) (1974-1983). The third edition was translated and published into English in 31 volumes between 1974 and 1983 by Macmillan Publishers.

    As I read through various entries, they were like a mirror for Western science and technology. The airplane was not invented by the Wright Brothers, the radio not by Marconi, etc. Everything seemed to have its own Russian heritage. Quite a revelation!

  15. Roscoe said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 10:29 pm

    There was a Greek-American character in "The Education of Hyman Kaplan" who kept insisting that all the great inventions of the past century were Greek: "Telegraph! Gramophone! Automobile! All Greek!" It took his ESL teacher a moment to realize that he was only referring to the inventions' *names*.

  16. Pau Amma said,

    January 15, 2022 @ 1:28 am

    "Telegraph! Gramophone! Automobile! All Greek!" is funnier ro me because the Greek word for automobile (and for television) are different because they only use Greek etyma.

    "loudly proclaiming that everything under the sun was Indian": life imitates art.

  17. Not a naive speaker said,

    January 15, 2022 @ 6:54 am

    Don't forget Jára Cimrman

    among other achievments:

    He was the first one on the moon, in 1914 in his home-made squirrel-propelled submarine "Nemovitost", but this achievement was not publicized until the Americans landed there and found his footprints more details here

    Inventor of the CD (Cimrman's Disc)

  18. Robert Coren said,

    January 15, 2022 @ 10:51 am

    I read white a lot of the Hyman Kaplan stories when I was a kid, and I don't remember this character. In any case, linguistically speaking, "automobile" is half Greek, half Latin.

  19. Thomas Rees said,

    January 15, 2022 @ 2:45 pm

    Robert Coren:
    That's why the Greek is αυτοκίνητο (aftokínito).
    Years ago, a colleague was being interviewed on Spanish-language television in Los Angeles stumbled over the word "automóvil". She had the impression that "coche" was informal and "carro" an anglicism.
    Long before that, my English cousin informed me that Americans call cars "automobiles"! We also call the kitchen sink a "basin" and its plug a "stopper". I figured out that he was describing the vocabulary of his grandparents, who had moved to Britain in 1914 and preserved their midwestern idiolect. However, Mr H told me he bought his first car in the mid-twenties, so they used the other British car terms: bonnet, flasher, windscreen and so forth.

  20. Scott Mauldin said,

    January 15, 2022 @ 3:06 pm

    @Doug I think the modern version of that would be

    1. A Shenzhen company invents something
    2. The Americans claim that it was based on stolen American patents
    3. It's available for free on a Russian website

  21. Andy Behrens said,

    January 16, 2022 @ 4:01 pm

    If you are going to the movies in Greece, you might use the word σινεμά, where the original Greek root has been filtered through French, softening the consonant and changing the η to ε. (Κινηματογράφος is also used).

  22. R. Fenwick said,

    January 17, 2022 @ 3:23 am

    not SeQpIr tIvlu'chu'pu', tlhIngan Hol mungna'Daj laDbe'lu'ta'pa'.

  23. David Marjanović said,

    January 17, 2022 @ 9:29 am

    the question as to why the Chinese script is not a syllabary when the concept was clearly present (as attested by certain usage examples) in the minds of early inscribers of oracle-bones is a good one.

    Yes; and that's where Baxter's idea comes in that it almost was a syllabary with cuneiform-like determinatives at one point. (A few rare syllables had no character and were written with the character for a similar syllable, very systematically; a few particularly common syllables had two or more characters.) The difference to cuneiform was that the determinatives weren't separate characters. But when the first emperor had the script fixed, eliminating a lot of variation especially in the use of determinatives, some of the sound changes that obscured this system had already happened, and when the others happened afterwards, the orthography wasn't updated, and the logographic principle became ever stronger – even though the few disyllabic morphemes continued to be written with two otherwise meaningless characters.

  24. Michael Watts said,

    January 24, 2022 @ 11:00 pm

    I dimly recall a meme from long ago about how the Russians invented X, for X = some characteristically American thing like baseball.

    This meme is a part of the historical record insofar as it is characteristic of Chekov in the original series of Star Trek.

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