The language of spices

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Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-thirty-eighth issue:

Mapping the Language of Spices: A Corpus-Based, Philological Study on the Words of the Spice Domain,” by Gábor Parti.


Most of the existing literature on spices is to be found in the areas of gastronomy, botany, and history. This study instead investigates spices on a linguistic level. It aims to be a comprehensive linguistic account of the items of the spice trade. Because of their attractive aroma and medicinal value, at certain points in history these pieces of dried plant matter have been highly desired, and from early on, they were ideal products for trade. Cultural contact and exchange and the introduction of new cultural items beget situations of language contact and linguistic acculturation. In the case of spices, not only do we have a set of items that traveled around the world, but also a set of names. This language domain is very rich in loanwords and Wanderwörter. In addition, it supplies us with myriad cases in which spice names are innovations. Still more interesting is that examples in English, Arabic, and Chinese—languages that represent major powers in the spice trade at different times—are here compared.

After selecting a set of twenty-four spices, I collected data on their names and related etymologies. From these I selected six spices to examine in detail regarding their identity, botany, history, spread, and names.

The paper has two main parts. The first presents the geographic and linguistic diffusion of spices and their names. I here track and explain word origins and their subsequent spread by tracing the materials and the propagation of the accompanying Wanderwort. This part relies on philological literature and tools from historical linguistics such as etymological research, as well as geospatial visualizations. Part two examines the language of spices, referring to the terminology and nomenclature related to the spice domain from linguistic-cognitive perspectives. Focusing on the structure and components of 360 collected spice names, this section is a systematic investigation into how humans name spices: the mechanisms and motivations behind the naming principles and the ways these might relate to the salient sensory features of the products (their strong gustatory, olfactory, or visual stimuli). Conclusions are offered regarding the connections between the physical properties of the spices, their patterns of diffusion, and the effect of prototypical spices on general naming principles. Besides being a novel and original approach to researching and categorizing spices, from a linguistic point of view, this study offers new insights into our knowledge about wandering loanwords and the effect of the highly sensory nature of spices in the naming process adopted by a community. It is also intended to be the basis for a working database for future research and to dispel some of the confusion surrounding spice names.


This and all other issues of Sino-Platonic Papers are available in full for no charge.

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  1. Chris Button said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 9:15 am

    For the cinnamon/cassia section:

    I would regularly reconstruct 桂 as Old Chinese *qajˑs rather than Zhengzhang's *kʷeːs

    OC *qajˑs then happens to be a very nice match for Heb. qəṣīʿā "cassia" and associated forms.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 10:27 am

    As you well know, Chris, the extra-Sinitic parallels of 桂 (cinnamon / cassia) have often been a topic of discussion on Language Log.

  3. Chris Button said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 11:54 am

    Thanks, Victor. This one for example:

    I'm only restating my proposal here since it is something not noted in the SPP publication. I would also suggest that the Old Chinese word *qajˑs (桂) is a loanword into Chinese although quite possibly not directly from Semitic.

  4. Martin Schwartz said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 8:32 pm

    I've just had time to look at this laudable work up to asafoetida.
    Since all the Iranian forms are Middle Iranian, and none Old Iranian, there is no warrant for reconstructing Proto-Iranian *angu-.
    Apart from Persic, initial h- tends to be lost in Middle Iranian from
    Parthian eastward. Since the botanical origin seems to be in Iranian Central Asia, I propose that the Old Iranian (Proto-Iranian, if one must)
    form was *hingu-, this early borrowed into Indic; in (Easterly) Middle Iranian this gave *ingu- (preserved in the simplex Sogdian 'ynkw (unless the latter is borrowed from Indic), in compounds with *jatu- and
    *dāna-, shift of stress caused unstressed *ing(u)- – to go to
    *ang(u)-. *angudān, angu∂ān would be a cmpd. < Ir. dān(a-)
    'grain, seed', referring to the plant before it was made into a gum/paste.
    Martin Schwartz

  5. Chris Button said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 11:47 pm

    This work is indeed quite a treasure trove of information.

    A couple more thoughts:

    Although 胡椒 is "foreign/western 椒", can we be so sure that 椒 itself is native? Take 胡麻 for "foreign/western 麻" where 麻 itself is likely related to myrrh (and likely ultimately marijuana).

    Regarding 薑, it seems a connection with Dravidian and Indo-European goes back at least to F.W. Thomas (1905 JRAS). In the 1940s and 1950s Gordon Luce suggested the Burmese correlate to be coming from the west. Much like 桂, I suspect the word represented by 薑 is not natively Chinese, but that does not mean that it came directly from the same Dravidian *cinki (or the like) source of the word "ginger" rather than a Southeast Asian source (despite them all ultimately connecting in the end)

  6. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2024 @ 8:09 pm

    From John Mullan:

    This is one the great joys of Indian Cooking YouTube. Is that the same spice name in English? In Arabic? In Persian? In…?

  7. AG said,

    January 8, 2024 @ 2:04 am

    Excellent! The introductory example using allspice (which I personally had until very recently thought was a spice blend, and until yesterday still had no idea where it came from) had me immediately hooked.

  8. katarina said,

    January 8, 2024 @ 3:04 pm

    Congratulations to Gabor Parti and Prof. Mair on the new Sino Platonic Paper,

    “Mapping the Language of Spices: A Corpus-Based, Philological Study on the Words of the Spice Domain,” by Gábor Parti,

    a monumental work. It includes a comprehensive definition of "spices" covering both culinary and medical substances.

    Many years ago I read a history of medicine which said one of the most sought-after "spices" of the old spice trade was opium. Here is a paragraph from Wikipedia "Spice Trade":

    " From the 8th until the 15th century, maritime republics (Republic of Venice, Republic of Pisa, Republic of Genoa, Duchy of Amalfi, Duchy of Gaeta, Republic of Ancona and Republic of Ragusa[24]) held a monopoly on European trade with the Middle East. The silk and spice trade, involving spices, incense, herbs, drugs and opium, made these Mediterranean city-states extremely wealthy. Spices were among the most expensive and in-demand products of the Middle Ages, used in medicine as well as in the kitchen. They were all imported from Asia and Africa. Venetian and other navigators of maritime republics then distributed the goods through Europe."

  9. Mark S. said,

    January 10, 2024 @ 4:22 am

    @Chris Button, for some on a possible link between (麻) and marijuana, see The Mysterious Origins of the Word "Marihuana," by Alan Piper (Sino-Platonic Papers no. 153).

  10. Chris Button said,

    January 10, 2024 @ 10:50 pm

    @ Mark S

    Thanks for pointing that out. I actually came across that SPP article a while back and commented on it here:

    I think it's a pretty solid case.

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