Indigo and cabbage, part 2

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The first part of this series, "Indigo and cabbage", written the day before Thanksgiving in 2023, is one of the most satisfying and fulfilling posts I've ever made.  This follow-up is even more of a delight, because here I get to introduce a new paper by anthropologist-linguist-textile expert Elizabeth J. W. Barber, and what a tour de force it is (see below).

Here I give an extended account of her scholarship, especially her early activities in the computer analysis of Chinese, because she was instrumental in helping to make that possible at its foundational stage.

She earned a bachelor's degree from Bryn Mawr College in Archaeology and Greek in 1962. Her chief mentor was Mabel Lang from whom she learned Linear B and who advised her honors thesis on Linear A. In addition to Lang, Wayland wrote her thesis under Emmett L. Bennett Jr. Her thesis used computer indices of the Hagia Triada Linear A texts in an attempt to decipher its signs and symbols. The computer indices were made via punched cards, a method which was preceded by the work of Alice E. Kober on Linear B. She earned her PhD from Yale University in linguistics in 1968. Her doctoral study at Yale University was supervised by Sydney Lamb, under whom she wrote her dissertation, "The Computer Aided Analysis of Undeciphered Ancient Texts."

Her books include:

Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean (1992) — a monumental masterpiece

Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years; Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (1995)

The Mummies of Ürümchi (1999)

When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth (2004; coauthored with husband Paul T. Barber)

The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance (2013)

Resplendent Dress from Southeastern Europe: A History in Layers (2013)

Two Thoughts with but a Single Mind: Crime and Punishment and the Writing of Fiction (2013; co-authored with husband P.T. Barber and Mary F. Zirin).


From 1967 through 1969, Betchen (her nickname) was involved with The Chinese Linguistics Project at Princeton.  It was run by Frank Kierman, and the objective was to computerize a million-character corpus of Modern Vernacular Chinese, for teaching and analysis.  They hired her because she knew a lot about the computers of those days and was experienced in figuring out how to put weird scripts onto computers (having done Minoan Linear A as part of her PhD thesis).  There were two ways to go: give each character a unique number, or digitize the shape.  She was a pro at designing number systems for weird scripts.  On the other hand, the RAND Tablet (the original RAND Tablet cost $18,000 and was said to be "low cost") had just been invented, and the Mathematical Society in Providence had one, so she recalls a group from the Princeton project trekking up there to check it out.  You could draw the Chinese character–or any design–on the tablet and it would digitize it (with a much longer and more cumbersome number, but with lots of additional data about the shape encoded).

Also involved in the Princeton project were Jerry Norman from the University of Washington, whom we've often mentioned on Language Log, and his young colleague William Boltz, plus Hashimoto Mantaro, a graduate of the University of Tokyo and The Ohio State University,

Now for Betchen's new paper:


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

"Of Salt Men and Cloth: The Remarkable Textile History Preserved in Eurasian Salt-beds," by E.J.W. Barber.


Ancient colored textiles are seldom preserved by anything except salt or permafrost. Recent discoveries in collapsed areas of a salt mine in NW Iran have prompted this very brief comparison of the new finds, including their dyes, to the other two major Eurasian groups of salt-bed textiles.


All issues of Sino-Platonic Papers are available in full for no charge.

To view our catalog, visit


What does this new paper have to do with indigo and cabbage?  The last section is about dyes for blue, a favorite hue of humans.  The very last paragraph of that section reads as follows:

Sinologists have long wondered why the words for “blue” and “cabbage” in Chinese are homonyms: both 藍 lán in Mandarin. But just recently, perusing dye information about woad [VHM:  a common plant dye for blue] from Richard Laursen, Victor Mair noticed that woad is actually in the cabbage family, Brassicaceae (earlier called Cruciferae), and that rural people have long found ways to get blue coloring out of a number of types of cabbage (Mair 11/22/2023), especially the purple kind. Hence the unexpected homonyms. Thus, from all these textiles preserved in salt, we even have the solution of an interesting etymological conundrum.

And it includes one of humankind's favorite foods, which tastes good with a bit of salt sprinkled on and even better when turned into sauerkraut with the aid of salt.


Selected readings



  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 11, 2024 @ 8:01 pm

    ? That last paragraph completely misconstrues the great post of 11/22/2023 though… the post said kinda exactly the opposite.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    May 12, 2024 @ 2:37 am

    For the benefit of any reader who, like myself, was puzzled by the sole reference to "Wayland" in the introduction, I now see from the Wikipedia article cited above that « Elizabeth Jane Wayland "E.J.W." Barber (née Wayland; born 1940) is an American scholar and expert on archaeology, linguistics, textiles, and folk dance as well as professor emerita of archaeology and linguistics at Occidental College ».

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 12, 2024 @ 3:08 am

    "kinda exactly"?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 12, 2024 @ 7:34 am

    From this post — "A source of blue dye in rural China" — on his blog NEW SAVANNA, Bill Benzon sends this note illustrated with a remarkable photograph of a head of cabbage:


    A community garden in Jersey City grew purple cabbage and I took many photos of plants.


    If you click on the photograph, it will greatly enlarge so that you can see the leaves up close with their finely reticulated veins and breathtaking gradations of purple and blue against a green background.

  5. Chris Button said,

    May 12, 2024 @ 8:47 am

    @ Jonathan Smith

    That seems true regarding the thrust of the original post, but you might want to read some of the comments further down on the earlier post. Those stem from the fact that "Victor Mair noticed that woad is actually in the cabbage family".

  6. Chris Button said,

    May 13, 2024 @ 9:38 pm

    I've always wondered if a detailed analysis of the rich textile traditions of certain areas might also help elucidate historical linguistic connections between areas where later cross-linguistic contact has obscured some differences in internal linguistic evolution.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 14, 2024 @ 9:01 am

    While it remains possible that Chinese names for 'Chinese kale; kailan' have been written using the character "藍" due in part to some real or perceived relationship to blueness — for example because (not-very-kailan-like) plants like woad were used to produce indigo-like dyes in Europe — it is a superfluous (and IMO weak) idea.

    Instead, the original post of 11/2023 is probably right that "there is no cognate or semantic relationship between lán 藍 meaning 'blue; indigo' and lán 藍 meaning 'Brassica; kale'." The author proposes instead that the Chinese cabbage words reflect (one or multiple?) borrowings from, e.g., Persian in turn from Greek.

    The core of the post reads as follows: "jièlán / gàilán (Cant. gaai3 laam4) 芥藍 / 芥蓝 ("kailan; Chinese kale"); cf. Persian کلم‎ (kalam, “cabbage”). From Middle Persian *kalamb, from Ancient Greek κράμβη (krámbē, “cabbage”)."

    Incidentally, this language is presented as part of the post, not as cited text, so I took it to be the author's original — and rather important — etymological proposal. Upon investigation, it's not, and should be cited. We've been here before…

  8. Chris Button said,

    May 14, 2024 @ 2:12 pm

    @ Jonathan Smith

    The suggestion is not to deny the external provenance. Rather, it seems eminently possible that the word originally represented by 藍 is a foreign loanword that was then used to represent the color.

  9. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 14, 2024 @ 7:39 pm

    @Chris Button
    Just pointing out that the original post proposed that "there is no cognate or semantic relationship between lán 藍 meaning 'blue; indigo' and lán 藍 meaning 'Brassica; kale'." You disagree with Victor and are proposing foreign word for 'cabbage' > Chinese 'cabbage' > Chinese 'blue', if I understand your above comment rightly.

  10. Sally Thomason said,

    May 16, 2024 @ 6:06 pm

    Betchen Barber's first book, Archaeological Decipherment (1974), is still one of her most impressive publications; it was based on her brilliant Ph.D. dissertation, which she defended at Yale the same day I defended mine there. During her defense one faculty member gave her a hard time because she hadn't deciphered, or at least in his opinion hadn't sufficiently discussed the (non-)decipherment, of Linear A. I have always believed that the only reason I passed my own defense (of a very weak dissertation) later that day was that the faculty members were too shaken by the unjust criticisms of Betchen's dissertation to engage fully with the weaknesses of mine.

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