Aspects of the Theory of Syntithology

From John Brewer:

Not sure if Language Log typically has a "travel page" section, but those readers in or near the NYC area who are vaccinated or otherwise not locked down might be interested in an exhibit at the Grolier Club in Manhattan that I visited a few days ago and will remain there until mid-May. It's called "Taming the Tongue in the Heyday of English Grammar (1711-1851," and includes sixty-odd different volumes from that time frame offering analysis, instruction, prescriptivist guidance, and/or complete crackpottery on the subject. They are all from the personal collection of the famous and/or notorious Bryan Garner. Admission is free but you need to book a time-slot 48 hours in advance via their website so they can limit the number of visitors to a pandemic-suitable total.

More details here (you may need to click on the "Second Floor Gallery" tab).

John sent three cell-phone photos:

I was interested to learn that Joseph Priestly thought and wrote about grammar — and that he apparently had sensible things to say about it, as the exhibit explains:

Some day I'll read Priestly's book 1772 book, The Rudiments of English Grammar, Adapted to the Use of Schools, with Examples of English Composition: To which are added, Notes and Observations for the Use of Those Who Have Made Some Proficiency in the Language.

But today I was distracted by the exhibit in John's second picture, featuring the writings of James Brown:

Mr. Brown's ideas never seem to have caught on, for reasons that may become clear as you read him. As evidence for the lack of uptake, he's missing from the long list of James Browns on Wikipedia's James Brown Diambiguation Page.

But this now-forgotten James Brown still managed to publish many editions of many books. Much of the content of these works is polemical invective directed against earlier authors, later authors who ignore him, and those few who took (mostly critical) note of his efforts. Most of the rest is evolution and exemplification of a large distinctive vocabulary of analytic neologisms. Brown's creations are nearly Wilkins-like in taxonomic breadth and depth, though he builds them out of Greek morphemes rather than arbitrary letters.

To whet your appetite, I've quoted a few sample passages from pp. 13-25 of his 1838 work The American System of English Syntax, Developing the Constructive Principles of the English Phrenod or Language, and impressing them on the memory by pictorial, and scenical demonstration, thus enabling the adult at home, and the child at school, to acquire, in a few months, a better knowledge of syntax by the American system than they can ever acquire by the British.

He starts off this way:

PHRENOD is that set of signs, which forms the medium of communication from one mind to another.
(Phren, the mind; and odos, a means, a medium, a way.)

REMARKS. I. Every nation has found it important to have a phrenod, composed of sounds, and a phrenod composed of letters. Hence, each nation has two phrenods; viz. a PHONOD, and an ALPHOD.
(Phone, a voice; and odos, a medium. Alpha, a letter, and odos a means.)
II. The distinctive name of a phronod is generally formed from the national appellation of the people who use it–hence, the phrase, the French phrenod, the Greek phrenod, the English phrenod, &c.

PHRENODY. PHRENODY is the science of phrenods. English phrenody is the science of the English phrenod.

PHRENODY is divided into two parts; namely,
1. SYNTAX, and

1. Syntax is that part of phrenody, which comprises the constructive principles of phrenods.

2. SIGNOLOGY is that part of phrenody, which comprises the significant principles of phrenods. (Signology is taught by a Dictionary.)
ENGLISH SYNTAX. ENGLISH SYNTAX is that part of English phrenody, which consists of the constructive principles of the English phrenod.

ENGLISH SYNTAX is divided into six parts, viz.


Bet you can't wait for the next part!

I. GNOMEOLOGY. GNOMEOLOGY is that part of syntax, which consists of the doctrine of a gnomod, or sentence.

II. MONOLOGY. Monology is that part of syntax, which consists of the doctrine of monos.

III. SYNCRATOLOGY . SYNCRATOLOGY is that part of syntax, which consists of the conjunctive power, and character of words.

IV. SEMENOLOGY. SEMENOLOGY is that part of syntax, which respects the power of a word to distinguish those things to which the Dictionary meaning of the word does not apply.

V. SYNTITHOLOGY. SYNTITHOLOGY is that part of syntax, which consists of the principles of putting words together in the formation of gnomods, or sentences.

VI. POEOLOGY. Poeology is that part of syntax, which consists of the principles of forming words.

And one more bit:

GNOMEOLOGY is that part of syntax, which consists of the doctrine of a gnomod, or sentence.

A gnomod , or sentence . A gnomod, or sentence, is an assemblage of two, or more words, which expresses a cordiction; as,

1. It is nine.
2. If it is nine.
3. Is it nine?
4. Go thou to school.
5. Forgive thou our sins.

A gnomod consists of two things; namely, words , and a cordiction ; as, “ It is nine .”
1. The words are a frame-work of pointers , each pointing to something on which the cordiction has a near, or a remote bearing.
2. The cordíction is the abstract affirmation, the abstract nutation, the abstract interrogation, the abstract command, or the abstract petition which is expressed in the assemblage of words; as, “ It is nine , If it is nine , Is it nine ? Go thou to school , Forgive thou our sins .

You can continue the journey on your own, through the cited work or some of Brown's later works, e.g. the 1850 edition of
An English Grammar, in Three Books, Developing the New Science, Made Up of Those Constructive Principles which Form a Sure Guide in Using the English Language; but which are not found in the Old Theory of English Grammar.

And let me note, in conclusion, that it's nice to go places and see things IRL, but these days, digital versions of books published before 1922 are nearly all available on line, and so someone could create a (permanent?) virtual exhibition of (English and otherwise) grammar books back through history.

Update — from The National Gazette, Philadelphia, Pennsylania, Wed. 25 Aug 1830:


Dissension over the role of the alphabet in literacy acquisition in the PRC

A graduate student from the PRC told me that the situation regarding instruction in Hanyu Pinyin has become quite chaotic in recent years in China.  Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音 ("Sinitic Spelling"), or Pīnyīn 拼音 ("Spelling") for short, is the official PRC Romanization of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), i.e., Pǔtōnghuà 普通话.

For many decades, it used to be that all students — beginning in first grade of elementary school — learned to read and write via Pinyin.  Indeed, under the program known as "Zhùyīn shìzì, tíqián dú xiě 注音识字,提前读写" ("Phonetically Annotated Character Recognition Speeds Up Reading and Writing"), or "Z.T." for short, which actively encouraged children to use Pinyin Romanization for characters they were unable to write, the promotion of Pinyin continued well into upper grades. See "How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08).  In the last few years, however, it seems that instruction in Pinyin — at least in some schools — has become "optional".  Some teachers are simply not teaching the basics of pinyin.  As a result, many students are no longer competent in it, so that when they get to the dreaded gaokao (National College Entrance Examination [NCEE]), where mastery of pinyin is required, they're not prepared for that part of the exams.  Parents are complaining.

Judging from what other other PRC graduate students have told me, it doesn't seem that there is any coherent policy to downplay Pinyin, although I must say that, since I started going to China in 1981 and maintained close contact with language reform specialists there after that time, there has been considerable backward slippage on the government commitment to Pinyin from the time of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, as I have repeatedly documented on Language Log.  But that is only on the official side of things.  In terms of actual alphabetical usage in daily life (via Pinyin and English), it has only continued to grow, albeit informally and unoffically.

Here's the reaction of one Ph.D candidate:

I've never heard of this. I believe that children in or under the first year of elementary school still have to learn pinyin, since this is a very basic skill for everyone who needs to use computer / cellphone / tablet to type Chinese characters.* I cannot think of any reason for making the instruction of it optional. Also, actually the mastery of pinyin is not required in Gaokao. Students need to know the sound of some specific words in a Chinese exam, but no exam questions ask them to actually write pinyin.

*VHM:  emphasis added.

Here's the reaction of an M.A. student:

I have heard about it. It seems like their rationale is that pinyin is just a tool used to recognize hanzi, so they are skipping the means to directly reach the ends. Some teachers think that making little kids learn pinyin first deprives them of the "original / pure" feelings of hanzi, so they want them to get exposed to the actual hanzi first (which they think is the ultimate goal), or at least at the same time. Another funny reason I have heard is that "pinyin is more difficult than hanzi."

I am not sure if primary schools really are not teaching pinyin anymore (so many rumors, so little fact). However, I do think the hearsay has something to do with one of the many quirks of Chinese education: "remedial / additional classes" (bǔxí bān 補習班). When I was in middle and high school, 90% of my classmates were sent to additional classes outside the normal curricula to either learn repetitively what they had already learnt at class or to learn ahead. Parents were anxious about falling behind because of the competitiveness of gaokao. One unwanted concomitant is that teachers in regular schools also become loose because they are also earning by teaching in those additional classes.

Now I have heard that this ridiculous norm encroached on even primary school students and younger. What happens is that, prior to primary school, many kids are sent to those additional classes to learn pinyin as a preparation (with parents afraid that their kids cannot catch up in primary school because every kid is learning ahead). In primary school, teachers know and observe that the students have already acquired some knowledge of pinyin and thus do not pay enough attention to its instruction, leaving the impression that they are not teaching it anymore.

Sorry for rambling on and complaining about this! My opinion is probably biased. I can have a lot to say with our educational curricula. I was one of the lucky 10% to not have gone through those additional classes because my parents are quirky. But alas, my poor little cousin suffered all the way to high school.

The race to college and graduate school — preferably abroad — begins in kindergarten:   crème de la crème de la crème….


Selected readings

Over the years, there have been many scores of Language Log posts on the role of Pinyin in Chinese character learning and inputting, as well as for other practical applications such as indexing, sorting, signs, braille, semaphore, and so forth.  The above items are just a small sampling that shows how essential the alphabet has become in contemporary China.  Despite occasional harping against Pinyin (and English) on the part of ardent Hanziphiles, it seems that the alphabet has become an essential, ineradicable part of the Chinese linguistic landscape — through a process that has been going on since the days of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and Nicolas Trigault  (1577-1628).

[Thanks to Zihan Guo, Chenfeng Wang], and Shuheng Zhang]

Genetic evidence for the peopling of Eastern Central Asia during the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age

Summary article on the genetics of the Tarim Basin and Dzungarian Basin and surrounding areas:

"Ancient Xinjiang mitogenomes reveal intense admixture with high genetic diversity"

Wenjun Wang, Manyu Ding, Jacob D. Gardner, Yongqiang Wang, Bo Miao, Wu Guo, Xinhua Wu, Qiurong Ruan, Jianjun Yu, Xingjun Hu, Bo Wang, Xiaohong Wu, Zihua Tang, Alipujiang Niyazi, Jie Zhang, Xien Chang, Yunpeng Tang, Meng Ren, Peng Cao, Feng Liu, Qingyan Dai, Xiaotian Feng, Ruowei Yang, Ming Zhang, Tianyi Wang, Wanjing Ping, Weihong Hou, Wenying Li, Jian Ma, Vikas Kumar, and Qiaomei Fu

Science Advances  31 Mar 2021:
Vol. 7, no. 14, eabd6690sss
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd6690

"Xinjiang", a contentious political designation, may geographically be better situated by referring to it as "Eastern Central Asia" (ECA).

Because I have been primarily interested in the initial settling of the Bronze Age peoples and their languages, the quotations below focus on that aspect of the article, though the article as a whole takes into account the Iron Age and Historical Era as well.

From the "Introduction":

Archaeological studies of northern Xinjiang have revealed connections with the Afanasievo (~3300 to 2500 BCE) and Chemurchek (~2750 to 1900 BCE) cultures present in the Altai Mountains. BA [Bronze Age] cemeteries in western Xinjiang contain materials associated with mobile transportation and advanced metallurgy, which were likely derived from the Andronovo culture (~1700 to 1500 BCE) in the western Steppe and Tianshan region. There was a Central West Asian connection with Xinjiang in the BA through the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor (IAMC), which likely introduced agriculturally important crops, such as wheat and barley, and an East Asian connection through the Hexi Corridor, which introduced broomcorn millet in Xinjiang

From the "Discussion":

The BA around Xinjiang was predominantly represented by western Steppe–related ancestries, which included the EMBA Yamnaya/Afanasievo cultures. For instance, we find that the WSteppe_EMBA populations cluster with individuals from the Songshugou site in northern Xinjiang (NSSG_EMBA) in multiple haplogroups (U4, U5, H2, H6a, and W3). This is consistent with the Afanasievo-style relics at Songshugou (SSG) and the physical anthropology of an individual from this site (tomb M15) who shows European-like characteristics. We also find evidence for the influence of Chemurchek culture in BA Xinjiang, as suggested by the archaeological records of standing stone pillars with anthropomorphic figures around different cemeteries.

Xinjiang is associated with the extinct Indo-European Tocharian language, which was present from 500 to 900 CE in central Xinjiang based on ancient manuscripts. In general, archaeologists view this language as being associated with Afanasievo-related people in Xinjiang. Our results for the BA sites suggest a complex scenario whereby the Xiaohe site in the Tarim Basin has a deep ancestral connection with ancient Siberian populations, whereas other Xinjiang EMBA populations from the north and west show a more Steppe EMBA (Afanasievo) connection. Thus, probably, the Tocharian language came into Xinjiang with populations associated with Steppe-related ancestry, such as the Afanasievo.

Their findings are about what I would have expected on the basis of previous work.  I am glad that this more recent and comprehensive research supports the general drift of my understanding of the movements of people based on earlier studies in physical anthropology, genetics, archeological cultures, languages, and so forth.  Namely, the earliest inhabitation of northern ECA exhibits close association with cultures to the north and northwest, but as migrants moved southward, they began to display more Siberian and Northeast Asian characteristics, particularly in the matrilineal genetic structure.  As the region passes into the Iron Age and its more southern parts are settled, the population increasingly exhibits genetic admixture from surrounding parts of Central and Inner Asia.  With the coming of the Historical Era, there is greater affinity with East Asian lineages.


Selected readings

[h.t. Matt Marcucci]

"Configurations of the earth" and "patterns of the heavens" in Sinitic toponymy

The latest issue of Sino-Platonic Papers:

James M. Hargett, "Anchors of Stability: Place-Names in Early China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 312 (April, 2021), 1-41.  (free pdf)


The use of place-names in China predates its written history, which extends back at least 3,500 years. While the basic principles of toponym formation in ancient China are similar to those in other cultures around the world, early in its history a process took place that led to a standardization of the practices by which place-names were formulated. The central argument in this essay is that the essential features of place-name nomenclature in China were already in place before the Qin unification in 221 BCE.

Tíyào: Zài Zhōngguó shǐyòng dìmíng de lìshǐ yào zǎo yú qí shǐyòng shūmiànyǔ de lìshǐ. Gāi lìshǐ zhìshǎo kěyǐ zhuīsù dào 3,500 nián qián. Jǐnguǎn Zhōngguó gǔdài dìmíng xíngchéng de jīběn yuánlǐ yǔ shìjiè qítā wénhuà zhōng de dìmíng xiāngsì, dàn zài qí lìshǐ de zǎoqí què yǒu yīgè fāzhǎn guòchéng. Gāi guòchéng dǎozhì dìmíng zhìdìng de guīfànhuà. Běnwén de zhōngxīn lùndiǎn shì, gǔdài Zhōngguó dìmíng de jīběn tèzhēng zǎo zài xīyuán qián 221 nián Qín tǒngyī zhīqián jiù yǐjīng cúnzài.

提要: 在中國使用地名的歷史要早於其使用書面語的歷史。該歷史至少可以追溯到3,500年前。儘管中國古代地名形成的基本原理與世界其他文化中的地名相似,但在其歷史的早期卻有一個發展過程。該過程導致地名制定的規範化。本文的中心論點是,古代中國地名的基本特徵早在西元前221年秦統一之前就已經存在。

Keywords: diming 地名 (place-names), oracle-bone inscriptions, Shijing 詩經, “Tribute to Yu” (Yugong 禹貢), Fangma tan 放馬灘maps, Mawang dui 馬王堆maps

Now, when you start to study the origins of Sinitic toponyms in earnest, you will find that many of them are very hard nuts to crack.  For example, the name of Wúxī 無錫, a large city 84 miles northwest of Shanghai, ostensibly means "without tin", but many place names in that region inexplicably have wú 無 as a prefix, so one would suspect that it comes from a non-Sinitic substrate language, such as a Vietic or a Kra-Dai language.

Even more labyrinthine is the tale of the Taiwanese city name Keelung:

According to early Chinese accounts, this northern coastal area was originally called Pak-kang (Chinese: 北港; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Pak-káng). By the early 20th century, the city was known to the Western world as Kelung, as well as the variants Kiloung, Kilang and Keelung. In his 1903 general history of Taiwan, US Consul to Formosa (1898–1904) James W. Davidson related that "Kelung" was among the few well-known names, thus warranting no alternate Japanese romanization.

However, the Taiwanese people have long called the city Kelang (Chinese: 雞籠; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Ke-lâng/Koe-lâng; lit. '“rooster cage", "hencoop” or “chicken coop”'). While it has been proposed that this name was derived from the local mountain that took the shape of a rooster cage, it is more likely that the name was derived from the first inhabitants of the region, as are the names of many other Taiwanese cities. In this case, the Ketagalan people were the first inhabitants, and early Han settlers probably approximated "Ketagalan" with Ke-lâng (Hokkien phonetics).

In 1875, during the late Qing era, a new official name was given (Chinese: 基隆; pinyin: Jīlóng; lit. 'base prosperous'). In Mandarin, probably the working language of Chinese government at the time, both the old and new names were likely pronounced Kīlóng (hence "Keelung").

Under Japanese rule (1895–1945), the city was also known to the west by the Japanese romanization Kīrun (also written as Kiirun).

In Taiwanese Hokkien, native language of the area, the city is called Ke-lâng. In Hanyu Pinyin, a system created for Mandarin Chinese in Mainland China, the name of Keelung is written as Jīlóng (the shift from initial K to J is a recent development in the Beijing dialect*, see Old Mandarin).

[*VHM:  the palatalization of the velars in Pekingese / Beijingese topolect and other northern languages, which took place roughly within the last three centuries, which I've often written about on Language Log and elsewhere.]

And, no, the name "Taiwan" (台湾 / 臺灣)  does not mean "Terrace / Platform Bay", even though superficially that's what it looks like it means, which I've also written about on many occasions (see the Selected readings below).


Selected readings

The five don'ts of novel coronavirus vaccination in Hainan, China

A notice issued in Wancheng, a town in Hainan Province on March 31 warning people of consequences if they refuse to take vaccines. (Screenshot via Weibo)

The notice reads:

zhǔdòng jiēzhòng
quánmín jiēzhòng
yīng zhòng jǐn zhòng


Take the initiative to get vaccinated
Universal vaccination
Those who should be vaccinated must all be vaccinated


jiēzhòng xīnguān yìmiáo "wǔ bù" zhùyì shìxiàng

接种新冠疫苗 "五不" 注意事项。

"Five don'ts" concerning novel coronavirus vaccination that require attention



Bù jiēzhòng yìmiáo, chūxíng jiāotōng méi chē zuò.


If you don't get vaccinated, when you go out to travel there will be no cars for you.


Bù jiēzhòng yìmiáo, shìchǎng, chāoshì, jiǔdiàn nán jìnrù.


If you don't get vaccinated, it will be hard for you to enter markets, supermarkets, and hotels.


Bù jiēzhòng yìmiáo, cānyǐn, jiǔdiàn, shāngchāo děng fúwù hángyè bùdé yíngyè.


If you don't get vaccinated, you will not be permitted to operate catering, hotels, supermarkets, and other service industries.


Bù jiēzhòng yìmiáo, àn cūnguī mínyuē lièrù hēibāng míngdān, bùdé xiǎngshòu zhèngfǔ yōuhuì zhèngcè.


If you don't get vaccinated, your name will be entered on the black list according to the village rules and social contract, and you will not be able to enjoy preferential government policies.


Bù jiēzhòng yìmiáo, duì jīnhòu zǐnǚ shàngxué, gōngzuò, cānjūn, zhùfáng bàojiàn děng dōu huì shòudào yǐngxiǎng


If you don't get vaccinated, in the future, your children’s schooling, work, military enlistment, and housing applications will all be affected.

Wànchéng zhèn xīnguān yìmiáo jiēzhòng diǎn fēnbùtú


Notice of the novel coronavirus vaccination point of Wancheng Town

Note that, as has been typical of Chinese law for thousands of years, penalties imposed on an individual extend to his / her offspring.

When I first saw this notice earlier today, it struck me as so super-draconian that it seemed surreal.  Unless you accept the vaccine, you wouldn't be able to do anything.

So I inquired among some of my friends in China whether it were authentic.  Here's how one of them replied:

It is authentic, and the Wancheng Government made a public apology and withdrew this notice via the Wanning 万宁 official Wechat platform on March 31 for their “simple and crude” ("jiǎndān cūbào 简单粗暴") way of publicizing the vaccine and their "inappropriate wording" ("cuòcí bùdāng 措辞不当"). The statement still suggests that taking vaccines is a civil obligation, and it is expected that people could understand that the notice was intended to help "achieve herd immunity" ("chéng qúntǐ miǎnyì 成群体免疫").

One wonders how many variants of this notice have been posted in various parts of the PRC during the last year of horrors.

Selected readings

[h.t. Mark Metcalf; thanks to Yijie Zhang and Chenfeng Wang]

The "genetic singularity" of the Basque people

Linguistically, Basque is generally thought of as an isolate with a very deep history.  Consequently, Basque people are also often presumed to have been genetically singular for thousands of years as well.  A new study, however, calls this presumption into question:

"Basque 'genetic singularity' confirmed in largest-ever study:  The new research shows that this difference only began to emerge 2,500 years ago as a result of centuries of isolation", by Manuel Ansede, El Pais (English) (4/1/21)

In terms of the findings of the original study, the contents of the subtitle of the article are more important than those of the title.

Here is the title of the original paper, the authors, highlights, and the summary:

"Genetic origins, singularity, and heterogeneity of Basques", by André Flores-Bello, Frédéric Bauduer, Jasone Salaberria, Bernard Oyharçabal, Francesc Calafell, Jaume Bertranpetit, Lluis Quintana-Murci, and David Comas, Current Biology (available online 3/25/21)



Clear genetic singularity of Basques is observed at wide- and fine-scale levels
Basque differentiation might lie on the absence of gene flow after the Iron Ages
Genetic substructure correlated with geography and linguistics is detected


Basques have historically lived along the Western Pyrenees, in the Franco-Cantabrian region, straddling the current Spanish and French territories. Over the last decades, they have been the focus of intense research due to their singular cultural and biological traits that, with high controversy, placed them as a heterogeneous, isolated, and unique population. Their non-Indo-European language, Euskara, is thought to be a major factor shaping the genetic landscape of the Basques. Yet there is still a lively debate about their history and assumed singularity due to the limitations of previous studies. Here, we analyze genome-wide data of Basque and surrounding groups that do not speak Euskara at a micro-geographical level. A total of ∼629,000 genome-wide variants were analyzed in 1,970 modern and ancient samples, including 190 new individuals from 18 sampling locations in the Basque area. For the first time, local- and wide-scale analyses from genome-wide data have been performed covering the whole Franco-Cantabrian region, combining allele frequency and haplotype-based methods. Our results show a clear differentiation of Basques from the surrounding populations, with the non-Euskara-speaking Franco-Cantabrians located in an intermediate position. Moreover, a sharp genetic heterogeneity within Basques is observed with significant correlation with geography. Finally, the detected Basque differentiation cannot be attributed to an external origin compared to other Iberian and surrounding populations. Instead, we show that such differentiation results from genetic continuity since the Iron Age, characterized by periods of isolation and lack of recent gene flow that might have been reinforced by the language barrier.

The hypothesis that attachment to language difference may have influenced gene flow is interesting and deserving of further consideration.

Selected reading

"The Linguistic Diversity of Aboriginal Europe " (1/6/09)
"Divergent histories of languages and genes " (2/21/10)
"Why is Basque an Ancient Language?" (1/3/07)
"The languages of the Caucasus " (8/25/08)

[Thanks to Hiroshi Kumamoto]

What a prehistoric pair of pretty pants can tell us about the spread of early languages

The following is a photograph of the world's oldest known pair of trousers:


Scientific study:

Ulrike Beck, Mayke Wagner, Xiao Li, Desmond Durkin-Meisterernst, Pavel E.Tarasov, "The invention of trousers and its likely affiliation with horseback riding and mobility: A case study of late 2nd millennium BC finds from Turfan in eastern Central Asia," Quaternary International, Volume 348 (20 October 2014), pages 224-235.


Here, we present the first report on the design and manufacturing process of trousers excavated at Yanghai cemetery (42°48′–42°49′N, 89°39′–89°40′E) near the Turfan oasis, western China. In tombs M21 and M157 fragments of woollen trousers were discovered which have been radiocarbon dated to the time interval between the 13th and the 10th century BC. Their age corresponds to the spread of mobile pastoralism in eastern Central Asia and predates the widely known Scythian finds. Using methods of fashion design, the cut of both trousers was studied in detail. The trousers were made of three independently woven pieces of fabric, one nearly rectangular for each side spanning the whole length from waistband to hemline at the ankle and one stepped cross-shaped crotch-piece which bridged the gap between the two side-pieces. The tailoring process did not involve cutting the cloth: instead the parts were shaped on the loom, and they were shaped in the correct size to fit a specific person. The yarns of the three fabrics and threads for final sewing match in color and quality, which implies that the weaver and the tailor was the same person or that both cooperated in a highly coordinated way. The design of the trousers from Yanghai with straight-fitting legs and a wide crotch-piece seems to be a predecessor of modern riding trousers. Together with horse gear and weapons as grave goods in both tombs our results specify former assumptions that the invention of bifurcated lower body garments is related to the new epoch of horseback riding, mounted warfare and greater mobility. Trousers are essential part of the tool kit with which humans improve their physical qualities.

Here are my initial reactions to this major publication, which I had intended to circulate years ago, but got caught up in too many other things:

These trousers are astonishing in many respects.  First of all, they are exquisitely designed, woven, cut, sewn, and decorated.  Second is their early date of late 2nd millennium BC, which makes them among the earliest known trousers on earth; if not, they are the very earliest archeologically attested, woven trousers.  The next oldest known trousers are the burgundy colored pair worn by Cherchen Man / Chärchän Man / Ur-David (ca. 1000-800 BC), who was discovered in the cemetery of the village of Zaghunluq near the town of Qiemo (Chärchän), southeast Tarim Basin, about one thousand km SSW from the Yanghai burial ground at the edge of the Turfan Basin.  Third is the sheer fact that these are trousers.  Trousers / pants are hard to make, because you have to cut the fabric in irregular shapes, and then you have to sew them up into a crotch, which is a complicated business.  But if you don't sew them right, that completely defeats the purpose of having a crotch after all, which is to make it easier to ride a horse.

Now, riding a horse is a revolutionary development in the history of humanity.  We've talked about it a number of times on Language Log, so I don't need to explain in detail here and now how the horse expanded the power and reach of human beings.  Why go to the trouble of cutting and sewing a crotch when it's so much easier to wrap a bolt of fabric round your waist — unless you want to straddle the back of a horse, and why go to the trouble of cutting and sewing a crotch if you make it in such a way that chafes the rider's sensitive nether parts unless you're serious about your horse riding.

The people who were most serious about and adept at riding horses were the same people who came sweeping across the Eurasian grasslands from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe and southern Urals, the Scythians and their Iranic forerunners, rounded the eastern edge of the Heavenly Moutains (Tian Shan / Tängri Tagh / Tengri Tagh / Tengir-Too), and poured down into the northeast corner of the Tarim Basin and its extension to the northeast, the Turfan Basin.  So far as we know, the earliest waves of settlers entering the Turfan and Tarim basins were Indo-Europeans, including Tocharians and Iranians, and the overall composition from the 2nd millennium BC to nearly the end of the 1st millennium BC continued to be primarily Indo-Europeans.

Because of the nature of its settlement, it is no wonder that the Turfan Basin has such a rich assemblage of languages and scripts up to medieval times, as documented by Doug Hitch in this article:

Doug Hitch, "The Special Status of Turfan," Sino-Platonic Papers, 186 (March, 2009), 1-61.

The same holds for Eastern Central Asia as a whole, as is apparent from this table:

Scripts and Languages in Pre-Islamic Central Asia

Source:  "Turfan Studies", Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (brochure, 2007), p. 9.

Taking into consideration the archeological, anthropological, cultural, and linguistic evidence for the early inhabitation of the Turfan and Tarim basins, it is likely that the word for "trousers" would have been Indo-European of some sort.  Below, I shall put forward some data pointing toward avenues for further research concerning the terminology for trousers and other horse-related equipment.

The MSM term for "trousers; pants" is kùzi 裤子, where the second syllable is a disyllabicizing nominative suffix.  For etymological purposes, we can focus on the first syllable.

  • Middle Sinitic: /kʰuoH/
  • Old Sinitic (Zhengzhang): /*kʰʷaːs/

One thing we have to bear in mind is that China did not have trousers until the fourth century BC.  Since domesticated horses, chariots, and wheels came from the northwest, it is hard to deny that horse riding, especially for military purposes, did as well.  Indeed, in the late 4th c. BC, King Wuling (r. 325-299) of Zhao implemented as his most important (and very famous) reform of Hú fú qíshè 胡服騎射 ("wearing Hu [style] attire [i.e., pants, belt, boots, fur caps, and fur clothes] and shooting [bows] from horseback [in battle]).  "Hu" is an umbrella term for the so-called "Five Barbarians" — Xiongnu (a Hunnic confederation), Jie, (see "An early fourth century AD historical puzzle involving a Caucasian people in North China "[1/25/19]"), Xianbei (Särbi), Di (of indeterminate ethnicity, but culturally related to the Qiang), and Qiang (Tibetic).  (Quoting myself from here)

So we wouldn't expect to find the Sinograph for kù 裤 on the oracle bone inscriptions, bronze inscriptions, seal characters, or any other early forms, and that is indeed the case (see here).

The instability of the orthographic form of kù 裤 (e.g., 袴, 跨, as given in the ca. 200 AD Shìmíng
釋名 [Explanation of Names])
 dictionary of paronomastic glosses, is an indication that it is likely to be a borrowing from some non-Sinitic language.

Axel Schuessler, ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese (Honolulu:  University of Hawai'i Press, 2007), p. 337 gives *khwâh as the Old Sinitic reconstruction of 裤 and *khwrâh as the Old Sinitic reconstruction of 跨, which he glosses as "'To step over, pass over' [Zuo]".  On p. 338, Schuessler lists a number of similarly sounding areal words meaning "forked; branching; crotch".

Fāngyán 方言 (Topolects), the dictionary of regionalisms by Yang Xiong (53 BC–18 AD), has an interesting note on dà kù 大袴 ("big trousers"), for which he cites the regional word dǎodùn 倒頓.

  • Middle Sinitic: /tɑuX//tuənH/
  • Old Sinitic (Baxter–Sagart): /*tˤawʔ/
    (Zhengzhang): /*taːwʔ//*tuːns/
    (sources:  herehere, and here)

Even if Sinitic borrowed the word for "trousers" from some neighboring people, it is still probable that the latter picked it up from IE speakers who invented this horse-related item of clothing.  So we need systematically to go through the terminology for "trousers, pants" in IE.

Here's a beginning, kindly submitted by Hiroshi Kumamoto:

It may not be the oldest, but Khot. kaumadai "trousers" comes to mind. Bailey has an article with the title "vāsta" on the words of clothing in Khotanese in Acta Orientalia 30 (= Iranian Studies presented to Kaj Barr), 1966, 25-43, and the word is discussed on p. 26. Although in this article too many words are given the generic meaning of "clothing" and the like, the "trousers" word seems to be a good one.

To tell the truth, what caught my eye about the fancy pants pictured at the beginning of the post above all is the pattern on the band around the knees.  It would be an understatement to say that I was absolutely stunned when I saw it.  The reason I was captivated by that interlocking, angular pattern on the knee bands is because it is so intricate and distinctive and because for decades I have been noticing it on a variety of artifacts from the first millennium BC.  Here are two:

Western Zhou bronze from Royal Ontario Museum.

Zaghunluq, fragment for a sleeve or pant-leg; long-hop twill, slit tapestry; courtesy of Zhang He, who has collected dozens of examples from various locations and will eventually write a paper on this topic.  Many of these instances of the interlocking pattern from the southeastern and northeastern rim of the Tarim Basin are associated with figures from the first half of the first millennium BC who are smothered in cannabis and have harps, jingling bells on their legs, and other attributes of Scythian shamans.

Westward from Zaghunluq (Cherchen) along the southern rim of the Tarim Basin, we find many instances of this interlocking pattern on textiles at Sampul, with its enormous cemetery that was active from around 217 BC to 283 AD.  Sampul also yielded the spectacular 1st-century AD tapestry in Hellenistic style.

We also find this pattern on textiles, weapons, sculpture from Sanxingdui (in recent weeks, sensational new discoveries at this 12th-11th c. BC Sichuan site have been announced), artifacts from Pazyryk (6th-3rd c. BC site in the Altay region), and so on (more locations mentioned below).

John Huntington observes that the design is very similar to the motif on the platform of lady Dai in the Mawangdui (early 2nd c. BC site in Changsha, Hunan) funeral banner (see one third of the way down the page).  There is also a band of a very similar design around the lid of the "red" coffin at Mawangdui. The strategic placement of the angular interlocking pattern on Lady Dai's banner and red coffin attests to its numinous power.

The bronze specialist, Robert Bagley, refers to this pattern at "interlocked T's".  That comports with my supposition that it may be related to the famous TLV pattern on bronze mirrors of the Han Dynasty (2nd c. BC-2nd c. AD).

It has been my hypothesis all along that this intricate pattern was first developed in textiles and that it was subsequently adopted for application on other materials.  The prehistoric textile specialist, Elizabeth J. W. Barber, supports this thesis:

It certainly looks like a weaving pattern: just the kind of diagonal lines that are easy to weave.   This has 2 colors alternating (dark brown and off-white?), such that neighboring scrolls in opposite colors interlock: so it must have been done in a double-weave (what's white on the top is brown on the other side and vice versa: Yingpan Man's outfit was double-weave in red and yellow).  Whether it is also long-hop twill, I can't see — not sure that it needs to be.  It could be simple plain-weave (tabby) binding in two layers (double-weave).   But it does seem to be a development of the same family of patterns we saw at Zaghunluq and that I saw from Pazyryk, 500 miles north, same general era.  The Zaghunluk patterns we saw in 1995 and the Pazyryk ones, however, are ROUNDED interlocking spirals, rather than angular.  So I'm really interested in the new (? 2013?) Zaghunluk piece you show here: the curves have become angles– MUCH easier to weave, in many techniques.  They were already headed towards angles on the turquoise shirt and pants; but this piece is much more so, much closer to the Yanghai pants.

[What to call this pattern]

The rounded ones (as at Pazyryk, and the ones we saw in 1995 from Xinjiang) are usually called scroll patterns:  in this case, interlocking scrolls.  "Scroll" implies rounded lines; "interlock" tells you something about how they are laid out with respect to each other.

I think the best term for the one on the pants and on the W. Zhou vessel is fret pattern — that implies made from straight lines with sharp angles, including right angles.  So here, interlocking fretwork.

Note that the pattern on the pants is FAR more sophisticated in its interlock than the pattern on the vessel, which is actually rather simple.  (If puzzled by that, note that the fretwork curls in different directions as you move from one bit of the pattern to the next–or from one color to the next.  Not so for the bronze, or the Zaghunluk piece.)   It's a real tour de force!


We find the interlocking fretwork pattern on textiles, bronzes, and other types of artifacts in a polygon marked roughly by Sampul in the southwest Tarim Basin, Cherchen in the southeast Tarim Basin, the Turfan Basin, the Chengdu Plain of Sichuan, the area around Changsha (Hunan), the Central Plains of the Yellow River Valley, and the Altay region.  This space within East Central Asia and East Asia is essentially coterminous with the range of expansion of the Scythians and their predecessors and congeners in that part of Eurasia.

Selected readings

Orthographic variation in a pair of poems by a Japanese Zen monk and his mistress

From Bryan Van Norden:

I found interesting these paired poems by the 15th-century Japanese Zen monk Ikkyū (1394-1481) and by his mistress, the blind singer Mori. He writes his poem in Classical Chinese, because he is a man, but her poem is in hiragana, because she is a woman.   Below are photos of the original scroll, showing paintings of Ikkyū and Mori, from Arntzen's translation, and a more recent translation by Messer and Smith.   I am researching Ikkyū for what will ultimately be a five-minute segment in my class lecture on Zen this week.  I find that students have trouble appreciating what is at stake in the debate over metaphysical monism vs dualism. Ikkyū, a monk who frequented bars and brothels, shows one way of rejecting dualisms (like sacred vs profane, mind vs. body, monk vs. layperson).

From Sonja Arntzen, translator of the first set of translations above:

Your query is quite timely. I am just in the middle of revising and expanding Ikkyū and the Crazy Cloud Anthology (1987) for a reprint with Quirin Press. It is quite wonderful to be given the opportunity to go back to one’s first work and clean it up in the light of all the subsequent research that has been done by so many. I am just about to revise poem no. 144, which is the first poem in the Kyōūnshū to mention 楼子. I took it as Pavilion girl(s), the first time, meaning bar girls, but I missed the allusion to the Wudeng Huiyuan that Sarah Messer and Kidder Smith cite in their 2015 book (see the last paragraph below). Hirano also cites it in his Ikkyū Oshō Zenshū.  As you well know, if you overlook an allusion in Chinese poetry or prose, you can miss the meaning badly, and that is the case here. Knowing now that 楼子 is the name for a monk who was enlightened by hearing a Pavilion girl sing a hurting love song, and that Ikkyū uses it as a nickname for himself, I would revise the third line of that poem to: 

The blind girl’s love song mocks the Pavilion Monk, 

In the light of the allusion,  I was tempted to take a putative interpretation of 笑, “make the Pavilion Monk smile,” but have decided that Kidder’s translation is right for two reasons. One, Mori’s waka below speaks of insecurity and suffering. To have such a song make Ikkyū smile or laugh seems disjunctive.  Secondly, his time with Mori overlapped with the Ōnin war (1467-1477) as Kidder points out, and the context of a second poem written around the time that employs the same line (see Messer and Smith, Having Once Paused, no. 531, p. 109) is at odds with smiling. In the poem’s introduction, Ikkyū states he wrote that poem out of grief over Mori refusing food when they were facing starvation.  

You noted Mori’s poem being in kana because she is a woman. That is perfectly natural for the time. There were some Zen nuns in the medieval period who knew literary Chinese, but no woman in Mori’s position, that of a female entertainer. Interestingly, calligraphy experts are of the opinion that Ikkyū wrote the kana too. (Ikkyū bokuseki, Ikkyū Oshō zenshū: bekkan, p. 72)  The sad tone of Mori’s poem may reflect the troubles of the time, but it is also good to remember that the discourse of waka is very much inflected by the ancient equivalent of the “blues.” There are almost no happy love poems in the waka tradition. By contrast, Ikkyū wrote a number of kanshi expressing joy over his relationship with Mori.  

Looking at and thinking about this painting again, I realize that Ikkyū’s poetry and calligraphy on this portrait of the two of them probably secured funds for their survival. The painting is inscribed to a lay-follower of Ikkyū who was a resident of Sakai, the only safe place during the Ōnin war because, among many things, it was an armaments factory for all sides. Many Gozan monks sheltered in Sakai during that long war. Once he and Mori made it to Sakai, they would have gotten support.  

So, those are my thoughts.  

By the way, I am a fan of Having Once Paused (2015, by Sarah Messer and Kidder Smith). I had some communication with Kidder when he and Sarah were working on it and I really liked the idea of having all the allusions up front before getting to the poem. I like the way they make the poems accessible. 

From Linda Chance:

The gendering of Japanese literature is a complex problem, but I would not express it as "Ikkyū writes in Classical Chinese because he is a man," nor "Shin writes in the vernacular because she is a woman." Then how would we explain Empress Kōmyō's kanbun, or Ariwara no Narihira's waka?

It is possible, of course, that the creator(s) of this kakejiku chose kanshi for Ikkyū and waka for Mori as part of a strategy of contrast. A monk's persona calls for kanbun; a blind performer's persona is mediated by kana. From what little I was able to find out about the painting, people assume that this is a portrait of Mori, and possibly even her calligraphy, but the kanshi is not confirmed as Ikkyū's because it does not appear in his collection.

Poking around online, I could not find a reproduction that was sufficiently clear for the hentaigana to be legible. But interestingly, four out of five of the images of the painting crop out Ikkyū's poem entirely. I believe they would crop out all of Mori's poem if it were not integrated into the background. As it is they tend to cut off both sides. Viewers now are intrigued by the portraits, but not so much by the inscriptions.

From Frank Chance:

To be honest, I don't like this sentence very much:

He writes his poem in Classical Chinese, because he is a man, but her poem is in hiragana, because she is a woman.

Could we not also say he wrote his sentence in Classical Chinese because he is a Zen monk, and a professional practitioner of sinitic culture, while she is a sex worker whose cultural expressions were expected to be in the vernacular?  If she were a Zen monk (i.e., nun) she might well have written in Classical Chinese, but that was not her background.   If he were a sex worker (and yes, there were male sex workers during his lifetime) he might well have written in the vernacular.   Beware of gendering people[s language choices – the issues may be quite a bit more complex than just "Men wrote Chinese Women wrote Japanese."

From Robert Sharf:

I don't have much to add. Ikkyū's verse uses tropes typical of the 頂相 genre, in which one identifies the depicted abbot with the buddha. The use of terms like 圓相 (which can register as perfect form, empty circle, emptiness, awakening, etc.) and  全身 (here vaguely alluding to the body of the buddha), the allusion to the "truth" of face and eyes, etc., all suggest that Ikkyū has fully realized / embodied his intrinsic Buddhahood, and that this is captured / realized in the portrait itself.  See T. Griffith Foulk and Robert H. Sharf, "On the Ritual Use of Ch'an Portraiture in Medieval China", Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie, 7 (1993), 149-219.

Regardless of who wrote the two poems, the stark physical difference between the orthography of the poem by Ikkyū and the one by Mori is apparent even to someone who knows neither Sinographs nor kana (Japanese syllabary).  That alone conveys something important to the reader / viewer.

Selected readings

(Thanks to Richard Lynn)