Sibagu: Bird names in languages of Asia

Every time I’ve learned a new Uralic or Turkic language in the last decade, I’ve had to quickly learn the names of trees, birds and fish. For peoples maintaining a rural way of life, these are important lexical domains, and without a knowledge of them, a foreigner won’t manage with visiting speakers’ communities or reading texts in the language.

Unfortunately, with languages like Udmurt and Chvuash, I’ve found myself first having to look up the name of the species in a Russian bilingual dictionary, and then looking up the Russian in a bilingual English dictionary. That approach comes with pitfalls, as somewhere along that chain of translations, one word might refer to two different species. There’s often no easy way to determine the unambiguous Latin name of the species.

Luckily, for at least birds and languages of east/southeast Asia, there’s the helpful site Sibagu. It is a database of bird names in Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, Thai, Turkish, Kazakh, Malay, and Indonesian. The website interface is rather clunky, harkening back to the early web, but it’s worth it for getting the valuable Latin names. Plus, the administrator’s literal translations of native bird names are often charming, e.g. Chinese 小太平鳥 xiǎo tàipíng-niǎo ‘small peace bird’ for Bombycilla japonica.

Japanese and the exclusion of foreigners

One thing that has put me off learning Japanese is the trend for a foreigner to be increasingly shunned by Japanese society as his language skills improve. It’s considered cute if a foreigner makes a halting effort, but once he actually reaches proficiency his efforts only disturb the people he meets. For a long time, I had only anecdotal reports of this by acquaintances who had lived in Japan. But three decades ago Roy Andrew Miller, probably best known in these parts for his classic work on tying Japanese into an Altaic language family, wrote an impassionate book about Japanese sociolinguistics entitled Japan’s Modern Myth (New York: Weatherhill, 1982) that gives a context for this frustration:

The members of most societies are pleased when a foreign tries to learn and use their language, and they reward such a foreigner with approval in direct proportion to the degree of success achieved with the same.

Thus, it always comes as a particularly rude awakening when the foreigner who is resident in Japan for any length of time finally realizes that Japanese society behaves in a fashion that is directly contrary to this general rule. Japanese society usually distrusts and dislikes any attempt by a foreigner to learn and use the Japanese language. The distrust and dislike grow strong, and show themselves more and more stridently, the more the foreigner gains fluency in understanding and using the language.

This state of affairs is a direct consequence of the thoroughgoing confusion between language and race that we have been discussing here. If the Japanese language is equivalent to the Japanese races—and we have seen how firmly, if erroneously, contemporary Japanese academic and intellectual circles continue to hold that this equation is true—then any attempt to learn and use the language by a foreign can only be interpreted as an attempt by the same foreigner to acquire Japanese racial identity and to enter Japanese society. Since both these attempts mmust, it goes without saying, be resisted by all means, so also must learning and use of the language be resisted. It is the fatal equation of race with language that triggers this sociolinguistic defensive mechanism.

I do wonder if such disapproval by the Japanese is always a ‘sociolinguistic defensive mechanism’. Certainly in a few languages I’ve studied, the disapproval of those around me is directly proportional to my command of the language for the simple reason that, once I’ve lost the cute façade of the stumbling foreigner and people are dealing with me more directly, they just decide I’m a jerk. One needn’t imagine a vast sociolinguistic conspiracy when personal dislikability might be to blame.

Koguryo and the origins of Japanese

While I do hope to learn Japanese one day to read the works of such great novelists as Kawabata and Mishima, I doubt I will ever be more than the most casual of dilettantes in Japanese historical linguistics. That said, I do like skimming books on the field, and have heard enough of Roy Andrew Miller’s view on the language in the context of general Altaic studies.

One reader has recently brought to my attention a fairly new view on the history of Japanese, set out by Christopher I. Beckwith in his book Koguryo: The Language of Japan’s Continental Relatives (Leiden: Brill, 2004). I haven’t actually read the book yet, as it is not in the university library in Helsinki, and I can’t afford a typical Brill hardcover, and though the book is completely readable for free at Google Books, it hurts my eyes. Nonetheless, there is a substantial review of the book on the web at the blog Néomarxisme. In introducing us to this language which may possibly be related to Japanese, the reviewer writes:

From around 100 B.C. to the 7th century A.D., modern day Korea was divided into three kingdoms: Koguryo, Shilla, and Paekche. The three states were eventually unified under Shilla in 668, and the modern Korean language originates from the language spoken in Shilla. Koguryo and Paekche, however, had different languages which are posited to be related to each other. Scholars thus make two groupings of Korean peninsula languages: the Han languages — spoken in Shilla and among the subjugated class in Paekche — and the Puyo-Koguryoic languages of Koguryo, Puyo (another Northern Korea state), and Paekche’s ruling class. The latter family is now totally extinct and probably made a minor impact on modern Korean. The lack of written records and remaining vocabulary items from these languages make it difficult to learn much about the nature of the “Koguryoic” family.

I’ve encountered two separate complaints about unreliable reconstructions in Beckwith’s book. On an Amazon review, one Asier Gabikagojeazkoa writes:

But Beckwith has made some considerably big mistakes in his comparative Japanese-Koguryo work (how could possibly yama, mountain in Japanese, and ɣapma ‘big mountain’ in Koguryo, be related? The Proto-Japanese word for mountain is *dama, as every y- in Japanese comes from d-, as noted in some Ryukyuan dialects).

John R. Bentley at the Northern Illinois University writes:

Beckwith reconstructs Proto-Japanese-Ryukyuan ‘eye’ as *mika or *miak (2004:157-58). This is based entirely on the Hateruma island word miŋ ‘eye’. He sees the velar nasal going back to a velar -k. This is then compared with Old Chinese *mek ‘eye’ and Old Tibetan myig ‘eye’. Gary Oyler, in 1997, did an MA thesis on the problem of -ŋ in Hateruma, and concluded that the -ŋ is secondary. It only occurs word finally, and there is no pattern to which words have the ŋ and which do not. It is completely random. My own work has found this same phenomenon in Yonaguni, an island not far from Hateruma, but the ŋ is attached to different nouns than those in Hateruma (so the development of this nasal was independent on the two islands). This velar nasal is simply a relic of morphology that the speakers have reanalyzed as part of the noun, kind of like American speakers spelling ‘hafta’ (< ‘have to’), where they treat two original words as one. It cannot be reconstructed as part of the proto-form. The true etymology of ‘eye’ would be *ma-i or perhaps *ma-Ci. So Beckwith also has the vowels wrong.