Sunday, March 28, 2010

History of My Life, Part II (in Nahuatl)

On and off I've been working on my "autobiography" using Nahuatl (Aztec) hieroglyphs for a few years now. It'd be somewhat like Mixtec manuscripts documenting the history of various towns in pre-Columbian Oaxaca, but using Nahuatl naming conventions. But since my Nahuatl is pretty rudimentary and the Nahuatl writing system isn't that well-understood, my progress is pretty glacial.

Two years ago I started the whole thing by figuring out how to write names of various local places that I've lived in Nahuatl, which I've detailed in History of My Life, Part III (in Nahuatl). I only managed to translate the names of two places, namely Mountain View (my hometown) and San Francisco, the nearest big city (and which I tell people is where I'm from when I'm not in California since Mountain View will draw blank stares):

The first glyph is that of San Francisco, phonetically transcribed using Nahuatl syllabograms because the meaning of San Francisco would be difficult to represent.

In case of Mountain View, I translated its name to Nahuatl as Tepetlachiayan, which written in a mixture of logograms and syllabograms. I actually made up a logogram for tlachia, "to see", by overloading the sign for "eye" and attaching a phonetic complement of tla (the set of teeth) on top of it to yield the reading of tlachia "to see" instead of ixco "eye".

My next attempt is to translate the other places I've lived. I spent my first ten years of life living in Hong Kong (香港), which in fact translates as "Port of Incense" in English. So I translate that into Nahuatl as Copalacaltecoyan, which is actually composed of copal ("incense"), acal(li) ("canoe"), teca ("to put something"), and -yan (location suffix). Probably not the best Nahuatl but what the hey, it got the job done.

On the left is Hong Kong, written in a mixture of logograms and syllabograms to spell out Copalacaltecoyan. Both copal and acal(li) are written in logograms, but when it came to write the verbal conjugation teco, I decided to fully use phonetic signs, but with a twist. The sign for the sound te is a stylized stone with wavy lines, and that of ko is a pot. I could've written a stone with a pot, but instead I combined or conflated the two signs into a single sign that looks like a pot made of stylized stone.

The next place I lived was Costa Rica, which means "rich coast" in Spanish. The Nahuatl name is Necuiltonolanahuac. While the second component, anahuac, has a well-known glyph as it means a body of water, the first part, necuiltonol- is actually a complex verbal conjugation from the root cuilonoa which means "to become rich" and completely stumped me as to how to represent it in Nahuatl glyphs.

Eventually after much futile research I just gave up and decided to write the name of the city that I lived in, San José. Once again, like San Francisco, I'll have to phonetically transcribe that using Nahuatl syllabograms. San José is written using the syllabograms sa-xo-se. First of all, Nahuatl writing doesn't write consonants at the end of syllables, and that's why "San" is written with only sa. Also, Nahuatl of the 16th century does not have the 21st century Spanish sound represented by the letter j (so called uvular fricative), I went for the closest sound, "sh" as in English "ship", represented by the 16th-century Spanish letter x. Modern transcription of Nahuatl in the Roman alphabet retains the letter x and so is used also in academic works.

The Nahuatl syllabary can be found at old Ancient Scripts preview at LiveJournal, or in real academic works:
This is all I got for now. Next time we should get to Part I, which would be my name.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Relaunch of the (Two) Millenia

In addition to obsessed with things ancient, I'm also a big foodie, so what's better to talk about then news of an ancient food establishment coming back to life again.

According to this article, an ancient Roman thermopoolium (fast food joint) once owned by proprietor Vetutius Placidus before being shuttered by a rather extreme form of healthy code violation known as the volcanic pyroclastic flow caused by the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius is being reopened by presumably whatever Italian governmental agency running Pompeii (the article didn't mention it).

A typical thermopolium would serve quick snacks like wines, meat, cheeses, or lentils. An establishment typically served just a few specialized items, rather like tapas bars in Spain.

If I were back then I'd seek out the best ham in ancient Rome. We know they had salt-cured hams like prosciutto di Parma or jamón de Serrano. Yes, pig is my weakness, and salt-cured ham my poison. Oh wait I think there's some prosciutto in my fridge. Hold on...

Anyway, before you lose me, I should tell you that you can see the thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus using Google Maps. In fact you can explore parts of Pompeii that way. It's pretty cool actually.

View Larger Map

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What's in a name?

A while ago when I was working on revamping my Chinese page I stumbled upon this cool website called Chinese Etymology. It is actually a bit of a misnomer, because it doesn't tell you about the etymology of Chinese words but in fact allows you to type in a character and then shows the evolution of a character from Oracle Bone script (甲骨文, 12th century BCE) to Lesser Seal (小篆, 3rd century BCE) script.

So, curious, I typed in my family name, 盧, to see how far back it goes and what did it mean. To my surprise there is actually an ancient version of 盧 in the Oracle Bone script:

From the look of it, it is a compound of two other characters. On the left is some kind of pottery vessel (modern Chinese 皿), and on the right is a stylized tiger (modern 虎).

For a while it baffled me why such a combination. Was it some kind of ritual pottery that involved mythological tigers? Tiger drinking out of a basin in some hitherto-unknown poetic metaphor? I was getting a bit obsessed with the tiger since I was born on the Year of the Tiger. I wanted some magical way of tying my name to my birth year.

Further investigation revealed that the tiger character has a mundane, but not necessarily less interesting, explanation. You see, in modern Chinese dialects, tiger is pronounced hu in Mandarin and fu in Cantonese. My name is either lu in Mandarin and lo in Cantonese. However, using the wonders of historical linguistics, scholars have reconstructed the sounds of these words as far back as the Zhou dynasty, around 800 BCE, at an ancient form of the Chinese language called Old Chinese.

Using the STARLING Old Chinese reconstruction database, I found that 盧 had a reconstructed pronunciation of *rā (the asterisk indicates a reconstructed sound), and 虎 was pronounced *hlāʔ. While not identical, the two pronunciations are actually fairly similar, so it would've been likely that the tiger character was used to write the word for vessel in a rebus writing sort of way that is pretty common in early Chinese (another example was using the world for elephant *ziang to write the word for image, also *ziang).

At some point using the tiger character to write both "tiger" and "vessel" must've caused a lot of confusion, and so the vessel character 皿 was paired with the tiger character 虎 to provide the general meaning of some kind of vessel or container. In other words, 皿 was used for its general meaning but not phonetic value, whereas 虎 provided the rough phonetic value but no meaning whatsoever.

And what exactly is the original meaning of 盧? It's still a bit ambiguous but most
likely some kind of vessel used to hold food. That's a bit of a fall from a tiger crouching over a ceremonial cauldron, no? Actually, I much prefer the phonetic explanation of the tiger. This is a snapshot of the important step of introducing what's called "semantic determinatives" (which roughly correspond to modern Chinese radicals) in the evolution of the early Chinese writing system.


Sears, Richard, "Chinese Etymology",

Starostin, S., Bronnikov, G., Krylov, P., "Database query to Chinese characters",\data\china\bigchina&root=config&morpho=0