“Three Windows” in Action: Rice and Langugage

William S.-Y. Wathree windowsng’s classic paper “Three Windows on the Past” discusses how anthropology (especially archaeology), genetics and historical linguistics can be used in an interdisciplinary study to establish the history of peoples and their languages. A conference to be held September 22-25, 2011 at Cornell University titled “Rice and Language Across Asia: Crops, Movement and Social Change” will present research from all these related fields on the origin of the cultivation of rice in Asia and the migration of peoples, and along with it the spread of rice cultivation and languages. In an earlier blog, I discussed various theories of the origin of the concept of the qi in Chinese philosophy. Some scholar pointed out that the cultivation of rice was not widespread in northern China at the time of the classical period. Thus if rice was not an important factor in people’s daily life, then the origin of the concept of qi is more likely not related to the food, but rather to the natural phenomenon of air and clouds. I wonder what this new conference and the research to be presented will contribute to our understanding of this matter.

The Etymology of 气 “qì”

In JeeLoo Liu’s (2006) book titled An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, from Ancient Philosophy to Chinese Buddhism, we came upon the following passage:

Another important notion in Chinese cosmology is that of qi, in relation to which Dao should also be understood, since Dao is often seen as the rhythm or pattern of the movement of qi. There is no adequate English translation for qi, although it has been rendered variously as “energy”, “vital energy”, “pure energy”, “force”, “material force”, “spirit”, “vapor”, “air”, etc. Many commentators have pointed out the etymological root of the word “qi“. Originally, it referred to the steam or vapor coming from boiling rice (the Chinese character for qi contains the character for rice as a component). It came to represent the nourishing vapor or the moistening mist, both of which encompass the atmosphere, furnishing the bodies of all creatures and becoming the source of life. (p6)

At first sight, the etymological theory that Liu gave here is a little funny, and kind of naive too. Then I read some review on line that pointed out the same problem. The reviewer made two points: (1) the original form of the character does not have the rice component; (2) rice cultivation was not common in ancient China.

Indeed, this reviewer’s remark seems to make more sense. But we need more concrete evidence to favor either theory. So let’s examine the origin of the character first to see whether the original form has the rice component or not. Read more… »

Modal Concord in Mandarin?

It seems to me that there are many cases where two or more morphemes that express the same meaning can be used together in one sentence in Mandarin. Although to some extent one of them seems redundant, they are nonetheless grammatical. I wonder if all these cases can be regarded as certain kind of concord? Maybe not in the strict sense, but to some extent, it might very well be. For example, the possibility modal neng and de can both express ability. Normally one is enough.

(1) Ni neng zuo-wan gongke ma?

you can do-finish homework Q

Can you finish doing the homework?

(2) Ni zuo-de-wan gongke ma?

you do-can-finish homework Q

Can you finish doing the homework?

But if you use both, it is perfectly ok. At least a lot of times, I would use such sentences as:

(3) Ni neng zuo-de-wan gongke ma?

So  according to Zeijlstra (2007) “Modal Concord (MC) is a phenomenon where two modal expressions do not yield a cumulative reading, but yield only one modal operator at LF”. Indeed I feel the Mandarin examples do not have a cumulative reading either.

Besides modal concord, I think there are many other “concord” examples. For example, universal concord, as I have argued in one of my papers. Generally Mandarin is a language with a lot of overt operators, and many of such operators can be used together, resulting in various concord phenomena. Of course these are just some informal thoughts so far. I’ll look into such issues more carefully when I have time. But of course if you are interested in these ideas, please leave me a message, and we’ll probably work together on some interesting paper.

Issues in NPI licensing in questions

Elene Guerzoni and Yael Sharvit (2007) A Question of Strength: on NPIs in Interrogative Clauses, Linguistice and Philosophy 30:3 argues that NPIs in embedded questions are licensed by Exhaustivity. They leave the issue with root questions open for future discussion, only suggesting that root questions might be pragmatically exhaustive by default. I want to raise a few issues to their argument.

1. Some questions (how and why) do not have an exhaustive reading, or it is hard to define what counts as an exhaustive reading. Are NPIs allowed in such questions?

How will they build any house on the beach?
Why will they build any house on the beach?

Does syntax or morphology play any role here?

In what manner/by what means will they build any house on the beach?
For what/for what reason/for what purpose will they build any house on the beach?
What will they build any house on the beach for?

2. Some questions (some where and when questions, probably) favor a default non-exhaustive reading. Are NPIs allowed?

Where can I buy any copy of the New Yorker?
When can I buy any copy of the New Yorker?
(Suppose it is available at 3, 6, 9pm)

3. There are non-exhaustive markers. Therefore such markers should make NPIs unacceptable in a question. Is it so?

Who for example has any interest in NPIs.

4. There are exhaustivity markers. If a sentence is overtly marked to be exhaustive, are NPIs still allowed? Is there any influence from the exhaustivity marker at all?

Who all had any interest in NPIs?

I do not have any conclusions yet, and I haven’t surveyed native speakers for their judgement yet. Therefore any comments are welcome.


If counterfactuals need to be expressed differently from other types of conditionals, then there should be a grammatical device for doing so, e.g. the subjunctive in Spanish, the conditionnel in French, and the backward-shifted use of tense in English. Although in grammar books of English, there is always a category of subjunctive mood, it is actually not a separate paradigm of conjugation at all. The so-called English subjunctive is different from the real subjunctive in many other languages where the conjugation takes a different form from other verb forms.

So I’ve read that in Danish and Dutch there isn’t a subjunctive mood. I wonder how they express the counterfactuals in Danish and Dutch. Are there any grammatical devices reserved especially for the counterfactual conditional in these two languages? Is it possible that they just don’t distinguish between the counterfactual conditional and other types of conditionals? They are all conditionals. Whether it is a counterfactual conditional or a plain conditional could be indicated by context, choice of words and maybe even intonation.

But then if there is no grammatical device specifically related to the counterfactual in many languages, is it necessary to categorically distinguish the counterfactual from other types of conditionals?