Punctuation Identification.

Alexandra N. M. Darmon, Marya Bazzi, Sam D. Howison, and Mason Porter have written a paper on “textual analysis via punctuation sequences”:

Punctuation is a largely overlooked stylistic feature in “stylometry”, the quantitative analysis of written text. In this paper, we examine punctuation sequences in a corpus of literary documents and ask the following questions: Are the properties of such sequences a distinctive feature of different authors? Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences? Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time? Are we on to something interesting in trying to do stylometry without words, or are we full of sound and fury (signifying nothing)?

I confess the cutesy style of that last sentence irritates me, but so do the giggly styles of today’s newscasters and interviewers — I’m an old fossil used to solemnity in public utterances. But never mind that; they’ve created a web app that will compare the punctuation style of any writing sample to the authors in its database, and of course it’s fun to put in samples and get results. The problem is that the results are essentially meaningless. To quote verstegan at MetaFilter (where I got the link):

It doesn’t inspire confidence in the authors’ methodology that they analyse Shakespeare’s punctuation without, apparently, being aware that this varies enormously from edition to edition. Ever since the time of Samuel Johnson, editors have freely repunctuated the text of Shakespeare. The claim that (to take one example) ‘Shakespeare appears to use more exclamation marks and question marks than H.G. Wells’ is thus completely meaningless.

The same goes for most of the earlier texts in their sample, as they are using public domain texts from Project Gutenberg, many of which will have been repunctuated. In other words, their text corpus is totally contaminated and their claims about ‘the evolution of punctuation marks over time’ are completely untenable. (And that’s even before we get into the question of whether the punctuation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century books reflects authors’ preferences or printers’ house styles ..) I’m afraid this is what happens when four mathematicians write a paper without bothering to consult any literary scholars, textual editors or bibliographers.

Sigh. But enjoy the game, as long as you realize it doesn’t mean anything!


  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Apparently I write like Arthur Conan Doyle, or maybe Thomas de Quincey, or Honoré de Balzac.

  2. It tells me I write like Louis Becke and no one else. I’d never heard of him but Wikipedia comes to the rescue. Sounds like an interesting fellow. But then: “Becke was criticised by some reviewers for lapses in grammar and taste.” Oh dear.

  3. January First-of-May says

    …Who the triangular heck is Marie Lebert? Wikipedia doesn’t seem to be helpful.

    (Some googling tells me that she’s a linguistics-related blogger, which presumably means that I write like a blogger. This is to be expected, since, lacking any lengthy pieces of regular fiction, I entered some of my longer blog posts.)

    Other offered choices (with shorter texts) included Henry Haggard and Honore de Balzac, but Marie Lebert showed up multiple times.

    EDIT: several other blog posts I tried were said to be similar to Thomas De Quincey, who was apparently a guy who wrote about opium?

  4. Yes, and he’s probably a guy with a large presence in their corpus.

  5. I suppose I would have guessed H. Rider’s first name was Henry, but I’ve certainly never seen him called that. The webapp thinks Project Gutenberg’s “King Solomon’s Mines” was punctuated by Gordon Stables.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I’ll try again.

    I suppose that “Henry Haggard” is the chap we usually call H. Rider Haggard, but I wonder how familiar the authors are with the writers who appear in their database.

    Will there never come a season
    Which shall rid us from the curse
    Of a prose which knows no reason
    And an unmelodious verse:
    When the world shall cease to wonder
    At the genius of an Ass,
    And a boy’s eccentric blunder
    Shall not bring success to pass:

    When mankind shall be delivered
    From the clash of magazines,
    And the inkstand shall be shivered
    Into countless smithereens:
    When there stands a muzzled stripling,
    Mute, beside a muzzled bore:
    When the Rudyards cease from Kipling
    And the Haggards Ride no more.

  7. January First-of-May says

    I rechecked the comment that got the “Henry Haggard” answer, and it was actually “Haggard, H. Rider (Henry Rider)”.

    So it was me who was sufficiently unfamiliar with H. Rider Haggard to misremember it as “Henry Haggard”; no offense (at least in this case) to the creators of the app.

    That’s a neat poem, though. I’m assuming that “the genius of an Ass” refers to the Apuleius novel?

  8. John Cowan says

    It was James Kenneth Stephen, who wrote “To R.K.” above. This one is called “A Sonnet” (it isn’t), and likewise parodies the poet mentioned in the last line.

    Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
    It learns the storm-cloud’s thunderous melody,
    Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
    Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
    And one is of an old half-witted sheep
    Which bleats articulate monotony,
    And indicates that two and one are three,
    That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
    And, Wordsworth, both are thine.

  9. At 7:49 PM John Cowan says J. K. Stephen’s “A Sonnet” isn’t a sonnet, but his source quotes only the octave. Here’s the whole poem: octave plus sestet.

    Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
    It learns the storm-cloud’s thunderous melody,
    Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
    Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
    And one is of an old half-witted sheep
    Which bleats articulate monotony,
    And indicates that two and one are three,
    That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
    And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times
    Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes,
    The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst:
    At other times — good Lord! I’d rather be
    Quite unacquainted with the A.B.C.
    Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.

    As criticism, that’s about right. When you’re young, you can get away with saying, “Listen to me! I’m interesting!” because when you’re young there’s a possibility that you ARE interesting. But when you’re old . . .

    Well, take a look at Wordsworth’s late sonnet sequence in praise of capital punishment. Wordsworth (1770-1850) kept writing almost to the end, but stopped developing at about the age of 35.

  10. Bathrobe says

    @Athel C-B

    Honoré de Balzac

    I wonder which translation are they using?

    I was identified as being close to “Barrie, J. M”. I guess I write Peter Pannish. Not sure whether to be proud or not.

    @Jonathan Morse stopped developing at about the age of 35

    I know a retired editor who still writes interesting stuff (interspersed with the odd diatribe).

  11. Stu Clayton says

    Nobody develops any more, you can print directly from the photostick.

  12. Nero Wolfe, of course, once identified a writing authorship by paragraph breaks. If memory serves, the perp has written a number of literary works in styles of different authors and then used a number of confederates to shake the said authors down for plagiarism. But paragraph breaks were impossible to emulate (in Wolfe’s opinion) and the culprit was duly exposed.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    I am apparently John Masefield. I may sue.

    Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir …

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m with Byron and Auden on the subject of Wordsworth. Bloody daffodils.

  15. The author of the Declaration of Independence can now be revealed “George Borrow”

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Wild America. Yes, I see that.

  17. Punctuation? where is Victor Borge when we really need him?

  18. For those unfamiliar with the reference: Phonetic Punctuation.

  19. John Cowan says

    Russell on Wordsworth: “In his youth Wordsworth sympathised with the French Revolution, went to France, wrote good poetry, and had a natural daughter. At this period he was called a ‘bad’ man. Then he became ‘good,’ abandoned his daughter, adopted correct principles, and wrote bad poetry.”

    Carlyle on Wordsworth, as relayed by Sir Charles Cavan Duffy:

    But though Wordsworth was the man of most practical mind of any of the persons connected with literature whom he had encountered, his pastoral pipings were far from being of the importance his admirers imagined. He was essentially a cold, hard, silent, practical man, who, if he had not fallen into poetry, would have done effectual work of some sort in the world. This was the impression one got of him as he looked out of his stern blue eyes, superior to men and circumstances.

    I said I expected to hear of a man of softer mood, more sympathetic and less taciturn.

    Carlyle said, `No, no, not at all; he was a man quite other than that; a man of an immense head and great jaws like a crocodile’s, cast in a mould designed for prodigious work.’

  20. George Grady says

    Geoff Nunberg on Jane Austen and punctuation at the Language Log in 2010: Jane Austen: missing the points.

    For a very large number of authors, the punctuation you see in their published works is as much their printer’s as it is theirs.

  21. January First-of-May says

    I tried to enter a snippet from the last few pages of Ulysses (which famously don’t contain any punctuation) and got a weird glitched bug page. I’m guessing the app tried to divide by zero?

    (I actually started with A Pickle for the Knowing Ones, but there was more punctuation in the Gutenberg edition than I expected, even after I excluded the properly-punctuated passages.)

  22. My favorite punctuation style is that of Leela in The Mystic Masseur:


  23. I tried to enter a snippet from the last few pages of Ulysses (which famously don’t contain any punctuation) and got a weird glitched bug page. I’m guessing the app tried to divide by zero?

    Interesting. I put in a chunk of Molly’s monologue and added a period at the end, and got “ValueError at /punctuation/ Columns must be same length as key”; I added a few more marks and got the same, then put in a shorter chunk and added some marks, and got “Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan.”

  24. Stu Clayton says

    Python. Division by zero clue as to how to design a program.

    Good sleuthing, Steve !

  25. I wouldn’t call it “sleuthing” so much as “random flailing.”

  26. Stu Clayton says

    But you clearly had a hypothesis about the causes of the crashes, and a strategy for verifying it – constrained trial and error. Baron Verulam would have minted you a medal.

  27. AJP Crown says

    I tried something by E.E. Cummings yesterday but it said Django was doing something true that ought to be false and I never received a proper response.

  28. Stu Clayton says

    # Django is a high-level Python Web framework that encourages rapid development … #

    In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. And vice versa when you don’t understand what you’re doing. This kind of thing always reminds me of Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

  29. So they unchained Django… 😉

    @David Eddyshaw: That brought back school memories. I got in an argument with my English teacher, because she used “Cargoes” as an example of a “bad” poem in comparison to some other poem, and I didn’t think “Cargoes” (which I first encountered during that lesson) deserved that.

  30. “Cargoes” (for those unfamiliar with it).

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s an interesting question. Although the poem has unfortunate associations for me too (also associated with schooldays – they made us sing) I agree that it is in fact a pretty good poem qua poem.

    I have arguments with my English-major daughter, who is (as is appropriate) much woker than I, about Kipling, who I myself think is pretty much the poster child for excellent poet despite his sometimes rebarbative message. The Female of the Species, for example, despite being a polemic against female suffrage, is, as a poem, truly brilliant.

    Kipling’s actual politics are a good deal more nuanced than is sometimes alleged, for that matter, but that is a separate (or at least separable) issue.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    I was just today moved to think of Kipling’s sanity by the stupidity of journalistic accounts of the veterans of the Second World War:

    We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
    But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you

  33. I agree with you about Kipling. But he’s liable to get you in a lot of hot water with a lot of people nowadays.

  34. Stu Clayton says

    In the olden days, one just avoided people who carried a chip on their shoulder. It may surprise you that the same tactic works well against people who carry buckets of hot water around. You can even kick their buckets.

    Le parti des dévots

  35. John Cowan says

    I see your “Cargoes” and raise you “The King”:

    “Romance!” the season-tickets mourn,
    He never ran to catch His train,
    But passed with coach and guard and horn —
    And left the local — late again!”
    Confound Romance!… And all unseen
    Romance brought up the nine-fifteen.

    His hand was on the lever laid,
    His oil-can soothed the worrying cranks,
    His whistle waked the snowbound grade,
    His fog-horn cut the reeking banks;
    By dock and deep and mine and mill
    The Boy-god reckless laboured still!

    Of course, steam trains and ships are romantic nowadays, and poets’ scorn is reserved for yet more recent products of technology.

  36. I confess I don’t understand that poem. Who is the Boy-god, and what is he doing with an oil-can?

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    When Kipling was good (which was often), he was very good indeed. He had the real ability to see beauty and significance underneath the everyday and familiar.

    The poem puts me in mind of a remark of Walter Savage Landor’s (which I came across in the introduction to Gordon’s Introduction to Old Norse):

    The Romans are the most anti-picturesque and anti-poetical people in the universe. No good poem ever was or ever will be written about them.

    … which tells you nothing about the Romans, but a lot about Landor’s want of imagination. (I suspect he knew better, to be fair.)

  38. Yes, Landor was (like me) a Hellenophile, and Hellenophiles and lovers of Rome are like Mets fans and Yankee fans — you can overcome the barriers to mutual understanding, but it takes work.

  39. John Cowan says

    That’s only a bit of the poem: follow the link. Romance, capitalized, is the personified spirit of romance, but we are also meant to understand that he is Cupid. The oil can is for oiling the train’s various parts to keep it running.

    I changed Banks to banks, as if the banks surrounding the track, but the glossators say it is a reference to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Shoulda left it alone….

  40. No, I read the whole thing, but it still seemed incoherent to me.

  41. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Many of the wealthy Romans in the classical period were Hellenophiles as well, and expected their sons to speak Greek properly — sending many of them off to Marseilles to learn it.

  42. Trond Engen says

    No, I read the whole thing, but it still seemed incoherent to me.

    The “Boy-god” reference is probably less obvious nowadays. Yet I took it.

    The poem tells how we always have been looking backwards to a past of truer colors. without the toils of the modern world. Then, from “Confound Romance”, he turns to tell how every litte bit of the modern world has the same potential for poetry. I don’t take the final line, though. My hunch was that it was a reference to a poem inspired by the steam engine, but googling “Our King was with us — yesterday!” only brings up Kipling.

  43. John Cowan says

    Just so. As for the last line, it means that poets (other than K) are taught to believe that Romance never exists in the present, only in the past.

  44. Trond Engen says


  45. Owlmirror says

    Re: Cargoes: “. . . and gold moidores”. Well, what’s moidores?

    Wikt: Portuguese moeda de ouro, literally “golden coin”.

    So gold coins of gold, then. I see.

    I also note that quinquiremes appear to have been Greek warships, not Assyrian merchant vessels.


    I must not be a romantic, because I read “ivory”, and all I can think is that many elephants would have been killed and had their teeth ripped from their mouths. Those apes and peacocks would have been miserable, cooped up in tiny cages, and probably seasick to boot.

    The Spanish one involves slavery and death of hundreds of thousands — millions? — of humans. And why is the galleon “stately”, rather than covered with barnacles and riddled with woodworms, while the coaster is explicitly “dirty”?

    Romanticism is just reimagining the past with the blood and shit magicked away.


    But it is a good poem, I grant that, if you close your eyes to historical accuracy and context.

  46. AJP Crown says

    You’re just judging Victorian cruelty and indifference by our standards, Owl Mirror. People care more about elephants nowadays than they did when Leopold II was plundering the Congo, but what about all the other animals (chickens, sheep, pigs, goats etc.) that are killed every day? Fish, birds. That’s what we’re closing our eyes to, really. Wm Blake wrote about it 200 yrs ago in Songs of Innocence & of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul of which ‘Tyger, Tyger, burning bright’ and ‘The Lamb’ (of God, vs of Sunday dinner) are the best known poems.

  47. David Marjanović says

    And why is the galleon “stately”, rather than covered with barnacles and riddled with woodworms, while the coaster is explicitly “dirty”?

    Because the barnacles are below the waterline and you can’t see the holes the woodworms made unless you come very close, while if the coaster has been in a few storms near a coast, it may have quite visible mud or kelp or whatever on the outside.

  48. Trond Engen says

    Romanticism is just reimagining the past with the blood and shit magicked away

    Oh, yes. That’s close to Kipling’s point, and I’m pretty sure it’s what Masefield is aiming at. His two first — “romantic” — verses are piles of evocative words out of time and place, and transparently so.

    Quinquireme — a Greek (or Mediterranean) warship invented in the 4th century BCE.

    of Nineveh — far up the Tigris, in ruins by the end of the 7th century BCE

    from distant Ophir — somewhere in India?

    The rest of the verse is mostly a recount of the biblical account of the imports from Ophir:

    Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
    With a cargo of ivory,
    And apes and peacocks,
    Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

    … though ivory and peacocks aren’t listed in the Bible, and cedarwood and white wine wouldn’t be brought back from India,

    Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
    Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
    — the Isthmus wouldn’t be the main origin, but probably just a broad-brush description.

    With a cargo of diamonds, — not from the Americas at the time of the galleons

    Emeralds — the emerald mines of Colombia were expolited by the Spaniards. OK,

    am[e]thysts — not at the time of the galleons

    Topazes — mostly mined locally in Europe until the 19th century

    and cinnamon, — from India and Ceylon

    and gold moidores. — not in significant amounts on a Spanish ship

  49. John Cowan says

    Songs of Innocence & of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul

    The poems that best illustrate the contrast are “Infant Joy” and “Infant Sorrow”, I think. Quoting them here I can’t give them the markup I deserve, so I have resuscitated my blog for the purpose.

  50. Rodger C says

    JC, something has happened to “Like a fiend hid in a cloud.”

  51. John Cowan says

    Thanks: sloppy pasting: fixed.

    I seem to remember hearing of both gold and silver modoires, but I can’t track it down. Not too surprising: the mines at Jáchymov yielded silver, yet there is such a thing as a gold dollar.

  52. Owlmirror says

    though ivory and peacocks aren’t listed in the Bible


    The first stanza of the poem is clearly referencing 1 Kings 10:22 (repeated in 2 Chronicles 9:21), where those items are mentioned.

    One translation — out of many — says that the word for peacocks, “tukki’im”, means “baboons”; one other one says “monkeys” (which seems rather unlikely even without the preponderance of “peacock” by other translators; the distinction between “(tailless) apes” and “(tailed) monkeys” is a modern one, and not even made by most languages).

    I see that one commentary suggests that the word translated as “ivory”, “shenhabim”, may be a mistake for “shen habnim”, “ivory [and] ebony”.

    Modern Hebrew uses the Arabic for peacock, “tawwas” (“tavvas”?).

  53. Trond Engen says


    Oh, right, sorry. I meant to remove that line, but I see I must have taken the one summing up at the end instead.

  54. John Cowan says

    Per Wiki.en s.v. “Ophir”, Smith’s Bible Dictionary (1863) says that the Biblical Hebrew words for ‘ivory’, ‘cotton cloth’, and ‘ape’ are borrowed from Old Tamil, and that the word for ‘peacock’ is likewise borrowed from the Old Tamil for ‘parrot’. This may well be worth nothing, but LH is probably the place to find out.

  55. Trond Engen says

    I’m thinking that King Solomon* became a member or a partner of the Phoenician/Canaanite trade network with special control of the overland route to the Red Sea and the sea route to Yemen and beyond, and that it’s no coincidence that this happened during Egypt’s 3rd Intermediate Period and Babylonia’s Period of Chaos.

    *) Or whichever historical and political entity that came to be identified with king Solomon in later accounts.

  56. @Trond Engen: I have long felt that the strongest evidence that David and Solomon were historical figures, and the Biblical accounts relatively accurate about their policies, is that the stories are so full of tawdry details. The narratives have an extremely pro-Davidic slant, yet they include all sorts of stories about how the kings were horrible people, which the try very hard to talk around. Compare those stories with the recorded exploits of a truly fictional dynast like Emperor Jimmy, and there is a vast difference.

  57. Trond Engen says

    I agree that they were likely historical figures. What I mean is that they were also legendary.. A king who was remembered as great would attract other memories of greatness in the general historical vicinity and might end up with more history attributed to him than he actually deserved.

  58. @Trond Engen: Certainly, I agree with that. It seems that the actual direction of causal inferences regarding King Solomon’s wisdom was not, Solomon was wise; therefore he built the temple, as given in the Biblical narrative; rather, the chain of implication was, Solomon built the temple; therefore he was wise.

    I also see autocorrect gave me “Emperor Jimmy” in my last post. That’s what I get for commenting on my phone.

  59. Trond Engen says

    When you said “truly fictional”, I thought you meant “truly fictional”.

    I actually thought he was from some part of popular culture I didn’t know.

  60. Stu Clayton says

    Emperor Jimmy just abdicated.

    # We know him as Akihito, the emperor of Japan, a gentle figure who championed peace in a nation devastated by war. But she called him Jimmy.

    It was the autumn of 1946, a year after the end of the Second World War, and he was a 12-year-old boy, the crown prince of a defeated land, sitting in an unheated classroom on the outskirts of Tokyo. There, a new American teacher insisted on a more prosaic name for his highness. His father, the wartime emperor, Hirohito, had been revered as a god, but she made clear he never would be.

    “In this class, your name is Jimmy,” declared the teacher, Elizabeth Gray Vining, a 44-year-old librarian and children’s book author from Philadelphia. #

  61. David Eddyshaw says

    yet they include all sorts of stories about how the kings were horrible people, which they try very hard to talk around


    I agree with your conclusion, but am not altogether persuaded by your argument: I think this is something characteristic of the Bible in general. The patriarchs are also presented in a very far from hagiographic light, for example. If I were going to invent some stories about my forebears, these are not the stories I would invent, to put it mildly. The warts-and-all treatment is by no means confined to the more marginal figures whose descendants weren’t writing the book: Jacob in particular is not what people nowadays would call a positive role model. Nor Judah, for that matter.

    (I should say that I myself believe that the patriarchs were historical, so for me personally that’s not a counterargument at all: but it pretty clearly would be a counterargument for most people.)

    Who was Emperor Jimmy before he got autocorrected?

  62. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah. Jimmu. Should have thought of that. Especially when prompted by Stu’s Japanese diversion.

  63. Stu Clayton says

    Nobody’s perfect. That’s why an admixture of imperfection makes any story more credible. It’s the principle of Realism in Westerns, and in forgeries of Old Masters.

    Whether a given story is true can’t be accurately judged by how believable it is. Sad but true (sic!). As Mr T wrote a couple of thousand years ago: most people don’t trouble to find out the truth, but accept the first story they hear.[Pel.W. 1.20]

  64. David Eddyshaw says

    On the other hand, some stories wear their falsehood on their sleeve by their evident impossibility. I doubt whether even the most gullible has ever believed that the Four Branches were a veritable account of pre-Christian Britain, for example. (The Mabinogion immediately sprang to mind in thinking of – let’s say – imperfect heroes.)

    Somewhere or other (JC will probably instantly locate it) I once read an article about how one attempts to tell science from pseudoscience in published articles in practice; IIRC the somewhat melancholy conclusion was that it had a rather worrying amount to do with style and presentation.

  65. Stu Clayton says

    That’s a start. If it stops there, it’s due to laziness, not science.

  66. David Eddyshaw says


    Come to think of it, Thucydides is a potential case in point. I recall another article pointing out that we are in fact rarely in a position to check his account, and when we can, he is surprisingly often wrong (the particular example was some case where archaeological evidence actually bore on the point in question, if I remember right.)

    But Thucydides’ style immediately gives him credibility. The anti-Herodotus.

  67. Stu Clayton says

    If truth were apparent, it would be only the appearance of truth.

    Cue hermetics, hermeneutics and the FBI.

  68. David Eddyshaw says

    The Tao that can be told …

  69. Stu Clayton says

    The upshot is that a little humbleness and forbearance are as effective as a tuxedo, if you can carry them off. Otherwise best stick with plus-fours.

  70. Bathrobe says

    Yes, Landor was (like me) a Hellenophile

    Does that partly account for the distaste for modern Greek nationalism?

  71. Unlike David, Solomon actually does come off as too-perfect, at least by the standards of his time.

  72. What I was struck by was that Solomon’s reign begins with a bloodbath. However, the narrative tries to give a justification for each grandee that he has executed. Either they violated some minor prohibition (in a manifestly pointless way), or Solomon was somehow justified in playing them false.

  73. I think killing people was fine as long as it was done for a reason. I don’t think any of that was held against Solomon.
    He was responsible for some naughty idolatry, but that’s all. People remember the big Temple, not the little ones. The Talmud even says that it wasn’t him, it was some of his wives who built those, and his only sin not stopping them.

  74. Does that partly account for the distaste for modern Greek nationalism?

    I don’t think so; I dislike nationalism in general.

  75. John Cowan says

    We know him as Akihito.

    Non-Japanese do. But no emperor is called anything but “His Majesty the Emperor” in Japan until after he is dead, and even then he’s called by his era name. (The exception is on Hirohito’s and Akihito’s marine biology papers.)

    The Tao that can be told …

    The route you can traverse
      isn’t a static route.
    The name you can dereference
      isn’t a universal name.

    Namelessness is the root of everything.
    Names are the mother of everything.

      the unchanging, seen from outside the box,
        reveals its inner nature;
      the unchanging, seen from inside the box,
        reveals its outer form.

    These two are alike in origin,
      but different in name.
    Their unity is called “the mystery”.

    Mystery of all mysteries,
      the gate to all wonders.

  76. Stu Clayton says

    Never have I seen such a to-do made about the lowly pointer.

  77. Stu Clayton says

    Unless you count semiotics, which is a to-do through and through.

  78. David Marjanović says

    The exception is on Hirohito’s and Akihito’s marine biology papers.

    Akihito had one in Nature a few years ago, under the pseudonym “His Majesty the Emperor of Japan”. Named 3 new fish species or something.

    Namelessness is the root of everything.
    Names are the mother of everything.

    “Money isn’t everything!
    But without money everything is nothing!”

  79. The route you can traverse
    isn’t a static route.
    The name you can dereference
    isn’t a universal name.

    OK, now I have to quote Boodberg:

    Lodehead lodehead-brooking : no forwonted lodehead;
    Namecall namecall-brooking : no forwonted namecall.
          Having-naught namecalling : Heaven-Earth’s fetation,
          Having-aught namecalling : Myriad Mottlings’ mother.

  80. As it happens, I knew Myriad Mottlings’ mother, and boy could she call names!

  81. ktschwarz says

    Speaking of punctuation changes, check out the X-Treme semicolons in one frequently cited text of “A Modest Proposal”:

    It is a melancholly Object to those, who walk through this great Town, or travel in the Country; when they see the Streets, the Roads, and Cabbin-doors crowded with Beggars of the Female Sex, followed by three, four, or six Children, all in Rags, and importuning every Passenger for an Alms. …

    … whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy Method of making these Children sound and useful Members of the Commonwealth; would deserve so well of the Publick, as to have his Statue set up for a Preserver of the Nation. …

    I shall now therefore humbly propose my own Thoughts; which I hope will not be liable to the least Objection.

    That’s from the 1735 edition of Swift’s collected Works, which is favored by literary critics because Swift supervised it (sort of), but all those semicolons are startling to me. They’re not even typical of the period: the original 1729 edition has commas in those places. I guess it was just that printer who had a heavy hand with semicolons. Now compare Project Gutenberg:

    It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms.

    Annoyingly, PG doesn’t say what edition they used, but it must have been something nineteenth-century; it’s very close to Walter Scott’s 1814 edition of The Works of Jonathan Swift. A striking demonstration of how printing conventions changed more from 1735 to 1814 than in the two centuries since — which is apparently news to Darmon et al. According to their web app, the 1729 edition of “A Modest Proposal” was written by Daniel Defoe, the 1735 edition by Alexandre Dumas (Dumas wrote in English? Who knew!), and the Project Gutenberg version by … Jonathan Swift! I think we can conclude what was in their training corpus.

    Other fine literature from Project Gutenberg includes “A Tale of a Tub” by Charles Dudley Warner and various selections from Gulliver’s Travels by Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and George Borrow.

  82. Good lord, their work is even more feckless than I thought.

  83. John Cowan says

    This essay from the PG wiki says quite clearly:

    Project Gutenberg has avoided requests, demands, and pressures to create “authoritative editions.” We do not write for the reader who cares whether a certain phrase in Shakespeare has a “:” or a “;” between its clauses. We put our sights on a goal to release etexts that are 99.9% accurate in the eyes of the general reader. Given the preferences your proofreaders have, and the general lack of reading ability the public is currently reported to have, we probably exceed those requirements by a significant amount. However, for the person who wants an “authoritative edition” we will have to wait some time until this becomes more feasible.

    In later prose that I can’t lay my hands on right now, they say that they make no attempt to make their texts conform to any specific printed edition. As for metadata, that’s a nightmare for everyone.

  84. Stu Clayton says

    Anyone who seriously wants an “authoritative edition”, and expects to find it at PG, cannot be serious in any serious sense of the word. The serious stuff is done elsewhere, to this day.

    Decades ago, I was suitably impressed by authors who developed a point by comparing, say, p 75 of the second and p 82 of the third edition of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft. And, to be honest, I also thought “who cares”. The first one counts, right ? Or maybe the last one ? Oh well …

    Now I have learned that there can be very interesting differences between various editions of a book – and that very fact means I myself have no use for the notion of “authoritative edition”.

    I thought I had read pretty much all of Luhmann (he died in 1998, for Pete’s sake), one central work being the 1984 Soziale Systeme which I have worked through several times. Then Systemtheorie der Gesellschaft was posthumously published about 2 years ago, another fat tome of his from around 1974. The topics are clearly related to those of Soziale Systeme. I read the editor’s essay comparing the two in a rough way, but I’m not hung up about the authoritative details. I read the book itself with more attention.

    I read Luhmann primarily because his ideas interest me enormously. I admire and respect the work that edition compilers and scholars do, but I’m a consumer.

  85. This essay from the PG wiki says quite clearly:

    I trust it was clear that my animadversions on fecklessness were aimed at Darmon et al., not at the estimable folks at Project Gutenberg, which of course does not aim at authoritativeness, nor should it. I am a frequent and grateful consumer of their wares.

  86. Stu Clayton says

    Me too. That’s why I got upset at finding access from Germany blocked

  87. John Cowan says

    Ah, no, I did think you meant to call the PG people feckless, perhaps ironically.

  88. Good lord. That would never occur to me.

  89. Trond Engen says

    I thought the same, but then I decided I’d probably lost some context.

  90. Trond Engen says

    Me (June 9 2019): I’m thinking that King Solomon* became a member or a partner of the Phoenician/Canaanite trade network with special control of the overland route to the Red Sea and the sea route to Yemen and beyond, and that it’s no coincidence that this happened during Egypt’s 3rd Intermediate Period and Babylonia’s Period of Chaos.

    Poking around for more on Central Asian civilizations from the Nicole thread, I found this brand new, very cool-looking paper about extracting proteins from human dental calculus. They find that Megiddo and nearby Tell Erani imported turmeric, soybeans, and probably bananas, in the 2nd millennium BCE, evidence of early trade on the Indian Ocean. The turmeric and soybeans were found in calculus from an elite grave (advanced calculus?) from the early-mid 2nd millennium, while the banana proteins were found in a regular grave (elementary calculus) from around the turn of the millennium.

    Scott et al: Exotic foods reveal contact between South Asia and the Near East during the second millennium BCE, PNAS 2020.


    Here we report the identification of staple and exotic food remains in Bronze and Early Iron Age dental calculus from the Southern Levant. The analysis of dietary plant microremains and proteins sheds new light on consumed exotic foods from South and East Asia during the second millennium BCE. We provide the earliest direct evidence in the Mediterranean to date for the consumption of sesame, soybean, probable banana, and turmeric. The recovery and identification of diverse foodstuffs using molecular and microscopic techniques enables a new understanding of the complexity of early trade routes and nascent globalization in the ancient Near East and raises questions about the long-term maintenance and continuity of this trade system into later periods.


    Although the key role of long-distance trade in the transformation of cuisines worldwide has been well-documented since at least the Roman era, the prehistory of the Eurasian food trade is less visible. In order to shed light on the transformation of Eastern Mediterranean cuisines during the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, we analyzed microremains and proteins preserved in the dental calculus of individuals who lived during the second millennium BCE in the Southern Levant. Our results provide clear evidence for the consumption of expected staple foods, such as cereals (Triticeae), sesame (Sesamum), and dates (Phoenix). We additionally report evidence for the consumption of soybean (Glycine), probable banana (Musa), and turmeric (Curcuma), which pushes back the earliest evidence of these foods in the Mediterranean by centuries (turmeric) or even millennia (soybean). We find that, from the early second millennium onwards, at least some people in the Eastern Mediterranean had access to food from distant locations, including South Asia, and such goods were likely consumed as oils, dried fruits, and spices. These insights force us to rethink the complexity and intensity of Indo-Mediterranean trade during the Bronze Age as well as the degree of globalization in early Eastern Mediterranean cuisine.

    And here’s the Jerusalem Post reporting on the find: Sweet-toothed Canaanites imported exotic food to Israel 3,600-years ago

  91. David Marjanović says

    That’s bananas.

    (Well, probably bananas.)

  92. Trond Engen says

    The word banana is said to have come to Spanish and Portuguese from Wolof. How did it get there?

  93. @Trond Engen: While bananas are native to southeast Asia, there is evidence of their presence as a foodstuff in Africa as much as four thousand years ago.

  94. Trond Engen says

    Eastern Africa wouldn’t surprise me at all, but Wolof?

  95. Trond Engen says

    Ane Happy New Year (CET)!

  96. David Eddyshaw says

    Wiktionary hazards the guess that the Wolof word is borrowed from Arabic.


    My daughter used a broken plural binanaana when she was a little girl in Ghana …

    In Kusaal “banana” is kɔdʋ, which is a loan from Twi kwadu; the word looks pretty indigenous in Twi itself. Bananas grow all over the place in southern Ghana.

  97. Trond Engen says

    David E.: Wiktionary hazards the guess that the Wolof word is borrowed from Arabic

    That looks pretty obvious, and now I wonder why the English Wiktionary article doesn’t tell. Still, for the Portuguese to have borrowed the Wort from Wolof, the Sachen must have reached Westernmost Africa through the Arab cultural sphere quite early, without the fruit crossing the Mediterranean. I somehow find it more likely that Portuguese got the word somewhere in the Indian Ocean and gave it to Wolof along with the fruit. But if the banana really did spread to West Africa before modern European seafaring, it’s extremely interesting.

  98. David Eddyshaw says

    Most Western Oti-Volta languages borrow “banana” from Twi, like Kusaal, but Mooré has, beside banande (back-formation from banana taken as a plural) also yaba “banana tree”, which must be from the Hausa àyàbà “banana”; I’ve no idea where that comes from, but it has to be a loanword on phonological grounds.

  99. banaana<banān(a)

    The Wolof and Dutch are better phoonologists than 3arabists.

    (P.S. I hate the macron)

  100. Trond Engen says

    The banana family (Musaceae) consists of three genera, banana proper (Musa), Chinese dwarf banana (Musella), and ensete (Ensete). Ensete consists of some six or seven species, two or three in Asia.

    Borrell et al: Enset in Ethiopia: a poorly characterized but resilient starch staple, Annals of Botany, Volume 123, Issue 5, 11 April 2019, aims to summarize the current scientific consensus: Of the four African species of ensete, one, the enset (E ventricosum), is growing wild across East Africa and is also cultivated and grown as a staple food in southern Ethiopia. Another (E. gilletii or E. livingstonianum is growing wild in West Africa. E. homblei is poorly documented and only known from a few spots in Southeast Congo — and the family tree in the article seems to suggest that it belongs within E. ventricosum. E. perrieri is restricted to Madagascar, where it seems to be endangered, but it’s also said to be close to E. glaucum of Southeast Asia. It’s not shown in the family tree, probably for lack of genetic samples.

    Could it be that local names for E. livingstonianum was transferred to the banana when the Europeans brought it to West Africa?

    It’s been suggested based on depictions in art that the enset was known to the Egyptians. If so, it does not take a leap of imagination to suggest that it was also imported to Canaan.

    The distribution of E. ventricosum might suggest that it used to be grown more widely, but that it has been supplanted (ha!) in the central region around the East African lakes by banana cultivars arriving around 2000 years ago. It could itself conceivably be an older transplant (ha!) to Africa across the Indian Ocean, but that’s harder to argue for the West African species E. livingstonianum, and according.to the tree the two African species are closer to eachother than to any of the Asian species. Note, however, that cross-pollination and hybridization seem to be very common, as shown by the suggested family tree on the Asian side, so apparent bifurcation may be as much a result of geographic separation in recent times as actual genetic descent.

  101. David Eddyshaw says

    Could it be that local names for E. livingstonianum was transferred to the banana when the Europeans brought it to West Africa?

    Seems very plausible on first principles. though so far I haven’t managed to find a word for “banana” in the dictionaries that also means some other plant. On the other hand, most field linguists are not very clued up about fine distinctions in botany, so that doesn’t prove much.

    I wondered about “plantain”, but that’s a different word altogether in Twi, ɔbrɔde, which is literally “European yam.” That word too is borrowed into the Western Oti-Volta languages. (I don’t think plantains are indigenous to West Africa either, anyhow.)

    Ewe has akɔɖu, which is evidently the same word as in Twi, perhaps loaned; Yoruba has ọ̀gẹ̀dẹ̀, for which the dictionaries again only give “banana.”

  102. David Eddyshaw says

    Adamawa Fulfulde has konndoŋ “banana”, which is interesting, as that is hardly likely to be a loan from Twi, but looks as if it is probably connected with the Twi form kwadu. If the etymon turned up in Hausa it would all make sense, but it doesn’t seem to. Ewe/Fon doesn’t seem a plausible source for the word, but I suppose it depends on just where in West Africa banana cultivation first took off. Clearly a case for ROGER BLENCH*.

    To confuse matters further, Hausa àgàdè “plantain”, which (like àyàbà) has to be a loanword because of its phonology, looks like it must be borrowed from Yoruba ọ̀gẹ̀dẹ̀ “banana.”

    *And (wouldn’t you know it?) he’s been there, done that:


    (Apparently plantains have been around for quite a while in West Africa after all.)

  103. Just to clarify, Ethiopian enset is not really cultivated for its fruit, but primarily for its roots—although the two parts can be harvested at the same time, since Ensete ventricosum is monocarpic. (The heart corpus can also apparently be eated.)

  104. Trond Engen says

    The plantains are within the general range of banana cultivars, i.e. mostly sterile hybrids and polyploids of Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana, It seems that “cooking bananas” have been more important than “eating bananas” in most of their range and history of cultivation.

    I haven’t looked at the Blench paper yet. I’m still finding interesting stuff in Borrell et al.

  105. David Marjanović says

    My daughter used a broken plural binanaana when she was a little girl in Ghana …

    I am in awe.

    And Ghana is so far from the plural-breaking mountains of Oman

  106. Trond Engen says

    Just to clarify, Ethiopian enset is not really cultivated for its fruit, but primarily for its roots—although the two parts can be harvested at the same time, since Ensete ventricosum is monocarpic. (The heart corpus can also apparently be eated.)

    True, but it’s still a possible source of banana-like proteins in the Near East.

    That the fruit was not eaten may mean it would be less likely as the source of names for the banana fruit, but still likely if the banana was imported as plants. Borrell et al does say:

    It has been suggested that this ancient care of Ensete in Africa contributed to the rapid and widespread adoption of the bananas arriving from Asia, with the oldest names relating to banana apparently derived from those in use for Ensete (Langhe et al., 1994).

    I can’t find [de] Langhe et al., 1994 online, only references to it (De Langhe E, Swennen R, Vuylsteke D. 1994. Plantain in the early Bantu world. Azania 29–30: 147–160.). One of those is this paper, with Edmond de Langhe on the list of authors:

    Perrier et al: East African diploid and triploid bananas: a genetic complex transported from South-East Asia, Annals of Botany, Volume 123, Issue 1, 1 January 2019, I quote:

    Some convincing linguistic elements

    Ultimately, linguistics remains at present the most informative approach. It seems acknowledged that the first Bantu populations who arrived from the West/Central African forest zone at the turn of our era did not know banana, as none of the banana-related terms has a root in the ancestral Bantu languages. For example, in Chagga languages none of the words for banana belong to the Bantu family and have thus all been borrowed, no doubt since early times because they have mostly followed the evolutionary rules of Bantu words, whereas terms relative to sweet potato or tobacco, introduced more recently, did not (Philippson, 2007). The oldest names relative to banana seem to derive from those already used for Ensete. Ensete, which is still widely cultivated in Ethiopia, once formed a veritable ‘Ensete belt’ in East Africa (De Langhe et al., 1994), of which relicts can still be seen in altitudinal places down to the Usambara Hills, and was used as a food in times of scarcity. The plant maintains a profound cultural significance all over East Africa. For instance, among the Chaggas of Kilimanjaro, it is an attribute of power strictly reserved for the garden of the chief (Montlahuc and Philippson, 2003). It has been suggested that this ancient care of Ensete in Africa contributed to the rapid and widespread adoption of the bananas arriving from Asia (De Langhe et al., 1994).

    The comparative analysis of the vocabulary in the different Great Lakes languages led Schoenbrun (1993) to suggest that the initial stages of AAA cooking/beer banana growing took place on the East African coast during the first half of the first millennium. The Bantu-speaking peoples who settled in the region at the turn of our era then incorporated banana into their cropping system. Banana cultivation then crossed the obstacle of the Eastern Rift and reached Lake Victoria before the end of the first millennium. It then spread westwards and southwards in the following centuries, in the Great Lakes zone, as attested for example by the creation of entirely new terms for banana by the Rutaran-speaking peoples, in northern Tanzania, between Rwanda and Lake Victoria. The major development of banana cultivation, hence its cultural weight, is then reflected in the enrichment of the dedicated vocabulary. These terms are specific to the different languages and therefore were innovated after the divergence of those languages, so they can be dated for the Great Lakes region to the period circa AD 1200–1500. However, the greatest diversification of the vocabulary occurs post-15th century in Buganda, even more recently, as we have seen, in Rwanda and Burundi, and is no doubt still going on. Today, this scenario is often accepted with slightly earlier dates (Stephens, 2015). However, one cannot rule out that bananas arrived prior to the settlement of the Bantu populations on the coast of East Africa and were early adopted by local populations, such as the Vakinongos of Chagga legends.

    Dissemination pathways of the EAB complex in Africa

    While genetic diversity is broad east of the East Rift valley, it is drastically reduced to the AAA Mutika alone in the Great Lakes zone. This filter does not appear to come from particular ecological constraints and the adaptive capacity of both the AAs and the AAAs has already been highlighted. It seems rather to be down to the history of the concerned societies, with partial isolation between the coastal zone and the hinterland (Chami, 1994).

    The pathways of movement westwards are still disputed. The legend of Kintu would seem to indicate an arrival in Buganda, with later dissemination to the edges of the Congo, via the north of Lake Victoria, from Mount Elgon. A pathway via the South is also suggested based on linguistic arguments (Karamura, 1999). ‘Tooke’, the general word for Mutika bananas in Uganda, is found in a broad corridor through western Tanzania and northern Malawi and reaches the Tanzanian coast via the Ruvuma valley, where ‘Tooke’ covers more than just the AAA Mutika subgroup.

    The place of introduction into continental Africa might be indicated by the term ‘Huti’, which designates ‘bananas cooked with their skins’ and is used for the AA Mchare subgroup by the Shambaa- and Bondei-speaking Bantu, respectively, on the Usambara Hills and on the lowland area to the coast (De Langhe et al., 2001). This term is a reflex of the Malayo-Polynesian *punti for ‘banana’, widespread in central/eastern Indonesia (Donohue and Denham, 2009). Similarly, ‘hontsy’ and ‘fontsy’, other reflexes from *punti, are used for ‘banana’ in many parts of Madagascar (Beaujard, 2017).

    More in the paper.

  107. OK, how is ensete pronounced? OED (not updated since 1933) says /ɛnˈsiːtiː/, Webster’s Third (1961) says /ˈɛnsət/.

  108. Trond Engen says

    Wiktionary follows Webster’s:


    From Ge’ez እንሰት (inset, “the false banana Ensete ventricosum; ensete”).


    (Received PronunciationGeneral American) IPA: /ˈɛnsət/

    Quoted mainly for the Ge’ez.

  109. David Eddyshaw says


    That actually reads ʔenset, where the e was probably [ɨ]; same vowel in both syllables, anyway. (It’s the vowel which results from the falling together of Proto-Semitic short /i/ and /u/.)

  110. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to say /ˈɛnsət/ you should write “enset.” And if you’re going to write “ensete” you should say /ˈɛnsi:t/ or (if you want to be posh) /ɛnˈsiːtiː/. English orthography is weird, but there’s no need to make it weirder than it has to be.

  111. Trond Engen says

    Since this thread probably already is a huge part of the English corpus of ensetica, maybe we get to decide? We can use enset or even insit. The existing literature seems to use ensete and enset interchangeably, though maybe the former more often for the genera and the latter more for the East African species.

  112. David Eddyshaw says

    Presumably ensete is Latinised. I see that it’s neuter, like rete.

    Conceivably there was a confusion due to the fact that the Ethiopic syllabary uses the e-series symbols for syllable-closing consonants, so that the proper reading can depend on recognising the correct word structure, or indeed on just knowing the actual word already. It doesn’t mark gemination either: its occurrence in Ge’ez is largely deduced from the oral reading tradition.

  113. Trond Engen says

    But I doubt the word was borrowed from Ge’ez (another word with two yers, incidentally). The 18C or 19C naturalists who first described the plant must have learned its name from a living speaker.

  114. David Eddyshaw says

    True enough; but there are a lot of Ge’ez loanwords in Amharic, for example. Whether “banana” is a likely candidate for borrowing from the High Tongue is a bit moot, I must admit. I don’t recall many passages about bananas in the scriptures or the early Fathers …

    Incidentally, according to Lambdin’s grammar, the name of the people (the language being Lesāna Geʕz) was Geʕz, i.e. CVCC, though I must confess I’m not altogether clear on how you could be sure of this point.

  115. Stu Clayton says

    I don’t recall many passages about bananas in the scriptures or the early Fathers …

    Nor about underwear, if memory serves. You don’t suppose … ?!

  116. Trond Engen says

    I just read a Norwegian science news story on this. It claims, presumably following the background section of the study, that bananas have been found in 3500 year old Egyptian graves. If that is correct, early trade in bananas is already established, and what this new study does is provide evidence that (a) it was more than a one-off novelty at the Egyptian court, and (b) the inland city of Megiddo was involved in this long distance trade.

  117. David Eddyshaw says



    “Banana” seems to be muz.

  118. David Eddyshaw says

    … which is presumably borrowed from Arabic.


    Fig leaves.

  119. David Eddyshaw says

    The Arabic word is in turn from Middle Persian mōz


    I must say I’m not taken with the idea that Wolof banaana has anything to do with Arabic. Blench has a table of Mande and Atlantic words for “banana” (p372) which look more or less like “banana”, but I would have thought that the default hypothesis would be that they are all from French, or indeed from Portuguese if they’re a bit older than that (which is in fact what Blench implies.)

    Come to that, Portuguese strikes me as way more likely than any West African language for the source of the European words. The Larousse French etymological dictionary straightforwardly says that banane is from the Portuguese banana; it does go on to say “du sous-sou de Guinée”, but the more I think about it the more likely it seems to me that the “banana” etymon got to West Africa via Portuguese, not vice versa*, and that the Portuguese themselves picked it up Way Out East. Somewhere.

    *There are quite a lot of ultimately-Portuguese loanwords in West African languages, so this is really not an improbable scenario at all on first principles. Even Kusaal has adaka “box” (from arca, via Hausa) and saafi “key” (from chave, via Twi), and coastal West African languages have a good few more.

  120. It claims, presumably following the background section of the study, that bananas have been found in 3500 year old Egyptian graves.

    I tried to find anything about this and failed. But I learned that the variant of Fusarium wilt dangerous for modern banana cultivars has finally reached Latin America.

  121. The Jerusalem Post article states that “vanilla” was found as well. Since vanilla is a New World plant, this was more than a little surprising. However, the actual paper says “vanillin”. This still seemed like a somewhat extraordinary claim, but it references an interesting paper, First evidence for vanillin in the old world: Its use as mortuary offering in Middle Bronze Canaan (Researchgate has a PDF) which explains.

    The contents of juglets in Megiddo (from the Middle Bronze III period (ca. 1650–1550 BCE)) were analyzed. Some contained the following aromatic compounds: 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde, vanillin and acetonvanillone.

    The paper discusses different old world sources, such as aromatic resins, which might have some of these compounds, but could be eliminated in favor of the vanilla orchid because they either don’t have all of the chemicals, or have strong additional signature chemicals which were not detected.

    While the specific vanilla species used today (Vanilla planifolia) is a New World plant, different species of Vanilla orchids are known to exist elsewhere, both aromatic and non-aromatic. Some aromatic species are known to be in east Africa and southeast Asia, and are even used by the local peoples. The paper suggests that the various species of vanilla orchid may well have dispersed (“by vicariance events” ¹) before the breakup of Gondwanaland, rather than by origin in Indo-Malaysia and spreading east and west by long-distance dispersal.

    (I imagined the plants could have gone from Africa to South America in the same sort of events that brought monkeys to the New World, but the paper says that the phylogeny says otherwise.)

    So it is indeed reasonable that someone in Africa or Asia had a vanilla orchid close enough in aroma to the current known South American vanilla orchid to send it via trade networks to Egypt and the rest of the Near East in the Bronze Age.

    1: vicariance: (biology) The separation of a group of organisms by a geographic barrier, resulting in differentiation of the original group into new varieties or species.
    (geology) The geological event which produces such a barrier (volcano, earthquake, etc)

  122. I’m thinking that King Solomon* [ …]

    *) Or whichever historical and political entity that came to be identified with king Solomon in later accounts.

    I understood that according to Israel Finkelstein, everything ¹ archeological attributed to “Solomon” was actually produced by the Omride dynasty of Israel.

    Everything that isn’t archeological was probably confabulated.

    I note that Finkelstein is in fact a co-author on the linked papers (that is, the paper about dental calculus analysis, and the earlier paper about the vanillin detected in the juglets), which is unsurprising since he is one of the directors of the archeological seasonal digs at Megiddo.


    1: I checked WikiP to see if there was anything supporting a Solomonic kingdom, and I was unimpressed. Some silver was found in different locations in the ANE, therefore, the silver was part of Solomon’s Empire? Backwards reasoning.

  123. the plants could have gone from Africa to South America in the same sort of events that brought monkeys to the New World

    For which see, eg,
    CHAPTER 10
    How Did Platyrrhine Ancestors Get There?
    of New World Monkeys: The Evolutionary Odyssey by Alfred L. Rosenberger.


    The Transatlantic route is not the preferred scenario:

    The Transatlantic Scenario is a far-fetched idea built upon an extensive, intricate set of flimsy, implausible assumptions. As with any scenario, because there is no way to test it with hard data, the only way to evaluate its importance for platyrrhine origins is to judge its reasonableness, based on its own merits and with respect to a competing scenario. In this light, it seems much less valuable than the Americas Scenario, which does not introduce a galaxy of unnatural life-threatening circumstances, and unnaturally good luck, along the way to South America.

  124. Trond Engen says

    So I’ve read the Blench paper. I agree that the Banana words are likely to have been brought from the Indian Ocean by the Portuguese along with new types of banana. The 16C Malabar trade word palana seems like a promising candidate, but without an understanding of its etymology, it could just as well be borrowed through Portuguese from the same unknown source,

    As for his identification of terms or morphemes used for various forms of Musaceae, they are not meant to be any more than rough groupings for the sake of overview, and it takes a better understanding than mine of the patterns of borrowing between the languages to even start evaluating them on an individual level, but even if not all of them will turn out to be related, the general pattern is suggestive of multiple old Wanderwörter, which in turn is suggestive of a long and complex history of domestication. Exactly how old is another matter, and ultimately one to be answered by natural science. The evidence for the age of banana/plantain cultivation in any part of Africa is still inconclusive, but if extraction of proteins from dental calculus now becomes part of the standard procedure for investigation of human remains, the potential for increased understanding of human history is huge, and even more if it’s combined with isotope analysis. I’d also think they’d be able to identify proteins from germs, but that doesn’t seem to be part of the current study from Megiddo,

    I saw the mention of vanilla from a previous study but obviously didn’t pay attention. I’ll read that paper now.

  125. John Emerson says

    Coming in late, and this may have been said above, but there’s strong evidence for prehistoric sea trade between the west coast of India and East Africa. Because of the regularity of the winds, easterly one part of the year and westerly the other part, the round trip is not that hard after the first time.

  126. different species of Vanilla orchids are known to exist elsewhere, both aromatic and non-aromatic.

    Rhipsalis is found as pendulous epiphyte in tropical rainforests, some species may also grow epilithic or, rarely, terrestrial.The genus is found widely in Central America, parts of the Caribbean and a great part of northern and central South America. The center of diversity of Rhipsalis lies in the rainforests of the Mata Atlantica in southeastern Brazil. It is found throughout the New World, and additionally in tropical Africa, Madagascar and Sri Lanka. It is the only cactus with a natural occurrence outside the New World.


  127. David Marjanović says

    the phylogeny says otherwise

    And indeed, the paper claims on p. 81: “Vanillinae lineage evolved prior to the breakup of Gondwana (160 mya) in South America.”

    I have to say this looks like utter nonsense. The whole group of flowering plants isn’t that old; it barely reaches beyond 130 Ma! And they want this tiny, highly nested subgroup at the very beginning of the Late Jurassic? That was barely defensible back in 2000 (the date of what seems to be their source), and definitely isn’t 20 years later.

    It’s also hard to imagine that a lineage of “terrestrial forest climbing vines” (still p. 81) survived when the forests all burnt down at the end of the Cretaceous “just” 66 Ma ago. The “terrestrial forest climbing” clades of frogs and birds alive today are all younger than that.

    I can offer a third option, though: a pantropical distribution in the Eocene, when the tropics reached into Canada, with overseas dispersal from North to South America.

    The Transatlantic Scenario is a far-fetched idea built upon an extensive, intricate set of flimsy, implausible assumptions. As with any scenario, because there is no way to test it with hard data, the only way to evaluate its importance for platyrrhine origins is to judge its reasonableness, based on its own merits and with respect to a competing scenario. In this light, it seems much less valuable than the Americas Scenario, which does not introduce a galaxy of unnatural life-threatening circumstances, and unnaturally good luck, along the way to South America.

    I can’t see where that quote is from, but the page linked above contains this:

    New World Monkeys provides a dramatic picture of the sixteen living genera of New World monkeys and a fossil record that shows that their ancestors have lived in the same ecological niches for up to 20 million years—only to now find themselves imperiled by the extinction crisis. Rosenberger also challenges the argument that these primates originally came to South America from Africa by floating across the Atlantic on a raft of vegetation some 45 million years ago. He explains that they are more likely to have crossed via a land bridge that once connected Western Europe and Canada at a time when many tropical mammals transferred between the northern continents.

    How is that “more likely” when there are no fossils of monkeys whatsoever in Europe or North America in the period in question? The fossil record of North America of those times is very dense and very well known, and the primates end there with the lonely non-monkey Ekgmowechashala.

    And has Rosenberger completely forgotten about the New World rodents, which show the exact same problem – they show up in the Oligocene of South America in a savanna-like setting together with the first New World monkeys (which were rather terrestrial; there wasn’t that much forest in South America at the time), and their closest relatives, too, were in Africa, not so much in Europe and not at all in North America.

    I would not be surprised if the rodents and the primates made it across the South Atlantic on the same natural raft. It only had to work once in tens of millions of years.

    Consider the birds, too. We now have hoatzins and even terror birds from Africa, and the oldest hummingbirds are European.

  128. And has Rosenberger completely forgotten about the New World rodents

    He has not.

    Considering that the entry of platyrrhines into South America was a singular event that involved no more than two groups of mammals, that is, primates and rodents, if indeed they did come together, we know that the route of the Americas Scenario did not involve a continuous long-distance corridor as a last leg that broadly afforded direct land connections and widespread faunal interchange. Otherwise, many groups of mammals would have entered at the same time. The primates must have been constrained geophysically by filtering effects. Undoubtedly, there were water barriers that temporarily checked range expansion and the animals would have been blocked until those were passable, which could easily have happened several times at different places. This would have weeded out less flexible species of mammals as the fauna was on the move, tracking the spreading habitat. The same factors would have applied to rodents, if they arrived simultaneously or a few million years earlier, which is beginning to seem likely based on recent discoveries of South American rodent fossils.

  129. The Tel Dan inscription seems relevant to a Solomonic empire though hardly conclusive. Some believe the letters Byt Dvd refer to what is otherwise referenced as the House of Mrjnvc

  130. Some believe the letters Byt Dvd refer to what is otherwise referenced as the House of Mrjnvc

    Some say the reference is rather to the House of ‘Dyshw.

  131. Vanilla: This looks like a response to the Gondwanaland hypothesis.

    Evidence of transoceanic dispersion of the genus Vanilla based on plastid DNA phylogenetic analysis


    The phylogeny and the biogeographical history of the genus Vanilla was investigated using four chloroplastic genes (psbB, psbC; psaB and rbcL), on 47 accessions of Vanilla chosen from the ex situ CIRAD collection maintained in Reunion Island and additional sequences from GenBank. Bayesian methods provided a fairly well supported reconstruction of the phylogeny of the Vanilloideae sub-family and more particularly of the genus Vanilla. Three major phylogenetic groups in the genus Vanilla were differentiated, which is in disagreement with the actual classification in two sections (Foliosae and Aphyllae) based on morphological traits. Recent Bayesian relaxed molecular clock methods allowed to test the two main hypotheses of the phylogeography of the genus Vanilla. Early radiation of the Vanilla genus and diversification by vicariance consecutive to the break-up of Gondwana, 95 million years ago (Mya), was incompatible with the admitted age of origin of Angiosperm. Based on the Vanilloideae age recently estimated to 71 million years ago (Mya), we conclude that the genus Vanilla would have appeared ∼34 Mya in South America, when continents were already separated. Nevertheless, whatever the two extreme scenarios tested, at least three long distance migration events are needed to explain the present distribution of Vanilla species in tropical areas. These transoceanic dispersions could have occurred via transoceanic passageway such as the Rio Grande Ridge and the involvement of floating vegetation mats and migratory birds.

    I seem to remember reading about a paper, quite a few years ago, that flowering plants arose much earlier than originally thought, based on pollen analysis, I think? But I guess it wasn’t that compelling to most botanists.

  132. I just want to point out the oddity of the phrase “the turn of our era” in the Perrier, et al. quote.

  133. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve come across that expression quite often, meaning (of course) “since 1 AD.” It strikes me as fairly ordinary.

    Surely it’s no more (or less) objectionable than AD/BC?

    Of course, if English properly distinguished inclusive from exclusive first person plural …

  134. John Cowan says

    My daughter used a broken plural binanaana when she was a little girl in Ghana.

    “I know how to spell ‘banana’! I just don’t know when to stop!”

  135. There’s a potential limerick somewhere with Ghana and banana (where the two rhyme). I am not interested in composing or reading it.

  136. [Vanilla, cont:] Orchid historical biogeography, diversification, Antarctica and the paradox of orchid dispersal

    Orchidaceae is the most species‐rich angiosperm family and has one of the broadest distributions. Until now, the lack of a well‐resolved phylogeny has prevented analyses of orchid historical biogeography. In this study, we use such a phylogeny to estimate the geographical spread of orchids, evaluate the importance of different regions in their diversification and assess the role of long‐distance dispersal (LDD) in generating orchid diversity.
    Orchids appear to have arisen in Australia 112 Ma (95% higher probability distribution: 102.0–120.0 Ma), then spread to the Neotropics via Antarctica by 90 Ma (HPD: 79.7–99.5 Ma), when all three continents were in close contact and apostasioids split from the ancestor of all other orchids. Ancestors of vanilloids, cypripedioids and orchidoids+epidendroids appear to have originated in the Neotropics 84–64 Ma. Repeated long‐ and short‐distance dispersal occurred through orchid history: stochastic mapping identified a mean total of 74 LDD events or 0.8 Ma−1. Across orchid history, Southeast Asia was the most important source and maximally accelerated net diversification; across epidendroids, the Neotropics maximally accelerated diversification.

  137. Is “banana” an intrinsically funny word?

  138. David Eddyshaw says

    Certainly (though not as funny as “plinth.”)

  139. I’d like to order one banana plinth, please… What?! What?! What’s so funny?!

  140. David Marjanović says

    The Rio Grande Ridge and its counterpart on the African side, the Walvis Ridge, have occasionally been implicated in Eocene/Oligocene dispersal between South America and Africa. They may have come close to forming a landbridge at times.

    Is “banana” an intrinsically funny word?

    Yes, when the Vikings get involved.

    Thanks to geothermal heating, bananas have become an important part of the agriculture of Iceland. Banana is stressed on the first syllable and masculine, and its plural is bönunur [ˈpœnʏnʏr]!

  141. David Eddyshaw says

    Wouldn’t sg -a pl -ur suggest a weak feminine noun?

    This suggests banani (pl bananar)


    as too (for what it is worth) does Google Translate.
    I don’t recall the word from the sagas, however. My Modern Icelandic is … limited.

  142. David Eddyshaw says

    It does make the dative plural bönunum, though.

    My daughter gave up on Old Norse exactly because of this sort of thing (“all the verbs are irregular!”) I have suggested she take up Old Irish instead …

  143. banani indeed. Class 1 weak masculine noun. Singular accusative with suffixed article bananann, plural ditto bananana, genitive plural ditto banananna.

  144. [Y may skip]

    A Dutch stripper performed in Ghana
    Peeling while peeling a banana
    The edge of his heel
    Slipped on the peel
    And he moaned, “This would never happen with a plantain!”

    A noble poet from Bahrain
    Loved the verse form of the quatrain
    Noble rhymes she composed
    From noble thoughts that arose
    Except that sometimes she just went bananas.

  145. Back in the day, people got bananished for less.

  146. between the west coast of India and East Africa.

    But where is India?

    De Langhe and Blench do not mention it other than in connetion to the Portuguese (Blench has only “Curiously, some of the Muṇḍā languages in NE India have konDoG for ‘plantain’.”, and it is curious indeed).

    De Langhe in a chapter not referenced in this thread has:
    “The first group is that of the AAB plantains with great diversity in rainforests: Africa and probably also in South India.” (emphasis mine).

  147. De Langhe in a chapter not referenced in this thread has

    de Langhe, Edmond & de Maret, Pierre (2004). “Tracking the banana: its significance in early agriculture”. In Hather, Jon G. (ed.). The Prehistory of Food: Appetites for Change.

    It is the source of a picture with A and B wild banana species’ ranges. The original also contained estimated range for Musa acuminata banksii, discussed in Perrier at al.:

    His range of M. acuminata ssp. banksii is Philippines, PNG, Molucca islands and Cape York peninsula.

    Borneo (with adjacent Palawan), the weirdly shaped island of Sulawesi (with Molucca islands Sula and Buru) and Timor (with adjacent Wetar) are to the west of his line.
    The e-book can be found here.

  148. John Emerson says

    Sulawesi / Celebes looks like it should be the symbol of an occult religious movement, or perhaps a terrorist group.

  149. Trond Engen says

    The Celebrity cult (Sulawirataya).

  150. Trond Engen says

    Y: There’s a potential limerick somewhere with Ghana and banana (where the two rhyme). I am not interested in composing or reading it.

    A wise judgment. However:

    There was a young lady from Ghana
    who would venture to ride a banana.
    They came back from the ride
    with the fruit all inside
    and the lady approaching nirvana.

    (It’s about eating. I wish I could come up with something more risqué.)

  151. Trond Engen says

    drasvi: De Langhe in a chapter not referenced in this thread

    Interesting. Did you have a working link?

    An interesting effect of cloning and vegetatitve propagation is that it should, at least in principle, be possible to draw family trees of all breeds of plantain and cultivated banana. With family trees also for water yam and taro, the three together making up the tropical food kit (Blench following Murdock 1959), one might be able to point out a likely point of origin (or point of assembly) of all three. But it would a lot more sampling, also on the Asian side of the sea.

  152. David Marjanović says

    Ah. I seem to have trusted a third-hand source about Icelandic.

    exactly because of this sort of thing

    I recommend the Umlautvergleich paper. Umlaut in Icelandic is very strictly historical; it’s easy to see that it was a phonological phenomenon once because most of the umlaut triggers are still there. English and Dutch have eliminated it apart from a few fossilized words, German and especially Luxembourgeois have morphologized it to the point of obscuring its phonological history very thoroughly.

  153. There’s a potential limerick somewhere

    Not to mention a haiku:

    His disciples built him a rustic hut and planted a Japanese banana tree (芭蕉, bashō) in the yard, giving Bashō a new haigō and his first permanent home.

    松尾 芭蕉

  154. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    the plural-breaking mountains of Oman…

    I wasn’t aware of this (how ignorant can one be and still be allowed to post here?). However, it does seem to be a bit more straightforward than plural formation in Welsh.

  155. John Cowan says

    I think banana is much funnier among the TRAP/BATH splitters than among the rest of us.

  156. David Marjanović says

    a bit more straightforward

    And so beautifully extensible.

    film – ‘aflaam
    bank – bunuuk


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