Modern Cosmetic Science

Unveiling Beauty's Tech Frontier: Exploring the Latest Breakthroughs in Modern Cosmetic Science.


Indigo and cabbage, part 2

« previous post | next post »

The first part of this series, “Indigo and cabbage“, written the day before Thanksgiving in 2023, is one of the most satisfying and fulfilling posts I’ve ever made.  This follow-up is even more of a delight, because here I get to introduce a new paper by anthropologist-linguist-textile expert Elizabeth J. W. Barber, and what a tour de force it is (see below).

Here I give an extended account of her scholarship, especially her early activities in the computer analysis of Chinese, because she was instrumental in helping to make that possible at its foundational stage.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College in Archaeology and Greek in 1962. Her chief mentor was Mabel Lang from whom she learned Linear B and who advised her honors thesis on Linear A. In addition to Lang, Wayland wrote her thesis under Emmett L. Bennett Jr. Her thesis used computer indices of the Hagia Triada Linear A texts in an attempt to decipher its signs and symbols. The computer indices were made via punched cards, a method which was preceded by the work of Alice E. Kober on Linear B. She earned her PhD from Yale University in linguistics in 1968. Her doctoral study at Yale University was supervised by Sydney Lamb, under whom she wrote her dissertation, “The Computer Aided Analysis of Undeciphered Ancient Texts.”

Her books include:

Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean (1992) — a monumental masterpiece

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years; Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (1995)

The Mummies of Ürümchi (1999)

When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth (2004; coauthored with husband Paul T. Barber)

The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance (2013)

Resplendent Dress from Southeastern Europe: A History in Layers (2013)

Two Thoughts with but a Single Mind: Crime and Punishment and the Writing of Fiction (2013; co-authored with husband P.T. Barber and Mary F. Zirin).


From 1967 through 1969, Betchen (her nickname) was involved with The Chinese Linguistics Project at Princeton.  It was run by Frank Kierman, and the objective was to computerize a million-character corpus of Modern Vernacular Chinese, for teaching and analysis.  They hired her because she knew a lot about the computers of those days and was experienced in figuring out how to put weird scripts onto computers (having done Minoan Linear A as part of her PhD thesis).  There were two ways to go: give each character a unique number, or digitize the shape.  She was a pro at designing number systems for weird scripts.  On the other hand, the RAND Tablet (the original RAND Tablet cost $18,000 and was said to be “low cost”) had just been invented, and the Mathematical Society in Providence had one, so she recalls a group from the Princeton project trekking up there to check it out.  You could draw the Chinese character–or any design–on the tablet and it would digitize it (with a much longer and more cumbersome number, but with lots of additional data about the shape encoded).

Also involved in the Princeton project were Jerry Norman from the University of Washington, whom we’ve often mentioned on Language Log, and his young colleague William Boltz, plus Hashimoto Mantaro, a graduate of the University of Tokyo and The Ohio State University,

Now for Betchen’s new paper:



Ancient colored textiles are seldom preserved by anything except salt or permafrost. Recent discoveries in collapsed areas of a salt mine in NW Iran have prompted this very brief comparison of the new finds, including their dyes, to the other two major Eurasian groups of salt-bed textiles.


What does this new paper have to do with indigo and cabbage?  The last section is about dyes for blue, a favorite hue of humans.  The very last paragraph of that section reads as follows:

Sinologists have long wondered why the words for “blue” and “cabbage” in Chinese are homonyms: both 藍 lán in Mandarin. But just recently, perusing dye information about woad [VHM:  a common plant dye for blue] from Richard Laursen, Victor Mair noticed that woad is actually in the cabbage family, Brassicaceae (earlier called Cruciferae), and that rural people have long found ways to get blue coloring out of a number of types of cabbage (Mair 11/22/2023), especially the purple kind. Hence the unexpected homonyms. Thus, from all these textiles preserved in salt, we even have the solution of an interesting etymological conundrum.

And it includes one of humankind’s favorite foods, which tastes good with a bit of salt sprinkled on and even better when turned into sauerkraut with the aid of salt.

Selected readings

May 11, 2024 @ 7:19 pm
· Filed by under Announcements, Etymology, Language and archeology, Language and biology, Language and science



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *