Archive for Language and politics

When puns are outlawed …

Scott Alexander ("Come ye to Bethlinkhem", 12/8/2014) does his best to generate sympathy for the Chinese authorities:

China bans puns on the grounds that they may mislead children and defile cultural heritage. Language Log is on the story, and discusses the (extremely plausible) theory that this is part of a crackdown on people who use puns to get around censorship. Obligatory link to the Ten Mythical Creatures here. There’s no censor sensibility to the law, and it seems likely to cause Confucian and dis-Orientation among punks and pundits alike in its wonton disregard for personal freedom and attempts to bamboo-zle the public. It’s safe Tibet that dissidents who just Taipei single pun online will end up panda price and facing time in the punitentiary or even capital punishment – but those Hu support the government can Maoth off as much as they want and still wok free. I Canton derstand how people wouldn’t realize that this homophonbic bigotry raises a bunch of red flags. In the end, one Deng is clear: when puns are outlawed, only outlaws will have puns.

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New Cantonese word

Simon Pettersson called my attention to a new and popular Hong Kong word that's spreading fast:  gau1wu1 鳩嗚 ("shopping").  It's a rendering of the Mandarin word gòuwù 購物 in Cantonese created by picking characters that sound like the Mandarin word when read in Cantonese.  Additionally, gau1 鳩 (jiū in Mandarin) officially means "dove", but is mostly used in Hong Kong to write the homonym that is a vulgar word for penis, which is also written 尻 and several other ways, too:

gau1 [門+九], sometimes wrongly (or perhaps I should say euphemistically) written as gau1 / hou1 / haau1 尻 (" end of spine; buttocks, sacrum"), is a vulgar Cantonese word that means "a cock" or "cocky".

The second syllable, wu1 嗚, when not being used for punning purposes as in the case of gau1wu1 鳩嗚 ("shopping"), where it stands for the sound of Mandarin wù 物 ("thing; object; substance; matter"), normally functions in the following ways:

[1] [onomatopeia] toot; hoot; zoom
[2] [interjection] alas

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It's not just puns that are being banned in China

Even non-linguists and those who are not China watchers could hardly escape the momentous announcement of the Chinese government last week that casual punning was being outlawed:

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Ko P

Just in case you hadn't seen this in the news, the winner of the Taipei mayoral election held on November 28, 2014 is Ko Wen-je (Kē Wénzhé 柯文哲), a trauma surgeon who ran as an independent.

"Pro-independence party candidate Ko Wen-je claims victory in Taipei mayor race"
The Straits Times (11/29/14)

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Class war skirmishes in England

Several manifestations of verbal and visual class warfare have recently hit the mass media in Britain. The subtlest example, least transparent to outsiders, is the affair of the white van in Rochester — William James, "In class obsessed Britain, tweet of 'white van' man hits nerve", Reuters 11/21/2014:

Posting a picture on Twitter of a two-storey house, displaying three English flags of St. George and with a white tradesman's van outside, might seem innocuous to a foreign eye.

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Xi Jinping: "when a car breaks down…"

Via Twitter, Matthew Leavitt asks Language Log what we think of the translation of Xi Jinping's metaphor:  “when a car breaks down on the road, perhaps we need to step down and see what the problem is.”

This was spoken at a news conference during the Beijing summit between President Obama and Chairman Xi and quoted in the New York Times.  After avoiding the issue for awhile, Xi used this expression in response to a question about restrictions on visas for foreign journalists that was posed by Mark Landler, a reporter for the New York Times.

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Is Korean diverging into two languages?

Fearful that the languages of their countries are becoming mutually unintelligible, linguists from North Korea and South Korea are joining forces to create a common dictionary, as described in this article from the South China Morning Post:  "Academics try to get North and South Korea to speak same language" (11/3/14)

In a comment on a recent Language Log post concerning another subject, ThomasH opined that he'd like to see a discussion concerning the prescriptiveness/descriptiveness of the article just cited:  "Personally it seems both futile — without more actual language transactions between the two countries — and pointless, with bonus points for the complaint about English loan words being part of the 'problem'."

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Cantonese protest slogans

We've been following the tumultuous Hong Kong democracy protests closely, e.g., "'Cantonese' song" (10/24/14), "The umbrella in Hong Kong" (10/19/14) and "Translating the Umbrella Revolution" (10/3/14), with plenty of additional material in the comments to these posts.

Now there is a new article in Quartz that focuses on the most popular slogans used by the protesters: "The backstory to seven of the most popular protest slogans in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement" (10/23/14).

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"Cantonese" song

This hauntingly beautiful song is the unofficial anthem of the Hong Kong democracy protest movement:


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Buzzfeed linguistics, presidential pronouns, and narcissism revisited

John Templon, "No, Obama’s Pronouns Don’t Make Him A Narcissist", BuzzFeed News 10/19/2014:

Conservative commentators are fond of pointing to Barack Obama’s excessive use of the word “I” as evidence of the president’s narcissism. (“For God’s sake, he talks like the emperor Napoleon,” Charles Krauthammer complained recently.) But there’s one tiny problem with this line of reasoning. If you’re counting pronouns, Obama is maybe the least narcissistic president since 1945.

BuzzFeed News analyzed more than 2,000 presidential news conferences since 1929, looking for usage of first-person singular pronouns — “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine,” and “myself.” Just 2.5 percent of Obama’s total news-conference words fell into this category. Only Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt used them less often.

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The umbrella in Hong Kong

The whole world knows that, just as there was a "Jasmine Revolution" in the Arab world during the spring of 2011 and a "Sunflower Revolution" in Taiwan during the spring of this year, there is currently an "Umbrella Revolution" going on in Hong Kong.

The most visually evident aspect of the Hong Kong democracy protest movement is the widespread use of the umbrella, not only to shade against sun and rain, but more importantly to block tear gas and pepper spray.

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Colbert on Krauthammer

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"Free, white, and twenty one"

Sometimes I think that Philip K. Dick is passing the time in purgatory by ghostwriting news stories like this one —  "Atlantic City's Revel Casino reimagined as elite school", Reuters 9/22/2014:

A Florida developer who made a $90 million offer for Atlantic City's shuttered Revel Casino wants to use the site to help end world hunger, cancer, and resolve other pressing issues like nuclear waste storage.

Glenn Straub's plan is ambitious as it is high-minded. First, he would add a second tower to the 57-story structure, completing the original vision of the casino-hotel's developers. The businessman, who owns the Palm Beach Polo Golf and Country Club, would then convert the complex into a university where the best and brightest young minds from across the world could work on the big issues of the day.

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