Archive for Language and literature

Chinese characters in the 21st century

We've been having a vigorous debate on the nature of Sinograms:  "Character crises".  It started on June 15, but it is still going on quite actively in the comments section.  A new reader of Language Log, a scholar of late medieval Chinese literature from Beijing was prompted by her reading of this lively discussion and other LL posts to which it led her to send in the following remarks:

Thanks to your blogs, I begin to be aware of some amusing aspects of Chinese languages, though I am still struggling with the terminology.

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Mighty Maithili, monstrous Mandarin

In case you're in need of some intensely elegiac and panegyric reading material, this lovely volume just might fit the bill:

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Linguistic divergence and convergence

In Elizabeth George's recent novel The Punishment She Deserves, there's a passage where someone uses a sociolinguistic choice to communicate her attitude towards an interaction. This reminded me of another fictional example of the same thing, and I'm sure that readers will come up with more.

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The elegance of Google Translate

When I was in graduate school, some of my best friends were mathematicians.  I was always intrigued by their approach to problem solving.  They told me that merely solving problems was not satisfying to them.  Rather, their goal was to solve problems elegantly.

This morning, I was reminded of the modus operandi of mathematicians when I asked Google Translate (GT) to render a short passage of German into English.

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Xi Jinping as a living bodhisattva

Everybody's talking about Xi's Buddhist sanctification since it hit the headlines in this article:  "Xi Jinping's latest tag – living Buddhist deity, Chinese official says" (Reuters [3/9,18].

Speaking on Wednesday on the sidelines of China’s annual meeting of parliament, the party boss of the remote northwestern province of Qinghai, birthplace of the Dalai Lama, said Tibetans who lived there had been saying they view Xi as a deity.

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Poetic dynamism

Well, the dynamic range of the amplitude of syllables in poetry readings, anyhow:

What IS that?

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Quotes and endings

Following up on "Proportion of dialogue in novels" (12/29/2017), I've taken a look at the same numbers for Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels (which as before Yves Schabes and I have been analyzing for reasons irrelevant to this post).

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Proportion of dialogue in novels

For reasons not strictly relevant to what follows, Yves Schabes and I have been analyzing the novels of Agatha Christie. (For the not-strictly-relevant background, see Xuan Le et al., "Longitudinal detection of dementia through lexical and syntactic changes in writing: a case study of three British novelists", Literary and Linguistic Computing 2011, and Graeme Hirst & Vanessa Feng, "Changes in Style in Authors with Alzheimer's Disease", English Studies 2012.)

It occurred to me to wonder whether the proportion of quoted dialogue might vary from text to text — and since the textual properties of dialogue are likely to be different from those of the narrative voice, this might influence the results of comparisons. So I ran a quick check on seven of Christie's novels, using as proxy the proportion of characters in the novels' texts in spans between quotation marks.

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Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary

Don't miss Danielle Geller's remarkable, moving personal essay in The New Yorker, "Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary." Here's how it starts:

The first, incomplete Navajo-English Dictionary was compiled, in 1958, by Leon Wall, an official in the U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Wall, who was in charge of a literacy program on the Navajo reservation, worked on the dictionary with William Morgan, a Navajo translator.

’ąą’: “well (anticipation, as when a person approaches one as though to speak but says nothing)”

I could begin and end here. My mother was a full-blooded Navajo woman, raised on the reservation, but she was never taught to speak her mother’s language. There was a time when most words were better left unspoken. I am still drawn to the nasal vowels and slushy consonants, though I feel no hope of ever learning the language. It is one thing to play dress-up, to imitate pronunciations and understanding; it is another thing to think or dream or live in a language not your own.

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"War Symphony": a modern Chinese poem

From Bryan Van Norden:

It took me a while to "get" this, but it's very cool, and you can appreciate it even if you have never learned a Chinese character before in your life. It's a contemporary Chinese poem entitled "War Symphony." You only need to read four characters to understand it:

兵 bīng means soldier (you can imagine that the lines at the bottom are the soldier's legs)  [VHM:  The lines at the bottom are actually derived from the pictographic representation of two hands; they are holding an adze (you can see additional examples if you click on the "more" button at the top right of the linked section), the primordial tool-weapon, which is what the earliest form of the character actually stood for.  It was later used by metonymy to mean "soldier".  For a powerful woodcut (artist Dan Heitkamp) inspired by the oracle bone form of the glyph, see the title page of Victor Mair, tr. and intro., The Art of War:  Sun Zi's Military Methods (Columbia University Press, 2007).]

乒乓 pīng pāng is Ping Pong, but individually the characters are used to represent the sounds "ping" and "pang" (like the sounds of metal weapons clanging)

丘 qiū is a mound, like a funeral mound

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Plum > apricot and wine > brew: the language of poetry and painting

[This is a follow up to "Preserved wife plum" (7/12/17), after which there ensued a vigorous and enlightening discussion on the terminology for plums, apricots, pastries, and so forth.]

My wife was born in Shandong in 1936, but fled from the Japanese with her family to Sichuan before she was one year old, and she spent the next eleven years of her life in Sichuan, before fleeing once again with her family, this time from the Chinese Communists, to Taiwan.

One of the last things Li-ching did before passing away in 2010 was write her childhood memoirs in Hanyu Pinyin (see here, here [three items], and here).  At this moment, I do not recall if she mentioned it in her memoirs, but one of her fondest recollections of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan where she and her family lived (it was also the wartime capital of the Republic of China — now on Taiwan) was the làméi 臘梅 / 腊梅 (Chimonanthus fragrans / praecox).  In English, the làméi 臘梅 is referred to as wintersweet, Japanese allspice (despite the attractive name, it is not edible), calyx canthus, and mistakenly — but still quite commonly — as "wax plum" (look it up on Google Images under this name for pretty pictures of the blossoms).   In Japanese this plant is called rōbai 蝋梅, although it used to be written 臘梅 and 蠟梅 (nowadays it is normally written in kana alone:  ろうばい · ロウバイ).

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Bird language

From an anonymous correspondent:

I had wanted to ask you about niǎoyǔ 鸟语 ("bird language") after listening to an interview with Garry Kasparov. During the interview, he and the interviewer, the economist Tyler Cowen, get into a fairly abtruse discussion of chess. I'll paste the most relevant part of the transcript:

KASPAROV: Now you move back to these things, chess computers, and there’s certain things that people should realize. I hate talking about these things. We say in Russia it’s using a “bird language,” because you’re asking me questions and I’m not sure that — 99 percent of our listeners — they understand exactly what we are talking about.

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The sanitization of a sensual Chinese poem

From Michael Pratt, a former professor of Spanish, who relocated to Shenzhen to learn more about Chinese poetry, which was his chief motivation for moving to China:

At times, when I discuss Tang shi ("Tang poetry") with Chinese acquaintances, I am struck by their seeming dogmatism about the range of possible interpretations. For example, in a recent conversation about the poem “Jīnlǚ yī 金缕衣” ("The Robe of Golden Thread"), traditionally attributed to Dù Qiūniáng 杜秋娘 ("Autumn Maid Du")*, my Chinese interlocutor was adamant that the speaker’s insistence on the importance of plucking blossoms during one’s qīngshàonián 少年时 ("youth") was entirely high-minded — i.e., that it was a vulgar mistake for me even to suggest that sex or love might number among the pleasures symbolized by those enticing but ephemeral blossoms.

[*VHM: article in Mandarin; in Literary Sinitic; in Norsk bokmål]

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