Archive for Language and literature

Ken Liu reinvents Chinese characters

In "Inside the world of Chinese science fiction, with 'Three Body Problem' translator Ken Liu" (Quartz, 12/2/16), Nikhil Sonnad conducts an interview with the sci-fi author and translator of the Sān tǐ 三体 (Three-Body [Problem]) series by Liú Cíxīn 刘慈欣.

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Trump's granddaughter recites Tang poems

Donald Trump's granddaughter (Ivanka Trump's daughter), Arabella Rose Kushner, does a remarkably good job at reciting two Tang poems.

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Ask Language Log: "But long or short, but here or there"

From Chris Cooper:

I was intrigued by this construction, which I'd never come across before. From the explanation of the German word "Bummel" in Jerome K Jerome's comic novel Three Men On The Bummel:

A 'Bummel', I explained, I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. […]

It was the repetition of "but" in the last quoted sentence that struck me – I've never seen this elsewhere. It reminds me of the constructions

whether long or short, whether here or there …

and the obsolete

nor long nor short,

(I can't think of any real-life examples of the latter, but I'm sure it was once common, at least in poetry.)

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Bob Dylan's poetry and the Nobel Prize

A. E. STALLINGS says: "At the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, poets, at least judging from my Facebook feed, were either very much pro- or very much con- (often along generational lines), delighted or outraged…"

I found I fell into neither camp. At first, I was pleased to hear the news, and judged the Nobel committee's view of Dylan to be exactly right: although his early recordings suggest he could hardly win prizes as a singer, guitarist, or harmonica player (don't confuse being strikingly different and new with being highly skilled), he did deserve to be considered seriously as a significant 20th-century poet. So I started with no negative feelings at all about the decision.

And then I looked at some of his lyrics in written form to see if I could find good evidence to cite for this, and found that even my favorite songs looked truly feeble on the page. I responded to some of them when they were originally sung; but looking at them now, I couldn't find anything of high poetic quality at all. And mentally putting them back in their musical context didn't help.

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"Language is messy," says our new linguistic hero

In the new trailer for the science-fiction movie "Arrival," Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, some sort of mastermind in xenolinguistics. "You're at the top of everyone's list when it comes to translations," says Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker), before whisking her off to meet the newly arrived aliens she's tasked with interpreting. She seems to get on with them just fine, while acknowledging that "language is messy."

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Pinyin memoirs

Chang Li-ching (my wife) wrote her childhood memoirs in Hanyu Pinyin (Romanized Mandarin):

Pīnyīn Rìjì Duǎnwén (Pinyin Diary Essays).

Li-ching specifically did NOT want her memoirs published in hanzi (Chinese characters).  She was passionately devoted to farmers and workers — like John DeFrancis — and she wrote her memoirs in Pinyin as a testimony of her devotion to them.

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Pinyin literature contest

I wish to call your attention to the Li-ching Chang Memorial Pinyin Literature Contest.  The purpose of the contest is to commemorate the life and work of Li-ching Chang (October 5, 1936-June 20, 2010), who was an outstanding teacher of Mandarin at the University of Washington, the Oberlin center in Taiwan, Middlebury College Summer School, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and Swarthmore College.

The contest will offer more than US$13,000 in prizes for works in the following categories:

  • novella
  • short story
  • essay
  • poem

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Gertrude Trump

For nearly a year, I've been describing aspects of Donald Trump's rhetorical style — see e.g. "Trump's eloquence" (8/5/2015), "More Flesch-Kincaid grade-level nonsense" (10/23/2015), "Donald Trump's repetitive rhetoric" (12/5/2015), "Trump's rhetorical style" (12/26/2015), "Trump the Thing Explainer?" (3/19/2016), "Elaborate interiors and plain language" (6/3/2016).  Behind those observations was a question: where else have I seen or heard this pointillistic, repetitive style?

This morning, I suddenly realized that I've been Doing It Wrong. In transcribing his speeches, I've deployed punctuation and line divisions to represent the structure. But if I remove most of that visual prosody, suddenly the stylistic model leaps off the page. Consider this clip from his recent rally in Atlanta 6/15/2016:

You know the Republicans honestly folks our leaders our leaders have to get tougher. This is too tough to do it alone but you know what I think I'm gonna be forced to. I think I'm going to be forced to. Our leaders have to get a lot tougher. And be quiet, just please be quiet don't talk please be quiet. Just be quiet to the leaders. Because they have to get tougher they have to get sharper they have to get smarter we have to have our Republicans either stick together or let me just do it by myself I'll do very well. I'm going to do very well. OK? I'm going to do very well.

A lot of people thought I should do that anyway. But I'll just do it very nicely by myself I think you're going to have a very good result I think we'll be very happy I'll run as a Republican. Just I don't know you know the endorsement thing by the way I've gotten tremendous endorsements but if I don't get them that's OK.

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Two linguists explain

You should go read "Two Linguists Explain Pseudo Old English in The Wake", The Toast 6/14/2016. Gretchen McCulloch interviews Kate Wiles about the imitation-Old-English that Paul Kingsnorth uses in The Wake, a novel about resistance to the Norman invasion of England in 1066.

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Too like the gender

Is this the future of English pronouns? Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning takes place in a world where he/she is as quaintly obsolete as thee/thou. From the book's opening:

You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.

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Poem or list of band names?

A few days ago, we looked at a propaganda poster in Beijing: "'Dangerous love'" (4/19/16).

In continuing research on this poster, I discovered that at one site where it was pasted on the wall, there was an enigmatic sequence of lines on another piece of paper pasted on the wall just to the right of the 16-panel poster that the whole world was talking about:


Sources: here and here (close-up).

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It begins.

Geoff Pullum to me:

What the hell is going on with all the years except 1920 being labeled "11 PM"? [link]

Me to Geoff Pullum:

You mean on the x axis? I'm not seeing it — must be a special feature for Scottish readers.

Geoff Pullum to me:

Yep.   1920  11 PM  11 PM  11 PM  11 PM  11 PM  11 PM  11 PM  11 PM  11 PM on the x axis. Corresponds to decades. It's not Scots dialect: 1930 is known here as "1930".

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Spoken Sanskrit

From December 13-17, 2015, I participated in an international workshop at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS) on the Edmond J. Safra campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  The title of the workshop was "A Lasting Vision: Dandin’s Mirror in the World of Asian Letters".  Here's the workshop website.

The workshop was about Sanskrit poetics, especially as detailed in the Kāvyādarśa (simplified transliteration:  Kavyadarsha; Mirror of Poetry) of Daṇḍin (circa AD 7th c.), the earliest surviving systematic treatment of poetics in Sanskrit.

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