Archive for Language and literature

"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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Lu Xun and the Zhao family

Lu Xun (1881-1936) is generally regarded as the greatest Chinese writer of the twentieth century.  Despite his tremendous reputation and enormous influence through the 70s and into the 80s, in recent decades Lu Xun had fallen somewhat into disfavor as the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), which transformed itself into what I call the CCCCMMMMPPPP (Chinese Communist Christo-Confucian Marxist Maoist Militant Mercantilist Propagandistic Pugnacious Plutocratic Party), no longer took kindly his radical critique of corrupt, feudalistic society.

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Bad sex writing: really really bad

I'm pleased to be able to announce on Language Log the winner of the Literary Review's 2015 Bad Sex in Fiction Award. The award went to the singer Morrissey for his debut novel List of the Lost. And it seems to have been honestly earned. The judges cited this sentence:

Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza's breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra's howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza's body except for the otherwise central zone.

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Alien encounter

I read Ancillary Justice, the first book in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series, at some point in the spring of 2014, and so I was not at all surprised to find Brad DeLong referring to her as "an extremely sharp observer […] author of the devastatingly-good Ancillary Justice", in a blog post "Ann Leckie on David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5000 Mistakes": Handling the Sumerian Evidence Smackdown", 11/24/2014, where he quotes at length from her blog post "Debt", 2/24/2013.

And if you haven't read Ann Leckie's trilogy, you should do yourself a favor and start doing so right away. But this is Language Log, not Science Fiction Book Review Log or Unreliable Economic History Log, so why am I bringing up Ann Leckie now?

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German crime novels and high blood pressure

Don't jump to any conclusions based on the title.  This post is not about how reading German crime novels raises blood pressure.  Quite the contrary, it is about how reading German crime novels dramatically lowers blood pressure, at least for one of my friends.

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