Archive for Language and religion

Lexico-cultural decay?

Jonathan Merritt, "The Death of Sacred Speech", The Week 9/10/2018:

America boasts more Christians than any other country on planet Earth. But you wouldn't know it from listening to us.

According to Google Ngram Viewer data, a searchable database of millions of printed works stretching back 500 years, most of the central terms in the Christian vocabulary are rapidly declining. One 2012 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, for example, analyzed 50 moral terms associated with Christianity and found that a whopping 74 percent were used less frequently over the course of the last century […]

"Whopping "? If the frequency of each word were following a random walk, we'd expect 50% of them to decline and 50% of them to increase. And to be confident that 74% is "whopping", or even meaningful, we'd need to do something that neither Merritt nor the cited paper do, namely verify that there's no overall bias in the data source for reasons other than changing "cultural salience", either towards decreasing frequency of certain types of words, or decreasing frequency of individual words in general, But in fact there's good reason to believe that both sorts of bias exist — see below.

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Sinographic taboo against Islam

Tweet by Timothy Grose, a specialist on Islam in China, especially in Xinjiang:

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Spiritual high tech

From Harry Asche:

I'm in Mongolia.  Just had to buy the solar powered dashboard prayer wheel.  The instructions alone are worth the $5 price tag.

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Sanskrit and Pseudo-Sanskrit Daoist incantations

Joshua Capitanio has written a fascinating, pathbreaking article on a highly esoteric, but also tremendously significant, topic:

"Sanskrit and Pseudo-Sanskrit Incantations in Daoist Ritual Texts", History of Religions, 57.4 (May, 2018), 348-405.

When Buddhism came to China in the early centuries of the Common Era, its Indic texts were brought by speakers of Indo-Iranian languages.  The massive encounter between highly inflected, alphabetic Sanskrit and isolating, morphosyllabic Sinitic naturally posed enormous challenges for translators and interpreters.  Working individually, in small groups, and even in larger teams, those who transferred Buddhist concepts and texts into Sinitic resorted to a variety of devices and techniques, including transcription, translation, paraphrasis, géyì 格義 ("categorized concepts"), and so forth.

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Mongolian priests and bugs, with a note on the Japanese word for "bonze"

An anonymous correspondent asked:

Are these actually related words, or just homonyms?

p. 127 of  Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World's Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom:

Male shamans were treated with cautious respect, but they evoked suspicion and even disgust. As one saying put it, “the worst of men become shamans.” The word boo, Mongolian for “shaman,” is part of a cluster of words with loathsome connotations: foul, abominable, to vomit, to castrate, an opportunistic person without scruples; it is also the general term for lice, fleas, and bedbugs. 28

His footnote 28: бѳѳ (бѳѳδийн), to vomit (бѳѳлжих), to castrate (бѳѳрлѳх), an opportunistic person without scruples (бѳѳрѳний хн), and the basic term for lice, fleas, and bedbugs (бѳѳс). Хvлгийг муу жоро болох. A Modern Mongolian-English Dictionary, ed. Denis Sinor (Indiana University, Uralic and Altaic Series, vol. 150, 1997),

Someone else asked whether Japanese boosan / bōsan 坊さん ("monk") were somehow related.

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Mystical Taoist Sinographs

Jason Cox, who sent the following photograph to me, says that his "uncle-in-law has this all over the place":

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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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Two instances of orthographic ambiguity: GODISNOWHERE and Chen Fake

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Mao Zedong's "three jewels"

On the eve of the establishment of the PRC, Chairman Mao referred to united front (tǒngyī zhànxiàn 統一戰線) work as one of the Party’s “three great fabao” (sān gè dà fǎbǎo 三个大法宝).  So what is a fabao, what did Mao mean by that expression, and where did he get it?

Mao's "fabao" is often glossed as "magic weapon" or "secret weapon", and it seems to be a reference to the "Three Jewels / Treasures" (sānbǎo 三宝 / 寶; Skt. triratna) of Buddhism: the Buddha (Fó 佛), the Dharma (fǎ 法, the "Law" or "Doctrine" of Buddhism), and the Sangha (sēng 僧, the community of Buddhist monks and the monastic order to which they adhere).

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Utterly lost in translation

During a search for something else, I happened upon this page at the Bible Study Tools site. It provides a nice reminder (for the two or three people out there who might still need it) of the fact that it's dangerous to trust websites, in linguistic matters or in anything else. As the screenshot shows, it purports to show Psalm 86 in two parallel versions, the Latin Vulgate and the New International Version.

"Filiis Core psalmis cantici fundamenta eius in montibus sanctis" is translated as "Hear me, Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy." The correct translation is debatable, but the first four words mean "A song psalm for the sons of Korah", and the rest means either "Its foundations are in the sacred hills" or (according to the Revised Standard Version) "On the holy mount stands the city he founded." Verse 2, "Diligit dominus portas Sion super omnia tabernacula Iacob" (roughly, "The Lord loves the gates of Sion more than all the dwellings of Jacob") is translated as "Guard my life, for I am faithful to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God." The third verse begins Gloriosa dicta sunt ("glorious things are spoken") but is translated as "have mercy on me". This is worse than the worst botch I ever saw from Google Translate. And I suspect human error is to blame.

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Patriarchal homestead

A tweet by Alex Gabuev:

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GAN4 ("Do it!")

From a long blog post on contemporary Chinese religious art and architecture:

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Tao and Taoism

Yesterday's NYT has an article by Javier C. Hernández titled "China’s Religious Revival Fuels Environmental Activism" (7/12/17).  It's a long article, filled with a lot of New Age, ecological phraseology that is uncharacteristic of the usual political, military, and economic discourse of the antireligious PRC.  I was drifting along, not paying too much attention to the details of what it said, but this short paragraph — quoting a Taoist monk named Xuan Jing — caught me up short:

As he sipped tea, he jotted down Taoist teachings: “Humans follow the earth, the earth follows heaven, heaven follows Taoism, Taoism follows nature.”

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