Archive for Language and society

Spiritually Finnish

Article in The Guardian (8/5/18) by Verna Yu:

"Why do millions of Chinese people want to be 'spiritually Finnish'?:  A Finnish cartoon about a socially awkward stickman has become a hit in China – even inspiring a new word in Mandarin. Why has it struck such a chord?"

The new word is jīngfēn 精芬 ("spiritually Finnish").

What does this mean, and why would Chinese want to be that way?

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A new kind of iron rice bowl

In the good / bad old days of Chinese communism, people talked about having a "tiě fàn wǎn 铁饭碗" ("iron rice bowl"), which meant essentially that they had a "job for life", though the pay might have been extremely meager.  With the transformation of communism to mercantilism* (in the PRC's case, we may refer to it as "neomercantilism"), the old iron rice bowl could no longer be assured, so new (and more sophistical) types of job security were devised.  One that I just heard about for the first time a few days ago is biānzhì 编制.  For the moment I'll just say that this term can normally mean "weave; plait; braid", "work out; draw up", "organizational scheme (of a group / work unit)", and so forth.  The individual morphemes of which biānzhì 编制 is composed respectively mean "knit; weave; plait; compile; edit; arrange; organize" and "make; manufacture; restrict; system; work out; establish; overpower".

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The geo-, socio-, ethno-, and politicolinguistics of Taiwan

I've had guests from Taiwan for the past few days.  Two of them are mother and daughter, both primary school teachers.  The mother is a nationally known teacher of Taiwanese language who received special awards from two presidents, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian.  She is very proud of the beauty of the Taiwanese language and is honored to be able to teach it to her students.  She refers to Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) as "Huáyǔ 華語", as is done in Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and refuses to call it 國語 ("National Language"), because, as she says, "It is not the language of our nation".

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Dangerous speech

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The Bureau of Linguistical Reality

No, The Bureau of Linguistical Reality is not something dreamed up by Borges, or the Firesign Theatre. It actually exists, or at least it exists in the same state of electronic virtual actuality as Language Log, YouTube, and the Wayback Machine.

The Bureau of Linguistical Reality was established on October 28, 2014 for the purpose of collecting, translating and creating a new vocabulary for the Anthropocene.

Our species (Homo Sapien) is experiencing a collective “loss of words” as our lexicon fails to represent the emotions and experiences we are undergoing as our habitat (earth) rapidly changes due to climate change and other unprecedented events. To this end the The Bureau of Linguistical Reality is solemnly tasked generating linguistic tools to express these changes at the personal and collective level.

Cartographers are redrawing maps to accommodate rising seas, psychologists are beginning to council people on climate change related stress, scientists are defining this as a new age or epoch. The Bureau was thus established, as an interactive conceptual artwork to help to fill the linguistical void in our rapidly changing world.

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Zora Neale Hurston and Kossula

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DACA litigation, the “illegal/undocumented alien/immigrant” issue, and a surprise

In the recent decision enjoining the suspension of DACA (but giving the government a 90-day mulligan), the court referred to the people who are affected by DACA’s suspension as “undocumented aliens” rather than “illegal aliens,” and it dropped a footnote explaining why it made that choice:

Some courts, including the Supreme Court, have referred to aliens who are unlawfully present in the United States as “illegal” instead of “undocumented.”  See, e.g.,  Texas  v.  United  States, (explaining that this “is the term used by the Supreme Court in its latest pronouncement pertaining to this area of the law”); but see  Mohawk Indust., Inc. v. Carpenter (using the term “undocumented immigrants”). Because both terms appear in the record materials here, and because, as at least one court has noted, “there is a certain segment of the population that finds the phrase ‘illegal alien’  offensive,” Texas v. United States, the Court will use the term “undocumented.” [pdf (citation details omitted)]

Although the court didn't similarly decide to use immigrant instead of alien, that may well be due more to the fact that alien is a frequently used term in the context of immigration law than to any view about the term's possible offensiveness.

The first case mentioned in the footnote, Texas v. United States, is the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that had enjoined the DAPA program (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, which was related to but separate from DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). That decision used the term illegal aliens rather than undocumented aliens, but like Tuesday’s DACA decision, it explained its choice of terminology.

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Webster’s Second and Webster’s Third: Editors going against stereotype

One of the most well-known pieces of lexicographic history is the controversy that greeted the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Whereas the predecessor of W3, Webster’s Second New etc., had been regarded as authoritatively prescriptive, W3 was condemned in the popular media for its descriptive approach, the widespread perception of which can be boiled down to “anything goes.” (For the details, see The Story of Webster’s Third by Herbert Morton and The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner.)

I recently came across two articles that seem to be largely unknown but deserve wider attention— one by the General Editor of W2 (Thomas Knott), and the other by the Editor-in-Chief of W3 (Philip Gove). Each article is notable by itself because it fleshes out the author’s attitude toward usage and correctness, and does so in a way that undermines the stereotype that is associated with the dictionary each one worked on. And when the two articles are considered together, they suggest that despite the very different reputation of the two dictionaries, the authors’ attitudes toward usage and correctness probably weren’t far apart.

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OED on the language of sexual and gender identity

On Twitter, Katherine Connor Martin (Head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press) writes:

In the latest @oed update, dozens of entries relating to sexual and gender identity were revised, the first phase of a project to revisit this rapidly changing segment of the English lexicon.

She links to the lengthy Release Notes, of which the following is just the introduction:

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NIMBY in Chinese

On her blog today retired U. Wisconsin law Prof. Ann Althouse asks some interesting questions about local Nanjing reactions to a nursing home (possibly with a morgue and a kindergarten) being located nearby.  She cites this article by Fan Liya in Sixth Tone (3/30/18):  "Nanjing NIMBYs Oppose Hospice, Fearing Death in Their Midst/Nursing home offering end-of-life services is one of a string of facilities to encounter opposition due to superstition".

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Overheard just now…

…in Alta, Utah, where I'm conducting field research into how many words skiers have for snow, evidence of the polysemousness of Twitter:

Do you want to know what her Twitter is? [Apparently meaning 'her Twitter handle']

I have a Twitter. [By the same guy, apparently meaning 'a Twitter account']

Extra added bonus: I'm writing this on my iPad, and the autocorrect suggestion for polysemousness was polysemous nests, which for some reason I kinda like.

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Mandarin neologism: "appointment to fire a cannon"

One constantly encounters new terms in Chinese.  You may never have heard of an intriguing expression, then all of a sudden it is everywhere.  One that I hadn't heard of before today is yuēpào 约炮 (lit., "agree cannon"), which garners three quarters of a million ghits.

A Chinese friend called my attention to this richly illustrated article which talks about yuēpào 约炮 in the context of "bottles for bodies" at Tianjin Normal University.  Apparently guys will drive up outside the campus and place beverage bottles on the hood or top of their fancy cars, different types of bottles standing for different prices to be paid for a one night stand or booty call.

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Greasiness, awkwardness, slothfulness, despondency — Chinese memes of the year

The first two conditions, along with eight others, are covered in this interesting Sixth Tone article:

"An Awkward, Greasy Year: China’s Top Slang of 2017 " (12/28/17) by Kenrick Davis

Davis's presentation is excellent, so let us begin this post with two montages accompanying his article.

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