Archive for Language and society

Ask Language Log: why is "inch" a family relationship in Korean?

Katie Odhner asks:

I have lately been teaching myself Korean and have become quite interested in Sino-Korean vocabulary. Recently two words in particular caught my attention: samchon 삼촌 ("paternal uncle"), from Chinese s ān cùn 三寸 ("three inches"), and sachon 사촌 ("cousin"), from Chinese sì cùn 四寸 ("four inches"). I wondered how "three inches" and "four inches" could turn into family members. According to one website I found, chon 寸 can refer to "degree (of kinship)", which makes some sense. But when I looked on (Chinese Text Project), I couldn't find classical Chinese examples of this usage, so I'm thinking maybe it's a Korean invention.

Have you ever encountered cùn 寸 ("inch") in Classical Chinese to refer to degree of kinship? Do you think it's a Korean invention? And does "third degree of kinship" for uncle and "fourth degree of kinship" for cousin have any roots that you can think of in the Confucian tradition, or is that also a native Korean concept?

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Japan: crazy over portmanteaux

No matter where I go these days, I hear young people shouting to their friends, "I'm playing Pokémon Go", which they pronounce "pokey-mon go".  It would be an understatement to say that, for the past few weeks, Pokémon Go has been a veritable craze.  Yet most people who play the game probably do not realize that the name "Pokémon" is a Japanese portmanteau based on two English words:  poketto ポケット ("pocket") + monsutā モンスター ("monster"). 

"What's in a name — Pikachu, Beikaciu, Pikaqiu?" (5/31/16)

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Floating world

Nicola Esposito sent in the following observations and questions:

What is the etymology of ukiyo 浮世, the "floating world" known in the West mostly thanks to its depictions by artists such as Hiroshige, Hokusai and others?

While perusing the website of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, I discovered that the origins of ukiyo lie in a homophone of 浮世 denoting the "transient world" of Buddhist tradition.  The page does not offer any other detail, but from what I gather that homophone should be ukiyo 憂世, whose literal meaning should be closer to something like "unhappy world".  Unfortunately my knowledge of Japanese is too shallow to be able to to tackle Japanese sources, and I was wondering if you could offer insight on this etymology and in particular how this substitution happened, if it indeed happened. Was it some kind of pun?

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Modern English Grammar

Richard Hershberger, who usually writes about baseball, has a recent post at Ordinary Times about "Modern English Grammar":

My post today is uncharacteristically devoid of baseball content. It is about grammar, one of my many unremunerative interests. Specifically it is about modern English grammar. I don’t mean by this (except incidentally) the grammar of modern English. Rather, I mean modern grammar of English. Also, modern grammars of English. 

It's great to see this evidence of interest in grammar (and grammars), and to see an argument for the relevant of 20th-century linguistics based on an insightful exploration of an interesting corner of English syntax. But it's less great that Mr. Hershberger fails to note that his crucial examples are actually a special case of a much more general pattern, and that the 53 comments go off in various interesting directions without noticing this. As usual in such cases, I blame the linguists, for allowing general education in grammatical analysis to fall into such a sorry state that smart people with an interest in such matters are generally not given the chance in school to learn more of the content and methods of the past sixty years or so of linguistic research.

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Sandra Bland: Talking While Black

Below is a guest post by Nicole Holliday, Rachel Burdin, and Joseph Tyler:

Sandra Bland’s traffic stop and the tragic series of events that occurred afterwards have been the subject of many recent think pieces, but few authors have examined why the initial traffic stop went wrong in the first place. The most obvious explanation might be simple racial profiling, which almost certainly played a role, but the dash cam video of the event also shows an interaction that escalated at an alarmingly rapid pace. The conversation between Sandra Bland and police officer who stopped her, officer Brian Encinia started out relatively calmly, but clearly didn’t stay that way. Amid the frustration, heartbreak, and demands for justice, everyone wants to know, how did a seemingly simple traffic stop turn into verbal and physical violence, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to Bland’s death?

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Outsiders and hard drives

It's a bit of a mystery how and why "outsiders" (wàidìrén 外地人) are referred to by Shanghainese as "hard disks / drives" (yìngpán 硬盘).

Intrigued, I asked around, and here are some of the replies I received.

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Civilized language

Sign at a bus station in Inner Mongolia:

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An Eighteenth-Century Japanese Language Reformer

In his "Reflections on the Meaning of Our Country:  Kamo no Mabuchi's Kokuikô," Monumenta Nipponica, 63.2 (2008), 211-263, Peter Flueckiger presents "a utopian vision of ancient Japan as a society governed in accordance with nature, which was then corrupted by the introduction of foreign philosophies, especially Confucianism."

Mabuchi (1697-1769) looks at a wide range of social, political, and cultural manifestations, but the aspect of his work that intrigues me most is his sharply critical stance with regard to Chinese characters.

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"Language cancer"

David Bandurski has posted a fine article about "The 'cancer' of all things Western" on the website of cmp (China Media Project), at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of The University of Hong Kong.  (3/24/15)

Bandurski draws the inspiration for the title of his article from a February piece in the Beijing Daily, in which the Taiwanese poet and critic, Yu Kwang-chung, is quoted as warning against a yǔyán ái 语言癌 ("language cancer") eroding Chinese literacy through èxìng xīhuà 恶性西化 ("malignant Westernization").

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Bob Bauer writes:

Yesterday I discovered that the concept 'person who is continuously looking at or obsessively interacting with his/her smartphone or other type of electronic handheld device' has been lexicalized in Cantonese as 低頭族 dai1 tau4 zuk6 (literally, 'head-down tribe') (according to an article by Mark Sharp in the South China Morning Post).

[VHM:  See "Beware the smartphone zombies blindly wandering around Hong Kong" (3/2/15)]

Have you heard of this word?  It may have originated in Taiwan Mandarin.

"低頭族" 853,000 Ghits (on March 4, 2015)

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Official standard

I received the following message from a young Chinese scholar who is studying in America:

Improving my English and understanding Western culture, as well as dealing with racial and gender issues as an Asian female and also a first-generation immigrant in this country, is much easier than being part of the 官本位 culture in China, though I was born and grew up there. I feel that my intelligence is treated with more respect in the States.

This is not the first time that I had heard this young scholar and other young scholars inveigh against 官本位, but in this instance she put it so succinctly and clearly that I felt galvanized to come to grips with a concept that I had heretofore only grasped in a hazy manner.

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Fat shaming (?) in Rōmaji

Nathan Hopson found this poster hanging up all over student bulletin boards at Nagoya University in Japan:

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New Cantonese word

Simon Pettersson called my attention to a new and popular Hong Kong word that's spreading fast:  gau1wu1 鳩嗚 ("shopping").  It's a rendering of the Mandarin word gòuwù 購物 in Cantonese created by picking characters that sound like the Mandarin word when read in Cantonese.  Additionally, gau1 鳩 (jiū in Mandarin) officially means "dove", but is mostly used in Hong Kong to write the homonym that is a vulgar word for penis, which is also written 尻 and several other ways, too:

gau1 [門+九], sometimes wrongly (or perhaps I should say euphemistically) written as gau1 / hou1 / haau1 尻 (" end of spine; buttocks, sacrum"), is a vulgar Cantonese word that means "a cock" or "cocky".

The second syllable, wu1 嗚, when not being used for punning purposes as in the case of gau1wu1 鳩嗚 ("shopping"), where it stands for the sound of Mandarin wù 物 ("thing; object; substance; matter"), normally functions in the following ways:

[1] [onomatopeia] toot; hoot; zoom
[2] [interjection] alas

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