Archive for Language and culture

Yet again on the mystery of the national spelling bee

This year’s champion, Ananya Vinay, is a 12-year-old sixth-grader from Fresno, California.  The runner-up, Rohan Rajeev, is a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Edmond, Oklahoma.  One of the co-champions from last year, Nihar Janga of Austin, Texas, was 11 and the other, Jairam Hathwar, of Painted Post, N.Y., was 13.

Speaking of youthfulness, this year home-schooled Edith Fuller of Tulsa, Oklahoma was the youngest contestant ever to make it to the finals.

At 5, Girl Becomes Youngest To Qualify For National Spelling Bee” (NPR, 3/8/17)

That was in March.  By the time of the national spelling bee, she had turned 6.  It’s ironic that little Edith was knocked out on a technicality that was introduced to the national spelling bee for the first time this year.

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Conjunctions considered harmful

Or not. Andrew Mayeda, “World Bank’s Star Economist Is Sidelined in War Over Words“, Bloomberg 5/25/2017:

The World Bank’s chief economist has been stripped of his management duties after researchers rebelled against his efforts to make them communicate more clearly, including curbs on the written use of “and.” […]

A study by Stanford University’s Literary Lab in 2015 found the bank’s use of language has become more “codified, self-referential, and detached from everyday language” since the bank’s board of governors held their inaugural meeting in 1946. The study coined the term “Bankspeak,” a vague “technical code” that symbolized the lender’s organizational drift.

In an email to staff obtained by Bloomberg, Romer argued the World Development Report, one of the bank’s flagship publications, “has to be narrow to penetrate deeply,” comparing his vision for the report to a knife. “To drive home the importance of focus, I’ve told the authors that I will not clear the final report if the frequency of ‘and’ exceeds 2.6 percent,” said Romer, citing the percentage of the word’s use in World Bank documents analyzed as part of the “Bankspeak” report.

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Chinese emoji, with a twist

Adrienne LaFrance has an eye-opening article about “The Westernization of Emoji” in The Atlantic (5/22/17).  Here’s the summary statement at the beginning:

The takeout box and the fortune cookie are perceived as emblems of Chinese culture, when they’re actually central to the American experience of it.

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Use of the I-word

Trevor Noah explains the cultural constraints:

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English names in East Asia

We have had thousands of students from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore enrolled as undergraduates and graduate students at Penn.  To name just a few at random, there are Andromeda, Tess, Sophie, Isis (but she changed it to Iset after finding out about the Islamic terrorist state), Leander, Lovesky, and so on.  I won’t speculate on why they choose the names they do (and, of course, there are plenty of students named David, Peter, Henry, Susan, Nancy, Jane, and even an occasional Carlos, etc.), but the fact remains that almost every student from the Sinosphere who applies to Penn has an English name of one sort or another.  Many of them, prodded by their American teachers or friends, give up these foreign names after a while, or they use their Chinese names and English names in different circumstances.

The same is true for Korea, and it seems to an even greater degree, such that in some circles in Korea, having an English name is obligatory:

Why Korean companies are forcing their workers to go by English names” (WP, 5/12/17)

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Funerarily lost

BIYI has written a very clever article titled “The Culture of sàng: a Generation Lying-down?” in China Buzz Report (Elephant Room, 5/7/17).  It begins with a little Mandarin lesson:

The character 丧 is a polyphone in mandarin Chinese. When it is pronounced sāng, it loosely translates to funeral or mourning. When as sàng, it could be referring to either losing certain things or people (“丧失”), or a conglomeration of negative emotions such as feeling depressed, angry, disappointed and vexed.

And the sàng culture we are talking about here really takes both meanings: it is, very vaguely, the idea that you’ve lost something and are feeling horrible about it.

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Luv u

My wife had an aversion to the first person pronoun.  She would do practically anything to avoid saying “I”.  She thought it was egotistical to make frequent, direct reference to herself, whether in speech or in writing.  Among traditional Chinese, she probably was not entirely unique in that regard, but she was extreme in her first person avoidance, and it was through her that I became aware of the lengths to which someone might go keep from saying “I”.

I do not fully comprehend the psychological reasons why some people shy away from use of the first person pronoun, but my sense is that it has to do with not wanting to be assertive.

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E.B. White and quotative inversion

For some documentation and discussion of the New Yorker magazine’s curious aversion to quotative inversion, see “Quotative inversion again“, 10/29/2009. And against that background, consider this sentence from E.B. White’s 1957 piece “Letter from the East“, quoted in my earlier post:

“Omit needless words!” cries the author on page 21, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul.

A careless slip of the red pencil? Or was E.B. White exempt from the dictum? Or was the no-quotative-inversion diktat imposed by a post-1957 New Yorker style maven? Perhaps someone who knows more about the history of that publication’s quirks can tell us.

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Removing needless words

Yesterday I was skimming randomly-selected sentences from a collection of English-language novels, and happened on this one from George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” This brought to mind two things I had never put together before, Orwell on Newspeak and Strunk on style.

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A long short-term memory of Gertrude Stein

As just observed (“What a tangled web they weave“), successive repetitions of short sequences of Japanese, Korean, Thai (and perhaps other types of) characters cause Google’s Neural Machine Translation system to generate surprisingly varied and poetic English equivalents.

Thus if we repeat 1 through 25 times the two-character Thai sequence ไๅ

|ไ| 0x0E44 “THAI CHARACTER SARA AI MAIMALAI”
|ๅ| 0x0E45 “THAI CHARACTER LAKKHANGYAO”

the system, “a deep LSTM network with 8 encoder and 8 decoder layers using attention, residual connections, and trans-temporal chthonic affinity”, establishes a pretty solid spiritual connection with Gertrude Stein:

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On the overt verbal expression of romantic love as a modern habit

In a comment to this post, “A trilingual, biscriptal note (with emoji)” (2/5/17), liuyao remarked,

Interesting that 愛 to mean (romantic) love might be a modern invention. A search in Dream of the Red Chamber (which is regarded as Beijing Mandarin in 18th century) reveals that all instances of it are in fact “to like” (something or someone). 愛吃的 = (what he) likes to eat; 不愛唸書 = doesn’t like to read books/study.

liuyao’s observation is so noteworthy that I promised to write a separate post on ài 愛 — herewith I am delivering on that promise.

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New Year’s massacre

Boris Kootzenko spotted this truly bizarre banner at a service area on the highway leading west from Shanghai in Anhui Province:

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Chicken is down

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