Archive for Language and culture

Sinographs for "tea"

It is common for Chinese to claim that their ancestors have been drinking tea for five thousand years, as with so many other aspects of their culture.  I always had my doubts about that supposed hoary antiquity, and after many years of research, Erling Hoh and I wrote a book on the subject titled The True History of Tea (Thames & Hudson, 2009) in which we showed that tea-drinking did not become common in the East Asian Heartland until after the mid-8th century AD, when Lu Yu (733-804) wrote his groundbreaking Classic of Tea (ca. 760-762) describing and legitimizing the infusion.

Since people in the Chinese heartland were not regularly drinking Camellia sinensis qua tea before the mid-8th century, I long suspected that they did not have a Sinograph for tea (MSM chá) either.  Rather, based on my reading of texts and inscriptions dating from the 7th c. AD and earlier, I hypothesized that the character now used for "tea", namely chá 茶, was a sort of rebranding (by removing one tiny horizontal stroke) of another character, tú 荼 ("bitter vegetable").

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How to address your professor

Face to face, most students greet me as "Professor Mair", a few as "Dr. Mair". In e-mails and other written communications, they nearly all address me with "Dear Prof. Mair", "Hello Prof. Mair", or "Hi Prof. Mair", all of which sound natural and normal. I nearly fell off my chair when a female student from China recently sent me an e-mail that began simply "Victor". A few weeks later, I was stunned when she sent me another e-mail that began even more abruptly with just "Mair". This particular student's English otherwise is quite good, so I really don't know what's going on with her.

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Snobbery

There's a salon / spa in Japan called "snob®".  Bill Benzon asks:  "Is 'snob' free of the negative connotations it would have here?"

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Of reindeer and Old Sinitic reconstructions

This is a piece that I've been meaning to write for a long time, but never found the opportunity.  Now, inspired by the season and about to embark on extended holiday travel, I'm determined not to put it off for yet another year.

The genesis of my ruminations on this topic are buried in decades-old tentative efforts to identify the fabulous creature known in Chinese myth as the qilin (Hanyu Pinyin), also spelled as ch'i2-lin2 (Wade-Giles Romanization) and kirin in Japanese, which the whole world knows as the name of a famous beer (fanciful, stylized depictions of the kirin are to be found on bottles and cans of the beer).

The qilin is usually referred to in English as a kind of unicorn, but I knew that couldn't be right, since no account of the qilin from antiquity describes it as having only one horn.  The Chinese xièzhì 獬豸 ("goat of justice") does have a single, long, pointed horn, but that is another matter, for which see "Lamb of Goodness, Goat of Justice" (pp. 86-93) in Victor H. Mair, "Religious Formations and Intercultural Contacts in Early China," in Volkhard Krech and Marion Steinicke, ed., Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe:  Encounters, Notions, and Comparative Perspectives (Dynamics in the History of Religion, 1 [Ruhr-Universität Bochum]) (Leiden:  Brill, 2011), pp. 85-110 (available on Google Books).  Since customs pertaining to the goat of justice, as with the reindeer, existed in cultures spread across northern Eurasia, I suspect that an extra-Sinitic loanword may also be lurking behind xièzhì 獬豸.

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Of jackal and hide and Old Sinitic reconstructions

[The first page of this post is a guest contribution by Chris Button.]

I've been thinking a little about the word represented by chái 豺* which I would normally reconstruct as *dzrəɣ (Zhengzhang *zrɯ) ignoring any type a/b distinctions. However, it occurred to me that a reconstruction of *dzrəl (for which Zhengzhang would presumably have *zrɯl) would give the same Middle Chinese reflex (I'm not citing Baxter/Sagart since they don't support lateral codas presumably for reasons of symmetry). I'm not sure if outside of its phonetic speller cái 才 there is any reason to go with -ɣ rather than -l in coda position for 豺. However, if we go with a lateral coda as *dzrəl, it looks suspiciously similar to Old Iranian šagāl from Sanskrit śṛgāla (perhaps even more so if we fricativize the Old Iranian /g/ to /ɣ/ intervocalically as in modern Persian).

[*VHM:  This is always a challenging word for translators.  "jackal" and "dhole" are two possibilities.]

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On pronoun typology and economic measures

Below is a guest post by Bob Kennedy.


This post is adapted from a letter I wrote to the editors of the journal Kyklos, in response to the recent publication of “Do Linguistic Structures Affect Human Capital? The Case of Pronoun Drop”, by Prof Horst Feldmann of the University of Bath.

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Please vomit here

Here we go again.  With the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coming up, China aims to eliminate Chinglish, and all sorts of negative examples are adduced.  We've covered scores of them on Language Log, but here's one I hadn't seen before:

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A new Sinograph

On being ugly and poor, with an added note on consumerism.

Every so often, for one reason or another, somebody creates a completely new Chinese character.  Here's the latest:

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Toilet revolution!, part 2

Why China still needs one, and Chairman Xi keeps calling for a profound transformation of toilet etiquette:

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Throw a language party!

Magdalen Kelantumama telling the story Murtankala, The Woman Creator, Tiwi language, Australia, Darwin Fringe Festival, July 2017.

2019 is UN International Year of Indigenous Languages. How do we celebrate linguistic diversity and recognise the people who are keeping endangered languages strong? Inspired by the work of Joanna Macy, we have developed a format for storytelling in the original languages. While listeners don't understand the individual words, they get the message:

Speech does not consist of words alone… it consists of utterance – an uttering-forth of one's whole meaning with one's whole being – the understanding of which involves infinitely more than mere word-recognition. With an emotionally-laden utterance the meaning may be fully grasped even when every word is missed. –Oliver Sacks

And the message isn't just a story to be translated and digested, as though language were merely a tool for communication, and linguistic diversity no more than a barrier to be overcome through translation. Audiences experience Language as art, music, spoken soul. The thread of each story linking us back to the ancestors. Language connecting people to country. Each language a treasure for the whole of humankind. A language's emblematic stock of untranslatable words.

Today, speakers of endangered languages are found in urban centres across the world. This presents an opportunity to gather and listen to them, embrace the diversity in our midst, and create new ways and new places for people to belong. A special reward awaits: we all come to belong in our place in a new way.

The good news is that the world is still home to 4,500 vigorous languages. Celebrate with us, and throw a language party!

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More on trends in the Google ngrams corpus

In "Lexico-cultural decay?", 10/9/2018, I called into question Jonathan Merritt's evidence for the view that "most of the central terms in the Christian vocabulary are rapidly declining". Merritt cites Kesebir & Kesebir 2012, who argue on the basis of Google ngram-viewer data that

Study 1 showed a decline in the use of general moral terms such as virtue, decency and conscience, throughout the twentieth century. In Study 2, we examined the appearance frequency of 50 virtue words (e.g. honesty, patience, compassion) and found a significant decline for 74% of them.

I explained several reasons why unigram frequencies for many ordinary words in the Google ngram dataset tend to show a decline over the 20th century, citing Pechinick et al. 2015 and giving some illustrative examples. It occurred to me this morning that there's a different way to illustrate one of the issues, namely the changing mix of types of books in Google's collection. At some point after 2000, that collection shifts fairly abruptly — the earlier material is based on scans of books from cooperating research libraries, while the later material is based on digital texts provided by publishers. This shift produces such a pronounced change in the frequency of nearly all words that the default ngram viewer stops in the year 2000.

But you can ask the viewer to give you data up to 2008 (as far as it's willing to go), and the results almost always show a pronounced change. So I tried it for the items underlying Merritt's argument.

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Why it's harder for him to "speak God"

In "Lexico-cultural decay" (10/9/2018) and "Lexical orientation" (10/12/2018) I discussed Jonathan Merritt's 10/9/2018 argument that "traditional sacred speech is dying in the English-speaking world" ("The Death of Sacred Speech", The Week 9/10/2018).

Yesterday, a related piece by Merritt was featured in the New York Times — "It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God". This time he adds polling results to numbers from Google Books:

More than 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to them. An overwhelming majority of people say that they don’t feel comfortable speaking about faith, most of the time. […]

As a student of American Christianity and the son of a prominent megachurch pastor, I’ve been sensing for some time that sacred speech and spiritual conversation are in decline. But this was only a hunch I had formed in response to anecdotal evidence and personal experience. I lacked the quantitative data needed to say for sure.

So last year, I enlisted the Barna Group, a social research firm focused on religion and public life, to conduct a survey of 1,000 American adults. This study revealed that most Americans — more than three-quarters, actually — do not often have spiritual or religious conversations.

More than one-fifth of respondents admit they have not had a spiritual conversation at all in the past year. Six in 10 say they had a spiritual conversation only on rare occasions — either “once or twice” (29 percent) or “several times” (29 percent) in the past year. A paltry 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly.

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Lexical orientation

In "Lexico-Cultural Decay", 10/9/2018, I examined Jonathan Merritt's Google-ngram-based argument that "traditional sacred speech is dying in the English-speaking world" ("The Death of Sacred Speech", The Week 9/10/2018). Today, as promised in that post, I'm returning to his neo-Whorfian conclusion:

Now, words have fallen out of usage at every point in history. Language is always changing, and humans keep marching on. Does this trend matter?

Actually, yes. An emerging body of research now reveals that the languages we hear and speak also influence our worldviews, memories, perceptions, and behaviors more than scientists once realized. Children who grow up speaking the same words tend to think in similar ways. Our minds don't just shape our words. Our words shape our minds, too.

A linguist named Lera Boroditsky once asked an audience of celebrated scholars at Harvard University to close their eyes and point north. Hands shot up around the auditorium like roman candles, aimed in all possible directions. She repeated the experiment at Princeton and Stanford, as well as in Moscow, London, and Beijing. The result was the same — an array of hands aimed at each of the four major directions and every point in between.

But when Boroditsky traveled to a community on the western shores of Australia's Cape York, she discovered that children as young as 5 can point north at all times with absolute precision.

Why the difference? The answer, as it turns out, is words.

Or maybe the answer is walls.

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