Archive for Language and culture

Brain hole

Neologisms pop up so fast in China that it is almost impossible to keep abreast of them.  Furthermore, it is very hard to figure out where many of them come from.  Some of them are undoubtedly borrowed from other languages, but given such a twist that it is difficult to recognize the original source.  Others are just made up by imaginative netizens.  If they are taken up by others and catch on, they become part of contemporary vocabulary.

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Applied Quadrophobia

Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong entrepreneur, is one of the wealthiest persons in the world.  Around the beginning of this month, he sold the famous Hong Kong skyscraper known as The Center to a Chinese Communist Party-backed firm for over $5 billion, making it the most expensive commercial building ever sold.

Here's the WSJ report on the transaction:

"China’s Communist Party Has Ties to $5.15 Billion Hong Kong Property Deal:  The Center was featured in Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight'", by Wenxin Fan and Natasha Khan, WSJ (11/2/17)

What's interesting is that some websites claim that The Center is a "73 story building", while others describe it as having "80 floors". Apparently they're both correct … depending on what is counted.  This blog post explains why:  "Five Billion Dollar Office Tower Missing A Few Floors", by Nathaniel Taplin, WSJ (11/8/17).

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Glamping

That's a word that was completely unknown to me until I received this note from my sister, Heidi:

Glamping is big and getting bigger all of the time. Especially as the boomers retire daily. There are even 3 sites in PA and four in Ohio… and 9 in Texas.

And it is related to the off the grid and tiny house movement… also inspired by Burning Man subculture. As you can see, it was added to the Oxford Dictionary last year.

There are glamping supplies, tents, and destinations. See the official web site.

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Sibe: a living Manchu language

While it is generally acknowledged that Manchu language is nearly extinct, with only a handful of elderly speakers in the original territory of Manchuria, a very close cousin survives in the far northwest of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of the PRC.  This language is called Sibe (MSM transcription Xíbó 锡伯), and it is spoken by about 30,000 individuals among a population of about 200,000 whose ancestors were sent by the Manchu emperor to garrison the region in 1763-1764.  They never returned to their original homeland in the northeast of the empire, but have stayed continuously in the Ili Valley area of Eastern Central Asia (ECA), especially Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County / Chapchal Sibe Autonomous County.  Although the origin of the name "Siberia" is contestedPamela Crossley suggests that the Russians who were moving toward the Pacific named that vast region after the Sibe, who were well known to them.

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La septième fonction du langage

Laurent Binet, La septième fonction du langageThe seventh function of language. This looks like an interesting book — pulp meta-fiction featuring Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky, Louis Althusser, Paul de Man, Jean-François Lyotard,  Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, John Searle, Morris Zapp, Gayatri Spivak, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Jacques Lacan, Camille Paglia, and more. There are reviews by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post ("Who killed Roland Barthes? Maybe Umberto Eco has a clue.", 8/23/1017), by Nicholas Daves in the New York Times ("A Postmodern Buddy-Cop Novel Sends Up the World of Semiotics", 8/16/2017), by Anthony Domestico in the San Francisco Chronicle ("‘The Seventh Function of Language,’ by Laurent Binet", 817/2017), etc. And there's a play, scheduled for the Théâtre de Sartrouville in November, and various other venues in France through the spring of 2018. No doubt the movie rights have already been snapped up.

Versions in French and in English are available from the usual places.

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Response to Pullum on slurs

This is a guest post by Robert Henderson, Peter Klecha, and Eric McCready in response to Geoff Pullum's post of July 10. My only role was offering in advance to post a reply if the authors would like me to. I'm a good friend of Geoff Pullum and a friend of the authors. What follows is theirs.

We were quite surprised to read the LL post by Geoff Pullum of July 10. In this post, GP discussed the suspension of Tory MP Anne Marie Morris for using the phrase “n****r in the woodpile” at an event held at the East India Club. After her use of this phrase was recorded and publicized, she was suspended by the Tories for what the Financial Times described as a racist remark. According to GP, this punishment was excessive, as the remark in question was not racist; he proceeds “reluctantly” to defend Ms. Morris, as the idiom in question was merely “silly.” While we offer no comment on the appropriateness of the specific punishment Ms. Morris received, we do find this characterization problematic on both moral and empirical grounds, together with many other commentators on social media, and we want to suggest that the author should have been (much) more careful when dealing with such an important topic.

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The cult(ure) of slothful losers

Article by Zeng Yuli in Sixth Tone (6/27/17):

"Turn Off, Drop Out: Why Young Chinese Are Abandoning Ambition

As the economy slows and social expectations rise, youngsters are rejecting traditional notions of success and embracing a culture known as ‘sang.’"

Before reading this article, I was only vaguely familiar with "sang" culture.  So that those who do not know Chinese pronounce the word more or less correctly instead of making it sound like the past tense of "sing", read it as "sawng" or "sahng".

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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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