Translating the I ching (Book of Changes)

For the last two decades or so, my brother Denis and I have been working on a translation of the Yìjīng 易經 (Classic of Changes).  We shall probably finish the first draft within a year.

Of all the Chinese classics, the I ching is the one that most Sinologists do not want to touch because of its maddening opacity.  In this regard, it is worth quoting at some length the words of James Legge (1815-1897), the Victorian translator of all the Confucian classics, a monumental achievement that still stands today as an invaluable resource for anyone who wishes to acquaint him/herself with these essential texts of early Chinese civilization.

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"Moron" considered dangerous

In all of the foofaraw about Rex Tillerson calling Donald Trump a "fucking moron", no one seems to have picked up on the fact the Mr. Tillerson may have endangered his immortal soul. (And not on account of the expletive.)

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What is Trump demanding now?

Here's a nice crash blossom (that is, a difficult-to-parse ambiguous headline) noted on Twitter by The Economist's Lane Greene, with credit to his colleague James Waddell. In The Financial Times, a promotion of an article inside (a "reefer" in newspaper-speak) is headlined: "Trump demands dog 'Dreamers' deal."

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The vocabulary of sharp implements in Xinjiang

Public notification posted in villages of Makit County (Màigàití xiàn 麦盖提县; Mәkit nah̡iyisi / Мәкит наһийиси مەكىت ناھىيىسى) near Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR):


Source

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A polysyllabic character that can be read in two different ways

Photo taken in Hangzhou by Nikita Kuzmin's Chinese teacher:

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Information content of text in English and Chinese

Terms and concepts related to "letters" and "characters" were used at spectacularly crossed purposes in many of the comments on Victor Mair's recent post "Twitter length restrictions in English, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean". I'm not going to intervene in the tangled substance of that discussion, except to reference some long-ago LLOG posts on the relative information content of different languages/writing systems. The point of those posts was to abstract away from the varied, complex, and (here) irrelevant details of character sets, orthographic conventions, and digital encoding systems, and to look instead at the size ratios of parallel (translated) texts in compressed form. The idea is that compression schemes try precisely to get rid of those irrelevant details, leaving a better estimate of the actual information content.

My conclusions from those exercises are two:

  1. The differences among languages in information-theoretic efficiency appear to be quite small.
  2. The direction of the differences is unclear — it depends on the texts chosen, the direction of translation, and the method of compression used.

See "One world, how many bytes?", 8/5/2005; "Comparing communication efficiency across languages", 4/4/2008; "Mailbag: comparative communication efficiency", 4/5/2008; "Is English more efficient than Chinese after all?", 4/28/2008.

 

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Écriture inclusive

In English, singular personal pronouns are almost the only residue of morphological gender. But in many languages this is a much bigger problem, with gender agreement in adjectives, gendered forms of most nouns, and so on. A few years, French proponents of "écriture inclusive" ("inclusive writing") proposed a novel use of an otherwise little-used character, the "middle dot", to set off optional letter sequences and create gender-ambiguous written forms. Thus

Masculine Feminine Inclusive
 intellectuel  intellectuelle  intellectuel·le
 musicien  musicienne  musicien·ne
 représentés  représentées  représenté·e·s

Thus, as Le Figaro put it,

Pour que les femmes comme les hommes «soient inclus·e.s, se sentent représenté·e·s et s'identifient», le Haut Conseil à l'égalité entre les femmes et les hommes recommandait en 2015, dans un guide pratique, d'utiliser l'écriture inclusive.

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"…her eyes began to swell in tears when she was asked to take out the Mandarin work sheets…"

The following post is from an old, now defunct, blog, but the description of little Eunice learning three languages at once (none of which was her natal tongue spoken at home) and other discussions of Chinese are unusual in their detail and sensitivity, so worthy of sharing with Language Log readers:

"Primary learning in a multilingual society ", Grammar Gang (5/24/14)

The author of the post is Jyh Wee Sew (Centre for Language Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, National University of Singapore).  I will simply quote a few passages of the post and make a few concluding remarks, but warmly recommend that anyone who is interested in second (and third) language pedagogy / acquisition read the whole post.

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More vitriolic rhetoric from KCNA

We've already had a taste of the crass, crude contumely that the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) typically spews forth against the perceived enemies of the North Korean state:

"Dotard" (9/22/17)
"Of dotards and DOLtards" (10/4/17)

KCNA hits a new low with their latest denunciation of the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe:

"North Korea promises to bring 'nuclear clouds' to Japan, mocks PM as 'headless chicken'", by Katherine Lam, Fox News (10/3/17)
"N. Korea threatens nuke strike on Japan, calls Abe ‘headless chicken’:  Abe’s comments at UN will 'bring nuclear clouds to the Japanese archipelago,' says KCNA", Asia Unhedged, Asia Times (10/4/17)

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Twitter length restrictions in English, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean

Josh Horwitz has a provocative article in Quartz (9/27/17):  "SAY MORE WITH LESS:  In Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, 140 characters for Twitter is plenty, thank you"

The thinking here is muddled and the analysis is misplaced.  There's a huge difference between "characters" in English and in Chinese.  We also have to keep in mind the difference between "word" and "character", both in English and in Chinese.  A more appropriate measure for comparing the two types of script would be their relative "density", the amount of memory / code space required to store and transmit comparable information in the two scripts.

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Cartoonist walks into a language lab…

Bob Mankoff gave a talk here in Madison not long ago.  You may recognize Mankoff as the cartoon editor for many years at the New Yorker magazine, who is now at Esquire. Mankoff’s job involved scanning about a thousand cartoons a week to find 15 or so to publish per issue. He did this for over 20 years, which is a lot of cartoons. More than 950 of his own appeared in the magazine as well. Mankoff has thought a lot about humor in general and cartoon humor in particular, and likes to talk and write about it too.

The Ted Talk
On “60 Minutes”
His Google talk
Documentary, "Very Semi-Serious"

What’s the Language Log connection?  Humor often involves language? New Yorker cartoons are usually captioned these days, with fewer in the lovely mute style of a William Steig.  A general theory of language use should be able to explain how cartoon captions, a genre of text, are understood. The cartoons illustrate (sic) the dependence of language comprehension on context (the one created by the drawing) and background knowledge (about, for example, rats running mazes, guys marooned on islands, St. Peter’s gate, corporate culture, New Yorkers). The popular Caption Contest is an image-labeling task, generating humorous labels for an incongruous scene.

But it’s Mankoff's excursions into research that are particularly interesting and Language Loggy.  Mankoff is the leading figure in Cartoon Science (CartSci), the application of modern research methods to questions about the generation, selection, and evaluation of New Yorker cartoons.

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Jawn

See Ben Zimmer's jawn etymology interview, and also "Vaina == Jawn?", 8/12/2016.

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"Twitzkrieg"

Jeffrey Lewis, "Donald Trump Threatened North Korea After Completely Imaginary Negotiations", Foreign Policy 10/3/2017:

Over the weekend, a story emerged that the United States was in some sort of talks with North Korea, followed in quick succession by a series of tweets from U.S. President Donald Trump rejecting any sort of diplomatic engagement with North Korea.

One small problem: There never were any such talks.

This particular episode in the months-long twitzkrieg between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump is a parable about how bad reporting can create its own facts, leading gullible readers to act out of false information or contrived narratives. And if one of those gullible readers happens to be the president of the United States, watch out.

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