Archive for Language and politics

Absence of metaphysics

[The following is a guest post by Zihan Guo in response to this article by Bruno Maçães, a Portuguese politician and political philosopher, who asserts, among other things, that China lacks metaphysics because of the nature of its language (i.e., script):  "The Black Box:  A Theory of China", World Game on Substack (12/25/20) — excerpts below.]

I can hear Zhuangzi chuckling.

For me, the charm of a Chinese word is its ability to conjure up images beyond its denotational meaning. The word shānshuǐ 山水 ("landscape") does come from shān 山 ("mountain") and shuǐ 水 "water"), but it connotes much more than that. What immediately comes to my mind is Chinese landscape painting, where an infinitesimal figure (a being) plods along the trails leading up to an insurmountable cliff. To my amateurish eyes, those painters are not just depicting empirical reality. There is meaning behind the surface representation.

Asking Zhuangzi "what is red?", Zhuangzi might also ask "what is not red, what is redder, what is less red, why does it matter?" The Chinese answer with a collage of red objects can go through a similar philosophical rumination just as the scientific Western definition. If "red" can be represented by many different things, its concept becomes unstable and ambiguous. Cherries are red, but roses might be redder, so which is the "true" red? One sees that redness as phenomenal keeps changing and that one's own perception of reality can be deceptive. I believe Zhuangzi probes into similar questions as well as the eventual question of whether there is something unchanging beyond all phenomena.

I think the author is more interested in modern Chinese politics than the idea that Chinese script is purely physical. His ending note about Xi feels rather sarcastic.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (5)

Deep fake audio

Helen Rosner, "A Haunting New Documentary About Anthony Bourdain", The New Yorker 7/15/2021:

It’s been three years since Anthony Bourdain died, by suicide, in June of 2018, and the void he left is still a void. […]

In 2019, about a year after Bourdain’s death, the documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville began talking to people who had been close to Bourdain: his family, his friends, the producers and crew of his television series. “These were the hardest interviews I’ve ever done, hands down,” he told me. “I was the grief counsellor, who showed up to talk to everybody.” […]

There is a moment at the end of the film’s second act when the artist David Choe, a friend of Bourdain’s, is reading aloud an e-mail Bourdain had sent him: “Dude, this is a crazy thing to ask, but I’m curious” Choe begins reading, and then the voice fades into Bourdain’s own: “. . . and my life is sort of shit now. You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?” I asked Neville how on earth he’d found an audio recording of Bourdain reading his own e-mail. Throughout the film, Neville and his team used stitched-together clips of Bourdain’s narration pulled from TV, radio, podcasts, and audiobooks. “But there were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of,” Neville explained. So he got in touch with a software company, gave it about a dozen hours of recordings, and, he said, “I created an A.I. model of his voice.” In a world of computer simulations and deepfakes, a dead man’s voice speaking his own words of despair is hardly the most dystopian application of the technology. But the seamlessness of the effect is eerie. “If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the A.I., and you’re not going to know,” Neville said. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (3)

The Rhetoric Trap

Interesting Chinese translation of the title of Yale philosopher Jason Stanley's book, How Propaganda Works:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (10)

Curated language

Like the previous post (7/7/21) on gender-inclusive French, it is difficult to refrain from quoting the bulk of this thought-provoking article by John McWhorter in The Atlantic (7/4/21): 

Even Trigger Warning Is Now Off Limits

The “Oppressive Language List” at Brandeis University could have come from countless other colleges, advocacy groups, or human-resources offices.

—–

Thirty years ago, someone taught me to say actor rather than actress and chairperson rather than chairman, to discourage our thinking of occupational performance as elementally distinct depending on sex. I understood. Language does not shape thought as much as is often supposed. But words can nudge concepts in certain directions if the connection between the word and the concept is clear enough; the compound of chair and the gender-neutral person hints that, for most purposes, the listener doesn’t need to know whether the individual running a meeting was male or female.

In the same vein, I heartily approve of the modern usage of they (Roberta is getting a haircut; they’ll be here in a little while). I also like the call to replace slave with enslaved person. Slave can indeed imply a certain essence, as if it were a status inherent to some people. Enslaved person points up that the slavery is an imposed condition. The distinction matters given how central, sensitive, and urgent the discussion of slavery is in today’s America.

But according to counsel from Brandeis University’s Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center, or PARC, considerate people must go further: Apparently, we must retire victim, survivor, trigger warning, and African-American too. We must do so, that is, if we seek to ignore some linguistic fundamentals while also engaging in distinctly callow sociological calisthenics. When we are to even “consider” avoiding the word prisoner (try person who was incarcerated) or walk-in (because not all people can walk) and the phrase everything going on right now (I’ll leave you to find out what’s wrong with that one), we are being preached to by people on a quest to change reality through the performative policing of manners.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (73)

Hatred in model operas

From blood and gore to hatred.

In China, revolutionary operas or model operas (Chinese: yangban xi, 样板戏) were a series of shows planned and engineered during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) by Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong. They were considered revolutionary and modern in terms of thematic and musical features when compared with traditional Chinese operas. Many of them were adapted to film.

Originally, eight revolutionary operas (Chinese: Ba Ge Yangban Xi, 八个样板戏) were produced, eighteen by the end of the period. Instead of the "emperors, kings, generals, chancellors, maidens, and beauties" of the traditional Peking opera, which was banned as "feudalistic and bourgeois," they told stories from China's recent revolutionary struggles against foreign and class enemies. They glorified the People's Liberation Army and the bravery of the common people, and showed Mao Zedong and his thought as playing the central role in the victory of socialism in China. Although they originated as operas, they soon appeared on LPs, in comic books (lianhuanhua), on posters, postcards, and stamps; on plates, teapots, wash basins, cigarette packages, vases, and calendars. They were performed or played from loudspeakers in schools, factories, and fields by special performing troupes. The Eight Model Operas dominated the stage in all parts of the country during these years, leading to the joke "Eight hundred million people watched eight shows."

(source)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (7)

Gender-inclusive French

An unusual article on language in Foreign Policy:

"Aux Armes, Citoyen·nes!  Gender-neutral terms have sparked an explosive battle over the future of the French language," by Karina Piser (7/4/21)

The article is long and detailed.  Here I try to quote only the most important and telling points.

In early May, France’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, announced a ban on the use in schools of an increasingly common—and contested—writing method designed to make the French language more gender-inclusive.

Specifically, Blanquer’s decree focuses on the final letter “e,” which is used to feminize words in French—étudiant, for example, becomes étudiante when referring to a female student. Like many other languages, French is gendered: Pronouns, nouns, verbs, and adjectives reflect the gender of the object or person they refer to; there is no gender-neutral term like “they.” Most critically, say the proponents of the inclusive method, the masculine always takes precedence over the feminine—if there’s a group of 10 women and one man, a French speaker would still refer to the group in the masculine plural, ils.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (30)

Yet another literary misreading by Xi Jinping

This one amounts to a Sinitic spoonerism.

In his major July 1 speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of the CCP, Xi Jinping wanted to impress people with this set phrase:

yízhǐqìshǐ

頤指氣使 / 颐指气使

lit. "chin / jaw / cheek — point out / at [with a finger] — haughty attitude / bearing — command / order / dispatch"

i.e., "(arrogantly / contemptuously) give orders; boss people around (by looks and gestures)"

Instead, what came out of his mouth was this:

yíshǐqìzhǐ

頤使氣指

which might be playfully rendered as something like "beatbrow"

This expression goes back to at least the Tang period (618-907).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (4)

"I am Chairman Mao's Bitch"

Jeff DeMarco saw this sign in the window of a building in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district in 2009:


Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (5)

Dungan, a Sinitic language of Central Asia written in the Cyrillic Alphabet

The linguistic importance of Dungan is greatly disproportionate to the number of its speakers, approximately 150,000, who live in seven different countries that are widely spread across Eurasia:   Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.  The main reason why Dungan has been the focus of so much interest during the half-century since I began studying this fascinating language is that it puts the lie to the fallacy that Sinitic languages can only be written with the Sinographic script (i.e., Chinese characters).  The only Sinitic language that needs to be written with morphosyllabic characters is Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, a language that, in terms of its sayability, has been dead for millennia.  The recent academic study of Dungan has played a key role in enabling language specialists and the lay public finally to come to this realization.

Because the Dungan people are so highly scattered across vast distances and live among dominant populations with completely different languages that they need to speak for daily survival, their own language — and consequently also its alphabetic script — is threatened with extinction.  Furthermore, in recent decades the Dungans have been buffetted by ethnopolitical winds that make it even harder to maintain their unique identity.  That is why I have long felt a sense of urgency about the need to document and research Dungan language and script in all of their dimensions (morphology, phonology, lexicography, grammar, syntax, script, literature, sociolinguistics…).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

What does “Native speaker” mean, anyway?

Below is a guest post by Devin Grammon and Anna Babel.


Both linguists and non-linguists commonly use the term “native speaker” to describe someone who grew up speaking a particular language and who is fully proficient in that language. Often, we invest native speakers with authority regarding how someone should speak a language – for example, native speakers are often preferred as instructors in the second-language classroom, or sought after as linguistic informants for field methods classes or as research assistants for fieldwork or analysis of linguistic data. Indeed, the idea of being a native speaker is tied to ideas of authenticity, as in the commonly held dialectological wisdom that elderly, rural male speakers with all their teeth are the best informants. But where does the term come from, and what does it really mean?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (132)

Bringing back the Cultural Revolution — in English

As part of the run-up to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that will take place in July, scenes like this are increasingly common on the streets of the PRC:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (19)

A Sino-Italian mistranslation morass

A jumble of soccer talk and Confucian piety, with a splash of CCP ideology

Week in China has an interesting article about a football flap that occurred recently in China:

"Lost in translation:  Cannavaro gets Confucian" (May 14, 2021; WiC 540)

The story is quite convoluted and complicated, so we need to start with the background of the key term at play:  shì 士 (not tǔ 土 ["earth; soil; dust; local; native; indigenous; uncouth; colloquial"] — it is very easy to confuse the two characters).  You will note that nowhere in this long article is there any attempt to translate 士 ("warrior; soldier; scholar; gentleman") into English, and that is a big part of the rub.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (20)

Who owns kimchi?

[This is a guest post by S. Robert Ramsey]

"Korean kimchi originally came from China."

–Or so China’s online encyclopedia Baidu Baike declared in its article on kimchi.

Koreans were outraged. What gall for Chinese to lay claim to their national dish! Adding to the furor, China’s English-language newspaper Global Times reported last year that the International Organization for Standardization (the ISO) had recognized an “international standard for the kimchi industry led by China.”

Indignant Koreans flooded the Internet: “It’s total nonsense, what a thief stealing our culture!” a South Korean netizen said. Another wrote: “I read a media story that China now says kimchi is theirs, and that they are making international standard for it. It’s absurd.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)