Archive for Grammar

Aspects of the Theory of Syntithology

From John Brewer:

Not sure if Language Log typically has a "travel page" section, but those readers in or near the NYC area who are vaccinated or otherwise not locked down might be interested in an exhibit at the Grolier Club in Manhattan that I visited a few days ago and will remain there until mid-May. It's called "Taming the Tongue in the Heyday of English Grammar (1711-1851," and includes sixty-odd different volumes from that time frame offering analysis, instruction, prescriptivist guidance, and/or complete crackpottery on the subject. They are all from the personal collection of the famous and/or notorious Bryan Garner. Admission is free but you need to book a time-slot 48 hours in advance via their website so they can limit the number of visitors to a pandemic-suitable total.

More details here (you may need to click on the "Second Floor Gallery" tab).

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Clumsy classicism

In his addresses to the Liǎnghuì 兩會 (Two Sessions), annual plenary meetings of the national People's Congress and the national committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference that have just concluded in Beijing (March 4-11), Xi Jinping repeatedly stressed “guó zhī dà zhě 国之大者”.  The grammar is clearly literary, with the first character a monosyllabic version of vernacular "guójiā 国家" ("country"), the second character a classical attributive particle, and the fourth character a classical nominalizing particle. Thus the phrase stands out like a sore thumb midst the matrix of vernacular in which it is mixed.  What's worse, even fluent readers of Mandarin generally misinterpret what it means.  Most educated persons to whom I've shown the phrase think that it means "big / large / powerful / great country", "that which (can be called) a big / large / powerful / great country"), etc., when in fact Xi intends for it to mean "something that is important for the country", "that which is important for the country" "things that are important for the country", etc.

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Manglish "lah" and its affinity to Arabic "muhibbah"

Dwight Reynolds called my attention to this extraordinarily apropos article from the Travel section of the Beeb (3/9/21), by Charukesi Ramadurai :

"Malaysia's harmonious approach to life"

While Malaysia generally stays under the radar, it is one of Asia’s most friendly and tolerant countries where its three major ethnic communities live mostly in harmony.

The serendipitous article jumps right onto the "lah" wagon:

As a newly minted resident of Kuala Lumpur, the first Malaysian word I learned was “lah”. Each time I used it in conversation, both locals and expats exclaimed in delight, “you have become a Malaysian so soon!” For that short, simple sound used as a suffix in everyday conversations encapsulates the ease and warmth with which Malaysian society embraces everyone within its fold. Indeed, although it is believed to be of Cantonese or Hokkien origin, lah is used most commonly in what is known as Manglish – Malaysian English – a delightful patois of formal English with casual smatterings of Malay, the national language.

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Singlish "lah", with a possible deep connection to colloquial Arabic

A prominent feature of Colloquial Singaporean English (Singlish) is sentence-final "la", in which it has more nuances and innuendoes than you can shake a stick at.  Anyone who has heard Singaporeans talking freely cannot fail to be struck by the frequency and variety of sentence-final "lah". This ubiquitous particle "lah" (/lá/ or /lâ/), sometimes spelled as "la" and rarely spelled as "larh", "luh", or "lurh", may possibly have been absorbed into Singlish from a similar word in Malay.  See David Deterding, Singapore English (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 71.

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Acquiring literacy in medieval Dunhuang

This semester, I'm teaching an advanced graduate seminar on Dunhuangology.  Below, I will explain what that means, but first let me post photographs of one of the manuscripts from Dunhuang that we will be studying in the class:

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Headless men with face on chest

The hapless condition of headlessness may be a physical phenomenon, but it may also be a grammatical or orthographic category in linguistics, and we have dealt with both kinds on Language Log, e.g.:

Now, what shall we make of the following?

Xingtian as drawn by Jiang Yinghao, 17th century; there are many different versions of this figure, but all basically with the same features and pose.

One of the Blemmyes, from a map of 1566 by Guillaume Le Testu. Among the scores of Blemmye representations I've seen, they're all roughly of this nature.

Both figures are pictured on a flat space amidst mountainous terrain.  Both have a weapon in their right hand and a shield / pail in their left hand.  Both have their right leg raised / advanced.  Both have their face on their chest and lack a head.  Etc.  I doubt very much that they could have arisen completely independently.

The Blemmye is associated with the word Scythe, an Iranian people who traversed the vast lands between Crimea and Korea.  More than any other group in the first millennium BC, which was so crucial for transeurasian exchange during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, the Scythians were responsible for the transmission of cultural products across Eurasia.  This was due to their mastery of horse riding, advanced weaponry, and organizational and mental prowess.

This fits with the paradigm of long distance transmission of culture and language that I've been developing for decades in scores of posts, articles, and books.

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Inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns in Sinitic

On September 11, Friday afternoon, Diana Shuheng Zhang gave a virtuoso presentation before the Cornell Classical Chinese Colloquium (CCCC), a venerable institution that has been meeting regularly for decades.  The text she discussed was what she calls the "rhapsodic subcommentary" of the Daoist scholar, Cheng Xuanying 成玄英 (ca. 605-690), on the Zhuang Zi 莊子 (3rd c. BC).

In her explication of the 46th passage of the first chapter of the Zhuang Zi, Diana quoted Cheng Xuanying as stating:  "yǔ, wǒ yě 予,我也" ("'I' is / means 'I'").  Naturally, that led to a discussion of how such a definition would be necessary or helpful.  I pointed out that there are numerous first person pronouns in Sinitic.  Aside from the two already mentioned, there are also yú 余, wú 吾, and zhèn 朕 (like the royal "we" in English) and still others, not to mention several other humble self-references.  In addition, I mentioned zán 咱, which I knew was much later than the others, more highly colloquial, and regionally restricted.  It was part of my main observation that, in order to account for such phenomena (e.g., why are there two completely different words for "dog" — gǒu 狗 and quǎn 犬 ("dog") — we need to adopt the notion of linguistic stratification.  That is to say, the complex formation of the Sinitic peoples evolved over at least five millennia and involved the incorporation of diverse genetic, ethnic, and linguistic components.

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Subtle nuances of particle usage in Sinitic languages and topolects

Let's take the following three utterances that superficially and essentially all say the same thing — "give me face":

1.

Gěi wǒ gè miànzi ba 給我個面子吧

2.

Gěi gè miànzi ba 給個面子吧

3.

Gěi gè miànzi bei 給個面子唄

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"That, that, that…", part 2

Happenings at USC Marshall School of Business.

Dear Full-Time MBA Class of 2021,

Thank you for your interest and involvement in the current situation concerning the Class of 2022 and their GSBA-542 experience. This matter is of great importance to all of us. Accordingly, I want to make you aware of the action we are taking. This action is described in the attached email* that was just sent to all students in the Class of 2022.

Sincerely,

Geoff Garrett
Dean

[*see next item below]

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Easy Grammar from the Free Hong Kong Center

Not sure what they mean by "grammar" here, but they sure do have a message:

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There is no best but better

Tweet by Thomas Packard:

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Love me, then do not terrify me

Posted to the Twitter thread that began with the Arabic menu full of spectacularly bad mistranslations into English featured here ("Accuracy of sheep meat" [5/26/20]):

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Dogfooding

From Alex Wang:

I have through observation of my wechat via other people's moments and articles seen a noticeable uptick in the use of adding “-ing” to characters.

I was wondering if it’s a fad or something inherently clumsy in the construction if one were to use Chinese so  they use the English suffix "-ing" instead.

Recently I had to write a speech to be translated into Chinese and I wanted to use the expression "dogfooding".

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