Archive for Grammar

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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The Mandarin grammatical particle "le" — one or many?

When I was learning Mandarin over half a century ago, the more grammatically minded Chinese language teachers argued that historically and functionally there were multiple "le" particles that just happened to end up being written with the simple two-stroke character 了.  Then a contrary movement set in, and linguists tried to prune down all the "le" into two or even one, claiming that all of the different 了 developed out of an ur-了.

The irony of it all is that, before the 20th century, there was no established, systematic, explicit grammar for Sinitic languages in indigenous sources.

See, inter alia, Victor H. Mair (1997), "Ma Jianzhong and the Invention of Chinese Grammar," in Chaofen Sun, ed., Studies on the History of Chinese Syntax. Monograph Series Number 10 of Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 5-26.  (available on JSTOR here)

Mǎshì wéntōng 馬氏文通 (conventionally rendered as "Ma's Grammar", though it would probably be closer to the original meaning in Chinese to translate it as "Written Language Unobstructedness"; 1898)

Just as we have seen in a recent post, before the 20th century there was no Chinese concept of "word":

"HouseHold GarBage" (12/6/19)

Which leads to the question:  can you have grammar without words?

There have been countless papers, articles, dissertations, and monographs on le 了.  Here I'm going to introduce two dissertations on le 了 written within the last few decades and the latest monograph on le 了 as representative of what has been happening with regard to the conceptualization of this protean particle in recent times.

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Ablative acting as locative in an Inner Mongolian Mandarin topolect

Yuqing Yang, a first-year MA student in our department, was talking to Jingran Joy Luo, another first year MA student in our department, when she noticed something special in Joy's manner of speech.  Namely, Joy used the ablative particle cóng 从 as a locative.  Normally, the locative is indicated by zài 在 in Mandarin.

Joy is from Baotou, which has the largest population (2,650,364 [in 2010]) of any city in Inner / Southern Mongolia.  Joy was totally oblivious to this special usage of hers until Yuqing pointed it out to her.  Although the ablative can be used as the locative in Joy's Baotou Mandarin, a certain criterion has to be met.  That is, there must be an option where the action one is planning will take place.

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A Chinese analog to English "you know"

It's only recently that I've heard a lot of students from mainland China say "nà shà 那啥" (lit., "that what").  At first it was hard to figure out exactly what they meant by it, but as I become more familiar with the contexts in which they deploy this phrase, I wonder if it is functionally something like the "you know" that is used so ubiquitously in English.

I think that 那啥 is basically a northeasternism that has swept across many other parts of China in the last few years.  It is a characteristic expression in comedic sketch (xiǎopǐn 小品 ).  Since this regional type of comedic skit has only lately become phenomenally popular outside of the northeast, that would account for the explosive spread of this term among my students, who come from all parts of China.  Prior to this year, I barely ever heard anyone not from the Northeast say it, but now I hear it spoken quite a bit by students from many different parts of China, although a few from southern China say they are not familiar with it.

Xiǎopǐn 小品 ("comedic sketch") is the Northeastern equivalent of xiàngsheng 相声 ("crosstalk; comic dialog"), centered in Beijing, but also much loved in Tianjin, Nanjing, and elsewhere, particularly in the north.  See "'Rondle it!'" (2/25/19) for an example.

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*Neither Sentence Nor Sentence?

Today in Seth Cable's seminar on Montague's Universal grammar, he gave out a problem set that included the task of adding "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" to the little fragment of English that had been developed. And in the discussion of the problem set, it turned out that I was the only one in the class who seemed to have any doubts about whether the sentence "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" was grammatical.
My own intuition was that it had to be "Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack smoke", though that sounded a little funny too.

So out of curiosity I just checked in the big Huddleston and Pullum Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. I was afraid the question was too arcane to be covered there; but to my happy surprise they do actually discuss it, on pages 1308-9 in their chapter on coordination.

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Tiananmen protest slogan grammar puzzle

Activists gathered at Tiananmen Square on May 14th, 1989:

Source:  "China’s Great Firewall threatens to erase memories of Tiananmen:  VPN crackdown and sophisticated censorship make it harder to access outside information", by Karen Chiu, abacus (6/3/19)

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