Archive for Grammar

Sanskrit is far from extinct

[This is the first of two consecutive posts on things Indian.  After reading them, if someone is prompted to send me material for a third, I'll be happy to make it a trifecta.]

Our entry point to the linguistically compelling topic of today's post is this Nikkei Asia (11/29/23) article by Barkha Shah in its "Tea Leaves" section:

Why it's worth learning ancient Sanskrit in the modern world:

India’s classical language is making a comeback via Telegram and YouTube

The author begins with a brief introduction to the language:

The language had its heyday in ancient India. The Vedas, a collection of poems and hymns, were written in Sanskrit between 1500 and 1200 B.C., along with other literary texts now known as the Upanishads, Granths and Vedangas. But while Sanskrit became the foundation for many (though not all) modern Indian languages, including Hindi, it faded away as a living tongue.

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Corporeal grammar

Recent article in Scientific American:

This Ancient Language Has the Only Grammar Based Entirely on the Human Body

An endangered language family suggests that early humans used their bodies as a model for reality

By Anvita Abbi on June 1, 2023

From just a small handful of Andaman Islanders, the last speakers of their languages, Anvita Abbi was able to piece together what she believes to be the basic principles of their grammar.  What she found was astonishing.  Keep your antennae up and out, however, because her article begins with the much debunked story of how thousands of the indigenous people escaped death when the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004 struck their islands by relying on the deep, autochthonous knowledge bequeathed by their ancestors, although she does not directly attribute their actions to the grammatical features of their language as many popularizers had done at the time of the disaster (see "Selected readings" below), but rather, more sophisticatedly, to the wisdom transmitted over thousands of generations through their mother tongue.

A language embodies a worldview and, like a civilization, changes and grows in layers. Words or phrases that are frequently used morph into ever more abstract and compressed grammatical forms. For instance, the suffix “-ed,” signifying the past tense in modern English, originated in “did” (that is, “did use” became “used”); Old English's in steed and on gemong became “instead” and “among,” respectively. These kinds of transitions make historical linguistics rather like archaeology. Just as an archaeologist carefully excavates a mound to reveal different epochs of a city-state stacked on one another, so can a linguist separate the layers of a language to uncover the stages of its evolution.

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How do you say "polo", "logo", and "erase with Photoshop" in Chinese?

"Hebei official’s shirt logo removed for ‘aesthetic reasons,’ triggering speculation among netizens"

By Global Times (Sep 05, 2023)

Official photos of a city Party chief in North China's Hebei Province, with his shirt's logo removed by editing, have sparked a wide-ranging discussion among Chinese netizens, with some speculating that it was a move to obscure the price of the clothing. 

In an article posted via Nangong city's official WeChat account on Sunday, the official's daily work was released, with one picture of his shirt logo in, followed by another two pictures without shirt logo. Some netizens questioned the reasons why they removed the shirt logo, and some checked the similar coat prices online discovering the high retail price for the item, according to media reports.

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Language and politics: The use of English "OR" in Chinese official propaganda

From the weibo of People's Daily  (Rénmín rìbào 人民日報):

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Mandarin pronouns

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Transitive "blink"

Reader Scott Mauldin asks:

I am curious about a unique usage I read in SCOTUS Justice Ketanji Jackson's dissent to the recent cases on affirmative action. She says  “This contention blinks both history and reality in ways too numerous to count.” To me, the usage of "blink" as an transitive verb to mean [I assume] something like "ignore" was completely novel. To see what to me is a nonstandard usage show up in a Supreme Court dissent was strange. Is this common usage in some communities, and if so would you or your readers happen to have information on that usage?

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Xi Jinping's faux classicism

This new article in The Economist (6/29/23) has a familiar ring to it:

To understand Xi Jinping, it helps to be steeped in the classics

China’s leader has invented a phrase—and an image

Take four Chinese characters, all of them in everyday use. Put them in a certain order and, lo, they become a phrase that looks like classical Chinese—the kind of language used by the literati of yore. The idea they convey could be expressed just as succinctly in colloquial Chinese, but the classical style has gravitas. And it is a phrase loved by Xi Jinping, China’s leader, so all must follow suit.

More than any of his predecessors, Mr Xi likes to spice up his speeches with quotations from classical literature, especially poetry and philosophy. It fits one of his stated missions: instilling “cultural self-confidence” (alongside confidence in the political system). And it helps to buff up his image. In Chinese history, rulers were expected to be erudite. Two volumes have been published providing explanations of Mr Xi’s classical aphorisms.

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The allure of Latin, the glory of Greek

Beautiful WSJ OpED (6/22/23) by Gerard Gayou, a seminarian of the archdiocese of Washington, who is studying theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome:

The Guiding Light of Latin Grammar

The language reminds us of what our words mean and of whom we’re called to be.


Nothing bored me more during the summer of 2008 than the prospect of studying Latin grammar. I needed a foreign language as part of my high-school curriculum, and I was loath to choose a dead one. I opted instead for Mandarin Chinese, an adolescent whim that shaped my young adult life. I continued to learn Mandarin in college before working in mainland China after graduation.

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"Steak the First"

Enlightening article by Peter Backhaus in The Japan Times (6/9/23):

"Za grammar notes: How to properly handle the 'the' in Japanese"

Japanese seems to be able to assimilate any English word, including the ubiquitous definite article "the", which is unlike anything in Japanese itself.

If there’s something like a Murphy’s Law for syntax, the name of this restaurant near my school is a pretty good example of it. Reading “Steak The First,” it always makes me wonder how these three words came to be aligned in just that order. “The first steak,” “first the steak,” “the steak first” — all of these seem safe for consumption. But “steak the first”?

In order to understand what’s going on here, we need to appreciate the very specific way the little word “the” is used in Japanese, where it is normally pronounced ザ (za). Note that the reading may change to ジ (ji) when the following word starts with a vowel, as in the name of the invincible Japanese rock band The Alfee, which officially reads ジ・アルフィー (ji arufī).

But since Japanese is a language that normally gets along perfectly well without articles, it’s a bit challenging to understand what use it can make of ザ in the first place. Even more puzzling is that, more often than not, ザ shows up in places where English syntax wouldn’t want you to put an article at all.

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"Master the essence of solid"

From the website for Royal China Group, a famous Chinese restaurant group in London:

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Egregious errors

From Taiwan News (3/25/23), by Keoni Everington:

"Taiwanese 'Hello Kitty' English-Chinese dictionary has 70 'egregious errors'

Publisher ACME Cultural Enterprise Co has admitted errors but not recalled dictionaries"

Cover of dictionary, example of misspelling. (Eryk Smith photo)

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Where, oh where, have our strong verbs gone?

From Laura Morland:

Plane plunge

A United Airlines 777 leaving Hawaii made a scary plunge toward the ocean shortly after takeoff, flight tracking data shows. The incident occurred in December when the plane dived toward the ocean for 21 seconds a little over a minute after takeoff. Neither United nor the FAA indicated anyone was injured on the flight. Still, passengers on board were startled after the plane lost more than half its altitude and came within 775 feet of sea level, according to data from FlightRadar24. "There were a number of screams on the plane," a passenger told CNN. "Everybody knew that something was out of the ordinary, or at least that this was not normal." United said it conducted an investigation with the FAA and the pilots union "that ultimately resulted in the pilots receiving additional training," adding the investigation is ongoing.

[Source: CNN's daily newsletter, "Five Things"]

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Involution, part 3

In this post, I will focus on the adversative passive usage of nèijuǎn 内卷 ("involution"). 


Calque of English involution, from its Latin roots. This sense was coined in Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963) by Clifford Geertz, as an antonym of evolution, where Geertz observed Javanese and Balinese rice farmers failed to transit from labor-intensive farming to capital-intensive farming, but rather developing intensive competition that does not increase productivity.


  1. (economics, social sciences, of a society or nation) to stop developing or progressing despite intense inner competition
  2. (neologism, slang) to be in a state of increased competition for limited resources, requiring great effort to stay ahead
  3. (neologism, slang) to study harder or work longer as a result of intense competition among peers


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