Archive for Grammar

Why Literary Sinitic is so darn hard

Two days ago, in "Difficult languages and easy languages, part 2" (5/28/19), we listed scores of languages from easiest to hardest to learn.  Spanish came out overall as the easiest widely spoken language for many people to learn, while Arabic and Turkish struck many people as quite difficult to master.

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Kirsten Gillibrand's Mandarin

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Tocharian C: its discovery and implications

[This is a guest post by Douglas Q. Adams]

For over a hundred years now linguists have known of a small Indo-European family comprised of two closely related languages, Tocharian A and Tocharian B, in the Tarim Basin of eastern Central Asia (Chinese Xinjiang). Tocharian B speakers occupied the northern edge of the Tarim Basin, north of the Tarim River, from its origin at the confluence of the Kashgar and Yarkand rivers eastward to about the halfway point to the Tarim’s disappearance into Lop Nor. Politically Tocharian B speakers were certainly the major constituent of the population of the kingdom of Kucha and natively they called the language (in its English form) Kuchean. To the east-north-east, in the Karashahr Basin, were speakers of Tocharian A, centered around Yanqi (Uighur Karashahr, Sanskrit Agni). On the basis of the Sanskrit name this language is sometimes referred to as Agnean, though we do not have any direct or conclusive evidence as to what the speakers themselves called it. To the east-south-east of Kuqa, along the lower Tarim was the historic kingdom of Kroraina (Chinese Loulan < Han Chinese *glu-glân). The administrative language of Loulan was Gandhari Prakrit, obviously imported into the Tarim Basin along with Buddhism from northwestern India. In documents of the Loulan variety of Gandhari Prakrit are non-Gandhari words that have been attributed to the native language of the area. Some of those non-Gandhari words look like Tocharian (e.g., kilme ‘region’ beside TchB kälymiye ‘direction’) and it has seemed a reasonable hypothesis that the native language of Kroraina/Loulan was another Tocharian language, “Tocharian C.” (That the native language of Loulan was Tocharian was first suggested by Thomas Burrow in his The Language of the Kharoṣṭhī Documents from Chinese Turkestan, 1937.) This is a reasonable hypothesis, for which the evidence is admittedly meager, and many have been (reasonably) dubious or unconvinced.

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China rules

For the last few weeks, the New York Times has been running a hyped-up, gushing series of lengthy articles under the rubric "China rules". On a special section in the paper edition for Sunday, November 25, they printed this gigantic headline in Chinese characters — and made a colossal mistake:

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Word, syllable, morpheme, phoneme

What is the basic unit of discursive, communicative language — word, syllable, morpheme, or phoneme?

This topic came up in the comments to the following posts:

"The concept of word in Sinitic" (10/3/18)

"Words in Vietnamese" (10/2/18)

"Diacriticless Vietnamese on a sign in San Francisco" (9/30/18)

"Words in Mandarin: twin kle twin kle lit tle star" (8/14/12)

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The concept of word in Sinitic

In the following posts, we've been tackling the thorny, multifaceted question of whether Vietnamese has words and lexemes, as opposed to having syllables and morphemes:

During the course of our discussions, the parallel question of whether Sinitic had words or not also came up.  Let me put it this way:  although there was no concept of "word" in Sinitic before the 20th century, there were Sinitic words, going all the way back to the oracle bone inscriptions (the first stage of Chinese writing) more than three thousand years ago, as documented in these posts and dozens of others:

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Reanalysis, Jackie Chan edition

Photograph of a high-backed chair that has gone viral on Chinese social media (as reported in this Taiwan newspaper):

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"Bāphre bāph!" — my favorite Nepali expression

As a Peace Corps volunteer in eastern Nepal (Bhojpur) from 1965-67, I became highly fluent in spoken Nepali.  I even dreamed in Nepali.

My Peace Corps buddies and I learned Nepali in Columbia, Missouri by the total immersion method, which I describe and demonstrate in this post:  "Learn Nepali" (9/21/16).

See also my comments to "Alien encounters" (9/15/16), especially this one, #7-8, and the links embedded therein.

I became enamored of many Nepali words and phrases, but my favorite of all is "bāphre bāph!", which corresponds roughly to "Wow", "OMG", etc. in English.

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The non-ineffability of "strip" as a measure word

The Guardian published an article on "10 of the best words in the world (that don't translate into English)" (7/27/18).  Calling on nine of their correspondents, they introduced a bouquet of beautiful words, each one of which I am enamored:

SPAIN: sobremesa (Sam Jones in Madrid)

PORTUGAL: esperto/esperta (Juliette Jowit)

ITALY: bella figura (Angela Giuffrida in Rome)

GERMANY: Feierabend (Philip Oltermann in Berlin)

FINLAND: sisu (Jon Henley)

IRAN: Ta’arof (Saeed Kamali Dehghan)

RUSSIA: тоска (toska) (Andrew Roth in Moscow)

JAPAN: shoganai (Justin McCurry in Tokyo)

NETHERLANDS: polderen (Jon Henley)

CHINA: tiáo 条 (Madeleine Thien)

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Citizenship and syntax (updated, and updated again)

Last week the Washington Post published an op-ed by Michael Anton arguing that the United States should do away with birthright citizenship—the principle that anyone born in the United States is a U.S. citizen, even if their parents are foreign-born noncitizens. The op-ed has attracted a lot of attention from people on both the left and the right, and by “attention” I mean “condemnation”. (E.g., Garrett Epps at The Atlantic, Mark Joseph Stern at Slate, Dan Drezner at the Washington Post, Robert Tracinski at The Federalist, Alex Nowraseth at The American Conservative, and Jonathan Adler at Volokh Conspiracy. See also this Vox explainer.)

The criticism both on on Anton’s nativism, but also on his interpretation of the 14th Amendment, on which birthright citizenship is based. One of the interpretive moves for which Anton has been criticized is his handling of a statement made on the floor of the Senate while the proposed text of the 14th Amendment was being debated. And that dispute turns on the resolution of a syntactic ambiguity.

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Mother tongue is like mother's milk

Pro-Taiwanese language poster on a wall in Tainan (courtesy of Tim Clifford):

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The wonder of Cantonese particles

Rosalyn Shih has an entertaining and informative piece called "Let's Go Laaaaaaaa:  And learn Cantonese particles" in LARB China Channel (5/1/18)

Some highlights:

…In Singapore, particles have migrated to English, prompting the Quora thread “Why do Singaporeans say lah at the end of every sentence?”

It seems that the more southern the Chinese-speaker, the more particles he or she might use. Citing various studies from 1924 to 1994, Language Log notes the estimates of Cantonese particles are anywhere from 30 to 206….

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"and himself jail"

In "More Cohen Businesses Coming to Light," on Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall writes:

The biggest taxi operator in New York, Evgeny “Gene” Friedman, now manages Cohen’s 30+ NYC medallions or at least did the last time we spoke to him. Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and himself jail.

The final three words of the boldfaced clause present a weird, and dare I say unusual, case of double ellipsis. The semantic content communicated by those three words (in the context of the sentence) is richer than you'd think could be expressed by only three words, especially given that one of them is merely the conjunction and. That content can be represented as follows, with the struck-through text standing for the content that the reader must infer:

Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and to keep himself out of jail.

There's nothing unusual about the first omission; I don't see anything wrong with the clause to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and himself out of jail. But the omission of out of strikes me as very strange, and what's even stranger is that to my ear, the clause is worse if to keep is put back:

* Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and to keep himself jail.

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