Archive for Vernacular

Vulgar village vernacular

This Chinese article is about a man who has made a living by painting slogans and ads on village walls for thirty years. Some of the slogans are rather bizarre, as may be seen by looking at the many photographs in the article.

The article says it is such a well-paying job that the man was able to buy 6 apartments in his hometown with his earnings. Painting on walls is one of the major ways to advertise or propagate goods and ideas in the countryside.

There are many examples of such signs in the article, but I couldn't understand all of them upon first glance, so I wondered if the country folk would be able to read the signs. I asked a number of my graduate students from China, and they all said, yes, the country folk not only would be able to read them, but would enjoy them and would be motivated to buy the products and services promoted by the signs.

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Excepted for publication

I wrote to a colleague who helped me edit a paper that it had been accepted for publication.  She wrote back, "I’m glad it is excepted".

Some may look upon such a typo as "garden variety", but I believe that it tells us something profoundly significant about the primacy of sound over shape, an issue that we have often debated on Language Log, including how to regard typographical errors in general, but also how to read old Chinese texts (e.g., copyists' mistakes, deterioration of texts over centuries of editorial transmission, etc.).

Often, when you read a Chinese text and parts of it just don't make any sense, if you ignore the superficial semantic signification of the characters with which it is written, but focus more on the sound, suddenly the meaning of the text will become crystal clear.  In point of fact, much of the commentarial tradition throughout Chinese history consists of this kind of detective work — sorting out which morphemes were really intended by a given string of characters.

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Orthographic variation in a pair of poems by a Japanese Zen monk and his mistress

From Bryan Van Norden:

I found interesting these paired poems by the 15th-century Japanese Zen monk Ikkyū (1394-1481) and by his mistress, the blind singer Mori. He writes his poem in Classical Chinese, because he is a man, but her poem is in hiragana, because she is a woman.   Below are photos of the original scroll, showing paintings of Ikkyū and Mori, from Arntzen's translation, and a more recent translation by Messer and Smith.   I am researching Ikkyū for what will ultimately be a five-minute segment in my class lecture on Zen this week.  I find that students have trouble appreciating what is at stake in the debate over metaphysical monism vs dualism. Ikkyū, a monk who frequented bars and brothels, shows one way of rejecting dualisms (like sacred vs profane, mind vs. body, monk vs. layperson).

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The birth of modern Japanese language and literature in the Literary Sinitic context

Just out, a stimulating new book from Brill (2020):

Mareshi Saito.  Kanbunmyaku:  The Literary Sinitic Context and the Birth of Modern Japanese Language and Literature.  Series:  Language, Writing and Literary Culture in the Sinographic Cosmopolis, Volume: 2.  Editors:  Ross King and Christina Laffin; translators:  Alexey Lushchenko, Mattieu Felt, Si Nae Park, and Sean Bussell

From the author's Introduction, p. 1:

The chief aim of this book is to consider the language space of modern Japan from the perspective of what I am calling kanbunmyaku 漢文脈 in Japanese, translated here as “Literary Sinitic Context.”  I use  the term “Literary  Sinitic”* to designate what is often referred to as “Classical Chinese” or “Literary Chinese” in English, wenyan 文言 in Mandarin Chinese, kanbun 漢文 in Japanese (sometimes referred to as “Sino-Japanese” in English), and hanmun 漢文 in Korean.  The Context in Literary Sinitic Context translates the -myaku of kanbunmyaku, and usually implies a pulse, vein, flow, or path, but is also the second constituent element of the Sino-Japanese term bunmyaku 文脈 meaning “(textual, literary) context.”  I use the term Literary Sinitic Context to encompass both Literary Sinitic proper, as well as orthographic and literary styles (buntai 文体) derived from Literary Sinitic, such as glossed reading (kundoku 訓読) or Literary Japanese (bungobun 文語文), which mix sinographs (kanji 漢字, i.e., “Chinese” characters) and katakana.  In addition to styles I also consider Literary Sinitic thought and sensibility at the core of which lie Literary Sinitic poetry (kanshi 漢詩) and prose (kanbun 漢文), collectively termed kanshibun 漢詩文.

*For  the  term  “Literary  Sinitic,”  see  Victor H. Mair,  “Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular,” Journal of Asian Studies, 53.3 (August, 1994), 707-751.

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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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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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Against Spherespeak and Sino-speak

[This is a guest post by Ross King, replying to "On the origin of the term 'hanzi'" (2/3/21)]

This is very interesting. I am particularly pleased to see the caution against the term “Sinosphere.” In a related vein, and as a sort of teaser for the edited volume I am just now finishing (Ross King, ed., Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in the World of Wen: Reading Sheldon Pollock from the Sinographic cosmopolis. To appear in Brill’s new series, “Language, Writing and Literary Culture in the Sinographic Cosmopolis.” Approx. 600 pages.), here is an excerpt from my editor’s introduction (“Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in the Sinographic Cosmopolis and Beyond: Traditional East Asian Literary Cultures in Global Perspective”)

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Against Spherespeak and Sino-speak

Bruce Cumings (1998) called out a tendency in 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s academic and journalistic writing to engage in a discourse of “Rimspeak” which he faulted for constricting the public discourse around questions of space, the state, race, and political economy in the “Pacific Rim.” When it comes to how we study and imagine premodern East Asia, the stakes are admittedly lower, but with the terms “Sinographic Sphere” and “Sinosphere” I wonder if we are coming dangerously close to a sort of Spherespeak as well, where the “sphere” in these terms carries little indexical, explanatory or theoretical weight.[1]

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"Count the egg-sucking cows"

Alexander Bolton, "West Virginia governor urges Congress to 'go big' on COVID-19 relief", The Hill 2/1/2021:

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, on Monday argued that fiscal concerns should be set aside as the nation struggles to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, putting pressure on centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to support a large COVID-19 relief bill.

“We need to understand that trying to be, per se, fiscally responsible at this point in time, with what we’ve got going on in this country — if we actually throw away some money right now, so what?” Justice told CNN in an interview. […]

Justice doubled down on his statement in a follow-up interview with MSNBC in which he urged Congress to “go big.” […]

“At this point in time in this nation, we need to go big. We need to quit counting the egg-sucking legs on the cows and count the cows and just move. And move forward and move right now,” he added.

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Sino-Semitica, part 2: of massage and Old Sinitic reconstructions

As part of our research on the dictionary of Middle Vernacular Sinitic (MVS) that Zhu Qingzhi and I have been working on for more than two decades, I was tickled by this quaint poem (below on the second page) by the medieval Buddhist poet, Wáng Fànzhì 王梵志 (Brahmacārin ब्रह्मचारिन् Wang; fl. first half of 7th c.).

I have been an avid fan of Wáng Fànzhì's unique poetry for nearly half a century.  Quaint, indeed, and also quirky.  Wang Fanzhi is self-demeaning in a funny, adorable way.  The poem I'm about to introduce you to is a good example of his trademark self-abnegation.

What attracted me particularly to this poem for the purposes of our research on MVS is the first word in line 2, chǎngtóu 長頭 ("for a long time"), which does not exist with this meaning in Literary Sinitic (LS) / Classical Chinese (CC).  Finding chǎngtóu 長頭 ("for a long time") in Wang Fanzhi's poem was already enough of a treat, but when I got to the last word of the couplet, I was even more delighted.  As you will momentarily see, what Wang says about his wife's tummy is funny by itself, but the word he uses to describe what the wife does to her tummy made me even more excited.

But let's read the poem first, then I'll talk about the word in question, namely, méisuō 沒娑 ("massage").

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Mycological meandering: vernacular variora

The surname of the mayor of Prague is Hřib (Zdeněk Hřib [b. May 21, 1981]):

"Zdeněk Hřib: the Czech mayor who defied China"

By refusing to expel a Taiwanese diplomat, the Prague mayor has joined the ranks of local politicians confronting contentious national policies

Robert Tait in Prague
The Guardian, Wed 3 Jul 2019 01.00 EDT

The surname Hřib, though unusual, struck me as familiar.  Jichang Lulu observes:

Hřib is the regular Czech reflex of the Proto-Slavic source of, e.g., the Russian and Polish words for "mushroom" (гриб, grzyb). The Czech form, however, has a more specific meaning (certain mushrooms, e.g., Boletus). On the other hand, the further origin of Slavic gribъ has long been a matter of much debate, and I'm not aware of a generally accepted Proto-Indo-European (or other) etymology.

That set me to wondering whether there are cognates in other IE branches.

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First grade science card: Pinyin degraded, part 2

Another science card given out to first grade students in Shenzhen, China (see "Readings" below for the first one):

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Speak Darja (Algerian colloquial), not Fusha (Arabic)

This little clip, of sociolinguistic as well as non-linguistic interest, has gone viral in the Algerian online world (via Twitter):

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Peking colloquialisms

Here is a photograph of a paper placemat Tong Wang found in a restaurant serving Beijing dishes that is named "Sea Bowl Restaurant" (Hǎiwǎn jū 海碗居):

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