Archive for Language and literature

Shooketh, rattleth, and rolleth

In his "The Good Word" column of The Atlantic (1/24/22), Caleb Madison has a new article, "Why We’re All Shooketh:  The term is online slang of Biblical proportions".  The first two paragraphs:

Lately modern life has felt all too biblical. Plagues, massive weather events, tribal divisions, demagogic leadership … and people using words like shooketh. The phrase I’m shooketh was first uttered by the comedian Christine Sydelko in a YouTube video uploaded to her account in 2017 (she was expressing her shock at having been recognized by a fan at Boston Market). The adjective shooketh took off as a way to lend biblical proportions to awestruck confusion. But the linguistic journey to its creation spans the evolution of the English language, connecting Early Modern English, turn-of-the-century adventure novels, and Twitter slang.

When we want to transform verbs like shake into adjectives, we typically use something called a participle, either present or past. The present participle of shake is shaking, as in “I’m shaking.” The past participle would be “I’m shaken.” But, for some reason, in the 19th century, the simple past tense, shook, took hold. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 adventure classic Treasure Island, Long John Silver admits, “I’ll not deny neither but what some of my people was shook—maybe all was shook; maybe I was shook myself.” And 14 years later, in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, the form reappears within a now-common collocation with up when Dan Troop exclaims, “Well, you was shook up and silly.”

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Sally Rooney bucket hat; Hittite, Ugaritic, and the alphabet

Earlier this week, my brother Thomas sent me the following note:

I recently read Beautiful World, Where Are You?, the latest novel by Irish millennial author Sally Rooney. As soon as I finished the book I started finding articles about her, including the famous Sally Rooney bucket hat. If you don't yet know about it, put Sally Rooney bucket hat into Google and you'll feel like you've been shipwrecked on a deserted island since the book came out in September.

I'm not sure if SR will go down in literary history, but I will say I can't stop thinking about the book. It's one of the few books I've read lately in which the characters discuss the big ideas: politics, religion, sex, and the collapse of civilizations.

The last is of great importance because the two main female characters are unmarried single women, and they're wondering why they don't yet feel the need to settle down and start families. Will they ever?

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Parts of the body — back and waist; slicing up reality

The word for "back" in Mandarin is bèi , the word for "waist" is yāo .  But nearly all of my Chinese students and friends, including the most learned, get the English words mixed up.  They will say "My waist aches" when they mean "My back aches" and "Don't break your waist" when they mean "Don't break your back".

Aside from exchanges in daily conversation, I also noticed this confusion in historical contexts.  One of the most famous early medieval Chinese poets, Tao Qian (Yuanming) (365- 427), when asked to dress up in a fancy, formal way to show his subservience to a visiting inspector, famously declared, “Wú bùnéng wèi wǔdǒu mǐ zhéyāo, quánquán shì xiānglǐ xiǎo rén yé 吾不能為五斗米折腰,拳拳事鄉里小人邪!” ("I cannot bend my back to obsequiously serve a petty person in the village for five pecks of rice."  Many translators of this passage render "zhéyāo 折腰" as "bend [my] waist" rather than "bend [my] back".  The "five pecks of rice" refers to his salary as a local magistrate, which he'd rather give up than lose his dignity and self respect.  Because of his unbending attitude, Tao abandoned government service altogether by the age of forty and returned to his own hometown to live as a farmer.

[Reference for specialists:  from Tao Qian's brief biography in the "Biographies of recluses", scroll 64 of the Book / History of Jin (Jìnshū 晉書) (Zhonghua shuju ed., vol. 8, p. 2461)]

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Missionary Linguistics; the joys of interpreting

Geoff Wade called my attention to this interesting website: The Digital Orientalist (also accessible via Twitter).  The current issue is on "Missionary Linguistics – Latin, Portuguese and Japanese resources online", by Michele Eduarda Brasil de Sá (12/24/21).  The article begins:

In the mid-90s, I was an undergraduate student taking Latin and Japanese classes. People looked at me as if I were doing something silly and had no idea of the meaning of the word “job market,” usually asking my reasons to study languages that were so… different. Well, I would go really fine on answering that I started learning them by curiosity and liked them. In the Humanities, we get used to being asked  “what for?” about the things we love to study.

That’s when I first learned about Jesuit grammar books and dictionaries on the Japanese language. As for grammar books, we must not understand them strictly as the ones we use nowadays, of course. They are called artes and bring information about the language and history, religion, and habits – summing up, relevant information for newcomers who needed to get rapidly acquainted with the people. (For the primary databases with related material, see James Morris’ Beyond “Laures Kirishitan Bunko”: Digital Repositories for Studying 16th and 17th Century Japanese Christianity). By that time, I had no idea of how relevant they were for the history of Japanese Linguistics. One of these books is João Rodrigues Tçuzzu‘s Arte da lingoa de Iapam, where, in its first part, he offers a pattern of cases (nominative, genitive, and so on, following the Latin tradition) for nouns and pronouns with the addition of particles, clarifying that there are neither declensions nor plural or gender inflections in Japanese:

(Free downloadable version here)

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Rabindranath Tagore in Korea

[The first part of this post is from S. Robert Ramsey.]

Ceremony for the unveiling of a bust of the poet on May 18, 2011 in downtown Seoul:

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Sobriquets, milk names, and monikers

Responding to the English translation of the Chinese epitaph on "Matteo Ricci's tombstone" (11/24/21), rit malors remarks:

It's the first time I encounter the word "sobriquet" for hào 號. Later I browse the Wikipedia and find that there is an entry for hào 號 as "Art Name" (in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam).

In it, "sobriquet" is not mentioned at all. I think "art name, pseudonym, or pen name" cannot really grasp the nature of hào 號. Do you think that you have to make a post about it as what you did in "Unmatched by no other philosopher" (11/6/21)?

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Tang (618-907) poetry in Min pronunciation, part 2

This is a supplement to "Tang (618-907) poetry in Min pronunciation" (10/14/21).  The following remarks are by Conal Boyce:

So far it seems the artist’s viewpoint is missing from the discussion. At the top of the thread, Victor Mair mentions two musical compositions of mine, and also kindly cites my unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in References. But the music and the thesis (both of 1973-1976 vintage) are almost wholly unrelated. (What is related tangentially to my compositions from that period is my paper called ‘Min sandhi in verse recitation,’ Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 1980, 8:1-14.) What do I mean by ‘the artist’s viewpoint’? My main task during 1973-1976 in Taiwan was to finish writing my dissertation on the rhythms used by my informants in their recitation of Sòngcí ([VHM:  Sòng lyric meters] sometimes in MSM, sometimes in Min) — nothing to do with music per se (except the abstract connection through ‘rhythm’).

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"Crete 1941": How to read a modern epic

[This is a guest post by Bernard Cadogan]

Epic comes from a Greek word for a word or spoken language, epos. Logos is another word like that which we know. The first emphasises articulation, the latter organisation.
 
Epic features in many cultures and comes in different varieties. China and the Sinitic civilisations lack it, as do the nomadic Semitic and Amazigh peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt had no epic. The hero form involving journeying –  Gilgamesh and the Odyssey and Beowulf – is one form. The most stringent form resembles the Iliad, which is the most perfect epic composed. It consists of multiple actors involved in a single action within the context of a wider struggle. This is what Crete 1941 resembles. There is no single hero. There is no single baddie. The complexity of war is fully invoked as well as the necessity to fight it.

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Sino-Japanese aesthetics and a new mode of translation

[This is a guest post by Ashley Liu]

The following is a new way to translate classical Chinese poetry into Japanese. Recently, some Chinese shows about premodern China have become popular in Japan. The Chinese songs in the shows–written in classical Chinese poetry style–are translated into Japanese and sung by Japanese singers. I am fascinated by how the translation works. As you can see below, the Japanese version has waka aesthetics but keeps the 7-syllable format of Chinese poetry. The Japanese version seems to reduce the original meaning by a lot, but if you read it carefully, the way it captures the core meaning is ingenious, e.g., 風中憶當初 (remembering the past in the wind) = 時渡る風 (wind that crosses through time / brings back time).

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All-purpose word for "glamorous woman"

The PRC authorities have always policed human behavior and thought, but especially during the last half year or so and particularly toward young people, for whatever reason, they have been coming on more gangbusters than usual.

First they went after the phenomenon of tǎngpíng 躺平 ("lying flat"), i.e., those who chose to opt out of the cutthroat rat race.  Then they chastised niángpào 娘炮 ("effeminate men"), i.e., girlie boys and men.  The social minders even drew a bead on jīngfēn 精芬  for socially averse millennials who identified themselves as spiritually Finnish.  These were serious efforts to squelch such unwanted tendencies in the population.  Now they have taken quite a different turn and are aiming at an altogether different target:  beautiful women.  Strange to say, they are coupling this campaign against female pulchritude with a crusade against Buddhism.

Well, it's not that strange after all, since communism has never been fond of religion, and Buddhism has often been persecuted by Chinese regimes, almost from the time of its arrival in the Middle Kingdom nearly two millennia ago.  Even the combination of feminine beauty and Buddhism reveals a certain psychological fixation on the baldness and celibacy of nuns in traditional Chinese society.

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Tang (618-907) poetry in Min pronunciation

Usually, though not always, when I Romanize Sinographs on Language Log, I do so using Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), but that is misleading, because MSM is only one of countless different topolectal pronunciations that could be used (Cantonese, Shanghainese, Sichuanese, and so on and so forth).  MSM is particularly ill-suited for the Romanization of pre-modern literature, since — of all topolects — it is the most highly evolved (ergo youngest) and least like earlier stages of Sinitic.  In this post, I will use Southern Min pronunciation to give a sense of how different it is from MSM.

The Min Romanizations have been prepared by Conal Boyce using a Yale-like system he developed in 1975 in preference to Douglas-Campbell.

Douglas, Carstairs (1899) [1873]. Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy (2nd ed.). London: Presbyterian Church of England.

 Campbell, W. (1913). A Dictionary of the Amoy Vernacular. Tainan: Ho Tai Tong.

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Meng Wanzhou's "model essay", "parallel prose", and Pinyin for the masses

Meng Wanzhou 孟晚舟 is the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei (the PRC communications technology giant), who was arrested on financial fraud charges at Vancouver International Airport on December 1, 2018.  Nearly three years later, in exchange for two Canadian citizens (the "two Michaels", Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who had been summarily taken prisoner and held in Chinese jails for 1,020 days), she was released from detention and flew back to China on September 24, 2021.  The text quoted below was supposedly written by her on the flight from Canada to China.

Also provided is a photograph of people gathered in the Shenzhen airport to welcome her with red banners, two of which have Hanyu Pinyin phonetic annotations on them.

Questions have been raised about the nature and quality of the essay attributed to Meng.

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The Ossetes

Here at Language Log we know our Ossetes and have been learning much about Scythians (see "Selected readings"), so it is good to have this new (forthcoming) book by Richard Foltz: 

The Ossetes: Modern-Day Scythians of the Caucasus
New York / London: I. B. Tauris / Bloomsbury, 24 February 2022

Publisher's description:

The Ossetes, a small nation inhabiting two adjacent states in the central Caucasus, are the last remaining linguistic and cultural descendants of the ancient nomadic Scythians who dominated the Eurasian steppe from the Balkans to Mongolia for well over one thousand years. A nominally Christian nation speaking a language distantly related to Persian, the Ossetes have inherited much of the culture of the medieval Alans who brought equestrian culture to Europe. They have preserved a rich oral literature through the epic of the Narts, a body of heroic legends that shares much in common with the Persian Book of Kings and other works of Indo-European mythology. This is the first book devoted to the little-known history and culture of the Ossetes to appear in any Western language. Charting Ossetian history from Antiquity to today, it will be a vital contribution to the fields of Iranian, Caucasian, Post-Soviet and Indo-European Studies.

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