Archive for Language and literature

Writing on things

If someone is investigating texts, they can concentrate on the subject / content / style / linguistic nature of the writing.  Increasingly, however, scholars have begun to concentrate on the objects and materials on which the writing takes place.  From this, they tease out all sorts of interesting information about the social, political, and economic aspects of the texts.  A new book on this topic is Thomas Kelly's The Inscription of Things:  Writing and Materiality in Early Modern China (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2023).

Why would an inkstone have a poem inscribed on it? Early modern Chinese writers did not limit themselves to working with brushes and ink, and their texts were not confined to woodblock-printed books or the boundaries of the paper page. Poets carved lines of verse onto cups, ladles, animal horns, seashells, walking sticks, boxes, fans, daggers, teapots, and musical instruments. Calligraphers left messages on the implements ordinarily used for writing on paper. These inscriptions—terse compositions in verse or epigrammatic prose—relate in complex ways to the objects on which they are written.

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China Babel

My basement is full of unpublished manuscripts.  I call it the "Dungeon", because it is dark, dank, and crowded with books and papers — much worse than my office, which has achieved a fabled reputation for its crampedness — and very cold in the winter, though it does have a wonderful bay window on the eastern side where I can look out at the flora, fauna, and foliage to rest my eyes and mind from time to time.

Three of the most significant manuscripts in the Dungeon that remained unpublished for decades are:

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"The Three Body Problem" as rendered by Netflix: vinegar and dumplings

Basic background, from Wikipedia:

The Three-Body Problem (Chinese: 三体; lit. 'Three-Body') is a story by Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin which became the first novel in the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy—though the series as a whole is often referred to as The Three-Body Problem, or simply as Three-Body. The series portrays a fictional past, present and future wherein Earth encounters an alien civilization from a nearby system of three sun-like stars orbiting one another, a representative example of the three-body problem in orbital mechanics.

Nectar Gan, "Netflix blockbuster ‘3 Body Problem’ divides opinion and sparks nationalist anger in China", CNN 3/22/2024:

A Netflix adaptation of wildly popular Chinese sci-fi novel “The Three-Body Problem has split opinions in China and sparked online nationalist anger over scenes depicting a violent and tumultuous period in the country’s modern history.

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Unnatural audibles

I'm so far behind the times with gadgets and trinkets and services that I have never listened to a single audiobook, and I had never even heard of Audible until yesterday when Gene Hill told me that his wife, Marri, listens to tons of Audibles because she writes reviews, and as a result they give her lots of free stories to read. Of late, the publishers of Audibles are using narration by AI.

No way to overemphasize the importance of the quality of narration in an Audible. Marri most often prefers to have the author do the narration. Only the author knows how to express the precise emotional quality to a line. Or deliver the right touch of sarcasm.

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Language extinction and language creation

I just thought of a (not so) funny phenomenon that amounts to a linguistic paradox.  Namely, as languages die out, one after another, so do they arise at a steady rate. This has been a verity throughout human history.  So inexorable are these trajectories that a clever mathematician might be able to work out an equation to account for them.

The cycle of language saṃsāra संसार is ceaseless.

We know well enough how languages disappear — usually forever (see "Archive for Language extinction"; see also here).  We have also witnessed the birth of languages, which happens for a variety of reasons (social, political, linguistic, etc.).  Increasingly, however, artificial languages are being invented in astonishing numbers.

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Language that exercises the brain; poetry and gradations of understanding

If you want to give your brain fortifying nutrition, what kind of language should you feed it?

"Complex, unfamiliar sentences make the brain’s language network work harder"

A new study finds that language regions in the left hemisphere light up when reading uncommon sentences, while straightforward sentences elicit little response.

Anne Trafton | MIT News (January 3, 2024)

"Complex, Unfamiliar Sentences Make the Brain's Language Network Work Harder." Science Daily, January 3, 2024. .

Discussing "Driving and Suppressing the Human Language Network Using Large Language Models." Tuckute, Greta et al. Nature Human Behaviour (January 3, 2024).

Fair enough, maybe, but what if you lose your auditor / lector altogether?  It seems to me that the type of brain-food sentences cited in this study border on incomprehensibility.

With help from an artificial language network, MIT neuroscientists have discovered what kind of sentences are most likely to fire up the brain’s key language processing centers.

The new study reveals that sentences that are more complex, either because of unusual grammar or unexpected meaning, generate stronger responses in these language processing centers. Sentences that are very straightforward barely engage these regions, and nonsensical sequences of words don’t do much for them either.

For example, the researchers found this brain network was most active when reading unusual sentences such as “Buy sell signals remains a particular,” taken from a publicly available language dataset called C4. However, it went quiet when reading something very straightforward, such as “We were sitting on the couch.”

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Sanaaq, the first novel written in Inuktitut syllabics in Canada

Long, richly illustrated, highly biographical article in CBC (10/8/23):

Writing the story of a changing North

In the 1950s, Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk began Sanaaq, which would end up becoming the first novel written in Inuktitut. Her words continue to inform our understanding of Inuit life.

Shortly after receiving notice that the Norwegian author, Jon Fosse, had won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his writings in Nynorsk, I read the above article and learned the following:

Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk was 22 years old in 1953 when Catholic missionaries in Nunavik, the Inuit homeland in what is now northern Quebec, came to her asking for help in learning her native language.

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Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse writes in Nynorsk, a minority writing system

"The Nobel literature prize goes to Norway’s Jon Fosse, who once wrote a novel in a single sentence"


While Fosse is the fourth Norwegian writer to get the Nobel literature prize, he is the first in nearly a century and the first who writes in Nynorsk, one of the two official written versions of the Norwegian language. It is used by just 10% of the country’s 5.4 million people, according to the Language Council of Norway, but completely understandable to users of the other written form, Bokmaal.

Guy Puzey, senior lecturer in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, said that Bokmaal is “the language of power, it’s the language of urban centers, of the press.” Nynorsk, by contrast, is used mainly by people in rural western Norway.

“So it’s a really big day for a minority language,” Puzey said

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"Get some linguists out here"

Email from John B.:

Writing to you about a never-expected-to-see sentence, in a novel I’m reading.

“And get some linguists out here as fast as you can.”

(Well, but why not?)

It’s a newly released off the wall novel, The Road to Roswell by Connie Willis. The heroine, Francie, has agreed to be maid of honor at her college roommate’s wedding. The fiancé is a UFO conspiracy nut and he has scheduled the wedding in Roswell NM. Francie is sure that her real task is to bring her friend to her senses and get her to call off the wedding. But Francie gets abducted by a real extraterrestrial alien. And then things get complicated.

The surprise sentence is on page 343 (of 399) in my copy, so things must be heading towards some resolution soon, but I stopped to send this note.

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The many meanings and faces of "vernacular"

During the first twenty years of my academic career, if anybody asked me what my specialty was, I would have told them something like "medieval popular Buddhist vernacular Chinese literature".  In that usage of "vernacular", which I thought was the standard meaning of the term, I simply considered it a register of language and writing that is distinct from and contrasted with "classical" or "literary", and — to my mind — it was parallel to "popular" or "folk" in a cultural spectrum that ran to "elite" at the other end (I was going to say "at the top", but — being a partisan of "popular" and "folk" — I caught myself).

In college, as an English major, being a specialist on the vernacular meant that I was enamored of Chaucer, and in graduate school and as a young Sinologist, it signified that I concentrated on the first sizable body of non-classical / literary texts archeologically recovered from the far western Chinese site of Dunhuang, concerning which we have often touched here on Language Log, especially in recent weeks.

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Competing chatbots

Competition among various AI services will spur them to further heights.

ChatGPT, Bing, Bard and DeepL: Which one offers the best Japanese-to-English translation?

by Karin Kaneko, Japan Times (7/18/23)

Kaneko, working with her editors at Japan Times, devised an ingenious test for comparing the quality of several translation tools in different categories of writing.  Since this experiment is so innately interesting and inherently revelatory, I will provide extensive quotations, adding romanization of the Japanese passages from GT (not an easy task for me!).  To be fair to GT, and simply out of curiosity to see how it compares with the newer type of AI translation services, I will also invite GT to translate all three of the chosen passages.  N.B.:  All three of the GT English translations have been added by me.

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Antakshari recitation in India

This is part of a long series of Language Log posts in which we pondered the phenomenal memorization skills of persons of Indian heritage (see "Selected readings" below).

So you know what's happening in the following astonishing video, let me begin by giving a basic definition, etymology, and explication of what happens in this intricate word game:

Antakshari, also known as Antyakshari (अंताक्षरी transl. The game of the ending letter) is a spoken parlor game played in India. Each contestant sings the first verse of a song (often Classical Hindustani or Bollywood songs) that begins with the consonant of Hindi alphabet on which the previous contestant's song ended.

The word is derived from two Sanskrit words: antya (अन्त्य) meaning end + akshara (अक्षर) meaning letter of the alphabet. When these words are combined and an '-i' suffixed, the term means "The game of the ending letter". Due to schwa syncope in Hindi and other Indo-Aryan languages, Antyakshari is pronounced antakshri. A dialectical variation of the word is इन्ताक्षरी or intakshri.

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Rivers and lakes: quackery

Get ready to go a-wanderin'.  I'll take you down to the rivers and lakes, and we shall lose ourselves in them, get lost from the hurlyburly hustlebustle of the mundane world.  That's what jiānghú 江湖 ("rivers and lakes") is all about.  It's where you go to xiāoyáo yóu 逍遙遊 ("wander freely / carefreely / leisurely").

The first occurrence of jiānghú 江湖 in traditional Chinese literature is to be found in the Zhuāng Zǐ 莊子 ("Master Zhuang") (late 4th-early 3rd BC), which happens to be my favorite work of ancient Chinese literature:

Quán hé, yú xiāngyǔ chǔ yú lù, xiāng xǔ yǐ shī, xiāng rú yǐ mò, bùrú xiāngwàng yú jiānghú.


"When springs dry up, fish huddle together on the land. They blow moisture on each other and keep each other wet with their slime.  But it would be better if they could forget themselves in the rivers and lakes."

VHM, tr., Wandering on the Way:  Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu (New York:  Bantam, 1994), p. 53.

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