Archive for Language and literature

Of cream puffs and shoe polish

Martin Delson sent in this interesting puzzler:

I'm participating in an international virtual book-club where all participants are bilingual in German and English. For some reason, the book that the group chose to read is Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
 
Wikipedia tells me the Japanese title is "Konbini ningen (コンビニ人間)".
 
A pair of sentences, not far into the book, reads as follows in the English translation
 
"The first at the cash register was the same little old lady who had been the first through the door. I stood at the till, mentally running through the manual as she put her basket containing a choux crème, a sandwich, and several rice balls down on the counter."

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"Good Wine Need No Bush"

Received from Nathan Hopson:

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Tarim harps; pitch, tones, scales, modes, instruments, and their names

[This is a guest post by Sara de Rose, responding to requests for more information on the subject prompted by her previous post.]

This post discusses a possible connection between the Mesopotamian tonal system, documented on cuneiform tablets that span over 1000 years (from 1800 BC to 500 BC), and the musical system of ancient China. For a more detailed discussion, see the paper "A Proposed Mesopotamian Origin for the Ancient Musical and Musico-Cosmological Systems of the West and China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 320 (December, 2021) written by myself, Sara de Rose.

Since 1996, twenty-three harps (Chinese: “konghou”) that resemble the angular harp that was invented in Mesopotamia circa 2000 BC have been found in the graves of the Tarim mummies, in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an area of modern-day, western China. These harps date from 1000 BC to 200 BC (see photo).

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Meter, Feelings, Knowing: An Interview with Nigel Fabb

This guest post by Mark Dow is an excerpt from an interview conducted via email in May/June 2021. The complete interview appears in PN Review #263 (Jan./Feb. 2022).

 Nigel Fabb is Professor of Literary Linguistics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. His books include What is Poetry: Language and Memory in the Poems of the World (Cambridge 2015); with Morris Halle, Meter in Poetry: a New Theory (Cambridge 2008); Language and literary structure: the linguistic analysis of form in verse and narrative (Cambridge 2002); and Linguistics and Literature (Blackwell 1997). In 2022 he will have two new books, Thrills, epiphany, sublime: how literature surprises us. (Anthem) and with Venla Sykäri (eds.) Rhyme and Rhyming in Verbal Art, Song and Language (Studia Fennica Folkloristica).

Mark Dow is author of Plain Talk Rising (poems) and American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons (California).

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Strange tales and labiovelar transcriptions

East Asians have been addicted to strange stories for millennia.  Many of these fall under the rubric of guài 怪 ("strange"), e.g., zhìguài 志怪 ("records of anomalies"), the name of one of the earliest genres of strange stories in China.

One of the strangest aspects about East Asian strange tales is that perhaps the most famous collection of all was written by a Westerner, Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904).

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Arabic and the vernaculars

With this post, I will begin a series on the nature of the Arabic group of languages.  My reason for doing so is that many people are badly confused about just what "Arabic" (a Semitic group) signifies when it comes to language, almost as badly confused as most people are about "Chinese" (linguistically more properly referred to as Sinitic).

For a basic, foundational statement, here are the opening two paragraphs of the Wikipedia article on "Arabic":

Arabic (اَلْعَرَبِيَّةُ, al-ʿarabiyyah [al ʕaraˈbijːa] (audio speaker iconlisten) or عَرَبِيّ, ʿarabīy [ˈʕarabiː] (audio speaker iconlisten) or [ʕaraˈbij]) is a Semitic language that first emerged in the 1st to 4th centuries CE. It is the lingua franca of the Arab world and the liturgical language of Islam. It is named after the Arabs, a term initially used to describe peoples living in the Arabian Peninsula bounded by eastern Egypt in the west, Mesopotamia in the east, and the Anti-Lebanon mountains and northern Syria in the north, as perceived by ancient Greek geographers. The ISO assigns language codes to 32 varieties of Arabic, including its standard form, Modern Standard Arabic, also referred to as Literary Arabic, which is modernized Classical Arabic. This distinction exists primarily among Western linguists; Arabic speakers themselves generally do not distinguish between Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic, but rather refer to both as al-ʿarabiyyatu l-fuṣḥā (اَلعَرَبِيَّةُ ٱلْفُصْحَىٰ "the eloquent Arabic") or simply al-fuṣḥā (اَلْفُصْحَىٰ).

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Taipei 101 and the I ching

From Tom Ace:  "It looks like hexagram 43 is at the top of Taipei 101 in the attached photo.  I remember you saying in 2017 that you and your brother hoped to complete a translation of the I Ching. I hope that's still possible."

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Moth eyebrows: lectio difficilior et tertium comparationis

Dieter Maue, a specialist on Old Uyghur, Tocharian, Sanskrit, and Brahmi script, wrote to ask:

The simile 'like the moon of the third day' (tertium comparationis: delicate, graceful; curved (eyebrows)) is currently occupying my mind. Attested in Tocharian A and in Uigur, it sounds, but it doesn't seem to be, Indian.

Tentatively I have translated Uig. üč yaŋıdakı ay täŋri ‘third day’s moon god’ into Chinese word for word; but sān rì yuè 三日月("moon of the third day") is not found in the dictionaries. In the Chinese Tripitaka, there is just one suitable instance. Elsewhere, the moon of the third day seems to be called éméi yuè 蛾眉月 ("moth eyebrow moon" — only poetically?). According to Giles (ChinEnglDict s.no. 7714 ): “ éméi 蛾眉 moth eyebrows, – alluding to the delicate curved eye-markings of the silkworm moth … moth-eyebrows is used figuratively for a lovely girl.   Also wrongly explained as referring to the small curved antennæ of the silkworm moth. ­ Éméi yuè 蛾眉月‚ the crescent moon’. “  The antennae of Bombyx mori are clearly visible, while I cannot find anything which corresponds to  the “eye-markings”. Do you have an idea how to solve the problem?

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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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