Archive for Language and literature

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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The Cantophone and the state

Cantonese — its nature, its status, its past, present, and future, its place in the realm of Sinitic languages and in the world — has been one of the chief foci of Language Log.  Consequently, it is my great pleasure to announce the publication of the three-hundred-and-thirty-fourth issue of Sino-Platonic Papers:

“The Concept of the Cantophone: Memorandum for a Stateless Literary History,” by Wayne C. F. Yeung.

This is a landmark work of scholarship that penetratingly probes the position of Cantonese — and thereby all "Chinese" topolects — in the complex mix of language, literature, nation, politics, and culture.  

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ChatGPT does Emily Dickinson writing a recipe for Pad Thai (and haiku too)

From Scott D. Seligman via Facebook:

  ChatGPT is really creeping me out. I asked it for a recipe for Pad Thai in the form of an Emily Dickinson poem. I'm no poetry maven, but the damned thing seems to have the ability to turn a phrase, at least some of the time.

Below is what I got in response. [Note to Jeanne Larsen, Jenny Shepherd and any other poets or poetesses with
whom I am acquainted: I hear Starbucks may be hiring baristas].

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Revelation: Scythians and Shang

I was stunned when I read the following article in the South China Morning Post, both because it was published in Hong Kong, which is now completely under the censorial control of the People's Republic of China (PRC) / Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and because it raises some disturbing political issues and troubling linguistic problems.

"Why the rewriting of China’s history 3,000 years ago still matters today"

Confucius uncovered the truth of the Shang dynasty but agreed with King Wen and the Duke of Zhou to cover up disturbing facts
Beijing’s claimed triumph over Covid-19, for instance, may not echo with all who endured the draconian quarantines.

Zhou Xin, SCMP (4/25/23)

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The verbal and visual in traditional prosimetric literature

In my trilogy of books and dozens of articles about medieval picture storytelling in South, Central, East, and Southeast Asia, I stressed the alternation of sung and spoken passages as performed by the narrator:

Tun-huang Popular Narratives (Cambridge University Press, 1983)

Painting and Performance:  Chinese Picture Recitation and Its Indian Genesis (University of Hawai'i Press, 1989)

T'ang Transformation Texts: A Study of the Buddhist Contribution to the Rise of Vernacular Fiction and Drama in China (Harvard University Asia Center, 1989)

Because of the close association with illustrative pictures to complement the narrative (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the pictorial narratives were being explicated by the accompanying texts), I stressed the alternation between spoken and sung portions, where the former told the story and the latter highlighted certain aspects of the tale.  This type of narrative has been well studied in various literatures around the world.  See Joseph Harris and Karl Reichl, eds., Prosimetrum:  Crosscultural Perspectives on Narrative in Prose and Verse (Martlesham, Suffolk, England:  Boydell & Brewer, 1997).

In the quintessential Chinese genre of this type of picture storytelling, biànwén 變文 ("transformation texts"), there is a distinctive pre-verse formula which marks the transition from prose to verse.  The typical form of this formula is "qiě kàn XX chù ruòwèi chénshuō 且看XX處若為陳說" ("just look at the place [where XX occurs], how shall I present it?").

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The "socialite" phenomenon in China

Source: China Media Project (12/7/2022)

Once signifying graceful women of a distinguished background, the term “socialite,” or yuan (媛), has in recent years become a misogynistic umbrella term used on digital platforms in China to disparage women who advertise fancy lifestyles. The term has also been used by state-run media to roundly criticize perceived materialistic excesses, reinforcing their unfair association with femininity.

The Chinese word yuàn (媛) has traditionally referred to the “virtuous and comely woman” as mentioned in the Shuowen Jiezi (说文解字), a Chinese dictionary compiled in the Han dynasty. Since 2020, however, the word has rapidly evolved — or perhaps devolved — into a catchall word used on the Chinese internet, and also in state media, to denigrate modern-day beauties as disgraceful and degenerate.

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The Sutradhar and the Ringgit: A Study of Terms Related to the Early Puppet Theatres

Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-thirty-second issue:

The Sutradhar and the Ringgit: A Study of Terms Related to the Early Puppet Theatres,” by Keith Rawlings.


Certain words in Sanskrit, Old Javanese, and Ancient Greek that appear in centuries-old texts are thought by many scholars to be early references to puppetry, leading to certain theories about the history of that art. These particular words from antiquity and the Middle Ages and their interpretations and translations underpin currently received views about the antiquity of puppetry. This paper discusses the history of the related scholarship, examines varying interpretations of the words, and suggests other possible meanings, leading to questions about their interpretation. I hope to show that, because words in earlier eras of a language may have different interpretations from those accepted later, texts and the scholarship that relies on them should be re-examined in the light of current knowledge.

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