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Curated language

Like the previous post (7/7/21) on gender-inclusive French, it is difficult to refrain from quoting the bulk of this thought-provoking article by John McWhorter in The Atlantic (7/4/21): 

Even Trigger Warning Is Now Off Limits

The “Oppressive Language List” at Brandeis University could have come from countless other colleges, advocacy groups, or human-resources offices.

—–

Thirty years ago, someone taught me to say actor rather than actress and chairperson rather than chairman, to discourage our thinking of occupational performance as elementally distinct depending on sex. I understood. Language does not shape thought as much as is often supposed. But words can nudge concepts in certain directions if the connection between the word and the concept is clear enough; the compound of chair and the gender-neutral person hints that, for most purposes, the listener doesn’t need to know whether the individual running a meeting was male or female.

In the same vein, I heartily approve of the modern usage of they (Roberta is getting a haircut; they’ll be here in a little while). I also like the call to replace slave with enslaved person. Slave can indeed imply a certain essence, as if it were a status inherent to some people. Enslaved person points up that the slavery is an imposed condition. The distinction matters given how central, sensitive, and urgent the discussion of slavery is in today’s America.

But according to counsel from Brandeis University’s Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center, or PARC, considerate people must go further: Apparently, we must retire victim, survivor, trigger warning, and African-American too. We must do so, that is, if we seek to ignore some linguistic fundamentals while also engaging in distinctly callow sociological calisthenics. When we are to even “consider” avoiding the word prisoner (try person who was incarcerated) or walk-in (because not all people can walk) and the phrase everything going on right now (I’ll leave you to find out what’s wrong with that one), we are being preached to by people on a quest to change reality through the performative policing of manners.

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Gender-inclusive French

An unusual article on language in Foreign Policy:

"Aux Armes, Citoyen·nes!  Gender-neutral terms have sparked an explosive battle over the future of the French language," by Karina Piser (7/4/21)

The article is long and detailed.  Here I try to quote only the most important and telling points.

In early May, France’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, announced a ban on the use in schools of an increasingly common—and contested—writing method designed to make the French language more gender-inclusive.

Specifically, Blanquer’s decree focuses on the final letter “e,” which is used to feminize words in French—étudiant, for example, becomes étudiante when referring to a female student. Like many other languages, French is gendered: Pronouns, nouns, verbs, and adjectives reflect the gender of the object or person they refer to; there is no gender-neutral term like “they.” Most critically, say the proponents of the inclusive method, the masculine always takes precedence over the feminine—if there’s a group of 10 women and one man, a French speaker would still refer to the group in the masculine plural, ils.

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"Lying flat" and "Buddha whatever" (part 2)

A week or so ago, we looked at the phenomenon of "lying flat" (see under "Selected readings" below).

Karen Yang writes from China:

Hahahahha, tang ping ["lying flat"] was kind of a hot topic last month, for about one week. Maybe it’s because the College Entrance Exam was on-going, people tended to talk about life attitude such as tang ping or work hard. But you know how fast the Internet in China moves on,  so I wouldn’t say tang ping is a significant movement.

On the other hand, foxi (佛系) is a rather more frequently used word similar to tang ping. Basically it describes that young generations in East Asia, especially in Japan, tend to be indifferent or even negative about money, promotion, marriage, raising kids and so on, just like a Buddha. It’s an attitude in response to the heavy pressure brought by social development. 

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"Lying flat" and "Involution": passive-aggressive resistance

In recent days, many people have called to my attention the phenomenon of tǎngpíng 躺平 ("lying flat") in the PRC.  At first I thought it was just another passing fad of little significance, but the more I hear about it, the more I realize that it is a viral trend having potentially unsettling consequences for the CCP.
One of my former students who is now living in China observes:

"Lying flat" used to be a common phrase referring to people vapidly lounging around with no particular deeper meaning. But now it’s becoming a trend for the younger generation who don’t want to make an effort to work so hard as they did in the past. This has become more popular since COVID-19 as more people start to work from home (I guess it’s not as intensive as what they are used to do in offices).

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Irasshaimase?

[This is a guest post by Nathan Hopson]

I never thought this day would come.

From convenience stores to high-end luxury retailers, the daily soundscape of Japan is punctuated by millions upon millions of calls of “Irassshaimase!” It’s a greeting so pervasive that it becomes one of the most searing impressions of the country for first-time tourists, and for those of us who live here long-term it’s hard to imagine Japan without it. But perhaps now we will have to. The unthinkable, it seems, has been thought.

Irasshaimase (いらっしゃいませ) is a formal imperative form. It comes from the root verb irassharu (いらっしゃる), a “polite” verb that can mean to come, go, or be. The simple imperative is irasshai (いらっしゃい), which, though more unusual these days, can still be stumbled upon if you escape some of the more formalized spaces of the mainstream bourgeois economy. Both irasshaimase and irasshai mean, more or less, “Come on over!” or “Come on in!” In its modern incarnation, used primarily to greet customers who have already entered a store or restaurant, the nuance of irasshaimase is closer to “Welcome!” Occasionally you’ll hear it paired with “Goyukkuri dōzo” (ごゆっくりどうぞ), in other words, “Please take your time.”

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Hokkien renaissance

This is cause for rejoicing:

 "Meet the Malaysian on a mission to make Hokkien great again, amid Mandarin’s rising popularity in Southeast Asia"

    Linguist Sim Tze Wei has been accused of trying to divide the Chinese people, as there are those who see the use of other Chinese languages ‘as a sign of disunity and weakness’
    But he points out that Chinese immigrants to Asia have for generations been speaking their own languages, which are being edged out as more turn to learning Mandarin

Randy Mulyanto, SCMP, 1/24/21

When Sim Tze Wei began working to raise awareness of the Hokkien language, he never expected he would be accused of trying to divide the Chinese people.

“Han Chinese nationalists everywhere are keen to equate Mandarin to [real] Chinese,” said Sim, adding that there are those who find ethnic Chinese people speaking in Chinese languages other than Mandarin “as a sign of disunity and weakness”.

The Malaysian-Chinese linguist, who is in his mid-30s, is president of the Hokkien Language Association of Penang. Through the association, Sim is campaigning for the wider use of Hokkien, and advocating that it be reinstated as a language of instruction in independent and Chinese primary schools in the northern Malaysian state, as he fears Hokkien will “continue to be eroded by Mandarin and English”.

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"Involution", "working man", and "Versailles literature": memes of embitterment

Article by Ji Siqi in South China Morning Post (11/21/20):

"China’s frustrated millennials turn to memes to rail against grim economic prospects"

Chinese youth are venting their disillusionment with bleak job prospects and widening inequality with new memes and buzzwords online

The stinging online sentiment jars with the government line that China’s economic boom is creating opportunities for young people

The three terms we will focus on in this post seem simple and innocuous enough, but China's millennials put a sardonic spin on these expressions that turns them into subtle censure (which you're not supposed to do in China) against the socioeconomic conditions they face.

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A word for parents who lose an only child

It is well known that the PRC had a one-child policy from 1979-2015.  This means that, for most Chinese children born during this period, they would have no brothers and sisters.  As such, they were inestimably precious in a country that lacks adequate social benefits for people to live on after retirement, but who — in large measure — had to rely on their lone offspring to support them.  Such a practical consideration was matched by the psychological devastation experienced when a couple lost their sole, beloved child.

"Chinese parents who lose their only child — a tragedy so common there’s a word for it",

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Obsession with civilized behavior

In Chinese media, we often encounter exhortations to wénmíng xíngwéi 文明行为 ("civilized behavior"), but in this article, they've really gone over the top in promoting it:

"Běijīng wénmíng cùjìn tiáolì tōngguò  tíchàng zhèxiē wénmíng xíngwéi 北京文明促进条例通过 提倡这些文明行为" ("Beijing passes regulations for the advancement of civilization; for the promotion of these [types of] civilized behavior"), people.com (4/24/20)

Just counting wénmíng xíngwéi 文明行为 ("civilized behavior"), this four syllable, two word phrase is mentioned 17 times in this article.  If we count only the two syllable word wénmíng 文明 ("civilized; civilization"), it occurs 30 times.  I won't mention all of the more than sixty types of civilized behavior that are encouraged or required, but will note only those that are likely related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the proximate cause for the passage of these regulations:

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Social distance posters in various Asian scripts

At first I thought these might have come from Singapore or some other Southeast Asian country, but upon closer inspection, I see that they are from the Hong Kong Department of Health, which was confirmed by Fraser Howie, who sent them to me.  They are respectively in Hindi, Indonesian, Thai, Nepali, Bengali, Sinhala, Urdu, Vietnamese, and Tagalog.  Upon further reflection, it is clear that the content of the posters is directed at the foreign domestic helpers who comprise five percent of Hong Kong's population.  One of their favorite activities when they have time off from their jobs is to gather in groups in public places, sitting on the ground or on benches to chat and often to enjoy what to me seems like a picnic.

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America as a multilingual nation

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"A 97-Year-Old Philosopher Faces His Own Death"

That's the title of this outstanding 18:12 video about Herbert Fingarette (1921-2018).  After the video and a brief explanation of its contents, I will explain what Fingarette has to do with language and Chinese Studies.

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Two-fifths of the people in Vietnam have the surname Nguyen. Why?

In "Why 40% of Vietnamese People Have the Same Last Name", Atlas Obscura (3/28/17), republished in Pocket, Dan Nosowitz tells us:

In the U.S., an immigrant country, last names are hugely important. They can indicate where you’re from, right down to the village; the profession of a relative deep in your past; how long it’s been since your ancestors emigrated; your religion; your social status.

Nguyen doesn’t indicate much more than that you are Vietnamese. Someone with the last name Nguyen is going to have basically no luck tracing their heritage back beyond a generation or two, will not be able to use search engines to find out much of anything about themselves.

This difference illustrates something very weird about last names: they’re a surprisingly recent creation in most of the world, and there remain many places where they just aren’t very important. Vietnam is one of those.

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