Archive for Language and society

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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Please stoop

Photograph from Paul M in Taipei:

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Chicken baby

Just to show you how up to date Language Log can be, in this post we'll be talking about a neologism that is only a few weeks old in China.  The term is "jīwá 鸡娃", which literally means "chicken baby / child / doll".

The term surfaced abruptly and began circulating virally on social media, following a heated discussion over two articles on K-12 education (the links are here and here).  The articles are respectively about the fierce competition among parents in Haidian and Shunyi districts of Beijing municipality.  Haidian is a large district in the northwestern part of Beijing with many famous tourist attractions, outstanding universities, and top IT firms.  Shunyi district is in the northeastern part of Beijing.  Although it is not as large and powerful as Haidian, it is also considered a very desirable place to live because of its posh villas, easy access to the international airport, and China's largest international exhibition center, but above all — from a parent's point of view — some of the best private and international schools in the country.

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German salty pig hand

Jeff DeMarco writes:

"Saw this on Facebook. Google Translate gives 'German salty pig hand' which I presume refers to trotters. Not sure how they got sexual misconduct!"

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Academic rubbish

Echo Huang from Quartz (7/5/19) has written a fun and interesting article on Shanghai's new waste sorting rules:

"'What kind of rubbish are you?': China's first serious trash-sorting rule is driving Shanghai crazy"

Echo also has a related Chinese version.

"Starting Monday (July 1), individuals and businesses in China's financial capital who fail to separate trash correctly face fines and even a lower social credit rating (link in Chinese) that could make it hard to get a bank loan."

The following "sticker" / image macro showing the "Shanghai aunties" (Shànghǎi āyí 上海阿姨) who help people sort their trash is a favorite of Weibo microbloggers:

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Baffling propaganda: "black" and "evil" in contemporary Chinese society

Mandy Chan saw this sign on Weibo (a major Chinese microblogging website) and challenged me to translate it:

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How to address your professor

Face to face, most students greet me as "Professor Mair", a few as "Dr. Mair". In e-mails and other written communications, they nearly all address me with "Dear Prof. Mair", "Hello Prof. Mair", or "Hi Prof. Mair", all of which sound natural and normal. I nearly fell off my chair when a female student from China recently sent me an e-mail that began simply "Victor". A few weeks later, I was stunned when she sent me another e-mail that began even more abruptly with just "Mair". This particular student's English otherwise is quite good, so I really don't know what's going on with her.

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Snobbery

There's a salon / spa in Japan called "snob®".  Bill Benzon asks:  "Is 'snob' free of the negative connotations it would have here?"

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Spiritually Finnish

Article in The Guardian (8/5/18) by Verna Yu:

"Why do millions of Chinese people want to be 'spiritually Finnish'?:  A Finnish cartoon about a socially awkward stickman has become a hit in China – even inspiring a new word in Mandarin. Why has it struck such a chord?"

The new word is jīngfēn 精芬 ("spiritually Finnish").

What does this mean, and why would Chinese want to be that way?

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A new kind of iron rice bowl

In the good / bad old days of Chinese communism, people talked about having a "tiě fàn wǎn 铁饭碗" ("iron rice bowl"), which meant essentially that they had a "job for life", though the pay might have been extremely meager.  With the transformation of communism to mercantilism* (in the PRC's case, we may refer to it as "neomercantilism"), the old iron rice bowl could no longer be assured, so new (and more sophistical) types of job security were devised.  One that I just heard about for the first time a few days ago is biānzhì 编制.  For the moment I'll just say that this term can normally mean "weave; plait; braid", "work out; draw up", "organizational scheme (of a group / work unit)", and so forth.  The individual morphemes of which biānzhì 编制 is composed respectively mean "knit; weave; plait; compile; edit; arrange; organize" and "make; manufacture; restrict; system; work out; establish; overpower".

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