Archive for Language and society

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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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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