Archive for Language and economics

RUNning away from Shanghai

New article in Shìjiè Rìbào 世界日報 (World Journal [5/12/22]):

"Tífáng mínzhòng luò pǎo? Zhōngguó yāoqiú: Cóngyán xiànzhì fēi bìyào chūjìng huódòng 提防民眾落跑?中國要求:從嚴限制非必要出境活動 ("Beware of people running away? China demands: Severe restrictions on non-essential outbound activities")

What we're seeing in this article and elsewhere online is the emergence of neologisms resulting from the extreme lockdowns in Shanghai during the last month and more.  The restrictions are so brutally draconian and the people are so desperate that they have begun to develop a science of how to escape.

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Etymologizing and fantasizing: economy and relish

Figuring out the etymologies of words has always been one of my favorite things in life, almost as much as eating flavorful food.  All the way back in second grade of primary school, my Mom gave me a Merriam-Webster dictionary, and I treasured it above all my other belongings because of its etymological notes.  Much later, when The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language became available, I was euphoric, since then I was able to trace words to their Indo-European and Semitic roots.

In between, though, I came up against the pseudo-science of Chinese character etymology, which should better be called "Chinese character construction".  Despite almost universal misunderstanding to the contrary, Chinese characters have no direct connection to the sounds and meanings of words.  If you want to analyze the history of the development of how individual Chinese characters acquired their shapes and sounds, all well and good, but that's a different matter from how the sounds and meanings of Chinese words evolved through time.  Always and ever, I emphasize over and over the primacy of sounds for conveying meaning, the same as with all other living, spoken languages.  The writing systems are only there as a makeshift, always catching up and inevitably imperfect means for recording the sounds of the languages.

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Dramatically declining enrollments in Chinese studies

The number of students enrolled in a given foreign language is a good index of public perceptions of the importance of that language for global politics, economics, and cultural influence.  When I came to Penn in 1979, interest in all things Russian was soaring.  The Slavicists occupied quite a bit of real estate in Williams Hall, which houses language studies at Penn.  They had a number of institutes, research centers, libraries, and so forth, and they were extremely well funded.  A decade later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian juggernaut at Penn began to fall apart, to the extent that it lost nearly all of its space and researchers, and they were tossing whole libraries into dumpsters.  As an ardent bibliophile, it pained me greatly to see precious books being thrown into the trash.  I rescued as many of them as I could stuff into my Volkswagen Beetle and cart away, including an enormous, old, and undoubtedly historically important encyclopedia that still sits in the enclosed porch of my home.

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The Rhetoric Trap

Interesting Chinese translation of the title of Yale philosopher Jason Stanley's book, How Propaganda Works:

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Involution, part 2

[This is a guest post by Diana Shuheng Zhang.  It was prompted by "'Involution', 'working man', and 'Versailles literature': memes of embitterment" (12/23/20), where we discovered that the word "involution", which is little known in English-speaking countries, except in highly specialized contexts, has gone viral in China in a sense that is barely known in the West.]

The resource curse of Chinese textualism and Sinology's paradox of involuted plenty

I. Hyperabundance of texts

To me, the predicament of Sinology seems like a resource curse. The "paradox of plenty”. “Paradox of plenty” is an economic term, referring to the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources tend to have worse development outcomes than those with fewer natural resources. I have been thinking about this in my head for a few days. The “resource curse” for China studies is that Chinese culture, especially Classical Chinese-based culture of writings, has too many raw texts. The discovery of the Dunhuang manuscripts has added even more to the already abundant, if not excessive, textual residue that scholars devote their lives to, accumulating and laying out textual evidence before they can reach the point — maybe they never can if they do not intend to — of analyzing, integrating, utilizing, and theorizing them.

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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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Singapore circuit breakers

From a colleague in Singapore:

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“Overcoming the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”: The Oscars and multilingualism

Below is a guest post by Tihomir Rangelov.


The Korean film Parasite’s landslide success at the Oscars this year has been called "a cultural breakthrough". Was it a linguistic breakthrough as well?

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Sanskrit inscriptional evidence for Muslims in 12th-century Bengal

Herewith, I would like to call your attention to a new article by Ryosuke Furui (Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, The University of Tokyo) titled "Sujanagar Stone Inscription of the Time of Bhojavarman, Year 7" in Pratna Samiksha, A Journal of Archaeology (Centre for Archaeological Studies & Training, Eastern India, Kolkata), New Series, Volume 10 (2019), 115-122.

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Tibet water

Ben Zimmer was just passing through Hong Kong Airport, where he got a bottle of Tibet 5100 spring water, complete with Tibetan script:


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Language as a self-regulating system

Thought-provoking article by Lane Greene, the language columnist and an editor at The Economist:

"Who decides what words mean:  Bound by rules, yet constantly changing, language might be the ultimate self-regulating system, with nobody in charge", Aeon (12/6/18).

Greene starts with a wallop:

Decades before the rise of social media, polarisation plagued discussions about language. By and large, it still does. Everyone who cares about the topic is officially required to take one of two stances. Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists’ facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.

But then he softens the blow by saying, "it doesn't have to be this way".

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