Archive for Language and culture

A quantum leap in the Chinese toilet revolution

A friend was visiting in Lijiang, Yunnan Province (southwestern China) earlier this week.  She stayed in Yuhu 玉湖 village where Joseph Rock (1884-1962; the famous Austrian-American explorer, geographer, linguist, and botanist) lived nearly a century ago at the foot of Yulong 玉龙 Mountain.  The area around Lijiang has become a famous tourist destination, not only for the beauty of its natural scenery, but for the richness of its local culture (more about that below).  While in Lijiang, my friend was surprised to come upon signs for unisex toilets:

Here is some signage for such toilets in China:

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Of horse riding and Old Sinitic reconstructions

This post was prompted by the following comment to "The emergence of Germanic" (2/27/19):

…while riding horses _in battle_ is post-Bronze Age (and perhaps of questionable worth at any time), I think riding in general is older, and probably (assuming the usual dating of PIE) common Indo-European.

The domesticated horse, the chariot, and the wheel came to East Asia from the west, and so did horse riding:

Mair, Victor H.  “The Horse in Late Prehistoric China:  Wresting Culture and Control from the ‘Barbarians.’”  In Marsha Levine, Colin Renfrew, and Katie Boyle, ed.  Prehistoric steppe adaptation and the horse,  McDonald Institute Monographs.  Cambridge:  McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2003, pp. 163-187.

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New corpus of latrinalia starting up

I just learned via the mosling mailing list that a Russian team has established a multilingual corpus of toilet graffiti, which in their English language home page they call the Corpus of Latrinalia. I haven't looked at it and know nothing about it – I'm just reporting its existence. They have warnings on the front page that it contains obscenities "as well as racist and other insulting inscriptions", which do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of the corpus gatherers. But I find the project too amusing not to report.

https://linghub.ru/wc_corpus/index_en.html

And it was done with the support of the Russian Science Foundation. Good for them. ("them" – both.) Let's hope they get some good research out of it so that the RSF doesn't regret the decision and react badly to future non-standard proposals!

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Language revival in the news

BBC Future has a very nice article by Alex Rawlings about the work of Ghil'ad Zuckermann on language revival in Australia and the larger context of such efforts. One new thing I learned about Zuckermann from this article was that before he moved from Israel to Australia, he was a specialist on language revival in Israel. (That's what we generally think of as the revival of Hebrew, but he insists that the modern language is different enough from Biblical Hebrew, because of the influence of all the first languages of those who participated in its revival, to need a different name – he calls it Israeli.) Anyway, it's a nice article. Thanks to Victor Mair for sharing it around the Language Log water cooler.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190320-the-man-bringing-dead-languages-back-to-life

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China and Rome

In preparing a new edition of Friedrich Hirth's venerable China and the Roman Orient: Researches into Their Ancient and Medieval Relations as Represented in Old Chinese Records (1885) (CRO), for the sake of comparison I included in my introduction a section on Frederick J. Teggart’s Rome and China:  A Study of Correlations in Historical Events (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1939), written 54 years later.  Superficially, the two books share similar titles and topics, but they could hardly be more different in their orientations and goals.  Whereas Hirth was determined to identify the names of places, peoples, and things from the far west of Eurasia that were Sinographically transcribed in ancient Chinese – an extremely difficult philological task, Teggart’s aim was far more theoretical.  Teggart strove to demonstrate that battles, movements of peoples, and other events that occurred in western Eurasia, Central Asia, and East Asia for half a millennium during the Roman Empire were intimately interrelated, although in Rome and China, he focuses intensely on the period from 58 BC to AD 107.

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Japanese varia

First, as a slightly belated Valentine's present, onomatopoetic / mimetic chocolates:

"Chocolates That Represent Japanese Onomatopoeic Words To Describe Texture", by Johnny, Spoon & Tamago (1/16/15)

Here are the names of eight of the nine chocolates designed by Oki Sato of the Tokyo and Milan-based design studio Nendo:

ツブツブ (tsubu tsubu): a word for small bits or drops
スベスベ (sube sube): smooth edges and corners
トゲトゲ (toge toge): sharp pointed tips
ザラザラ (zara zara): granular like a file
ゴロゴロ (goro goro): cubic, with many edges
フワフワ (fuwa fuwa): soft and airy with many tiny holes
ポキポキ (poki poki): a delicate frame or structure
ザクザク (zaku zaku): makes a crunching sounds, like when you step on ice

You can see exceptionally clear photographs of the ingeniously designed 26x26x26mm chocolates in the article linked above.

[h.t. Becki Kanou]

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English New Year's couplet

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Buddha whatever

There's a new attitude wave in China, and it's called the "Fó xì xiànxiàng 佛系现象", which looks like it means "Buddha system / series / department phenomenon".  Unfortunately, that doesn't really make much sense on its own account, and it certainly doesn't fit with the way the expression "Fó xì 佛系" is employed in current parlance, as described in this Chinese newspaper account.  The closest parallel I can think of in American contemporary speech would be “whate-e-e-ver".

So why are they taking the name of the Buddha in vain?

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Thai "khwan" ("soul") and Old Sinitic reconstructions

There's a Thai word for "soul", khwan, that sounds like Sinitic hún 魂 ("soul").

Old Sinitic

(BaxterSagart): /*[m.]qʷˤə[n]/
(Zhengzhang): /*ɢuːn/

I've always assumed that Thai khwan and Sinitic hún 魂 are related, but was never sure in which direction the influence / borrowing spread.

One reason I'm so interested in this question is because, already in BC times, we have evidence in south China (N.B. south) of rituals for calling back wandering souls, which are very similar to such rituals in Thai religion.

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Sinographs for "tea"

It is common for Chinese to claim that their ancestors have been drinking tea for five thousand years, as with so many other aspects of their culture.  I always had my doubts about that supposed hoary antiquity, and after many years of research, Erling Hoh and I wrote a book on the subject titled The True History of Tea (Thames & Hudson, 2009) in which we showed that tea-drinking did not become common in the East Asian Heartland until after the mid-8th century AD, when Lu Yu (733-804) wrote his groundbreaking Classic of Tea (ca. 760-762) describing and legitimizing the infusion.

Since people in the Chinese heartland were not regularly drinking Camellia sinensis qua tea before the mid-8th century, I long suspected that they did not have a Sinograph for tea (MSM chá) either.  Rather, based on my reading of texts and inscriptions dating from the 7th c. AD and earlier, I hypothesized that the character now used for "tea", namely chá 茶, was a sort of rebranding (by removing one tiny horizontal stroke) of another character, tú 荼 ("bitter vegetable").

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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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Of reindeer and Old Sinitic reconstructions

This is a piece that I've been meaning to write for a long time, but never found the opportunity.  Now, inspired by the season and about to embark on extended holiday travel, I'm determined not to put it off for yet another year.

The genesis of my ruminations on this topic are buried in decades-old tentative efforts to identify the fabulous creature known in Chinese myth as the qilin (Hanyu Pinyin), also spelled as ch'i2-lin2 (Wade-Giles Romanization) and kirin in Japanese, which the whole world knows as the name of a famous beer (fanciful, stylized depictions of the kirin are to be found on bottles and cans of the beer).

The qilin is usually referred to in English as a kind of unicorn, but I knew that couldn't be right, since no account of the qilin from antiquity describes it as having only one horn.  The Chinese xièzhì 獬豸 ("goat of justice") does have a single, long, pointed horn, but that is another matter, for which see "Lamb of Goodness, Goat of Justice" (pp. 86-93) in Victor H. Mair, "Religious Formations and Intercultural Contacts in Early China," in Volkhard Krech and Marion Steinicke, ed., Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe:  Encounters, Notions, and Comparative Perspectives (Dynamics in the History of Religion, 1 [Ruhr-Universität Bochum]) (Leiden:  Brill, 2011), pp. 85-110 (available on Google Books).  Since customs pertaining to the goat of justice, as with the reindeer, existed in cultures spread across northern Eurasia, I suspect that an extra-Sinitic loanword may also be lurking behind xièzhì 獬豸.

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