Archive for Idioms

"Forty Days and Forty Nights"

The old hymn and blues song of that title have been very much on my mind during the last couple of months.

George Hunt Smyttan (1856)

Forty days and forty nights
You were fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights,
Tempted, and yet undefiled….

Muddy Waters (1956)

Forty days and forty nights, since my baby left this town
Sun shinin' all day long, but the rain keep falling down
She's my life I need her so, why she left I just don't know….

These are very different kinds of songs, yet they are both focused on a period of forty days and forty nights.  I've been thinking about these songs a lot in the current climate of far-reaching quarantines against the novel coronavirus epidemic centered on Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.

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Too tired to love: new set phrases in Pinyin

Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese has an extreme propensity for elision, truncation, and abbreviation, which is one of the factors that make it so hard to read.

Yesterday, we looked at the current Chinese proclivity for acronyms and initialisms, made much easier to produce and apply due to the use of digital technology and pinyin as part of an emerging Sinitic digraphia.  See "Chinese acronyms" (12/22/19).

In recent years, a new kind of quadrisyllabic "set phrase" has arisen in internet usage, one not based on historical allusion or other traditional source.  Here are seven typical examples:

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The Mandarin grammatical particle "le" — one or many?

When I was learning Mandarin over half a century ago, the more grammatically minded Chinese language teachers argued that historically and functionally there were multiple "le" particles that just happened to end up being written with the simple two-stroke character 了.  Then a contrary movement set in, and linguists tried to prune down all the "le" into two or even one, claiming that all of the different 了 developed out of an ur-了.

The irony of it all is that, before the 20th century, there was no established, systematic, explicit grammar for Sinitic languages in indigenous sources.

See, inter alia, Victor H. Mair (1997), "Ma Jianzhong and the Invention of Chinese Grammar," in Chaofen Sun, ed., Studies on the History of Chinese Syntax. Monograph Series Number 10 of Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 5-26.  (available on JSTOR here)

Mǎshì wéntōng 馬氏文通 (conventionally rendered as "Ma's Grammar", though it would probably be closer to the original meaning in Chinese to translate it as "Written Language Unobstructedness"; 1898)

Just as we have seen in a recent post, before the 20th century there was no Chinese concept of "word":

"HouseHold GarBage" (12/6/19)

Which leads to the question:  can you have grammar without words?

There have been countless papers, articles, dissertations, and monographs on le 了.  Here I'm going to introduce two dissertations on le 了 written within the last few decades and the latest monograph on le 了 as representative of what has been happening with regard to the conceptualization of this protean particle in recent times.

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A Chinese analog to English "you know"

It's only recently that I've heard a lot of students from mainland China say "nà shà 那啥" (lit., "that what").  At first it was hard to figure out exactly what they meant by it, but as I become more familiar with the contexts in which they deploy this phrase, I wonder if it is functionally something like the "you know" that is used so ubiquitously in English.

I think that 那啥 is basically a northeasternism that has swept across many other parts of China in the last few years.  It is a characteristic expression in comedic sketch (xiǎopǐn 小品 ).  Since this regional type of comedic skit has only lately become phenomenally popular outside of the northeast, that would account for the explosive spread of this term among my students, who come from all parts of China.  Prior to this year, I barely ever heard anyone not from the Northeast say it, but now I hear it spoken quite a bit by students from many different parts of China, although a few from southern China say they are not familiar with it.

Xiǎopǐn 小品 ("comedic sketch") is the Northeastern equivalent of xiàngsheng 相声 ("crosstalk; comic dialog"), centered in Beijing, but also much loved in Tianjin, Nanjing, and elsewhere, particularly in the north.  See "'Rondle it!'" (2/25/19) for an example.

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Maison d'être

Note from June Teufel Dreyer: "Driving around Coconut  Grove [Miami neighborhood] to admire old houses on back streets, [daughter] Elizabeth [Dreyer Geay] and I saw one with a plaque on the perimeter wall that read 'Maison d'Etre'":

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Pretend dog

Zabrina Lo has a new article in Zolima CityMag titled "Pop Cantonese: 裝假狗 – Installing a Fake Dog" (10/24/19).  It begins thus:

In film sets in Hong Kong, one often hears the phrase zong1 gaa2 gau2 (裝假狗) – literally "installing a fake dog." It isn't too implausible to associate the first two characters with installing props or faking an act for filming purposes, but surely not every movie is about dogs, and what does it even mean to install a fake one?

Dogs have long had a pejorative connotation in Chinese culture, as University of Pennsylvania sinologist Victor Mair notes in his paper "Of Dogs and Old Sinitic Reconstructions." There are many derogatory expressions associated with dogs, such as zau2 gau2 (走狗, "go dog," a traitor), keoi5 hou2 gau2 (佢好狗, "the person very dog," the person is such an asshole), gau2 naam4 neoi5 (狗男女, "dog men and women," awful men and women) and gau2 ngaan5 hon3 jan4 dai1 (狗眼看人低, "dogs' eyes look people down," powerless people looking down on others). In all these cases, dogs are frequently referred to a person's vulgarity, unworthiness or lack of integrity.

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Xi Jinping's denunciation of splittists

During his recent trip to Nepal, Xi Jinping blasted those who aimed to split up China by saying they would have their "bodies pulverized and bones crushed" (fěnshēnsuìgǔ 粉身碎骨).  A lot of people were shocked by the harshness of the language and also wondered why he would take advantage of the first trip to Nepal by a Chinese president in more than two decades to denounce splittists back home.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: "keep and bear arms" (part 1) (updated)

An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.

COFEA and COEME: lawcorpus.byu.edu.

This was supposed to be the final entry in my series of posts on the Second Amendment, but I've decided to split the discussion into two parts.

In my last post, I concluded that as used in the Second Amendment, bear arms was most likely understood to mean 'serve in the militia.' The question that I'll address here and in my next post is whether that conclusion is changed by the fact that the Second Amendment protects not simply "the right of the people to bear arms" but "the right of the people to keep and bear arms."

The corpus data on keep and bear arms is of no help in answering that question, because all the uses of the phrase in the data are either from the Second Amendment or from drafts of proposals for what became the Second Amendment. Therefore, I won't deal with the corpus data at all in this post, and I'll deal with only a relative handful of concordance lines in the next one (though those lines will play an important role in the analysis).

Taken together, these two posts will provide an extended rebuttal of the portion of Heller (consisting of only four sentences) that raised the question that these posts will address. Those four sentences were part of the court's argument that bear arms as used in the Second Amendment couldn't possibly have been understood in its idiomatic military sense:

[If bear arms were given its idiomatic meaning,] the phrase "keep and bear arms" would be incoherent. The word "Arms" would have two different meanings at once: "weapons" (as the object of "keep") and (as the object of "bear") one-half of an idiom. It would be rather like saying "He filled and kicked the bucket" to mean "He filled the bucket and died." Grotesque.

When I first read Heller, this struck me as a pretty strong argument. But I've rethought the issue since then, and have come to think that the argument is seriously flawed. At this point, although I don't dismiss the argument altogether, I don't think it rules out interpreting bear arms in the Second Amendment to mean 'serve in the militia.'

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Tiananmen protest slogan grammar puzzle

Activists gathered at Tiananmen Square on May 14th, 1989:

Source:  "China's Great Firewall threatens to erase memories of Tiananmen:  VPN crackdown and sophisticated censorship make it harder to access outside information", by Karen Chiu, abacus (6/3/19)

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Things you can do with "water" in Cantonese

Peter Golden sent me the following video, "Luisa Tam says: Let's put more HK English on the map", South China Morning Post (10/23/18):

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China rules

For the last few weeks, the New York Times has been running a hyped-up, gushing series of lengthy articles under the rubric "China rules". On a special section in the paper edition for Sunday, November 25, they printed this gigantic headline in Chinese characters — and made a colossal mistake:

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"China has no intention to touch the cheese of any country"

A tweet by Kelsey Munro:

https://twitter.com/KelseyMunro/status/1062464615257231360

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Porcelain bumping

I learned this term from an important article by David Bandurski in today's (10/17/18) The Guardian, "China's new diplomacy in Europe has a name: broken porcelain:  Beijing's message to Sweden and beyond – criticise us, and we'll topple your agenda – won't win it any hearts and minds".

The relevant Chinese expression is pèngcí 碰瓷, which literally means "bump porcelain" (think pèngpèngchē 碰碰车 ["bumper cars"]).  How did pèngcí 碰瓷 ("bump porcelain") become embroiled with diplomacy and international politics?

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