Archive for Language and music

Tang (618-907) poetry in Min pronunciation

Usually, though not always, when I Romanize Sinographs on Language Log, I do so using Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), but that is misleading, because MSM is only one of countless different topolectal pronunciations that could be used (Cantonese, Shanghainese, Sichuanese, and so on and so forth).  MSM is particularly ill-suited for the Romanization of pre-modern literature, since — of all topolects — it is the most highly evolved (ergo youngest) and least like earlier stages of Sinitic.  In this post, I will use Southern Min pronunciation to give a sense of how different it is from MSM.

The Min Romanizations have been prepared by Conal Boyce using a Yale-like system he developed in 1975 in preference to Douglas-Campbell.

Douglas, Carstairs (1899) [1873]. Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy (2nd ed.). London: Presbyterian Church of England.

 Campbell, W. (1913). A Dictionary of the Amoy Vernacular. Tainan: Ho Tai Tong.

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New expressions for karaoke: the phoneticization of Chinese

My first acquaintance with the word "karaoke" was back in the 1980s, when I was visiting my brother Denis, who was then a translator for Foreign Languages Press in Beijing.  He lived in the old Russian-built Friendship Hotel, a very spartan place compared to today's luxury accommodations in big Chinese cities. There wasn't much unusual, interesting, or attractive about the place (though they had bidets in the bathrooms, as did many other Russian style accommodations in China at that time), but I was deeply intrigued by a small sign at the back of one of the buildings that led to a basement room. On it was written "kǎlā OK 卡拉OK". The best I could make of that novel expression was "card pull OK," and I thought that it might have something to do with documentation. I asked all my Chinese scholar friends what this mysterious sign meant, but not one of them knew (remember that this was back in the mid-80s). It was only when I returned to the United States that I realized kǎlā OK 卡拉OK was the Chinese transcription for Japanese karaoke. It took a lot more time and effort before I figured out that karaoke is the abbreviated Japanese translation-transliteration of English "empty orchestra," viz., kara (空) "empty" and ōkesutora (オーケストラ). When I reported this to my Chinese linguist friends (Zhou Youguang, Yin Binyong, and others) back in Beijing the next year, they were absolutely flabbergasted. They had been convinced that the OK was simply the English term meaning "all right," but they had no idea what to make of the kǎlā portion.

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"Classic Female Poison Earplugs" — Ask Language Log

Image and query from Hans Oddvar Vannes:

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Earworm of the week: Me and Bobby McGee

Here it is, by the great, the inimitable, the one and only Janis Joplin:

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Hatred in model operas

From blood and gore to hatred.

In China, revolutionary operas or model operas (Chinese: yangban xi, 样板戏) were a series of shows planned and engineered during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) by Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong. They were considered revolutionary and modern in terms of thematic and musical features when compared with traditional Chinese operas. Many of them were adapted to film.

Originally, eight revolutionary operas (Chinese: Ba Ge Yangban Xi, 八个样板戏) were produced, eighteen by the end of the period. Instead of the "emperors, kings, generals, chancellors, maidens, and beauties" of the traditional Peking opera, which was banned as "feudalistic and bourgeois," they told stories from China's recent revolutionary struggles against foreign and class enemies. They glorified the People's Liberation Army and the bravery of the common people, and showed Mao Zedong and his thought as playing the central role in the victory of socialism in China. Although they originated as operas, they soon appeared on LPs, in comic books (lianhuanhua), on posters, postcards, and stamps; on plates, teapots, wash basins, cigarette packages, vases, and calendars. They were performed or played from loudspeakers in schools, factories, and fields by special performing troupes. The Eight Model Operas dominated the stage in all parts of the country during these years, leading to the joke "Eight hundred million people watched eight shows."

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Operatic rhetoric

YouTube has created a new musical opportunity — musical accompaniment for recorded spontaneous orations, as a kind of after-the-fact sprechgesang.

I'm not sure who did this first, or when, but I've seen it more often over the past few months. Here's one of my favorites:


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Prehistoric notation systems in Peru, with Chinese parallels

This morning, by chance, I learned about the great urban center of Caral in Peru, 120 miles north of Lima.  It was occupied between ca. 26th century BC and 20th century BC and had more than 3,000 inhabitants.  It was said to be the oldest urban center in the Americas and the largest for the 3rd millennium BC.  Caral had many impressive architectural structures, including temples, an amphitheater, and pyramids that predate the Egyptian pyramids by approximately a century.

What attracted my attention the most, however, is this:

Among the artifacts found at Caral is a knotted textile piece that the excavators have labelled a quipu. They write that the artifact is evidence that the quipu record keeping system, a method involving knots tied in textiles that was brought to its highest development by the Inca Empire, was older than any archaeologist previously had determined. Evidence has emerged that the quipu also may have recorded logographic information in the same way writing does. Gary Urton has suggested that the quipus used a binary system that could record phonological or logographic data.

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Colloquial Cantonese and Taiwanese as mélange languages

Charles Belov writes:

My understanding was that Hong Kong newspapers, newscasts, and popular Cantonese songs use literary Chinese exclusively while Hong Kong star magazines and Cantonese hip-hop (e.g., LMF, Softhard) use colloquial Cantonese exclusively. But today as I was walking along, an old Beyond song, 俾面派对, was earworming me and it suddenly hit me that, unlike most Cantonese songs, and like Cantonese hip-hop, which it isn't, it includes colloquial Cantonese, specifically 唔 and 佢 (and, as it turns out, "D").

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Glossing English with Sinograms

For more than five decades, Orville Schell has been one of our leading China expositors.  Having authored or co-authored a dozen books on Chinese affairs, he now turns his hand to a fictional biography with My Old Home:  A Novel of Exile (Penguin Random House, 2021).  Blurb from the publisher:

A uniquely experienced observer of China gives us a sweeping historical novel that takes us on a journey from the rise of Mao Zedong in 1949 to the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, as a father and his son are swept away by a relentless series of devastating events.
 
It’s 1950, and pianist Li Tongshu is one of the few Chinese to have graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Engaged to a Chinese-American violinist who is the daughter of a missionary father and a Shanghai-born mother, Li Tongshu is drawn not just by Mao’s grand promise to “build a new China” but also by the enthusiasm of many other Chinese artists and scientists living abroad, who take hope in Mao’s promise of a rejuvenated China. And so when the recently established Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing offers Li Tongshu a teaching position, he leaves San Francisco and returns home with his new wife.
 
But instead of being allowed to teach, Li Tongshu is plunged into Mao’s manic revolution, which becomes deeply distrustful of his Western education and his American wife. It’s not long before his son, Little Li, also gets caught up in the maelstrom of political and ideological upheaval that ends up not only savaging the Li family but, ultimately, destroying the essential fabric of Chinese society.

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Mongolian museum mystery

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Middle Eastern harps and "harp" in Eastern Central Asia

There is an abundance of ancient harps archeologically recovered from the Tarim Basin and surrounding areas.  Just in the Tarim Basin alone, there are 23 harps dating to the first millennium BC:

Yánghǎi 洋海 (east of Turpan, just south of the foothills of the Flaming Mountains at the broad, pebbly ("gobi") terrace embouchement of the Toyuq Gorge) — Uyghur Yankhi, Yanghi, Yangkhe, Yangxé. Uyghur Wikipedia has Yanqir; Turkic Yarghol (5 harps dating from 999-250 BC)

Zhāgǔnlǔkè 扎滚鲁克 (village in Toglaklik Township, Chärchän / Qiemo County) — Uyghur Zaghunluq (3 harps dating 600-300 BC)

Àisīkèxiáěr 艾斯克霞尔 (southern cemetery, along the lower reaches of the Baiyang / White Poplar River [originally a Mongolian name transcribed in Sinitic as Nàmùguōlè 纳木郭勒] in the vicinity of Qumul / Hami) — Uyghur Eskişehir, Eski Sheher ("Old City") (11 harps dating 8th-5th c. BC)

Qūmàn 曲曼 (Zankar cemetery near Tashkurgan) — Chushman (2 harps dating 6th-3rd c. BC

Yú'érgōu 鱼儿沟 (west of Turpan about a hundred miles and south of Ürümchi about a hundred miles, in Dabancheng District — modern Uyghur name is Iwirghol or Éwirghol (1 harp dating 3rd c. BC)

Chärchän / Qiemo District Museum (1 harp collected from the people)

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"Clear" and "turbid" in Chinese phonology, part 3

[Guest post by San Duanmu.  Please note that San's remarks were written before Sara de Rose's post ("part 2") on the same subject earlier this evening.]

In response to Victor’s request, I am offering some comments on qing 清 (clear) and zhuo 濁 (muddy), two commonly used terms in traditional Chinese phonology. I shall follow the outlines suggested by Victor as well.

  1. When and how did the terms arise?

According to Tang (2016: 32), the terms were used linguistically in a ten-volume book 《聲類》 (Sound Categories) by 李登 (LI Deng) during 三國時期 (Three Kingdoms period, 220-280). The book was later lost, but references to it can be found in other books that survived.

According to YU Min 俞敏, in Li Ji《禮記》 (the Book of Rites), compiled by followers of Confucius (孔子 551-479 BC), the terms were also used to discuss music, as in “长者浊也……短者清也” (long ones give a muddy sound… short ones give a clear sound). If long and short refer to the shape of an instrument, then ‘muddy’ ought to mean a lower tone and ‘clear’ a higher tone. The exact relation between the terms used in music and those in sound classification is open to interpretation.

  1. How do the terms function within traditional Chinese phonology?

In traditional Chinese phonology, qing 清 (clear) and zhuo 濁 (muddy) are used to classify consonants. In addition, each is further divided into two sub-categories. Therefore, there are four categories of consonants, shown in the table below, with samples in IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).

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"Clear" and "turbid" in Chinese phonology, part 2

[This is a guest post by Sara de Rose]

I am currently writing a paper outlining the similarities between the Mesopotamian and ancient Chinese tonal systems, which will be published in Sino-Platonic Papers.

I have a question for those of you knowledgeable in ancient Chinese music. It concerns the terms "clear" (qīng 清) and "muddy (zhuó 濁), which were discussed a few days ago on Language Log:  "'Clear' and 'turbid' in Chinese phonology" (11/29/20). Before I pose my question, here’s a quick synopsis of what is known about the Mesopotamian tonal system:

Cuneiform tablets translated since the early 1960s show that, for over a millennium, from at least 1800 BC onward, the Mesopotamians used seven diatonic modes – scales that are closely related to the Western, seven-note major scale.

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