Archive for November, 2015

Why the Khitan / Liao ruler Abaoji refused to speak Sinitic with his fellow tribesmen

The mighty Liao Dynasty (907-1125) of the Khitans ruled over a vast empire in Northeast Asia and Inner Asia that included Mongolia, Manchuria, parts of the Russian Far East, northern Korea, and northern China.

They spoke a language that is held to be Proto-Mongolic and had two writing systems, known as the large script and the small script. The two writing systems were separate, but seem to have been used simultaneously and continued in use for a while after the fall of the Liao.

The Liao Dynasty was destroyed by the Tungusic Jurchens (ancestors of the Manchus) of the Jin dynasty (1115-1234) in 1125.  The remnants of the Khitan established the Qara Khitai (Western Liao dynasty, 1124-1218), which ruled over parts of Central Asia before being defeated by the Mongols.

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Annals of singular 'they': another case with known sex

Karen Thomson, a Sanskritist and antiquarian bookseller living in Oxford, wrote to me to point out the following very significant example of singular they in a Financial Times interview with TV writer and director Jill Soloway:

People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn't mean they have a penis. Just because somebody's feminine, it doesn't mean they have a vagina. That's going to be the evolution over the next five years.

You see what makes this not just a dramatic claim in terms of sexual politics but a linguistically very revealing example?

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Quinoa: way more than one way to pronounce it

From a colleague:

A question about quinoa. Linguistic, not gustatory or political-economic. How do / would you normally say it?

kee-NO-ah?  kwee-NO-ah?
KEE-no-ah?  KWEE-no-ah?
KEEN-wah?  KWEEN-wah?
keen-WAH?  kween-WAH?
(or? )

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"It didn't fail to disappoint"

A lovely misnegation sent in by David Denison — Kevin Mitchell, "‘There was so much noise’ says Jamie Murray after Davis Cup doubles win", The Guardian 11/28/2015 [emphasis added]:

“There was so much noise,” Jamie said. “It was mental. There’s a low roof as well so everything’s packed in. We were shouting to each other at the baseline trying to tell each other where we were going to serve. But it was brilliant. It’s a Davis Cup final – we expected it to be noisy, a lot of passion and fans out here. It didn’t fail to disappoint.”

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New evidence for the development of hiragana?

An article by Tomoyoshi Kubo in The Asahi Shimbun, "Poem on 9th-century wood could provide missing link between kanji, hiragana" (11/27/15), may provide evidence for the development of hiragana (cursive syllabary) from Chinese characters.

…The entire verse of famed tanka poem “Naniwazu” was inscribed in ink on Japanese cypress in an intermediary syllabary between manyogana, one of the earliest Japanese writing systems dating back to the fifth century, and hiragana, the Kyoto City Archaeological Research Institute said on Nov. 26….

The kanji were originally semantic but were read phonetically to suit the Japanese language.

The characters were later simplified and turned into hiragana, but the process of that transformation remains a mystery.

The writing on the latest discovery is neither manyogana nor hiragana, but something in between, the institute said. It is also the first finding of the entire poem written in the intermediary system….

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Freedom and flexibility

Muriel Spark's memoir Curriculum Vitae antedates discourse-particle like to the early 1920s. And J.L. Austin, in his posthumous work Sense and Sensibilia, defends like as "the great adjuster-word, or, alternatively put, the main flexibility-device by whose aid, in spite of the limited scope of our vocabulary, we can always avoid being left completely speechless."

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Ways to say "China" that can circumvent the censors

China's netizens are endlessly resourceful in coming up with clever terms to refer to almost anything that can evade the omnipresent censors — at least for awhile.  We're all familiar with the "Grass Mud Horse" and the "Franco-Croatian Squid".

Strange as it may seem (!), they sometimes feel the need to say something critical about China, but to do so they have to evade the censors who will catch them, invoking the wrath of the almighty government.  So now they have figured out various ways to refer to China without using the name of their country, Zhōngguó 中国 ("Central Kingdom, i.e., China") or Zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó 中华人民共和国 ("People's Republic of China").

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Lingua Disinformation

[This is a repost of an article on my personal blog. It continues the saga of the Lingua/Glossa Affair that Eric Bakovic and I wrote about here recently.]

Linguists today received a misleading email from Elsevier sent to everyone who has ever submitted to or reviewed for Lingua, the journal whose editorial board has decided to not work with Elsevier anymore and restart the journal as the open-access journal Glossa. Here is Elsevier’s email:

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Like thanks

In addition to the evergreen list of things to be thankful for — family, friends, health, worlds full of wonder — I'd like to make a plug for the internet, that connects us to all of them. Less directly than we might sometimes wish, but much more easily.

And for anyone interested in speech, language, and communication, the internet and the virtual universe behind it offer an extraordinary opportunity to make voyages of discovery, and to share what we find.

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Six God toilet water itching

From the annals of Improbable Research, Marc Abrahams posted "Patent application of the day: six God toilet water itching" (11/24/15)

This is for Chinese patent application CN301200531 S, filed August 7, 2009 and published May 12, 2010.

The inventors (bless their souls!) are Yú Fāngfāng 于方方 and Shī Yì 施翼.

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Jeopardy gossip

The internet has been working hard at providing Deborah Cameron with material for a book she might write on attitudes towards women's voices. (Background: "Un justified", 7/8/2015; "Cameron v. Wolf" 7/27/2015.)

To see what I mean, sample the tweets for  #JeopardyLaura, or read some of the old-media coverage, like "Is this woman the most annoying 'Jeopardy!' contestant ever?", Fox News 11/24/2015:

"Jeopardy!" contestant Laura Ashby is causing quite a stir on social media. The Marietta, Georgia, native isn't getting attention for her two-day winning streak but instead the tone of her voice.  

Ashby first appeared on the competition show on Nov. 6 and when she returned this week the Internet went crazy over her voice.

Several tweeters went out of their way to exemplify Cameron's observation that "This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance":

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UM/UH accommodation

Over the years, we've presented some surprisingly consistent evidence about age and gender differences in the rates of use of different hesitation markers in various Germanic languages and dialects. See the end of this post for a list; or see Martijn Wieling et al., "Variation and change in the use of hesitation markers in Germanic languages", forthcoming:

In this study, we investigate cross-linguistic patterns in the alternation between UM, a hesitation marker consisting of a neutral vowel followed by a final labial nasal, and UH, a hesitation marker consisting of a neutral vowel in an open syllable. Based on a quantitative analysis of a range of spoken and written corpora, we identify clear and consistent patterns of change in the use of these forms in various Germanic languages (English, Dutch, German, Norwegian, Danish, Faroese) and dialects (American English, British English), with the use of UM increasing over time relative to the use of UH. We also find that this pattern of change is generally led by women and more educated speakers.

For other reasons, I've done careful transcriptions (including disfluencies) of several radio and television interview programs, and it occurred to me to wonder whether such interviews show accommodation effects in UM/UH usage. As a first exploration of the question, I took a quick look at four interviews by Terry Gross of the NPR radio show Fresh Air: with Willie Nelson, Stephen KingJill Soloway, and Lena Dunham.

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Local language

From Bob Bauer:

A couple of days ago I discovered one of your Language Logs from last year that had a very interesting and very long back-and-forth discussion on the distinctive characteristics of Hong Kong's Chinese language.* I commenter with initials HL** mentioned some particularly interesting things about the use of the term Punti 本地話*** to mean "Cantonese" in HK's law courts. Historically, Punti had referred to the indigenous Cantonese in contrast to the more recently-arrived Hakka immigrants. (By the way, for what it's worth, in the first half of the 19th century 地 was pronounced [ti], and then in the late 19th/early 20th century it diphthongized to [tei]).

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