Archive for February, 2019

The Sinophone

I think about the problem of the Sinophone every day, but I haven't written about it very often on Language Log (see "Readings" below).  We have Anglophone (English-speaking), Francophone (French-speaking), Hispanophone (Spanish-speaking), Germanophone or Teutophone (German-speaking), Italophone (Italian-speaking), Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking), Russophone (Russian-speaking),  Hellenophone (Greek-speaking), Arabophone (Arab-speaking), etc.  So why not Sinophone, since diasporic Sinitic speakers are spread widely around the world?

About fifteen years ago, several of us who were interested in the subject independently started to use the term "Sinophone", but credit is usually (and I think rightly) given to Shu-mei Shih for coining and popularizing it in written publications (2004 and especially 2007).

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The emergence of Germanic

From their origins to the present day, speakers of Germanic languages have been distinguished by the high degree of their mobility on land and on water:  the Völkerwanderung during the Migration Period, Goths, Vikings, the British Empire on which the sun never set, Pax Americana….  From antiquity, they ranged far and wide, so it is not surprising to see them popping up all over the place and, in their travels, to come in contact with an enormous number of different ethnic and linguistic groups.

Before setting out on their multitudinous journeys, they had to have begun somewhere, and — on the borders of their original homeland — they had to have been in contact with other ethnic and linguistic groups.  I asked a colleague where and when they might have arisen, and who their neighbors were.

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Ubykh: requiem and revival

I begin with an e-mail from Martin Schwartz, sent to me on 3/14/16:

Last September in Istanbul a fair-haired academic there, a colleague of my wife, said she is of Çerkes background, and went on to say a relative of hers was the last Ubykh speaker.  Dumêzil had been to her family's home, grouchy that there were apparently no Ubykh speakers to be found, when the Ubykh speaker knocked on the door….

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Changing my mind about a change of mind

After initially declaring that I wouldn't be posting about the phrase keep arms because I had nothing interesting to say about it, and then declaring that upon further reflection I did have something interesting to say, I've realized after drafting a post discussing the phrase that I was right the first time.

So when "Corpora and the Second Amendment: 'keep arms'" doesn't appear, that's why.

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Disposal according to the relevant laws

Pedro J. Silva just returned from his first trip to China, bringing with him two charming specimens of Chinglish.  The first one is from Beijing Capital International airport (terminal 3, international departures):

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"Rondle it!"

I recently became aware of a viral new meme in China, but didn't know what it meant or even how to pronounce it.  The characters are 盘他, which superficially, literally would seem to mean "plate him / her / it".  Of course, that doesn't make sense, so 盘他 flummoxed me for quite a while.

Since the expression seemed so alien and odd, I thought that maybe the second character had a special topolectal pronunciation and would have pronounced the whole expression as pán tuō, but that was just a wild guess, and it wasn't long before I learned that the term should be pronounced "pán tā", the usual way for those two characters.

I still didn't know what "pán tā 盘他" meant.

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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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The birth of obscenicons

Back in 2010, I went in search of the earliest examples of cartoon cursing characters — those playful typographical symbols that have been called "grawlixes" (a term coined by "Beetle Bailey" creator Mort Walker) but which I prefer calling "obscenicons." I detailed my quest in two Language Log posts: "Obscenicons a century ago" and "More on the early days of obscenicons." (The posts were later adapted for Slate's Lexicon Valley blog: "How Did @#$%&! Come to Represent Profanity?") I was able to find obscenicons going all the way back to Dec. 14, 1902 in Rudolph Dirks' pioneering comic strip "The Katzenjammer Kids," followed shortly thereafter by Gene Carr's "Lady Bountiful" comic starting in Feb. 1903.

I was pleased to learn that my obscenicon posts inspired Phil Edwards of Vox to do his own searching on newspaper databases, and the results can be seen in an entertaining new video, "How #$@!% became shorthand for cursing." Turns out obscenicons can be pushed back even further, to 1901.

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Robotic copying

Since so much of learning to read and write Chinese characters depends upon mindless repetition, writing them countless times, some bright people in the age of AI have finally seized upon a way to escape from the drudgery:  training a robot to write the characters endlessly for them.

"Chinese schoolgirl shamed for using robot to write homework. Now everybody wants one"

Teen bought device online and was caught out by her mother when she completed her Lunar New Year assignments in record time

Media report alerts a wider audience to the robots, which can copy text and mimic your handwriting

Phoebe Zhang, SCMP (2/19/19)

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Penglin Wang's response to David Marjanović's comments

(The following is a guest post by Penglin Wang.)


Thanks to Professor Victor Mair's organization of a series of informative postings, which share expertise in areas that I do not often get a chance to be a participant, I was happy to contribute material with which I am familiar. As I have a heavy teaching load of 13-15 hours per week plus other inevitable undertakings in the fall and winter quarters, I have no choice but to refrain myself from allocating time to extracurricular activities. By taking advantage of this relatively long weekend I went through the previous discussions and found my posting about the diffusion of the Germanic word for 'hart' in Tungusic and Mongolic ("Of reindeer and Old Sinitic reconstructions" [12/23/18]) commented on by David Marjanović (DM) and mentioned by some other esteemed colleagues. I wish to thank those of you who opined about my posting. In response to David Marjanović I have drafted the following notes.

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"Dear subscribed"

This morning's email brought a notice from Le Monde, to which I apparently subscribe:

Two things struck me about the salutation "Chère abonnée, cher abonné". The more obvious and less interesting one is that Le Monde is obviously not on board with "Écriture inclusive". The second, less topical thing: the English word "subscriber" implies that subscribing to a periodical is something that you do, while the French word "abonné(e)" implies that subscribing to a periodical is something that's done to you.

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Green New Singsong

Ever since Donald Trump sang his Emergency Song ("Emergency in B Flat", 2/17/2019), I've been hearing similar intonation patterns all over the place — in a line at the market where one shopper was telling another about someone's many excuses for not meeting her; on a sports talk radio program where the host was enumerating the many inconclusive reports about Bryce Harper's destination; and this morning on Radio Times, where Robinson Meyer was telling Marty Moss-Coane about climate change politics. In that last case, I made a note of the program and the time and found the podcast — so here's the passage:

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: "arms"

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.

New URL for COFEA and COEME: https://lawcorpus.byu.edu.

This post on what arms means will follow the pattern of my post on bear. I'll start by reviewing what the Supreme Court said about the topic in District of Columbia v. Heller. I'll then turn to the Oxford English Dictionary for a look at how arms was used over the history of English up through the end of the 18th century, when the Second Amendment was proposed and ratified.. And finally, I'll discuss the corpus data.

Justice Scalia's majority opinion had this to say about what arms meant:

The 18th-century meaning [of arms] is no different from the meaning today. The 1773 edition of Samuel Johnson's dictionary defined ''arms'' as ''[w]eapons of offence, or armour of defence.'' Timothy Cunningham's important 1771 legal dictionary defined ''arms'' as ''any thing that a man wears for his defence, or takes into his hands, or useth in wrath to cast at or strike another.'' [citations omitted]

As was true of what Scalia said about the meaning of bear, this summary was basically correct as far as it went, but was also a major oversimplification.

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