Archive for September, 2020

Japanese "totally" (not)

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of The Asahi Shimbun.  Today's column is titled "Different use of ‘zenzen’ fails to annoy Japanese language police" (9/29/29).

I still remember the shock of hearing the phrase "zenzen daijobu" for the first time about 20 years ago.

"Zenzen" is an adverb that modifies negative verbs and various other types of negative words and phrases, as in "zenzen shiranai," which means "don't know at all."

But "daijobu," which stands for OK, or fine, is an affirmative word, not negative. Now, if this isn't the ultimate example of the misuse of language, what is?

However, once I became accustomed to this phrase, I had to admit this was rather interesting.

"Zenzen daijobu" is fully accepted today, and its usage is apparently not entirely wrong.

According to "Nihonjin mo Nayamu Nihongo" (The Japanese language that puzzles even the Japanese people) by linguist Shigehiro Kato, the usage of zenzen with an affirmative word was already in evidence during the Edo Period (1603-1867), and was not rare during the ensuing Meiji Era (1868-1912), either.

In his novel "Botchan," Soseki Natsume (1867-1916) used zenzen with the affirmative phrase "warui desu" (it is bad).

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Headless men with face on chest

The hapless condition of headlessness may be a physical phenomenon, but it may also be a grammatical or orthographic category in linguistics, and we have dealt with both kinds on Language Log, e.g.:

Now, what shall we make of the following?

Xingtian as drawn by Jiang Yinghao, 17th century; there are many different versions of this figure, but all basically with the same features and pose.

One of the Blemmyes, from a map of 1566 by Guillaume Le Testu. Among the scores of Blemmye representations I've seen, they're all roughly of this nature.

Both figures are pictured on a flat space amidst mountainous terrain.  Both have a weapon in their right hand and a shield / pail in their left hand.  Both have their right leg raised / advanced.  Both have their face on their chest and lack a head.  Etc.  I doubt very much that they could have arisen completely independently.

The Blemmye is associated with the word Scythe, an Iranian people who traversed the vast lands between Crimea and Korea.  More than any other group in the first millennium BC, which was so crucial for transeurasian exchange during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, the Scythians were responsible for the transmission of cultural products across Eurasia.  This was due to their mastery of horse riding, advanced weaponry, and organizational and mental prowess.

This fits with the paradigm of long distance transmission of culture and language that I've been developing for decades in scores of posts, articles, and books.

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Wood chopping board

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The (alleged) untranslatability of Chinese poetry

Review:

"Poems Without an ‘I’", by Madeleine Thien
NYRB October 8, 2020 Issue

The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai (Li Po)
by Ha Jin
Pantheon, 301 pp.

The Selected Poems of Tu Fu: Expanded and Newly Translated
by David Hinton
New Directions, 267 pp.

Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry
by David Hinton
Shambhala, 138 pp.

I have never been a fan of the view that Chinese poetry is untranslatable, or that  any other genres of Chinese literature, for that matter, are untranslatable.  Since I have done a huge amount of translation in my lifetime, if I accepted the notion that Chinese literature is untranslatable, I would long ago have made a gigantic fool of myself.  Quite the contrary, I am content with my accomplishments in translating all sorts of Chinese literature into English, and I believe that what I have done enriches the intellectual life of Americans and other speakers of English by making available to them an equivalent emotional and esthetic experience as that afforded to Chinese readers of the works in their original language.

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Gender-neutral "bro"

Apparently this has happened:

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18th-century RNA research

As I was looking into the history of term biomarker, Google Scholar reminded me that automatic information extraction from text remains imperfect:

Google Scholar's translation into APA format:

Crea, F., Watahiki, A., & Quagliata, L. (1769). Identification of a long non-coding RNA as a novel biomarker and potential therapeutic target for metastatic prostate cancer. Oncotarget 5, 764–774.

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When intonation overrides tone, part 5

There are three ways to say "Monday" in Mandarin:

zhōu yī 週一
lǐbài yī 禮拜一 (you can also say this in the shortened form bài yī 拜一)
xīngqí yī / xīngqīyī 星期一

As usual with my classes at Penn, most of my students are from mainland China.  I asked one of them to pronounce those three ways of saying "Monday".  A student from Shangdong who speaks beautiful Mandarin read them this way:

zhōu yī 週一
lǐbài yī 禮拜一
xīngqīyì 星期一

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Spree trails ruin

From BobW:

"Saw this and immediately thought of Language Log. Whatever are they doing with all those spree trails?":

"With Deutsche Bank’s help, an oligarch’s buying spree trails ruin across the US heartland

Secret transactions, lost jobs, worker injuries, gutted buildings, unpaid bills: Ihor Kolomoisky’s untold American legacy"

By Michael Sallah and

I think that most people encountering this string of oddly concatenated words would stop and do a double take as they try to make sense of it:  "oligarch’s buying spree trails ruin".  With my eyeballs whirling around in my head, I thought:  whatever are they trying to say?  But then I calmed down and recollected that the hardest word, "spree", is one that I had myself used in a Yuletide greeting in 2013.  With "spree" (a sudden outburst of activity) nailed down in the center, the other words fell into place.

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Hey Ren

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Attila the Republican

A new political advertisement, apparently from the campaign of Kelly Loeffler:

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Autological humor

A guest post (guest list?) by Anthony Bladon:

  • A verb walks into a bar, sees an attractive noun, and suggests they conjugate. The noun declines.
  • An Oxford comma walks into a bar, where it spends the evening watching television, getting drunk, and smoking cigars.
  • A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.

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"Waiving goodbye"

Yesterday morning, two friends and I ate at Alma del Mar, a new Philadelphia restaurant, on an outdoor terrace featuring a mural unveiled just a few days ago.

There are three panels: on the right is a poem in Spanish by Carlos José Pérez Sámano; there's a fish skeleton in the middle; and on the left, an English version.

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Barbarian Language in a Chinese movie

From Alex Baumans:

I'm getting more and more interested in Chinese pop culture, so I keep discovering things.
 
I recently watched Painted Skin 2, which is your typical fantasy action movie, with star crossed lovers, a princess, a fox spirit and a lone outpost of the area surrounded by barbarians.
 
When these barbarians (and they are truly depicted as barbarians, straight from Hyboria) came on screen, I pricked up my ears. As I said in an earlier mail, my Chinese is next to non existent, but I have watched a lot of reality shows with The9 these last weeks, and this didn't sound like any Chinese I was used to.
 
Even more bafflingly, I had the impression I could make out some Indian sounding words like 'rajaputra' [VHM: "prince"] and 'deva' [VHM:  "god; deity"] which would be appropriate in the context. These may be mondegreens, as I don't know any Indian languages. I have only watched a fair bit of Bollywood cinema and have a background in Farsi.
 
So I thought this little enigma (if it is one) would amuse you.

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