Archive for February, 2021

On the origin of the term "hanzi"

[This is a guest post by Nicholas Morrow Williams]

I recently came across this article on the first occurrence of hanzi 漢字 ("Chinese character; Han character; Sinogram; Japanese: kanji; Korean: hanja; Vietnamese: hán tự/chữ hán漢字/漢"):
Wang Yong 王勇. "'Kanji' tanjō no isseki: 'bonzi' kara 'kanji' e" 「漢字」誕生の一齣――「梵字」から「漢字」へ.
Bukkyō shigaku kenkyū (The Journal of the History of Buddhism), 56.1 (2013): 1-11.

It's obvious when you think about it, but of course there was originally no need to write the word hanzi when Chinese characters were the only game in town, writing-wise. Wang first refers to some earlier identifications of the earliest use of hanzi dating to the Song (960-1279) or Yuan (1271-1368), and then points out that the Japanese monk-scholars Kūkai 空海 (774-835) and Saichō 最澄 767-822) seem to have used it in their works, though the details are a bit complex. The clearest single usage seems to be in a text completed by Saichō in 818, entitled the Jugokoku kaishō 守護国界章. But then Wang further points out the Fànyǔ qiānzì wén 梵語千字文 by Yijing 義浄 (635-713), which explains in its introduction that it uses hanzi in correspondence to each Sanskrit letter. The overall point is clear: the term hanzi first came into common usage among Tang-era (618-907) monks as it was required to distinguish Chinese writing from Sanskrit. This insight does not seem to have been incorporated into all the standard reference works yet (my Hanyu da cidian identifies the earliest usage in the Song).

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I recently learned by email that an acquaintance is planning to return from London to Philadelphia, and started to close my response with "Bon voyage!" Then I thought about using English instead, but realized that "Good trip!" doesn't work at all. So I chose "Safe travels!", which does work.

This made me wonder about the usage patterns involved — why does French "Bonne chance!" translates to "Good luck" but "Bon voyage" doesn't work as "Good trip"?

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Ask Language Log: How Unusual Are N Consecutive Monosyllables in English?

From John Brewer:

I was recently listening to the Neil Young song "Barstool Blues" (first released 1975), which I have known and enjoyed since at least the late '80's, when I was struck by a particular line in the lyrics I didn't recall having focused on before. First I was noting the meteorological imagery, but then I noticed that it consisted entirely of monosyllables, thirteen of them in a row.

"Burn off all the fog and let the sun through to the snow."

This made me wonder how statistically improbable or unusual it was to have this long a sequence of consecutive monosyllables, with related wondering as to how that affected the chances that it had been done self-consciously by the writer or just happened without the writer noticing. I would think that LL headquarters might have access to appropriately-coded corpora resources that could address this question, with maybe even some indication as to whether unusually long strings of monosyllables are more common in some contexts or genres or registers than others.

Just to avoid apples-to-oranges comparison problems, I note that if you look at the end of the prior line and the beginning of the following line, these thirteen monosyllables are situated within a longer string of twenty. I personally find a complete semantic/syntactic unit of thirteen more striking than a string of twenty that crosses the boundaries between such units, but maybe the corpus data wouldn't bear me out on that.

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"Count the egg-sucking cows"

Alexander Bolton, "West Virginia governor urges Congress to 'go big' on COVID-19 relief", The Hill 2/1/2021:

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, on Monday argued that fiscal concerns should be set aside as the nation struggles to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, putting pressure on centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to support a large COVID-19 relief bill.

“We need to understand that trying to be, per se, fiscally responsible at this point in time, with what we’ve got going on in this country — if we actually throw away some money right now, so what?” Justice told CNN in an interview. […]

Justice doubled down on his statement in a follow-up interview with MSNBC in which he urged Congress to “go big.” […]

“At this point in time in this nation, we need to go big. We need to quit counting the egg-sucking legs on the cows and count the cows and just move. And move forward and move right now,” he added.

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Hokkien in Sino-Japanese script

The following viral Hokkien expression looks like it's written in Japanese hiragana and two Chinese characters, and so it is, but if you only know hiragana and standard Sino-Japanese characters, you won't have the ghost of an idea what it means:


This is the challenge of reading and writing Sinitic topolects in Sinographs.

Even if you read this rather exhaustive article explaining what it means, you won't grasp all of the powerful nuances of this expression that is found on t-shirts, handbags, mugs, and various accessories:

"What Does a Trending T-shirt Say About Taiwanese Identity and Politics?", by Brian Hioe, The News Lens (2/01/21)

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Dangerous heights and tipping vessels

Chris Button says that he was looking at the oracle-bone form for wēi 危 ("precarious, precipitous; perilous; high; ridge [of a roof]; dangerous") and noticed that Huang Dekuan (2007 mammoth dictionary of ancient forms of characters) treats it as depicting a qīqì 欹器 ("tilting vessel" or "tipping vessel").  This was:

…an ancient Chinese ceremonial utensil that automatically overturned and spilled its contents once it reached capacity, thus symbolizing moderation and caution. Both Confucian and Daoist Chinese classics include a famous anecdote about the first time Confucius saw a tilting vessel. In the Confucian tradition (e.g., Xunzi) it was also named yòuzuò zhī qì (宥座之器, "vessel on the right of one's seat"), with three positions, the vessel tilts to one side when empty, stands upright when filled halfway, and overturns when filled to the brim—illustrating the philosophical value of the golden mean. In the Daoist tradition, the tilting vessel was named yòuzhī (宥卮, "urging goblet" or "warning goblet"), with two positions, staying upright when empty and overturning when full—illustrating the metaphysical value of emptiness, and later associated with the Zhuangzian zhīyán (卮言, "goblet words") rhetorical device.


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