Archive for January, 2022

Naxi writing

From S. Robert Ramsey:

The Naxi Story of Creation and the Great Flood

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Language is not script and script is not language

Trying to clear up the confusion between the two is a battle we have been waging for decades, and nowhere is the problem more severe than in the study of Sinitic languages and the Sinographic script.  The crisis (not a "danger + opportunity"!) has come to the surface again this month with the appearance of a new book by Jing Tsu titled Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern (Riverhead Books, 2022).

The publication of Tsu's book has generated a lot of excitement, publicity, and reviews.  Here I would like to call attention to the brief remarks of an anonymous correspondent (a famous, reclusive linguist) that are right on target:

Reimagining "antiquated" Chinese

Reproduced below is the text of a book review in Science that you may not have seen. It is classified as "Linguistics", though the reviewer is a historian at Cal State Poly, Pomona. Notice that Chinese is assumed to be "antiquated" and in need of being "reimagined"!  There is simply no sign of Science understanding the difference between a human language and a writing system. This is consistent with the way they have always treated linguistics; they have no idea what the subject really is.

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Serial blind dates

This story (referencing Australian ABC News [1/13/22], with video)  has been doing the rounds in the Taiwan media:

"Chinese bachelorette locked in blind date's apartment after Henan's snap lockdown:

Woman says her date's performance under lockdown left much to be desired"

By Liam Gibson, Taiwan News (1/14/22)

This extraordinary report begins thus:

An unmarried Chinese woman surnamed Wang (王) had her blind date dramatically extended by several days after authorities announced an immediate lockdown.

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Singular verbs with plural nouns

From B.D.:

I recently moved to Zürich, and the experience of living in a German-speaking canton has made me aware of a linguistic oddity in English that I'm having difficulty explaining adequately.

My bank app sends me notifications like "100 CHF have been deducted from your account." The "have" in that sentence always reminds me that English is not the programmers' first language.

In German, you'd always use the plural verb form for more than 1 of a unit, but in English, you generally treat such quantities as mass nouns: 100 francs _is_ a lot, 100 kilos _is_ heavy, etc… Except that rule doesn't seem to work for liquids, and I'm not sure why.

You wouldn't say "3 gallons of milk is in the fridge", or "3 liters of water is in the pitcher," for example. I tried to rationalize the first case by saying I'm thinking of three physical gallon jugs of milk, but that doesn't work for water in a pitcher.

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Saving a critically endangered language one child at a time

A recent blog on Miao/Hmong posted on Language Log reminded Chau Wu of an earlier news report from Taiwan about a 5th grade girl from Hla'alua (Lā'ālǔwa zú 拉阿魯哇族) who won a speech competition using her native language (article in Chinese).

"With fewer than 10 native speakers and an ethnic population of 400 people, Saaroa (= Hla'alua) is considered critically endangered," according to the article on Saaroa language in Wikipedia.

Here is a 4min-33sec YouTube video as a brief refresher on the small Austronesian tribe.

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The cattle-keeping Bai of Yunnan

The province of Yunnan in the far south is home to more ethnic minorities and languages than any other part of China (25 out of 56 recognized groups, 38% of the population).  The Bai are one of the more unusual groups among them.


Bai children—in Yunnan, China

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Pronoun substitution peril: "they sneezes"

J. O'M. sent a link to the Cambridge Dictionary's online entry for gesundheit, which offers the gloss "said to someone after they sneezes":

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Greek and Latin in China

Stimulating, substantial article by Chang Che in SupChina (1/13/22):  "China looks to the Western classics".  Here are the first three paragraphs:

A block east of Tiananmen Square, in a classroom last July, Chinese school children were singing the nursery rhyme “Old McDonald Had a Farm” in Latin: “Donatus est agricola, Eia, Eia, Oh!” The students, aged 11 to 17, were taking an introductory Latin class with Leopold Leeb, a professor of literature at the prestigious Renmin University.

Every weekday during the summer, from nine a.m. to noon, Leeb holds a public class in a marble white church just a stone’s throw away from Beijing’s central government. On the day I attended, Leeb had given each student a Roman name. There was a Gaius, a Flavius, a Monica, and two sisters, Amata and Augusta. The sisters came from Changping, a two-and-a-half-hour train ride away. They sat in the front row and took naps during the 10-minute breaks.

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"Interesting questions are raised by present speech patterns"

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"Hip new slang"

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The foreign origins of the lion dance and words for "lion" in Sinitic

Here at Language Log, we have shown how the most common word for "lion" in Sinitic, shī 獅, has Iranian and / or Tocharian connections (see "Selected readings").  The etymological and phonological details will be sketched out below.  For a magisterial survey, see Wolfgang Behr, "Hinc [sic] sunt leones — two ancient Eurasian, migratory terms in Chinese revisited", International Journal of Central Asian Studies, 9 (2004), 1-53.  This learned essay has appeared in multiple guises and many places (I knew it originally and best while it was still in draft, perhaps back in the 90s), so I don't know which one the author considers to be the most authoritative version.  Perhaps he will enlighten us in the comments to this post.

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A new discovery about the history of English

In the comments on yesterday's post "Language development", Olaf Zimmermann pointed us to this recent Onion scoop — "Newly Uncovered Manuscript Reveals China Invented English Language 700 Years Before Western World", The Onion 1/13/2022:

BEIJING—Shedding new light on the origins of the world’s most popular language, an international team of linguists announced Thursday that a newly uncovered manuscript confirms China invented both spoken and written English 700 years before the Western world. “These remarkably well-preserved bamboo slips appear to show that Zhou dynasty scholars developed the English tongue as far back as the third century BC, long before the language arose in Britain,” said Li Zhang, a professor of comparative linguistics who examined the text, which outlines the alphabet and basic grammar rules of English, in addition to including the first known uses of words such as “barbecue” and “philanthropy.” “By the time Anglo–Saxons began cobbling together their language from Latin, French, and Germanic sources, the Chinese had already mastered it. There are even some passages in this manuscript that appear eerily similar to the work of Shakespeare, though they are of far superior quality.” Li went on to explain that the Chinese gradually abandoned the English language, finding its 26-letter alphabet too limiting and opting instead for the convenience of Mandarin’s more than 50,000 characters.

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Language development

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