Philology and Sinology

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I was going to post this as a comment to Mark Liberman's "What would a 'return to philology' be a return to?", but it got to be too long, so I'm putting it up as a separate piece.

To begin with, when people ask me what my profession is, I've always replied that I am a Sinologist, but most people don't know what a Sinologist is, so that leads to complications.

Let me illustrate.

The first book that I published with a commercial press was Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way (New York:  Bantam, 1990), a translation of the Literary Sinitic text, with extensive commentary and notes.  My editor asked me how I wished to identify myself, and I told her that I was a "Sinologist".  She said, "That won't do, because nobody knows what a Sinologist is.  Can't you call yourself a linguist?"  I told her "That won't do either, because I'm not a linguist."

I do not consider myself a linguist (e.e., historical linguist, phonologist, etc.) per se, though I certainly do dabble in these things quite a lot, but truly am a Sinologist, and have been since I began graduate school.  Yet it's not only in commercial publishing that I can't call myself a Sinologist, in current academia it's not fashionable to refer to oneself as a Sinologist either, so I am formally designated as "Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania".

If I have time and opportunity to go into more detail, I still will always style myself as a Sinologist.  When people look at me and say, "Huh, what's that?", I reply that a Sinologist is a philologist who specializes on matters pertaining to China.  To which they will generally ask, "Huh, what's that?"  Whereupon I will say, "A philologist is someone who studies ancient texts for the purpose of understanding the languages and cultures of the times in which they were written."

I definitely think of myself as a philologist specializing in Sinology.  Disciplines parallel to Sinology are Indology, Japanology, Semitology, and so forth.   For the majority of scholars, these have now morphed into Indian Studies, Japanese Studies, Semitic Studies, and so on, but I'm old fashioned and still cling to the old ideals and old methods of Sinology, though happily assisted now by modern technology and techniques (computers, data bases, online resources, etc.).  There is, however, clearly an effort on the part of many to get Beyond Sinology (title of a brand new book by Andrea Bachner, with the subtitle Chinese Writing and the Scripts of Culture), by which they usually prescribe the approaches of individuals like Paul de Man (born as Paul Adolph Michel Deman), Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser, Stanley Fish (though he sometimes gets serious about textual and historical studies), Fredric Jameson…. (the list is very long).

My views on all of this are spelled out in a lecture entitled "Sinology then and now: Methods and Aims", which I delivered at Peking University, June 7, 2012, available here and here, but it's two hours long, so don't start watching it unless you have a leisurely morning, afternoon, or evening with nothing else to do.

In closing, I would like to declare, as I have on many occasions, that although I do not consider myself a pucka linguist, I deem it a very great honor to write for Language Log, where everyone else is a real linguist.

[Thanks to Stephan Stiller]


  1. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    Isn't it interesting how the words "Sinology" and "philology" have been falling out of fashion in parallel? Even though I very much like linguistics, I prefer the term Sinology to what most people now call "Chinese studies". Linguistic Sinology is normally referred to as "Chinese linguistics", which points to the fact that Sinology isn't merely "philology as applied to the Sinitic languages". The term Sinology (and do correct me if I'm mistaken) seems to span a spectrum between linguistics and politics/history/anthropology of China.

    Different topic: As for the various philologic (or broader) -ologies and -isms, there seem to be some lexical gaps. The words "Arabist" and "Hebraist" are used, but I don't know about their "field of study" forms. The word "Hellenist" (in the meaning "researcher of the Greek languages") seems to be rare, possibly due to clash with the word "Hellenism" as referring to the Hellenistic period. Moving further away (but staying with the topic of glossonym-related lexical gaps), there is a bit of insecurity surrounding the proper equivalents of "anglicize", "Gallicism", etc for the German language. The word "Germanize" exists in my dictionary, but people don't seem to use it. ("Germanify" isn't in that same dictionary of mine, for those who want to know. Both sound odd to me, but that will be largely because I am not used to them.)

  2. leoboiko said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 3:29 pm

    I'm a grad student who sees himself as a Japanologist-in-training in this sense. (I also get a kick out of reclaiming "Orientalist" from Saïd). My (Brazilian) university program is named "Japanese Studies", but the area is split quite absolutely between "language", "literature", and "cultural studies", with little interaction between them. What I see as "Japanology" is a putting-back-together of those three sub-areas, with a focus on understanding historical texts as well as humanly possible.

    Having published nothing so far, I hope I don't come off as a blusterer with this comment. It's just that I've always had great pleasure in perusing prof. Mair's work, and would like to say thanks for the inspiration.

  3. AntC said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 4:18 pm

    Thank you Professor Mair.
    … I deem it a very great honor to write for Language Log …
    Speaking as an 'umble reader, I deem it a great honour that you do write for LL, and that I'm thereby able to learn from your insights on language and culture. Please style yourself however you wish; and I am happy for 'Sinologist' to mean 'whatever Prof Mair does'.

  4. Tom said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    I've always taken Sinology to be the kind of exacting study of classical Chinese texts undertaken by Peter Boodberg. (A taste of Boodberg's approach can be found here.) He wrote a weird, quasi-religious manifesto about philology, which David Honey reproduced in Incense at the Altar (2001), and which I reproduced on my own blog here.

  5. Zora said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 6:37 pm

    Hobson-Jobson is wonderful, but I believe it is spelled pukka these days.

  6. Brian Spooner said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 7:18 pm

    Thanks for this, Victor. (I had fallen out of the habit of checking language log each morning, and you've drawn me back.) I started writing something very similar to this myself from an Iranist's perspective a little while back, but got distracted before finishing. I am not a linguist, or a linguistic anthropologist. I was trained by philologists, in ancient Greek dialects, proto-IndoEuropean and middle Iranian in undergraduate work at Oxford, but not up to a professional level (as Neil Mackenzie never missed an opportunity to tell me), but then the numerous languages I dabbled in for ethnographic work made more sense to me than they would have done otherwise. I think people like us who were initially trained (as philologists) in the analysis of written language and the way it changed over time have a lot to contribute to modern linguistics, because most of the linguists I talk to appear not to understand the historical significance of written language, and the fact that it has a different dynamic from spoken language.

  7. Victoria Simmons said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 12:09 am

    Brian Spooner's point is important. It's not just a matter of who is a real linguist or not, because each of a variety of fields and theoretical orientations can make a contribution, coming at the material as they do from different directions. It's only a problem when non-linguists try to pronounce on matters they don't understand–as Ceren says of de Man.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 8:13 am

    A very nice article on "How we got pukka", by Josephine Livingstone, on the Prospect Blog, together with some highly judgemental comments on imperialism, but also some worthy observations on Hobson-Jobson, including a link to a good article on it by Allan Metcalf in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

    I might also add, "how we got pyjamas".

    [Thanks to Thomas Krishna Mair]

  9. julie lee said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

    Re. the word "pukka", it is one of the very few Hindi words I know, having lived as a child in India. I had a funny experience the other day when I was lunching in a restaurant here in Marin County, California. Two men who looked like Caucasian-Americans were talking, but in a foreign language. I kept hearing the word "Acha". "Oh, they are speaking Hindi," I thought, though I didn't understand anything else they said. "Acha" (good, ok, I see, great, I agree, etc.) and "pukka"(very good, for real) are just about the only Hindi words I know. I later went up to them and they said Yes, they were speaking Hindi. I hadn't heard the word "Acha" for decades.
    We had Hindi class in the English school, but during Hindi class we children paid little attention to the teacher because (and this is long ago) India still belonged to England, and Hindi didn't seem important to us. How were we to know the world would change?
    Prof. Mair, who speaks Hindi and Nepali, and…and…and… is a pukka, terrific Language Log host, scholar, and writer, whether linguist or not.

  10. julie lee said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

    As to what is a "real linguist", this should depend on what is "real linguistics". Which reminds me of the time at a university when I asked a physicist, "What is physics?" He replied: "Physics is what physicists do." I said, "Isn't there a better definition?" He said, "No. That's the best definition." I asked, "What do physicists do?" He said, "Physics."

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 2:26 pm

    I am intrigued by Julie Lee's reference to "men who looked like Caucasian-Americans" speaking Hindi. In the old (19th-century) classification of human races, South Asians were of course included in the Caucasian race, since skin color didn't seem to be as important as facial features. I wonder if what she meant instead is what in common parlance is called "white".

  12. julie lee said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 11:44 pm

    Coby Lubliner,

    I referred to the two business-suited middle-aged gentlemen as Caucasian-American and didn't say "white" because they weren't very light-skinned but not brown either, but in between. Yes, Indians can have very European features.

  13. M S said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 8:23 pm

    Your preference for "Language and Literature" in your title is interesting. For me working in Spanish, that's my standard interpretation of philology and I honestly wasn't familiar with the more classical overtones noted elsewhere.

    For instance, the RAE's definition of "filología" is the study of "culture as manifested in its language and literature, principally through written texts", which is pretty good description of most (US) modern language departments.

  14. Colin Fine said,

    May 12, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    Brian Spooner's point about linguists undervaluing written language is a nice turnaround from the usual complaint about non-linguists pronouncing about language and appearing to assume that written language is all there is.

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