"National backbone"

Sep. 26th, 2017 12:40 am
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Posted by Victor Mair

I. J. Khanewala writes:

While visiting the tomb of the first emperor, I saw a sign in Mandarin which read minzu jiliang and translated as "National backbone". It left me quite mystified.  Here's a photo of the sign:

Source ("Utterly lost in translation").  Any idea what it could mean?

Textual references to "mínzú jǐliang 民族脊梁" ("national backbone" — that's what GT, Microsoft Translator, and Baidu Fanyi all have, and it's not far off; there's not much else you can do with it, though it would sound better if worded as "backbone of the nation") abound in modern China and calligraphic representations of the phrase are in evidence in many public spaces.  So it's not surprising that it would be in evidence at the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor.

"Mínzú jǐliang 民族脊梁" ("national backbone") is a variant of "中国的脊梁" ("the backbone / spine of China"), coined by the great author Lu Xun (1881-1936), whom we've mentioned many times on Language Log, in his article " Zhōngguó rén shīdiào zìxìnlì le ma 中国人失掉自信力了吗?" ("Have the Chinese People Lost Their Confidence?").  It was written during the period of the buildup to the Second Sino-Japanese War (July 7, 1937 to September 9, 1945) to encourage people not to lose strength and hope in their struggle against the invaders.

The most famous calligraphic exemplar of "mínzú jǐliang 民族脊梁" ("national backbone") is that by Zhao Puchu (1907-2000) at the Big Goose Pagoda in Xi'an, which is closely associated with the celebrated Buddhist pilgrim and translator, Xuanzang (fl. ca. 602-664).  Zhao evidently meant his rendition of "mínzú jǐliang 民族脊梁" ("national backbone") as a tribute to the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk.

Here's a photograph of the wall on which Zhao's calligraphy is displayed, with a portion of the enormous pagoda looming in the background:

Geremie Barmé comments on Zhao's calligraphy thus:

It's an oddly anachronistic work. The calligraphy is by the pro-Communist state Buddhist layman Zhao Puchu 赵朴初.  Zhao is celebrating the achievements of Xuanzang 玄奘. What mínzú 民族 ("nation") in the Tang, one may well ask?

Barmé is not the only commentator to question the appropriateness of Zhao dedicating the phrase that originated with Lu Xun during the period of the Second Sino-Japanese war to the Tang Buddhist monk, Xuanzang.  Numerous posts online reveal that many people know about the association between Lu Xun and this phrase, but they are confused about why this phrase appears next to the Big Goose Pagoda in Xi'an.  Some commenters opine that it is weird and awkward to juxtapose this phrase with the Big Goose Pagoda because they don't sense any convincing connection between the place and the phrase.  Presumably, the phrase is also calligraphically displayed at the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, which might similarly lead to the same kinds of questions as those raised about its appearance at the Big Goose Pagoda.  The difference, however, is that Zhao Puchu was one of the most famous calligraphers of the second half of the twentieth century, so that — no matter whether fitting the context or not — Zhao's calligraphy, which may be seen at countless places all over China, seems justified by the sheer eminence of the artist.

Here's the phrase on a wall in Shaoxing, Lu Xun's hometown in Zhejiang Province:

There's little doubt that it perfectly suits the place and the person.

[Thanks to Yixue Yang and Jinyi Cai]

Stigmatization of dialects

Sep. 25th, 2017 03:03 pm
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Posted by Victor Mair

[This is a guest post by Krista Ryu]

I was reading the book, Language Change in East Asia, and one of the articles, "Dialects versus the Standard Language in Japan," talked about the standardization of Japanese and its consequence on the many "hougen” (方言) of Japan. I thought it was very interesting and related to what we talked about in class regarding the various Chinese languages (topolects).

While there was no real designated common language in Japan, the "variety based on the dialect of the upper-middle class inhabitants of Tokyo" was functioning as the de facto common language from approximately the 17th century (pg 7). Increased mobility of people with the lift of travel ban and abolition of shogunate domains, as well as the establishment of universal education in the late 1800s, allowed the spread of this common language across the country (pg 8). However, only after formal approval from the Japanese Ministry of Education in the early 1900s, an official standard form of Japanese, or "hyojungo” (標準語), was established.

What is interesting is how the creation of this "standard" form of language gives it a certain "halo," while it stigmatizes other local dialects. The author states:

Dialects were characterised as slovenly (kitanai, 汚い), bad , incorrect, and inferior. In extreme cases, sensitivity on the part of non-standard dialect speakers was manifested in severe linguistic insecurity, for which Shibata Takeshi coined the term hōgen konpurekkusu (dialect complex). People from the provinces who moved to Tokyo were mocked about the way they spoke, resulting in depression and even suicide. (pg 8)

This reminded me of how pyojuneo (표준어, 標準語) in Korean is also considered the "correct way" of speaking on many occasions, forcing speakers of other Korean dialects to change their way of speaking and be ashamed of having an accent. Many times, on TV shows like soap operas, characters that are supposed to be "crude" or "uncultured" will be using some sort of "bangeon" (방언, 方言).

However, the article also does say that recent trends show that people in Japan started seeing dialects as "warm," "authentic," and as part of a unique local culture that needs to be preserved. This is also the case in Korea in recent years. Young generations have started being more proud of using their local dialects. Such phenomena seem closely related to the one seen in China where popular culture using local language has gained favor among young people (e.g., rap music in nonstandard topolects).

 

When taking a stand involves sitting

Sep. 25th, 2017 04:51 am
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Posted by Jason Eisner

The most pervasive metaphor in English may be the use of "higher" to mean "better" (e.g., stronger or more moral), which has spawned endless figures of speech.  It's hard to avoid those metaphorical phrases, although that might be wise in situations in which "higher" also has a relevant physical meaning.  The New York Times on Saturday ran the following headline:

(1) As Trump Takes On Athletes, Watch Them Rise

Indeed, these athletes may be rising metaphorically as a political force.  But they're refusing to rise physically for the singing of the U.S. national anthem.  On the same day, the New York Times wrote (in this article, though it has now been edited away):

(2) Some people urged more players to kneel or sit during the anthem at football stadiums on Sunday as a way to reinforce their First Amendment rights. Others urged more white players to stand with black players who have knelt or sat during the anthem.

How confusing!  White players are urged to stand metaphorically with their black teammates … by physically kneeling or sitting with them, or by speaking out afterwards.

But how do we readers know that "stand with" in (2) is metaphorical?  Why couldn't the second sentence be about white players standing physically?

In fact, it's tempting to interpret (2) physically — "some people" encouraging kneeling while "others" are encouraging standing.  There are indeed Americans urging both actions.  But it's an implausible interpretation because of little clues like "more" and "with":

  • It happens that nearly all white players have continued to stand during the anthem.  So it would be strange to urge "more" of them to stand, rather than urging "the rest" to stand or asking "the few sitters" to "resume standing."
  • Physically standing "with" someone presumably means that you stand at the same time as them, or that you walk over and stand next to them.  Neither is likely here, since there seems to be no opportunity to carry out either move as a political gesture.  (At the relevant time, these black players presumably aren't planning to stand at all, and the white players are presumably already next to them.)

Thus, it's unlikely that the "others" are urging white players to physically stand by their kneeling or sitting teammates.   (If the white players did so, then they wouldn't be metaphorically "standing by" their teammates.  At best, they'd just be "standing by" as the controversy unfolded … a.k.a. sitting it out.)

One more, from Yahoo Sports (h/t Ben Zimmer):

(3) NFL shows it won't sink to president's level

The "sinking" is again metaphorical.  This time, the headline happens to be literally true as well: the president is presumably sitting as part of the TV audience, and the National Football League players are standing, not sinking physically to his level.  Yet again, no one who knows the context could think that the headline literally means "NFL shows it won't sit or kneel."  Why?

  • "Sink to the president's level" is too roundabout a way to say "sit or kneel."
  • "NFL shows it won't sit or kneel" isn't true: sitting and kneeling during the anthem are on the increase in the NFL.
  • "These NFLers show they won't sit or kneel" still wouldn't be plausible as a choice for this headline.  While the photo does show that they have decided not to go as far as kneeling, the newsworthy bit is that they are nonetheless protesting and their team's owner has joined them.

Getting computers to attend to all these factors, as we humans seem to, is why passing the Turing test will be hard.

Question for LL readers: What's a clever name for a metaphorical phrase whose literal interpretation is at odds with the facts?  (A "mixed metaphor" is a pair of metaphorical phrases whose literal interpretations are at odds with each other.)

18 SEPT - 24 SEPT

Sep. 25th, 2017 02:19 am
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Posted by kidmarathon

{American Gods}
{drabble}
- You Make Me Want to Sing by punk4life1315 -Esther/Media .

{American Horror Story}
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- 12 Drabbles by madampresident - .

{DC Universe}
{fic}
- Learning The Ropes by swan_secrets -Diana/Menalippe .(Wonder Woman 2017)

{Devil Wears Prada}
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- A Brief Visit to Haddenfieldchilly_flameAndy/Miranda **Off LJ Links**
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- Chapter 6 of Paradiset8kmybreathaway Andy/Miranda **Off LJ Links**
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{Doctor Who}
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- Time and Red Lace by swan_secrets -Amy/Bill .

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- On The Farm by madampresident -Rose/Jean .
- Abstained by madampresident -Blanche/Dorothy .

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{Modern Family}
{drabbles}
- The Girl At The Trade Show by madampresident -Claire/Gloria .

{Rizzoli & Isles}
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- ecology and pathology by doctorkaitlyn -Isabelle/Maia .
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{Xena}
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{Misc}
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"Sons of a bitches"

Sep. 24th, 2017 10:18 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

In his 9/22/2017 rally speech in Huntsville, Alabama, Donald Trump said

Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners
when somebody disrespects our flag
to say get that son of a bitch off the field right now —
out, he's fired.
Fired!

This posed a question for people who wanted to speak up in support of the football players he was threatening: What's the plural of "son of a bitch"?

I always thought it was "sons of bitches", but a surprising number of people decided on "sons of a bitches" instead. (See "Plurals", 9/22/2013, for some additional context.)

 

 

Politically adorable

Sep. 24th, 2017 01:09 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

I wondered when this would happen. Jack Shafer, "Week 18: The Further Perils of Paul Manafort", Politico (Swamp Diary) 9/23/2017 [emphasis added]:

Flynn has hired seven attorneys, and his family has established a legal defense fund for him, stipulating that donations from foreign governments or the Trump campaign or business won't be accepted. Isn’t it adorable that Flynn, who worked for a United Nations klatch of clients now insists on a legal defense entirely made in America?

In current public discourse, adorable is mostly what young children and small fluffy animals are, with the range of reference occasionally expanded to include young women, courting couples, or old people being childish. A small sample of today's adorable headlines: "Feel the full range of emotions with this adorable baby Orioles fan";  "ADORABLE: Baby calf and baby human make friends during photo shoot"; "Kelly Clarkson's Adorable Kids Come Visit Her on Set of 'Love So Soft' Music Video"; "Phoenix Zoo welcomes adorable baby giraffe"; "Marcel The Adorable Therapy Dog Brings Joy To People With Dementia"; "Inside Mandy Moore's Adorable Engagement Party With Her Besties"; "You Will Never Guess Prince Philip’s Adorable Pet Name for Queen Elizabeth"; …

But adorable entered socio-political discourse about a month ago, as a sarcastic insult meant to suggest that ordinary people are small, childish, and unworthy of attention other than as a source of amusement.

Louise Linton, the wife of the U.S. treasury secretary, had instagrammed a picture of herself returning by government jet from a quick trip to Fort Knox to look at piles of gold (yes, really), hashtagging elements of her expensive wardrobe — "#roulandmouret pants #tomford sunnies, #hermesscarf  #valentionrockstudheels #valentino".

In response, Jenni Miller, described by the NYT as "a mother of three from Portland, Ore", commented "Glad we could pay for your little getaway #deplorable", where deplorable is an echo of Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables" comment.

Linton seems to have been stung, because she responded at considerable length:

She uses forms of adorable twice:

Aw!! Did you think this was a personal trip?! Adorable! […]
You're adorably out of touch. […]

The meaning in context is clearly sarcastic — Ms. Miller is framed as one of those little people who are so far beneath Linton that she can view their criticism as amusingly cute, like a mischievous puppy chewing on one of her designer sandals.

Presumably Linton's adorable was primed, consciously or not, by Miller's deplorable. But I wondered at the time whether the word, as well as the attitudes it so effectively expresses, might be common in Linton's social circles.  Unfortunately for my curiosity, this word choice clearly communicated more about Linton than it did about Miller, and so given the wave of negative reactions, we're unlikely to see more examples from others like her.

Still, this way of expressing disdain is too effective to be abandoned, and so I've been expecting to see it picked up by others in contexts that are safely distant from Linton's "let them eat cake" effusion.

Michael Flynn is a perfect target, from that point of view — he's not poor, ordinary, small, fuzzy, young, female, elderly, or visually cute. But by suggesting that Flynn's defense-fund appeal is "adorable", Shafer manages to suggest that Flynn is now a powerless and even pitiable player trying in kittenish ways to escape the much larger and stronger forces threatening him.

 

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Posted by Victor Mair

From Zeyao Wu:

I am intrigued by how the pronunciation of my nickname changed when I moved to Guangzhou [VHM: in the far south, formerly Canton] from Dongbei [VHM: the Northeast, formerly Manchuria].

In Dongbei, all my relatives and my friends called me Yáoyao 瑶瑶, with the second tone of the second syllable becoming neutral. [VHM: the base tone of yáo 瑶 ("precious jade") is second tone]

When I moved to Guangzhou, my friends call me Yǎoyáo 瑶瑶. It seems that this sort of pronunciation is not standard. I think Cantonese speak in this way because they pronounce Mandarin with the tones of Cantonese.

Here are some other examples (the first column is Pekingese [note the pattern of base tone on the first syllable and neutral tone on the second syllable] and the second column is Guangzhou-style Mandarin [note the pattern of base tone on the first syllable and full base tone on the second syllable, not neutral tone as in Beijing]).

dōngxi | dōngxī 东西 ("thing")
máfan | máfán 麻烦 ("trouble; bother")
shítou | shítóu 石头 ("stone")
yīfu | yīfú 衣服 ("clothing")

Judging from Zeyao's evidence, Cantonese-style Mandarin doesn't favor neutral tone for the second syllable of words. Conversely, northerners, especially Pekingese, seem to favor a very reduced neutral tone on the second syllable of words. When Zeyao said "déxing 德行" ("virtue; virtuous behavior; moral honesty / integrity / conduct; shameful; disgusting" — yes, in Pekingese colloquial, in its most mordant form as a condemnation, déxing 德行 means the exact opposite of its overt signification ["virtuous conduct", etc.]), there was hardly any vocalic quality left to the second syllable at all. So it came out sounding like "désh". I walked up right next to Zeyao and had her say it about five times in front of the whole class, and each time it came out sounding like "désh", with even nary a trace of nasalization. Already over 35 years ago, when I first heard it spoken by Beijing shopgirls, I was intrigued by this Pekingese colloquialism, both for the fact that they used it to convey an antonymous meaning, but also for the very unusual pronunciation. Dripping with vitriol, they would begin quite low in the register for a second tone, and then gradually glide upward — in a haughty, drawn-out way — on the first syllable to a rather high, attenuated pitch, then clip it off with a dismissive sibilant: deeéééé↗sh↓.

Comments by Neil Kubler:

Much of Southern China, also Taiwan, uses the pronunciations cited for Guangzhou. There are at least two reasons for this, I think: (1) Cantonese and Southern Chinese topolects in general don't have nearly so many neutral tones as Mandarin; (2) since Mandarin was learned as a second (foreign, non-native) language by these folks, and typically through character texts — which were often recited by the (typically herself not native) teacher with exaggerated tones, they picked up "reading pronunciations."

However, while I think the preceding is true, I think it's also true that (sadly, from my non-Chinese linguistic perspective), the number of neutral tones in Beijing speech is decreasing. More and more younger Beijing residents are speaking Putonghua rather than Beijinghua, and the emphasis of character texts ("reading pronunciations") is strong there also.

Your student said:

"my friends (in Guangzhou) call me Yǎoyáo 瑶瑶".

In Taiwan also there is a curious phenomenon where some personal names and also kinship terms — like baba, mama, gege, jiejie, didi, meimei — all change from their normal tone patterns (with the 1st syllable one of various tones and the 2nd syllable a neutral tone) to this pattern:

TONE 3 + TONE 2 (just like what your student described for her name in Guangzhou. So "daddy" becomes ba3ba2, and so forth.

I haven't been able to find a satisfactory explanation for why this happens.

Judging from Zeyao's evidence, Cantonese-style Mandarin doesn't favor neutral tone for the second syllable of words. Conversely, northerners, especially Pekingese, seem to favor a very reduced neutral tone on the second / final syllable of words. As I pointed out in my analysis of déxing 德行 ("virtuous / shameful conduct") above, when Zeyao pronounced this word à la Pekingese, there was hardly any vocalic quality left to the second syllable.

Southern Ohioisms

Sep. 23rd, 2017 10:24 pm
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Posted by Victor Mair

During my recent trip to Ohio, I met a man named Don Slater from southeastern Ohio who regaled me with endless examples of how people from his neck of the woods (centered on Noble County, but down into eastern Kentucky and Tennessee) talk.

People from Noble County don't butcher a hog, they "burcher" it.

They don't say "ain't that awful" or "tain't that awful".  They say "hain't that awful".  Don said he thought that pronunciation might have some Irish influence behind it.

One of the most amazing expressions Don taught me was one he said is used around Gatlinburg, Tennessee:  "beyall".  See if you can figure out what it means before you turn to the next page.  HINT:  this expression is often used by waiters and waitresses in restaurants.

Try again.  SECOND HINT:  it is a question — "beyall?"

THIRD HINT:  it is equal to four words in standard English".  NO MORE HINTS.

"Will that be all?"

Here's a set of sentences from Noble County with three homonyms that are completely separate morphemes:

1. How fur is it to Caldwell?

2. What did you do that fur?

3. That bear has thick fur.

A few more words as they are spoken in Noble County:

1. koelidz — a place where you go to receive higher education

2. bulgee — subject you might study at a koelidz

3. daiton — city in southwestern Ohio

4. murrow — large painting on a wall

5. westcomsin — name of a northern state

For southern Ohio "probably" –> "pry", see starting at 0:47 in this YouTube:

Here's another YouTube on "Southern Ohio Slang":

My Mom (and everybody in my family following her) always used to refer to bell peppers as "mangoes"*.  When I joined the Peace Corps and went to South Asia, I got to know what real mangoes are.  The speaker in this video gives a good explanation of why people in southern Ohio call bell peppers "mangoes", starting at 1:56.  Around 5:30 she discusses a "non-verbal 'hey'".  There are dozens of other intriguing expressions that she introduces, including "a lick" = a little bit (8:23), "born in a barn" = be rude, have no manners, forgot to close the door when you came in (my Mom used to say that too; 9:30), "get on" = leave (10:13),  "done did" = did (12:00), "et" = ate (12:43), and many others.  The speaker says "I don't know" about almost everything and giggles a great deal.  Nevertheless, she offers a lot of interesting information about southern Ohio speech.

*[From Portuguese manga, fruit of the mango tree, from Malayalam māṅṅa or a kindred Dravidian source; akin to Tamil , mānti, māti. (American Heritage Dictionary).  Borrowed into Sinitic as mángguǒ 芒果, probably through Malay mangga, with the second syllable, guǒ 果 ("fruit"), being a convenient phono-semantic match.]

Dotard

Sep. 22nd, 2017 07:16 pm
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Posted by Victor Mair

In recent weeks, President Trump has delivered a number of fiery speeches and incendiary tweets about what will happen to North Korea if Kim Jong-un launches nuclear missiles over Japan and toward Guam and the United States.

Naturally, the feisty dictator replied with some choice words of his own:

"North Korean leader responds to Trump: ‘I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire'", bThe Washington Post (9/21/17).

The Washington Post seems to have changed the title of the article, so I can no longer provide a direct link, but there are plentiful records of it on the internet.  In any event, countless other media outlets quoted the same odd word, "dotard".

Having been an English major in college, way back when, I was unflummoxed by "dotard", but it did send many readers scurrying for their dictionaries, where they would find something like this:

do·tard
ˈdōdərd/<input ... >
noun
          an old person, especially one who has become weak or senile.

That's not how I pronounce it.  For me, it is \dō′tərd\.

"Dotard" is related to the word for the mental condition referred to as "dotage" ("feebleness of mind associated with aging").

Many useful accounts of the history and meaning of "dotard" popped up on the internet this morning (e.g., here, here, and here).

James Griffiths has an article,"What is a 'Dotard'?" on CNN (9/22/17) in which he rightfully points out:

Kim, of course, did not say the word — he was speaking in Korean. "Dotard" was the official English translation provided by state news agency KCNA for the Korean "늙다리미치광이" ("neulg-dali-michigwang-i"), which literally translates as "old lunatic."

On the other hand, in "'Dotard' rockets from obscurity to light up Trump-Kim exchange, spark partisan war of words", Los Angeles Times (9/22/17), Mark Z. Barabak writes:

The Korean equivalent of dotard is “neukdari,” which is a derogatory term for an old person.

One possible explanation for Kim’s use of the antiquated insult came from Joan H. Lee*, who covered North Korea for the Associated Press. She said on Twitter that she had visited the offices of the government’s propaganda arm, the North Korean state news service, and “found the agency using very old Korean-English dictionaries for their translations.”

*[VHM:  I think that Barabak is referring to Jean H. Lee.]

There's been some confusion about just which Korean expression Kim applied to Trump.  The full epithet he employed was "neulg-dali-michigwang-i 늙다리 미치광이" (neulg-dali –> derogatory term for old/withered man/dotard; michigwang-i –> lunatic").  Google Translate renders that as "an old man lunatic".  Colloquially, one could translate the entire expression as "crazy old fool".

For a detailed discussion of the Korean expression, see this tweetstorm from Noon in Korea.

Prediction:  President Trump, whether directly or indirectly, will be the source of more new ("bigly", "covfefe") and resuscitated ("dotard") words than anyone since Shakespeare, though they are unlikely to last as long.

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer, Haewon Cho, and Jichang Lulu]

The wonders of Google Translate

Sep. 22nd, 2017 01:37 pm
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Posted by Victor Mair

I have sung the praises of Google Translate (GT) before (e.g., "Google Translate is even better now" [9/27/16]), but this morning something happened with GT that really tickled my fancy.

One thing I use GT for is to compose texts in Chinese.  I find it to be a very powerful and easy to use input tool.

So I input the following:

shuō dìngle 說定了
xīngqítiān zhōngwǔ jiàn 星期天中午見

After I finished typing that, I glanced over to the box at the right where the automatic English translation appears.  I was just floored when I saw this:

That's a deal
See you at noon on Sunday

The GT translation is both idiomatic and natural.  Miraculously, it somehow even managed to catch the playful tone of what I wrote in Chinese.  Of course, when used irresponsibly by people who know no Chinese to check it or who try to get it to translate something that is literary / classical / topolectal when it is designed for Mandarin, it can produce Chinglish howlers.  But in this case (and in many other cases that I have experienced), GT is every bit as good as a human translator, and sometimes better than most.

Big Grams Cauldron

Sep. 22nd, 2017 12:09 am
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Posted by Victor Mair

One of the most famous Chinese bronze vessels of antiquity, preserved in the Shanghai Museum, is the Dà Kè dǐng 大克鼎 ("Larger Ke Cauldron"), dated to ca. 891-886 BC.  Discovered around 1890 AD, it is 75.6 cm in diameter and 93.1 cm in height and weighs 201.5 kg.

In terms of language and script, the Dà Kè dǐng 大克鼎 is distinguished by its lengthy inscriptions amounting to 290 characters in 28 lines.  The inscriptions tell how a noble named Ke cast the vessel during the reign period of King Xiao of the Zhou Dynasty and records the King's praise to Ke's grandfather and the award of a royal estate to Ke.  Ke is said to have cast this vessel in appreciation of the King's favors and as a tribute to his grandfather.  It is called the Dà Kè dǐng 大克鼎 ("Larger Ke Cauldron") inasmuch as it was discovered together with more than 1,200 other bronzes, including seven smaller Kè cauldrons.

The Dà Kè dǐng 大克鼎 ("Larger Ke Cauldron") inscriptions are recorded here in Wikipedia.

Dǐng 鼎 is usually translated as "tripod", but since not all dǐng 鼎 have three legs (some have four), I have chosen to render it as "cauldron".

The immediate occasion for this post is my noticing that the online Chinese encyclopedia, Baidu, translates Dà Kè dǐng 大克鼎 as "Big Grams Tripod".  One might well ask how that is possible.  It just so happens that kè 克, which means "overcome; subdue", also is the Chinese transcription of the measure of weight "gram(me)".  This same sort of semantic interference also happens frequently with the Chinese transcription of "meter", mǐ 米, which often mistakenly gets translated as "rice".

For an introduction to Baidu, see "Soon to be lost in translation" (7/11/10).

[H.t. Rostislav Berezkin; thanks to Edward Shaughnessy, Lothar von Falkenhausen, Bob Bagley, Connie Cook, and Adam Smith]

Utterly lost in translation

Sep. 21st, 2017 07:37 pm
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Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum

During a search for something else, I happened upon this page at the Bible Study Tools site. It provides a nice reminder (for the two or three people out there who might still need it) of the fact that it's dangerous to trust websites, in linguistic matters or in anything else. As the screenshot shows, it purports to show Psalm 86 in two parallel versions, the Latin Vulgate and the New International Version.

"Filiis Core psalmis cantici fundamenta eius in montibus sanctis" is translated as "Hear me, Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy." The correct translation is debatable, but the first four words mean "A song psalm for the sons of Korah", and the rest means either "Its foundations are in the sacred hills" or (according to the Revised Standard Version) "On the holy mount stands the city he founded." Verse 2, "Diligit dominus portas Sion super omnia tabernacula Iacob" (roughly, "The Lord loves the gates of Sion more than all the dwellings of Jacob") is translated as "Guard my life, for I am faithful to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God." The third verse begins Gloriosa dicta sunt ("glorious things are spoken") but is translated as "have mercy on me". This is worse than the worst botch I ever saw from Google Translate. And I suspect human error is to blame.

They've got the wrong psalm, having fallen foul of the discrepancy between the Hebrew (Masoretic) and Greek (Septuagint/Vulgate) numberings. They have aligned the Latin of Psalm 87 in the Hebrew numbering (86 in the Greek) with the English of the Hebrew Psalm 86 (Greek 85). The Authorized Version of the bible (1611) uses the Hebrew numbering, as does the Revised Standard Version (1951). Catholic authorities (see Rosary Bay's parallel Latin-English psalter, for example) use the Greek numbering, having (correctly) recognized that psalms 9 and 10 in the Hebrew numbering are two parts of a single psalm. The error on the Bible Tools site goes on, of course, to affect all psalms from 10 (in the Greek numbering) onwards.

The psalm that begins "Fundamenta eius in montibus sanctis" turns up in certain magical spells and incantations, so the error could turn out to have rather serious consequences. For example, in section 110 of Claude Lecouteux's The Book of Grimoires: The Secret Grammar of Magic it is recommended that an inscription of the Fundamenta eius psalm written, in pigeon blood together with certain magical characters (which do not have Unicode numbers, so I will not try to reproduce them here), if smoked over mastic and aloe wood and then attached to your right arm, will preserve your health and cause your business affairs to prosper.

Catching a pigeon, subduing it, and draining its blood into a bowl left my kitchen in a bit of a mess, but once the gory stuff was done, and I had enough blood to moisten my quill pen, it didn't take long to complete the necessary scribal job. I sewed the piece of parchment into the lining of the right arm of my jacket, and haven't looked back since. I don't leave home without it. It has made me healthy and prosperous, exactly as was guaranteed.

But you do have to be able to tell one psalm from another if you want to get your spells right. So don't put your trust in just any old site you find on the web when looking for translations of documents. It could lead you even further astray than a random condo development brochure about armed structure and crystals.

Namibia, Nambia, whatever

Sep. 21st, 2017 05:05 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

It's hard to keep all those African countries straight, as President Trump demonstrated in a speech to African leaders at the U.N.:

Mr. Trump continues to create jobs in broadcast comedy, even for workers normally employed in other industries:


Of course this speech error provided opportunities for the professionals as well:

And plenty of opportunities for piece-workers on twitter:

https://twitter.com/JuliusGoat/status/910588471751925760

Here's the original:

I like political humor as much as anyone, but still, I hope that Trumpistic speech errors don't turn into this decade's version of "Bushisms".

Kazakhstan goes Latin

Sep. 20th, 2017 03:17 pm
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Posted by Victor Mair

Excerpts from "Kazakhstan: Latin Alphabet Is Not a New Phenomenon Among Turkic Nations", by Uli Schamiloglu (a professor in the Department of Kazakh Language and Turkic Studies at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan), EurasiaNet (9/15/17):

Kazakhstan’s planned transition to the Latin alphabet raises complex questions. While alphabets may not be important in and of themselves, they play an important role in helping define a nation’s place in the world.

As a Turkologist, I regularly teach a range of historical Turkic languages using the runiform Turkic alphabet, the Uyghur alphabet, the Arabic alphabet and others. Turkologists also study various Turkic languages written in the Syriac alphabet, the Armenian alphabet, the Hebrew alphabet, the Greek alphabet and others.

Stated briefly, you can use a lot of different alphabets to write Turkic languages. From a technical point of view, it is just a question of how accurately any particular alphabet represents speech sounds.

The classic version of the Arabic alphabet — with additional letters introduced for Persian — does not represent the vowels of Turkic languages accurately. Nevertheless, it was used successfully for Chagatay Turkic in Central Asia and Ottoman Turkish in the Ottoman Empire until the early 20th century. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, innovations were introduced to represent vowels more accurately, and this is certainly the case with the reformed Arabic alphabet used currently for Uyghur.

Using the Latin alphabet to represent Turkish languages is not a new phenomenon. The alphabet was used to write the Codex Cumanicus in a dialect of Kipchak Turkic in the early 14th century. More recently, Turkey adopted one version of the Latin alphabet beginning in 1928, as did Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan from 1991, and Uzbekistan in 2001, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We should also recall that in the early Soviet period most of the Turkic languages of the union shared a common Latin alphabet — the so-called Yangälif — beginning in 1926. But this alphabet was soon superseded by individual Cyrillic-based alphabets that were different from each other.

There are several linguistic factors supporting Kazakhstan’s planned switch to the Latin alphabet. One, of course, is that the Latin alphabet is familiar to a far larger number of educated persons than the Cyrillic alphabet. It is also used widely for communication over the internet and cellular telephones.

It is now official policy in Kazakhstan to promote three languages through the educational system — namely Kazakh, Russian and English. I think it is well documented by now that the Russian-speaking space is in decline throughout the former territories of the Soviet Union. But Kazakhstan, like Tatarstan, is so strongly bilingual that I am not worried so much that the use of Russian will decline in Kazakhstan any time soon. The real challenge is to make sure that Kazakh becomes viable as the official language of Kazakhstan.

Unlike in Turkey, or say Uzbekistan, Kazakh has a long way to go before it becomes the default language of choice among citizens of Kazakhstan.

The entire article is fascinating and well worth reading, not just by linguists, but also by political scientists, social scientists, and cultural historians.  The only thing I would add is that the movement toward the adoption of the Latin alphabet among modern Turkic-speaking peoples began in 1928 with its promotion by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), the founder of the Republic of Turkey.

[h.t. Jichang Lulu]

They call the wind 'Maria'?

Sep. 20th, 2017 07:59 am
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Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum

I hope you appreciate the wisdom of the new policy on naming hurricanes that was announced here on September 11. The latest brutal storm to devastate the islands of the eastern Caribbean would not have been named for the mother of Jesus; it would have been named "Hurricane Malaria." That's more like it. Nasty names for nasty stuff. You know it makes sense.

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