Friday, September 13, 2002

NAN YUEH, NAM VIET, VIETNAM. I was visiting Nelson's blog and ran across the statement "For example, the Cantonese term for Vietnam is 'Yuet Naam,' and the pronunciation is such that they could conceivably be derived from similar sources." I was going to leave him a comment letting him know his guess was correct, but when I tried to compose it I realized I could either say "Yes" and leave it at that or tell a longer story than would suit a comment box, so I chose the latter, and here it is.

Before the Han Dynasty, in the third century BC, Chinese civilization was centered in the Yellow River valley; further south, in the Yangtze region, were non-Chinese states that were coming more and more under Chinese influence, the easternmost of which, on the coast (approximately where Chekiang is now), was Yüeh. (That is the modern Mandarin version of the name, which at that period had a final -t preserved in Cantonese "Yuet" and Vietnamese "Viet.") As the Chinese of Ch'in (which unified the country) pushed south, the Yüeh ruling classes scattered further down the coast and founded a number of little kingdoms collectively known to the Chinese as the "hundred Yüeh," the largest of which, near modern Canton, was called Nan Yüeh or 'Southern Yüeh.' These kingdoms were briefly conquered by the Ch'in emperor, Ch'in Shih Huang Ti, but after his death Nan Yüeh became independent under a former Chinese general, Chao T'o (known in Vietnamese as Trieu Da), who not only resisted the new Han dynasty to the north but conquered the peoples to the south, including the ancestors of the modern Vietnamese. This is the vital moment in our story, because it gave the Vietnamese people the lasting memory of a state that had stood up against the colossus to the north, and the name of that state was Nan Yüeh.

During the second and first centuries BC Nan Yüeh came more and more under Chinese domination, and by AD 42 it was firmly incorporated into the Han empire. But although the other peoples of the region lost their languages and became Chinese (the strongly divergent southern forms of Chinese presumably reflecting the influence of those lost languages), the Vietnamese kept a sense of their own nationhood (and, crucially, preserved their own language) even as they assimilated all the trappings of Chinese culture: the characters, the art, the examination system, the chopsticks. When they briefly achieved independence in the sixth century, the rebel Ly Bi proclaimed himself the emperor of Nam Viet, the Vietnamese form of Nan Yüeh. When independence came for good in the tenth century, the new kingdom was called Annam, but centuries later the old name was revived in a new form; I'll let Keith Weller Taylor, the author of the excellent book The Birth of Vietnam, tell the story:
The modern name of Vietnam dates from 1803, when envoys from the new Nguyen dynasty went to Peking to establish diplomatic relations. They claimed the name Nam Viet (Nan Yüeh). But the Chinese objected to this invocation of Chao T'o's rebellious realm in antiquity and changed the name to Viet Nam. This Chinese adherence to the formalities of imperial theory was resented at the time, but in the twentieth century the name Vietnam has acquired general acceptance among the Vietnamese.
If this has piqued anyone's interest, the Tuvy Asian Resource Center has a useful account of early Vietnamese history, and I heartily recommend the Keith Weller Taylor book cited above.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

POLYGLOT CURRENCY. A nice collection of banknotes printed in more than one language, courtesy of Les coups de langue de la grande rousse. As La Rousse (hey, that's funny!) says, it's odd that there are no Canadian bills shown, since the collection is on the Québecois site Hapax; it's also odd that they label one bill "Protectorat de Bohème-Moravie" rather than "Tchécoslovakie sous occupation allemande" (compare their treatment of occupied Albania). But it's fun to browse, and some of the bills are quite remarkable.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

WITTGENSTEIN. "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen."
(Translation in first comment.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

SAVING MAPUDUNGUN. The bountiful and Enigmatic Mermaid points us to an article about an effort to save the Mapudungun language spoken by the Mapuche Indians of Chile by setting up a machine translation program between Mapudungun and Spanish, backed by a $5 million NSF grant. I'm all in favor of saving minority languages (assuming they're still alive), but it doesn't seem to me that machine translation is the way to do it. Wouldn't it make more sense to set up a program that would let them record (and print out as desired) texts in their language, allowing them to preserve chants, epics, recipes, ritual insults, and whatever other aspects of their culture they wanted to pass on to later generations? The ability to automatically translate into (inevitably bad) Spanish seems to me a distant second in terms of usefulness. But maybe I'm missing something.

Sunday, September 08, 2002

VERBAL CUISINE. Languagehat apologizes for persistent recent negativity; herewith a hymn of praise that should leave us all feeling better.

There are apparently people out there who don't care for Adam Gopnik, but I don't understand them. He's the main reason I keep subscribing to The New Yorker, and I think he's one of the best stylists and funniest writers around (thoughtful as well as funny, but being funny is harder than being thoughtful). I would like to bring to your attention his article "The Cooking Game," from the double Food Issue of Aug. 19 & 26; I wish I could provide a link, but the magazine has not chosen to put it online, so I'll have to type in my quotations (probably just as well, as it will keep me from quoting so much it takes up my entire blog).

The article is about a cookoff among five chefs in Manhattan restaurants, all of whom agreed to create meals based on farmer's-market ingredients chosen by Gopnik. Who cares, you say (unless you are a serious foodie), and you would be right, except that Gopnik can write about anything and keep you turning the pages with delight and anticipation. He begins with a paragraph saying that cooks are "the last artists among us who still live in the daily presence of patronage"; unlike artists, writers, and the rest, they have not been "Byronized.... there to instruct and puzzle an audience, not to please it." He goes on:
But although cooks are a source of romance, they are not themselves Romantic. They practice their art the way all art was practiced until the nineteenth century, as a job done to order for rich people who treat you as something between the court jester and the butler. Cooks can be temperamental--cooks are supposed to be temperamental--but temperament is the Byronism of the dependent; children, courtesans, and cooks all have it. What cooks have in place of freedom is what all artists had back before they were released from the condition of flunkydom: a weary, careful dignity, a secretive sense of craft, and the comforting knowledge of belonging to a guild.
Isn't that well said? I don't care if it's "true" in the judgment of historians; it gives me a new way of looking at the world and making connections I hadn't made before, and reading the words gives me intense pleasure. Let me finish up with another quote that provides the sort of illustration of perverse human nature I can't resist. He tells a story one of the chefs, Dan Barber of Blue Hill, told him, about a time when everyone in the restaurant was sure a customer who'd been coming and ordering different things was actually William Grimes, the main food critic of the NY Times.
"So the very next day, Grimes actually calls from the Times and asks for a wine list. Now, this guy, let's call him Mr. Hudsucker, had taken a menu with him--but not a wine list! So, I mean, now we're getting obvious." He went on, "That Friday, a 'Diner's Journal' article comes out that lists all the dishes Mr. Hudsucker ate at the bar! So, O.K., the next week H.M. Hudsucker makes another reservation, and we flip over backward for him, creating all these tasting menus, and the servers going through hula hoops. You have to be careful with that stuff, of course, because it's like the Enigma secret--you want to use it, but you don't want it to be obvious you've broken the code. Anyway, finally someone comes into the kitchen and I say, 'That's Grimes,' and he says, 'No, it isn't. I know Grimes, and that's not Grimes.' And I say, 'That's not Grimes? Then who the hell is that?' Later, a waiter went over without my knowing it and said, 'You seem so, uh, passionate abut food, Mr. Hudsucker, are you in the business?' And he said, 'What business?' And the server said the food business. And Mr. Hudsucker said, 'The food business? I'm in the insurance business. I just like it here.

"And the really terrible part of the story is that he came back and we didn't do anything for him--not because we're malicious. It's just, just that at this point we're sort of disillusioned with H.M. Hudsucker, no fault of his own. And he walked out upset. It's ironic because... he was the ideal diner! He ate like a food critic without being one! The ideal guest."

Friday, September 06, 2002

GET ME REWRITE. OK, you're all as sick of my complaining about the NY Times as I am. But. What can I do when they keep violating the English language? Once more into the breach...

I didn't go to J school. But. I strongly suspect they drum into their students the vital importance of maintaining a lively and engaging style by means of using contrast whenever possible, and even when not. I picture reporters waking up in the morning muttering "Although I will be going to work today, I will be taking the subway..." and going to bed with "I am currently lying on my right side; however, I will soon turn to the left." Normally the incessant parade of "however, although, nevertheless, on the other hand" doesn't especially bother me; I accept it as a professional tic. But. Read the following quote from Joyce Wadler's article in today's paper:
The wall behind Billy's bed is a mural of Billy and his girlfriend, Mary Fragapane, who is also a painter, kissing, with the names Billy and Mary written into it. There are photos and paintings of Mary, a pretty woman with long dark hair, throughout the apartment. Billy says he did not have to white-out anyone else's name when he and Mary started dating, two years ago, although, coincidentally, his last girlfriend's name was Mary.
Didn't it occur to anyone that the word "because" would be more appropriate than "although"?

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

BABBLING BABES. An article in the Observer provides a useful summary of what's been learned recently about the abilities of the infant brain (surprising scientists but not mothers). The following passage is of particular interest to linguists:
Scientists used to think that babies couldn't pick up the subtleties of speech sounds, and so took a long time to distinguish between, say, the r's and l's in English. But a landmark 1997 study by Patricia Kuhl showed that one-month-old American babies could distinguish 'every English sound contrast we threw at them'. Then they found out that one-month-old babies exposed to Spanish and Kikuyu had the same facility, and that one-month-olds everywhere were good at distinguishing sounds, even if they were from languages they'd never heard. But they went on to discover that they lose this general capacity as their first year progresses and they become more attentive to the rhythms and patterns of their mother tongue.

This is a good and necessary thing. It is only by picking up on familiar cadences and sound combinations of their mother tongue that they begin to pick words out of the flow of other people's speech.

The words they pick out go on to influence how they think. This is well illustrated in a 1995 study by Berkeley psychologists Alison Gopnik and Soonja Choi. Noting that the Korean language puts a greater emphasis on verbs while a sentence in English was not complete without a noun, they found the same patterns evident in the way Korean and American mothers talked to their infants and the way the babies developed their own vocabularies. And they also found that Korean-speaking children learnt 'how to solve problems like using the rake to get the out-of-reach toy well before the English-speaking children', while English-speakers started categorising objects earlier than the Korean speakers.
Sounds like it might provide support for a moderate version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I also like this bit, which reinforces a lesson about the limitations of the male-scientist mindset:
[Cognitive scientists] also credit much of the new thinking to the entry of large numbers of women into the field over the past few decades. Until their arrival, the profession was dominated by men who did not think it necessary to test their theories on real children. Now it is a field in which much of the imaginative thinking comes from men and women who spend time with children, both in and outside the laboratory.
(A tip of the hat to Billy Blogs.)
SPANGLISH DON. Inspired by "un académico purista" who said on Spanish radio that he wouldn't take seriously the hybrid of Spanish and English spoken widely in the Americas until it had its own Quixote, Ilan Stavans has translated the first chapter of Don Quixote into Spanglish! It's available here. It's not clear to me from the article in Reforma.com whether he's translated any more than the excerpt they present (or whether he even intends to), and I'm not sure if there's a market for it (even if you can make sense of it, you'll probably prefer to read it in the original or in English, whichever comes easier to you), but I'm glad he's done this much. Take that, purists! (A tip of the hat to the Enigmatic Mermaid.)

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

FRABJOUS. Thanks to an excellent blog called scribble, scribble, scribble... (the work of the writer Dale Keiger) I have learned of the possible resurrection of the late and much-lamented magazine Lingua Franca; you can read about it at the NY Times article Where the Talk Is Rarefied, Signs of Life.

Monday, September 02, 2002

LITERALLY. In an otherwise sensible piece on the threatened baseball strike and the childish belief on many fans' part that "players ought to play simply for the love of the game," Ira Berkow says the following:
The fact is, they are professionals, and from the time professional baseball began, in 1869, with the Red Stockings of Cincinnati, the most accomplished baseball players played for money. That is literally the name of the game.

Now, like most lovers of language, I hate the use of "literally" to mean its opposite ('metaphorically'), but I've grown resigned to hearing it in conversation and reading it in e-mails and the like. But to read it in the New York Times, allegedly a great newspaper, from the pen of Berkow, who's been paid for his writing for many years now, is depressing in the extreme. No, Ira, the name of the game is literally baseball. You could look it up. (Furthermore, the first professional player was probably the great pitcher Jim Creighton, who died at 21 in 1862, but that's not really Languagehat material.)

Having gotten that off my chest, I will quote a delightful exchange that, whether real or invented (sorry, Ira, you get no benefit of the doubt today), perfectly sums up a basic feature of human nature:
I got into a conversation the other day with a guy who sold stationery for a living. He resented the players. Why?

"They make too much money," he said.

"What's too much?" I asked.

"They make more in one time at bat than I do in a week."

"Would you trade places with them?"

"Absolutely."

"And if someone told you you were making too much money, what would you tell them?"

"I'd tell 'em it was none of their damn business."

Friday, August 23, 2002

HIATUS. Language hat is going to spend the next week on the West Coast. Regular blogging will be resumed in September. Ciao, poka, and be seein' y'all...
Update. I'm making a quick internet check while my brother is off on some errand, and (realizing I probably won't get a chance to blog on Sunday, when I return, very late, to NYC) I wanted to wish my loyal readers a Happy New Year for 7511, as of September 1!
THIS IS AN EX-LANGUAGE! Cornish has been made an official language of the U.K. Now, I'm as big a fan of obscure languages as you'll find; I even have a book of Cornish place names. But this is ridiculous. Irish is one thing; there are actual native Irish speakers left, and unlikely as it is that the language can be preserved for long, I understand the desire of the Republic of Ireland to try. But Cornish! I don't care how many people enjoy playing around with it and speaking it to each other at meetings (I love the fact there are three rival versions, by the way), it's kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!! (Via Billy Blogs.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

SAWBUCK. Avva has recently learned this slang term for a ten-dollar bill, and in the discussion on his site it turns out that various English-speakers consulted by his Russian-speaking readers were not familiar with the expression. My assumption is that this is generational rather than regional, the term being long past its sell-by date, but I'm curious to hear from my own loyal band of readers. I've known the word as long as I can remember, but then I cut my teeth on '40s pulp fiction (yellowing, not hot off the presses); do you know it, and if so, from reading or as living terminology?

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

OLEHASHOLEM. It was brought to my attention by a person who wishes to remain nameless (not wanting to be thought an inveterate scanner of obits) that among the death notices in last Sunday's NY Times is one that begins as follows:
ROTHSTEIN - Miriam Chilson. Died at age 91, on August 14, 2002. She would've turned 92 on September 21. Miriam was the wife of the late Irwin Chilson, the late Lou Fineberg, the late Phil Rispler and the latest late Moe Rothstein.
I submit that Miriam must have been quite a gal to have inspired that bit of affectionate wordplay, and that Irwin, Lou, Phil, and Moe were four lucky guys. I wish I'd known her, and I hereby honor her memory.
WHY DID THE YEAR 7208 HAVE ONLY THREE MONTHS? Not only is that a meaningful question, it has a perfectly good answer. Until Peter the Great's calendar reform, Russia counted its years from the creation of the world, which the Russian Orthodox church reckoned as having happened in 5509 BC, and celebrated New Year's Day on September 1; thus Peter was born in the year 7180, or 180 as they often referred to it (early 1672 by our calendar). Once Peter took full power he began making drastic changes in the Russian way of life to imitate the Western European countries, and along with cutting off beards and banning caftans he updated the calendar, decreeing in late 1699 (or early 208, as it then was) that January 1 would be the New Year, and it would be the beginning of the year 1700. So 7208, which had begun on Sept. 1, only ran for three months before giving way to the newfangled Western year 1700, producing documents with phrases like: "In the years 207 and 208 and in the present year of 1700..." I love this stuff.

What I don't understand is why he didn't go all the way and adopt the Gregorian calendar, which had been around for over a century and was used in the Western countries he wanted to emulate. For over two hundred years Russia remained 10 or 11 days behind, and Peter didn't like being left behind. Strange.
FODER! Miguel Cardoso (over at MeFi) expatiates upon Portuguese sexual practices and terminology, and I urge anyone with an interest in Romance obscenities (and obscene romance) to hie themselves thither forthwith. (And scroll down for more.)

Monday, August 19, 2002

ORTHOGRAPHIC PRINCIPLES. Avva has a debate going about Russian orthography. It began with a remark, in a post of his about Pope Gregory's bull Inter gravissimus (which proclaimed the year 2000 a leap year), that he was writing the Russian adjective for 'leap' (in "leap year") vysokosnyi rather than the standard spelling visokosnyi because that was how he pronounced it. This caused quite a hullabulloo. People accused him of willful flouting of the rules, even of illiteracy. He responded with three long and closely reasoned analyses of the Russian writing system, based not on the simplistic "write as you pronounce" principle but on the phonemic principle, which in this case forced him, precisely, to write the word as he pronounced it. My initial reaction was like that of his opponents: write it the way it is in the dictionary; what's the problem? But in the end he convinced me with his arguments and analogies. What struck me is how hopeless it would be to reproduce the argument in English, where writing is so far from pronunciation (though not as far as many think) that to introduce even the minor correctives he argues for would be to risk letting the sea wash away the dikes and flood the land. Russian is, as it were, above sea level; it can afford to get a little wet.
THE TIMES GETS IT RIGHT. Since I lambasted the NY Times a couple of days ago, I feel I should present the other side of the coin. Sometimes they show me things I would probably never have known about and am glad to have discovered. Herewith two examples from the Sunday "Arts and Leisure" section.

Vicki Goldberg presents the photographer Josef Koudelka, who's led an amazing life, both complicated ("Never married, he has three children by three women of different nationalities. He has helped support all three children, he said, and has remained in touch with them.") and simple ("I have two shirts.... I have one trousers for one year, one shoes for one year, one jacket for two years, two socks, and for travel a good sleeping bag."). He did a series of photographs of Gypsies:
The Gypsy pictures are dark, brooding, disjunctive, tinged with tenderness and sorrow. Years later, he said, he met some Gypsies on a pilgrimage and told them he'd done a book on their people: " 'We know,' they said. `We call you Iconar. We have the book. It's been cut apart and put in a chapel. We pray for the people in them.' "

And Christopher Hall describes working on a project to build a 13th-century castle in a remote area of Burgundy (Treigny, in la Puisaye, for those keeping score at home; the Times, uncharacteristically, doesn't supply a map). They're using medieval tools and techniques and even wearing medieval clothes (barring safety glasses). I don't know about you, but that sounds like a great way to spend my summer vacation, if I still had a summer vacation.

There's also a good piece by Norimitsu Onishi on the use and misuse of statistics, but I posted that on MetaFilter (where it sank without a trace).
MINIM. Naomi, over at Baraita, has taken time out from her lytdybr entries about moving to a new university town and posted a fascinating discussion of, among other things, "Jewish groups who deviated from some perceived norm": minim, apikursim, and others. One of the reasons I used to wish I were Jewish was so I could be an apikoyres, but the other terms were new to me.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

JANEWAY. I happened upon the family name Janeway and vaguely wondered about it, as I have every time I've seen it. This time, for whatever reason, the vagueness sharpened into an immediate desire to know what the hell was going on. So I went to my Rybakin (Slovar' angliiskikh familii/Dictionary of English Surnames), and the first thing I discovered was that the name is pronounced in three syllables, Jan-away (traditionally, in England, that is; I assume modern Americans with the name pronounce it Jane-way). The Janeway entry referred me to Janaway, the main entry, where I discovered that alternate spellings are Gannaway, Jannaway, January [!], Janway, and Jennaway—and that the name is derived from the Italian city Genoa! This etymology delighted me no end (not "to no end," which means something entirely different), and I thought I'd share it.