Saving Hakka.

Yes, this piece by Rosalie Chan is another “saving an endangered language” story, but Hakka is really interesting:

It’s 6:30 p.m. at a radio studio in Miaoli, a small city in Western Taiwan. Yin Chang is plugged in. Her headphones are on, and the microphone is adjusted close to her mouth. The lights are dim; a blue banner declaring “Voice of Hakka Radio 97.1 FM” hangs behind her.

Chang, 36, fixes her headphones and pushes a strand of her bobbed hair behind her ear. With a bright voice, she enthusiastically greets the audience: “Hello, tegaho gaihei DJ Yin!” – “Hello everyone, this is DJ Yin!”

Chang hosts a program called Heinai, or “It’s me” in a variety of Chinese known as Hakka, the language of a Han Chinese ethnic group scattered throughout the continent. Heinai is aimed at Hakka youth; it’s part of Chang’s efforts to reinvigorate the dying language.

Chang grew up in Miaoli and, like 62.2 percent of the local population, is Hakka. In Taiwan, the Hakka are frequently referred to as ke jia ren or “guest family people” because throughout their history, Hakkas have been a migrant group, fleeing settlements to avoid one catastrophe after another. The Hakkas arrived in Taiwan during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when they escaped the Manchurian Armies that were taking control of China. The Hoklo people had already settled the fertile land of Taiwan, so the Hakkas were left to make do with the remaining infertile foothills, and, thus are known for their history of hardship and frugality. [...]

Every year the Hakka Affairs Council — an organization established in 2001 and dedicated to preserving Hakka culture and promoting Hakka media — surveys Hakka people in Taiwan about the presence of language in their lives. According to a 2013 survey, 47.3 percent can speak Hakka fluently; however, most of those are elderly. Only 22.8 percent of people aged 19 to 29 speak Hakka, and that figure is even lower for children 18 and under.

Chang hopes that by presenting Hakka music to young people in her country, it will spark their interest in learning the language and spur more engagement in the culture, the same way it did for her about ten years ago.

The link is from Victor Mair’s Log post, which contains an introduction to the remarkable history of the Hakka:

Although the Hakka amount to approximately only 4% of the total population of China, their influence on politics, the military, culture, and other spheres of life in the past two centuries has been disproportionately large

The Hakka have assumed positions of leadership not only in China, but in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the New World. To name only a few of the important Hakka statesmen, revolutionaries, and cultural leaders of the last century and a half, we may list the following:

The list includes everybody from Sun Yat-sen to Lee Teng-hui, Lee Kuan Yew, and Ne Win. I had no idea!

Why Stalin Called Andrei Platonov “Scum”.

A nice little piece on the great and still underappreciated writer Andrei Platonov (see here and here for LH discussions of his novels) by Alice E.M. Underwood; it starts with quotes like “People see with the eyes of their heads; beards grow from exhaustion; fowl can be pro-Kulak; the body of a chicken is made dead for morning breakfast; and good communists live thanks to birth, and die of life,” gives a brief description of how his prose works, and ends with more samples. If the quotes intrigue you, go to the source!

A Survey of Spoken Irish in the Aran Islands.

Project Description:

This Survey constitutes a highly detailed micro-dialectological study of spoken Irish in the Aran Islands, focusing on geographical and social variation linked to generations (older and younger age-groups), genders (male and female), and level of education. It provides for the first time ever for any language anywhere in the world an extensive analysis of a wide range of phonological and grammatical variation on a dialectal and sociolinguistic basis. In the case of the largest of the three islands, Inis Mór, the Survey includes detailed information on phonological, grammatical and lexical variation at the level of individual townlands. The geographical layout of these townlands and the strategic position of the archipelago in Galway Bay in relation to the surrounding mainlands in Connemara, East Galway and Clare lend a remarkably potent visibility to the spectrum of linguistic variation displayed in the study. As such, the Survey echoes and also builds on Heinrich Wagner’s 1958-69 work Linguistic Atlas and Survey of Irish Dialects to provide an unrivalled portrait of Irish as it was spoken in Aran in the late twentieth century. Presenting a novel and ambitious exploration of complex linguistic change embedded in a social context, the Survey represents a milestone contribution to dialectology and sociolinguistics – and, indeed, to the Irish language itself – that is of international significance.

What a great project, and what a great thing to put online! You can read about it in a good Irish Times story by Lorna Siggins. This is particularly pleasing to me because Inis Meáin is where I practiced my Irish — learned at the Dublin Institute from Mícheál Ó Siadhail — four decades ago. Thanks for the links, Stan and Trevor!

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

This piece by Osama S. M. Amin is about a fragment of Gilgamesh that was discovered in 2011 and published in 2014, so it’s not exactly breaking news, but I hadn’t been aware of it and I suspect many of my readers will be in the same boat. Here’s Amin’s summary of the salient points:

● The revised reconstruction of Tablet V yields text that is nearly twenty lines longer than previously known.
● The obverse (columns i-ii) duplicates the Neo-Assyrian fragments which means the Epic tablet can be placed in order and used to fill in the gaps between them. It also shows the recension on Tablet V was in Babylonia, as well as Assyria and that “izzizūma inappatū qišta” is the same phrase that other tablets being with.
● The reverse (columns v-vi) duplicates parts of the reverse (columns iv-vi) of the late Babylonian tablet excavated at Uruk that begins with the inscription “Humbāba pâšu īpušma iqabbi izakkara ana Gilgāmeš”.
● The most interesting piece of information provided by this new source is the continuation of the description of the Cedar Forest:
   ○ Gilgamesh and Enkidu saw ‘monkeys’ as part of the exotic and noisy fauna of the Cedar Forest; this was not mentioned in other versions of the Epic.
   ○ Humbaba emerges, not as a barbarian ogre, and but as a foreign ruler entertained with exotic music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings. The chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada, and squawking of many kinds of birds formed a symphony (or cacophony) that daily entertained the forest’s guardian, Humbaba.

Thanks, Matt!

Every Non-word.

I generally have little interest in lists of invented words, which at best induce a slight smile and are never heard of again, but every non-word (@nondenotative) is different; it consists of “combinations of English syllables that don’t appear in the dictionary,” and the very fact that it’s not trying to be clever means you can imagine definitions for (non-)words that don’t shout their would-be meaning at you. Kudos to Daniel Temkin, whose projects (shown at that link) involve other interesting ideas like Esoteric.Codes (“a blog investigating programming languages as experiments, jokes, and experiential art”) and Borges: The Complete Works (“All of Borges’s words, slightly out of order”).

10 Books That Wouldn’t Exist Without Flann O’Brien.

If this were 10 Books That Wouldn’t Exist Without Shakespeare or Cervantes or some other obvious candidate, I would have yawned and moved on. But I couldn’t resist Flann O’Brien, who (as ever) needs all the publicity he can get; I learned some interesting stuff (“Borges reviewed At Swim-Two-Birds in 1939, claiming that it was a more complex ‘verbal labyrinth’ than Don Quixote and The Thousand and One Nights“); and the surprise ending definitely makes it worth posting.

Fifteen Years of wood s lot.

Five years ago I wrote:

I am in awe of Mark Woods, who’s been putting out wood s lot for ten years now. It’s all I can do to crank out a post a day; you could say Mark puts out a post a day too, but each of his is equivalent to a dozen or two of mine. He somehow finds the time and energy to put together a collection of images, links, and quotes that make my mind and soul feel a little better stocked; of late he usually includes one or two of his own gorgeous photographs as well.

It’s still as true as ever now that the s lot is fifteen, and with every passing year my awe grows. Just look at that magnificent, many-branched tree at the top of today’s post: what a fine symbol of the blog itself, spreading in all directions, growing ever more interestingly knotty, and providing shade and comfort for all who approach! Today’s post starts with a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, always one of Mark’s favorites; features several paintings by one of the many wonderful artists he’s introduced me to, in this case Paul Sérusier; and ends with this delightful quote from Boris Johnson. mayor of London:

There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table — and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat — the thing you want them to talk about — and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.

May this indispensable blog flourish for many more years!

Unicode Suggestions Requested.

I just got the following e-mail:

We’re drafting a proposal to add as many remaining unsupported phonetic and orthographic symbols to Unicode as we can justify. I thought you might have come across things you’d like to have encoded. You seem like the kind of person who might have stashed away notes on things like that.

We’re not interested in idiosyncratic inventions that never spread beyond their authors, or obsolete systems that scholars don’t bother to use even when citing sources that do use them, but sometimes Unicode doesn’t support things in fairly widespread use, such as superscript variants of IPA characters, subscripts made superscript to avoid descenders, letters with a swash for velarization, and informal IPA letters or substitutions. Or if you know of a really neat symbol that should be available but isn’t, and can send published documentation, we should be able to include it.

So this is your chance: if you’ve got ideas on the subject, put ‘em in the thread and they will be seen by someone who can do something about it.

Russian Language Gets ‘Import Substitution’.

An acerbic and amusing Moscow Times column by Michele Berdy starts with her “daily dose of nuts”: a video of a Russian schoolteacher telling her students that Holy Rus was “inhabited by godlike men called богатыри (bogatyrs, mythic warriors and heroes). We know they are godlike, she explains, because of their name, богатырь. And then she deciphers it: с Богом на ты (on a first-name basis with God).” Upon investigation, she discovers that “It’s a Thing. All kinds of armchair folk etymologists are insisting that godlike creatures called богатыри once lived in what is now Russia”:

What’s an armchair folk etymologist? It’s someone with no specialized knowledge of the language or its history, who looks at a word and makes up stories about its meaning. Sometimes this is charming. I know someone who grew up in the Urals and thought, when he was little, that faraway Moscow was the place where the 100 most important people in the country lived — because he parsed the word столица (capital) as сто лиц (100 people).

But he was 8 years old. Here’s what someone identified as a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences writes about the word богатырь: Бога ты то есть, Богу ты принадлежишь. (You are of God, that is, you belong to God.) Завершающее Р — это звук грозы и гнева, но гнева праведного, львиного. (The “r” at the end is the sound of threat and anger, but it is righteous anger, the anger of a lion.) Впрочем, поскольку Бог благ, и гнев Его направлен лишь на грех, этот звук смягчён: РЬ. (And besides, because God is good and His anger is only directed at sin, the sound is lightened with a soft sign at the end of it.)

She gives the actual etymology (it’s a borrowing from Turkic), then concludes:

So what’s the problem? Why are so many people obsessed with proving that богатырь is not a borrowed word?

And then I realized what it is. Some people don’t want mythic ancient Russian heroes to have a name borrowed from another language. So they are manufacturing a “native Russian” etymology.

It’s импортозамещение (import substitution)!

Thanks for the link, Jeff!


I was looking up something else in my American Heritage Dictionary when my eye fell on this entry:

wight2 (wīt) adj. Archaic Valorous; brave. [Middle English < Old Norse vīgt, neuter of vīgr, able to fight; see weik-3 in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]

My first thought was “That’s odd, I’ve never heard of such a word.” Immediately following came the thought “Why is such an odd word in the AHD? How did it survive the culling that takes place for every new edition?” I will probably never get an answer to that question (I’m guessing some highly placed editor simply liked the word and couldn’t bear to let it go), but of course I went straight to the OED (entry from 1924), where the earliest citations are from c1275 (▸?a1200) (Laȝamon Brut l. 10658 “Fif and twenti þusend. whitere monnen”) and the latest is from 1858 (W. Morris Def. Guenevere 108 “They ought to sing of him who was as wight As Launcelot or Wade”), by which time I presume it was long out of living use. At any rate, I probably wouldn’t have posted about it if I hadn’t scrolled to the end of the entry and found this:

wight-wapping adj. [wap v.1] moving rapidly, or characterized by such movement.
1830 Scott Ayrshire Trag. i. 1, The weaver shall find room At the wight-wapping loom.

“Wight-wapping”: what a wonderful word! It sounds like something Bugs Bunny Elmer Fudd would say. Bring it back, say I—we’ll get ’em all back!