Archives for March 2006


I knew the phrase straw dogs only as the title of the 1971 Sam Peckinpah movie. Now, thanks to Benjamin Zimmer at Language Log, I know the origin, a passage in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs;
the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.

Zimmer continues:

D.C. Lau’s translation of Tao Te Ching (Penguin Classics edition) explains in a footnote that “straw dogs were treated with the greatest deference before they were used as an offering, only to be discarded and trampled upon as soon as they had served their purpose.”

Any Sinologists out there know of other classic and/or interesting passages of Chinese literature that use this phrase? And what is the phrase in Chinese? (And, for extra credit, was the original Chinese phrase used as the title of the Peckinpah movie in Hong Kong or Taiwan—I assume it wasn’t shown in mainland China—or was a new title invented to avoid whatever distractions the original phrase might involve?)


Yawning Bread is an interesting website run by Au Waipang, a Singaporean of Chinese descent, who in his about page explains:

As both my parents were educated in English-language schools (run by Christian missionaries, as most English-language schools were in their day), the family language that I grew up with was English. My parents speak to me in English; all my teenage rows with them were in English.
So, regardless of the Singapore government’s silly notion that one’s mother tongue is determined by one’s race or ethnicity, I have always maintained that my mother tongue is English. I think in English, I dream in English, and as is apparent from this site, I write in English.

I love people who confuse those who think in stereotypes, and this guy is a funny, acerbic writer to boot. I got a kick out of his rant about Chinese who “perceive Singapore as an extension of the Chinese world”; it includes, among much else, a discussion of a “unique habit” of Singaporeans:

We first draw some conclusion about a person’s race before we decide what language to use. A Singaporean would not speak to someone who looks Indian in Chinese. Generally, we would use English to him without a moment’s thought.
In most other places, people use the lingua franca of their country or province regardless of the colour of the person they’re speaking to, unless the person is very evidently a foreigner (e.g. a Caucasian man in Thailand). In Thailand, the Siamese use Thai when addressing people of Punjabi, Chinese or Burmese ancestry. In France, they use French to everyone, whether you’re white, yellow, brown or black.
In China too, if you look Han Chinese (or East Asian), people will mostly speak to you in the provincial language first, e.g. Shanghainese or the Sichuan dialect, and if that fails, they will switch to Putonghua. If you don’t look Han Chinese (e.g. if you’re Egyptian or Uighur), then they will assume you’re not from the locality, and they’ll speak to you in Putonghua from the start. Putonghua is the lingua franca, the link language for communication across ethnic groups.

And a fascinating excursus on the name of an area of Singapore called Geylang:

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I’m reading Fearful Majesty, a biography of Ivan IV “the Terrible” by Benson Bobrick, and I just ran across this bit of information:

Upon his return to Moscow on December 12 [1546], Ivan [announced] that he intended “to study the coronation formula of his ancestors,” specifically that of Grand Prince Vladimir Monomakh and, in emulation of that prince, to be crowned Grand Prince and “Tsar,” meaning Emperor. Etymologically, the word “tsar” derived from caesar,but had entered Church Slavic through the Greek as a translation of basileus, meaning “emperor.” However, from the days of the Mongol conquest, Russians had applied it not only to the Byzantine emperor but to the Tartar khans. At the Moscow court only Tartar descendents of Genghis Khan who had also been rulers in their own right were honored by the name.

I imagine John Emerson knew the Tatar khans were called “tsar,” but I sure didn’t.


The Scottish poet, artist, and pacifist Ian Hamilton Finlay has died at 80:

Ian Hamilton Finlay was born in the Bahamas of Scottish parents in 1925. He was called up in 1944, and served in the Army for three years. When demobilised in 1947 he attended Glasgow College of Art, though he considered himself then primarily to be a writer — and indeed throughout his career referred to himself as a poet rather than an artist. After college he lived in Perthshire, making a precarious living by writing: he published a volume of poems, The Dancers Inherit the Party, and had several scripts broadcast by the BBC.
In 1966 he made what was to prove the most momentous decision of his life, by moving with his wife into a property at Stonypath in rural Lanarkshire, with extensive grounds which would eventually come to be known as Little Sparta. Here he began to work on the garden which became central to his life’s work.
The transition from writer to visual artist was gradual. As a poet, Finlay had become dissatisfied with, as he saw it, the failure of verse on the page to reflect its meaning in purely visual terms. Then by chance he found a book of Brazilian writings which exemplified “concrete poetry”, in which the look of the text on the page was as important as, if not more important than, the bare significance of the words. Many of his subsequent works have taken the form of brief poetic texts beautifully lettered, printed or cut into stone tablets, alongside sculptural pieces in which the words, if any, are used for their visual associations and evocative effect.

You can see some gorgeous photos of Little Sparta by Philip Hunter here, and there’s a nice MetaFilter thread on him from last year, which I closed with what is now an even more appropriate Finlay quote, “a little poem inscribed on a rock set into the earth”:


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World Language Phyla/Family Mapping, created by Dr. Stephen Huffman (creator also of the Unknown Language Identification page), shows samples of truly beautiful language maps (the complete maps are large pdf files).

Dr. Huffman has classified the languages of the Ethnologue into broader groupings following Merritt Ruhlen’s A Guide to the World’s Languages (published 1987, 1991 by Stanford University Press), and has produced a series of maps of language phyla and families using this classified data and GMI’s World Language Mapping System and Seamless Digital Chart of the World geographic datas sets. PDF versions of the maps [are] available for download, as are Dr. Huffman’s data and ArcGIS project files.
For additional discussion of both language classification , see Dr. Huffman’s paper describing this work: Mapping The Genetic Relationships of the World’s Languages (pdf).

Thanks, Laurent!


Having finished a long detour into American history, I’m back to Russia and finally reading James Billington’s classic The Icon and the Axe. On page 86 Billington reports that vodka “appears to have reached Russia by way of a Genoese settlement on the Black Sea, whence it was brought north a century later by refugees fleeing the Mongol conquest of the Crimea.” He continues:

It was fateful for Russian morals that this deceptively innocuous-looking beverage gradually replaced the crude forms of mead and beer which had previously been the principal alcoholic fare of Muscovy. The tax on vodka became a major source of princely income and gave the civil authority a vested interest in the intoxication of its citizens. It is both sad and comical to find the transposed English phrase Gimi drenki okoviten (“Give me drink aqua vitae”: that is, vodka) in one of the early manuscript dictionaries of Russian.

(As you can see, my laptop and I made it to Santa Barbara. It’s not as warm as I expected, but it’s sunny.)


I don’t know why, but this Irish Times article by Carl O’Brien was quite surprising to me:

From Acholi to Zulu, Ireland a land of over 167 languages
More than 167 languages are being used in Ireland, according to research conducted by academics at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
The list of languages, ranging from Acholi – spoken in Uganda and Sudan – to Zulu, was based on research with translation firms, schools and the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner.
Anne Gallagher, director of the language centre at NUI Maynooth and president of the Irish Association for Applied Linguistics, said they expected a high number of languages but were surprised at the results.
“When you ask most Irish people how many languages are used here, they expect the figure to be around 30 or 40. I expected between 100 and 130 languages. But I don’t think anyone expected 167,” she said. The languages are used by 160 nationalities. Regional dialects were excluded…
A conference on the new languages of Ireland at NUI Maynooth yesterday heard that the lack of translation services was a serious issue for thousands of migrants based here.
Mary Phelan, a lecturer at Dublin City University’s school of applied language and intercultural studies, said there was a “huge” demand for interpreters by State authorities, but little focus on the standards of translation.
In areas such as the courts, Garda stations or health services, the consequences could be serious. “People offering their services don’t always see a need for training because authorities are not looking for standards,” Ms Phelan said.

I knew in part of my mind that Ireland had very much joined modern Europe, but in another part of my mind it was a quaint land where people spoke a little Irish and a lot of English. Wake up, Hat, it’s the twenty-first century! (And thanks for the link, Trevor.)


Or, the practical importance of punctuation, at PartiallyClips.
(Thanks, Songdog!)
Incidentally, I’m flying to California tomorrow, and for the first time I’m taking my laptop (having observed that others seem to do it without incident, and reassured by the answers to my AskMeFi question), so hopefully there will be at most a day’s hiatus. But you never know, so I thought I’d mention it.


From the Spring 1998 issue of Redefining Literacy, an article by M. T. Clanchy called “What medieval philosophers understood by ‘words'”; I found this particularly interesting:

Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142), one of the first professors (‘masters’ is the medieval term) in the university of Paris, used the Biblical belief that Adam had named the animals to distinguish between the natural and the cognitive sciences:

No word (vox – ‘voice’) signifies a reality in nature; it is a construct of men. The Supreme Architect has committed the construction of language (vocum impositionem – the ‘imposition of voices’) to us, but He has reserved the nature of realities to His own disposition… So it does not seem to be due to nature, but to the custom and situation of men that division by words (divisio vocis) pertains.
(Dialectica, ed. L. M. de Rijk, second edition, 1970, p. 576, lines 34-37, p. 577, lines 13-15).

The secrets of nature are God’s business, Abelard is arguing, whereas cognitive science pertains ‘to us’ because ‘division by words’ is man-made. ‘We’ are therefore entitled to interpret texts as we think best. As the greatest logician of his day, Abelard claimed to be the master of language because logic was the science of words.

Via aldiboronti at


A LiveScience report by Robert Roy Britt describes research done by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek:

Like teenagers, babies don’t much care what their parents say.
Though they are learning words at 10 months old, infants tend to grasp the names of objects that interest them rather than whatever the speaker thinks is important, a new study finds.
And they do it quickly.
The infants were able to learn two new words in five minutes with just five presentations for each word and object, said study leader Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University. Importantly, the babies paired a new word to the object they liked best, regardless of what object the speaker referred to.
“The baby naturally assumes that the word you’re speaking goes with the object that they think is interesting, not the object that you show an interest in,” Hirsh-Pasek said…

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