Journalist Your Mom!

Mary Hui reports for Quartz on some linguistic aspects of the recent Hong Kong protests:

[…] One exchange that has since generated a long list of caustic variations (link in Chinese) involved a riot police officer who was caught on video swearing at a reporter (link in Chinese) who called out “Journalist! I’m a journalist!” during a police clearance operation at one of the protests on June 12.

Gei nei lou mou (記你老母)!” came the baton-wielding officer’s aggressive response. The phrase roughly translates as “journalist your mom!” The words nei lou mou (“your mom”) are widely-used as an insult in Hong Kong, and stems from diu nei lou mou, which ensures there is no ambiguity by adding diu, the Cantonese equivalent to “fuck.” […]

If the Umbrella Movement protests were defined by the character 傘 (san), meaning umbrella—but also homophonic with the word for disperse—then the fight against the extradition bill may be remembered for a single composite character combining the words 自由 (zi yau), or freedom, and 閪 (hai), a profanity describing female genitalia. The word comes from another insult used by the police against protesters, and was caught on camera (link in Chinese).

There is more detail about this (as well as images) at Victor Mair’s Log post Hong Kong protest puns; see also his more recent post Alice Mak Addresses the Hong Kong Chief Executive with Vulgar Language. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Ampoules and Vernicles.

From Barbara Newman’s LRB review (17 August 2017, pp. 29-30) of The Medieval Invention of Travel, by Shayne Aaron Legassie (which sounds like an interesting book):

Further down the socioeconomic scale, pilgrims eagerly collected the mass-produced lead badges or ampoules (flasks for holy water) on sale at every shrine. Each saint had his or her own distinctive badge. Those who sought St James in Galicia wore the scallop shell, while the ‘Rome-runner’ could display St Peter’s keys and the vernicle, or Veronica’s veil – a celebrated image of Christ. Well-travelled pilgrims pinned or sewed these badges onto their hats, like the palmer satirised by Langland:

A hundred ampoules sat on his hat,
Signs of Sinai and shells of Galicia,
And many a cross on his cloak, with the keys of Rome
And the vernicle in front, so people would know
And see by his signs which saints he had sought.

But not all badges were pious. Some were even gleefully obscene, depicting winged phalluses or vulvas in the garb of pilgrims – offering their own brand of parody on the institution of pilgrimage.

I was vaguely familiar with the word ampoule, though I couldn’t have told you what it was (you can see images at Wikipedia; M-W just takes it back to Latin ampulla, while AHD tells us the latter is a diminutive of amphora — I refuse to pronounce it /ˈampyo͞ol/, since there is no justification for the /y/); the delightful vernicle was new to me. OED (entry not fully updated since 1917):

Etymology: < Anglo-Norman and Old French vernicle, = Old French veron(n)icle, variants of veronique, < medieval Latin veronica the sudarium of St Veronica: see Veronica n.2 and compare veronicle n., veronique n. On the change of –ique to –icle see the note to chronicle n.

1. The picture or representation of the face of Christ said to be impressed upon the handkerchief or sudarium of St Veronica (see 2); any similar picture of Christ’s face, esp. one engraved, painted, or worked upon a vessel, garment, ornament, etc., used for religious or devotional purposes; an ornament or token bearing this as worn by pilgrims.

1362 Langland Piers Plowman A. vi. 14 Moni Cros on his cloke and keiȝes of Rome, And þe vernicle [C. fernycle] bi-fore for men schulde him knowe.
c1405 (▸c1387–95) Chaucer Canterbury Tales Prol. (Hengwrt) (2003) l. 685 Swiche glarynge eyen hadde he as an hare A vernycle hadde he sowed vp on his cappe.
[…]
1901 Athenæum 27 July 131/3 The vernicle, or face of our Lord, appears in the centre of the paten.
[…]

2. The cloth or kerchief, alleged to have belonged to St. Veronica, with which, according to legend, the face of Christ was wiped on the way to Calvary, and upon which His features were miraculously impressed.
This cloth is preserved at St. Peter’s, Rome, and is venerated as a relic.

a1400 Stac. Rome 59 Whon þe vernicle schewed is, Gret pardoun forsoþe þer is.
[…]
1845 J. Saunders Cabinet Pictures of Eng. Life: Chaucer 14 Thus originated the Sudarium or holy kerchief—the Veronica—and, by corruption, the vernicle.

If I ever get a chance to work it into conversation, I will.

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard.

This classic David Moser essay has been mentioned here in comments a few times, but I think it deserves its own post; it’s not only thorough and convincing (except, of course, to those who will never be convinced) but brilliantly written. It begins:

The first question any thoughtful person might ask when reading the title of this essay is, “Hard for whom?” A reasonable question. After all, Chinese people seem to learn it just fine. When little Chinese kids go through the “terrible twos”, it’s Chinese they use to drive their parents crazy, and in a few years the same kids are actually using those impossibly complicated Chinese characters to scribble love notes and shopping lists. So what do I mean by “hard”? Since I know at the outset that the whole tone of this document is going to involve a lot of whining and complaining, I may as well come right out and say exactly what I mean. I mean hard for me, a native English speaker trying to learn Chinese as an adult, going through the whole process with the textbooks, the tapes, the conversation partners, etc., the whole torturous rigmarole. I mean hard for me — and, of course, for the many other Westerners who have spent years of their lives bashing their heads against the Great Wall of Chinese. […]

Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves “Why in the world am I doing this?” Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say “I’ve come this far — I can’t stop now” will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.

He divides his argument into sections with headings like “Because the writing system is ridiculous” and “Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated”; I’ll quote in extenso from “Then there’s classical Chinese,” because it’s so much fun:
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Language Spats.

David Shariatmadari, whose linguistics-related pieces in the Guardian have been featured at LH before (e.g., here), has a random collection of accounts of dustups involving words, usage, and translation; most of them will be familiar to frequenters of the Hattery, but he writes enjoyably and has a sensible (i.e., anti-peever) approach, so the link is worth checking out. A couple of items of particular interest to me:

An interesting sub-genre of language controversy is the tiny translation error that has gigantic geopolitical ramifications. In 1956 Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev told western ambassadors at an event in Moscow My vas pokhoronim!, using a Russian idiom that means roughly “we will outlast you” – in other words, that communism would prevail in the long run. Against the background of a nuclear arms race, the English translation, “we will bury you”, took on an altogether more sinister meaning, particularly when it was splashed across the front pages of western newspapers. Five years later the Cuban missile crisis brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of nuclear war.

Of course it’s absurd to suggest that a phrase used in 1956, however much publicity it got at the time, somehow brought about the Cuban missile crisis, but that’s what journalists are paid to do (if you stick to facts, who will buy the paper?); what interested me was that the English phrase, which I had vaguely supposed was not a literal translation, does in fact represent what Khrushchev said: «Мы вас похороним» (English Wikipedia).

Richard Nixon was foxed by elaborate Japanese politeness in 1969. Prime minister Eisaku Satō visited the White House amid a trade row over textile imports. Nixon’s job was to get him to agree to restrict them. According to the New York Times, “Mr Sato replied as he looked ceilingward, Zensho shimasu. Literally, the phrase means: ‘I will do my best,’ and that’s how the interpreter translated it. What it really means to most Japanese is: ‘No way.’” When the Japanese government did precisely nothing, Nixon was furious, branding Sato a liar.

I’m curious to what extent the Japanese phrase can be construed as “No way”; my Common Usage Dictionary has “zénsho suru to manage tactfully,” but I can imagine that in practice “[I will] manage [it] tactfully” might represent a polite refusal, and I am hoping the Japanese-speakers among us can clarify. Thanks, Lars!

A Big Thick Book.

Having read a little further in Deadlock (see this post), we were again thunderstruck when we got to the part where our heroine Miriam is taking her new Russian friend to the British Museum, where he orders a book… which turns out to be the very one we are simultaneously but separately reading, my wife in English (the Magarshack translation) and I in Russian: Anna Karenina!

There he stood, Russian, come from all that far-away beauty, with German and French culture in his mind, longingly to England, coming to Tansley Street; unconsciously bringing her her share in his longed-for arrival and its fulfilments. She watched as he talked, marvelling at the undeserved wealth offered to her in the little figure discoursing so eagerly over the cumbrous volume, and at this moment the strange Russian book was probably waiting for them.

It was a big thick book. Miriam sat down before it. The lights had come on. The book lay in a pool of sharp yellow light; Tolstoy, surrounded by a waiting gloom; the secret of Tolstoy standing at her side, rapidly taking off his overcoat. He drew up the chair from the next place and sat close, flattening out the book at the first chapter and beginning to read at once, bent low over the book. She bent too, stretching her hands out beyond her knees to make herself narrow, and fastening on the title. Her anticipations fell dead. It was the name of a woman…… Anna; of all names. Karenine. The story of a woman told by a man with a man’s ideas about people. But Anna Karenine was not what Tolstoy had written. Behind the ugly feebleness of the substituted word was something quite different, strong and beautiful; a whole legend in itself. Why had the translator altered the surname? Anna Karayninna was a line of Russian poetry. His word was nothing, neither English nor French, and sounded like a face-cream. She scanned sceptically up and down the pages of English words, chilled by the fear of detecting the trail of the translator.

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Stigmergy.

I recently came across a word new to me; I’ll let Wikipedia explain it:

Stigmergy (/ˈstɪɡmərdʒi/ STIG-mər-jee) is a mechanism of indirect coordination, through the environment, between agents or actions. The principle is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. In that way, subsequent actions tend to reinforce and build on each other, leading to the spontaneous emergence of coherent, apparently systematic activity.

Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, seemingly intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even direct communication between the agents. As such it supports efficient collaboration between extremely simple agents, who lack any memory, intelligence or even individual awareness of each other.

The term “stigmergy” was introduced by French biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé in 1959 to refer to termite behavior. He defined it as: “Stimulation of workers by the performance they have achieved.” It is derived from the Greek words στίγμα stigma “mark, sign” and ἔργον ergon “work, action”, and captures the notion that an agent’s actions leave signs in the environment, signs that it and other agents sense and that determine and incite their subsequent actions.

Later on, a distinction was made between the stigmergic phenomenon, which is specific to the guidance of additional work, and the more general, non-work specific incitation, for which the term sematectonic communication was coined by E. O. Wilson, from the Greek words σῆμα sema “sign, token”, and τέκτων tecton “craftsman, builder”: “There is a need for a more general, somewhat less clumsy expression to denote the evocation of any form of behavior or physiological change by the evidences of work performed by other animals, including the special case of the guidance of additional work.”

I have several thoughts about this. It’s clearly a useful term, applicable to many kinds of things, so it’s good that Grassé created it (the OED entry, not updated since 1986, has this as its first citation: 1959 tr. P.-P. Grassé in Insectes Sociaux VI. 79   The stimulation of the workers by the very performances they have achieved is a significant one inducing accurate and adaptable response, and has been named stigmergy). It’s an ugly but well-formed word (in terms of its Greek derivation); the perceived ugliness will probably lessen as one sees it more and gets accustomed to it. The term sematectonic, on the other hand, is both ugly and unnecessary — the idea that because the Greek word ἔργον went into the makeup of stigmergy it must involve the concept of work and thus another word must be created for other uses is a typical example of the etymological fallacy, and I shake my fist in the general direction of E. O. Wilson (as I have done at other times for other reasons). At any rate, I will try to remember to make use of it when appropriate.

The Earliest Spanish.

Miriam Foley writes for BBC Travel about a repository of early Romance texts:

After a short drive uphill from the small village of San Millán de la Cogolla, I found myself standing before the Suso monastery. Founded by the 6th-Century hermit monk St Millán, the monastery feels as if it belongs to another time and place. […]

Claudio García Turza, director of the Department of the Origins of the Spanish Language at the International Centre of Investigation of the Spanish Language (CILENGUA), has dedicated more than 40 years to the investigation and teaching of Spanish at the University of La Rioja. We met at the grandiose Yuso, Suso’s larger and more majestic sister monastery located at the bottom of the hill. Both monasteries earned Unesco World Heritage status in 1997.

García Turza explained that in the 10th Century, one of the monastery’s monks began to translate sermons and prayers – all of which were written and recited in Latin, which by then wasn’t universally understood – into the local Ibero-Romance dialect for his fellow monks to understand. He left notes in the margins of the original texts. Those translation notes, the most famous of which have been compiled in Las Glosas Emilianenses, or the Emilian Glosses, are some of the language’s earliest steps onto the page. “[They] provide a glimpse into how the language was spoken all those centuries ago, in a time when most people were illiterate,” García Turza said as he leaned forward, his voice rising with excitement.

Suso’s role in the development of the Spanish language doesn’t end there. Several centuries later, poet Gonzalo de Berceo resided at the monastery, where he wrote verses that included never-before-seen terms. Recognised as the first Spanish-language poet, de Berceo expanded the Spanish lexicon by more than 2,000 words during his lifetime. […] Other early examples of written Ibero-Romance exist, including the Cartularios de Valpuesta, medieval documents containing words in Ibero-Romance found at the monastery of Santa María de Valpuesta in the neighbouring province of Burgos. […] Yet there is no doubt that the Suso monastery played a crucial role in the development of the Spanish language. García Turza called it “the house of words, but first and foremost, the house of philology”. He explained that the longest of the monk’s notes, known as Glosa 89, constitutes the first comprehensive text written in an Ibero-Romance language, where “a succession of words… are stitched together, interrelated, to convey a message.” It’s the first full text where all linguistic levels of the language are expressed – not only with words, but also grammar and syntax – providing evidence of a greater complexity.

I’m not sure why the BBC capitalizes “Century”; a UK thing, perhaps? (Thanks, Trevor!)

Sienna Miller’s Accent.

Adam Hermann’s “Sienna Miller talks nailing the Philly accent for ‘American Woman’ on Jimmy Fallon” (Philly Voice, June 15) is interesting:

British actress Sienna Miller has an accent when she talks, but it’s decidedly not something you normally hear from an eastern Pennsylvania resident. For the film “American Woman”, which comes out next week and is set in “a small, blue-collar town in Pennsylvania”, Miller had to figure out what people from around here talk like.

It wasn’t easy, because the Philadelphia accent is so dang weird, but she clearly had some help, because she kind of nailed it. Miller appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” late this week to talk about the film, and specifically about the accent she uses in the film. “It’s like a Philadelphia, Mason-Dixon-esque accent, from Philly,” Miller explained. “Pennsylvania’s weird, because the closer you get to the Mason-Dixon line, the more like, “-eau” it goes. It sounded initially a bit Southern, but it’s not.”

That’s fair! The “-eau” is definitely a defining characteristic of the Philly accent. To get a better sense of what she’s talking about, you can watch the video below, where Miller shows off her pretty-solid take on the accent […] Last year, linguistics expert Dr. Betsy Sneller talked about the Philly accent on a linguistics podcast, where she explained the Philadelphia A:

People who speak with the Philadelphia English dialect, Sneller explained, use what’s called a “split short-a system,” talking about the sound speakers make when they say a word like “trap.”

[…] Miller said she needed a few words that would help her get into the accent. She used “poster” and “boat”. The way she said these two words was a little dramatic, but we’ll let it slide.

As always, I appreciate it when they quote an actual linguist. (Via Mark Liberman’s Log post; the Philly accent previously at LH.)

Richer than English.

My wife and I are continuing to read Dorothy Richardson at night, occasionally baffled by the absence of plot and the unexplained vanishing of characters but enchanted by the prose, and we’ve gotten to Deadlock, the sixth novel in the Pilgrimage series. I was reading along as usual when I was thunderstruck by the following passage (Miriam, the heroine, is giving English lessons to a Russian named Shatov):

“[…] People are, in general, silly. But I must tell you you should not cease to read until you shall have read at least some Russian writers. If you possess sensibility for language you shall find that Russian is most-beautiful; it is perhaps the most beautiful European language; it is, indubitably, the most rich.”

“It can’t be richer than English.”

“Certainly, it is richer than English. I shall prove this to you, even with dictionary. You shall find that it occur, over and over, that where in English is one word, in Russian is six or seven different, all synonyms, but all with most delicate individual shades of nuance …. the abstractive expression is there, as in all civilised European languages, but there is also in Russian the most immense variety of natural expressions, coming forth from the strong feeling of the Russian nature to all these surrounding influences; each word opens to a whole aperçu in this sort …. and what is most significant is, the great richness, in Russia, of the people-language; there is no other people-language similar; there is in no one language so immense a variety of tender diminutives and intimate expressions of all natural things. None is so rich in sound or so marvellously powerfully colourful….. That is Russian. Part of the reason is no doubt to find in the immense paysage; Russia is zo vast; it is inconceivable for any non-Russian. There is also the ethnological explanation, the immense vigour of the people.”

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Lustucru.

Another delightful tidbit from the Public Domain Review (see this LH post):

Jé Wilson charts the migration of the Lustucru figure through the French cultural imagination — from misogynistic blacksmith bent on curbing female empowerment, to child-stealing bogeyman, to jolly purveyor of packaged pasta.

It’s an amazing story, but this is the bit of linguistic interest:

His name, Lustucru, comes from a slurring of “L’eusses-tu-cru?”, a stock phrase used in that period by theatrical fools, which meant, “Would you have believed it?” or in this case, “Would you have thought a woman’s head could be fixed?”

Once I have it spelled out for me, I can see the derivation, but I wouldn’t have guessed it, because the imperfect subjunctive of avoir is not uppermost in my consciousness. My question to actual French-speakers is: is it obvious to you that Lustucru = L’eusses-tu-cru? (I am reminded, for some reason, of the Russian phrase andermanir shtuk.)