Two from the Log.

A couple of Language Log posts interesting enough I thought I’d share them here:

1) Korean Romanization

Victor Mair says “I can’t think of another language in the world where the Romanization situation is more chaotic than it is for Korean. There are seven schemes in common use…” and goes on to explain the merits and demerits of each. As someone who never studied the language and has often been confused by the ways it’s transliterated, I found it helpful.

2) R.I.P. Daniel Kane (1948-2021)

Kane is one of those remarkable people I wish I’d known. From the Sydney Morning Herald obit:

At his primary school in 1950s Melbourne, Danny Kane would ask the kids from Italy, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere how to say things in their language. He became quite fluent in Italian and picked up Latin from the liturgy at church, pursuing it formally in high school along with French. […]

He got a job as a teller in a bank on Lygon Street, Carlton, the heart of Melbourne’s Little Italy where he found himself speaking Italian all day with customers, and occasionally French, and was also on the way to fluency in Spanish.

As he recalled in 2019 in an interview with the Australian National University’s Annie Luman Ren, “someone from the university came in one day and we got chatting in Italian, and he said to me, ‘Why are you working at a bank?’ And I said, ‘Oh, it pays the bills.’ To which he said, ‘Why don’t you go to the university?’ For me, university was where people go to become doctors or lawyers. The person said, ‘Come to my office and we will talk about it.’ He turned out to be the dean of the arts faculty.” […]

He graduated with first-class honours and was offered a PhD scholarship by the ANU. For his thesis he wanted to write something about the history of the Chinese language, including its lost predecessors. He was steered into a study of the mysterious Jurchen and their language, showing they were forebears of the Manchu, who came to impose China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, which is now the subject of a wave of exploration in Chinese popular culture.

On finishing his doctorate, which became the basis of a widely commended book on Jurchen, Kane was sought by the Department of Foreign Affairs for the embassy in Beijing. He arrived in 1976 as third secretary and was given the first six months to learn “political Chinese” and the meaning of slogans like “Destroy the Gang of Four”. He did a course in Chinese literature at Peking University and worked for a spell in a factory. After this immersion, Kane was at ease interpreting for his ambassador, Garry Woodard, and visiting Australian ministers at meetings with Chinese leaders. […]

Kane’s heart was in scholarship and the company of fellow experts in the languages of the world. After his embassy posting ended in 1980, he returned to academia at Melbourne University, pursuing his hunch that the Jurchen were linked to an even older people, the Kitan, a nomadic people who lived across a vast area of what is now northern China, Mongolia and the Russian Far East from roughly the 4th to the 10th centuries AD.

Working from rubbings found in the late 19th century from a stone tablet at the tomb of Empress Wu Zetian (624-705 AD) which turned out to be parallel texts in Chinese and Kitan – a kind of Rosetta Stone – Danny Kane began to decipher the Kitan script. […]

“When a language becomes dead or is going to die, it becomes simplified,” he said. “You see it in languages like Manchu. Let’s say, for example, that in classical Manchu there are a dozen or so words for ‘cup’, such as chalice, goblet, pannikin, et cetera. But, by the end of the Qing dynasty, people have forgotten the other terms; they just know the one word, ‘cup’.”


  1. John Emerson says

    Jurchen was not exactly a “lost predecessor” of Chinese, and the links of the Jurchen to the Kitan were not really mysterious and were mostly historical and geographical. But I’d love to see something on Jurchen or Kitan script, which I as I remember was (like Mongol script) derived from Aramaic via the Persian empire, Sogdian (perhaps), and Uighur.

  2. I just ran across this piquant story about one of my favorite historians/critics of Russian lit, Gary Saul Morson, in the NYRB newsletter, and it seems to fit with the Kane obit: “Born in the Bronx, Morson had initially planned to study French, but due to a blizzard he arrived late for his entrance exam and failed it, leading him to take Russian instead.” The hand of fate!

  3. Neither “chalice” nor “goblet” is in my active vocabulary (except perhaps in the fixed phrase “poisoned chalice”). I’m not sure I have ever encountered “pannikin”. Does that mean English is a dying language?

    The obit’s author falls into the common journalistic trap of exaggerating the novelty of facts that are in fact new only to them. The early stages of the Jurchen language are indeed poorly documented, and Kane deserves praise for his work on a very difficult subject. But there is a standard history (albeit with a somewhat poor reputation) covering the period of Jurchen rule over northern China (1127-1234), so to talk about “mysterious Jurchens” is rather odd.

    Kane’s contribution was definitely not in showing that the Jurchen were the forebears of the Manchu, a fact well known in East Asia starting in the seventeenth century (when “Manchu” was first recorded as an ethonym). The connection was sufficiently familiar in the West that it was mentioned in the 1957 Encyclopedia Britannica, although “Jurchen” seems to have been quite rare in English before ca. 1960. I’d be interested to learn more about when the connection between the Jurchens and the Manchus became better known outside East Asia. It would take a deeper dive than I have time for right now, but I would be very surprised to learn the Jesuits at the Qing court failed to find out at least this much about the rulers they were hoping to convert.

  4. Well, in this case the author is “a collective of Daniel Kane’s friends,” so one can expect even less accuracy than usual.

  5. John Cowan says

    But I’d love to see something on Jurchen or Kitan script, which I as I remember was (like Mongol script) derived from Aramaic via the Persian empire, Sogdian (perhaps), and Uighur.

    That applies to the Kitan small script graphically speaking, but structurally it is like Korean, with both logographics and syllables written in syllabic chunks. In any case, Jurchen script descends from the very different logographic Kitan large script, which is graphically derived from the clerical/official style of Chinese characters used in late Qin and early Western Han, but with unrelated meanings, mostly not known.

  6. I can understand how Romanization would be hard for a complex phonology like that of Korean. Now, if you took a really simple phonology, like in Tahitian

  7. John Emerson says

    Are there books available about Jurchen and Khitan scripts. (I actually have a couple on the Xixia script, though I’ll never really read them.

  8. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @DMT, with the large pinch of salt required of a non-native speaker, I believe “chalice” is the only term in current use for the liturgical vessel holding communion wine, at least in the Catholic Church and probably in most other episcopal churches too.

  9. John Emerson says

    We now have cup, glass, mug, beaker, and stein, some compounds like stem glass, and others I’ve forgotten. The original list was highly literary.

  10. Bathrobe says

    Another recent one from the Log is “Lying flat” and “Buddha whatever” (part 2), which refers to the vogue word 佛系 (“Buddha-like”).

    The last three comments on the thread are essentially from me as I try to untangle Prof Mair’s etymology of the term, which is basically wrong. He was misled by the “magisterial” Wikipedia article he linked to and Nathan Hopson’s comment at an earlier post.

    My conclusion: 佛系 was not borrowed from Japanese at all. It is faux Japanese created by a Chinese speaker. Any comments or rebuttals welcome.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Mair’s dismissive summary of your argument at 10:17 pm, culminating in

    Mind you, this is only a theory (although I think it’s probably right). I haven’t backed it with research into sources

    is unfortunately characteristic, and emblematic of the reason I rarely visit LL since it became essentially the Victor Mair Show. He don’t listen.

  12. Sad but true.

  13. No, I wrote that in an email “conversation” between us. Prof Mair wouldn’t have put that up if he didn’t feel that what I wrote had some worth. You will notice that he ignored my comments previous to that, obviously thinking that they were irrelevant.

    At that comment I wanted to clarify that I was writing based on my own knowledge of Chinese and Japanese and intuitions as to what had happened, not on hard evidence. However, I still think I am right, especially when compared with Nathan Hopson’s comment that 佛系 seems to have come from Japanese and the extremely misleading Wikipedia article.

    (At an earlier comment I also referred to a short Japanese article from the Internet, which had its own mistakes, e.g. misinterpreting Chinese 出家 as ‘get married’ instead of ‘become a monk’, plus my misinterpretation of the sentence on eating the same lunch as yesterday, which didn’t actually mean eating leftovers — an error that arose from my own lifestyle.)

  14. When I see Language Log posts in my RSS feed, I usually just breeze by them if I see they were authored by Victor Mair. Unfortunately, as we have all observed, these now predominate at the site.

  15. I don’t mind Mair at all when he deals with linguistic matters in China. He has some strong biases but he does deliver a lot of new developments in Chinese, which he often gets his Chinese students to comment on. If you don’t live in China or read the Chinese press/Internet you probably won’t hear much about these things, so Mair’s posts are invaluable.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Onɛ kut mi’ zugub.
    “The smith knows how to work the bellows.”

    Bathrobe’s opinion is more informed than mine.

  17. John Cowan says

    Unfortunately, as we have all observed

    I in fact have not observed any such thing, because I abandoned reading LL long before, with the exception of posts like these two that are linked from here.

  18. @Giacomo Ponzetto:
    You are probably right about that, but I was talking about my active vocabulary (as a non-Catholic). I so rarely have occasion to talk about communion chalices that I doubt the correct term would have come to mind — I would probably have called it a “communion cup”, although after looking it up I now know the latter term refers to something different.

  19. Tangentially related: Is there a name for this phenomenon:

    Etymology 1
    simp. and trad.

    alternative forms 無/无
    冒 Xiang
    From 無 (MC mɨo, “to not have”), fused with 有 (MC ɦɨuX, “to have”)
    1, (dialectal Mandarin, Cantonese, dialectal Gan, Hakka, dialectal Wu, Xiang) to not have; to not exist
    2. (dialectal Mandarin, Cantonese, Xiang) have not; did not (do something) (indicating non-completion of a verb)

    Is it fusion? sandhi? or something else?

    Are there similar words in Yue?

  20. 無+有 > 冇 is basically the same process as “is”+”not” > “isn’t”, so you could just call it a contraction. If you want to call it something else, it would depend on what sort of argument you were trying to make.

    Another very common example in Cantonese is 唔係(m4 hai6) > 咪(mai6) “is not”.

  21. Thank you very much!

    A similar development can also be seen in Estonian:

    Contraction of ep ole (Modern: ei ole). ep is the old 3rd person singular form of the negative verb.


    Alternative form of ei ole (= not + be)

    Often in ‘pole midagi’ and ‘pole viga’:

  22. I’ve recently bought a few bunches of chive garlic and looked for new ways to use it.

    But first, I looked it up in the Wiktionary:


    The neologism sense comes from the fact that garlic chives are able to regrow after their part above the ground is cut off.

    (Pinyin): jiǔcài

    韭菜 (1)

    1. garlic chives; Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum)
    2. (Mainland China, neologism, figuratively, Internet slang) someone who can be repeatedly deceived and exploited, especially by the government or the stock market; dupe; shitizen
    割韭菜 ― gē jiǔcài ― to reap the people

    (Here, it’s called джусай, as simple as that.)

    And here’s a Korean recipe:

  23. A recent Mair post, Notes on Civility, quoted by me with a sigh of regretful exasperation:

    If you have something worthwhile to contribute, say it courteously and cordially. There is no need to be gratuitously snarky. That does not contribute to the smooth, productive flow of discussion.

    Be respectful.

    Do not be repetitive.

    Do not harp on some private hobby-horse of your own.

    Be aware that your reputation on Language Log will follow you elsewhere. Realize that your behavior on other internet fora is known to the denizens of Language Log. The World Wide Web is mercilessly unforgetful.

    These are the sorts of things I learned in my junior high school Civics class — how to be a good citizen.

    If I ever get like that, just put me out on an ice floe.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    Be aware that your reputation on Language Log will follow you elsewhere

    That explains the odd looks I keep getting at the supermarket.

    Do not harp on some private hobby-horse of your own

    What?! it’s the entire purpose of the Internet!
    I’m also (for some reason) reminded of the Hausa proverb Wanzami ba ya son jarfa “The tattooist doesn’t like being tattooed.”

  25. David Marjanović says

    Day saved.

  26. @Hat A recent Mair post, Notes on Civility, …

    The thing is, I’m completely in the dark as to who’s or what comments has triggered this reminder.

    (There is a peever who loses no opportunity to pick up U.S. vs Brit usages or alleged neologisms, nor to tell all how antediluvian he is — is he the target?)

    I posted many substantial comments to a topic that piqued my interest — it was a guest post, sponsored by VHM. I noticed the comments later had been editted — no notification to me as to by who or why.

    One of the disappeared comments was (for full disclosure) observing that some ‘authority’ I’d quoted seemed to have views unsupported by the mainstream opinion. Their papers included lengthy diversions on why everybody else had totally misunderstood some point — despite him telling them several times. That’s a familiar symptom from ‘hobbyist’ research, that I thought readers should weigh in mind.

    _If_ it’s me that VHM is getting at, and _if_ it was that comment, I don’t see which rule I’ve transgressed. (VHM has my private email: an off-forum reminder would have been more effective.)

  27. I have no idea what set him off, if indeed it was any particular comment; it perfectly expresses his general attitude, which is that of a professor who’s so used to being the fount of all wisdom that he perceives any disagreement as “gratuitously snarky” and disrespectful, while being “a good citizen” means writing down and memorizing what he says. The amusing thing is that he himself is endlessly repetitive and constantly harping on “some private hobby-horse” of his own. He feels free to delete comments that to his mind don’t “contribute to the smooth, productive flow of discussion” — i.e., don’t agree with him. His ideal is the precise opposite of the lively conversation I enjoy here at the Hattery.

  28. LL aside, what you’ve been running here, and how you’ve managed contrarian speech, are without peer anywhere that I’ve seen, certainly in the present time. I’d love it if all internet discussion forums were as good as yours, but it’s a very high standard indeed.

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