A retrospective.

I think an ideal year would’ve combined the students and flat here with the school where I was in Beijing. That way I’d be in Beijing instead of this rather dull backwater. [Benniu –ed.] At least the school there interfered only minimally in what we were doing. Here it only takes one busybody to tell someone about something that no one, apart from us, needs to know about. I have no problem doing what I’m required to do, but I like my autonomy, and since we’re not really part of the Chinese education system, we ought to exercise our autonomy. Not every action or decision has to be referred upwards, and a culture where people can’t make decisions for themselves is likely to end up being paralysed.

Overall, it’s been another year in the programme. The Overlords still remain clueless about reality inside a Chinese classroom or how we’re really perceived, because they’re too busy persuading themselves that we’re important. We’re not. We’re still the novelty act, and we continue to fool ourselves if we believe that we really make a distinct difference to the English of the students.

When I showed Titania the results of the IELTS reading and writing tests which I gave my students every week, she persuaded herself that there was improvement. No, there was consistency with variation and that was it. And I’m seeing the same sort of thing here. Students ought to get a little better if they put the work in and listen to our wise words, but with language learning, it’s slow going; and with the awful Chinese education system weighing down on them, it isn’t easy.

A note for all you school children out there: You have to improve yourselves. Your teacher doesn’t improve for you. (Unless school league tables are involved.)

The effect of changes to the programme depends on circumstance, and we drew a short straw on that one. Be afraid of people whose lives revolve around their jobs.

Are you flipping me off?

Obviously a slow news day when you get a story about some daft, rich Jewish woman from London who’s gone and married one of the Eilat dolphins.

One out, all out.

Well, the hacks in Beijing are getting bolshie with a strike over the dismissal of the editor of the hard-hitting Beijing News. There’s a report in The Guardian about it, and EastSouthWestNorth has some info, although the entry on the latter starts with “News from within China is totally shut down”.

A later entry on this page (see about Anti below) says that the Chinese can’t comment about the Beijing News story on line. Sounds like Nanny is having one of her hissy fits again.

Upping the Anti.

On the same page at EastSouthWestNorth, there’s an update to the Anti story which I mentioned a few entries ago. His Space got nuked as did his English blog. The suggestion is that Bokee, a Chinese rival to Spaces, grassed him up to the cyber snoops.

Homer says, “Doughnuts.”

We went into town last night to have our own Christmas/New Year dinner. Afterwards, we dropped by the DVD shop opposite the bus station. I’d commented not so long ago that there wasn’t much in the way of The Simpsons available here. The shop had series eight to sixteen. I grabbed thirteen to sixteen which are the ones I haven’t seen.

They were obviously taped off the TV in the Las Vegas area and appear to have been copied first to VCD before being turned into DVDs.

17.06.13. Edited HTML, made some minor changes to the text, and added tags.


He’s an evil git

But his niece is hot.

Wafah DufourAccording to a post on the IMDb, Osama bin Laden’s niece (probably one of many) has posed for GQ to kick start her career as a pop star. The entry says

The 26-year-old hopes the daring photo shoot will put an end to speculation she condones her uncle’s violent crusade against the Western world…

Yeah, I can just hear Ayatollah Dubya saying, “So we know Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks. Do you think his niece, Wafah Dufour, condoned them?”

Well, George, it appears that the answer is no, so you can rest easy tonight.

And that’s what I tried to say last night. After a little research this morning, I discovered that the prohibited words nonsense only affects the title. My original title was I’m so gonna get fatwa on yo’ ass, girl! Probably “ass”, which means “donkey” in normal English. Perhaps “fatwa”.

17.06.13. Edited HTML and added tags.

24.06.13. Added pictorial evidence of the niece. The GQ pictures, from what I can see, are about as racy as a half-melted block of cheese sitting on a gentle slope.

Open the vents!

Pope’s head overheats.

I’ve just seen this headline over on Google News UK:

Only in welcoming God can mankind find humanity and peace.

The European world did that some time ago. But look what happened – intolerance; schisms; Crusades; Reformations; Counter Reformations; Northern Ireland; In­tel­lig­ent Design… The party never ends.

The Pope is right, of course, but not in a good way. I am reminded once again of the Borg from Star Trek.

The pain! The pain!

And then there’s this from The Scotsman newspaper (my italics; probably because it depends on how the theme renders quotations).

BRITAIN’S digital music revolution will be increasingly driven by the over-50s as the affluent “silver surfer” generation migrate their music col­lect­ions onto MP3 players, industry experts said today.

I hope that’s a more-or-less direct quote from some semi-literate record company exec and not some sub-editor letting such an abomination pass through without comment.

The correct verb is transfer. Migrate is an intransitive verb, and thus un­gram­matical in this sentence. But I predict that eventually in American English (which is the most likely source of such a usage), all verbs will be used transitively or in­trans­itively without due care and attention, and there will be no passive voice because MS Word tells people not to use it.

A couple of theories about language.

About once every 500 years, the changes in the English language ac­cum­ul­ate to a sufficient degree for the language to enter a new phase. In the early 21st century, we’re at the start of the new phase (not that we can see it, of course, since language change is an on-going process) because it’s 500 years since the start of the Modern English period. The 500 years before that was the Middle English period, and the 500 before that, Old English. Before that, we spoke various dialects of West Germanic and English didn’t exist.

Anyway, that’s my theory.

My other theory is that the Old English period is the period when the in­sular dialects of West Germanic (i.e., those spoken on the damp and fog-bound isle of Britain), became increasingly separate from their Continental cousins. In other words, the English language as a language (and not just a dialect of someone else’s language) didn’t really exist before about AD 1000.

Thinking man’s crumpet from late Antiquity.

I was doing some reading about Hypatia of Alexandria yesterday. I found a reference to her on a website about Epicurus, although she wasn’t an Epicurean. She was born in Alexandria some time in the second half of the 4th century (perhaps between 455 and 470). her father, Theon, was the last director of the museum in Alexandria. She herself was a mathematician and philosopher, and both popular and well-connected. She may have been married, but that’s uncertain.

She was murdered by Christian fanatics in 415. It was rumoured that she was preventing the city’s Prefect, Orestes, from being reconciled with Bishop Cyril. According to Socrates Scholasticus, she was taken to the church of Caesarion, stripped naked, and beaten to death with tiles. Her body was then removed to Cinaron and burnt. Although Socrates was a Christian, his account is basically sympathetic to Hypatia.

John, the Bishop of Nikiu, sensationalised the story somewhat. Hypatia is now a witch, and she was first taken to the church before being dragged through the streets until she died.

Socrates’ account may have been coloured by his attitude towards Cyril, and that may explain why Hypatia’s death has all the hallmarks of Christian martyrdom.

The account in The Suda follows the same sort of line. It mentions her beauty and chastity. It also adds a tale about one besotted admirer whom Hypatia “cured” by waving some used tampons in his face.

The version by the Bishop of Nikiu seems to be aimed at the groundlings. Hypatia is taken to the church before being dragged around the streets until she died. If she’d been murdered in the church, the church would’ve been despoiled by the blood of an unbeliever. It may also be being implied that Hypatia was given the chance to convert.

Hypatia’s death was never avenged. The emperor “was angry, and he would have avenged her had not Aedesius been bribed” (The Suda). Not long afterwards, Orestes left Alexandria and Cyril had won the day.

No one knows what part Cyril played in Hypatia’s death, but he’s unlikely to have been upset. There had been human rights violations on both sides. According to The Suda, Cyril was jealous of Hypatia’s popularity.

[H]e was so struck with envy that he immediately began plotting her murder and the most heinous form of murder at that.

But her death in this version is mere assassination. Well, it is The Suda after all.

100 Things You Never Wanted to Know about Language and Never Thought to Ask

I can tell you for a fact…

The following facts about languages and linguistics have mostly come off the top of my head. I can’t guarantee that some of what I say here hasn’t been superseded by more recent research, but I’ve tried not to allow conjecture into the list.

  1. All languages have consonants and vowels.
  2. Consonants can be subdivided into obstruents and sonorants.
  3. Obstruents comprise stops, affricates and fricatives.
  4. Sonorants comprise nasals, liquids and glides.
  5. Sonorants also include vowels, but the term usually refers to consonantal sounds.
  6. Some languages don’t distinguish verbs and adjectives as a word class.
  7. The Eskimo languages don’t have huge numbers of words for “snow”.
  8. Indo-European (IE) is the distant and unrecorded ancestor of most of the languages of Europe, some of the languages of the Middle East, and some of the languages of India.
  9. The earliest recorded language in the world is Sumerian.
  10. The earliest recorded IE language is Hittite.
  11. The earliest recorded Afro-Asiatic language is Akkadian.
  12. The earliest recorded variety of Greek is found in the Linear B inscriptions.
  13. The Linear B syllabary was designed for a language with a different syllable structure from Greek.
  14. The eastmost IE language was Tocharian.
  15. Records of Tocharian were found in the west of China.
  16. Tocharian is now extinct.
  17. The earliest recorded Germanic language is Gothic.
  18. Gothic is an East Germanic language.
  19. Gothic was still spoken in the Crimea in the 17th century.
  20. Gothic was the only recorded East Germanic language.
  21. English is a West Germanic language.
  22. The closest relative of the English language is Frisian.
  23. The earliest extant records for English are about years old.
  24. The Old English period was AD 449 to c. 1100.
  25. Modern English is the descedant of the Anglian dialect of Old English.
  26. Old Norse (Old Icelandic) wasn’t recorded until the early th century.
  27. Some word in the Salishan language, Bella Coola, are made up solely of obstruents.
  28. In Imdlawn Tashlhiyt Berber, any consonant can function as a vowel, provided it is parsed into the nuclear position of the syllables.
  29. Syllables have three parts – the onset; the nucleus; and the coda.
  30. The nucleus, or the nucleus and coda together, form the rhyme.
  31. The onset is the consonant or consonants that precede the nucleus.
  32. In some languages, onsets are obligatory.
  33. The nucleus is obligatory.
  34. The nucleus usually contains vowels, but some languages permit certain classes of consonants to fill this position.
  35. The most likely class of consonant to be found in the nuclear position is the sonorants.
  36. In no language are coda consonants obliagtory.
  37. In many languages, there are restrictions on consonants which can occur in the coda.
  38. Japanese only allows [n] in the coda of a syllable.
  39. Mandarin Chinese only allows [n] or [ŋ] in the coda of a syllable.
  40. Word-finally, Finnish only permits [l, n, r, s, t] or a vowel.
  41. In German, obstruents in the coda are voiceless.
  42. Syllables can be classified as light or heavy.
  43. A light syllable has a non-branching rhyme.
  44. Therefore, a syllable which ends in a short vowel is light.
  45. A heavy syllable has a branching rhyme at some level.
  46. Where the rhyme branches at the level of the nucleus, the syllable has a long vowel or diphthong.
  47. A diphthong is two vowels said as a single syllable.
  48. Where the rhyme itself branches, the syllable ends in one or more consonants.
  49. Syllable weight is also measured in terms of a unit of timing called a mora.
  50. A light syllable is monomoraic.
  51. A heavy syllable is bimoraic or larger.
  52. Stress assignment in some languages (e.g. English, Latin) is sensitive to quantity.
  53. Stress assignment in some languages is quantity insensitive.
  54. There appear to be only three different types of metrical structure used to assign rhythmical stress – the moraic trochee, the syllabic trochee, and the moraic iamb.
  55. The moraic trochee is a left-headed, quantity sensitive foot.
  56. The syllabic trochee is a left-headed, quantity insensitive foot.
  57. The moraic iamb is a right-headed, quantity sensitive foot.
  58. The moraic iamb is assigned from left to right.
  59. Trochaic feet may be assigned in either direction.
  60. One foot, typically at or near the left or right edge of the word, will be assigned primary stress.
  61. Stress has no one particular phonetic correlate.
  62. In some languages, stress assignment is determined by vocalic sonority.
  63. In some languages, stress assignment is determined by the properties of the morphemes from which a word is formed.
  64. If a language has only one type of obstruent, it will be voiceless.
  65. Sonorants are almost always voiced.
  66. Voiceless sonorants are much less frequent than voiced obstruents.
  67. A Sprachbund is a group of languages which share certain linguistic features.
  68. The languages of the Sprachbund are not necessarily closely related even if they belong to the same language family.
  69. English is a nominative-accusative language (just look at the personal pronouns).
  70. The nominative is the case of the subject of a sentence.
  71. The accusative is the case of the object of a sentence.
  72. In ergative-absolute languages, the ergative is the case of the subject of a transitive verb.
  73. The subject of an intransitive verb in an ergative-absolute language goes into the absolute case.
  74. Most erg-abs languages have split ergativity.
  75. In such languages, nouns follow the erg-abs pattern, but pronouns follow a nom-acc pattern.
  76. The passive voice demotes the subject of the sentence.
  77. The antipassive voice demotes the object of the sentence.
  78. The passive is found in nom-acc languages.
  79. The antipassive voice is found in erg-abs languages.
  80. SVO languages have a tendency to be left-headed.
  81. SOV languages have a tendency to be right-headed.
  82. Headedness determines where the obligatory word goes in a phrase.
  83. English and French are SVO languages.
  84. In English, unmodified adjectives usually precede nouns.
  85. In French, most adjectives usually follow nouns.
  86. The Celtic languages are VSO.
  87. Welsh, Cornish, and Breton are p-Celtic languages.
  88. IE *[kw] became [p] in these languages.
  89. Irish, Gaelic, and Manx are q-Celtic languages.
  90. IE *[kw] became [k] in these languages.
  91. Japanese is an SOV language.
  92. Some languages (e.g. Hungarian, Warlpiri) have no particular word order.
  93. Such languages are called configurational.
  94. There are about 6,500 languages in the world today.
  95. Many languages are endangered or on the verge of extinction.
  96. The IE languages are divided into two main groups called centum and satem.
  97. In the centum group, which is found mostly in the west, IE *[k] remained mostly unchanged.
  98. In the satem group, IE *[k] was subject to palatalisation.
  99. Centum is the Latin word for “hundred”.
  100. Satem is the Avestan word for “hundred”.

A Dream of Red Mansions III

Out, damn’d xiaojie!

I got through Volume III in record time because I’ve been reading it on the otherwise dull bus trip to and from town, or at the lamian restaurant while I’m waiting for my order. This volume sees the end of the eighty chapters written by Cao Xueqin and the start of the forty which Gao E wrote to complete the story.

Volume III has a darker tone than the first two. Financial problems still plague the Jia family. Life in the garden is disrupted by the introduction of outsiders, which leads to social tensions among the lower orders. Even Baoyu is not immune when his mother unfairly dismisses Qingwen, one of his maids, who goes off and dies of that most romantic malady for girls of the age, consumption.

Baoyu’s father, Jia Zheng, sends him back to school to prepare for the imperial examinations (the college entrance exam of the day).

Early in the story, Xifeng, Baoyu’s cousin (both as his mother’s niece and by marriage), was made the household manager. Because she has been desperate not to be faulted in this role, she has made herself especially unpopular with the servants. When her husband, Jia Lian, takes the second You sister as his concubine, Xifeng ruthlessly destroys the girl who commits suicide by swallowing gold. She also orders the murder of the girl’s impoverished former fiancé, but the servant, knowing better, merely informs her that the deed has been done. But the morality of her actions is never questioned.

Xiren, another of Baoyu’s servants, believing, as everyone does, that Baoyu and Lin Daiyu are bound to get married, realises that she’s destined to become his concubine. She finds the subject hard to broach to the over-sensitive Daiyu as she attempts to manoeuvre herself for the inevitable union.

Meanwhile, Baochai’s feckless gay/bisexual/utterly confused brother, Xue Pan, marries Jingui who, as he discovers during that post-marital period when you repent at leisure, is a hell-spawned virago. She mows down Xue Pan’s concubine, Xiangling, like a German machine gun at the Somme, but is thwarted by her own maid, Baochan. Xue Pan also kills a waiter, but the family pulls strings and he wriggles out of the charge.

It only seems to be a matter of time before the House of Jia comes tumbling down.

A spoonful of sugar

You know I’m good for it.

The name of the, er, medicine is 脑灵通 nǎo língtōng which seems to mean some­thing like “brain boost”. The safety signs are up at the entrances to the bike park; there’s a poster with a series of safety suggestions, including 注意安全; and then there are other posters on some of the columns. But I’m sure the manufacturers are sponsoring the posters out of concern for student safety.

25.06.13. The medicine in question was advertised in the bike park at the school. Outwardly it was a safety notice, but this stuff was almost certainly aimed at the Senior 3s. I can imagine the outrage at home if such stuff was advertised on school property.

In the building to the east of our entrance, another shop has just opened. But just to be different, this one’s selling sporting goods. All we need is a clothes shop, a branch of China Mobile, and an off licence, and we’ll have a complete set. Actually, on second thoughts, a complete set would also include a chemist’s shop (药店 yào diàn) of which there seem to be an excessive number in this town. And there the students can buy their brain boost medicine.

Meanwhile, from the Land of Literary Amusements, comes this site (via Language Log) where you can analyse the titles of books to see how likely they are to be best sellers. I threw in Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon’s anime thriller) and got a 69.0% of the title being a best seller. OK, it’s not a novel, but half the fun of these sorts of programs is seeing what happens when you experiment.

Varney the Vampyre [sic], a 19th century penny dreadful, got a 45.6% rating. Sillier still, I entered a random string of letters, made up the rest, and ended up with a 59.4% chance of a best seller. You have to enter a title, but I don’t think it matters what you actually put.

As the background discussion notes, titles of best sellers don’t always score well. A Dream of Red Mansions got a mere 10.2%, but the Chinese title (Hong Lou Meng) got 69.0%. The settings you choose can have a major effect on the outcome since my first analysis of Hong Lou Meng only got a 31.7% chance of success.

One problem I have with the program is the grammatical categories. It appears that “grammatically complete phrase” really means a grammatically complete clause.

Anyway, my best seller isn’t writing itself.

Spare some change?

There’s nothing else to do.

When the weather turned cold just recently, it seemed that there was an influx of beggars on the main street of Changzhou. I have a theory that some of them are possibly peasant farmers or agricultural labourers who, having nothing to till during the winter months, head into town for some spare change. They all seem to have the same uniform – the stout stick, enamel begging bowl, and blue Mao-suit shirt (if that makes sense).

When I was in town today, I was twice approached by boys trying to sell me hot cameras. These weren’t digital cameras, but somewhat shoddy-looking SLR film cameras that no one in their right mind would want anyway. It’d be an exceedingly dumb foreigner who’d buy one.


Archaeologists have found a 2,000 year old Mayan mural. It depicts the Mayans’ creation myth. The archaeologist who discovered it, William Saturno, found it back in 2001, but I guess it’s taken this long to announce because 2,000 years of grime had to be cleaned off it. And also it helps the sales of National Geographic.

In another archaeological discovery, humans appear to have reached Europe much earlier than previously thought. Stone tools found near Pakefield in Suffolk have been dated to around 700,000 years ago.

Darling, you were wonderful!

In spite of negative criticism of the latest series, Little Britain has won a couple of gongs at the British Comedy Awards.

Meanwhile, Chris Langham [who subsequently fell from grace for doing some teenage girl –ed.] was named Best Actor. While I was in the UK over the summer, I happened to hear the R4 programme in which he was reunited with the rest of the Not the Nine O’Clock News team. He was part of the cast for one series, but admitted that he was his own worst enemy at the time. He’s now in some comedy called The Thick of It which would appear to be Yes, Minister for the 21st century. Armando Ianucci is behind this one, so it should be decent enough.

Ashley Jensen, who plays the part of Maggie in Extras, got the Best Actress award. I saw a few episodes of the programme before I had to return to China. There’s a chance it’ll turn up here on DVD. [True, it did. –ed.]

Well, I’d better post this. The workers have been messing around in our building today and cut the power for a couple of seconds just before. No, I have no idea what they’ve been up to. Might be some more people moving into the flats upstairs.

20.06.13. Edited HTML and added tags.

A Dream of Red Mansions II

Attack of the Cylons.

I hit the end of the second volume on the bus back from Changzhou. The tale continues to meander on like a soap opera. The first part is largely taken up with a visit by the rustic Granny Liu who is out of her depth among the urban sophisticates and the butt of many jokes. The comedy, I’m guessing, has the Chinese in stitches, but in English you’re left wondering what’s so funny.

It’s then time for the Spring Festival (which means it’s the depths of winter and bloody freezing), and Baoyu and co. hold their poetry club. I don’t know whether the poetry’s much good, but it’s mostly about nature. We seem to be living in a world of prescribed subjects and rhymes. The trick seems to be to get the moon, jade, and plum blossoms in the poem as well as the odd chrysanthemum or two. The Romantics would’ve loved it.

But all is not well. Incomes are down and expenses are up. The death of an imperial concubine means that while the elders are away, a lot of jealousies flare up because of the presence of the family’s troupe of child actresses (who are little better than pampered slaves).

The great love affair between Baoyu and Daiyu remains largely undeveloped. He falls ridiculously ill when Daiyu’s maid, Zijuan, teases him that Daiyu is to be sent home. When Diayu hears about the maid’s jape, she falls ill (well, even more ill) as well. Daiyu’s now sounding so thin that she’d make supermodels look chunky.

Dr Wang: Please stand on the scales, Miss Lin.
Daiyu: I am standing on the scales.
Dr Wang: Try standing a little harder.

If you could meet anyone from history…

Chatting with figures from the past.

It’s a question that’s been asked many times before, but if you could talk to various people from history, who would you choose and why?

I think we all know that Dante would’ve chosen Vergil.

Dante [gushing]: I’m your biggest fan!
Vergil: Oh great. Another stalker. And he’s not even cute.
Dante: You’re so going to Hell for that!

Geoffrey Chaucer might’ve wanted to talk with Boethius. Or perhaps Boccaccio.

Boccaccio: D’you hear the one about the abbot and the virgin?
Chaucer: Ah, yes! When the blessed Virgin helped that abbot do the Lord’s work.
Boccaccio [rolls eyes]: Different sort of virgin, Geoffrey.

Alexander Pope probably would’ve chosen Homer and Horace.

Pope: Aren’t I just the most pretentious?
Horace: Dude, check it out! A talking spider monkey.
Homer: Whoa! And I thought I was stoned.
Pope: Why doesn’t anyone like me? I shall have my revenge!

John Dryden might’ve liked a chat with Geoffrey Chaucer.

Dryden: Here is God’s plenty.
Chaucer: Are you callin’ me fat?

What would’ve happened if Socrates and Confucius (who were almost con­temp­or­aries) had ever met?

Kongzi: Laowai! Laowai!
Socrates: I know nothing.
Kongzi: Who are you? Sergeant Schultz?

(Younger readers will no doubt be baffled by the Hogan’s Heroes reference.)

And here’s a thing. The French wrote about the Matter of Britain (i.e., Arthurian romance). The Italians wrote about the Matter of France (i.e., the legend of Charlemagne). Does this mean that the Libyans have been writing about the Matter of Italy? Thus following the chain through Africa, who writes about the Matter of South Africa? Penguins?

Hanyu Zi

Chinese characters.

I’ve tried to add Chinese characters to some of my posts, but have had no luck so far. After a little experimentation, I find that I can do it if I switch to HTML mode, and type in the Unicode values: 常州 (Changzhou). Because I’m using an English version of XP, I have to find the characters using charmap. Of course, it doesn’t matter that much because I’m not going to be writing whole entries in Chinese, but there will be times when it’ll be useful to be able to use characters.

Of course, I guess that if you don’t have some font that includes Chinese characters (e.g. Arial Unicode MS, MingLiU, SimHei SimSun etc.), then they’ll either appear as blank boxes or gibberish or perhaps not at all.

As a side note, I’ve finally tracked down what a 衙门 (yamen) is. It’s a “government office in dynastic China”. I’ve seen the word yamen used quite a few times without explanation. Since the second character is the word for “gate”, I thought it might be some particular kind of gate.

24.06.13. As I’ve probably mentioned in some later post, I worked out how to add Chinese language support so that I don’t have to trawl through charmap to find a character. However, on my machine at school, I have to use Babelmap because, for some inexplicable reason, charmap wasn’t installed.