You’ve got to be kidding me

I won’t pretend I know any better, but…

I’ve just found a book called The Sound of Meaning: Comparative Linguistics of Ancient Egyptian, Maya and Nahuatl by Charles William Johnson. I know next to nothing about Mayan or Nahuatl, and only a little about ancient Egyptian, but I’m pretty certain that absolutely no plausible connection can be made among the three of them. As the online blurb says

This book attempts to show linguistic correspondences between these languages, and posits the notion that these cultures come from an identical source language.

Correspondences, fine, but “cultures com[ing] from an identical source language”? Culture doesn’t come from language. It’s like saying the word for horse is ‘horse’ because those three sounds have equine qualities. There’s no correspondence between language and culture at a fundamental level. I could speak English and yet be completely Chinese in my outlook on life. Culture can, of course, influence language (which is where sociolinguistics comes in), but the link between culture X and language Y is completely random, just as the place where they keep your money could be called a wok if we all agreed that’s what it should be called. There’s no particular reason why it’s called a bank.

As far as I’m aware, Ancient Egyptian was an Afro-Asiatic language, related to a well-documented family of languages spoken in Africa and the Middle East. The description of Ancient Egyptian on wikipedia (which – sucks to you, Nanny – I’m reading via isn’t telling me anything unexpected about it. I knew, for example, that we don’t know the vocalism of Ancient Egyptian.

Neither Mayan nor Nahuatl have any of the characteristic features of the Afro-Asiatic languages. They don’t appear to be related in spite of their close geographical proximity. Nahuatl is Uto-Aztecan; the Mayan languages are a family unto themselves. In fact, from one description of Mayan I’ve seen, I could claim that there’s a link with Chinese.

Think about it. Qin Shihuang, the first emperor, has a tomb built in the shape of a hill (i.e., a pyramid) near Xi’an. Where did he get the idea? Egypt. How do we know? Because in ancient Mesopotamia, they had ziggurats, thus proving that the idea was transported along the Silk Road.
The Egyptians come into contact with the people of Central America, but they sail west through the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic. The Chinese, on the other hand, sail east across the Pacific. Everyone ends up in the same place and all their languages are related.

How could we have all been so foolish as to miss these facts when they are so obvious? I should write to the Minehead Gazette at once.


More film reviews

The Internet? What’s that?

I watched Perfect Blue last night. Probably about the third time I’ve seen it, although on this occasion I paid a little more attention than I had previously.

What certainly never registered with me on previous occasions was the unintentionally funny scene where Rumi is showing Mima how to get on line and explaining stuff like URLs. Mima complains that she wishes Rumi would speak Japanese because she doesn’t understand any of it. Back in 97, the Internet was already old hat so it seems odd that it should be being treated as a novelty.

I still think it’s quite a good film, although I think some of it is a little clichéd. The obsessive fan is depicted as a total freak circus; the insane stalker is a fat girl. Both characters seem to be making assumptions about the sort of people who might be obsessive fans or stalkers.

Killing me softly with his song.

I watched Gloomy Sunday tonight. I saw it a few years ago when I was in New Zealand. I think it had the world record for the longest running film or something like that. It was shown as a small art-house cinema in Christchurch and, for all I know, may still be going strong.

At the time I thought it was all right, but couldn’t work out why it should’ve been so popular (and no, I’m not overlooking Erika Marozsán in the bath). This time I was beginning to suspect it was a kind of comedy. The news reel footage of the suicides triggered across Europe by the song Gloomy Sunday was actually kind of funny.

Once again, the film gets an all right out of me, but if I don’t see it again for another three or four years, I’m not going to miss it.

Repeat after me

Winter is the dry season.

I’ve got used to Chinese winters being incredibly dry. In Beijing, you might get some snow, but otherwise it’s rare to see any rain for several months at this time of year. here in Jiangsu Province, they haven’t got with the programme. I can’t remember the last time we saw the sun. I think the cloud might’ve thinned slightly on one day last week or perhaps the week before that. It’s been raining for the past couple of days or so and seems to have got worse today.

I hate wet winters. There were days in Beijing when I didn’t like the dry ones, but I hate wet winters even more. Cold is one thing, but cold and wet is unfair. Harumph!

Tales from Lamianland

Last night, I went to the lamian restaurant slightly later than I normally do. Mrs and Mrs Lamian were having another row. Not the first time they’ve been yelling at each other. Someone had been delivering rice, I think. Mrs Lamian started yelling at Mr Lamian. Last night, it was Mr Lamian’s turn. It was rather embarrassing because it was all being done in public, but I guess it’s pissing baby syndrome.

A lot of Chinese infants wear trousers with a slit in the nether regions so that when nature calls, their parents can pick them up and allow the rest of the populace to watch. Ugh.

I suspect that the rows are about money, which, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn, is a common event across China.

The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom

Pomp and circumstance.

If you enjoyed Frasier, you’ll probably enjoy Alexander McCall Smith’s The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom which is a collection of stories about a German Romance philologist, Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, who often finds himself in situations where he is a fish out of water, but refuses to acknowledge it.

Von Igelfeld has somewhat 19th century notions about friendship, and touts his friend Prinzel as a great athlete and swordsman, although he is just as bookish as von Igelfeld. A duel at von Igelfeld’s instigation gets the tip of Prinzel’s nose inverted.

On the other hand, von Igelfeld despises his other colleague, Unterholzer, who has the knack of getting the better of von Igelfeld without trying. It is because of von Igelfeld that Unterholzer’s dog loses three of its legs, although the dog later becomes an object of religious veneration. Dr Lisbetta von Bruatheim, the dentist von Igelfeld was planning to marry, becomes Frau Unterholzer. Unterholzer is also honoured by the Portuguese government for his work on the language, much to von Igelfeld’s chagrin.

Von Igelfeld’s great claim to academic fame is his weighty tome, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which is not always treated with the respect he thinks it deserves. He rescues the library copy from relegation to storage, and learns that the copy he gave the dentist is used to boost her height.

Overall, the stories are enjoyable, but best when von Igelfeld is digging himself a deeper hole. There are times when the plot seems to lose focus and unnecessarily rambles on, a good example being the plotting and politicking at Cambridge. Von Igelfeld likes to think he is the centre of attention and needs to be kept there.

The great migration

One out; all out.

One of the many problems China has is its holidays. When the Chinese have a holiday, they all have the same holiday. The Spring Festival is the biggest holiday of the year, being the Chinese equivalent to Christmas. That means that because everyone is trying to get home to be with their families, there is this huge, annual mass migration.

For the past few years, I’ve avoided the Spring Festival altogether, delaying any travelling till afterwards. The general rule is not to go near Beijing during the week of the Spring Festival. Usually, I’ve headed to Hong Kong the week after, but this year I decided to spend a little longer in Hong Kong and experience the Spring Festival there.

I’m off next Monday, but what a rigmarole to get there. Unlike Beijing, I can’t just swan off to the airport. First I have to go into Nanjing to get the tickets, and then get to the airport. I was going to go in tomorrow and get the tickets from the travel agent, but she phoned me this morning and said she could book me a room for Sunday night since I’m off on Monday afternoon, which was nice of her.

When I got to the ticket office at the railway station, it was a little packed to say the least. I joined a queue for a window that shut at midday and got there just in time. I think if I’d tried to go to Nanjing tomorrow, I would’ve got “Mei you banfa” (basically, “No way.”). As it was, trying to get on a train on Sunday wasn’t easy either. The machine on the counter was obviously saying, “Sorry, that train’s not available”. I eventually got a ticket for the 4.40pm train. I won’t say seat, because it doesn’t look like I’m getting one.

Anyway, I’ve just tried to book into a guesthouse in Tsim Sha Tsui. Bit more expensive than I usually go for, but I’ve had enough of ratty rooms in Mirador Arcade. However, there’s no guarantee a room will be available and I may end up with the cockroaches again.

Film reviews

No cliché was left unturned.

I finally got round to watching Dark Water starring Jennifer Connelly last night. Let’s cut to the chase on this one and say that it was a clichéfest.

Mother, separated from husband, moves to new flat with daughter. New flat is in creepy, ill-lit building with creepy ill-lit caretaker with a secret. The daughter makes a new friend, the ghost of the little girl who lived in the flat above theirs, but drowned in the water tank on the roof. The ghost doesn’t want to be alone and gets homocidal when they try to leave. In the end, the mother sacrifices her life for her daughter’s and the ghost girl is happy.

I got the impression that there were two films here that weren’t well blended. One was a horror film about a lone ghost; the other was a film about the mother’s decent into insanity. Too much of the former swamped the latter probably in an attempt to mislead the audience about the true nature of the film. I thought the mother committed suicide, but we got a studio ending where the mother’s ghost gets to say goodbye to her live daughter.

The only likeable character was Tim Roth’s lawyer. I didn’t feel sympathetic towards Connelly’s character. Pete Postlethwaite’s creepy caretaker wasn’t meant to be likeable, of course. The father was kind of an angry young man where he might’ve been presented as a decent guy concerned for the safety of his daughter. The daughter was a Hollywood moppet full of wisdom beyond her tender years (as they always are because Hollywood hacks don’t know how to write dialogue for kids, and probably think it’s funny or clever to portray them as being wiser than adults).

Since I only paid ¥6 for this, I can afford not to care that I didn’t think much of it.

The party’s over.

Avalon is a joint live-action Japanese-Polish production directed by Mamoru Oshii who was behind the acclaimed anime film, Millennium Actress. Avalon may be live action, but the whole film could’ve been lifted from anime, which is clear from Oshii’s direction and the story in general.

The plot is about a virtual reality action game where things are not quite as they seem. That’s about as much of the plot as I registered. I persevered for about fifty minutes or so, and then decided to mess around on my computer instead.

One for a good night’s sleep.

I knew that was going to happen

Future unshocking.

I refer the gentle reader to the prediction I made in my previous entry about teaching next term. I must’ve been blessed with the Sight (dramatic chord). At the staff meeting today, we were told that the school had decided that the Senior 2s won’t be doing IELTS. In other words, the classes will remain pretty much unchanged. There might be some alteration to the times, but that’s about it.

Unfortunately for Katie, it’s been proposed that there should be a third class at Senior 1 level, which means that she’ll have Mrs Tiggywinkle and Colonel Broslowski on her case. If that doesn’t drive her to some sort of substance abuse, nothing will.

Past schlock.

I finished Leucippe and Clitophon on the bus back from town this afternoon. The tale belongs to that slightly represented genre, the Greek romance. The basic plot is boy-meets-girl. Their attempts to have a relationship are perpetually thwarted until finally they’re united (in more ways than one).

I’ve now read three of these things – Daphnis and Chloe, The Ethiopian Story, and this. I think that’ll be more than enough.

It’s hard to say who the readership might’ve been in the ancient world. The main female character seems to be a perpetual victim, and most of the action centres on the boy. It’s kind of like shonen/seinen anime.

The comedy never ends.

I’ve been watching the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th series of The Simpsons on DVD over the past week. Out of curiosity, I went to The Simpsons Archive, where I found an advert for the latest series available on DVD – it’s the seventh.

I’ve been enjoying The Simpsons again after I got sick of the same series (sg and pl) being repeated on Sky when I had cable. The satire has perhaps got a little sharper, if anything. Some of the characters have become more prominent such as Nelson Muntz, and the programme seems to be a little more self-referential.

If other matters hadn’t intervened, I was going to show a couple of episodes to Class 14, but I was informed by one girl that they probably wouldn’t like it because the characters weren’t attractive (i.e., like anime). I told you the natives were superficial.

And another early DVD release.

I grabbed a copy of the second series of Desperate Housewives which has just recently hit the shelves. I wonder what the quality of the copy will be like. I’ll find out – after The Simpsons.

The End of Exams

Pens down, you little bast… darlings.

The final exams for the term are now over and marked. How did the students fare? Like this:

Speaking: Good
Listening: bloody awful
Reading: So-so
Writing: Good
Use of English: So-so

It’s pretty much what I was expecting. Class 14 were a low IELTS 4.5 and Class 15 a high 4.5 shading into a 5.0. (We gave them an FCE-level exam and converted the marks to an IELTS equivalence. 4.5 is in the upper intermediate range.)

Term isn’t quite over. We found out this morning, however, that we won’t be doing any more teaching this term. Not that we were going to. Those three lovely letters – D, V, D – were dancing before us in their flimsy attire, flirting naughtily through light, silk night apparel… Ahem!

Anyway, I have to write some sort of report for the headmaster. I have no idea what I’m meant to say.

Dear Headmaster,
If the only active students are removed from my class next term to do IELTS preparation, I’ll end up talking to my hand.

We don’t know what we’re actually going to be doing next term. The original idea was that Senior 2 should do IELTS, but I think they had to get at least a 5.0 in this exam. Out of our classes, potential IELTS students will probably number about sixteen, with a few possibles who might be considered. But that excludes the majority of the students.

My prediction is that we’ll continue teaching Cambridge English for Schools and we’ll move onto Book 4. The question is whether the potential IELTS students are allowed to choose what they do, or are told what they’ll be doing. I think it’s unlikely that James and I will be teaching IELTS preparation, but only time will tell.

One is the easiest number to vote for.

The contest to find a replacement for Charles Kennedy appears to be a non-starter because it appears no one wants to run against Menzies Campbell for the job. The more interesting story seems to be about those who plotted against Kennedy in the first place.

Kennedy denounces plotters – pp. 2, 3, 4, 5
Sir Menzies Campbell to lead Lib Dems – Additions and corrections, p. 85

Testing… testing…

Could we be more important?

It’s the end-of-term exams for our students at the moment. We’ve already been doing speaking exams with them.

We’ve known about the exams for some time, of course, and informed the school some time ago. Everything’s been scheduled and all the relevant people informed. All we need to do now is start the show.

Now how many of you thought it’d be that simple?

The students have one of the big exams this afternoon, but that’s had to be moved to a different time because of some school exam which seems to have popped out of nowhere. It could well’ve. The notion of scheduling things a decent length of time in advance is unheard of here. Fortunately, the exam is now earlier, although it follows straight on from this afternoon’s speaking exams.

The students from Class X (a sort of awkward rump of kids from various classes who are in our programme) were meant to have done their listening test yesterday afternoon. Since this can be done in class time, there was no need for special arrangements to be made.

Did it happen?

Bollocks it did. Most of them had some other test at the same time, so it’s now going to happen on Friday.

I told you we were important.

Alas, poor… Oh, is that Mozart?

Story in The Guardian about DNA tests being done on a skull in Austria to determine whether it’s Wolfgang Amadeus M. But if it is, what happens to it next?

Researcher #1: So it really is Mozart’s skull.
Researcher #2: Yeah. [Slight pause.] Mozart’s skull.
Researcher #1: I suppose we should do something with it.
Researcher #2: I guess. Like what?
Researcher #1: Well, you’re always complaining about the papers on your desk being blown around. Why not use it as a paper weight?
Researcher #2 [shocked]: The skull of one of the greatest composers in the world as a paper weight?! [Slight pause.] Yeah, why not?
Researcher #1: Not like he needs it back.
Researcher #2: I know. Couple of small speakers in the eye sockets wired to an MP3 player – the Mozart stereo skull. Think of the money we could make from merchandising.
Researcher #1: Seriously?
Researcher #2: How else are we going to cover the cost of all those DNA tests?

Proof positive that Mozart’s the composer who just keeps on giving.

A Dream of Red Mansions IV

Maximum body count.

So ends A Dream of Red Mansions.

This volume is about the ruin of the Jia family; the deaths of Lin Daiyu, the Old Ancestress, Xifeng, and various others; and the loss of Baoyu’s jade.

The family’s shaky state is made worse when a disgruntled toady contrives to get the estate raided by imperial authorities after he fails to get the favours he was hoping for out of them. In truth, they were unable to oblige.

The loss of Baoyu’s jade results in the loss of his wits, and the senior mistresses use his state to trick him into marrying Baochai who they consider to be a more suitable bride than Daiyu. When Baoyu eventually regains some of his wits, his thoughts often turn to Daiyu. Eventually, his jade is returned and his understanding with it. He takes the imperial examinations and comes seventh, but his divine personality is reasserting itself and he turns his back on the world.

After the raid on the family estate, the Old Ancestress goes into a decline. She does what she can to shore up the family’s finances before she dies. Xifeng is wrongly accused of mismanaging the funeral, but the money which the old lady had put aside is not issued and Xifeng is unable to do anything about it. The strain causes further internal haemorrhaging (another popular fate for Chinese women of the age, it seems). Not long after Concubine Zhao goes mad and dies.

Eventually, the family fortunes are restored after the emperor recognises their meritorious service to the empire and re-examines the contrived case against the Jias.

What annoyed me about A Dream of Red Mansions was the society. It reminded me of medieval literature such as The Nibelungenlied in which the etiquette of social relationships plays a major role. Many of the incidents in the story are based on misunderstandings because the rather stultified society prevents, say, Xifeng from explaining that it’s not her management of the old lady’s funeral that is at fault, but rather the failure of others. But neither author appears to have any critical view of it. Baoyu is not interested in a future as an imperial functionary because he’s the incarnation of a divine being.

I guess that’s Baoyu’s story. The incarnation of the divine being is distracted by his girl cousins and maids in the garden. His divine essence eventually reasserts itself. But since neither author seems to be critical of the society about which they are writing, I’m not certain whether, for example, this represents a call to reject the temporal in favour of the spiritual, which is one of the themes of medieval European literature.

And that’s the end of the four classic Chinese novels.

Of the four – Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, Outlaws of the Marsh, and A Dream of Red Mansions – I have a preference for this one, but that’s not saying much.

Three Kingdoms loses audience share once the original protagonists have died. Journey to the West is boringly repetitious because it’s an episodic collection of market tales. Outlaws of the Marsh turns into Three Kingdoms, but probably has the most interesting characters. I also think the story is interesting for what it doesn’t say, or fails to say about the relationship between the outlaws, their territory, and the central government.

Next up, Leucippe and Clitophon.

17.03.13. Edited HTML, made minor alterations to the text, and added tags.