I’ve learnt my lesson

[21.08.14. The following review was extracted from another entry, which I originally posted on the 4th of April 2008.]

And finished off Ancient Chinese Miniature Stories.

I must admit that these tend to be a little repetitive, viz.

The King of Chu declared that he was going to declare war on the state of Qi and that if any man opposed his plan, he’d shave his balls off with a bacon slicer. No one dared ask whether the king’s balls were for the chop or those of his critic. Wang Fujing emptied out a sack full of kittens into the courtyard. They scampered about, playing with each other or sleep­ing. The king understood. If he went to war, he could not enjoy kittens stir-fried in a wok; but if he did go to war, he’d be the kitten.

They’re also fairly short, hence it doesn’t take a long time for me to read through a hundred of them.


Deep Space Nine

[20.08.14. This post was extracted from an entry from 2008.]

Deep Space Nine, Series 2

I finished watching the second series last night. If the Dominion hadn’t made an appearance in the final episode, I probably would’ve given up on DS9 when it was first shown all those years ago. The episodes were, once again, very TOS/TNG and probably averaging about a C. There were potential story arcs such as political issues on Bajor; the election of a new kai (the Bajoran spiritual leader); and the maquis, but nothing got going because none of these stories were really Space Opera™ material. The maquis were potentially romantic as settlers defending their lands against the evil railroad company the Cardassians, but they came across as whiny nuisances.

On this occasion, I couldn’t help but note that the series seemed to be more like a Western set in space. If some new race turned up, they were farmers. If anyone went to Bajor, their dealings were frequently with, er, farmers. Obviously the writers have no idea what modern farming entails because it’s not some guy tilling the fields by hand. It’s mechanised, computerised, deodorised. All right, perhaps not deodorised. But it’s a business. And by the 24th century (or whenever this is set), you’d expect things might be a little more sophisticated. I quite like the style of steampunk, but this isn’t even agripunk, which might redeem the general ludicrousness of this conception of agriculture.

If the future is full of farmers in space, then the military are a bunch of cave dwellers. Pretty much every planetary base (secret or otherwise) is in a cave because the military always operates in hills where there are caves. I’m sure that somewhere in The Art of War, 孙子 must’ve written, “Secret bases in caves are kewl.” Now if you’re part of the resistance, you probably don’t have the money to spend on something techie, but it seems that as a rule, the military are cheap bastards. The general wants a new uniform; his troops have to live in caves.

In retrospect, it was probably clear fifteen years ago, if you considered the matter carefully, that the Trek universe needed a Russell T. Davies to overhaul it. I recall noting more than once in the reviews that I posted on my original website that a lot of the ideas for DS9 and Voyager seemed to come from The Big Book of American Clichés.

Language is descended from monkeys

[20.08.14. This was originally part of an entry I posted on the 5th of January 2008.]

That’s right, Mr Garrison.

In his entry Everyone should study linguistics, languagehat makes some observations about Robin J. Soward’s article Why Everyone Should Study Lingustics in the minnesota review. Structuralism isn’t dead if only because the terminology and concepts still survive in linguistics and, I believe, still get used in the field; but who would actually use structuralism as a linguistic theory these days? The French?

Chomskyism needs to join [Marx and Freud] on the dustheap ASAP, so linguists can get back to what they do best, studying actual languages instead of their theoretical constructs.

The language should be the horse and the theory the cart, but I’ve noticed in my time that the cart is often a square peg being hammered into a round hole.1 Most of the peg fits, but the corners don’t. You can ignore the corners or you can acknowledge them, but put them in a corner by themselves.

At the same time, it depends on what your intentions are. (It’s a who’s-your-audience issue.) If you’re describing a language for specialists and non-specialists alike, you won’t be discussing it in terms of a theory, although it’ll still be impossible for the linguist not to intrude in the description (like any author in any work; Richard Steadman-Jones’s Colonialism and Grammatical Representation [ISBN 978-1-4051-6132-9] discusses an instance of this). If, on the other hand, you’re testing a theory, the theory is the primary focus. The problem with theories is that they can be a little mesmerising. On more than one occasion, I’ve thought that a theory has resulted in a mis-analysis / misunderstanding of the data.

But that’s theory at the micro level. At the macro level, I’m reasonably convinced that the grammars of the world’s languages are all formed by flicking the right switches and pulling the right levers of Universal Grammar (UG). Do we really have the faintest idea of the reality of UG and the grammars of individual languages beyond describing the output of native speakers? I don’t think so. We know there are certain universals in languages, although their implementation varies from language2 to language. We know their are strong tendencies which look like universals to begin with, but then get disproved as new data comes to light. Nonetheless, these are features, universal or otherwise, which are observable across a range of languages which are not necessarily related to each other. How can such similarities be explained unless the human mind is a fairly uniform entity with some sort of uniform capacity for language?

Of course, it’s a little paradoxical that everyone’s grammars are really their own grammars. By and large, my grammar and that of much of the English-speaking world agrees on what is grammatical and what isn’t. There won’t be 100% agreement between any two people. When I was acquiring English, I was merely flicking the switches and pulling the levers as I saw fit. In other words, any dealings we have with any language are going to end up being how an observer sees a particular linguistic phenomenon (which gets back to the author being part of the opus). The description may be adequate, but what’s happening inside my head is another matter.3

1. Worst mixed metaphor evah. –ed.
2. Bugger! Bugger! Bugger! I’m sick of typing “langauge”.
3. I think I’m probably kidding myself if I think any of this is all that clever. I’m off to buy some DVDs, something I should’ve gone to do about an hour and a half ago.

One of them

[20.08.14. This post was extracted from an entry I originally wrote on the 24th of September 2009. Richard Hogg was one of the professors in the English Department at Manchester when I was doing my PhD there.]

Or one of us?

Language Log has picked up on Richard Hogg’s untimely death and has a link to his obit. in The Guardian. I note

One class project involved recording voice samples and playing them to unsuspecting outsiders, who were asked to assess the speaker’s person­ality.

I played a part in that once. One of the students in Richard’s class asked me to read a fairy tale which she then played to some factory workers somewhere in Manchester, who, without being able to see me, got my details utterly wrong. I ended up being a bit older than I was at the time; a lot richer; and politically so not me that I’d have to become a totally different person to fit the listeners’ ideas about who I was.

While I’m over on Language Log, I see there’s also a story called Monks and civilians. While I would typically use the word “civilian” to mean “someone who is not in the military”, I know that it has popped up in The Sopranos to mean something like “someone who is not involved in organised crime”; and I think it also occurred in one of the Godfather films where it meant the same. I’d assume that David Chase or whoever wrote that episode probably got it from The Godfather. In other words, it’s easy to see how the sense can go from the particular (“non-military”) to the general (“not a member of our group”).

Actually, I remember the dreadful Liz Hurley (yeah, I know a lot of you will be saying, “Who?”) used the word to mean “someone who wasn’t in show biz. or modelling” years back. In other words, this isn’t a new phenomenon.

Probably the word “civilian” in the stories about Burma is being used to contrast the people who are neither monks nor in the military. From the perspective of two defined groups, these people would be civilians in both the more recent sense of the word and the standard one.

A collective of bats

Batman, Bat Collective.

[18.08.14. I extracted this post from an older one which I wrote back in 2008.]

I’ve commented ad nauseam on the fairly frequent visits I get for certain topics which were merely mentioned in passing, or not mentioned at all, but used an unfortunate combination of words which then acted like catnip. Now a new one has suddenly appeared from over the horizon. I note that I’ve had several visitors of late who, I guess, want to know the collective noun for a group of bats. They’ve all ended up on my entry A flock of bats? which I posted in June 2006, but which supplied no answer. The terms such visitors are looking for are “colony” or (apparently) “camp”.

But is that necessarily right?

The point is that I wasn’t thinking about the static colony, but rather the bats as they flit around in the air. On the other hand, although bats live together, they appear to hunt as individuals. Birds of a feather flock together, as the saying goes; but because bats aren’t birds, they don’t flock. [Such impeccable logic. –ed.] I’d guess that bats probably have to be fairly solitary fliers because of their use of echo location to find their prey. If you had a hundred bats all together sending out high frequency pulses, they’d probably never catch anything because of the confusion of sounds.

It’s not unusual to see a couple of bats, but it appears to take higher concentrations of insects to attract greater numbers of them.

Mangled archaisms


[17.08.14. I originally posted this as part of a larger entry on the 26th of February 2006, but decided to extract it from that and make it a separate entry. I have dealt with the topic of archaic English more fully else­where.]

English as she was never spoke.

This one comes from Icewind Dale II by Black Isle Studios (now defunct). It appears that High Priestess Lysara must’ve been a bit drunk or stoned or both when she tried her hand at a little pseudo-archaic English.

  • Hath thee met…? Nay, thou surely would hath no breath upon entering her presence.
  • Cathin…?! Oria…?! Hast thou abandoned me? … I hath failed Thee, yet still Thee beckons me…

Most people won’t have the faintest clue what’s wrong with that little lot, so let’s have a closer look, shall we?

“Hath thee met…?” Is obviously meant to be “Hast thou met…?” I could also read the original as “Has she met thee…?”, but that doesn’t fit the context. Thou is 2nd person singular nominative; thee is 2nd person singular oblique (i.e., the complement of verbs and prepositions). Compare I and me. Hath is 3rd person singular present. In current English, we use has. Hast is the archaic 2nd person singular present form which thou wouldst use with thou, if thou didst still use it.

“Nay, thou surely would hath no breath…” For a start, it should be wouldst, but that’s nothing compared with hath for have. I’d write “Nay, surely wouldst thou have no breath…” with inversion of subject and verb after the adverb.

“Hast thou abandoned me?” Actually, it’s grammatical, but wrong number because the phrase refers back to Cathin and Oria. It should be “Have ye/you abandoned me?”

“I hath failed Thee, yet still Thee beckons me…” If this was a car crash, then the wreckage would have been mangled into a few more dimensions than the usual three. Lysara is now addressing the goddess Auril. She ought to be saying, “I have failed Thee; yet thou dost beckon me still…” The second clause might be read “He/she still beckons me to You” or “He/she still beckons You to me”, neither of which fits the context.

The forgotten army of the first world war: how Chinese labourers helped shape Europe

The forgotten army of the first world war: how Chinese labourers helped shape Europe.

An article in The Guardian this morning (First world war’s forgotten Chinese Labour Corps to get recognition at last) reminded me of this much better piece on the South China Morning Post about the contribution of Chinese labourers on the Western Front during World War One.

But just as Europe has forgotten about the Chinese Labour Corps, so too has China, it seems. Although the country did enter the war late in the day (1917), there’s been no mention of the centenary of the start of WWI, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s no mention of the war in 2017, either.

This is also one of those disgraceful stories in which the Chinese themselves are treated badly from the way they were transported to Europe via Canada to the conditions they endured and lack of recognition for their work.

The Nibelungenlied

You’re no lady, you’re my husband’s vassal’s wife.

The Nibelungenlied begins with Sivrit visiting King Gunther of Burgundy in Worms, where, good romantic hero he is, he falls in love with the king’s sister, Kriemhilt. But before he can marry her, he has to help Gunther win the haughty and powerful Icelandic queen, Prünhilt. In fact, he even has to help the king bed her because being far stronger than Gunther, she keeps tying him up at night and hanging him from a hook to stop him making a nuisance of himself. Sivrit takes takes Prünhilt’s belt and ring from this encounter, and having done as Gunther asked, he marries Kriemhilt.

Prünhilt is not happy about Sivrit’s marriage to Kriemhilt because she thinks the king has bestowed his sister on a mere vassal. It leads to the two women having an argument about who should enter church first, and eventually Kriemhilt reveals the two souvenirs Sivrit acquired, thus humiliating Gunther’s wife.

Hagen of Tronege promises to avenge this insult, and gets Kriemhilt to tell him about the one spot on Sivrit’s body that is still vulnerable because a leaf fell on his back when he was bathing in the blood which he killed. Kriemhilt helpfully sews a marker on Sivrit’s shirt so that Hagen knows where to stab him in the back. After the murder, he also disposes Kriemhilt of the treasure of the Nibelungs and sinks it in the Rhine.

Eventually, Kriemhilt is married off to the wealthy and powerful Etzel of Hungary. In spite of all the time that passes, her desire for revenge against Hagen does not abate, and she persuades her husband to invite Gunther, with whom she has be publicly reconciled over Sivrit’s death, and his men to visit her.

Hagen is opposed to the trip, but goes anyway, and learns from some water sprites that as he suspected, their journey will end in disaster.

Kriemhilt provokes the Huns into attack the Burgundians, who are ably defended by Hagen and Volker the Fiddler. She is not above letting her loyal brothers die, or sending Rüedeger of Pöchlarn to fight them even although he is one of their hosts, and Dietrich of Bern, who eventually captures Hagen and Gunther.

Kriemhilt executes the pair of them before Hildebrant cuts her down.

The epic is a mixture of elements. Some of it comes from Germanic tradition, and appears to take imperfectly remembered elements of Germanic history such as the 6th century feud between the Visigothic princess, Brunhilda, and Fredegund, the new wife of her murdered sister’s husband, Sigebert, or conflicts between the Huns and the Burgundians, or the activities of Theodoric of Verona (i.e., Dietrich of Bern), the King of Italy. In sum, there seems to be a good deal of historical conflation. Some of it comes from an oral traditional, which may explain the presence of certain continuity errors. The repeated foreshadowing of the calamitous journey to Hungary is another Germanic element, which has parallels in references to the destruction of Heorot in Beowulf.

Beside the Germanic elements, the epic also feels like a medieval romance, replete with chivalrous moments near the end of the story that heighten the sense of tragedy. The issues surrounding Prünhilt and Kriemhilt’s respective social statuses also seem to belong to a medieval rather than Germanic world.

The wealth of the Nibelungs is immense; the wealth which Gunther and Etzel have at their disposal is immense; they have huge retinues at their beck and call. The possessors of the hoards give vast sums of money away (apart from Hagen, who having taken possession of the treasure of the Nibelungs, throws it into the Rhine to spite Kriemhilt). It’s a common enough trope, although it might have be a broad hint from the poet to his audience to show their generosity for his performance. Yet the one thing that is not explained is why there is an obsession with clothing, from making sure that the heroes are well-dressed to giving away vast wardrobes of clothes as gifts. Presumably, it says something about German society at the time the poem was composed, but apart from armour exchanges in The Iliad, for example, it seems unusual to give guests clothing as a gift. Could this also have been intended to encourage the audience to reward the poet with such items?

The quality of the poem seems to vary. There are some sections which are quite fluent, and others which feel staccato such as sentences ending in “there” (e.g. Very few travelling people were found in poverty there, III.41), which got used sufficiently often to feel overused. It may be a consequence of the poetic metre, or such parts may oral rather than literary; or, indeed, some combination of both. Constant references to the disaster that would befall the Burgundians because of the argument between Prünhilt and Kriemhilt also got overused, especially in the second half of the poem. The Beowulf poet had done something similar with references to the burning of Heorot, but these were less frequent and thus less intrusive.

Many a mickle makes a muckle

Or a muck up.

In the past, I’ve observed that Chinese seems to have about half a dozen words for everything, and even quantifiers are no exception. Several compounds of 多 (duō) “many, much; more” were plaguing me this morning, and further investigation, using the Youdao translation service, only seemed to make things worse. The words in question are 繁多 (fánduō) and 众多 (zhòngduō), which both mean “numerous”, and 好多 (hǎoduō) and 许多 (xǔduō) which both mean “many, much”.

My big dictionary says that 繁多 can also mean “various”, and that 众多 also means “many, multitudinous”. It translates 好多 as “a good or great many; a good deal; lots of” and merely adds the meaning “a lot” to 许多.

The problem is that my dictionary doesn’t explain whether these words are written or spoken, formal or informal, or what their range is (i.e., do they modify the same range of things or specific groups of things with some overlap?). On the basis of circumstantial evidence, 繁多 and 众多 may be synonyms because Youdao sends readers from the former to the latter.

Using Youdao to translate phrases doesn’t help, either. I thought the rule in Chinese was that adjectives of two or more syllables usually took 的 when they preceded their noun, but this does odd things to 繁多 and 众多, viz.

繁多的猫 “a cat in a wide range of” vs. 繁多猫 “many cats”
众多的猫 “many of the cat” vs. 众多猫 “many cats”

[The Bing translator on my phone gives “a wide variety of cat” and “many cats” for the first two phrases in these pairs. On the other hand, using Youdao to translate “multitudinous cats” gives me 众多的猫. Bing also gives the same translation.]

I wonder whether quantifiers or quantifier-like words don’t take 的, or whether it’s just compounds of 多.

If I reverse the process in Youdao, and translate “numerous cats” into Chinese, I get 许多猫 “many cats” (but Bing gives me 很多猫). Would anything actually get me 繁多猫 or 众多猫 as a translation from English to Chinese? If I try to translate “various cats”, I get 各种各样的猫 (Youdao) or 格式各样的猫 (Bing), which strikes me as being closer to “all manner / sorts / types of cats” in English.

With a mass noun, I get the following:

繁多的黄油 “butter in a wide range of” vs. 繁多黄油 “various butter”
众多的猫 “a lot of butter” vs. 众多猫 “many butter”

Apart from the third phrase, I don’t know whether the rest are even grammatical in Chinese (regardless of the English translation). Again, reversing the process produces something different, with Youdao and Bing translating “a lot of butter” as 大量的黄油.

What about 好多 and 许多? As the example above showed, these seem to be used sans 的, but I’ll try both sorts of phrases.

好多的猫 “a lot of cat” vs. 好多猫 “a lot of cat”
许多的猫 “many of the cat” vs. 许多猫 “many cats”

Reversing the process again, Youdao produces 很多猫 for “a lot of cats” while Bing gives me 多猫. For “many of the cats”, Youdao returns 许多猫, but perhaps Chinese makes no distinction between “many of a whole” (e.g. many cats) and “many of a part” (e.g. many of the cats). Bing translates this phrase as 很多人的猫 and Youdao translates it back into English as “many cats”.

Again, let’s look at what happens when these words are used with mass nouns.

好多的黄油 “a lot of butter” vs. 好多黄油 “a lot of butter”
许多的猫 “a lot of butter” vs. 许多猫 “a lot of butter”

The results from Youdao are a good deal more uniform. Bing translates 好多黄油 as “quantity of butter” and the rest as “lots of / a lot of butter”. But reversing the process in either Youdao or Bing gets 大量的黄油 again.

What, though, is the generic form for “a lot of / much / many” in Chinese, which could be used under any circumstance? 许多? 多 alone? Some modifier + 多? A perusal of my sources doesn’t answer these questions.

As I said at the outset, Chinese seems to have half a dozen words for everything. The issue, again, is knowing how they are used and what their scope is, but I end this post with no definite answers.