I’ve been trying to say this all week

How weird is that?

I’ve been trying to write this entry all week, but getting nowhere.

Our starting point is whether English is a remotely normal language. Of course it’s a natural language because it has a body of native speakers and is successively acquired by new generations as part of a natural process of language acquisition. Conlangs, on the other hand, can only approximate to natural languages if that is the intention of their creators.

But how normal is English?

The idea of markedness comes from the Prague School. If there’s a binary opposition, then of a pair one is more preferred (unmarked) and one is less preferred (marked). Thus voiceless obstruents are unmarked compared with voiced obstruents. Some languages only have voiceless obstruents. On the other hand, voiced sonorants are unmarked. In fact, voiceless sonorants are much rarer than voiced obstruents.

If we look at what is marked or unmarked cross-linguistically, would English diverge more from the norm, less from the norm; or do languages not show a sufficient range to ever have more than their share of marked structures? English could well be more marked with respect to one part of its grammar than others. British English and related dialects have a low back rounded vowel in hot (marked) and a mid-low back unrounded vowel in hut (marked). Syntactically English is a VO language, but like the other Germanic languages we prefer [Adj N] to [N Adj] which is often found in other VO languages.

(It should be noted that these are observations about tendencies. Marked structures are found less frequently, but they’re there. There’s nothing to stop a VO language having OV features, perhaps because the language is in transition. Mind you, [Adj N] has been in English since forever and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere; but the moment the adjective takes a complement, it follows the noun [e.g. clothes ready to wear].)

Of course, there are also areal similarities in the world’s languages. The languages of Western Europe (apart from Basque) tend to have minimal nominal inflection, a little more verbal inflection, and a preference for SVO word order. As you move into Eastern Europe, the amount of inflection increases and with the Uralic, Altaic, and Turkic languages you start getting agglutinating. By the time you get to the far east of the Russian Federation, things are getting polysynthetic, which then continues on the other side of the Bering Straits. (Yeah, I know. This is all a little simplistic.)

Compared with the languages at the far end of this “continuum”, English is weird indeed.

And so, by perverting (verbal adverb) logic, I can say that my original hypothesis was correct. English is not remotely normal, but when you’re near it, it is.

[Dude, you give me a headache. -ed.]

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Fandian are convenient

Not another one?

I think it was as we set off for Changzhou yesterday afternoon that I noticed that another little diner has opened in the line of shops to the east of the entrance to our block of flats. (Actually, there is no line of shops, but what will be a line of shops eventually.) This is the fourth “restaurant” so far.

When we got back from town last night, I went and had a look at the menu. From what I could understand, they had hamburgers, so out of curiosity I tried one for lunch today. The place appears to be run by a young couple who don’t look much older than the students I teach. I’m guessing it’s meant to be offering Western-style food (with Chinese characteristics). The meat for the hamburger was sitting in a heating cabinet on the front counter. As a result, it was tough and dry.

I also ordered a chocolate drink, but this came with small dark-coloured balls of an unknown material. My guess would be that they’re like the sweet dumplings have during the Mid Autumn Festival, but they were utterly flavourless. They also explained why I was given a fat straw.

I think the proprietors were concerned that things were OK, and I said, “Hao chi” (Good to eat/Tasty) not because the hamburger was, but because I was trying to elicit that that was what I was being asked. After I’d eaten, I used my phrasebook to write that the meat was overcooked and very dry.

Just as I don’t think I’ll be returning to the diner on the corner, I probably won’t be going back for hamburgers at this new place. I’m not sure it’ll do particularly well because it’s not close enough to the factory or the school. Also, although the Chinese are eating more Western food, they almost certainly prefer KFC or McDonald’s to some home-grown outlet.

Supplementary Questions

The drones of the future.

The kids at the primary school displayed one other characteristic of Chinese school children. Even at that age, they are parroting what is said to them without thinking about it. The one time I’ve had the misfortune to observe a Chinese, the students sat mumbling at their books. The teacher would then select one or two to recite what they’d just read, and ask a couple of questions to which the students would mumble answers as a group. But overall, I couldn’t tell whether the students had actually learnt anything.

I’m told that the kids at the primary school drove Laurel batty because they repeated everything she said.


I’ve finished writing the reports, although it’s all a matter of filling in boxes with numbers which refer to comments at the back of the book. I don’t think the comments have been well thought out, though. A couple of the general comments (which should be general) have “recently” in them, which scarcely makes them general.

Of the general comments, only 2. and 5. get much airtime. None of the students have shown any significant improvement; none of them have lost focus (because quite a few never had it to begin with); and almost none are absent. 

The overlords believe that we’re doing speaking, listening, reading, and writing. In  reality we’re doing the usual mélange. Most of the students don’t speak and you can’t hear them when they do. They never listen (but that’s another kind of listening). They don’t particularly like reading. They hate writing. The tests in the book test what they’ve learnt in a theme, whereas what we really need are mini-IELTS tests to measure their proficiency.

As for the comments on attitudes and values, you find yourself using them as code. For example, (Name) is a pleasant student who works well in class means “Anonymous; doesn’t make a nuisance of himself/herself in class, but doesn’t participate much either”, whereas (Name) is easily distracted in class and must focus on completing more of the work set, if progress is to be made means “Extremely evil, disruptive little bastard”.

Why do I not write my own? Because they’d also be a set of fixed comments. Students fall into three groups – the few who are interested; the many who are indifferent, but not a problem; and the rest who are indifferent and are a problem.


Meanwhile, for the past two weeks a massive benzene spill has been travelling up the Songhua River towards the city of Harbin in Jilin Province. I first found out about that a couple of nights ago when I was in the lamian restaurant. The local news was on and there was a lengthy item about the story. Of course, all I knew was that there was a problem to do with water in Harbin and people were buying several boxes of the stuff.

I saw the story on the front page of China Dully the next day, and have been reading  more about it on The Guardian’s website and via EastWestNorthSouth blog.

That it’s taken this long for the story to become public contrasts with the relative openness in reporting bird flu here, although that wouldn’t be happening if the government hadn’t made such a mess of the SARS crisis.

20.06.13. Mainly edited because of the odd formatting. Added tags.

Ugh

New term approved for describing one of those Thursdays.

Normally Thursday doesn’t start well because the classes are first two periods, which means getting up early. After that, I return home for breakfast before going back over to the school to deal with the coming Senior 3 classes with Mrs Tiggywinkle. Often, but not always, the morning is finished off by typing up a lesson plan (once again, just because I know where the on-switch is on a computer, I get to be the typist). And after that, the day is free. Normally I head into town and have lunch at Mian Ai Mian before buying a few more DVDs and returning home.

Normally.

Things started normally, but as Mrs Tiggywinkle and I are talking about Senior 3 and cloze tests for them, a couple of girls come into the office with a note wondering whether I’m going to be going to their class. I’ve completely forgotten that there’s still Laurel’s Senior 1 class to deal with. It’s nothing strenuous. The class is watching a somewhat lame DVD about a couple of tiger cubs. It’s the sort of film you’d show eight year olds, but that’s about where the Senior 1s are at.

And there’s worse to come.

This is my week to go to the primary school. I haven’t heard anything good about the classes at the primary school and no one wants to go. Laurel hated it intensely and managed to wriggle her way out of going with her alleged viral pneumonia. I’m grateful that I was never on the roster for the primary school. It’s bad enough teaching teenage school children, but seven and eight year olds? Yikes!

We’re carted off at 1pm which doesn’t give me any time to be casual about lunch. I’ve actually been past the primary school on one of my adventures around the town. The children are small and highly excitable. Possibly they’re all completed stoned on sugar.

We start with Grade 1. Their knowledge of English is almost non-existent and their ability to conprehend language from actions similarly non-existent. If you say it, they’ll repeat it. And about all you can do is repeat the same thing over and over again. Today’s phrases were “Stand up please”, “Sit down please”, “My English name is…”, and “Raise your hand please”. About all I’m doing is going round the classroom saying one of the phrases, and then getting the children to repeat it. They all want me to say their English names. At times the class turns into an informal version of “Simon says…”

Then it’s on to Grade 2. They’re slightly older, but have fewer clues. I go round saying “Stand up please”, but unless I gesture, they won’t stand up. And when I say “Please sit down”, they still say “Please stand up”. They have no real idea what I’m saying. More informal “Simon says…” I try to get them to write their English and Chinese names on a piece of paper and decorate it, but that gap between showing and not copying is insurmountable. In the end, I draw a flower and a house and they copy the picture. It’s quite likely that the whole class will now think their English names are mine. (Is mine?)

It has to be said that we are wasting our time at the primary school. These kids are still learning Chinese, and acquiring it. They have no idea what we’re saying to them. They know (as everyone in China does) “Hello” and “Bye bye”, but the rest to them is just blah. None of us are trained to deal with non-native speakers of this age, and they’re far too young to be instructed by foreigners.

As a group, they can be incredibly loud. Some of the boys were shouting their answers, but unlike the little darlings that I usually teach, many of the children were keen to respond to me. The other thing I have to note is the terrible dentition. One boy had a few pointy spikes for teeth; another may have had a pair of false front teeth; another had one front tooth that had failed to erupt through the gum. The gum was just bulging.

Eventually we escaped, but back at school there was a pile of reports waiting to be filled in. This is, fortunately, reports by number. It’s a pity that the corresponding statements haven’t been well considered. In the end, I’m trying to give the most reasonable assessment that I can. I finished the reports for the dim class and came home to have a quick shower.

Today is Thanksgiving in the States, celebrating the invasion by a bunch of religious fanatics of someone else’s country. It sounds an awful lot like Ayatollah Dubya and Iraq. James and Katie suggested that we should go into Capioca which is a Brazilian restaurant (with Chinese characteristics).

While we’re eating, some more foreigners come into the restaurant and are seated at the table next to ours. The next thing we know, Katie realises that one of the two guys sitting at that table is the brother of one of her school friends. Changzhou is not a place where any foreigner would go unless they were sent there, so the odds of this particular meeting are staggering.

It was nice to have food that wasn’t rice and didn’t involve large amounts of liquid.

Well, it’s been a long day and there are [morally and spiritually uplifting websites –ed.] to visit before bedtime.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Do panic.

I could’ve bought The Hitchhiker’s Guide probably the week after it was released, but I usually avoid the early DVDs because they’ll be cinema taped and the sound track will be a bunch of barf.

I’d already heard that The Guide wasn’t exactly critically acclaimed, which was partly why I delayed buying it for this long. I enjoyed the first book, but the subsequent volumes got progressively worse. The TV series was cheap and cheerful, as you’d expect out of the BBC. The radio series was boring, I thought.

The film follows in the great tradition of the TV series. It looked cheap. Most of the budget probably went on John Malkovich’s brief appearance and a couple of special effects. But I thought the Vogons looked much better. Ah how prosthetic make up has advanced in 25 years.

I spotted the original Marvin the Paranoid Android well before we got a clear shot of him. The new-look Marvin just looked odd with it’s big, bulbous head and slouching body. The original Arthur Dent also put in a cameo as a computer warning system.

Rewatchability rating: 0

A hit! A palpable hit!

Grave robbery, but not as we know it.

19.09.08. I case you’ve turned up here looking for a sample sentence using the word “palpable”, I’ve written an entry about the word here. [20.06.13. Link removed because it referred to a page from when this was a Spaces blog, and I can’t find any post from September 2008 about “palpable”.]

I recently ran into an online grammar [20.06.13. Link removed because it was dead. There is a new page, but it’s little more than an advert.] of the Caucasian language Udi which is related to Lezgian. (I’m name dropping here simply because I’ve actually heard of Lezgian.) Let’s have a look at a sample sentence (slightly modified from the original).

me içen gärämzinax gölö t’ap’nexa

The grammar of the sentence is nothing exceptional. Straightforward SOV with an ergative subject. Actually, it’s the meaning which is curious. The sentence means “The man hits the grave very much”.

All right, it’s obviously decontextualised, but in isolation it seems to be a very strange thing to say. Probably, the man’s wife was eaten by a polar bear [What? In the Caucasus? -ed.], and he’s down at the grave hitting it and saying, “Ah my dear wife! Now that you are dead, who will cook my tea for me?”

All very romantic, I’m sure.

As for the grammar of Udi, the author is clearly a syntactician, hence the phonology is thin on the ground, but the morphology and syntax get a good seeing to. The language is phonologically interesting in that it contrasts dental and alveolar obstruents. It happens, but it’s rare.

However, it should be noted that the table of consonants has the proviso “place of articulation is indicated approximatively [sic!] only”. The real contrast seems to be between dental and palatal which would create a much stronger contrast than apico-dental vs. lamino-alveolar.

Are you sure these are the same guys?

They might look cuddly…

I’ve been reading Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary, which is his tale of the journey that he and Ella Maillart made through Xinjiang to India back in 1935. From a modern perspective it was odd to see the Tibetans referred to as “warlike”, because these days the image everyone in the West has of Tibet seems to be a place which is populated by Buddhist monks and nuns, and is all with the spirituality.

I’ll take a guess that the place got spiritual back in the 1960s when Buddhism became trendy.

Converbs

The Mystery of the Verbal Adverb

A couple of days ago I encountered the term “converb” which I hadn’t seen before. I know about “coverbs” because they’re in Chinese. A coverb is the equivalent of a preposition in English, but it’s aptly named a coverb because it can be either a preposition or a verb. For example, zai (在) can mean “in” or “be in”.

I found the word “converb” defined as a verbal adverb, which got me scratching my head because while I’m familiar with verbal nouns and verbal adjectives, I couldn’t think what the relationship or even function of a verbal adverb to these might be.

Actually, as I found on further research, “converb” is another term for gerund. In Latin, gerunds are verbal nouns, but they only occur in the oblique cases, the nominative being filled by the infinitive (e.g. nom. parare “to prepare”; acc. parandum “preparing”). Verbal nouns of this particular type (i.e., non-finite verb forms that cannot function as subjects or – but here certain knowledge fails me – direct objects) are found in a wide range of languages.

On the other hand, if verbal nouns in the oblique cases are going to be singled out as a group, then why not do the same to nouns? The oblique cases could be called “connouns” and defined as nominal adverbs (which they sort of are).

As for the name “converb”, I don’t particularly like it because in my mind “con-” is a verbal prefix, not a nominal one. I’d prefer the term “verbal adverb” because it doesn’t upset my grammar.

As a closing remark, this is the second time I’ve posted this. When I tried the first time, I got a message saying that there was a problem with Spaces. I came back later thinking that the original post had at least been saved, but there was nothing here.

The lights went out

The power that doesn’t be

We first have to rewind things to yesterday. A couple of days ago I was told that I was going to the junior middle school to see a public lesson. But just before lunch yesterday I was informed that the time had been changed to 3.50pm and there was something about performances.

When Mrs Tiggywinkle and I got to the junior middle school, we found that we were watching a school concert in English performed by the pupils. It was the usual sort of fare and had to include China’s alternative national anthem, the mind-numbingly saccharine Take Me To Your Heart. At the end we were asked to say a few words, and then we were asked to give a performance.

When I’d been told about performances, I thought I’d go tooled up with something in case, so I had with me a copy of John Pomfret’s poem The Choice. I read out a short section, and that kept everyone happy. And probably mostly mystified as to the meaning.

We went out for dinner with some of the teachers afterwards and had a somewhat overly convivial evening.

When I got up this morning, I found that the power was off again. A new bridge into town is being built and every so often some electrical work needs to be done. This has meant cutting off all power to the town usually for a period of twelve hours. This was especially annoying today because I mostly had the day off. My little darlings are sitting school exams.

Meanwhile in home news, I see the Dear Leader has ordered the abolition of the Child Support Agency, a <span class = “sarcasm”>much loved</span> or­gan­is­ation which seemed to be a cross between social workers and the Mafia. The idea was that it’d get reluctant fathers to pay maintenance for their children. Instead of going after the bad fathers, it seemed to have a penchant for going after the more responsible ones and then making them cough up more money. Easy hit; quota filled.

Things we overlook

It could’ve been a bang-up job

It’s very easy in China to lose track of time and miss various dates that wouldn’t pass unnoticed in the West. As usual, I’d forgotten about Guy Fawkes Night. Although I half remembered it this year, Michael Quinion mentioned something that I’d overlooked. This year is the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot.

But why after 400 years does anyone still bother? On the one hand, we have a group of Catholic conspirators who wanted to blow up Parliament. But in our modern, secular society, anti-Catholicism is an irrelevance (excluding Northern Ireland, of course). On the other hand, we have the triumph of the police state and human rights abuse as a consequence of the failed plot. So it’s all about saying “Boo!” to the Catholics, and “Yay!” to police brutality.

Ah ha! you exclaim. You’re just being a girly revisionist!

Nope. I’m just making an observation from a different angle.

Besides, no one cares what happened 400 years ago. These days, Bonfire Night is an excuse for some fun.

It’s curious, but coincidental that Guy Fawkes should’ve been caught not long after Samhain (1st November), which is the Celtic festival that marks the first day of winter and the Celtic New Year. Firecrackers are one means of scaring off demons at a time of the year when the boundaries between the natural and supernatural worlds were meant to be especially thin.

Oh good grief! you exclaim. You’re not about to come up with some daft conspiracy theory about druids and Guy Fawkes, are you?

No, but it sounds like the basis for some kind of conspiracy theory novel. Just the sort of complete bollocks Dan Brown would write – badly, of course.

Do say: Pass the sky rockets.

Don’t say: 90 day detention period.

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.