Language

Understatement

It bears no relation to the main point of his article, which focuses on how economic ideology led the Fed into the current “unmitigated disaster” known as the subprime lending debacle, but Paul Krugman chose this interesting quote as the lead-in to his article:

When announcing Japan’s surrender in 1945, Emperor Hirohito famously explained his decision as follows: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

This quote is meant to be a humorous example of understatement. While the atomic bombs get most of the headlines, the firebombing of Tokyo killed at least as many people. Japan was in ruins. But, having read a little Japanese sociolinguistics, I know that Japanese discourse can often sound very indirect to English speakers, even though Japanese speakers would not necessarily hear it that way. I wondered if something similar might be going on here.

I immediately thought of blogger Matt Treyvaud of No-Sword and Néojaponisme, and so I wrote him asking what he thought. His answer was more thorough than I could have hoped for, although it wasn’t what I had expected:
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陸克文

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I would like to congratulate Australia on finally ridding itself of John Howard. In 2002 I wrote about ““Howard’s openly racist policies” and more recently we’ve had some excellent discussion on Savage Minds about his use of the “Little Children are Sacred” report to undo decades of progress on Aborigine autonomy. I’d really begun to give up on Australians, so I’m glad to see that they finally had enough, even if it was his economic policies rather than his racism which led to Howard’s defeat.

What caught my attention in the Guardian article was an offhand mention of Kevin Rudd (Howard’s replacement) as being proficient in Mandarin. Wikipedia confirms this:

Rudd studied at the Australian National University in Canberra, residing at Burgmann College, and graduated with First Class Honours in Arts (Asian Studies). He majored in Chinese language and Chinese history, and is proficient in Mandarin. Rudd gave himself a Chinese name (Traditional Chinese: 陸克文; Simplified Chinese: 陆克文; pinyin: Lù Kèwén;) when he was studying in university.

I can’t think of too many heads of state whose mother tongue isn’t a Chinese language who speak Mandarin fluently. In fact, I can’t think of any. I’d be curious to know of any other examples if they exist.

UPDATE: David Reid found this interview with Rudd, which he interprets as a bad sign for Taiwan. I disagree. You have to understand that Rudd is speaking as a government spokesperson who is very careful to toe the official line, given that I think he displays a tremendous amount of sensitivity and knowledge regarding the situation in Taiwan. After making the obligatory nod to the official Beijing view he does something I’ve not seen any mainstream newspaper or politician do, which is to contextualize the DPP’s pro-independence stance in terms of the history of Taiwan’s democracy movement and opposition to the KMT.

Well, to take my previous point just one step further, part of the challenge in Taiwan has been by the sheer vibrancy of the Taiwanese democracy which has emerged in the 1990’s. It’s a very vibrant democracy. In many respects, the government in Beijing preferred the status quo anti. That is, the previous KMT government of Taiwan which still adhered to the theory of the one China policy. In other words, there was one China, Taiwan was a province of China, and, the only difference was whether the legitimate government of China was the KMT government, led by Chiang Kai-Shek and his successors, or whether it was the communist government led by Mao Tse Tung and his successors. When I studied in Taiwan as a student, the, the fiction maintained then, this was in the late 70’s, early 80’s was that the capital of China still was Nanking. Because, when Chiang Kai-Shek fled across the Taiwan straits in 49 at the end of the Chinese civil war, the formal capital of Republican China was Nanking and they still referred to the Nanking government. Now, all that historical fiction if you like has been rolled away. And now, with the functioning Taiwanese democracy we have Chen Shui-bian opposition party, The Democratic Progress Party now on two occasions successful at the presidential level, which is what we now confront. And I’m sorry for saying all of that, but, in answer to your question, but it does, contextualise the challenge which the international community has in dealing with the Taiwanese government which is democratically elected.

Sure, Australia is bound by treaty to recognize Taiwan as part of the PRC, and he has to say that – but here is a guy who really understands Taiwan and I have to say I’m quite impressed. Try and get a response like this from any other world-leader …

He also discusses why he became interested in learning Chinese:

I grew up in the Queensland country my existential conversation as a kid way, I grew up on a farm and my father said to me when I was about 10 – “Kev have you made up your mind what you are going to do in life?”. Which to a 10-year old is a fairly confronting question.

“There are two great choices that you face”. I said Dad what are they? He said “Is it going to be beef or is it going to be dairy?” China struck me as the third way.

We had a book on Chinese archaeology and I would squirrel myself away under a tree and have a read while I supposed be getting the cows. I think that’s how it all started. And I was inspired as a kid by Gough. And I thought this country is going to have a huge impact on us somehow some way so I should try and learn the language which is what I did.

UPDATE: Mark found some video of Kevin Rudd speaking Chinese.

KUSO

If you walk around Taipei these days you’ll be sure to see the word KUSO written in big letters all over the place. For instance, this summer there was a city-sponsored cultural festival in Ximending called “KUSO Ximending.”

Kuso西門町 July 11-15, 2007 on Flickr - Photo Sharing! - Mozilla Firefox

But what does “KUSO” mean? Luckily, Wikipedia is there to help us out:

Kuso is the term used in the Chinese world for the internet culture that generally includes all types of camp and parody. The Mandarin Chinese word ègǎo (simplified Chinese: 恶搞; traditional Chinese: 惡搞, literally meaning “reckless doings”) is often used as a synonym or description of its meaning. In Japanese, kuso (糞,くそ, kuso?) means shit, and is often uttered as an interjection. It is also used to describe outrageous matters and objects of poor quality. This definition of kuso was brought into Taiwan in around 2000 by young people who frequent Japanese websites and quickly became an internet phenomenon, spreading to Hong Kong and subsequently the rest of China.

The range of meanings is pretty wide, with some people applying it to anything stupidly-funny, and others restricting it more narrowly to internet and manga culture. You can get a sense of the range of meanings by looking a Flickr photos tagged KUSO.

UPDATE: I forgot to credit the inspiration for this post: Fred’s post about a TV show called KUSO Kitchen.

Ivory Tower vs. Real World

[Cross-posted at Savage Minds]

Flickr Photo Download: CT - New Haven - Yale University: Harkness Tower - Mozilla Firefox

In our discussions about anthropologists in the military the term “ivory tower” has come up again and again, as has its antipode, “the real world.” These terms work rhetorically to oppose academic elitism and detachment against the difficult moral choices one must make in everyday life. A couple of things really bother me about the way these words are used:

First, it seems that “the real world” is always invoked when someone feels the need to justify decisions made which will help the elite. The “real world” requires us to support military dictators, cut jobs, pollute the environment, etc. You almost never hear someone talk about how in the “real world” we must build up the institutions of democracy, support unions, or protect our natural resources. Why are these choices less “real”?

Second, the labeling of anthropologists as ivory tower intellectuals is just odd. Most anthropologists I know are very much engaged in the real-world problems of their informants, love nothing more than to be in the field, and many, many, anthropologists are politically active both at home and abroad. It is true that anthropologists tend to shun the role of “public intellectual” and engagement with mainstream US politics, but they are very active in a large variety of other ways.

Third, it is odd that academics are accused of being “ivory tower intellectuals” precisely at the moment that are engaging politically in the US public sphere. To be passive subjects of military policy would be less “ivory tower” than to speak out against it?

Fourth, I always hated the term “the real world.” Of all the jobs I’ve had in my life – and I’ve done a little of everything, from selling ice cream, to bar-tending, etc. – my experience in corporate america was the least “real” of them all. People in management positions were all white and played solitaire on their computer half the day, when they weren’t gossiping, while minority employees worked their asses off answering phones and sweeping the floor. These privileged yuppies had no idea about the world outside their protected suburban enclaves, and yet they are considered as having jobs in the “real world” because they earn more money?

The fact that the real world involves difficult moral judgments should be a reason for serious academic debate about the basis for those judgments, not a reason for silencing that debate.

(Photo by wallyg)

Asynchronicity

I never liked team sports, I never liked playing the dozens, I never liked being put on the spot … Its not that I’m introverted – I’m not. I’m just not “quick-witted” (or at least not as quick as I’d like to be). Some people love talking on the phone, love chat rooms, love instant messaging, etc. but others prefer their communication out of sync. For them there is e-mail, blogging, forums, and now … Twitter.

Asynchronous communication allows you to check in and check out on your own time. The conversation is a stream into which you can choose to dip your toes or go for a swim, or just gaze upon from a distance, depending on your mood.

Some people feel overwhelmed by the river of information flowing by. They feel the need to respond to everything, or shut it off completely. This is because they haven’t yet learned that you don’t need to read everything, respond to everything, cognitively process everything that is said or written. For them Twitter is simply a distraction.

Perhaps. But perhaps Twitter is actually less distracting than a phone call, IM, or even an e-mail which demands a response. You don’t need to respond to a Tweet. Not if you don’t want to.

Or at least I don’t think you do. I just downloaded Twitterific and started using it today. I’m not yet sure how I’ll use it. It might be an alternative to chat, or simply a way of keeping track of how I spend my time. Perhaps I will end up integrating it into my website in some way … In any case, I like the idea and I’m going to play with it for a while. So far, the only person I know who Tweets is Ilya. If you read this blog and have a Twitter account, let me know.

Bhojpuri

It is already old news, having been reported in the BBC over a year ago, but I just learned that Hindi movies are on the way out. With is focus on big budget (“multi crore“) spectaculars aimed at the transnational Indian audience (NRIs), Bollywood seems to have lost its way with viewers in India’s heartland. They have turned to films produced in the Bhojpuri language, which is related to Hindi, but retains is own distinctive characteristics.

With an audience of over two hundred million speakers in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Bhojpuri films are able to earn enough money to lure some of the top Bollywood stars, including the “Big B” himself, Amitabh Bachchan. While the BBC emphasizes the emphasis on “marriage and family,” my friend from Bihar was telling me that there might be a more radical reason for the popularity of these films, as they express the dissatisfaction of rural Indians – a topic that was popular in the Bollywood films of the 1970s, the only Bollywood films which are still watched in these areas.

XMas & (C)han(n)uk(k)a(h)

One of my students asked why Christmas was spelled X-mas? Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

The word “Christ” and its compounds, including “Christmas”, have been abbreviated for at least the past 1,000 years, long before the modern “Xmas” was commonly used. “Christ” was often written as “XP” or “Xt”; there are references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as far back as 1021 AD. This X and P arose as the uppercase forms of the Greek letters χ and ρ), used in ancient abbreviations for Χριστος (Greek for “Christ”), and are still widely seen in many Eastern Orthodox icons depicting Jesus Christ. The labarum, an amalgamation of the two Greek letters rendered as ☧, is a symbol often used to represent Christ in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christian Churches

My students also pointed out that in Chinese there are two alternatives for Christmas: 聖誕節 Shèngdànjié (lit. “Holy Birthday”) or 耶誕節 Yēdànjié which more specifically refers to Jesus (耶穌 Yēsū). Until recently Christmas was a national holiday in Taiwan, but officially it was listed as being a day off for “Constitution Day” not because of the religious holiday. Of course, the fact that Chiang Kai-shek was christian and that the KMT government had major economic and political support from Christian groups in the US meant that there was a strong reason to have an official holiday on that day, whatever it is called. Even though it is no longer a national holiday (scrapped to make room for the five day work week), one can’t escape awful Christmas music (made even worse in local covers) when shopping in Taiwan as businesses have latched on to the holiday as a way to promote sales. And because most Aborigines are Christian, the Christmas spirit is especially strong here on the East coast.

On a related note, Language Log asks how do you spell that Jewish holiday? I never realized there were so many options!

However you spell it, happy holidays!

XMas & (C)han(n)uk(k)a(h)

One of my students asked why Christmas was spelled X-mas? Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

The word “Christ” and its compounds, including “Christmas”, have been abbreviated for at least the past 1,000 years, long before the modern “Xmas” was commonly used. “Christ” was often written as “XP” or “Xt”; there are references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as far back as 1021 AD. This X and P arose as the uppercase forms of the Greek letters χ and ρ), used in ancient abbreviations for Χριστος (Greek for “Christ”), and are still widely seen in many Eastern Orthodox icons depicting Jesus Christ. The labarum, an amalgamation of the two Greek letters rendered as ☧, is a symbol often used to represent Christ in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christian Churches

My students also pointed out that in Chinese there are two alternatives for Christmas: 聖誕節 Shèngdànjié (lit. “Holy Birthday”) or 耶誕節 Yēdànjié which more specifically refers to Jesus (耶穌 Yēsū). Until recently Christmas was a national holiday in Taiwan, but officially it was listed as being a day off for “Constitution Day” not because of the religious holiday. Of course, the fact that Chiang Kai-shek was christian and that the KMT government had major economic and political support from Christian groups in the US meant that there was a strong reason to have an official holiday on that day, whatever it is called. Even though it is no longer a national holiday (scrapped to make room for the five day work week), one can’t escape awful Christmas music (made even worse in local covers) when shopping in Taiwan as businesses have latched on to the holiday as a way to promote sales. And because most Aborigines are Christian, the Christmas spirit is especially strong here on the East coast.

On a related note, Language Log asks how do you spell that Jewish holiday? I never realized there were so many options!

However you spell it, happy holidays!

Casualty of War

On December 12th, Stephen Colbert’s “Word” was ” Casualty of War.” You can watch it online here, but Colbert’s impeccable logic is so well crafted that I wanted to share this transcript (the text in brackets represent the text which appears in the on-screen box):

Now I was burning the Iraq Study Group report the other night and as I was about tear out page 94, I read this quote: …”there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq…On one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence.” This underreporting of the violence is terrible. Nation, we must fake these numbers lower! 93 is still sad, if you’re making up a number, why not 78? Or eleven? Or Zero!? Now the whine-a-nistas are gonna stay: But Stephen, you’re telling the government to lie to the American people! (Stay the course) Wrong! No, I’m just telling them to report the facts less. (De-facto leadership) You see the administration hasn’t been counting road side bombs or mortar attacks unless they harm U.S. personnel. (If an Iraqi falls in the woods…) And they haven’t been counting the killing of Iraqi’s if they can’t determine the source of the attack. I mean, who knows where that bullet came from? (Reagan administration?)

… Clearly the one thing we cannot do is leave (Troops just starting to get armor) because then Iraq will explode into even more violent chaos. But we will leave if the American people keep hearing about these casualties. So saying there no casualties is the only way to prevent greater casualties, therefore nation, it’s not a lie to say fewer Iraqis were killed than were actually killed, because by doing so we’re stopping more Iraqis from being killed in the future. Every lie we tell now will become truth then, but only if we have the courage not to tell the truth now.

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