Churchill Learning Latin

I recently came upon Churchill’s account of his Latin-learning experience while reading a book on historical Japanese linguistics (what that has to do with Churchill, I’m still not sure), and it vaguely reminds me of my experiences learning Classical Chinese when I was young. At that time I had no clue (nor did my teachers) what 之乎也者 all meant, and getting a detailed explanation was also impossible.

Churchill’s Travails:

“What does it mean, sir?”

“It means what it says. Mensa, a table. Mensa is a noun of the First Declension. There are five declensions. You have learnt the singular of the First Declension.”

“But,” I repeated,” what does it mean?”

Mensa means a table,” he answered.

“Then why does mensa also mean ‘O table,'” I enquired, “and what does ‘O table’ mean?”

Mensa, ‘O table’, is the vocative case,” he replied.

“But why ‘O table?'” I persisted in genuine curiosity.

“O table – you would use that in addressing a table, in invoking a table.” And then seeing he was not carrying me with him, “You would use it in speaking to a table.”

“But I never do,” I blurted out in honest amazement.

“If you are impertinent, you will be punished, and punished, let me tell you, very severely,” was his conclusive rejoinder.

Such was my first introduction to the classics from which, I have been told, many of our cleverest men have derived so much solace and profit.

The False Etymology of “Mandarin” = 滿大人


In a discussion on the nature of race and ethnicity in late imperial China, the role of the “Manchu” ethnicity came up. The highly heterogenous nature of Hong Taiji’s creation of ethnicity has been exhaustively enumerated elsewhere, and wasn’t the source of my confusion. In our discussion, a fellow student brought up the idea that the Manchus occupied such a unique role in the late imperial history of China that even the very language of the region was named after them. Not the Manchu language, mind you – but the variety of Sinitic we call “Mandarin” today.


My esteemed classmate proceeded to narrate the etymology she (and several others in the class from the Greater China region) had heard: When Europeans first made contact with Chinese people, they mistook the phrase “Master Man[chu]” (滿大人 Mǎn dàrén) to be the language Chinese spoke, hence the English term “Mandarin” to refer to the language most northern Chinese speak. It seems to be a pretty common folk etymology.

In short:

Mandarin mǎn dàrén → English mandarin

This seemed off to me. Firstly, the first Europeans in Ming China were not English. Secondly, I had always thought Mandarin was simply a translation of 官話 Guānhuà, “officials’ speech”. Was I right?

As it turns out, it was an erroneous folk etymology. The OED charts the evolution/borrowing of the word mandarin as:

Sanskrit mantrī → Malay menteri → Portuguese mandarim → English mandarin

Furthermore, the term Mandarin was used to refer to the speech of the officials very early on: Dominican Francisco Varo’s text Arte de la lengua Mandarina “The Arts of the Mandarin Language” was published in 1703. As for the term’s usage as “official”, even today, officials are called mentri in Malaysia. “Prime minister” is perdana menteri while the heads of the states’ executive branches are called menteri besar (“first minister”) or menteri ketua (“chief minister”).

The Most Disappointing Part of “The Force Awakens” For Me Was…

Is the fact that the director and producers did not hire and actual linguist and conlanger to create constructed languages for the alien cultures and peoples the main characters encounter. Over at Language Log, Ben Zimmer notes:

“But as I noted in the New York Times Magazine when “Avatar” was released, alien-speak in the “Star Wars” movies has, by contrast, “never amounted to more than a sonic pastiche” – a pastiche largely assembled by sound designer Ben Burtt using bits of exotic-sounding human languages.”

It’s a shame, really, because the efforts of Sara Forsberg are simply just not convincing at all. I imagine this problem will only compound as the sequels and those stand-alone films are released in the future. Linguistic inconsistency is going to flourish. (Another way the new trilogy harks back to the first, I suppose)

No, Chinese Characters Are Not Ancestors of the Alphabet


In 1861, the scientist and mathematician Pliny Earle Chase proposed that the Chinese script was quite possibly “indications of alphabetic genesis”; that is, the ancient Greek and Latin alphabets was modeled after Chinese characters. Here’s a page from his work above indicating his suggestions (notably that 單 led to delta Δ, 旦 to theta Θ, and 切 to t.

Of course today we know that this hypothesis is utterly ridiculous – however, Chase’s work predated the identification of oracle bone script later in the 19th century. If you’d like to read some bad linguistics (and have access to JSTOR), however, you can check his original article “Chinese and Indo-European Roots and Analogues” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society here.

George Szirtes’s Observations on Multilingualism

The poet George Szirtes‘s writing on multilingualism – struck a chord in me as it very accurately reflected my own feeling observing what was going on in Malaysia re: Sedition Act earlier this year.

The disadvantage of being (relatively) bilingual is that you are neither this nor that. You don’t fully belong. We spent nine months in Hungary in 1989 watching the state collapse around us and, under those circumstances, it became clear that I wasn’t truly Hungarian, but an observer – a visitor with privileges, who could be useful but not of the language or its poetry. In England, the rest of the time, a foreign-born poet is of the language until he isn’t; the point at which he hits the thick glass of English Words, where he will be deemed never quite to understand cricket or, say, John Betjeman, because these things are not in his DNA.