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)

Anti-Chinese Rhetoric, Late 1800s

“[Chinese] places could and should be filled with worthier immigrants — Europeans, who would take the oath of allegiance to the country, work both for themselves and for the commonwealth, fraternize with us, and, finally, become a part of us. All things considered, I cannot perceive what more right or business these semi-barbarians have in California than flocks of blackbirds have in a wheat field; for, as the birds carry of the wheat without leaving any thing of value behind, so do the Confucians gather the gold, and take it away with them to China, without compensation to us who opened the way to it.” * Hinton Rowan Helper (1829-1909)

(Funny thing, given that Helper was a noted abolitionist. The number of times I’ve had to remind people today – just because one was opposed to slavery did not mean one did not harbor prejudicial views.)

Thwarted Plans, An American Formosa

I recently learned that Taiwan’s entanglement with the United States dates to well before President Truman ordered the USS Valley Forge to patrol the Taiwan Strait on June 26, 1950  – in fact, there was a scheme in 1857 to annex Formosa to the U.S. That year saw an effort led by the missionary and doctor Peter Parker (not Spiderman, unfortunately) and merchants Gideon Nye and William Robinet to annex the island, though their ambitions were obviously frustrated in the end. (University of Arkansas Professor Emeritus) Shih-Shan Henry Tsai’s Maritime Taiwan: Historical Encounters with the East and the West chronicles the intrigue very well. There’s also Harold D. Langley’s Gideon Nye and the Formosa Annexation Scheme.

The Hunanese Anti-Christian Tract


Professor Zheng showed this picture as an example of the anti-Christian (especially anti-missionary) sentiment sweeping through China in the last decade of the 19th century. I was intrigued – why had the artist chosen a pig to represent Jesus? I began searching, and found that this was part of a longer tract missionaries had translated into English as Heresy Exposed in Respectful Obedience to the Sacred Edict: A Complete Picture Gallery 謹遵聖喻皮屑全圖. (PDF here)

Though vulgar and cruel, it’s a fascinating read. As it turns out, the artist had chosen the pig as 豬 zhu was a near homophone to the 主 in 天主 Tianzhu (the Catholic word for God). Elsewhere in the tract, the painter depicted foreigners as goats, playing off of the term 洋人 yangren. It paints a picture of foreigners as organ-harvesters (a Sinitic form of blood libel, perhaps?), fornicators, and Chinese who followed their teachings as traitors and cuckolds.

Bourdieu is Unreadable

I’m in a culture contact anthropology seminar this quarter, and we’ve been reading a lot of Bourdieu. A lot. Thankfully, we’ve mostly been reading him through the lenses and papers of other eminent scholars in the field rather than reading his work directly. His work, in the words of our professor, “are almost unreadable.” I thought he was exaggerating until I came upon his “sentence” explaining habitus:

The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (e.g., the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to serve as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor.

Seriously, this is all one sentence. Professor Steve Vaisey has come up with a good alternate translation that’s a lot more readable and isn’t a complete word salad.

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.

Book I’m Reading Now: Amy Chua’s “The Triple Package”

Note: This isn’t meant as a review per se, more of my annoyance with many arguments the authors’ make in the (ultimately flawed) book.


First off, how does one even define “success”? Chua and Rubenfeld promise to use only conclusions supported by data. As such, they bring up measures like the SAT, how many members of a certain ethnic group are in charge of Fortune 500 companies, and other things.


But here’s the problem – those are inherently unobjective metrics! The SAT isn’t a static test that objectively tests your academic success – if you have the money to take SAT classes or get tutoring, your score is bound to improve. SAT scores are as more a function of wealth than academic success/intelligence.


Chua cites Mormons in the Fortune 500 as another success story. “Before 1970, there appear to have been no Mormon senior executives in any Fortune 500 company. Since 1990, there have been fourteen, including twelve CEOs, one president, and one CFO.” Mormons make up 2% of the US population. Even if all the Mormon CEOs were CEOs of their respective companies at the same time, they’d make up a mere 2.8% of all Fortune 500 CEOs, barely exceeding their own demographic proportions.


With this rationale and logic, Chua could say that men are innately superior to women because 95.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are men, exceeding their demographics by almost 200%! Which is of course, a patently ridiculous argument. Perhaps the real reason that there were no Mormons in the top elite before 1970 was due to religious discrimination and pervading stereotypes of Mormons – not necessarily any innate cultural superiority?


I haven’t even touched the three elemental parts of “The Triple Package” yet. Chua and Rubenfeld argue that cultures which have 1) an superiority complex, 2) insecurity, and 3) impulse control are those cultures that have “The Triple Package” and are uniquely suited for success. They argue that these elements are a “counter to modern American culture” and these groups as outsiders succeed because of these traits.


I can’t argue too much against 3), impulse control because there’s a lot of research for and against the Stanford marshmallow study and its ramifications (that children who are able to delay gratification do better in life). That’s a hotly-debated issue in and of itself (Chua herself mentions it on pg. 179 as an example).


I’d like to specifically examine the first element, the superiority complex. She notes that these groups share “a deeply internalized belief in your group’s specialness, exceptionality, or superiority.” She specifically cites Chinese and Persian immigrants as cultures whose belief in their own superiority is “rooted in a story about the magnificence of [their]… history and civilization”.


I’m not Persian, so I can’t speak to the superiority complex (if any) of the culture that gave us Zarathustra and Ferdowsi.But I can speak to Chinese culture, as a lover of Chinese history and its classics. Interestingly enough, I am of the same cultural milieu that Amy Chua is part of – Southeast Asian Chinese (Philippines for her, Malaysia for me). Chua’s primary writing on Chinese culture comes in her chapter “Impulse Control”, and that’s where her argument and her basic facts falls apart to anyone who has taken even a basic course in Chinese and East Asian history.


She calls Japan historically a “vassal state” of China (in a long list of examples about how Chinese supposedly think everybody ripped off their culture). This is wrong. Prince Shotoku sent Emperor Yang of Sui a letter in 607 that was signed “東天皇敬白西皇帝” – the emperor of the East (tennō) send his respects to the emperor of the West (huangdi) – it’s clear even then that the Japanese government saw itself on an equal footing with China. Japan was never part of the official vassal-state system of imperial China, either.


She further notes how Chinese supposedly are taught how amazing and wondrous their civilization has been; that it is the originator of everything. That history and culture alone serves as an uplifting guiding star for every young Chinese-American (but seriously, less than a quarter of Chinese-Americans I’ve met can even name the last imperial dynasty of China). It completely neglects the fact that during the late years of the Qing Dynasty and the early years of the Republic of China and the People’s Republic, Chinese history was seen as a liability – not a source of strength. Mao Zedong sponsored the 批林批孔运动 (Anti-Lin [Biao], Anti-Confucius Campaign), and exhortations were made to remove the “dust” and the “poisons” of the “old society” (舊社會), for only then could China be strong. Even noted Chinese intellectuals like Qian Xuantong declared that “without the abolishment of Chinese characters, China is doomed” (漢字不除,中國必亡) and supported instituting Esperanto as a second language for Chinese. Hu Yuzhi was convinced that Esperanto was the solution to “Chinese isolation” – in fact, the Chinese language itself was a liability! Clearly, intellectuals and policy makers of China less than a century ago were ashamed of Chinese culture – some saw it as their greatest weakness, not their strength. The resurgence of adoration for Chinese culture is a fairly recent phenomenon in modern times, not a long-held belief.


I wish I could write more, but it’s getting late. Suffice to say that Chua’s and Rubenfeld’s “The Triple Package” is the classic example of a book that overreaches. It claims to find a defining theory about success without identifying what success actually is. It ignores the role of the civil rights movement in bettering the lives of recent immigrants vs. older ones (their citation of Nigerian immigrants, for example), and the self-selecting role of immigrants who arrive with high academic and business credentials vs. those that don’t.

Books I’m Reading Now: February 2009


From left to right:

Pyrrhonism: A book on similarities between elements of Greek and Buddhist philosophy, and influences of the former upon the latter.

Assassination Vacation: By Sarah Vowell (voice of Violet in the Incredibles), she revisits the scene and times of several of the more noted assassinations in American history. Quite engaging, actually.

The Heathen Chinee: A book on the anti-Chinese sentiment and discrimination in the US during the late 1800s and its influences on policy towards the Chinese in America.

Stuff White People Like: Title explains it all.

Ender’s Game: Probably one of the few science fiction novels I actually like, I’m re-reading it for fun.

Tunguska Fireball: An incident that happened in Siberia in 1908, widely thought to be a meteorite or piece of comet that had exploded in mid-air. Also very interesting.