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.
“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.
bù èr fǎmén
Literal meaning: “[The] Dharma Door of Non-duality”
Idiomatic meaning: “the one and only way”
The original Buddhist meaning is very different from the common vernacular meaning today. “Non-duality” refers to the Middle Path of Buddhism, which threads between two extremes. This particular chengyu is derived from the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra, and the following passage illustrates the non-duality of existence and non-existence.
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.
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”).
qiè ér bù shě
Literal meaning: “To carve without giving up.”
Idiomatic meaning: To persevere, to stick with it.
This is an excerpt from a longer sentence in the Xunzi:
“If one carves and gives up, even rotten wood will be uncarvable. If one carves without giving up, even metal and stone can be engraved.”
From Janell Ross at the Washington Post on the Spanish fracas between Cruz and Rubio:
“There is a dark period in American history. It’s one to which some Americans seem eager to return. It’s one when people were barred, shamed or even punished for speaking languages other than English. That was especially true outside the home.
Speaking a foreign language or limited English was very widely believed to be an indicator of suspect national loyalty, limited intelligence or ability. Speaking a foreign language simply was not regarded as a useful skill.”
If there’s one thing that’s consistently baffled me since I came to this country, it’s the weird attitude towards foreign languages many people have. Bilingualism just isn’t emphasized to the same extent in America as it is in Europe or post-colonial Asian countries.
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)