want harmony, go talk Sanskrit

Look at the English language. The words that express peaceful harmony are so few, so pale, so flaccid, while the words that express disgust, dismay, revulsion constitute a vast and delicious vocabulary. “You’ve got bubblegum for brains, you jackass, you douchenugget, you are so average, did you eat dumb flakes for breakfast? Go sit on your thumb, you feeb, you nincompoop, you fathead” — it goes on and on and on. Shakespeare is loaded with insult from our rich Anglo-Saxon heritage. It’s a language for people who don’t like each other. You want harmony, go talk Sanskrit.

Garrison Keillor, When it’s over, maybe Trump should move to Nebraska

reduplicated relations

In Mandarin Chinese, reduplication is a very common feature. Its function is to create an informal, less direct or more cute version of a word with the same meaning. For example, 謝謝 xièxie, “thanks”, is a reduplicated xiè. However, when it comes to naming your relations, it could well be that these apparently reduplicated words came first and then got shortened, just like English “ma” and ‎“pa” are short versions of ‎“mama” and ‎“papa”.

Now mama, papa, baba, dada etc. are babble words, something that babies all over the world tend to produce without thinking about their parents and other relatives. (How on earth Finns got to use äiti and isä, is anyone’s guess. Here’s my own guess: Finnish is derived from Elvish, not the other way round, and elvish babies never babble.)

What I find interesting about Mandarin is that there are different babble words for different kinds of brothers, sisters, uncles and grandparents. Which is logical, if you think of it. For example, an older brother and a younger brother often have nothing in common. Calling them simply “brothers” is just silly.

Han characters Pinyin Meaning Etymology
trad. 爸爸 bàba dad, papa ‎“dad”
simpl.
trad. 媽媽 māma mom, mum, mama ‎“mum”
simpl. 妈妈
trad. 哥哥 gēge older brother ‎“elder brother”
simpl.
trad. 弟弟 dìdi younger brother ‎“younger brother”
simpl.
trad. 姐姐 jiějie older sister ‎“elder sister, young lady”
simpl.
trad. 妹妹 mèimei younger sister ‎“younger sister”
simpl.
trad. 舅舅 jiùjiu mother’s brother, uncle ‎“mother’s brother, uncle”
simpl.
trad. 叔叔 shūshu father’s younger brother, uncle ‎“father’s younger brother, uncle”
simpl.
trad. 奶奶 nǎinai paternal grandmother, gramma, granny ‎“milk; woman’s breasts”
simpl.
trad. 爺爺 yéye father’s father, paternal grandfather, granddad ‎“father, grandfather”
simpl. 爷爷
trad. 寶寶 bǎobǎo baby ‎“treasure, precious”
simpl. 宝宝

es chino básico

When we hear or read something incomprehensible, we say “it’s all Greek to me”. Naturally, Greeks would use different expression. In Greek, German, Dutch, French, Portuguese and many other European languages, they say “it’s all Chinese to me”. Spanish go one step further: es chino básico, “it’s basic Chinese” (implying that you probably should forget about mastering intermediate-level Chinese). But you know what? We all know a bit of Chinese. Here are ten or twelve Chinese words that you should be familiar already, even if you didn’t realise that until now.

chá: tea. Turkish çay and Russian чай are the variation on this theme. In Min Nan, the same word is pronounced as ; thanks to the Dutch East India Company, this plant and drink is known in Europe as tea. 烏龍茶 / 乌龙茶, wūlóng chá, literally “black dragon tea”, is oolong tea.

dào: a word of many meanings, among them “word”, “method”, “path”, “road”, “way”. Tao (or Dao), “The Way”, is a central concept of Taoism.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.

點心

點心 / 点心 diǎnxīn (“to refresh one’s heart”, from / 点 “to light, to kindle” and “heart”): snack, light refreshment, better known in its Cantonese pronunciation, dim sum. It is customary to serve it with 茶.

風水

風水 / 风水 fēngshuǐ (from fēng “wind” and shuǐ “water”): feng shui, the art and philosophical system of harmonising everyone with the surrounding environment.

功夫

功夫 gōngfu: another word with a variety of meanings, such as “time”, “effort”, “achievement”, “art”, “skill”. In the West, kung fu is mainly used to refer to Chinese martial arts, also called 武術 / 武术 wǔshù.

荔枝

荔枝 lìzhī: lychee, Litchi chinensis. Once the delicacy at the Chinese Imperial Court, nowadays it is available in supermarkets all over the world.

麻將

麻將 / 麻将 májiàng (from 麻雀 máquè, “sparrow”): the game of mahjong, believed to be developed by nobody else but that bird lover, Confucius.

人參

人參 / 人参 rénshēn (from “man” and / 参 “root”): ginseng, so called thanks to the human-like shape of its root.

颱風

颱風 / 台风 táifēng (“big wind”): typhoon.

太極拳

太極拳 / 太极拳 tàijíquán (from 太極 / 太极 “Great Ultimate” and “fist”): the martial art and exercise system t’ai chi ch’uan. The symbol for tàijí, , is called 太極圖 / 太极图 tàijítú.

陰陽

陰陽 / 阴阳 (from / 阴, yīn “dark” and / 阳, yáng “light”): yin and yang.

The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
They achieve harmony by combining these forces.

chinese ceremonies for beginners

The Russian expression без китайских церемоний (literally, without Chinese ceremonies) can be translated as “without formalities”, “simply”, “casually”, or even “bluntly”. Chinese ceremonies in question can be expanded as “tedious and unnecessary conventions; excessive display of politeness; meaningless etiquette”. In his short story Китайская церемония (1924), Mikhail Zoshchenko humorously refers to the habit of shaking hands as a Chinese ceremony, even though Chinese have nothing to do with it.

Chinese, however, see nothing wrong in being excessively polite. The more excuse mes, can I asks and pleases, the better. Instead of rather blunt 你好吗 “How are you?” (literally “You good?”), you are more likely to hear 你吃饭了没, “Have you eaten rice yet?” — because if you did, things cannot be too bad. Interestingly, the polite response to 谢谢 “thank you” is 不客气 , literally “don’t be polite”. If you are at all interested in learning Chinese, you could do worse than start with a few polite expressions.

Han characters Pinyin Meaning Etymology
trad. qǐng Please
simpl.
trad. 請問 qǐngwèn Excuse me 請 / 请 “please” + 問 / 问 “ask”
simpl. 请问
trad. 抱歉 bàoqiàn (I’m) sorry 抱 “to carry” + 歉 “apology”
simpl.
trad. 謝謝 xièxie Thank you; thanks
simpl. 谢谢
trad. 不客氣 bù kèqi You’re welcome 不 “not” + 客氣 / 客气 “polite”; literally “don’t be (so) polite”
simpl. 不客气
trad. 您好 nín hǎo Hello (formal, said to a single person) 您 “you” (formal) + 好 “good”
simpl.
trad. 你好 nǐ hǎo Hello (informal, said to a single person) 你 “you” (informal) + 好 “good”
simpl.
trad. 你們好 nǐmen hǎo Hello (said to a group of people) 你們 / 你们 “you” (plural) + 好 “good”
simpl. 你们好
trad. 你好嗎? nǐ hǎo ma? How are you? 你 “you” (informal) + 好 “good” + 嗎 / 吗 (question tag); literally “you good?”
simpl. 你好吗?
trad. 你吃飯了沒? nǐ chīfàn le méi? How are you? 你 “you” (informal) + 吃 “to eat” + 飯 / 饭 “cooked rice” + 了 (perfective aspect tag) + 沒 / 沒 “have not”; literally “have you eaten cooked rice?”
simpl. 你吃饭了没?
trad. 早安 zǎo ān Good morning 早 “early” + 安 “peace”
simpl.
trad. 晚安 wǎn ān Good evening; good night 晚 “late” + 安 “peace”
simpl.
trad. 再見 zàijiàn Goodbye; see you later 再 “again” + 見 / 见 “to see / to meet”
simpl. 再见

the echoes of those first syllables

They were one of the oldest of the Disc’s religious sects, although even the gods themselves were divided as to whether Listening was really a proper religion, and all that prevented their temple being wiped out by a few well-aimed avalanches was the fact that even the gods were curious as to what it was that the Listeners might Hear. If there’s one thing that really annoys a god, it’s not knowing something.

The fact is that the Listeners are trying to work out precisely what it was that the Creator said when He made the universe.

The theory is quite straightforward.

Clearly, nothing that the Creator makes could ever be destroyed, which means that the echoes of those first syllables must still be around somewhere, bouncing and rebounding off all the matter in the cosmos but still audible to a really good listener.

Eons ago the Listeners had found that ice and chance had carved this one valley into the perfect acoustic opposite of an echo valley, and had built their multi-chambered temple in the exact position that the one comfy chair always occupies in the home of a rabid hi-fi fanatic. Complex baffles caught and amplified the sound that was funnelled up the chilly valley, steering it ever inwards to the central chamber where, at any hour of the day or night, three monks always sat.

Listening.

There were certain problems caused by the fact that they didn’t hear only the subtle echoes of the first words, but every other sound made on the Disc. In order to recognise the sound of the Words, they had to learn to recognise all the other noises. This called for a certain talent, and a novice was only accepted for training if he could distinguish by sound alone, at a distance of a thousand yards, which side a dropped coin landed. He wasn’t actually accepted into the order until he could tell what colour it was.

And although the Holy Listeners were so remote, many people took the extremely long and dangerous path to their temple, travelling through frozen, troll-haunted lands, fording swift icy rivers, climbing forbidding mountains, trekking across inhospitable tundra, in order to climb the narrow stairway that led into the hidden valley and seek with an open heart the secrets of being.

And the monks would cry unto them, “Keep the bloody noise down!”

the moon looks down at the earth

Since the late nineteenth century, linguists have identified the phoneme as the smallest acoustic unit that makes a difference in meaning. The English word chuck comprises three phonemes: different meanings can be created by changing ch to d, or u to e, or ck to m. It is a useful concept but an imperfect one: linguists have found it surprisingly difficult to agree on an exact inventory of phonemes for English or any other language (most estimates for English are in the vicinity of forty-five). The problem is that a stream of speech is a continuum; a linguist may abstractly, and arbitrarily, break it into discrete units, but the meaningfulness of these units varies from speaker to speaker and depends on the context. Most speakers’ instincts about phonemes are biased, too, by their knowledge of the written alphabet, which codifies language in its own sometimes arbitrary ways. In any case, tonal languages, with their extra variable, contain many more phonemes than were first apparent to inexperienced linguists.

As the spoken languages of Africa elevated tonality to a crucial role, the drum language went a difficult step further. It employed tone and only tone. It was a language of a single pair of phonemes, a language composed entirely of pitch contours. The drums varied in materials and craft. Some were slit gongs, tubes of padauk wood, hollow, cut with a long and narrow mouth to make a high-sounding lip and a low-sounding lip; others had skin tops, and these were used in pairs. All that mattered was for the drums to sound two distinct notes, at an interval of about a major third.

So in mapping the spoken language to the drum language, information was lost. The drum talk was speech with a deficit. For every village and every tribe, the drum language began with the spoken word and shed the consonants and vowels. That was a lot to lose. The remaining information stream would be riddled with ambiguity. A double stroke on the high-tone lip of the drum [– –] matched the tonal pattern of the Kele word for father, sango, but naturally it could just as well be songe, the moon; koko, fowl; fele, a species of fish; or any other word of two high tones. Even the limited dictionary of the missionaries at Yakusu contained 130 such words. Having reduced spoken words, in all their sonic richness, to such a minimal code, how could the drums distinguish them? The answer lay partly in stress and timing, but these could not compensate for the lack of consonants and vowels. Thus… a drummer would invariably add “a little phrase” to each short word. Songe, the moon, is rendered as songe li tange la manga — “the moon looks down at the earth”. Koko, the fowl, is rendered koko olongo la bokiokio — “the fowl, the little one that says kiokio”. The extra drumbeats, far from being extraneous, provide context. Every ambiguous word begins in a cloud of possible alternative interpretations; then the unwanted possibilities evaporate. This takes place below the level of consciousness. Listeners are hearing only staccato drum tones, low and high, but in effect they “hear” the missing consonants and vowels, too. For that matter, they hear whole phrases, not individual words.

The stereotyped long tails flap along, their redundancy overcoming ambiguity. The drum language is creative, freely generating neologisms for innovations from the north… But drummers begin by learning the traditional fixed formulas. Indeed, the formulas of the African drummers sometimes preserve archaic words that have been forgotten in the everyday language. For the Yaunde, the elephant is always “the great awkward one”. The resemblance to Homeric formulas — not merely Zeus, but Zeus the cloud-gatherer; not just the sea, but the wine-dark sea — is no accident. In an oral culture, inspiration has to serve clarity and memory first. The Muses are the daughters of Mnemosyne.

just friends

It’s almost time for me to leave these shores. I still did not learn much Finnish. Just some words, and not the most useful ones.

As I mentioned in this blog quite a few times, Finnish vocabulary is mostly alien to Indo-European speakers. The familiar (to me) words fall into three categories:

Of course, there are more, but I don’t speak Swedish (among many other languages). I believe these words should be classified as “true friends”, as opposed to “false friends” (väärät ystävät). The problem is, I loathe to think of any Finnish word as a “false friend”. There are so few I remember, I better be, well, just friends with them.

There are, however, some Finnish words which sound (or look) like English, Russian, or even Spanish ones, but are not their cognates. To paraphrase Marianne Aav, these will have a phonetic impact or emotional content for most English (Russian, Spanish) speakers, but probably not for others. I leave it to you to figure out this content.

asia thing, matter, issue, business
fuksi freshman
herkullinen delicious
hieno fine, elegant
huijari conman, fraudster, swindler
jopa even, as much as
koitto dawning
kivi stone, rock
kotka eagle
krapu crayfish; (archaic) crab
kunnioitus respect
kunto condition, form; fitness
kulo dead grass (from previous summer); forest fire
kuura hoar frost
matka trip; distance
moikka hi, hello; so long
ohuella, ohuena, ohuetta, ohuin various forms of adjective ohut (thin)
osa part, portion
pankki bank
penkki bench
piha yard
pila joke, jest
pinkka pile, stack
puku suit, attire
pussi bag
pöllö owl
sotka bluebill, scaup (any bird of the genus Aythya)
suka brush, currycomb
telkka (colloquial) television
unikko poppy
vankila prison
vankka firm, strong