Category Archives: language

Yapese “See something, say something”

Public service announcements in TheBus in Honolulu typically include two Micronesian languages, Chuukese and Marshallese, in addition to several Asian languages, but I recently saw one that included Yapese, another language in Micronesia that is not closely related to any other Micronesian language, and is in many ways unique among Austronesian languages.

The Yapese text is written in a very barebones orthography, making even fewer distinctions than the Bible orthography. It makes me think someone who speaks but doesn’t write Yapese dictated it to someone who transcribed it without knowing much Yapese phonology or grammar (or even the Bible orthography), since they don’t write any glottal stops or glottalized consonants (usually marked by an apostrophe), only write 5 vowels, and misanalyze some small grammatical particles. The original spelling is in quotes.

I’ve respelled each line in something close to the new orthography, but without the controversial q for glottal stops, and also added a line with rough glosses for each word. The naag that I’ve glossed ‘TR’ makes transitive verbs out of other words, including words borrowed long ago from Japanese, like dengwa ‘telephone’ and unteng ‘drive’, as well as those borrowed more recently from English. The ea glossed ‘ART’ occurs before specific nouns that are neither indefinite (marked with ba) nor definite (marked with fa). It’s interesting that they felt it necessary to define English bus driver in a paraphrase that relies on an older Japanese loan.

“Mu ayweg nem. Mu rin.”
Mu ayweeg neem. Mu riin’.
You help you. You do [it].
= Be aware. Take action.

“Mu eg nag e nen nag be guy ni ra bucheg banen”
Mu eeg naag ea n’ean ni ga bea guy ni raa bucheeg ba n’ean
You report TR ART thing that you are seeing that will do-bad a thing
= Report anything you see that will cause harm.

“Mu dengwa nag e 911 fa mog ko bas driver”
Mu dengwa naag ea 911 faa moeg ko bas driver
You telephone TR ART 911 or you.say (it) to bus driver
= Call 911 or tell the bus driver

“(un ni be unteng nag e bas)”
(an ni bea unteng naag ea bas)
(person that is driving TR ART bus)
= (the person who is driving the bus)

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Tyranny of Transliteration

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1580-1590:

Bengali last names when transliterated into English often have multiple spellings. For instance, my name, Choudhury, can be Chaudhuri, Chowdhury, Chaudhry, and so on. These variations are used by aunts and cousins in my own family. Other Bengali last names even have varying pronunciations. As with Bob and Robert, so too everyone recognises that Banerjee and Bandopadhyay are the same name. Everyone, except the University of Calcutta. Each name has a prescribed university version. If your birth certificate says Choudhury when the university accepts only Chaudhuri, there will be forms you will have to fill out and get attested, clerks you will have to flatter and treat to tea while you wait to be renamed. Like Yahweh, Ellis Island and the slave masters from Roots, not only will the university play name-giver – on your certificate you will become Chaudhuri, of that there is no doubt – but whether they will recognise your life prior to your conversion is a matter left up to the fates themselves.

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Why Write about Calcutta?

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1380-1405:

Sumitro and I were sitting in the last row of a minibus, bouncing from Ballygunge to Rajabazar, travelling northward up the city’s spine.

‘Who are you writing for? Why are you writing about Calcutta? And whose Calcutta?’ Sumitro fired those questions away with his piercing intelligence.

The minibus was idling in the traffic snarl at Park Circus when Sumitro asked: ‘Why is it that representations of Calcutta seem unchanged for centuries?’

The first Europeans who came to these shores had refused to get out of their boats. They called the settlement in the swamp Golgotha. Most accounts of Calcutta since have hardly varied. Calcutta to Western eyes was the epitome of urban hell, the Detroit of the world, the punchline to a joke: your room looks like the slums of Calcutta. Every visitor, even those who came to slum it in Calcutta, seemed to take away the same city, I said, the same crumbling mansions of colonial elites, graveyards full of dead Englishmen who could not survive the tropics, and everywhere, like a disease, the suffering of the poor. Ultimately the slummers all fell back upon the idea of the urban hellhole, the city as a place of darkness and death. Even Louis Malle and Allen Ginsberg arrived as gleeful voyeurs and headed to the cremation ghats at Nimtala, as if the last rites were a morbid spectator sport, as if they came from places where no one died. Had any of them ever been to Nimtala to give shoulder to the dead? Had they any idea how it might have felt to be on the other side?

‘Where in the representations of Calcutta is the jumble-tangle human clot of Baguiati?’ Sumitro asked, its intersection throbbing at every hour of the day with careening autos and overtaking buses and people rushing away in every lane clutching polythene bags from Ma Sarada Stores full of moong dal and Surf Excel?

‘Why not the Maniktala Market?’ I said, ‘With its fishmongers seated on their concrete plinths like sultans, surrounded by mounds of hilsa, pomfret and koi.’ ‘What about all the shops and little village-worlds in Bowbazar, in the heart of Calcutta?’ Sumitro asked.

At Sealdah, the bus roared up the overpass we called ‘the Flyover’. To our right, the suburban train station was bright with fluorescent lights; its orange neon signs were flashing SEALDAH, SEALDAH, SEALDAH, alternately in English, Hindi and Bengali, as they have eternally in my memory. To our left, the evening rush at Baithakkhana Bazar spilled out onto Bowbazar Street. Three centuries ago, the English trader Job Charnock, who is said to have founded the city, had sat under a banyan tree there and turned it into his parlour, hence the name Baithak Khana, Living Room. The street was barely visible now, covered over by the evening vegetable sellers squatting with their goods spread out on tarps, backlit by the beckoning glow of the jewellery shops that lured in wedding shoppers. Under a canopy of sulphur street lights stretching all the way to Dalhousie, was the perpetual human parade.

From atop the Flyover, Sumitro surveyed the sweeping view of all that was revealed below, and asked, ‘Where has anyone represented all this?’

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Bengal’s New Bourgeoisie

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 560-580:

Each summer, I had returned to Calcutta for months at a time, without a project or a purpose, just to be there. The Statesman looked worse with each passing year. Most of my Statesman friends – those who weren’t lifers like Mike – had fled to the Telegraph or one of the national papers that had opened up offices in Calcutta. The times were changing. India’s corporate boom was trickling into the city. New jobs were emerging. Some friends had left journalism altogether to work in back offices, writing content and doing design for American corporations. On the verdant eastern edge of the city, a whole planned suburb called Sector Five had sprouted to accommodate them. Next to grazing fields dotted with palms and cows, the likes of IBM, GE and Pricewaterhouse-Coopers had built glittering glass temples to global capitalism. Premodern and postmodern India headbutted each other as if waiting to deliver the punchline to a cruel joke. A peasant and a programmer walk into a bar . . .

I met a friend who had found such a position in an American firm at Sector Five. As she was showing me around her glass temple, she took me to a room full of rolled-up mats. They reminded me of the mats that some of the Muslim waiters used to spread out during prayer times at the Statesman canteen.

‘Are the mats for namaz?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she said, ‘they are for yoga.’

It was the first time I had heard anyone in Calcutta utter the word. She didn’t say joge, which is the Bengali term for the breathing exercises and body contortions that we had all been forced to practise as kids, exercises that were the realm of old geezers, much like consulting astrological charts, performing exorcisms or taking snuff. Joge to us was some grandpa forcing you to sit still for fifteen minutes and pretend to ‘meditate’. This avatar of grandpa’s joge as yuppie yoga was part of a prepackaged global lifestyle imported from America.

At six o’clock, Sector Five was lined with more coach buses than South Point School. As those glass temples emptied into the streets, throngs of twenty- and thirty-somethings all lit Filter Wills cigarettes and fired off that last text message. And new masses replaced them, for another shift would start soon enough. It may have been quitting time in Calcutta, but somewhere in New York or California, the day had just begun. Sector Five was staffed by my people, my generation of the middle class. It employed thousands of men in Moustache jeans and women in Fab India salwars, the types that in my time would idle for years, having passed their college exams, offering tutoring, writing Charminar-fuelled poetry before finally giving up or moving out of the city. Those multitudes represented something unprecedented in my lifetime. Before, I had only seen such crowds of the young middle classes at cricket matches and during student demonstrations. This was new. They were not jeering Pakistani cricketers or attacking tuition hikes. They were working. In Sector Five, on parade was Bengal’s new bourgeoisie.

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China’s Repeated Unity

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), p. 50:

Unlike Europe, where the Holy Roman Empire was but a faint echo of Rome’s glory, China’s medieval period was one of the most powerful and resplendent eras of her history. Once again a short unifying dynasty (the Sui) was followed by a powerful and long-lived inheritor the T’ang. In many ways, the T’ang was even more glorious an era than the Han had been, but after roughly two centuries, its lustre was rapidly dimming. By the end of the T’ang, the frontier marches were virtually independent, and the succeeding Sung dynasty was never able to solve its border problems. In the twelfth century, frontier defenses collapsed. North China fell once again into the hands of barbarians, this time from the region we today call Manchuria, and once again a refugee Chinese regime the Southern Sung was driven south to the lower Yangtze, the lands of Ch’u and Wu, where it made its “temporary” capital in the lovely city of Hangchow.

After the Southern Sung the late empire there were interregna but never again a long period of disunity. Ironically, however, this unity was twice imposed by non-Chinese peoples from beyond the Wall: the Mongols of Genghis and Kubla Khan, to whose court came Marco Polo; and then the last dynasty, and in some ways the culmination of the imperial process, the Manchu Ch’ing dynasty, which occupied the Dragon Throne from 1644 until 1911, when in one of history’s greatest not-with-a-bang anticlimaxes the abdication of a six-year-old boy emperor ended not only that dynasty but all dynasties, and more than 2,000 years of imperial history came to an end. These two alien dynasties the Yuan (1279-1368) and the Ch’ing (1644-1911) were the only two periods of foreign rule over all of China.

This very brief chronological survey introduces the names of the principal dynastic periods, and provides a reference chart, since I will be moving back and forth in time through most of the essays in this book. Periods of disunity also influence the story directly, since it was under the impact of barbarian onslaughts that Chinese influence was pushed into the Yangtze Valley more rapidly and forcibly than would otherwise have been the case. Indeed, during the three and a half centuries between the Han and the T’ang, refugee populations and exile dynasties so developed the lower basins of the Long River that by the time of the Sui-T’ang unification this region had replaced the North China Plain as the economic center, the grain basket, of China. A similar developmental pulsation took place again during the Southern Sung dynasty approximately A.D.1100 to 1300 when the north was lost to the Chin, before both were overwhelmed by the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan and his grandson, Kubla.

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African vs. Indian Experience in Mauritius and Seychelles

From “Slavery and Indenture in Mauritius and Seychelles” by Burton Benedict, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 154-168. Both colonies depended very heavily on imported labor for their sugar plantations. Watson attempts to explain why Indian cultural traits survived better in the two island groups than did African cultural traits. The following summaries are closely paraphrased.

1. ORIGINS: African slaves came from all over the continent and lacked common cultures or political systems. Indentured Indians came from diverse cultures that had nevertheless all coexisted within a more or less unified political and economic system ruled by the Mughals and then the British.

2. RECRUITMENT: African slaves were nearly all unwilling recruits who had usually passed through many hands in many markets. Indentured Indians were volunteers recruited by men from their own culture and often from the same village, caste, or tribe, even though they usually had no idea about their destination or working conditions, and their voyaging conditions were hardly better than that of the African slaves.

3. FAMILIES: Most Africans arrived as isolated individuals, with no guarantee that any surviving relatives would be sold to the same plantation. Indentured Indians left their wives behind during the early years, but were later assigned as family units, whose marriages were recognized by the local courts. They were better able to preserve family life.

4. YOUTH: Many African slaves were kidnapped as children, and children were favored over adults by plantation managers. They received little education and adapted to local French culture. Most Indians came as young adults, some with children, who learned Indian customs and values at home and at vernacular schools.

5. LANGUAGE: African slaves spoke many different languages, and had to communicate among themselves in Swahili, Arabic, or the languages of European traders. On the plantations, they learned the local French Creole. Most of the Indians came from three major language groups (Bhojpuri) Hindi, Tamil, and Telegu. Employers relied on bilingual overseers and the Indians preserved their home languages, in which they transmitted their home cultures. Many man but far fewer women learned Creole, even into the 1960s.

6. NAMING: African slaves were given European names, usually French or English for given names. Over time, African surnames were replaced by French or English ones. Indians retained their Indian names and gave their children Indian names, although some Christian converts took European names.

7. RELIGION: The dominant religion in Mauritius and the Seychelles was Roman Catholic, from when they were French colonies, and African slaves were heavily evangelized. Catholic and Protestant churches were controlled by Europeans. The Indians were generally Hindu or Muslim, and Europeans made little effort to convert them to Christianity. Moreover, temples, mosques, and religious ritual and education were controlled by Indians, not Europeans.

8. MUSIC AND DANCE: Africans lost not just their traditional religious rites of passage, but also music and dance connected with them. The latter became entirely secular, adapted to European and Creole cultures. Indians retained Hindu and Muslim ceremonies for rites of passage, along with their musical and dance components.

9. OVERSEAS CONNECTIONS: African slaves were completely cut off from Africa. Those who went overseas for training went to France or Britain, not Africa. Indians were also cut off from home, but many of those indentured returned to India, the Indian government took frequent interest in their welfare, and Hindu and Muslim missionaries came to preach to them. Many went to Europe for training but others went to India.

10. ECONOMIC BASE: Africans lost their kinship organizations, which had been their principal units of production and consumption. The sugar plantations produced cash crops, not subsistence crops, and individual workers purchased what they consumed. Indians came from highly stratified societies with complex, caste-based divisions of labor that produced goods and services. They were used to sharecropping and wage work (which was why indentured themselves), but the family remained the basic unit of consumption.

11. ENDOGAMY: Marriage in both European and Indian societies was very much about property; brides came with dowries. Both groups also tended to marry within their race, class, or caste. In African societies, marriage was more about building alliances; brides required bridewealth. African social stratification was much more fluid; chiefs could marry commoners.

Watson concludes “that there was a concatenation of factors which militated against the retention of African cultural traits (or conversely which fostered the adaptation of European cultural traits) and that these factors did not operate in the same fashion for Indians” (p. 167).

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When Chinese Was a State Secret

From God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan D. Spence (W. W. Norton, 1996), Kindle Loc. 240f.

Language might seem a problem, since in all of Canton and the foreign hongs there is no Chinese who can read or write in English or other European languages, and only a few Westerners who know enough Chinese to write with even partial elegance. This has not always been the case. In the 1810s and 1820s, when the East India Company was at its peak of power, there were a dozen or more young men from England studying Chinese in the Canton factories. They translated Chinese novels and plays, and even the Chinese legal code, so they could assess the equity of the government’s rules more carefully. Though the local officials on occasion imprisoned Chinese for teaching their own language to foreigners, and even executed one, and Chinese teachers often had to shelter privately in their pupils’ lodgings, the East India Company representatives fought back. By tenacity, they won the right to submit commercial documents in Chinese translation, rather than in English, and to hire Chinese teachers, for study of classical texts as well as Cantonese colloquial dialect. And though the company directors never won official acknowledgment of their right to hire Chinese wood-carvers, they went ahead anyway and block printed an Anglo-Chinese dictionary using Chinese characters; in addition, they managed to accumulate a substantial library of four thousand books, many of them in Chinese, which they housed in their splendidly appointed hong, with the company’s senior physician doubling as the librarian.

With the termination by the British government in 1834 of the company’s monopoly of China trade, these glory days were over. Most of the language students and experts were reassigned to other countries; their finest teacher, Robert Morrison, died the same year; and the great library was scattered. Only three young men, who had been classified on the company’s roster as “proficient” enough to receive an annual student’s allowance, are left in Canton by 1836, and their main role is to be caretakers of the company’s former buildings and oversee their closing down. Nor are there any established bookshops to be found in the foreigners’ restricted zone of residence, for specific laws forbid the sale of Chinese books to foreigners, and even make it a crime to show them one of China’s local histories or regional gazettes. Those who wish to search out books must walk some distance to the west, where two bookshops on a side street (a street with gates locked and barred at night) will break the law to the extent of selling novels, romances, and “marvellous stories” to the foreigners, and sometimes arrange for purchases of other titles from the larger stores within the city.

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