Tattoos Sacred and Profane

You may have heard about, the site that tracks amusing abuses of the English language in Japan (“Let’s happy and feel the lucky!”). But what about the view from the other side? Are Americans abusing Asian languages by any chance? Yes they are, and whereas Japanese have a knack for zany T-shirts and signs, Americans prefer to make their mistakes in the form of permanent tattoos. Tian Tang, an engineering student who lives in Arizona now but was born in China, has a site called Hanzi Smatter that is dedicated to airing the kinds of mistranslations, mistransliterations, and textual nonsense that pass for Chinese in American pop culture. Recently he’s been getting some high-profile press:

Cool Tat, Too Bad It’s Gibberish – New York Times
Indelibly lost in translation – Los Angeles Times

The whole concept of what people look for in a tattoo, and what constitutes magical writing, has fascinated me for some time, so I collected my thoughts in the somewhat longer ramble below.

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Rike Orion – Adventures in ESL

Just because you can do something, does that mean you can teach it? Ever had a professor who you knew was brilliant, but was nevertheless feebly inarticulate when it came to helping you understand why the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality was so freaking important?

Doing is one skill, and teaching is another, and the intersection of the two is disappointingly rare.

Happily, my friend Alan Kennedy, who has written here before about his adventures in the music industry, is talented at both doing and explaining. He’s here this week to talk about his fascinating new window on the world. He generally steers clear of the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality, but you just might learn something useful about Jennifer Aniston.

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Pictographs, water-ness, and ness-ness

This is known: writing is magic. I scratch marks on paper, and you know my mind. Magic. The next question is, is some writing more magical than others? Can some written languages enter your brain more naturally than others? Of living languages, Japanese and Chinese seem to sway our Western imagination as links to a pictographic past. For example, here is “mizu”,

the Japanese (and Chinese) character for water. You can imagine that it suggests a plunging cataract splashing left and right. Thus you might even argue it has a pictographic “soul” (as distinct from our abstracted chickenscratch alphabet). It also appears in many water-related words in Japanese like flood, sewage, and brine. It fairly drips with water-ness. Is this a more “legitimate” or natural way to represent water than the arbitrary letterforms W-A-T-E-R? Does it represent water-ness more truly than other non-pictographic written forms are capable of doing?

To get a feel for the power of pictographs, think of some examples from our own culture. Emoticons like :-) come to mind, but my personal favorite is $, the dollar sign. Strictly speaking, this is an ideograph (idea captured by a sign) rather than a pictograph (idea captured by a picture). Even so, it forcefully sums up the concept of money-ness in the same compact way that 水 sums up water-ness. Put dollar signs in the eyes of a cartooon character, and we know exactly what’s afoot, whereas writing the word “money” in the same place would simply be odd. Pictographs and ideographs are laden with the ness-ness of meaning. Their ness-ness-ness is palpable. Is, therefore, Chinese a “truer” writing system than the Roman alphabet of English? Are languages based on pictographs better, more direct, more apprehensible, more magical?

The short answer is this: we want to believe that they are, but they aren’t. Chinese is just another way to put words on paper. There is no such thing as a true pictographic written language, and there never has been. This is true for the same reason that it’s hard to play Pictionary when your word is “irony”. I recently came across an excellent discussion of this topic in a book about Chinese called The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy by John DeFrancis. In one of his chapters, entitled The Ideographic Myth, he debunks the idea that non-alphabetic writing systems somehow short-circuit the normal approach to language. Here’s an extended quote.

The error of exaggerating the pictographic and hence semantic aspect of Chinese characters and minimizing if not totally neglecting the phonetic aspect tends to fix itself very early in the minds of many people, both students of Chinese and the public at large, because their first impression of the characters is likely to be gained by being introduced to the Chinese writing system via some of the simplest and most interesting pictographs.

If you like this kind of thing (and if you made it this far, you probably do), it’s worth a read.

You say “tomato,” and I say “whipping shitties”

Dialect maps have been a standard research tool for linguists and philologists for a long time, but it’s becoming much easier to compile them. Now you can build yourself a nice website and let other people do the work for you. Of course you need some people to visit your site, so it helps if you get the New York Times to write about it. Harvard Linguistics Professor Bert Vaux has built just such a site, loaded with questions that geographically pin you down as a speaker of English in North America, automatically mapping the result. These questions include the venerable Soda vs. pop? and more than a hundred others. It makes for fascinating browsing.

Some of the maps are disappointing because you expect to see a more dramatic demarcation. I expect, for example, waiting in line vs. waiting on line to show a big “waiting on line” region around New York City and New Jersey. It doesn’t.
Some of the maps are very satisfying. I live in the land of the rotary, and if you look at this map you’ll see exactly where that is: rotary vs. traffic circle. I was surprised how often New England was the strongly contrasting region (see the maps for Aunt Mary vs. Ahhnt Mary and sneakers vs. tennis shoes). This suggests that New England doesn’t mix much with the rest of the country.

Finally we come to doughnuts vs. whipping shitties (i.e. driving around in circles). This latter seems to be exclusive to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Can this be real, or is the good professor being hacked? Hmmmm…. you know, where I grew up we referred to flatulence as “looking for Mr. Goodbar” or “chatting with the Vice President.” If you “remember” this too, why don’t you join me in telling Professor Vaux? It could really put us on the map. Or we could just grab a beer and whip some shitties together.

I’ll close with a question of my own: have you ever referred to a wool hat as a toboggan? I did when I was growing up (North Carolina), but people in Massachusetts think this is a hilariously funny indication of mental deficiency.

The Star Chamber Mexican-Spanish Phrasebook

Happy Groundhog Day!

Groundhog Day is a welcome cross-quarter day — halfway between the winter solstice and the first day of spring, it’s a reminder that warmer days are really coming, even if you don’t quite believe it yet. It’s opposite

Grounding Day
(August 2) on the calendar and as part of its official celebration, good citizens everywhere join to rip down and destroy any faded Christmas decorations left up by their lazy or misguided neighbors. We at the StarChamber would like to encourage our readers to participate in the celebrations: discharge your civic duties and pull down those browning wreaths and rotting strings of twinkling lights wherever you find them. It will relieve that midwinter depression, your neighborhood will look so much better, and you’ll get to enjoy the traditional Groundhog Day martini with your fellow revelers. And that’s what it’s all about, after all.

This week’s contribution is a joint effort of Paracelsus and zaP, just in time for your winter trip to sunnier regions.
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E-mailbox clogging net stories are circulating in greater and greater numbers, but where do they come from? Is there some cyber-spot where they mate, like squids in the Sargasso Sea? Is there a burying ground where they go to die? Yadda-Yadda-Yadda is a speculative piece that came about because a) Paracelsus received yet another net story in the mail and b) he should have been working on something else.
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