that demon grammar: lessons from Indian mythology

The most recent reissue from Sino-Platonic Papers is On Attitudes towards Language in Ancient India, by George Cardona of the University of Pennsylvania. Cardona discusses how grammar “became part of a soteriological system, with linguistic usage a means to acquiring merit and the ultimate good.” [I had to look that one up.]

“In this respect,” he concludes, “the Indian attitude towards language is probably unique.”

He gives several examples from early writings, including this one:

“The demons, with speech taken away from them, said he’lavo he ‘lavaḥ and were thus vanquished. They uttered this indistinct speech there. That is barbaric speech (mlecchaḥ). Therefore, a Brāhmaṇa is not to utter barbaric speech (na mlecchet), for this speech is of the demons. One who know thus takes the speech of his competitors who hate him; they are vanquished with their speech taken from them.”

Now, the contrast here is not between Ārya and non-Ārya pure and simple. Instead, the emphasis is placed on usage that is correct according to an accepted norm and usage that is considered barbaric because of its deviation from the norm. Thus, the demons are said to have been vanquished because, incapable of uttering the correct form he3arayo he3arayaḥ, they said he’lavo he’lavaḥ. That is, instead of the accepted form arayaḥ, with –r– and –y-, they used a dialectal and unacceptable form alavaḥ, with -l- and -v-; and instead of using a prolated (trimoric) -e3 that is exempt from phonological alternation, they used an ordinary vowel -e and followed the rule of phonologic alternation whereby word-final -e and word-initial a- together give -e-.

Although some of that may sound complicated, depending on your familiarity with that field, the essay as a whole is aimed at nonspecialists.

This was first published in January 1990 as issue no. 15 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

Mandarin borrow-ing English grammatical forms

click for image of complete campaign poster; the slogan, shown in this image, reads '台灣維新ing'Putting English words in Mandarin sentences is of course extremely common in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia, generally because this is thought to look cool and modern. But last month I was surprised to see Mandarin sentences with just English’s -ing added — and not one but two examples of this.

The image here is from a poster for the DPP’s presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh, that came out in March but which I didn’t see until a few days ago. It reads 台灣維新ing (“Táiwān wéixīn-ing“): “Taiwan is modernizing.” (Click the image to see the whole poster.)

The other example I noticed was in a newspaper headline about the Hong Kong pop diva Faye Wong: 明年拚老三 天后暫不復出 李亞鵬王菲 積極做人ING (Míngnián pīn lǎosān — tiān hòu zàn bù fùchū — Lǐ Yàpéng, Wáng Fěi jījí zuòrén-ing. “Next year work hard to produce third child — superstar temporarily not appearing — Li Yapeng and Faye Wong are energetically working on making a baby.”)

There are several other interesting things about the Faye Wong headline, such as the way in most other contexts zuòrén (lit. “be/make a person”) means something like “be a mensch.” But I don’t want to digress too much lest I never finish this post.

In both of these examples, -ing is used to emphasize the currentness of the actions. But it is of course possible in Mandarin to stress that something is going on now — and to do so without borrowing forms from English. For example, with zài:

  • Lǐ Yàpéng, Wáng Fěi jījí zài zuòrén
  • Táiwān zài wéixīn

Has anyone seen or heard other examples of this -ing grafting?


For lagniappe: lyrics to the Faye Wong song “Bù liú” in Pinyin, which has lots of examples of Mandarin’s .