Chinese Has No Grammar, Right? Wrong!

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.

S2: From New York City, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I’m John McWhorter, and you know, it’s time to do a language family show. Those are always fun. I like doing them.

S3: And you out there in the dark seem to enjoy them. And so let’s do one of those.

S4: I think the way we’re going to handle this is that I’m always telling aspiring linguistics students or just language heads that if you want to learn your way around languages, then really you should at least mess around with a language like Russian and then mess around with a language like Chinese. And what do I mean by that? Well, with Russian, you’re dealing with lots and lots of endings. You’ve got case endings and you’ve got conjugations and all the irregularity. That’s what Russian does for you. And there are lots of languages like that. You know, Greek, Latin, you can go further afield. You should learn a language like that. But then if you want to have a sense of what languages are like in general, well, English is kind of in the middle. Russian is extreme with all of that ending easy stuff. Then you want to deal with a language like Chinese. Chinese works completely differently from English or Russian or most of the languages that we’re likely to learn, including even these days Japanese and Arabic. Chinese don’t think there are many, many languages that operate like Chinese. But the one that’s easiest for a westerner to approach for various reasons would be Mandarin Chinese in particular. And so with this show, this language family show, let’s do Chinese. And I know you’re thinking you’re thinking, well, why does one language is suppose to be about a family and you’re just going to do little old Chinese? That’s no fun, but no, no, we’ll get to it. It is going to be about a family in spite of itself. Remember, though, this is not going to be about writing.

S5: Language is about speech. It is not about writing, which is just an approximation of what actual communication is. Writing system of Chinese is a fabulous, beautiful, treacherous, clumsy thing. I I get it. You want to know about that, but you also want to know what is being written by all those characters. And to tell you the truth, I will openly say that to me before I knew my way around languages. Chinese always sounded odd. Like it’s one thing to hear somebody speaking Polish and you think, well, that’s just a different language from English or Hebrew, different language from English. Chinese always sounded like something very, very different because the sound system is very different. So if it sounds that way to you just because it’s unfamiliarity, how does that language work? They’re communicating with all of the richness and nuance that we’re communicating in. In English, what is that language? Well, in order to get a sense of it, let’s get in a plane and fly around the world. And that’s going to be a song for that. And the song is actually from the World’s Fair of 1964. For some reason, at the World’s Fair in 1964, in Queens, not far from where I live, there’s a little musical they were doing, but it wasn’t little. It was as full blown musical revue that you could sit through while you were at the fair. And for some reason, this was commercially recorded. So you can still hear the music. And one of the songs is actually by the guys who did Fiddler on the Roof. This is Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. These are these guys, right when they were doing Fiddler. They also wrote a song called Popsicles in Paris, which I find very charming. And it will help us to travel and even get exactly where we’re going. Here is popsicles in Paris World’s Fair of 1964.

S6: Thanks, Shankar. Sweet potato pie. Tired of being around?

S7: The other night, he testified that he had.

S8: Around the day like this, it’s far smaller than.

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S5: So popsicles in Paris and shish kebab in Shanghai. Let’s stop here over Shanghai. I don’t know how much shish kebab we’re gonna get, but here we are in China. Now think about what China looks like. Or if you don’t happen to know. Take a look. China is a big thing. It’s a vast stretch of land. I’m taking a guess that it’s bigger than that little peninsula called Europe. It’s huge. And yet think about the language map of Europe. You’ve got different language every two feet. Hungarian, French, Swedish. Now, here we are in China. And apparently all anybody speaks is this language called Chinese over all of that land. People have been there since the dawn of time and somehow they’ve only really developed one language. Chinese or of course, were aware that Chinese has these dialects. So there’s the Mandarin dialect, the Cantonese dialect. But, you know, they’re all dialects of this one language. Chinese think about it. That doesn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t there be more languages there by now? And really, if you take a look at these dialects, you can see that there’s something wrong in the way we refer to them. So, for example, to say introduce in Mandarin gift shop. There you go. Jeff shout. Oh, by the way. Yeah. This is me. I am going to say the Chinese over the course of doing this podcast. I’ve gone from being afraid to pronounce the syllable and I used to always get a recording of somebody else to. Now I am unafraid to sound like a perfect ass throughout this whole episode. But yes, it’s gonna be me. So Mandarin Geoff Shell that’s to introduce now in the Cantonese dialect. That same word is guy. So you guys see you.

S10: So just show guys.

S11: So you did. Those really seem like dialects of one language. Really? They’re completely different words. They both mean to introduce and you can sense a certain likeness, but they’re a little too different to really qualify as dialects in the sense that there’s a standard American and a standard British dialect of English. And what it’s really about is that this Chinese language in all of its varieties, we might call them at this point, is all written with the same writing system. So Mandarin and Cantonese are written the same way. A passage of Mandarin translate into Cantonese will often look exactly the same because the characters are pictures or representations of whole words. So it’s not alphabetic. But think about it this way. One of the US in Spanish good do. So when is the US Italian bond or not? OK. So when I was born you can tell there’s a relationship. Jaune. I will just have to leave that. But Portuguese Bond G-A. So Wayno. Jiya. All those things are related. You know, they all came from the same thing at one point. Latin. You can tell. Now imagine if the writing system were about pictures in the same way as Chineses. And so let’s say that the way that you wrote good was somebody smiling, a smiley face, and the way that you wrote day was a little sun. So you met and smile, son. And that means good day.

S5: And imagine if that’s how you wrote when the US and Bundoora know and Bown Jia mentioned of all those were written that way. Now imagine someone saying, yeah, they’re all the same language, and notice how even we might think of it that way, if that’s how the writing works, because we always think that writing is language. So you’ve got to smile in the sun. That’s how you write good day. And well, the fact that one of the US and Bongiorno really are quite different, you might get used to not thinking about that much.

S3: And so you can imagine someone saying, oh yeah, those are the romance dialects, but all of them are the same language. But obviously, no, that’s not really the case. So when is the US and Bongiorno are similar to get show? And guys, see you. You have a writing system that makes these two dialects look the same, but really they’re different languages. Now, where do you draw the line between what the language and what’s a dialect as we’ve seen? There’s no line to be drawn. Is Scots a dialect of English or is it a separate language? Hard to say. Are people who are speaking Gullah Creole in South Carolina? You can watch a film like Daughters of the Dust. Are they speaking a different language or is it a dialect of English? They’re tough cases, but frankly, when it comes to something like Mandarin and Cantonese, it’s not even hard. Those are in the grand scheme of things. They’re different languages. They’re only called dialects because they’re spoken within the polity of China and because they’re all written with the same system, which means that they look like the same thing, which is easy to mistake as them being the same thing.

S12: But see the. What this means this isn’t a show about just one language. This is a show about a language family. These languages are what linguist called the cynic languages. Or you could say the Chinese languages. There is no one language Chinese. There hasn’t been for several millennia. The Chinese languages are a big, fat family. So what are all these languages?

S3: Well, Mandarin is the lingua franca one. You know, Mandarin is spoken by by some counts about a billion people. That means that one in seven people on earth speak Mandarin. That includes everybody in New York City except me, basically. Well. And Donald Trump, those two people. But everybody speaks Mandarin in the whole world. So that’s Mandarin. But then Cantonese is the next most prominent Chinese language, especially here in America, because before 1965, most people who immigrated here from China were Cantonese speakers, not Mandarin speakers. After the Immigration Act of 1965, large numbers of Mandarin speakers started to come. So today we’re very familiar with Chinese and Chinese American people who speak Mandarin. But back in the day, the Chinese you were likely to hear was Cantonese. And what that means is that if you see a movie where it’s before about 1970 and there are Chinese people and they’re speaking Mandarin, that’s probably a mistake. And even in something that I love deeply and I’ve mentioned this show on this podcast before, the marvelous Mrs. Masel, it is exquisite every second of it. But one thing about language is that in that last thread that they had with the whole Chinatown sub story, those people speaking Mandarin is probably not right. Those people at that time would have spoken Cantonese. So I’ve read stories about the very charming actress who they have playing Jake’s Chinese girlfriend. Now she’s polished her Mandarin and I thought, well, that must have been fun, but technically those characters would be speaking Cantonese or there’s a little scene in Cotton Comes to Harlem, which is kind of the first blaxploitation picture. And it’s a fascinating piece of work in many ways. But at one point there are a Chinese restaurant and the waitress comes out and says, the dweeb nuts. She’s saying something like, I’m sorry, I’ve brought you the wrong thing. Well, now that woman would probably have spoken Cantonese is that kind of thing. Cantonese is the Chinese language in America until really about 10 minutes ago. It’s time for a song. And you know what? We’re gonna have songs of this time. Hugh Martin, he was a Broadway composer of Minor Note. And you do know a song by him because he wrote Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which was originally in the movie, Meet Me in St. Lewis. But you, Martin only had four, depending on how you count it. Maybe five shows on Broadway. Two of them were minor hits, two of them were respectable flops. And I know this is supposed to be a podcast about language, but I’m not even going to try this time.

S4: That’s because I deserve this. I’m gonna I’m gonna treat yourself, so to speak. I had a bad week at Columbia, and I like to always say that everything’s happy in the valley. But to tell you the truth, we are thinking about the virus down here in the valley as well. And all of my courses are now going online. And all the students have been asked to go home.

S13: And it’s not like I have any experience with communicating about language in the audio medium. So this is going to be completely unfamiliar to me. It’s not fun and my life is thrown upside down. And, you know, they’re going to close the schools and they probably should. But I’ll be at home with my cuties. So things are just not right. And so I want music that I like. So this is just gonna be Candy. This is Hugh Martin. Songs are like ginger bread cookies, which I’ll probably be making with girls in about two weeks at home. So this is a little song called The Three B’s. This is Nancy Walker familiar to those of us of a certain age as Rhoda Morgan, Stern’s mother and as the pitch person for bounty paper towels. I love hearing her sing in old Broadway shows. And she’s joined by June Allison and the luscious lipped Gloria to Haven. The movie is Best Foot Forward. This is 1944 at MGM. This is a film ization of a stage musical. This is the three B’s.

S10: It’s boogie woogie.

S14: Boogie woogie. Out of my chest, it makes up. Just goes to show you that the ball gives the best bogey, bogey. Yes. It’s right this way. And as low as thunder, high has a cloud and sweet Isaac.

S15: It’s not a kick, it’s a slow to take. Well, not sure right now. It makes it. Their music has a right to be.

S16: Ball game, ball game. He will be.

S11: So then Taiwanese, you hear about that one. That’s another one of these quote unquote dialects.

S3: But no, it Taiwanese is part of a whole Chinese language that’s called Min. Now, we don’t hear that name much, but it’s the min language and it’s actually meant as spoken by more people than Cantonese is. And there are many different kinds of men and many of them are not even mutually intelligible Taiwanese as spoken. Well, you know, you can guess. But then when you go over onto the mainland and you’ve got what’s often called Hawkin or Fujianese, that’s very different from Taiwanese. All of that is mean. Then sometimes you’ll hear a Chinese person who speaks Mandarin casually toss off that they also speak Shanghainese. And to them it’s very natural. And I always think myself, damn it. You know, that person doesn’t quite understand that Shanghainese is a completely separate language. I they know on a certain level, but, you know, Mandarin and Shanghainese are written the same way. So they look like they’re quote unquote, the same thing. But Shanghainese is not just some sort of Mandarin. It is one kind of a whole other Chinese language called Wu. And it’s as different from Mandarin as Dutches from German. And I could go on and won’t because lists get boring fast. But even a conservative estimate of how many Chinese languages there are would say that they’re seven. Like the fifth, sixth and seventh here are called Hakka gone and Sheung notice we never hear about those unless we’re Chinese language nerds. But those are spoken by lots and lots of people. And those are alongside what we might call Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese and Shanghainese familiarly and really their other varieties where you could say that they belong to one of those seven languages.

S11: But really they’re so different that probably their languages of their own. And then on top of that, thinking about what the language map of China really looks like. There are actual dialects of these languages. So, for example, this is something that just happened a few weeks ago. I like to go to one of those Chinese buffets here in Queens because my girls like them. Of course, that’s the only reason I don’t like delicious greasy food is just for them. So we go there and. Yeah, because the Chinese buffet, the people who run it tend to speak some Chinese. And I’m always trying to practice because it’s my hobby. And there was one waiter who really didn’t speak English that well. And so I figured, well, I going to try it out because I can tell he has a sense of humor. So we’re all dirty and I want to wipe want to wipe my little one’s hands. And so I use the word thought top. That means wipe. So I used it and he kind of smiled. He said, the chap and I’m actually getting to the point that the language is sliding into mine. Natural arrogance. And I just thought to myself, no, no, this time I’m right.

S17: And I said, no, not chop chop. And he said, Yes, chop. And I said, no.

S18: And he said, Heth pronunciation. So I said, Well, come here. They really did go like this. I said, C’mere. Write down what you’re saying. And he wrote, C H, hey. And so we kept on going back and forth, and it became clear that he speaks a different dialect of Mandarin than the standard that’s thrown at people like me.

S3: So there’s some people in there, chop people. So you can imagine the kind of differences that there are. For example, in Spanish and Italian in the gang, there’s a word for I. All those languages have a word for eyes. And me, myself and I, they are different. So Spanish youl Italian.

S10: Eel Portuguese. A French. So your eel. Oh, shoot.

S3: All of those mean I. All of those start as the Latin word Eggo and sound change happens. Now here are four dialects of Mandarin, not Chinese languages, but these are varieties of Mandarin standard mandarin for I is wool in young Jo Mandarin.

S18: It’s all in CNN Mandarin. It’s not in Ling Bao Mandarin.

S19: It’s law. So you go well. Oh good.

S3: Lo, all of those are as different as Yo-Yo L and Ju. And yet all of those are dialects of Mandarin. There are dialects of Mandarin where even to my untrained Aragón eye and ear, I think to myself that’s not a dialect of Mandarin. That’s its own language. And many Mandarin speakers would agree. So this China landmass linguistically is really just like Europe. Writing distorts how we see language. Really, there are probably about three dozen Chinese languages and that’s a conservative estimate because you know, so many of the Mandarin dialects are really languages of their own men.

S11: Is Canada’s one language men is clearly like six or seven different languages, really about three dozen Semitic i.e. Chinese languages. They’re just like the romance languages in their spread. So it’s very interesting. A lot of the. Urgent varieties are only being really studied just now. It’s a fascinating area. One of the main things that makes the Chinese’s sound odd to us if we don’t have experience with them is the tones. And the tones really are quite ordinary to them. But to somebody who doesn’t grow up with a tonal language, it’s always a miracle that human beings can develop things like this. And so the classic example, MA Well, that’s incomplete. This was what tone. So Ma, that’s your mother. Ma is your horse. Ma is scolding ma. I’m supposed to say that that’s hemp, but I don’t know what that is. So let’s say that it’s rough. It also means that and it’s not only ma, it’s not some syllables. I remember the first one of these other than Ma that I paid attention to was B just the syllable.

S10: B B is pen-, b is too close something. B is your nose. Your nose is kind of up in the air like beep and then B that’s force. So B B beat, beat.

S4: All of those mean completely different things. So those syllables have more sound distinction in them than our syllables do in our languages because you’ve got to have that tone as well as what is the consonant and what it’s like and what is the vowel and where do you place it. And of course you know B doesn’t only mean pen. It also means then like I’m richer than you or B doesn’t only mean close. It also means arm. So you really have a very different way of allocating linguistic material across meaning. And Mandarin has the four tones and you think, well, goodness gracious. But you know, Cantonese has six.

S10: Some people say nine. That’s pushing it, but it has six tones.

S13: And so you hear anybody speaking Cantonese. You have you’re a Chinese restaurant, a Chinese market. And it’s just to me, I always think you’re using six tones and you’re not tripping over your own feet.

S10: So, for example, the syllable C, just seek out a sound. So English, C, so that syllable. Well, if you say C, that’s a poem. If you say C, that is to try. If you say C, that is the verb to be. If you say C then you’re saying history. If you say C, it’s city. And if you say C then it means time.

S3: Cantonese speakers I tried so hard. You may scold me, you may mock me. But that’s how Cantonese works. And they’re varieties that have even more tones than that. Mandarin is easy in that way. There’s some mandarin’s that only have three tones go away from Mandarin. And chances are you’re dealing with yet more tones. So just imagine speaking a language with tones. And this next song is called Imagine, you know. No, no, no. Transition’s I get my gingerbread cookies this week. I don’t have to pretend. So don’t imagine speaking the language with tones. This is a song by Hugh Martin called Imagine. This is from his under consulted film. Athena, I say under consultive because this is an MGM musical about people who eat health food. It’s really bizarre. This was kind of in the twilight of the era and it’s got a dandy little score, including this song, which was sung by victim own to a very young Debbie Reynolds.

S20: This is Imagine Imagine you’re an apple said on the top of a tree. Five came along at just the right.

S21: You might imagine your.

S20: Oh, well, we will wait for some rain from a fire where a cloud with lots of rain.

S21: And I might imagine that.

S22: Imagine that. My drench you with DAB to show I saw you.

S3: I da you imagined your. It doesn’t have any grammar. I have heard people saying that that’s somebody I heard at Columbia once. Not going to hear anybody for the rest of the year. But back when it was occupied by human beings, then you would hear people say, I’m taking Chinese. That doesn’t have any grammar. Well, what I mean by that and what a person means by that is there’s no I’ll blow all blows, I’ll blow all Bailamos or whatever, Oblon. OK. It doesn’t challenge you with that. But goodness gracious, Chinese does have grammar. It just has different kinds of grammar. So, for example, an English speaker thinks of grammar as being what the technical term for it is. Goofball gender as in sombrero. That’s a boy, Luna. That’s a girl. But to in French. Well, that’s a boy. The moon is a girl, et cetera. Associates. Well, that’s a girl. You know, why is an association female, that kind of gender? They’re too technical terms. One is goofball. The other one is grammatical. Grammatical gender. That’s hard from English. English is the only Indo-European language of Europe that does not have that. We think that we’re normal and that all those languages with their gender are annoying. It’s the other way around. We’re weird, by the way, folks. Notice I said Indo European language. In Europe, there are languages without goofball gender eastward of Europe that are Indo-European. But here in Europe, that is nasty for us from English Learner, especially where you’re dealing with three of them. You’ve got masculine, feminine neuter in German or in Russian. It’s just a bit much. And so you figure, well, you know, Chinese doesn’t have endings of that kind. And so that’s just no grammar. No. Ho. No. And that’s because of something like this.

S17: The word for three in Mandarin is son, son, OK, now child is hides it, hides it. Three children. You’d think that the way you’d say that would be, son, that’s three hides a child, son hides it. No, there is no sann hides. That’s not how you say you have to say some good hides, some good hides. Now, what’s the good?

S11: We naturally think well, a means of or something like that. What’s so hard about that? So you don’t say three child, you say three of child. It’s just no grammar. OK, but how about this? Son means three.

S19: Dog is go. I just wanted to do that. So go. That’s a dog.

S11: So three dogs, some go. And you think, well, no, no. Because you have to stick that little oven. So is it some good goal? No. A Mandarin speaker would giggle at you and kind of tickle your nose with a feather and tell you how cute you are. You can’t say some good goal. You have to say some git go. Oh, the Jew is the little of e-word that you use when it’s dogs or a lot of animals. Not all of them, but a lot of animals. So good for your kids, G for your pet. What about fish? They seem to be animals. Son, I don’t think I need to tell you what that means.

S10: Eat. That’s fish.

S11: Eat fish. So three fish. You know, it’s not gonna be son eat because you have to have a little thing in there. But it’s not sanju eat because a fish is not that kind of animal. For fish you use something for long. Ye things longest things kill. So Santoyo you. That’s three of fish. You could put it that way, but you have to have a different kind of depending on what things are like if it’s a tree. Sun shoot. No song could shoot. If have could if you’re talking about trees and this just goes on and on. It’s not just those four. It’s dozens. If it’s knives, then you don’t use good jillette’s yao or cur you use up. You want the tones. Okay. You don’t use good kyo cook. You have to use bar and it’s knives. And so you’d think, well, that’s kind of long like a fish, isn’t it? But no, because the knife is something that you handle like an umbrella. And yet just when you think you’ve got it, they’re these little particular ones. There’s one four songs you have to say son show good. Three songs show us what. Why. And they just kind of smile at you. So what this means is that there’s goofball gender in Chinese, too, because you have to know which one of these little of’s to use. You use them not only with numbers, but also when you say this or that, you’ve got to know them. And if you just use good all the time, then what you sound like is some dimwit or, you know, somebody who just is learning and doesn’t know any better.

S1: You can’t just use good with everything. You have to learn all of these little things. They’re called classifiers, which is kind of a clumsy term for it. But that means that these languages, these Chinese languages, they have gender, too. It’s just as bad as some Broe and Luna. And having to learn that you say sombrero ro ho. Listen to my perfect Spanish accent sombrero Rahul and you have to have all. But if it’s a red moon, whatever that would be, then it’s Luna OHA. You have to do all those things, you have to attend to gender, too, in these languages because you have to know which one of these things everything takes. And then there’s real irregularity. And so the djite that’s for many animals, but not all of them. There’s a different one that’s just for horses. And you also say when you’re talking about a suitcase or your eyes, you never know. It’s just like it goes, by the way.

S18: You know, while we’re on the subject, which we’re not. How do you get from a bundle of sticks to a gay man?

S3: Now, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then that sentence must be quite marvelous. But what is the pathway from a bundle of sticks to an epithet that you use for a gay man? It’s a very interesting story. It’s seldom told properly. It has nothing to do with anybody being burned at the stake.

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S10: Here’s something that you can’t do.

S3: You know that wonderful book, Chineses, which I hope you give his presence where, you know you’ve got these Chinese characters made to look like what they stand for and the ideas to make Chinese easier because the writing system won’t seem so opaque. You know, the thing is, it won’t help you to memorize a whole bunch of characters if you have a yen to be able to read Chinese. And there’s a reason for it. It’s something that people don’t tell you much about how the language works.

S18: But it comes down to this really. You have a very limited set of possible syllables in, for example, Mandarin. And that’s because a syllable is only allowed to end with two things an N or an N. So you can have one. You can have Wang. But there’s no such thing in Mandarin. As what? There’s no such thing in Mandarin as wash. You can’t end the syllable with most consonants.

S4: And really what that means is that there are only about 240 possible combinations of consonants and vowels and how many homonyms can you have?

S3: And that means that Chinese is based on little double words. It’s based on what we call compounds in linguistics. So, for example, movie, the word for movie is not some one character that looks vaguely like a film or something like that. The way you say movie is you say electric shadow and they don’t mean that as a pretty metaphor. You have to say electric shadow, yin yang, D-N. Is one character in is another character. And that’s how you do movie Mandarin. That’s actually a Portuguese word. That’s not what they call Mandarin. They call it Poot poem. So put on what that means. General Conexion talk sounds kind of like the sex and a put patient Phil Jin-Ho connection to put to what? That’s what it is. And so he had all three of those put together. It’s a compound introduced that word that I introduced this episode with Jeff show that means to jam between and then continue. Jay is like to put it in, put between. qaà is to continue. And that shows you a lot of the compounds are hard in that they don’t make any damn sense. So you’re introducing people how is introducing people a matter of jamming something in and keeping on going? There’ll be a very interesting way of bringing people together. Why it’s put between continue. I’m sure there’s a story. One doesn’t have time to figure it out. You just have to know that you have this double word git shell and that’s how you do introduce. Or my favourite of those is the word for thing.

S10: The word for thing is don’t she don’t she don’t is east. She is west and east.

S1: West is a thing. I’ve heard so many stories about this. There was a Tibetan guy at a convenience store near where I used to live with his whole colorful tale that sounded like something that you would set to Disney animation. I don’t know which one is true, but you just have to know. So the word for thing is not just some one character. It’s the character for East and the character for West. So all about the compounds in this language. And so it’s another challenge in that the compound sometimes makes sense like electric shadow, but very often don’t make any damn sense at all like EastWest as things. So it’s not just the words alone, but the way the words are put. Together also challenges you because at the very center of how Chinese has a vocabulary and it all makes you wonder sometimes where did this start, this language where, you know, the consonants aren’t really allowed to come at the end of syllables much and you’ve got all these tones. What is the origin story of something like this? It’s not going to be a language that arises in Ukraine and spreads throughout Europe and down to India. This is clearly a different story. And what we know is that Chinese languages are part of a family called Sino Tibetan. So I cheated like a Semitic. I brought that on and kind of imply that it was a family. Really Semitic is a subfamily of a family called Afro Asiatic. Semitic is one of six kitten’s Chinese languages. Semitic, as we call it, is one of, well, two kittens because Sino Tibetan is Sino. That’s the Chinese. And then Tibetan is this whole bunch of other languages that includes Tibetan and Burmese and many others that almost no one has ever heard of outside of the areas themselves and linguists and anthropologists. So Proteau, Sino Tibetan, we know that it all traces back there.

S11: And essentially what we’re dealing with is the short syllables started as longer ones. And so God be with you becomes gub by and them by. So we say now, bye. And that came from God be with you, or we say something like, darn, that started as eternal damnation, eternal damnation. And that became dhan with exactly that tone of voice. So that’s a general linguistic principle. But that is very much the case with Sino Tibetan and actually an expert on Sino Tibetan. This is Robert Shaefer. Put this so beautifully that I’m just going to quote him. I’m going to give him I never met him. I’m going to give him just a voice that I would like him to have.

S3: If a high powered racing car has driven a terrific speed into a cement wall, the results on the car will somewhat parallel those on polysyllabic Sino Tibetan words. The front part will be greatly compressed, parts will have dropped out and there will be considerable distortion, but the body will remain fairly intact. That’s just perfect. That’s the issue. And so you can take all of the Chinese languages and all those Tibet, Burmese, other languages, and you can trace backwards by seeing what they have in common and looking at the older versions of some of these languages where they were written down. And you can figure out, for example, there was once some big grandfather language spoken, probably somewhere in southern China where the word for eight was roughly Barack, yet Breguet just like that.

S18: But then in Mandarin today, the word for eight is just bop. So from Barra, get to just bop. How does that happen? Well, it’s the car crash where something gets shorter in old Chinese, which is thousands of years ago it wasn’t bop. The word was prate prate. Now you can get from Barra get to prate. But just eliminating some of the stuff from the Middle Paraka Part. Right? Prate. Prate. So that’s old Chinese and middle Chinese. It’s Paet. And now today in modern Mandarin, it’s BOP.

S1: These things happen, but it means that something starts long gobby with you. And then becomes really small. Such as by. Make a wish in 1951. Sorry. No Transitions Today 1951 was a very minor musical. That does not need to be revisited in any way except to enjoy the Dandy Cast album, which sounds like songs written for children. It’s very ginger bready. Again, this is I’ll never make a Frenchman out of you. Never mind what the plot of this was, but this is Helen Gallagher singing in her heyday. Helen Gallagher is still alive. We are listening to somebody sing who is probably pouring herself a cup of tea right now somewhere in New York. This is I’ll never make a Frenchman out of you. From Hugh Martin’s Make-A-Wish in 1951, you start selling your worry about money.

S23: You should just relax, having enough dirty cracks. And let me make a.

S24: I stop growing. So when you stop and look things I say, most of them make you flinch.

S23: I guess it’s a perfect sense of.

S11: In any case, it’s a funny thing about old Chinese, old Chinese survives in writing. It’s you know, we’re talking about roughly third to the 5th century B.C. that you get real old Chinese. That’s worth reading. But it’s funny. It’s such a telegraphic language that there’s a question as to whether anybody actually spoke it the way it’s written down. You know, some languages dot their I’s and cross their teeth more than others. But old Chinese, if you ask me, and opinions differ on this. But I’m not giving a completely renegade opinion. If you ask me, this is not how anybody talked. It’s a kind of code. So, for example, there’s one passage in old Chinese of this stage where what it’s saying is it’s about somebody named Hood. The person’s name is Hood. And it says it’s not that her is capable of causing harm, but that he lacks savoir faire.

S18: That’s what the passage is saying. But if you go word for word of the old Chinese, it’s he not able harm and knowledge is not sufficient. And that’s it. So it’s not that he is capable of causing harm, but that he lacks savoir faire. He not able harm and knowledge not sufficient. And and it’s it’s like it’s hope. For example, there’s a passage about children and certain dietary habits. So when the day is done, they always return home for food because while dust vixen wheels and mud stew can be played with. They cannot be eaten. OK. In whole Chinese, the way it goes is arrived.

S25: Son late Moscow home food. One’s dust food Mudd’s do can play with but not can eat.

S1: That’s all. And what this shows you. It’s funny reading old Chinese. I like the implication that I sit in a chair sipping bourbon read. It’s on purpose. But reading old Chinese is interesting because, you know, nobody talks like that. It’s just that they don’t indicate they didn’t see it as necessary to indicate on the page. A lot of what we now know were certain prefixes and suffixes. They were almost definitely using. The language was richer.

S25: The dust food mud’s do can play with but not can eat.

S1: Nobody talks like that. But you never know. There’s so much that we don’t actually write out where. We just think of it as something that you wouldn’t put on the page where people in the future might think that we are quite insane. So for example, I’ll say something like, you know, we could try this. I just used, you know. You know, we could try this. OK, you know, now here is a clip of Ray saying those same two words on the marvelous Archer.

S26: Listen to him saying, you know, we’ve trained for this zero on guns. We need cover on it. Grieger, spool up hyperspace drive spooling. Cheryl, get your Feiner Ray. You’re still useless.

S11: So this is that you know, Lana says it a lot on the show, too, you know. And that, you know, means I’m getting really tired of being abused this way. I’m really thinking about just pulling away from all of this completely. So there’s my you know. You know, then there’s you know, now then last week, remember radio comedian Edwin and his you know, my kid, you please play that again where he’s making a little joke about chickens.

S27: If you want to hear, I say hi. Hi. Hi. You know. Go ahead. Right. Right. The second day, you don’t want to get your.

S11: So, you know, has a completely different connotation than here is The Honeymooners here as Ralph Kramden yelling at Alice. You know that. I know. Well, that’s a different, you know. Listen to this.

S28: I know why you’re afraid to give me an excuse. You know, I know you know, I know what you’ve been doing here all day now.

S11: So notice that intonation is everything. There’s my you know, there’s res-, you know, the head winds, you know, and there’s Ralph Kramden. You know, all of them are completely different. It has nothing to do with the tones of all of those voices. Why don’t we write that sort of thing? We could. But it’s a matter of where you draw the line and we draw it on one side of all of these things that linguists call, for example, pragmatics. By the way, that line thing, where do you draw the line? That is the way you can get into any conversation. I guarantee you, if you are watching people talk about something and you don’t quite know where to jump in, you can’t quite do like black girls jumping in when they do double Dutch jump rope. You can’t quite you don’t know where to get in the way that you get into any conversation, whether you know anything about it or not. Is that when there’s a lull, you say, well, it just depends on where you draw the line. Somebody will always turn around and say, well, yes, of course. And then either you keep going or you let them keep going because you don’t really know anything about it. But then you’re in the conversation and you look like you know what you’re talking about. That is your advice for this week. Since we’re talking about old timeas this final musical clip is from the 1948 Hugh Martin musical. Look, Ma, I’m Dancin. And this is one of the early songs and it it’s called Gotta Dance, not the one that you’re familiar with from Singin in the Rain, but a different one. And this is Harold Lang singing.

S29: My mother didn’t raise her boy to be a dancer. That was not her mission. My father hoped I’d be an engineer or in a.. That’s what he was. And so I’m afraid that they could never allow me with my arms above me in the fifth position.

S30: But I’m a guy who’s got it. Don’t know exactly it’s me.

S31: And I am. That’s all.

S2: Isn’t that a great verse? Just that first part. My play that again, just just the verse and then keep it going. The craft of just the beginning of it’s not really about anything important. I just love the way he gets the words in tune together so nicely.

S29: My mother didn’t raise her boy to be a dancer. That was not her ambition. My father hoped I’d be an engineer or in a.. That’s what he was. And so I’m afraid that they could never help me with my arms above me in the position.

S30: But I’m the guy who’s got a day and don’t know exactly who’s in.

S31: It’s me. Right. And I must say, it’s all.

S2: Anyway, you can reach us at Lexicon Valley at Slate.com, that’s Lexicon Valley at Slate.com to listen to past shows and subscribe or just to reach out, go to Slate.com. Slash Lexicon Valley. By the way, Hugh Martin had a minor hit in London. It was called Love from Judy. If you want to dig up stuff from that, I recommend a song called A Touch of Voodoo. It’s about sex. Mike volo is, as always, the editor. And I am John.

S32: He knows he knows his job got a.

S11: I guess this segment is going to be about a slur and I’m gonna use the word as little as I can, but the slur in question is faggot as applied to gay men. And it has a very interesting etymology in that we tend to know that faggot originally meant bundle of sticks. But how do you get from there to something lobbed at a gay man or these days sometimes used among gay men as a term of affection? Well, you’ve got a bundle of sticks, and you have to remember that to people way back in the day, the bundle of sticks was as important as charging our phones is to us. You needed your bundle of sticks. That was an important part of life. It wasn’t something ceremonial. And so, of course, there was a name for it and for them it would have been a very ordinary aspect of life. There faggots in the back. That would have been quite normal. Now how do you get from there to here? Well, metaphore is everything. And so if there is a big musical instrument that you hold in front of you that looks kind of like a bundle of sticks, then one thing that you might call it is a fugly or a faggot in German because the bassoon seems like a bundle of sticks in the way it looks. We don’t happen to call it a faggot, but it makes perfect sense that if bundles of sticks are normal parts of life, then that instrument might be named after that. But there’s no reason that it would be only the instrument as it happen. There were occasions back then where somebody would have wanted their army to number a certain amount of men, didn’t have enough men, and somebody was coming a figure of authority to count how many soldiers there were. You want to inflate the count of soldiers for that person who’s coming by to check? Well, one thing that people would do is they would bring in basically dummy soldiers, people who are not soldiers at all. But you’d give them a little money or some potatoes or whatever, and you would have them just stand there and be counted in costume. So they would look like you had more soldiers than you did. Now you just know there’s gonna be a slang term for soldiers like that. And if you’re thinking of the bundle of sticks as something that you’re carrying around every day, this rattling bundle of sticks. Well, one thing you might call those soldiers is faggots. And what they meant was that they weren’t dummies, that they were just, you know, it was as if they were just these inert objects that you usually use to, you know, to burn something to keep warm. Well, you have all of your soldiers and then a bunch of faggot soldiers in the back. It had nothing to do with them being effeminate, but that meant that now faggots were personalized. So it starts out as these idle fake soldiers. You’ve got a bunch of faggots out on the back line and it makes perfect sense if faggots are central to life. But pretty soon. And wouldn’t you know this is how things go that gets extended to women? So women start being called faggots, meaning you’re just this useless and some sources have it that it was apply to old women with the idea being that the old woman was processed as a bundle of sticks. But that’s not really what the evidence suggests. It was just women in general. Sometimes the woman was 16 years old if the woman gave offence in some way. She was often called a faggot, as in she’s just this worthless bundle of sticks. It’s like calling somebody a dirtbag. Maybe today one of my favorite quotes of that kind is actually this goes all the way up to almost the present day. D.H. Lawrence refer to his cow as an annoying faggot. He calls a faggot. And that was a reference to woman hood. And as you might imagine, you could also refer to children as faggots. And it’s recorded in Great Britain and in Ireland in particular. And so I get out of here to get dirty faggots. I don’t know who that is, but that was considered quite normal, but especially women. It’s just there. So women are faggots and children are faggots. Well, where’s it going to go next? Well, you can imagine. And that is how we get from a bundle of sticks to something said to gay men. The idea was that gay men were effeminate in some way and that therefore they were faggots in the way that women were.

S1: And it’s not about burning anyone at the stake, for one thing. Evidence suggests, if I may, that the penalty for Same-Sex Activity was not in medieval England being burned at the stake, but rather you were hung or drawn and quartered. But more to the point it’s used for gay men is very recent. It actually only really appears in print. In the early 20th century. So the question is why somebody then? And it was in America why an American would start applying to gay men, a term based on gay men supposedly being burned at the stake a thousand years ago, which is something they wouldn’t have read in a book anyway. So that doesn’t make any sense. We don’t know exactly who and when created the term for gay men, but wasn’t about anybody at stake. The earliest attestation I’m aware of, for the record, is the 1890s. The Oxford English Dictionary will give you the teens where there’s some references to it sometimes without the extra G. But there’s a story that Luke Santé and his wonderful low life has a policeman telling in the 1930s about the 1890s, where supposedly there is a bar down on Cooper Square in Greenwich Village in New York, where some gay men are asked to leave a bar. And the cop recounted in the 30s that in the 1890s one of them turned around and said, well, we may be fags, but we’re not common bartenders anyway. Well, if the person said that, then, then that dates the term to the 1890s. That, anyway, is interesting to people using little words like that differently. Well, we’re not common bartenders anyway. We wouldn’t say that now, but in any case, that is the origin. And you never know if you separate people’s experiences, they’re going to do different things. Butoh that please pardon me for this, but in in England, even today people eat faggots like because it’s a bundle of sticks. And it’s not only a bundle of sticks, but even here in America you could use it to mean, say, a bundle of ideas. People are walking around with these faggots of beliefs. I swear people used it that way. In Britain, it can be used to be kind of a bundle of chopped meat. They mix it with something I want to sex sawdust, but that couldn’t be it. And it’s soaked in broth and you know, it’s all mixed up together and somehow it’s it’s coherent. I have never eaten a faggot, but you could have faggots in potatoes over there. And of course, you also smoke a fag get because the fag originally that comes from a bundle of sticks as well as a little bundle of sticks. It’s a perfectly normal metaphor. So that is the story of a very interesting word. I’m sorry I said it so often, but you know, etymology is often most interesting with the words that were supposed to say the least. So that’s a little story about a bundle of sticks.