Writing English: the etic view

Further to It’s the only language they understand, we often cite another quote from a Hebei village. Watching me writing in English in my notebook, a  peasant described what I was doing as

二十几个字来回倒

It’s not easy to translate nicely—something like

messing around with a couple of dozen letters

Or even

arbitrarily jumbling up a couple of dozen letters

This is clearly a common sentiment among those unfamiliar with the process—it always gets a laugh.

53 GN and WM amused cropped

Relaxing in the scripture hall between rituals, Golden Noble and Wu Mei amused by my notebook.

Actually, my notes would be pretty incomprehensible to most English people too, with all my personal acronyms, abbreviations, and pinyin—like

LMS: HL at end of ZX; + for FS, on shang fatai.

which tells me (and only me):

Li Manshan says: the percussion item Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (Huanglong san zhuanshen) is played at the end of the Transferring Offerings (zhuanxian) ritual, and also for the Pardon (fangshe), on ascending the ritual platform.

I often marvel when fieldworkers quote from their apparently perfectly formulated notebooks, full of theoretical reflections. Gregory Barz (Shadows in the Field, p.45–62) explores this issue well. For me, an idiolect of shorthand is vital—in the middle of chasing round trying to keep up with Li Manshan, offering round cigarettes in a noisy crowded room, snatched moments between ritual segments to document what I’ve just learned, and further seeking his guidance…

One thought on “Writing English: the etic view

  1. Pingback: It’s the only language they understand | Stephen Jones: a blog

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