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Apr 18, 2019

Lost in translation
After the Qing effectively imposed sovereign rule over most of China in 1644, a long process of linguistic standardisation kicked off. As anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of both languages might expect, this wasn't a straightforward business. Today we were lucky to host a guest speaker who presented his latest research on two Manchu-Chinese dictionaries made during the reigns of emperors Kangxi and Qianlong. The first, which appeared in 1708 for the purpose of aiding communication between Manchu and Chinese administrative officials, is a curious specimen—a monolingual Manchu dictionary or glossary of flora and fauna native to China. As the northern Manchus made their way south into lands unknown to them, they were literally at a loss for words to describe the strange creatures and vegetation they encountered for the first time. The Manchu language was all but stationary—it was constantly shifting and inventing to make room for a flood of neologisms for things new to them. The interesting secret behind this dictionary is that, despite appearances, it is more than just a monolingual dictionary. Though written in the Manchu script (not a single Chinese character appears), a considerable number of the entries make references to, and phonetically represent, existing Chinese names and terms for plants and animals.

The amount of scholarly stamina and methodological awareness behind this research is staggering. Even more impressive is this young scholar's mastery of languages—he's a Norwegian who works with Chinese and Manchu sources and supplements this with Korean and Japanese, all the while reading Jesuit records in Latin and French. He then presents his findings in impeccable English. Meeting people like him always rekindles the dying embers of my will to continue learning languages. I know I'll never be as fluent or erudite as half the people I encounter in this field, but the motivation helps me to become a better historian.