Long Time No See

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 32

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Turns out, Long Time No See is a highly problematic phrase, which is a real problem as I've been teaching it to my students as part of the standard curriculum for a long time now.

Let me back up. There's a standard greeting in Japan that goes, "hisashi-buri." The characters used to write it mean "long time" and "again." Translated properly, it equates to any number of English phrases: I haven't seen you in a long time. It has been a long time (since we last met.) It's been a while. And, of course, uh, long time no see.

True story: When I was still new to teaching, I got put in charge of a new, tiny, very remote school. A lot of my students were grown-ups who worked at the nearby pharmaceutical corporations, which meant that most of them had been studying English for far longer than I had been teaching it. And one of these students greeted me with a big grin and a hearty, "long time!" every week.

It kind of threw me for a loop because, prior to coming to Japan, I don't think I had ever actually said the phrase. What I didn't know was that there were several generations of English textbooks full of direct translations of common Japanese phrases. And, in one of these, the aforementioned hisashi-buri became "long time no see."

I had assumed (ass-u-me, check) that l.t.n.s. came out of the Golden Age of Sail when Britain, Portugal, and the U.S. (among others) were busily dividing and conquering anything that couldn't be bought or traded for. Like Hong Kong. As the British settled into China, a pidgin language was quickly developed that allowed for over-educated British officers to speak to uneducated dock workers. The same thing happened in the U.S. while building the transcontinental railroad. And in France. And Portugal. And everywhere else the conquerors went. Thus, as I said, my assumption that the phrase came out of that era.

And that is one theory. But, it’s also possible (and likely) that the phrase was a mockery of the linguistic difficulties the native Americans had with the white man's words. In fact, the first recorded use of the phrase is actually, "Good morning. Long time no see you." Haha. Stupid savages. Thankfully, we live in more enlightened times where no one would ever dream of mocking someone's inability to speak another language fluently. (Your sarcasm meter should be pegged all the way to the right, by the way.)

Regardless of whether it arose out of pidgin or mockery, it remains problematic to say the least. There are a lot of other angles and takes on this subject - prescriptive teaching and language policing are just two - but, for me, I think I’ll be taking it out of my teaching lexicon. I’ll stick to the more difficult (but also more semantically correct) versions of the sentiment. It may be a bit of an adjustment, but what linguistic change isn’t?


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I’m going to let stack exchange user Sven Yargs do the heavy lifting here. In a post from roughly 6 years ago, he outlines 12 of the earliest recorded uses in American lexcial corpora. He summarizes his research thusly:

To sum up these instances, three (#1, #2, and #7) are attributed to Native American speakers (and include "you" or "him" at the end of the phrase); two (#3 and #11) to Chinese immigrants in the United States; one (#4) to native Japanese speakers in Japan; five (#5, #6, #8, #9, and #10) to native (or at last English-fluent) English speakers in the United States; and one (#12, which isn't an instance of "long time no see" at all but a comparable formulation) to a native South Sea Islander.

Clearly, by 1915, some native English speakers (at least in the western United States) were using the phrase among themselves, and by 1920 it seems to have caught on as a casual greeting that wouldn't startle the readership of Good Housekeeping.

The entire post is worth a read. You can find it here.

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Notable Events of 1900:

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Languages, splanguages

So, just what is a pidgin language, anyway? Or a creole? Or a patois? A lingua franca? Here are some (very) brief definitions:

  • pidgin - a kind of mixed language, usually one that arises when two different cultures are meeting and interacting for the first time.

  • creole - think of it as a midway point between pidgin and language. It still shows roots and rules from both of its parent languages but is developing its own grammar and lexicon.

  • patois - a very corrupted dialect of a given language.

  • lingua franca - basically the common language in a given situation; the language that everyone can speak even if it is not their native tongue.

Next time: I’ll carry your bones. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.

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