It may come as a surprise, but probably shouldn’t, that the seemingly well-worn concepts of “losing” and “saving face” are relatively modern and their wide usages in English date from the period of 19th-century imperialism. In his new (and refreshingly brief) book On Saving Face: A Brief History of Western Appropriation, Michael Keevak claims the terms’ wide acceptance can be quite precisely traced to a publication of the last decade of the 19th century.

The Culture of Language in Ming China:  Sound, Script, and the Redefinition of Boundaries of Knowledge, Nathan Vedal (Columbia University Press, April 2022)
The Culture of Language in Ming China: Sound, Script, and the Redefinition of Boundaries of Knowledge, Nathan Vedal (Columbia University Press, April 2022)

The scholarly culture of Ming dynasty China (1368-1644) is often seen as prioritizing philosophy over concrete textual study. Nathan Vedal uncovers the preoccupation among Ming thinkers with specialized linguistic learning, a field typically associated with the intellectual revolution of the eighteenth century. He explores the collaboration of Confucian classicists and Buddhist monks, opera librettists and cosmological theorists, who joined forces in the pursuit of a universal theory of language.

Anyone who has gone even slightly off the beaten track in Southeast Asia is likely to have come across “sea people”, which go by various names: Orang Laut, Sama Bajau, Chao Le, “Sea Gypsies”. These are the people covered in Sea Nomads of Southeast Asia From the Past to the Present, a recently-published collection of (very) academic essays.

China’s increasingly dominant position in global economic and political affairs has so far not been matched by similar progress in international use of either the Chinese currency or language. This can at times seem curious to some of those charting China’s rise. Jeffrey Gil of Adelaide’s Flinders University offers The Rise of Chinese as a Global Language as an explanation of how at least the latter might finally come about.

Whether or not an explicit counter to current attempts to define a Hindu nationalist version of Indian identity, recent books for the general reader that present a nuanced multi-millennium, multi-everything story of Indian history are a welcome trend. While Tony Joseph deployed recent genetics research in Early Indians: The Story Of Our Ancestors And Where We Came From and Namit Arora visited a carefully-curated selection of ancient sites in Indians: A Brief History of A Civilization, Peggy Mohan’s vehicle is linguistics, which she uses to tell—as goes the subtitle of her recent book Wanderers, Kings, Merchants—“the story of India through its languages”.

While one might expect a text on linguistics from the title, An English Made in India is fact rather closer to travel-writing: no bad thing, for Kalpana Mohan in an engaging writer and the result is a pleasant and often erudite ramble around India. Along the way, she talks to school teachers in the hills, her family chauffeur and Uber drivers, students, Delhi booksellers, a Kerala princess and some leading Indian literary lights from Jerry Pinto and Arunava Sinha to Nabaneeta Dev Sen. Mohan is very good at this.