Exercised over promiscuous polysemy

Snide comments have a way of getting outed sooner or later. But since a couple of months had passed since I compared Chinese characters to English spelling, neither in very favorable light, I thought I’d gotten away with this one:

I nominate 练 vs 炼 for membership to the Unnecessary Distinction in Hanzi category. Both say liàn and both mean, roughly “exercise” — as in 训练,锻炼.

And I had gotten away with it — until yesterday, when 练 vs 炼 got a public defender who noted* some quite different senses of 练 and 炼. Fair enough, I’m not trying to say there’s no difference. I’m saying that

  1. Chinese characters make lots of distinctions in written language that do not exist in spoken language. [This is not remotely controversial]
  2. I am claiming that, in many cases, they do this for no good reason [this is sure to be controversial]

What would a good reason be? The standard I’d propose would run something like this:

Use distinct written representations of homophones if and only if native speakers are apt to be confused when they are represented by the same written form.

Let’s be fair to Chinese and use some English examples. To borrow Zev Handel’s comment on the same post, I agree it’d be confusing in some cases to represent “to” and “too” with the same spelling. The short sentence, “I’m going to”, without any other context could certainly be read to two ways. But then again, I’m not so sure it’d cause as much confusion as you might think.

On the other hand, some English spelling differences are egregiously pointless. “Stationary” vs “stationery” comes to mind. Let’s say we merged the spellings. “Ack!” exclaim the upholders of English orthography (UEOs), “Then you wouldn’t know when I was talking about a ‘stationary store’ or a ‘stationery store’!”**

Uh, sure. Or, maybe not. Even if you really wanted to talk about a stationary store in the sense of a store that was stationary (not that sold stationery), you’d be hard-pressed to make that clear with today’s spelling conventions unless you jumped through some hoops as I did just now. Absent that, only 3% of the readership would notice, 90% of them would just think you spelled it wrong, and the other 0.3% are gotcha mavens you don’t care about anyway.

What I think many UEOs forget is how well we deal with homonyms all the time. We do it so well that we have trouble realizing how promiscuously polysemous many words are — until you get Geoff Pullum posing a question like this:***

What do support poles, staff positions, battery terminals, army encampments, blog articles, earring stems, trading stations, and snail mail have in common with billboard advertising, accounts recording, making bail, and assigning diplomats?

The answer is that they are all based on post and yet we have no trouble dealing with them in writing or speaking.

So should 练 and 炼 be merged? Oh, relax. As I’ve said before, I’m not advocating the abolition of Chinese characters. I’m not advocating character reform. I haven’t even answered to my own satisfaction whether the two characters meet the standard set out above (i.e. if they were spelled the same would people get confused?).

The interesting question to me is where scripts draw the line between strict representation of sound and attempts at parsing polysemy.


* What commenter 很有区别 [there’sabigdifference] said:

“练”的意思是大多是说人或者动物反复学习,多次操作使自身的水平/等级提高的过程 。像是英文中的 Train。





“炼”的意思多指物质/事物本质发生巨大变化的结果 像是英文中的:Refine ,Smelt

1,从花里提炼出了香料 (提炼 多用于化学方面 , 花 —— 香料)
2,把铁矿石冶炼成了钢材 (指锻造或冶炼 , 铁矿石 —— 钢材)
3,锻炼身体 / 锻炼出了钢铁般的意志 (把人的身体或者精神比喻作其他物质/材料 加以改造 )

练 和 炼 因为读音相同口头上听不出来



**Interestingly, prosody usually makes these distinct in spoken English: STAtionery store, stationary STORE.

***Promiscuously Polysemous is Pullum’s term in the same article. Damn that’s beautiful.

I nominate vs for membership to the Unnecessary Distinction in Hanzi category. Both say liàn and both mean, roughly “exercise” — as in 训练,锻炼.

12 responses to “Exercised over promiscuous polysemy”

  1. hsknotes says:

    I’m sure you have some case to be made, just possibly not with those two characters. Two other things, one, I think a lot of the “reform” you are talking about has happened and will continue to go on. If you read older works that retain character variants (or the standards of their day), you’ll see there has been a great deal of simplification. Two, your “spoken as supremely dominant” attitude just doesn’t jive with native speakers, nor do I think it ever will.

    As for the “Use distinct written representations of homophones if and only if native speakers are apt to be confused when they are represented by the same written form.”

    You don’t actually believe that. You have the “to/too” example above, but you’re not thinking about the gigantic range of “simplifcation” attacks this kind of logic can lead to. There’s a very simple reason your spelling is not uniform and likely never will be reformed again to any great extent: languages aren’t logical systems, they’re human systems.

    And besides, what’s the point? Who’s complaining? Who’s begging to have to write to instead of too? If non-native speakers of any language want to come up with a spelling system of their own creation more power to them, I just don’t see why the native population would take any interest.

  2. Chrix says:

    The Japanese did this in their character reform, and got rid of a host of rarely used characters in the process.

  3. Kellen Parker says:

    I can’t speak for people dying to write to over too, but I hope I never have to write 機 again when 机 could be used just as well. Same goes for 讓/让.

    hsknotes: you said “If you read older works that retain character variants (or the standards of their day), you’ll see there has been a great deal of simplification”. I read a lot of older texts and so you’ve got me curious. Can you give me an example? Do you mean something like 為 and 爲?

    Also, just out of curiosity, you said “your spelling”. Are you not a native English speaker?

    edit: For the record, I hate writing 讓 but I absolutely want to have the ability to type it. So “get rid of” isn’t my preferred wording.

  4. hsknotes says:

    Two examples. You don’t see a lot of 纔 for 才 these days, or 罣 for 掛 for that matter. Part of this is font/publishing uniformity, but no one is forcing me to stop writing colour instead of color (except that red line!) unless I have a style editor. And even in those cases, places like the new yorker still maintain ridiculously non-standard style guidelines.

    I don’t really understand the “I hope I never have to write 機 again when 机 could be used just as well. Same goes for 讓/让”

    I’m not sure I understand this complaint. I’m sure any language has words that are harder to spell than others, and occasionally you’ll have to write them until we move to a fully typable era. Does that mean I get to tell Reykjavik that their name is going to the firing line?

    2, What has ever stopped anyone from writing 让 instead of 讓? I live in Taiwan, they do this. The only time you need to write the traditional form is in formal/official situations. I don’t see how this is substantially different from requiring you to fill out a form at the DMV using “something” instead of “sth”.

    By “older texts” i meant not only texts written long ago, but editions that have textual variants. Reading shakespeare or chaucer with all the mispellings, spelling variants, etc, is very different from reading say, the barnes and noble edition (do they even place variants and correction notes in the back?)

  5. hsknotes says:

    the “your spelling” did not imply I was not a native speaker, it was used in a more general sense.

  6. 機 sucks to write. So does 讓. No one’s making me. I just don’t like doing it. This is not at all like the Reykjavik example. That’s just silly. 让 isn’t the same as “sth”. 让 is the normal standard official character, not an abbreviation any more than “ok” is still an abbreviation for “all correct”. Not here in the PRC at least.

  7. 我来串门 says:

    to SYZ

    Please forgive me if I made any Misunderstand.
    bcz my english is only 《America’s Next Top Model》 level.

    我直接说中文了 相信你中文水平很高 我写英文没人能看懂 <:(


    “What would a good reason be?”

    上面的hsknotes和Kellen Parker也说到了相同的问题 因为汉字的演变和社会发展有很大关系,中国历史的各个时期都同时存在着这么几种字

    正体字 (官方通用字 比如现在的繁体和简体 s/t)
    俗体字 (民间老百姓用的字 響/响)
    异体字 (音义相同形不同的字 群 /羣)
    简化字 (为了方便书写演化的字 s/t)

    正如你也有这种感觉 我也觉得在最开始创立的时候“练”和“炼”从意思上没区别 只是彼此的异体字,都是形容一个劳动的过程,不同的偏旁只是为了区别行业(丝织和冶炼)它的读音不影响理解,因为包含的信息量很少 无关紧要。

    但随着科技的进步 冶炼业医药的发展和细化,从“炼”这个字产生了许多相关行业的“词” (冶炼 锻炼 提炼… )变得重要起来,而原本是丝织业的"练"又因为各种原因扩展了自己的应用范围(能音和义通 染、拣、柬 )。 所以两个字变得不适宜共用含义。

    但是他们的发音不影响人的理解,因为到了现代 已经没有使用单字的用法了 基本上全是和其他字形成“词” 现代中文语法相对简单明了 是因为字组成的词已经包含了很大的信息量。

    实际上相对于“炼”的例子 有两个字相似性更令人发指 大多数中国人都不能准确的区别它们,“够” “夠” 看似左右相反的不同写法,“多”在后面表示达到某个限度,

    你觉得呢 ? “够”“夠”有没有光明的未来? 会不会像 ”炼""练"成长那么多?

  8. matt says:

    For what it’s worth, the Duan Yucai edition (from 1807) of Xu Shen’s “Postface” to the Shuo wen jie zi variously writes 法 and 灋 for fǎ, 於 and 于 for yú, and three forms – 以, 㠯, and 巳 (not 已) – for the word yǐ that is usually written 以. I’m not always sure what distinctions (if any) he’s making, but the forms alternate throughout the short text.

  9. Bruce says:

    This is all good fun, but surely we all know — deep in our hearts — that such distinctions in written Chinese were born of the need for badly underemployed gentry to find “meaning” in their lives, while the peasantry slaved away at “meaningless” tasks like planting rice seedlings…

  10. Syz says:

    @Bruce: exactly!

  11. 我来串门 says:

    因为随着中国文化和经济的发展 汉字也是在发展。
    许多人去研究浩瀚的古代汉字,目的是从中发掘适于现代人们生活生产建设的文字,新中国成立后的简化字运动统一了标准汉字,简化体的写法带动了人们整体文化水平的迅速提高。(我还是喜欢传统汉字 因为用来写书法太爽了!)

    但简体毕竟有限,其实随着社会发展和需要,中国每年都会恢复订正一些传统汉字, 比如“孃” 、“剋”、“锺”、“蘋”、“噁”等都是近年恢复的。相比英语国家是在不断创造新词,而中文是在挖掘以前的字,通过细化和分类来满足发展的需求。

    有意思的是 人们在用词方面会产生有趣的误解,比如你对一个学生说

    另外,比如这首诗,发音和字意思都不影响人们理解 表面上看是首伤感的写景诗。


    明显作者利用字的读音搞了一个恶作剧。当你大声念出来的时候,周围的人都笑了(特别是陕西和河南人 听起来简直是方言) 因为他们可以听成你说



  12. hsknotes says:

    I wrote a much longer response which was sadly lost to the computer monsters.

    That response said a lot of things, which I’ve forgotten and don’t care to remember. But, two things it had to do with were 1, people don’t write in clean block letters in english or chinese. It makes writing 讓 in 繁體 or 释 in 简体 much easier. I believe one of the commenters above alluded to it, if not, its just something that you get used to.

    2, 让 is sth from something, or at least plane, from airplane, or sub, from submarine. The shorthand became the standard, english just lacks a language police.

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