Chao 1.1 — getting used to chao-fann and law-biing

Chances are, since you’re reading this quirky, Chinesey, languagey blog, that you’ve heard of Yuen Ren Chao’s monumental A Grammar of Spoken Chinese. It is often the first reference book to check for folks who are obsessed with Sinitic languages, especially modern, spoken varieties.

Still, odds are low that you’ve actually read it. First, it’s out of print, as far as I can tell, and used copies are really expensive. Second, its use of the elegant but hard-to-learn romanization system, Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR), which Chao (赵元任 Zhào Yuánrèn) was instrumental in helping create, makes it one step further removed from accessibility. Finally, as with any grammar that is approaching fifty years old, invariably it is getting figuratively dog-eared on certain points of phonology and usage.

But these are minor shortcomings. It’s a marvelous book. I haven’t read my copy cover-to-cover, but every time I open it I discover something I hadn’t thought of or realize that some “discovery” I thought I’d made was long ago elaborated and discussed by Chao.

How to get at the book, then? Well, the ideal solution, in my mind, would be for the current owners of copyright to put it in the public domain and then allow the interested public to turn the whole thing into linked, computer-readable text, complete with Pinyin to accompany the original GR.

I don’t see that happening, so here are a couple of alternatives:

  1. Use this copy on Google books, since it seems to let you look at lots of pages. The drawback is that there have been Google-book copies in the past that I’ve referenced that have later had access drastically reduced. I’m not at all sure how that works in terms of copyright, but for the end user, the result is that you can’t rely on electronic copies stored by someone else.
  2. See bits and pieces as I post them on Sinoglot. Read on for how this will work…

I’ll start with today’s post to create an occasional series on Chao’s book.

Even in contemplating the first section of Chao’s first chapter, I’ve struggled with how to make the endeavor less daunting. It would be too much, I think, to discuss an entire subsection in a single post. He simply covers too much territory. It would also be a problem if we are ever required to take down the scans — all the analysis and discussion would be lost!

My plan is to post this subsection as is, and dissect parts in later posts. If any reader has a way to OCR the files, that would be fantastic. Or if you see a part you like and want to type it out and, better yet!, add Pinyin… Either way I’ll be happy to append it to this post to make it a little more computer and search friendly.

Penultimately, please let me know if you have ideas for making this project more accessible and ultimately more useable. Comment below or email bjshengr 在 gmail。com

Finally, let’s not forget about chao-fann* and law-biing from the title of this post. Those are Chao’s GR spellings of 炒饭 (chǎo fàn) and 烙饼 (lào bǐng) respectively. They come up in a brief but intricate discussion of stress and grammatical class in the following section (p.11) that is probably worth a post in itself.

Enough ado about something — here’s Chao 1.1:












* The original title of this entry had this as “chao fam” (you can still see that spelling in the url). Thanks to Zev Handel in the comments below for pointing out that this is a typo. The proper GR spelling is “fann”, which shows up in several other places on that page.

3 responses to “Chao 1.1 — getting used to chao-fann and law-biing”

  1. Zev Handel says:


    Oh dear, your post title repeats what looks like a typographic error in Chao’s Grammar. In GR, the fourth-tone form of the syllable “fan” is “fann” — that’s a “double n”, not an “m”! No -m endings in Mandarin, even in GR. Yet is sure does look like an “m” there in the original of page 11. I’ll try to remember to check my copy when I’m back in the office.

  2. Syz says:

    @Zev: thanks. I’ve corrected it above. Should have known that GR isn’t really that weird. Interesting you mention -m endings. I believe Chao has a discussion of some possible -m endings, so I’ll bring it up again when I get there.

    BTW: the scans are pretty high quality, so your browser should let you click in to show you enough detail to see the typo. In Google Chrome it took me a few clicks but eventually I got there.

  3. Zev Handel says:

    I confirmed the typo in my own copy of the book. It turns out that “fann” appears correctly earlier on the same page, fifth line of the first full paragraph.

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