Written characters’ influence on speech

It comes up more often than you might think in conversations with people about linguistics, and what linguistics is. What it is not is grammar pedantry, especially when it comes to phrases like “I should of” or “you’re book is over there”. Those aren’t even grammatical issues; they’re entirely orthographical.

Of course there are possible isntances where the written word does influence the way we speak, and there are a number of readily available cases of this in Mandarin. Today I ran into my nemesis of spelling pronunciations: 秘鲁 Perú. The traditional pronunciation in Mandarin is bìlǔ, but since 秘 is 破音字, many people use the more common pronunciation for 秘 and pronounce the country name as mìlǔ. I’ve even met native speaking Mandarin teachers who were unaware of a bìlǔ pronunciation.

The other case that comes to mind is the word for “network”. In China, it’s wǎngluò and all is well. The characters are 网络 and no one writes otherwise (as far as I’ve seen). Meanwhile here in Taiwan, we don’t every say 网络. Well, I do, but I get corrected. Here the common word is 网路 wǎnglù, and I can’t recall a single time I’ve ever heard otherwise, and it’s a word I pay extra attention to, being one that I learned “incorrectly” in China. I can’t help but think there’s something orthographical behind this change.

Were I someone with a lot more free time I’d look into it.

2 responses to “Written characters’ influence on speech”

  1. Zrv says:

    Are you sure that the two words for network represent a “change” from PRC to Taiwan? It’s possible that the two words were coined independently (and that the graphic similarity is a coincidence). luò 络 ‘net’ and lù 路 ‘road’ both seem to be semantically well motivated in a compound meaning ‘network’. It’s also possible that the Taiwanese word preceded the PRC word. We’d have to get data on first attestations to know.

    The graphic similarity of luò and lù is striking, but I’m having trouble thinking of a scenario that would involve it in the transformation of one word into another. Maybe someone from Taiwan sees the PRC word briefly, later tries to recall it to use it in Taiwan, and gets the character mixed up?

    • Kellen says:

      Not at all sure no. I should have used a different word than “change”. Change only reflects a change in my own usage, and isn’t mean to imply an actual change over time in use by native speakers.

      If it were a change, as far as how it could happen, what you suggest could work. Alternatively someone simply misremembers the character and ends up writing 路 instead, or something like that. There are a lot of possibilities, but I obviously can’t speak tot he likelihood of any one being true.

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