25 Tibetan languages?

Victor Mair has an article on Language Log that discusses a favorite Sinoglot topic: the scope of language in China. The information on Tibetan is fascinating:

Tournadre estimates that there are 220 “Tibetan dialects” derived from Old Tibetan and currently distributed across five countries: China, India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan. In a forthcoming work, Tournadre states that these “dialects” may be classed within 25 “dialect groups,” i.e., groups that do not permit mutual intelligibility. According to Tournadre, the notion of “dialect group” is equivalent to the notion of “language,” but does not entail standardization. Consequently, says Tournadre, if the concept of standardization is set aside, it would be more appropriate to speak of 25 languages derived from Old Tibetan rather than 25 “dialect groups.” Continue reading

Bilingual education in Xinjiang

Porfiriy over at New Dominion has translated an article on Mandarin-Uyghur bilingual education. Here’s a snippet:

The so-called “bilingual” education policy, based on forcing Uyghur children to speak Chinese, has aroused intense discontent among Uyghur intellectuals both within and outside the Uyghur homeland. Critics draw attention to the potential of “bilingual” education to threaten the normal development and healthy thinking of immature children and accuse bilingual education of being a planned and deliberate assimilation policy. Continue reading

Translation: airbrushing, hyping, linking to originals

I’ll bet someone’s internet manifesto already contains this commandment: Link to original documents if possible.

I seem to recall something like that; it’d be great to have a link.

The reason this is important in the context of China is that — in the course of translating, paraphrasing, and summarizing from one language to another — sensitive subjects often get filtered. In the direction of English to Chinese they might get filtered quite literally by the censorious eye. Black and White Cat and others document this kind of airbrushing quite nicely. In the direction of Chinese to English, words sometimes get a dose of rhetorical viagra, all the better to serve a particular constituency.

This kind of thing is unavoidable. But, but… if everyone would just link original sources, eventually someone besides the unfaithful translator might go back to the original in a disinterested way, to look at what was actually said and write it thus.

In this way, linking becomes a Good Thing in and of itself. I may have my biases in translation — I may not even know that I have them, right? — but if I link to the original source I’ve opened my work up for criticism and am prepared to consider alternatives. Continue reading

One believer in Chinese grammar

Sinoglot has mentioned the curious idea (entertained by some speakers of Chinese) that the language has “no grammar.” It’s a pretty widespread feeling, often among folks you’d think would know better. Just to balance the scorecard a bit, here’s one bigwig law firm partner who begs to differ. Not only does Chinese have grammar, but newly arrived attorneys mess it up:

我们招聘的时候,很多都是先问英语好不好,但我看实际上很多人连中文都没写利落。… 最差的是连语文都没过关,因为法律文件,不管中文英文,为了表达清楚你的观点,就会写长句。这时候往往连主语、谓语、宾语都搞错了,犯很多语法上的错误。有时候我觉得这种事情很好玩,就是有些人写英文的时候,还会特别注意语法,但他写中文的时候,就不注意了,就像讲话一样。

When we’re recruiting, there are a lot of questions about whether someone’s English is good or not. But really a lot of people don’t even write Chinese well. The worst thing is their language isn’t even up to standard, because in legal writing — doesn’t matter whether it’s English or Chinese — in order to make your points clear you might end up writing long sentences. And then the subjects, predicates and objects all have errors. Sometimes I think this kind of thing is really funny: I mean there are people who are very careful with English grammar who pay no attention when it comes to Chinese — writing just like everyday speech. Continue reading

Cabbie English

Just had a brief but interesting linguistic exchange in a taxi. The driver was talking to us in Shanghainese. We were responding in a mix of Shanghainese and Mandarin. At one point the conversation veered off into what follows.

Driver (in Shanghainese Wu): … You said XX road near XX road, right?
Friend #1 (in different Wu dialect): Yeah, XX and XX.
Driver (in Wu): So… if I speak in Shanghainese, can you understand?
Us (in Mandarin): Yes / Yeah / Just can’t speak it.
Driver (in Mandarin): That’s ok. If I spoke in English you wouldn’t be able to understand it.
Driver: “bala bala chashy malagaba gaba. pasha katoo batabatee mala mala mala.”
Us: … ?
Me (Mandarin): Um… this is us up here.
Friend #2: (Wu): Yeah stop up here.
Driver (“English”): zang kayoo mala machee.

That is, “thank you very much.”

Clearly done in jest. At any rate, always interesting to see what English sounds like to non-English speakers.

Unfortunately I didn’t have the recorder running for this, and by the time I got my phone to the right setting, it had mostly passed. His English gibberish was truly priceless.

Translation as news, source linking as obligation

Sinologistical Violincellist does a fine job, as usual, of digging into what might have been said by North Korea recently. It has shown up in Business Week, for example, as “unprecedented nuclear strikes” — their quotation marks.

But where’s the original source? Missing in action, so far. So SV takes the indirect approach and translates a Chinese report on the same incident as:

strengthen the power of [our] self-defensive nuclear deterrent

He notes that this milder version doesn’t prove any case that North Korea wasn’t as provocative as reports suggest. It may just as well be Chinese media oversight directing writers to tone down the rhetoric. In either case it clearly shows the need for some original sourcing. Continue reading

How to write f*ck in Chinese

Language geeks love discussing taboo avoidance. It’s an opportunity to say the damnedest things, all in the name of furthering knowledge. Maybe that’s why Language Log has covered taboo avoidance in English so hilariously and extensively.

China’s taboos extend way beyond bad words, of course, so avoidance is something of an art here. But the following form, from the first line of a language discussion board message, was new to me:

Yǒu rén wèn “⿱入肉” zì de dúfǎ
There are people who ask how to pronounce “⿱入肉”

[Update: what's in quotes above should look like this

How to write fck in Chinese - Google Chrome 3262010 101539 AM.bmp

apparently some fonts don't render the dotted 日 properly] Continue reading

Character math

On my second-grade daughter’s worksheet the other day.


Is this common in Chinese classes for foreigners? There’s also something like an oral version of this that I’ve heard her playing (with her mother or grandmother) from time to time. If I ever get a good recording I’ll post it.

It’s kind of amusing, but pedagogically it strikes me as a waste: awfully rote compared to much of the stuff they do and are capable of at this age.

If anyone has different versions of this, you can send them to me (bjshengr <at> gmail <dot> com) and I’ll add them to the post.

Some notes on ditransitive verbs, pt. 2

Whatever the reason for this unexpected behaviour of 屬 in the sentence discussed in my previous post, we can take comfort in knowing that the syntax of the language of the oracle bones (± 1500-1000 BCE, the Shāng 商 dynasty) was far more complex still. According to the account given by Yù (2002: 20-21), it features tritransitive sacrificial verbs, with OBJ1 indicating the person on whose behalf the sacrifice is being made, OBJ2 indicating the spirit to which it is made, and OBJ3 indicating the sacrificial items. And its ditransitive sacrificial verbs can take any of six assignments discussed below, although it is not clear from Yù’s examples whether any given verb always takes the same assignments. Shěn (2002: 79-122) seems to suggest that is not the case.

Sadly, Yù’s account does not include glosses, which made this post rather hard to research. I did not have an oracle-bone dictionary at hand, so I had go to the National Central Library here in Taipei. And even their dictionaries didn’t define all the characters used in Yù’s examples, which are in modern characters and thus structurally different. So I assume I probably just couldn’t find them. Anyway, this certainly makes it difficult to confirm his analysis, especially for a beginning student such as myself. If any readers are more familiar with the language of the oracle bones, please don’t hesitate to correct the mistakes I have certainly made. In the examples quoted below, I’ll only quote and gloss the relevant verbs and their objects, not the entire sentences.

A) OBJ1 = personal matter, OBJ2 = spirit
求生妣庚 ‘ask Bǐ Gēng for longevity’
V 求: not defined in any of the dictionaries, but the later meaning of ‘ask’ seems to fit.
OBJ1 生: ‘longevity, to live’. Direct object.
OBJ2 妣庚: ‘[an ancestor]‘, probably the wife of king 大乙. Indirect object.

B) OBJ1 = spirit, OBJ2 = personal matter
祝夔事 ‘pray to Kuí for instructions’ (not employment, if this is the king praying?)
V 祝: ‘to kneel before a spirit and pray, name of a worshipping ritual’
OBJ1 夔: ‘[an ancestor]‘. Indirect object.
OBJ2 事: ‘employment, service, instructions’. Direct object.

C) OBJ1 = spirit, OBJ2 = sacrificial items
御母庚牢 ‘sacrifice cow(s)/sheep to Mǔ Gēng’
V: 御 ‘to sacrifice’
OBJ1 母庚: ‘[an ancestor]‘, probably the mother of king 大乙. Indirect object.
OBJ2 牢:  ‘cow(s)/sheep used in sacrifices’. Direct object.

D) OBJ1 = sacrificial items, OBJ2 = spirit
燎白 羊豕父丁妣癸 ‘[burn] one hundred sheep and pigs for Fù Dīng and Bǐ Guǐ’
V 燎: not defined in the oracle-bone dictionaries, but the later meaning of ‘to burn’ does not seem an unlikely reading.
OBJ1 白羊豕: ‘one hundred sheep and pigs’. 白 was used to write both the word for ‘white’ and the numeral, but white pigs do not exist, or so I think. Direct object.
OBJ2 父丁妣癸: ‘[two ancestors]‘. Indirect object.

E) OBJ1 = personal matter, OBJ2 = sacrificial items
寧風三羊三犬三豕 ‘[???] three sheep, three dogs and three pigs for the wind’
V 寧: only defined as ‘peaceful, composed’ in the dictionaries I consulted, which does not make sense here. Yù says it is a sacrificial verb, which would probably rule out reading this as ‘to calm down’.
OBJ1 風: ‘the wind, [name of a spirit]‘. Unsure whether this means the wind was worshipped, but that’s not really relevant here either. Indirect object.
OBJ2 三羊三犬三豕: ‘three sheep, three dogs and three pigs’. Direct object.

F) OBJ1 = sacrificial items, OBJ2 = person
卯十牛年 ‘to sacrifice ten cows for [a good] harvest’
V 卯: ‘to kill an animal as a sacrifice’
OBJ1: 十牛 ‘ten cows’. Direct object.
OBJ2: 年 ‘harvest’. Indirect object.

A quick summary of the structures seen in the above examples, then:

Among these, structures A, C and D are all quite common, according to Yù. There’s only one known sentence for assignments B and F, however. Yù also notes that normal verbs of giving, which might be expected to work differently from sacrificial verbs, can also be observed to take V-IO-DO and V-DO-IO assignments in the oracle inscriptions.

From the examples given in Yù, then, it looks as if the V-IO-DO word order, which is quite firmly established in the texts commonly accepted to have been written from the late Zhōu 周 dynasty onward, was not yet universal in the language of the oracle bones. Shěn treats the subject in quite a bit more detail than Yù, but I do not have the time nor the space to summarise his work here. What’s important here is that from a quick glance through his work, it seems to me his analysis is consistent with Yù’s.

Shěn (1992). Shěn Péi 沈培.  Yīnxū jiǎgǔ bǔcí yǔxù yánjiū 殷墟甲骨卜辭語序研究 [Research into the word order of the oracle inscriptions from the ruins of Anyang]. Táiběi 臺北:  Wén​lǜ​ chūbǎnshè 文律出版社, 1992.
Yù (2002). Yù Suìshēng 喻遂生. Jiǎjīn yǔyán wénzì yánjiū lùnjí 甲金語言文字研究論集 [Collected essays on the language and script of the oracle bones and the bronze inscriptions]. Chéngdū 成都: Bāshǔ shūshè 巴蜀書社, 2002.

Character vivisection (衍)

I know you’ve all got character peeves. You must, because I do, and I’ve got all the visual aesthetic of the Generic Brand product line manager. The character 罚, for example, always seems strained to me, with the lower half looking like one of those typesetting snafus where a single word gets j   u   s   t   i   f   i   e   d across an entire line.

But this isn’t about peeves, especially 罚, because then someone might get excited about how it looks better in traditional characters (罰) and this would turn into a simplified vs. traditional free-for-all. We definitely don’t want that.

This is about tools for character analytics.

How does one go about finding another — or, alternatively, demonstrating that there exists no other — character like 衍, which has a three-drop water (三点水) in the middle of the character. More narrowly: how does one go about doing it without just asking people? How can you do it systematically? Continue reading