Before birth

Every morning at 8 and every evening at 6:30, I religiously delete the “news update” text sent by the mobile phone company here in Beijing. Little did I know that in the process of resenting the intrusion, I was denying myself the daily joke that comes with the afternoon update. My third-grader daughter is not so dismissive. She snags the phone once in a while and scans before I delete, pointing out the jokes she thinks I’ll get (not many). The other day there was one with a bit of grammar in it:


Late at night a taxi driver picks up a young woman  going to an outer district. On the way, the young woman gives him an apple. The driver, eating, says “Delicious!” only to hear the woman slowly reply, ” Yes, before birth (in my past life) I liked them.”


The taxi driver is so scared his scalp tingles! The young woman continues, “But after I’d given birth to my child my tastes changed completely!”

The joke’s twist depends on an ambiguity that also exists for some verbs in English, but not for this particular verb. Continue reading

Languages in early China

note: This post was originally published by Daan on the Sinoglot daughter site “Nothing Undone”. Today that site is being absorbed by the main blog and all the posts and comments have thus been brought over. We are therefore re-posting this today to introduce you to Daan and his work. Enjoy. -KP

When we think of the languages used in traditional China, we almost always naturally think of Classical Chinese first. After all, it is the language which we need to learn in order to read most of the well-known philosophical treatises and histories from the Warring States period and the Qín and Hàn dynasties. But that does not mean it was the only language in use in traditional China.

First of all, as Norman (1988: 83) points out, Classical Chinese is a written language, used in China from roughly 400 BCE to 200 CE. It is not a spoken language (or vernacular), but it was based on the vernacular of the era in which it emerged. After the fall of the Eastern Hàn dynasty in 220 CE, Classical Chinese was codified and remained in use among literati as as a written language until the early 20th century. It was not the only written language to be used, though, as the language used in later written works reflected the enormous changes in the spoken language as time went by, not least because of the influence of the rise of Buddhism on the Sinitic languages. I should write a bit on that another day, as it’s an interesting story in its own right. For now, let us restrict ourselves to the languages in China before the collapse of the Eastern Hàn dynasty (which I’ll call early China).

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Sunflowers and eggcorns

If you’re not up on your eggcorn lit, take a browse through the stacks at Language Log — the eggcorn section is immense. The gist of eggcornism is that a word gets respelled based on an incorrect but plausible analysis of its origins. To quote the founding post:

It’s not a folk etymology, because this is the usage of one person rather than an entire speech community.

It’s not a malapropism, because “egg corn” and “acorn” are really homonyms (at least in casual pronunciation), while pairs like “allegory” for “alligator,” “oracular” for “vernacular” and “fortuitous” for “fortunate” are merely similar in sound (and may also share some aspects of spelling and morphemic content).

It’s not a mondegreen because the mis-construal is not part of a song or poem or similar performance.

In any case, Mandarin is chock full of possible eggcorns, primarily because nearly every possible spoken syllable has more than one (often many) characters that could be used to represent it.

Here’s one my daughter came up with tonight. Instead of writing

“sunflower” or, sort of character-by-character: “facing-sun-plant”

she wrote:

resembling-sun-plant” Continue reading

Parallel Homophony

While looking up some obscure thing from Zhuangzi 庄子 this week, I fired up Pleco on my iPod and stumbled across something I liked, though I may be the only one.

燕 yàn means swallow, as in the bird.
嚥 yàn, also written 咽, means swallow, as in what I’m doing with a cold bottle of maibock as I write this.

That’s freaking amazing! Or maybe just slightly amazing. Two homophones in English are also homophonous in Mandarin, internal to each language. How often does that happen? Maybe often and I’ve just never noticed. So I thought I’d post it here and see if anyone had other examples of this sort of thing.

It reminds me of another interesting but obviously different thing that happens sometimes, which is two words that sound the same in two languages, mean the same thing, but have no etymological connection. For example the word “and” in Arabic is written وَ while Korean has a word meaning “and” written 와. Both are pronounced “wa”. There’s some better example between Japanese and English that I’ve encountered before but I can’t recall what it was. Suggestions of that sort are also welcome.

Expo Sloganery

If you’ve been in Shanghai any time in the last 2 or more years, you’ve undoubtedly been accosted by the slogan for the Expo. In English, which is possibly more common than the Mandarin version, it’s

Better City, Better Life.

I was fine with it, until it started being duplicated everywhere. I mean everywhere, and with great modification. Billboards in the city give the slogan, and then immediately follow it with “Better x, Better y,” where x and y are things or ideas related to the company that bought the advertising space. Better Windows, Better View. Better Fish Oil, Better Whatever. You get the idea. But for the most part, the Mandarin version was always consistent in my experience. It’s reads…
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Hanzi vs Pinyin, in case you hadn’t heard enough

Just procrastinated my way into a (sort of) recent Language Log post by Victor Mair. The subject is whether Chinese characters are “necessary” for writing Chinese. There are 62 comments at this writing and a frenzy of emotion. One of the key quotes from Mair:

My rule of thumb is always this: if homography were a problem in (more or less) phonetic scripts based on real, spoken languages, then homophony would be a problem in the speech of such languages.

I’m not trying to pick on words, but this looks to me more like a tautology than a rule of thumb. By definition, spoken language written in a phonemic script is not going to have homophony problems unless the spoken language has homophony problems.

So why the big debate over whether Mandarin “can” be written in Pinyin? It’s helpful to parse the question a bit. The real issue is whether Mandarin as it is currently written could be written successfully using Pinyin. That’s the only case of serious interest. The other two — (a) writing Classical Chinese in Pinyin, or (b) writing spoken Mandarin in Pinyin — should be universally acknowledged as (a) impossible, and (b) a cinch. Continue reading

Your dirty Southern accent

Upon returning from the holiday I found my internet had been cut. I knew it would happen, but not so soon. I pay ever 6 months and I figured it was due to expire.

So I trudged over to the closes place to fix that by paying a few hundred kuai to a guy to make a phone call to China Telecom for me. A bystander decided it was a good time for a chat, and began by asking me how long I had lived in the North (北方 beifang) before coming to Shanghai. Confused, I told him I’ve not spent more than 6 days in the North in all my time in China. I explained I’ve spent all my time in Jiangnan where I’m quite comfortable and had no interest in living up north.

Stepping back a second, I should say I pride myself on the small bit of Shanghainess in my Mandarin accent. I proudly pronounce 十 as “si” and 44 as “si si si”. Unfortunately it means I often go about my day with many people not quite understanding what I’m saying. In fact, moments before my internet issues, I had been speaking to a local aiyi who, for some reason, thought I said I had been to 法國 fǎgúo this past week instead of 韓國 hángúo. I’m still not why she thought she heard that. So when I went to fix the internet, I corrected.

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