Number Taboos in Sino-Korean

This post is an exploration into a bit of Sino-Korean etymology and usage of certain vocabulary.

On the 22nd I wrote about the use of F in place of 4 on elevator keypads, even when it comes to Braille. Zrv made a good point about the pronunciation of 四 and 死, both 사 (sa) in Korean. From his comment:

I think it’s really not accurate to say that the homophones in this case are in a “foreign language”. Sino-Korean words are as much Korean as Latin-English words (like “very”) or Franco-English words (like “enter”) are English.

That’s absolutely true. While a Cantonese speaker would likely understand much of what was said around them while in Seoul, it’s all still Korean.

However, aware of the 죽다 verb form that’s most commonly used for “to die”, I wanted to look into the homophones. The question I left in the comments is this: By modern standards, can we consider ‘death’ and ‘four’ homophonous in Korean if 죽다 is the preferred word?

Continue reading

Healthy Teeth Sanzijing

One thing that struck me early upon arriving in China and immersing myself in the language (almost ten years ago!) was how modern Chinese is permeated with classical Chinese.  I soon came to the horrific realization that if I were to learn Chinese beyond a basic level, I would have to accept this fact.   Of course the most common way this shows up is in chengyu, but we see references to this older language everywhere, especially if we examine how school kids are taught.

One thing that horrified me as a parent was that my kids were asked to blindly memorize many long classics.  One of these is the Three Character Classic.  Because of its three character limitation, it has less possibility for variation in syntax.  There are only these four possibilities for phrase structure (where a repeated letter represents a multi-syllable word (the number of letters equals the number of syllables) and a single letter represents a one syllable word):  XXX, XXY, XYY, and XYZ.

I’m not opposed to studying these things; there is a lot of wisdom in them.  But the way they are normally studied is ridiculous:  they are memorized with very little explanation and recited in a banal rhythm at high speed.  And that’s that.  And they seem to be brainwashed into thinking that by doing so, these treasure troves of ancient wisdom will become part of them, slowly infusing them with beneficence throughout their lives.

Colgate seems to have picked up on this, and has made their own version. Continue reading

New Chinese grammar wiki

John Pasden of Sinosplice has a Shanghai-based company called AllSet Learning that focuses on helping foreigners learn Chinese.  He discovered that since people have different learning needs, especially when it comes to learning grammar, it would be a good idea to have an overall framework available to learners.  Since the only things that presently exist like this are textbooks, and there is nothing really like this on the web, he decided to make an online source.

And since the best kinds of online sources are those that keep up to date and can be corrected, he made it a wiki.

And since he’s an open-source kind of guy, interested in making things that are beneficial to all, he put it under a Creative Commons license.  Check it out here. Continue reading

Korean Braille & Elevators

Koreans, like many Chinese, have a superstition about the number 4. In Chinese it’s because 四(4) and 死(death) are both pronounced “si”. In Korean, it’s because in Chinese they’re pronounced the same. The Sino-Korean pronunciation of both is 사. In native Korean, 4 is 넷 and “to die” is 죽다, though a Sinitic-root verb also exists, 사망하다. At any rate, anyone I ever asked about this gave the answer that it’s considered unlucky because of how it’s pronounced in Chinese, not in Korean.

As a result of this, and like in China, many Korean elevators lack a 4th floor. Most often it’s replaced with ‘F’ on the button. I don’t think I ever saw a lift that simply skipped 4 as they often* do in China.

Digging through some photos of the past year, I came across one of an elevator panel that I found a little curious. Here’s the photo, scaled down a bit.

For floors 3-5, the buttons read as follows:
3 ⠼⠉
F ⠴⠋
5 ⠼⠑

Note the difference in the first letter in F as compared to 3 and 5. In Korean Braille, is the marker to show that the following glyphs are numbers. Also, consistent with many other languages written in Braille, is 3 and is 5. 4 is actually and if it were a number, would be 6. But in the second line, is preceded by . That glyph, , is actually called 영어표. That is, it’s the thing that marks the following letters as English. then corresponds to the English letter F.

It baffles me a bit that a superstitious homophone in a foreign language requires a remedy in another foreign language, when they could just write 4 and call it 넷.

- – -
* I once lived in an apartment building that numbered the floors 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 … 11, 12, 15, 16 …, probably to accommodate the triskaidekaphobic foreigners who lived there.

relevant links:
- Site in Korean w/ the full alphabet
- More limited Wikipedia site, but in Engish

Mooncake mystery

I’m cooking a lot these days. A lot. Like 小笼包 from scratch including gelatinising homemade broth and rolling out dumpling skins. Leaving no stone unturned in the world that is Chinese cuisine, I went ahead and picked up a moon cake (月饼 yuèbǐng) mould. It’s only just now 春节 so I figure I have 7 or 8 months to get really good at this.

Continue reading

Educating Τіbеtans in Τіbеtan

The American Anthropology Association’s newsletter Anthropology News has a recent post called A Fork in the Chinese Road: Educating Τіbеtans in Τіbеtan?

It’s actually a shortened version of a post from the website of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology, found here.

Either is worth a read if you’ve any interest in bi-lingual education in China, minority language rights, and possible changes in those areas of Chinese governance.

Uncommon vocabulary: knives

While in Taiwan last August, I stocked up on some Mandarin reading material. In Seoul, you can buy books in Chinese, but a 3元 ($0.47) paperback will have been marked up to ₩20,000 ($17.42) by the time it hits the shelves at the local Kyobo. I just can’t bring myself to spend $18 on a book that screams 50¢ on the cover.

Continue reading

Found Characters — take 2

When I was about to hit Post on the first ”found characters” piece the other day, I could still hear that nagging voice: “Dude, you never write things clearly the first time. Just wait. Post it tomorrow.”

From the email, it appears I shoulda listened. I got some interesting photos, but only one example of what I had in mind. So now, belatedly, here’s my attempt at a definition:

Found Character: Something that can be recognized as a Chinese character but is accidentally such. That is, it is either made by nature or made by a person who had no intent of communicating with hanzi.

For what it’s worth, Found Character is a play on Found Art – not that I’m trying to compare hanzi to urinalsContinue reading

Teeny tiny little “found characters”

You’ll excuse the artist for hooking his 小 the wrong direction, since he’s a bit of a birdbrain.

Still, I liked the style, and the medium, since that’s about the best thing one could do with Beijing’s eighth-inch of dust-dry snow.

Does anyone know if “found characters” have a formal name? I’m sure there’s some internet hound who’s collected ten thousand, but I don’t know how I’d search for them. Continue reading

The original, the only: Catty word Contest

[No, not an invitation to be rude in the comments]

Out of the hot and heavy discussion of whether “catty” is a good translation of 斤 (jīn, which means half a kilogram), from the post a couple of days ago, talk in the Sinoglot lounge took a turn towards defining a whole category of catty words. To paraphrase Sima:

A “catty” word would be an English translation of a term that is in everyday use in China. In order to qualify as “catty”, though, the English word must be one so obscure that virtually no significantly-sized group of native speakers has heard of it.

The lounge consensus is that there has to be a lot of these words. An example that might qualify comes from a discussion long ago on Beijing Sounds: 莴笋 (wōsǔn). This is a common vegetable in China (Google images). It’s English name in the ABC Dictionary is “asparagus lettuce”, but it also appears to have been given a portmanteau of its own: “celtuce” from celery + lettuce.

Now it may be that there’s some large region of English speakers that does eat large quantities of celtuce and calls it such, which I guess would disqualify it as a catty word. But around the lounge, there’s no doubt that vegetables in general will be a productive category for catty words, along with fruits, various food products, and measurements.

Got a candidate for catty word of the year? Put it in the comments. (This is one of those moments it would be cool to have a Quora-like comment rating system…)

Winner of the contest is sure to receive free drinks of choice, served around the Sinoglot lounge pool table…

Honorable mention will go to the individual who can find the catty word for 白酒 that Sima is convinced he once saw but cannot now recollect.


PS: This contest leaves behind the very intense debate (still in progress on the original catty post) over whether catty terms should be used in translations or not. Personally, I lean to the “not” side most of the time but can see arguments for including them in some instances.