Xiao’erjin is not quite Pinyin

Xiao’erjin (alternatively xiao’erjing¹ 小儿经) is the name of a form of transcription for Mandarin and related languages. Rather than using Cyrillic or Roman letters, the Arabic script is used. China has had a large Muslim population for about as long as there have been Muslims, and it was among those of them who were less likely to have a traditional classical education that the system was used.

The structure is fairly simple. Syllable initial consonants are written with a single Arabic letter. The final then was primarily done with harakat or vowel diacritics. Before Annals of Wu, was blogging on xiao’erjin and Chinese Islam in general on another site, appropriately enough called xiao er jing.


Chinese tally marks

I just finished watching the documentary “Please Vote For Me” by Chen Weijun as aired on the CBC. It is 45 minutes of the drama involved in an election at a public school in Wuhan where three students get to run for the position of class monitor and have the other students vote. One of the three students almost ruined it for me by being such a brat, and I fear for anyone among the 老百姓 who someday fall under his domain.

One part of the film caught me a little by surprise. Near the end, as they were finally counting the votes, they employed a tallying system that I’d heard of once before, but it was so long ago and poorly explained that I mostly shut it out of my memory.


Observations on discounts and predictiveness

I was remembering something from my trip to Seoul in October, which then got me on to other things. The word for woman, or at least the important syllable when it comes to choosing the right bathroom (i.e. not the one that says ‘woman’ in my case) is 야 (ya). I thought of this because a friend who is studying hanja asked about 肉 which is 욕 (yok) in Korean (as far as the hanja is pronounced) but nyo’ in Wu, yuk in Cantonese and にく (niku) in Japanese¹. So basically I figured Mandarin r- becomes Korean hanja y-, though it’s ny- in Wu and Cantonese. Turns out I stopped one step too soon. the y- in Korean is actually only half the story. If the syllable is the first in the phrase, then it is in fact y-. Beyond that, however, it picks up an n-, making ny-. So the 肉 in 鸡肉 would actually be closer to nyok, bringing it almost perfectly in line with many Wu dialects.


Ryakuji in Mandarin

In Japanese they’re called ryakuji りゃくじ. In Korean, yakja 약자. The corresponding characters are 略字, pronounced lüè zì in Mandarin. They are the unorthodox simplifications that are seen in handwritten texts from time to time. They are not in any official list of approved kanji/hanja/hanzi, and you won’t really learn them in school. But they are used.

Think 仃 for 停 but lacking the authority once (briefly) held by 仃. Or, think of all those times you wrote 旦 in place of 单 蛋 or 弹 in your notes in class, because you couldn’t be bothered by all those strokes at the time. I know I’m not the only one to do this.


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.

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.


Handwriting and little ones

The photo on the right is one of three seen in the subway in Shanghai. They’re advertisements for Phillips appliances. The image shows a young child chillaxin’ as a breeze goes by. The caption, in childlike handwriting, says 我家的房子会呼吸 wǒ jiā de fángzi huì hūxī, “my family’s house can breathe”.

Another in the series has a kid freaking the heck out at the shadow of a dinosaur and the caption, which I’m sure I don’t remember perfectly, says something like 哇!恐龙来啦 wa! kǒnglóng lái la, which translates as “holy crap! there’s an effing dinosaur!”


Mandarin shibboleths among foreigners Beer.

Class has just begun for me. Another fun year of too many credit hours and too many papers to write at the end. The good news is with the amount of exposure I’m getting, I damn well better be mistaken for Dashan’s (大山) Southern kid brother by the end of the year.

To jump start that exposure I’ve been listening to the BBC’s Mandarin broadcasts. There’s a podcast for it that you can find on the iTunes store if you’re interested. One of the things that threw me off is when they give the website address or email address, some people are saying 点 dian and some are saying 点儿, which sounds more like “deer” or “d. r.”. I hear people say “diar” often enough, but “deer” was new to me. Keep in mind I live in an erhua-free zone, and have made it a point in my own speech to never utter a single “-r” be it a 本儿 or a 块儿 or even telling him to stop 在这儿. The first time I heard it I thought they were saying

b. b. c. d. r. c. o. d. r. u. k.


Signage and foreign languages

The first word I ever learned to read in Japanese was クラブ, derived from and meaning “club”. There were 5 such Japanese clubs to be passed in my five minute walk to work last year. But my favourite use of foreign languages in a business façade is probably the massage parlour. A number of them say 안마¹, massage and マッサージ², but not always the Mandarin equivalent.


Unhippest Mandarin word

Forty-year-old, fashion-blind, popular-press-eschewing recluses are generally excused from petty infractions of regulations against fuddiduddiness.

But some violations are inexcusable, apparently. So when I used the word 语言伙伴 (yǔyán huǒbàn, “language partner”) in a piece of writing the other day, my language partner grimaced. Her correction went something like this:

“Maybe you could just use the English word, ‘language partner’.”

“But isn’t the whole point to write Chinese?”

“Or you could use LP.”

“And Chinese speakers would know what ‘language partner’ or even ‘LP’ means?!”

“Well, my friends would. Nobody uses 语言伙伴. It’s sounds so, well, weird — kind of like some old-fashioned made-up word.” Continue…