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.

Yinzhang, Hanko, Inkan, Chops

I’m a fan of stamps. A few years back I too up carving seals as a hobby. Recently on a trip to Japan, my number 2 most important thing to buy was a series of the more casually used Japanese seals, called either hanko or inkan (pictured).

In Taiwan (like Japan), personal seals are almost a necessity. When I bought my motorcycle I needed my stamp in order to transfer the deed. You need them to rent an apartment or open a bank account or to do almost any other major financial transaction. For all intents and purposes it’s your signature. Their use is declining, most severely in Korea it seems, though you can still find seal-carving stands all over Seoul. Their use in Korea only goes back to the early 1900s as a policy put in place by Japan. Still, quite a few people use them.

Currently, 32.8 million Koreans, accounting for 66.5 percent of the population, have registered seal impressions. A total of 48.4 million certificates, worth of about 29 billion won ($23.4 million), were issued last year. (from Joonan Daily)

You can do fine in Korea without one, to be sure. In Taiwan though, without a seal you’re going to be leaving a lot of thumbprints.

Jeju道 and Jeju岛

I’ve got this idea that I will obsess about for short periods of time, and have done so for years. It goes back to my past life as a philosophy student studying the concept of meaning (see Nelson Goodman’s book “The Languages of Art” to get an idea), taking classes with names like “The Meaning of Meaning”.

The basic focus of this obsession is about utterances and how they are intended versus how they are understood, but narrowed down to the level of phonetic ambiguity. I hear a statement, we’ll call it X, which has meaning and pronunciation similar to a different statement Y. You heard Y. What was actually said? In reality the result will be the same, so it really doesn’t matter. Communication was accomplished, and the two parties may never realise there was a minor misunderstanding.

The recent example that brought this back up was in talking to someone about Korea. Just south of the peninsula there is a large island called Jeju, which is also a province. The word for island (岛, 도) sounds the same as the word for province (道, 도). So you hear “제주도” (je ju do), but which was actually said? Is meaning up to the creator or the audience? This is an unending debate. There are cases where context will make it plainly obvious, but not always.

The Brief History of Lánqīng Guānhuà in Republican China

In February 1913 a subordinate committee of the Ministry of Education was established. Called the Committee for the Unification of Pronunciation, they were tasked first and foremost with determining the pronunciation for all words in the national standard language (國語). As part of that function, they were also to determine the number of phonemes used in the language and to then adopt an appropriate phonetic alphabet.

The committee had 45 members, selected to represent the various provinces and districts in China and thus represent the substantial linguistic variety of China. They were also tasked with determining just which Sinitic language was to become the national standard. Dashan has already addressed the chances Cantonese had at this position, so I’ll skip that part. Cantonese was considered, but not seriously.

The finally decided upon national standard was an artificial variety of Mandarin based upon a long-used lingua franca sometimes referred to as lánqīng guānhuà (藍青官話), lánqīng  here being a reference to the multitude of other dialectal influences on this speech.

The newly chosen form of Mandarin has a few key features, meant as concessions to speakers of the southern languages. It was meant to convey the total range of distinctions found in other non-Mandarin languages, including the entering tone as well as mid vowels /o/ and /e/ which are not present in some of the more northern dialects of Mandarin.

The language was decided upon, and the Guóyīn Zìdiǎn was published in 1919 as a record of this standard. But despite being well received and widely agreed upon, this standard was not without problems. Most significant of all was that there were no native speakers of this new variety, and thus no native teachers. As a result, teaching of the dialect was inconsistent.

In 1932, after a mildly problematic decade, the Guóyīn Zìdiǎn was revised without ceremony or much in the way of public announcements. A new version was published reflecting instead the educated speech of Beijing, thus ending the short run of the new national language.

Simplified,Traditional, 3rd Party candidates

It’s interesting to look back at what I cared about before and how those views continue to change. It’s also interesting to see how much people differ in what they value within the same general group of ideas.

In Shanghai the other day I saw another one of the previously ubiquitous billboards found in subways and airport terminals making note of how the simplified character 爱(愛) lost its 心, and how can you have love without heart, et cetera et cetera.

In the last year in Taiwan I’ve come to have a much more 随便 attitude toward character sets, and to characters in general. From the very start I’ve liked the moment of discovering a variant I’d never seen before, and I still like seeing different interpretations. A recent favourite is the half-traditional, half-simplified hand-written characters in YR Chao’s “A Grammar of Spoken Chinese”, or the variation used therein for 国. These have all been replaced with a Ming-Song typeface in more recent publications, but you can still find hardcover copies of the book with the hand-written glyphs.

Scroll down to the 4th scanned page on this post to see examples of both the hand-written forms and the variation on 国. My own copy being newer, I don’t have the enjoyment of enjoying Chao’s own writing habits.

There’s the argument that traditional characters preserve the culture and simplified are just one more instance of governments being bothersome. There’s the argument that simplified help in literacy and tradition has other outlets anyway. There are dozens of arguments in between.

I think part of my own view is tempered by having had to operate in both environments that use simplified (anywhere in the PRC, some textbooks in Taiwan) as well as those that use traditional (Taiwan, China, grad school wherever). So from that I say: If you’re serious about the language, just learn both; It’s really not that bad.

But I think the other part of my view is really coming from all this time working on Phonemica and the countless times we’ve spoken to journalists as well as volunteers. “Are you guys trying to protect (保护) the dialects?”, the question goes. “No,” we say, “not 保护. We’re not trying to stop the flow of Mandarinisation. We’re preserving (保存) them and the stories of their speakers”. Because even if we wanted to stop Mandarin (we don’t. we rely on it as lingua franca for our daily lives just like everyone else), we can’t. You can prevent languages from changing, from dying out, from splitting into other languages, from blurring borders between neighbours.

So yeah, I think if you’re serious about Chinese, you should learn both character sets. But then in addition to that, I think people would do well to understand that language change is a natural part of societies and that variant characters, hand-written short forms and all the other things that bother traditionalists are all going to happen anyway. Simplified characters are no less “real Chinese” than the modern metropolises are “real China”.

卍 in Personal Names

The above picture shows part of an article from the Taipei Times. The full article is available online here.

The relevant part:

Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries representative Ho Kuang-wan (賀光卍) expressed skepticism over its effectiveness as a deterrent.

Anyone who knows me know’s I’m a fan of obscure characters. I get downright giddy when I see a variation on a character that I’ve never seen before. Equally cool is a character used in a name that isn’t usually. In fact, this may be the first time I’ve seen 卍 in the wild. I brought it up to Steve, and he can’t recall seeing it like this either.

Early on, I’d always thought 万, the simplified form of 萬, looked suspiciously like 卐 (also written 卍), which shares the same pronunciation. They are in fact variants. A quick look at ChineseEtymology.org brings up a seal script form matching 卍 (L22753).

From the Wikipedia article:

The paired swastika symbols are included, at least since the Liao Dynasty (AD907–1125) , as part of the Chinese writing system (卍 and 卐) and are variant characters for 萬 or 万 (wàn in Mandarin, man in Korean, Cantonese and Japanese, vạn in Vietnamese) meaning “all” or “eternity” (lit. myriad). The swastika marks the beginning of many Buddhist scriptures. In East Asian countries, the left-facing character is often used as symbol for Buddhism and marks the site of a Buddhist temple on maps.

That’s about it. Characters are fun.

Thanks to Anne for sending me this photo.

Sexagenary Cycle

In the last two posts, I listed the ten Heavenly Stems and the twelve Earthly Branches. I think that knowledge of these things is useful. And it’s just not very difficult. Of course, if you plan to take much of an interest in Chinese history, it could be essential.

Ten times twelve equals sixty

For much of Chinese history, years were listed by a combination of the Stems and Branches. This gives us sixty years in a cycle, not a hundred and twenty, as will become clear. If sixty years doesn’t seem very helpful, remember that only the Qianlong Emperor lasted a full cycle on the throne. With a little knowledge of Chinese history, you can pinpoint all kinds of dates, or at  least work out how many years passed between certain dates within a limited span. Continue…

Earthly Branches

In the last post, I introduced the Heavenly Stems. Now for the Earthly Branches. That’s right; there are two sets of these damned things. If you recall, there were 10 Heavenly Stems; there are 12 Earthly Branches.

Interesting number, twelve. Twelve months in the year, twelve hours in the day, twelve disciples, twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve animal years, twelve inches in a foot, twelve pence in a shilling…er have I forgotten any?


How come twelve is so important? Continue…

Heavenly Stems

地支 天干

The ten Heavenly Stems, sometimes called the Celestial Stems, date back to the very earliest records of writing in China. These characters appear to be very old indeed and seem to have marked the days of a ten day week. The characters themselves are not terribly common in modern Chinese, with only one appearing in the first 1000 characters, and five more appearing in the 3000 most common characters.1 Continue…

Interesting phonetic transcription for the PLA

A handful of people on Twitter (@raykwong @TomLasseter @hancocktom @kinablog) posted a link to a “Military English Learning” page. It’s essentially questions for interrogations. Other than useful questions like “Do you know our lenient policy towards POWs?” (你知道我们宽待俘虏的政策吗), I noticed an interesting phonetic transcription system at the bottom of the page. The sample terms are as follows:

belong to /bI5lCN tu/ 属于
enlist v. /In5lIst/ 参军,报名
interrogation n. /In7terE5^eIFEn/ 审问
nationality n. /7nAFE5nAlEtI/ 国籍
occupation n. [7CkjJ5peIFEn/ 职业
post n./pEJst/ 职务
rank n./rANk/ 军衔
strength n./streNW/ 军力,兵力
vanguard n./5vAn^B:d/ 先头部队

I was confused by the 5’s at first, but then realised it was marking the primary stress, wile 7 marks the secondary stress. It’s pretty great actually, if all you have is a typewriter or the kind of computer systems admins that think using IE6 is even remotely acceptable.

D-Day n. /5di:deI/ 预定进攻发起日
follower n. /5fClEJE/ 追随者;信徒
highlight vt. /5haIlaIt/ 使突出;强调

The thing I immediately thought of was Arabic as it’s often typed with Latin letters. That’s the only other place I’m used to seeing 5s and 7s mixed in. For Arabic, 7 stands in for ħ and 5 for ṣ for a similar appearance to ح and ص.

If anyone knows what this system is called or has any more information about it, I’d love to know.

It’s a PLA-run website, so expect the usual broken links and server side errors.

Update: jdmartinsen pointed out that it’s not a system but instead is something much more boring. I feel a little like the guy who stares at newspapers trying to pick out the secret code left by the shadow government. Oh well. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Enjoy the contents of PLA interrogation methods instead.