Reading between the characters

I spend lots of time confusing Chinese characters I half-know for others I’m vaguely familiar with. But I’ve never had trouble identifying where a character started and finished. At least that part is straightforward, right? Everything in a box, one size fits all.

Until, that is, I did a bleary double-take as I came to this…


I’m still not sure what three characters I was trying to make out of it: 相那鬲, maybe? Continue…

Next Monday, Next Week

In the schadenfreude category, here’s an example of a college-aged native Mandarin speaker mis-parsing a sentence that would have been clear if it had been spoken or if writing with Chinese characters indicated word boundaries.

I wrote:


I meant:

(I next week) (continually with kid at home)
Gloss: “I’m home with my kid all next week”

But she read:

(I next Monday) (continually with kid at home)
Gloss: “I’m home next Monday with my kid”

The central ambiguity is in how to parse these four characters: 星期一直. Is it (i) or (ii)?

  1. 星期一 (Monday) plus 直 (continually)
  2. 星期 (week) plus 一直 (continually)



That is, I think reading English would be harder if there was no word spacing, not just because you’re not used to it but because, well, it’s one more task that your brain has to do.

Since I’ve talked about misparsing recently, and since Kellen brought up punctuation just a couple of days ago, isn’t it time to wonder if any writers of Chinese have ever experimented with adding spacing into the writer’s toolbox? I mean instead of this*:


you could have

我  写  那篇  东西  时  太  年轻, 发了  很多  过激  议论。**



Anyone who’s done business in China has found themselves in the awkward position of missing a zero. I mean, all of a sudden you write out the number and realize something is a tenth the cost you thought it was, or maybe 10x more. (Or is it just me? I confess this has happened more than once, usually on odd items of labor that are so much cheaper in China than the US.)

If you’re reading this blog you probably know the reason, but briefly, for non-Chinese speakers: the issue is that Chinese groups big numbers by four zeroes while English does it by three. So 1.5 million in Chinese is something more like 150 ten-thousand. Or look at it as 150,0000 rather than 1,500,000. Sounds easy enough to deal with, but once you throw in unfamiliar costs and currency exchanges, it gets messy in a hurry.

As far as I know, though, no one deals with it by trying to use Chinese in an English way. I’ve never heard of someone saying or writing 17 thousand (十七千, shíqī qiān). It just doesn’t work. Maybe like in English trying to say 17 ten-thousand doesn’t work for 170,000. Continue…

Scripts and banned words

A bit late to the party on this one, but a few days ago Danwei had a great translation from Hecaitou’s blog on the futility of blocking dirty words. Creative stuff:

Hecaitou originally wrote: 不 矢口 亻十 么 日寸 候 , 亻奄 口斤 言兑 矢豆 亻言 也有 辶寸 氵虑 敏 感 字 节 白勺 言兑 氵去 , 于 是 , 亻奄 学 会 了 扌斥 字 ……后 来, 亻奄 米青 礻申 分 歹刂 鸟~”

Danwei translation: “I don’t know when it was that I heard that mobile phones are also being filtered for sensitive words, therefore, I learnt to split characters… later on, I became schizophrenic”

For those still wondering what’s going on, Hecaitou takes characters that can be broken into parts which are also characters in their own right — and he simply breaks them up. The result is visually clear but hard for an unsophisticated character/phrase-blocking program to understand. Compare

Original: 不 矢口 亻十 么 日寸 候 (9 characters, meaningless gibberish)

Read as: 不知什么时候 (6 characters) Continue…