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…

Phonemica fundraising

Shameless plug from Kellen and me, with apologies to those of you for whom this is old news…

Phonemica is raising funds through an Indiegogo campaign that runs through June 9. Contributions will cover some new hardware, hosting, and other costs for the coming year. Greatly appreciated to get your help:

1. Financially, if you can swing it
2. Helping us spread the word

Read more about it on the Phonemica blog.

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.

Futurity in Chinese and English and Its Supposed Economic Consequences

A guest post from Victor H. Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania.

The linguists at Language Log have several times discussed the work of economist Keith Chen on the alleged economic impact of the way the future is conveyed in different languages:

Keith Chen, Whorfian economist
Thought experiments on language and thought
Keith Chen at TED

And Chen himself has presented his views on the same forum:

Whorfian Economics

Now that Chen’s work has been featured in Scientific American (How Your Language Affects Your Wealth and Health), I believe that it is time for another look at Chen’s theories. Continue…

FYI Sinoglot Maintenance 3/20-21

Singapore. Haven’t been there myself, but I’ve heard good things. So we’re taking our virtual offices there. A server move, that is.

It’s all starting tomorrow (Mar 20) afternoon, so if suddenly you find you can’t access your must-know up-to-the-minute news on language in China, rest assured that the internetz will catch up with our new IP address in a day or two and all should be well (wave joss sticks).

Why a new IP? Well, let’s just say that nanny seems to have found someone naughty playing at our current IP, and nanny believes in group punishment. Thus accessing Sinoglot & Phonemica on the mainland over the last week has been painful to impossible. If you want to know details, I’m happy to discuss offline. I appreciate the other bloggers who’ve offered advice about the situation over the last few days and I’m happy to share my experience if it’ll help someone else.

本字、正字 and consistency in transcription

This keeps coming up with transcription work. The question is, when transcribing a person speaking their local dialect, what characters should you use? I provide the following definitions, which are up for debate:

本字 běnzì – The character that most accurately represents the word in etymology. In a way, it shows the cognates.
正字 zhèngzì – The “Standard” character. That which represents the meaning of the intended word for a wider audience.

As a semi-hypothetical example, Dialect X has a word that means “high” or “tall”, read “huan”. It’s cognate with Mandarin 懸 xuán as any educated speaker will tell you. A speaker of Dialect X may write it as 懸, or they may just write 高. They wouldn’t say 高 gāo or a cognate of 高. But then they may assume the rest of the country which doesn’t speak their dialect might not know 懸 as having this meaning, since in Standard Mandarin 懸 means “to hang”. So if you can imagine, they’re still writing in their dialect, but they’ve changed the characters to make it just a little easier to read for a wider audience.