16 Dec 2007
Here’s a picture of a place near work where I occasionally eat:
I have nicknamed it “Filthy Delicious.” The name says it all.
What’s interesting to me, though, is the name of the cuisine boldly painted in red on the wall: 麻辣汤. This is interesting because once upon a time I was under the impression that this was the correct name, but enough chastisement from Chinese friends converted me to the “real name”: 麻辣烫. And yet there it is, in red and white, on the wall in the picture (in traditional characters, which, as you can see, totally adds class).
Search results for the two terms:
|麻辣汤 (✘)||麻辣烫 (✔)|
The name 麻辣汤 makes sense, because the final character 汤 means “soup,” and the dish itself is a kind of soup. (As I’ve mentioned before, it’s sort of a spicy “poor man’s hot pot.”) The final character in the latter, “correct” one is 烫, which means “burning hot.” This makes a kind of sense, except that the name becomes then a bunch of adjectives without any noun (like “soup”) to anchor it. That noun would usually come last in a Chinese dish name (as in 麻辣汤).
So what’s going on here? I haven’t had time to research it (ah, the advantages of blogging!), but I suspect it’s about tones. The name “málàtàng” likely comes from a dialect where 汤 (soup) is read “tàng” rather than standard Mandarin’s “tāng.” This kind of thing happens all the time in China’s rich linguistic tapestry, and the questions raised go something like the following:
1. Can the character 汤 have the reading “tàng” as well as “tāng”? This is not ideal, especially if there is no precedent in standard Mandarin. This would amount to a “corruption” of the character’s original reading.
2. Can we change the pronunciation of “málàtàng” to “málà tāng” for consistency? This seems ideal except that it would never work. It’s awfully hard to control how people talk, especially after they’ve settled on something.
3. Can we change the character used to represent “tàng”? If it comes from a dialect, it likely doesn’t have a standard written form anyway. If we can find something similar in meaning, a practical compromise is reached.
It seems to me that in my imaginary scenario path #3 above was selected, and character 烫 did the dirty work. I call it “dirty” because while it is no longer “a corruption of the character’s original reading,” it is instead a semantic corruption. 烫 originally means “burning hot” or “boiling hot,” but now you’re making it mean “soup,” or, if you choose to put it another way, you’re making it a non-semantic syllable in the three-character unit 麻辣烫. I don’t buy that, though, because the characters 麻辣 clearly keep the meaning of “numbingly spicy.”
If I have a point with all this, it’s that you can’t control the evolution of a language. Sure, a writing system need not necessarily do that, but when you encode individual characters with both semantic and phonetic information and then try to keep either from changing, you’re just kidding yourself. This is only a small example, but it’s a pretty widespread phenomenon now that the writing system is being used by the literate masses as a whole rather than a few elite (and the internet is certainly exacerbating the situation). Given enough time, so many characters will have their meanings muddled that the writing system will be reduced to the world’s most cumbersome “phonetic” system.
I’d be really curious to see what the written Chinese language looks like in 2000 years. It’s not going to look at all like it does now.