Tag: linguistics


May 2007

Grammaticalization: Articles for Chinese?

This week in grad school class about Chinese grammar, we covered the topic of grammaticalization. Of interest to me was one paper in which the author made a case for the demonstrative pronoun 这 beginning to take on the role of definite article in Beijing dialect. In this usage, is pronounced “zhe” (neutral tone). The author also examined , and the same thing is not happening.

This made me think of English. We have the demonstrative pronouns “this, “that,” “these,” and “those.” Our definite article is “the.” Might “the” have evolved the same way? It seems almost the same… Just as 这 goes from fourth tone to neutral in the change, “this” perhaps lost its final consonant and the vowel was reduced to a schwa. Or actually, “the” could just be capturing the initial consonant sound of all four of those demonstrative pronouns. Does anyone know anything about the historical grammaticalization of English? I Googled it but didn’t find much.

The paper also talked about the development of an indefinite article (like “a” or “an” in English). The author explains that in Beijing dialect, 一个 is often shortened to 一, but is pronounced “yí” (second tone) rather than “yī” (first tone). It stays second tone because in 一个 the 一 has to be second tone due to Mandarin’s tone changes for 一. It’s not normal for that tone change to stick if you remove the reason for it, though. The author says this tone change sticks no matter what noun precedes it, and gives the examples of 一狮子, 一熟人, 一老外, 一耗子 (which demonstrate that the second tone sticks no matter which of the four tones follows it).

So it makes you wonder… if this trend in Beijing dialect becomes a rule, will it make it into Mandarin as a whole? How soon might students of Chinese have to learn the Chinese definite and indefinite articles?

The actual article goes into 11 pages of examples, as well as semantic and syntactic analysis. If you’re interested, it’s called 指示词“这”和“那”在北京话中的语法化 and it’s by 方梅, published in 2002.


Apr 2007

Slag-hit Bank

Brendan has a very interesting post on good Chinese transliterations and bad Chinese transliterations. Check it out.

I wish he did posts like this more often (although I would probably settle for any posts more often…).


Mar 2007

Semantic Flavors of "My" in Chinese and English

My end of the term pragmatics/semantics paper looked at the use of the English word “my” in certain constructions and compared it with the corresponding “我的” constructions in Chinese.

When you say “my X” in English, it could actually mean a variety of things, but we generally expect it to mean something like “the X that belongs to me.” Such is the case for “my book,” “my blog,” my hand,” etc. When X is a societal unit or group, however, the semantic relationship is no longer the default. Let’s take a look at these examples:

– my parents
– my family
– my class
– my gym
– my university
– my bank
– my company
– my hometown
– my city
– my government
– my country

So when you say “my parents,” are you expressing that your parents belong to you, or that you belong to your parents? Or is it another relationship altogether?



Feb 2007

How China Destroys Your English

I’ve been living in China a while now… long enough to observe the long-term deterioration of my own native language abilities, as well as those of my fellow English speakers. This deterioration can take different forms, one of which is a general decay of one’s vocabulary. Although it is a very real phenomenon (the other day I used “export” when I meant to use “deport,” which is really kind of pathetic), this kind of loss of mastery is due to lack of exposure, whether it be through media or human interaction with other native speakers. It would happen in any country, to speakers of any language, given that one’s native language is not being sufficiently exercised.

What I’d like to talk about is a much more insidious form of linguistic deterioration. Its source is, specifically, Chinese culture, and its target is English speakers. If you are a native speaker of English living in China, you may have already fallen victim. Below I give some of the common ways that the Chinese environment strikes down the native speaker’s linguistic competence.

1. Net bar. In Chinese, they’re called 网吧. This is fine. We generally call them “internet cafes” in English. The Chinese seem to think that 网吧 should be translated as “net bar” in English, and many unwary foreigners have even been beguiled by this idea. For English teachers, it’s usually one of the first nonstandard usage to creep in.

2. Name card. In the English-speaking world, business people have lots of business meetings to discuss business. On these occasions of business, said business people exchange specially printed pieces of paper known as business cards. In China everyone calls them “name cards,” ostensibly because in Chinese they are called 名片 and “name card” is a more direct translation. The use of “name card” is very widespread among foreigners living in China. In doing business with the Chinese, they seem to forget the word “business card” extremely quickly.

3. House. Most Chinese people live in apartments. They refer to these as their (homes). When they purchase these apartments (OK, technically, they should be called “condos” at this point, but these Chinese domiciles doesn’t really conform to any image of “condo” I’ve ever had), they say they are buying a 房子. This word is frequently translated as “house,” but in practice it, too, is just another apartment/condo. Only the wealthy own what one could really call a “house,” and they are called 别墅 by the Chinese. Yet we foreigners in China still find ourselves referring to Chinese apartments as a “house.” I might refer to “your house” when I really mean “your apartment.” It’s totally not a house, and it’s honestly kind of embarrassing.

4. Bean curd. It’s called “tofu,” OK? This English word comes from Chinese (by way of Japanese). I know all dictionaries sold in China will tell you 豆腐 is “bean curd” in English, and that may represent the two characters nicely, but “bean curd” is more a definition than a comfortable translation. And yet some foreigners start saying “bean curd” rather than tofu. Deplorable.

I think you see the pattern. The normal native speaker way of saying something (internet cafe, business card, tofu, etc.) is replaced by a more awkward way of saying it using other English words — a way that conforms nicely to some Chinese word.

There have got to be more of these, but this short list is a good start. If you’ve been living in China a while and find yourself using all of these, you might be on dangerous ground. You’re going to start making a fool of yourself on trips home. Be vigilant! Resist China’s attempts at sabotaging your own command of your mother tongue!

(If you have any more of these, I’d love to hear them. It’s not quite of the same class, but I find myself occasionally saying “mai” instead of “buy” because the Chinese word for “buy” () sounds almost the same as “buy,” except for the initial consonant. The point of articulation is even the same.)


Jan 2007

Thoughts on Simplification

A lot of people have strong opinions on the PRC’s simplification of Chinese characters. You typically hear the “traditional faction” decrying simplified characters as ugly and deformed, a brutal aesthetic assault on one of Asia’s most revered art forms. Meanwhile, the “simplified faction” is equally brutal in its pragmatism; why should I write when I can write , or when I can write , or when I can write ? They’re all commonly used characters.

I’m not posting this to get back into that debate, because quite frankly it’s a rather silly one that ignores some important points. From a linguistic perspective, the simplifications were rather well thought out in many ways (although perhaps less so in others). It’s rather refreshing, then, to read a linguist’s perspective on the issue that acknowledges valid points on both sides of the arguments and brings attention to some key points. On the excellent linguistic blog Language Log, check out: Notes on Chinese Character Simplification and Doing what comes naturally (which includes commentary by Victor Mair).

An interesting quote:

> There are many characters that have 雨 “rain” as radical. These include: 雪 “snow”, 霏 “to fall (of snow)” 雹 “hail”, 露 “dew”, 電 “lightning, electricity”. This last, however, has been simplified to 电; it has lost its radical. Many people dislike simplifications of this type because they think that delinking characters from their radicals disrupts the system. I’ve chosen this example in part because this is a case in which one might argue that the principal current meaning is “electricity” and that this has so little relationship to “rain”, “snow”, and so forth that it is not a disadvantage and indeed is perhaps a virtue to dissociate it from the characters with the rain radical. In most cases, however, the semantic relationship persists and the semantic information provided by the radical is arguably useful to the reader.

> Another factor is that many Simplifications violate structural principles governing the well-formedness of Chinese characters. Here is the traditional form of “to study” 學. Its Simplified counterpart is 学. The simplified form has been standard in Japan since the reform of the writing system after the Second World War. I’ve never met anybody who objected to the Simplified form. It looks just fine. In fact, the traditional form is difficult to write without making it look topheavy, though I think it looks rather dignified in such contexts as the bronze plaques at the entrances to universities.

Via John B (the latest blog iteration).


Oct 2006

New Feature: Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills

Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills (box cover)

It’s been a while since I’ve added significant non-blog content to Sinosplice, but I’ve just completed something that could be really useful to learners of Mandarin Chinese. That something is Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills.

I actually began this project all the way back in 2003. I put my ideas together into a rough form and some friends (including John B, Brendan, Greg, and Alf) helped me test them out. They gave me good positive feedback, but I felt the whole thing still needed a fair amount of work. I didn’t find the time and inspiration to finally put in that necessary work until this month, almost three years later. I spent a good chunk of my October holiday working on it, and quite a few nights over the past few weeks.

The main idea behind these drills is that learning tones of individual characters is not enough. Learning tone combinations is the key. Mastering those combinations necessarily involves extensive practice with tone pairs. A mastery of tone pairs will lead to significant progress with any number and combination of tones in succession. Although I was not fully cognizant of the exact process at the time, I believe it was this method which lead to my own successes in correctly producing tones of Mandarin Chinese in succession.

This concept is not exactly unique. In the past few years I have even noticed several other websites take the “tone pair” angle. I think where the other websites fall short is:

1. The words chosen are random words, both in terms of part of speech as well as level of difficulty.
2. There is no clear method for how to use the tone pairs to improve one’s tones.
3. There is no clear connection between the tone pairs and actual speech.
4. They often rely too heavily on visuals (tone marks) to teach the tone combinations.

I tackled these problems in several ways.

1. I focused on adjectives, which are both highly likely to be useful in elementary conversation, as well as plentiful in almost all tone combinations at the elementary level.
2. I developed a clear method which progressively increases in difficulty, and, in the later stages of the method, can also be used by intermediate learners looking to improve their tones. (That method is provided in pinyin, simplified characters, and traditional characters.)
3. Following the method progressively will eventually result in practicing useful, grammatical sentences.
4. I included audio files for all the words in the drill, both in simple clickable online versions, as well as in downloadable MP3 versions with playlists for drilling and quizzing.

I also licensed the method using a Creative Commons license, encouraging others to build on it.

The method I developed is labeled as a “drill.” As such, there is definitely plenty of room for it to be built on using a Chinese teacher’s experience and a little creativity. I should also stress that the drill was designed to be practiced with a native speaker Chinese tutor, but I still believe it can be useful even without the guidance of a tutor.

I welcome your feedback. I do expect to update and improve this feature over time.


Oct 2006

Metrosexual: 9 Chinese Translations

When I mentioned a presentation on homosexuals in the West for my critical discourse analysis class, I gave the Chinese translation of “metrosexual” as 都市玉男. That’s not the only translation, though. In his research, Pepe turned up quite a few other translations currently in use online. Here are the ones Pepe collected, along with their literal meanings:



1. 都市玉男 city jade man
2. 都市美型男 city beauty type man
3. 都市中性美男 city neuter beauty man
4. 都会美直男 city beauty straight man
5. 都市生活自恋者 city life narcissist
6. 花样美男 variety beauty man
7. 花色美男 variety beauty man
8. 雌性男人 female man
9. 后雅痞 post yuppie

Translation Notes

1. 都市 means both “city” and “metropolis,” as does 都会.

2. 美 could also be translated “beautiful” in all instances above

3. The same word “variety” was used for both 花样 and 花色, even though they’re different words. When examined at the character level, both contain the “flower” character, but the latter also contains 色, which in other words can mean “color” or something close to “sex.” I’m not sure exactly how the use of these words impact the feel of the Chinese translation.

Translation into Chinese can be pretty tough. I do find it very interesting to see the variety of translation attempts when a new, diffult to translate English word appears in Chinese media. Usually a certain period of time is required while society settles on one or two, effectively pushing out the rest, which are then are mostly forgotten by society.

After several years of hype, the whole metrosexual fad seems to be dying, and the English word might just die with it. If it does fall out of usage, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean its corresponding Chinese translation will. The Chinese might decide to keep the word around for their own purposes. Time will tell.


Oct 2006

"Obsolete" Chinese Words

People’s Daily has an article on the changing Chinese language entitled 49 obsolete Chinese words (part 1, part 2, part 3). The really annoying thing about the article, though, is that it tells you the English translation of the obsolete words without telling you what the actual Chinese words are. (The second most annoying thing about the article is that some of the words are definitely still in use.)

After Ken of ChinesePod blogged about the article, Olivia of the Academic Team provided a list of the Chinese words referred to in the article in parts 1 and 2. I reproduce that list here, adding the missing ones, and deleting some obvious ones (like VCD):

– neighbor 邻居 [I don’t really get this one; I still hear this word all the time] – danwei (work unit) 单位 [this word is also not gone yet] – poet 诗人
– reformer 改革家
– special zone 特区
– conductor (on buses) 公交售票员
– radio cassette player 收录机
wanyuanhu (10,000+ yuan household) 万元户
daoye (profiteer) 倒爷
– Chongqing of Sichuan Province 四川省重庆
– Royal Hong Kong Police Force 香港皇家警察
– welfare-oriented public housing 福利公房
– State Planning Commission 国家计划委员会
– Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications 国家邮电部
– Ministry of Electronics 国家电子工业部
– Hainan Development Bank 海南发展银行
miandi (taxi van) 面的
– Idall (electronics brand) 爱多
– Millennium Bug 千年虫
– Fenhuang Cola 汾湟可乐
mao (lit. “cat,” slang for “modem”)
– family letter 家书家信
– Blue Seal Household Register 蓝印户口
fenbi (0.01 yuan coins) 分币
dageda (big clunky mobile phones) 大哥大
tianzhijiaozi (a name for university students) 天之骄子
– Yaxiya Department Store 亚细亚百货
– Old Fengjie Town 奉节古城 [picture on Flickr] – jiefang shoes (“liberation” shoes) 解放鞋
– Super Variety Show 综艺大观 [official CCTV page] – marital status certification 婚姻状况证明

If you have any revisions for this list, please leave a comment.

Notes: Kevin of Wefang Radish also discusses the People’s Daily article, as does Shanghaiist, where Micah points out in the comments that Danwei.org has published something similar before (but shorter, and also without the Chinese characters), citing New Weekly as the source.


Sep 2006

The triple 'dui'


The triple ‘dui’

Today on ChinesePod there was an intermediate lesson called Growing Affections. A commenter named Trevor Morley called attention to a linguistic phenomenon which he aptly dubbed “the triple dui” (that’s “triple ,” not to be confused with “triple DUI“). This “对对对” is something I’ve noticed myself, and I’ve been observing it for a while.

means “right,” and as English speakers, I think it’s pretty easy for us to understand how it could be used in triplicate. We sometimes say, “right, right, right” in conversation when we are agreeing with what another person is saying. 对 is a monosyllabic word, so the triple dui is actually a repitition of a monosyllabic word three times just as “right, right, right” is in English; it’s not like 谢谢, which is a disyllabic word composed of one repeated morpheme.

What makes it interesting (to some of us) is that the triple dui seems to be used in spoken Mandarin much more than you would expect if it were left up to chance. Furthermore, the majority* of Chinese words are bisyllabic, which might lead one to expect an underlying trend of “twos” in Chinese. In this case, however, the triple dui seems to be as popular as the double dui (if not more so).

I don’t have any hard data to back up any of these observations (even search engines put “对对” way ahead of “对对对”), and it might also be a regional phenomenon. Any thoughts and/or reports from other parts of China?

*This fact belongs to the realm of generally accepted linguistic knowledge about the Chinese language, but if you want more info, you might check out Stress and the Development of Disyllabic Words in Chinese (PDF file) by San Duanmu.


Sep 2006

Critical Discourse Analysis in China

I had my third Critical Discourse Analysis (批评性话语分析 or CDA) class today. I was really starting to wonder what was up with that class, but I finally got it straight. You see, having no prior significant exposure to the field, I had this simple understanding of “discourse analysis” as basically “analyzing discourse.” It goes a bit beyond that. But CDA is even further removed:

> Critical discourse analysis has made the study of language into an interdisciplinary tool and can be used by scholars with various backgrounds, including media criticism. Most significantly, it offers the opportunity to adopt a social perspective in the cross-cultural study of media texts. As Gunter Kress points out, CDA has an “overtly political agenda,” which “serves to set CDA off…from other kinds of discourse analysis” and text linguistics, “as well as pragmatics and sociolinguistics.” While most forms of discourse analysis “aim to provide a better understanding of socio-cultural aspects of texts,” CDA “aims to provide accounts of the production, internal structure, and overall organization of texts.” One crucial difference is that CDA “aims to provide a critical dimension in its theoretical and descriptive accounts of texts.” [source]

Hmmm, so that explains why the first two weeks we kept talking about ideology (意识形态) rather than discourse itself. The key theorists we have examined already are:

Karl Marx (马克思) – assumed background knowledge
Antonio Gramsci (葛兰西)
Louis Althusser (阿尔都塞)
Jürgen Habermas (哈贝马斯)
Michel Foucault (福柯)

Can you see why the Chinese might be into this stuff? They even have a great word for it: 西马. That means something like “modern Western Marxist theory.” I get a kick out of that term. It seems like such a simple word, made up of two very basic characters, but it represents such a complex body of theory.

My current teacher has a philosophical crush on Foucault just like my first semester teacher had a philosophical crush on Wittgenstein. (In my personal experience, all female Chinese professors have a thing for brilliant gay philosophers.)

Before today’s class I had to read Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (意识形态与意识形态国家机器). These days I’m kinda short on time, though, so I had a little help. I don’t feel guilty… I think by “cheating” I understood the content better than my classmates, whose comments on the text mostly amounted to, “it was confusing.”

I’m not the kind of person that gets off on this kind of philosophical stuff. Sometimes I feel like an anti-intellectual (or maybe I’m just simple-minded?). To tell the truth, I’m rather disappointed with this semester’s classes. My major is “applied linguistics,” and I really am looking for material with application. I’m no longer a wide-eyed student eager to soak up any and all knowledge; I readily discard the information I feel I have no use for, and I don’t have a high tolerance for material I find overly theoretical with little practical value.

Today, though, CDA got a little more interesting. We starting actually applying the ideological framework we’d been discussing. It looks like we’re going to be looking at a lot of advertisements and analyzing them in the contexts of gender roles, social values, consumerism, etc. I was a little disappointed that our scope was going to be so focused, but I’ll certainly take analysis of ads over analysis of things like “the reproduction of the conditions of production” (Althusser) any day.

I suggested that we analyze TV commercials from past American presidential campaigns, and my teacher liked the idea, but she asked me to find them. Does anyone know where I can get that kind of video? I need the actual files, not just YouTube links (and the classroom computer is not going to support weird .flv files). Thanks!


Sep 2006

Papers, New Classes, and Friends

Recent events:

– Saturday, Sept. 2, I stayed home and wrote a 4,000 character paper for a class.
– Sunday, Sept. 3, I stayed home and wrote a 4,000 character paper for another class.
– Monday and Tuesday nights, Sept. 4-5, I worked on a 3,000 character paper for still another class.
– Wednesday night, Sept. 6, Pepe helped me clean up my papers. Alf showed up.
– Thursday, Sept. 7, I turned in my three papers and attended my two new classes for the semester: Semantics and Pragmatics and Critical Discourse Analysis.
– Friday, Sept. 8, I went to meet Greg at the airport with Alf and John B.
– Saturday, Sept. 9, I went to meet my friend Nobuhiko at the airport.


– Procrastination is bad. I know this. Sort of.
– Not much beats seeing good friends again. Especially over hot pot and beer.
– A new semester is here already, and I still have a list of linguistic topics I meant to blog about over the summer. (Does anyone enjoy the linguisticky posts?)


Aug 2006

Tone Deafness and Whispering Doesn't Stop Tones

I recently read a blog entry in which the author mused that life must be a living hell for tone deaf Chinese. If the language is tonal, and tones play a crucial role in differentiating words, then tone deaf Chinese can’t understand what other people are saying, right? Right?

Well, no. It’s not that simple. Singing and speaking a tonal language are not the same thing. However often you might hear people speak of “the music of the language,” the two are not the same. I’m lucky this is the case, because I’m a terrible singer.

A USA Today article explains:

> How can [a tone deaf Chinese person] tell the difference in speech between, say, [] and [] with only their distinct tones to distinguish the meanings?

> Easily enough, it turns out. Mostly, he uses context and other language clues. Homonyms in Chinese (or English: “I’m a little hoarse”), rarely confuse a listener — when heard in context. But also, it’s easier to distinguish varying tones. Moreover, the tones we use in languages are coarse discriminators that even a disabled person can manage. To convey meaning differences, speech requires tone distinctions three to six times greater than melodies do for musical nuances.

(Pinyin News gets a little more analytical about it, if you’re interested.)

I was not surprised by this. I remember a while back when I first started studying Chinese, my dad posed this question to me: if Chinese is tonal, then can the Chinese understand each other when they whisper? This is actually a very good question. Whispers can’t carry tones. Trying “whispering to a melody.” You can’t.

This is because whispers lack what is called “fundamental frequency” (a physics term represented by f0), which is the basis for pitch. And that’s the aspect of normal spoken speech which carries tones.

So it would seem that my dad was dead on: it is physically impossible for whispers to carry tones. The thing is, you can whisper in Chinese, and it is understandable. But how does this work?

It turns out that when people whisper a tonal language such as Chinese, they naturally compensate for the lack of tones. How? According to one study:

> 1. the laryngeal sphincter mechanism is found to be a principal contributing physiological maneuver in the production of whisper, emphasizing the vertical rather than the horizontal component of the laryngeal source;

> 2. two special behavioral maneuvers are also used in whisper: male speakers tend to lengthen vocalic duration and female speakers tend to exaggerate the amplitude contours of Tone 3 and Tone 4;

> 3. these two special behavioral maneuvers and two temporal envelope parameters contribute to tone recognition in whisper, but the phonetic context is shown to be a distraction;

> 4. the environments of the target tones cause perceptual differneces, and the ranking of these environments in order of increasing degree of difficulty is: isolation, sentence-final, sentence-medial and sentence-final;

> 5. the ranking of the four tones in isolation, in order of increasing degree of perceptual difficulty is: Tone 3, Tone 4, Tone 1 and Tone 2.

> Source: Tones in Whispered Chinese: Articulatory Features and Perceptual Cues by Man Gao

Whew! OK, the basic idea is this: when people whisper, they naturally overcome the limitation of the medium by compensating in other ways. And they do it without even trying! I can even do it, and I’m pretty sure I never studied whispering tones. This is pretty cool.

So there you go, dad… it only took me about 6 years to find the answer to your question.


Aug 2006


> Chinaversary n. pl. Chi·na·ni·ver·sa·ries
The annually recurring date of one’s initial arrival in China, especially when of great personal importance, as in the case of a “China expat.”

No, I can’t say I coined the term. I just learned this amusing word last week, which was quite timely because this month I had my 6 year Chinaversary.



Aug 2006

Chatting with Dr. Tim Xie

Dr. Tim Xie

Dr. Tim Xie

Dr. Tim Xie (谢天蔚) of California State University Long Beach contacted me a while back. He was doing research for a paper called Blog, Wiki, Podcasting and Learning Chinese Language* (PDF; written mainly in Chinese). He did an e-mail interview with me about blogging in Chinese, part of which I later posted on my Chinese blog.

Anyway, recently Dr. Xie visited Shanghai. He stopped by ChinesePod to discuss some academic issues with Ken, and I also had a dinner with Dr. Xie during which we chatted about the state of academia in the PRC, thesis topics, and other fun things.

During our chat, he talked about what it was like, as a native of Shanghai, to make periodic visits after living abroad for twenty-odd years. Never mind the tremendous changes in the city; here’s an exchange he had with a cab driver:

> Driver: So you’re visiting Shanghai from abroad, huh?

> Dr. Xie: Why do you say that?

> Driver: Well, I know you don’t live here…

> Dr. Xie: How can you tell?

> Driver: Well, first, you speak flawless Shanghainese, but you gape at everything around you like a tourist. Second, you don’t dress like a local. And third, you don’t smell like a local. You use some kind of fancy perfumey stuff.

I found this conversation highly amusing.

* Note that in the paper Dr. Xie translates “podcast” not as 播客, which has enjoyed popularity in the PRC, possibly due to its cute similarity to 博客 (blog). Dr. Xie uses the term 网播 for “podcast.”


Jun 2006


Maybe this is a tired old Shanghai joke, but I just heard it last week in class.

> A: 他的普通话怎么样? How is his putonghua?

> B: 他的浦东话很好。 His Pudonghua is very good.

Ah, with the subtle change of just one consonant sound from aspirated to non-aspirated, you have fully answered the question with an apparent non-sequitur.

Pragmatics class can be pretty interesting. Occasionally.


May 2006

Craisins for China

If you’ve never had to buy presents in the USA to bring back to Chinese friends, you probably don’t understand how hard it is. Nearly everything is made in China these days, and quite often those same products are sold in China as well. Quite a few times I’ve bought presents in the USA thinking, “you can’t buy this in China,” only to discover upon presentation of the gift that it is, in fact, available in China. In Shanghai, the issue is even worse. Furthermore, a lot of things that you can’t buy in China the Chinese don’t want (think: most American candy).

Since bringing back gifts is a non-negligible part of Chinese culture, this creates a major problem: what presents do you buy for the Chinese when visiting the USA?

I recently mentioned that I had found a good present to bring back from the USA and give to Chinese friends. Don’t expect it to revolutionize West-East gift-giving; it’s only a minor item. But it seems to have gone over well. I brought back packs of Craisins.

Craisins make a good present for several reasons:

1. If you can even get them in China, they’re certainly not widely available. I’ve never seen them here.

2. The Chinese typically don’t know what cranberries are, and often have never heard their Chinese name before (蔓越莓), giving them a sort of exotic quality. Some Chinese have heard about them (particularly in association with American Thanksgiving), but few have tried them.

3. You can’t bring fresh fruit through customs, but no one wants to eat fresh cranberries anyway. So dried, sweetened, and packaged is good.

4. The dried, sweetened fruit thing is very similar to a lot of Chinese snacks, so they’re easier for the typical Chinese person to accept. (Many foreign foods aren’t.)

Craisins have a special meaning for me as a linguistics student as well:

1. The name “Craisins” is a good example of a blend (cranberry + raisin).

2. Leonard Bloomfield, key contributor to structural linguistics, uses the “cran-” in “cranberry” in discussions of morphology as a (now classic) example of a bound morpheme that exists in only one lexeme (although this status is possibly changing, thanks to modern marketing). The “cranberry” example is often cited by Chinese linguistics professors (I have heard it many times already) even though most of them are not exactly sure what a cranberry is.

Thus I was able to present Craisins to my linguistics professors and classmates as a “souvenir with linguistic characteristics.”

Most importantly, they ate them all up. Nothing says “I’m not just being polite” like devouring the entire bag.


Apr 2006

Speech Act Rules and the Weak

In the same lecture on the rules of speech acts in which my professor quoted Confucius, he talked quite a bit about race. His point was that the rules of speech acts govern what we can and can’t say about race in society.

According to him, the rules depended on who “the weak” (弱者) were. The weak could be spoken of positively by the rest of society, but if they were spoken negatively of, there would be strong resentment. Furthermore, the priveleged in society could not be spoken of too positively, as that would incur the wrath of the weak.

As an example, he gave holidays. Why are there Teacher’s Day but not Student’s Day, Secretary’s Day but not Boss’s Day*, Nurse’s Day but not Doctor’s Day, Labor Day but not Rich Man’s Day? To this a student asked, “well what about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day?” My professor laughed. “Parents are the most downtrodden of all!” he replied. The class, chuckling, agreed.

He went on to talk about a Chinese song which had been popular in the 70’s. The song glorified the Chinese people, along with their “yellow skin,” “black hair,” and “black eyes.” At that time, everyone thought it was a great song. And yet, such a racially-fixated song would be out of place in Chinese society today. Why?

Back then China was really struggling. It had not yet experienced the economic growth that it would under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. China was undeniably a member of “the weak” on the world stage. As such, it could glorify its racial features, and no one would have a problem. As China’s economy grew over the years and the nation prospered, it became less “weak,” and the situation changed.

As a similar example, my professor pointed out the situation in the United States. Black Americans could have black pride, but white pride was frowned upon (particularly by “the weak” in society). Similarly, Americans–including black Americans–would not really care about Chinese racial pride, because to Americans both black and white, the Chinese are still “the weak.” He predicted that a Chinese show of racial pride would, however, be offensive to many Africans.

It was an interesting lecture.

* Apparently in China there is no Boss’s Day.


Mar 2006

Chinese Parts of Speech

OK, this is an entry that’s likely to bore many readers to tears. You have been warned.

While I don’t find the study of Chinese grammar remarkably stimulating, there are some aspects of it that catch my interest. It’s kind of cool how Chinese parts of speech don’t fit so neatly into our Western designations. When China first starting applying Western linguistics to Chinese, Chinese syntax was forced into the Western mold. Over the years Chinese scholars have decided that this just doesn’t work.

So what’s different about Chinese grammar?



Mar 2006

Learning East Asian Communicative Grunts

It took me a while to learn to grunt like an East Asian, but I feel much more comfortable here now that I can. Sure, I’ve been grunting like an American all my life. I may have learned the “annoyed grunt” from TV, but I’ve been saying “uh-huh” for yes and “unh-uh” (if that’s how you spell it) for no, as well as the special “nuh-uhhhh!” (reserved for childish arguments) ever since I was a kid. Oh, and don’t forget that “I dunno” noise we make that I’m not even going to try to spell out. I guess each culture has its own ways of communicative grunting, but outsiders have to learn these noises just like every other part of the language.

The year I studied in Japan I lived with a Japanese family. It took me a while to get to the point that I was actually communicating, but I remember very clearly the day my homestay brother Shingo said to me, “quit saying hai all the time. It’s way too formal. You need to learn how to say un (うん).”

It was like I was saying “yes” all the time and never “yeah.” It just wasn’t natural. By that time, hai was quite a habit, so it took a concerted effort to work un into my speech patterns. Once I did, however, it was so much more comfortable.

In China, the first communicative grunt I learned was . Interestingly, it sounds very similar to the Japanese affirmative grunt. I have to admit, though, that I find 嗯 the least articulate of any grunt-like communication, because unlike the Japanese un, it doesn’t even require you to open your mouth. But I guess that’s what makes it so comfortable too. It’s the linguistic equivalent of “lounging around all day at home in your pajamas.” (And we all know how many Chinese feel about staying in pajamas as much as possible.)

As much as I like the 嗯 of Chinese, I think I like even more. You may have to go to the trouble of actually opening your mouth, but I find it much more expressive. There are lots of tonal options, and plenty of room for creativity/personal interpretation. There’s also something about the utterance that just strikes me as so Chinese, too. I recently downloaded the song 吉祥三宝 on Micah‘s recommendation. Not only is the song really cute, but it contains an excellent example of the 欸 sound. In the song, the mother says it* to mean, “yes, dear?” and it’s not even Mandarin she’s speaking, and yet it struck me as just so Chinese.

My Chinese grunting makes me feel much more at ease in my environment. For the longest time, whenever I would bump into neighbors on the way out of the building and they’d greet me with a “going out?” (出去啦?) I never knew exactly how to reply. Sure, they were just making small talk, a casual friendly gesture, but I always found myself woodenly responding with the Chinese equivalent of, “It is, in fact, as you say, good sir. I am indeed going out.” It was the Chinese affirmative grunts which finally equipped me to respond naturally with the Chinese version of “yup.”

If you’re learning Mandarin, I heartily recommend you try to loosen up and get into the grunting if you haven’t already.

* Technically, I think the character closest in meaning would be , but the mother definitely makes a “ei” sound. The father, however, definitely makes a “ai” sound. Still, if it’s not even Mandarin, who cares about these distinctions, right?


Sep 2005

Classes in Brief

I’ve been getting a lot of “how are your classes going?”-type questions lately. I’ve been delaying answering the questions because I wanted to be able to give a more comprehensive answer, but I just found out today that at least one of my classes for this semester won’t begin until October 26th, so I guess I might as well talk about my impressions thus far.

I’ve only had three different classes to date. I will eventually have at least four, and likely five, but the details are still being worked out. The classes I’ve already started are:

  • Survey of China (中国概况). This one is just for foreign grad students, it seems. The funny thing is they also make Taiwanese grad students take it. At first I thought it was a little bit silly to force foreigners to take a class like this (after all, any foreigner whose Chinese is good enough to handle grad school in Chinese likely has a pretty decent understanding of China), but later I realized it was a kindness. First, it’s easy. Really easy. It would be stupid to want my first semester in Chinese grad school to be full of difficult classes. All you have to do for this class is attend the three hours a week and write one 1.5-page paper for the entire semester. No exams. Second, it is offered to partially compensate for the credits that foreigners lose out on by not having to take classes in English or Chinese political theory. So far this class is not too exciting, but there’s a different teacher with a different topic every week. In the first two weeks of classes we’ve covered “painting and calligraphy” and “Chinese minorities.”
  • Lectures for Grad Students (not sure about the Chinese name). It’s a lot like the Survey of China class, only the topics are a little more advanced and there are a lot more students (most of whom are Chinese). The grading policy and excitement level are pretty much the same as Survey of China too.
  • Selected Readings by Western Linguists (西方语言学家原著选读). This class is pretty cool, but difficult for me. Although I really like the teacher, she seems to have extremely low expectations of me. I think that will serve to motivate me to do especially well in class even more than if she were especially demanding of me. Anyway, I like the content, but it’s pretty rough reading it in Chinese. I’d like to be able to read English translations (or English originals) to complement the Chinese ones, but it’s proving harder than I expected to track down those papers. It’s really hard to read this abstract theoretical mumbo jumbo in Chinese — I suspect it would be hard for me in English. The linguists (or in some cases, “language theorists/philosophers”) we’re covering are Humboldt, Saussure, Bloomfield, Wittgenstein, Chomsky, and Gumperz.

    So far I’m really enjoying learning about Humboldt. The guy’s ideas were way ahead of his time. The basic ideas behind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Chomsky’s universal grammar were discussed by Humboldt, and he didn’t take either to such an extreme. Too bad he was so obsessed with blabbing on and on about geist and other funny German words that are a bit of a translation pain.

    Humboldt was German, but Wittgenstein was Austrian (and Saussure was Swiss). Still, my teacher has promised us some interesting insights into the thinking processes of Germans versus Americans down the road. Knowing my teacher, I suspect America is going to take a bit of a beating, but I’m still looking forward to the discussion…

    This class also has no exams, but I’m required to make a class presentation on one of the linguists. I chose Chomsky. Syntactic Structures (in English!!!) has already been shipped.

The fourth class, which my advisor arranged for me, is in corpus linguistics (语料库语言学). I freaked out a little at first when he told me the Chinese name, because I had no idea what it was. Then I freaked out more because when I looked it up, I wasn’t familiar with it in English either! After a little research on corpus linguistics, however, I’m pretty sure that it will be quite interesting and well worth studying. That’s the class that starts October 26th.

I may take a fifth class with the Chinese as a Foreign/Second Language (对外汉语) department. I have no idea when that would be starting.

My Friday class has been canceled due to the upcoming holiday, which means today is my last day of class before vacation

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