Tag: linguistics


Sep 2005

My Textbook on Dialects

As I understand it, the universtity, in conjunction with the Party, assigns approved textbooks to all courses. Students must buy these books. Then, when it comes to actually teaching the course, the professors choose how much those official textbook choices are used and how much other materials the professors personally select are used. The book I was so busy studying for a while, Modern Chinese (现代汉语, 上海教育出版社), is one of the ones chosen by the Party. That can make for interesting reading sometimes.

Here’s my slapdash translation of a paragraph on dialects in China (pp. 8-9):

> In order to adapt to the needs of socialist construction and promote the function of language in society, we must actively support the common language of China’s ethnic groups — we must rapidly popularize Mandarin Chinese. “Mandarin serves the people as a whole, whereas dialects serve only the people of a particular region. The spread of Mandarin does not mean the deliberate extinction of [other] dialects. Rather, it entails a gradual reduction in scope of the [other] dialects’ usage, in keeping with the objective requirements for the advancement of society. [Other] dialects can — and inevitably will — coexist with Mandarin in the long run. However, Mandarin’s scope of usage must be continually expanded, and Mandarin must be used as much as possible for public occasions and written materials. We must correct the narrow-minded views of those who do not accept Mandarin, are not willing to listen to Mandarin, or do not even allow their children to speak Mandarin. We must correct published materials — literature in particular — in which the misuse of [other] dialects appears.” We should correctly recognize the relevance of dialects as a form of communication within an ethnic minority while consciously promoting the development of the common language, reducing the influence of [other] dialects, and not only actively using Mandarin oneself, but also doing one’s best to spread the use of Mandarin.

The quote within the passage comes from a 1955 article in the People’s Daily entitled “For the Advancement of Language Reform, Promote Mandarin and Strive for the Standardization of the Chinese Language.”

So basically, the government doesn’t want to squash the other dialects, it just wants to reduce their role to insignificance while Mandarin dominates all. Apparently that doesn’t count as squashing them.

I have the feeling that the typical Shanghainese person would just laugh at a passage like this. Every now and then I hear that Shanghainese is in danger, but it seems pretty healthy to me.

One interesting issue raised by translating this passage had to do with the Chinese words 普通话 (Mandarin) and 方言 (dialect). In normal Chinese usage, Mandarin is pretty much never referred to as a dialect, even though by linguistic definition it could fairly be called a “standard dialect.” Yes, dialects can be standard or nonstandard, but they’re still dialects — variations of a larger linguistic group (of course, whether or not the different dialects/topolects of Chinese are actually separate languages altogether is a whole different can of worms). Yet in this passage, “dialects” were continually referred to, and the implication was “not Mandarin” and “inferior.” This linguistic bullying may not seem very strange, but keep in mind that the above passage came from a university’s core linguistics text! Ah, but it’s a Party-approved book… not so surprising after all.

Related: “Dialects” in China


Jun 2005

Inscrutable Characters

Last week Tian at Hanzi Smatter had a really cool post on the “Book From The Sky,” an art exhibit consisting of a book printed from hand-carved wood blocks. What makes the book so special is that the thousands of characters in the book were all created by the artist, Xu Bing, using existing character elements — a sort of “faux Chinese.”



This sort of reminds me of a game I used to play with my tutor back when I first started studying Chinese at UF. I would “make up” a Chinese character based on existing elements I knew and write it out, and my tutor would tell me what character it was. The idea was to “stump” my tutor by coming up with a nonexistent character. The simpler the character, the more glory. It was very hard for me to stump my tutor as a first year Chinese student (although I had had two years’ study of Japanese). I was amazed at how many characters I could “invent” that already existed. Xu Bing has done it thousands of times and made it into a book. None of his characters appear to be very simple, however.

Visually, the characters remind me of the characters of China’s Western Xia civilization (西夏文字). They, too, look like Chinese characters, but are, on average, much more complex.

Here’s a corny picture of me posing with some 西夏文字:

Xia Characters

The name of the script in English is apparently Tangut.

I tried to find a good book on Tangut script in Yinchuan, but I couldn’t find one. I did learn in the museum, though, that the Tangut script was created by a king of the short-lived civilization. They were also extremely complex — possibly needlessly so. For example, why does the character meaning “one” need to be 5 strokes (in Chinese it’s simply “一”)? You may say, “sure, it’s 5 strokes for ‘one,’ but the script makes up for that in other ways.” But no, I don’t think it does. According to the information at the museum, all the Tangut characters were at least as complex as their Mandarin equivalents, most being more complex.

Not all civilizations value simplicity and efficient orthography, I guess. And not all civilizations survive. (By this logic, the Koreans will be our overlords one day.)


May 2005

Diagramming Fun

Did you ever have to diagram in gradeschool? Remember how that worked? Here’s an example:

They mixed the dough quickly, put it into the oven, and waited.

source: http://www.nambuch.or.kr/eng/diagrams/basicdiagrams26-30.htm#Sentence29

It’s intended to help the mind better grasp parts of speech and how they relate to each other in a sentence. I don’t think it really helps much, though. It seems more like demented grammarians forcing their “fun” on innocent children.

Here’s a quote from Gertrude Stein: “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.” According to her biography on Wikipedia, she was a “conservative fascist.” Makes sense. Still, some people really do like diagramming, taking on such challenges as the Pledge of Allegiance and the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States.

The point is this: the Chinese diagram sentences too! Perhaps it is a universal trend uniting the world’s grammarians. Here’s an example of Chinese diagramming (three different phrases):

Although these are only phrases, the same principles apply to entire sentences. It’s a less visually transparent system, based on hierarchical phrase categorization. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to diagram sentences using this method (called 层次分析法) on my big test next Friday. Fortunately I find it pretty easy.

P.S. I think The bottom Chinese diagram has a mistake in it. I don’t think the bottom two divisions should include ��.

P.P.S. I think maybe this is my most boring post EVAR! What do you think?


May 2005

Multisyllabic Hanzi?

Students of Japanese are quite used to characters (漢字) nearly always having multiple pronunciations, ranging from one syllable to five or more. (Example: in Japanese, depending on the context, the character 侍 can be pronounced as or as さむらい.)

That’s one of the areas in which switching from studying Japanese to studying Chinese came as a relief: in Chinese you can be sure each hanzi (Chinese character) has a monosyllabic reading, and 90% of characters have only one reading.

In my studies, I recently discovered that this has not always been the case. My Chinese textbook gives me three examples that were around until 1977, when a character reform had them eradicated.

– 瓩 qiānwǎ (kilowatt); now standardized as 千瓦
– 浬 hǎilǐ (nautical mile); now standardized as 海里
– 呎 yīngchǐ (foot); now standardized as 英尺

Besides their very existence, I found several things about these characters interesting. First, they’re all for units of measure. Maybe at one point people liked the idea of a single character for each unit of measure? Second, it was an interesting evolutionary turn the language was taking. From a student’s perspective, I’m not sure I like it, but it’s interesting. You can clearly see which part in each character represents which syllable. Lastly, it was the government that quashed this fairly recent orthographic innovation in favor of standardization.

Note: You won’t find this info in Wenlin. I got it from 现代汉语 (上海教育出版社, 2004).

2011 Update: The venerable scholar Victor Mair writes about this subject on Language Log: Polysyllabic characters in Chinese writing.


Dec 2004

Code Switching in the Car

Code switching: a term in linguistics referring to alternating between one or more languages or dialects in the middle of discourse between people who have more than one language in common.Wikipedia

I was riding with my girlfriend in her car. We were pulling up to my apartment, and the guard was motioning to her.

Legend: SHH=上海话 (Shanghainese), PTH=普通话 (Mandarin)

> Her (SHH): Can’t I park here?

> Guard (SHH): No, you need to park over there.

> Her (SHH): Oh, over there?

> Guard (SHH): Yeah.

> Her (PTH): OK, got it, thanks.

> Guard (SHH): No problem.

> Me (PTH): Why did you use Mandarin just now?

> Her (PTH): I wasn’t sure if he knew Shanghainese.

> Me (PTH): What are you talking about? He spoke to you in Shanghainese, and you were replying at first in Shanghainese.

> Her (PTH): Oh.

> Me (PTH): So why did you switch?

> Her (PTH): I don’t know. Why are you giving me a hard time?

Ever since I first came to Shanghai I’ve been trying to figure out if there’s any pattern to the way bilingual speakers in Shanghai use Shanghainese and Mandarin. There are some obvious general patterns, but other times (as in the above example) there seems to be no reason at all.

It’s a little frustrating. Most people don’t pay much attention to their own natural linguistic processes and aren’t too keen on metalinguistic self-examinations either, which doesn’t help my understanding any.

Don’t Chinese people know they’re all supposed to be cooperating with me on this “understanding the Chinese language” thing?


Sep 2004

2 weeks

What have I been doing for the past 2 weeks (besides trying to get my site back online)? It seems like a lot of nothing, but the list goes something like this:

  • Plowing through my Chinese intro to linguistics text. (Surprisingly, I’m learning a lot of really useful non-linguistics-specific vocabulary.)
  • Reading short stories by H. P. Lovecraft. (And, frequently being disappointed by the endings.)
  • Killing time going through the archives of Nuklear Power. (OK, I know it’s lame; I can’t explain it! But FF1 was my favorite game of all time, so that must be part of it.)
  • Expanding my music collection. (Huddle Formation by The Go! Team is awesome happy music.)
  • Visiting the hospital again. (More on that adventure later.)
  • Deciding not to go to India for my October vacation because the plane tickets are just not cheap. (Still not sure what I’ll do.)
  • Thinking.

Yes, I’ve dicovered that when my internet usage goes down I end up reading more and getting more sleep. Good thing I solved my hosting problem. No telling what I might be capable of if I were well-rested, well-read, and well-thought out all the time!


Sep 2002

Verbal Horror

Asiafirst‘s recent post on City Weekend reminded me of an interesting topic… diarrhea.

Now, since you’re most likely of the Western tradition, you probably squirmed a little when you saw that word. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. In Asia, they treat diarrhea like a cold — a temporary, uncomfortable condition. Meanwhile, in the United States it’s an unmentionable dark secret. No one wants to hear about your diarrhea, as if just the word in itself is some kind of plot to make us visualize something disgusting.

It took me some time in Japan and China, when I was in a position requiring someone else’s help, to be able to just tell people, “yo, I’ve got diarrhea, help me out here.” In the U.S. we’d be much less direct about that kind of thing. As your hints about your condition zero in on the unspeakable, the listener gets your drift and tactfully pledges assistance and then immediately changes the topic. On the other hand, if you mention it to your Chinese friend while you’re at the store, he just replies matter-of-factly, “Oh, you’ve got diarrhea??” and then, loudly, to the clerk across the store, “hey, my foreign friend here has diarrhea! Where’ s the medicine for that?” You get the picture.

Just one of those little differences…

Oh, and as long as I’m on this taboo topic, a word to the wise: if you come to China, bring some immodium.


Sep 2002

Linguistics, Anyone?

Ah, love of linguistics… both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that it’s just fascinating, and I’ve somehow been let in on that little secret. It’s a curse because the fact that it’s interesting is either withheld from or is being actively denied by the rest of the world. It’s really shocking to me how linguistics bores most people to tears.

So I picked up a few books on linguistics at the friendly neighborhood foreign bookstore. Evidently Oxford University Press and the Cambridge Books for Language Teachers series have deals with Chinese publishers. The result is that quality educational material cames to China unaltered (?) except that a Chinese title is slapped onto the cover and a Chinese introduction is inserted. The best part, of course, is that the prices are also Chinese, and they are very good. Check these out: Pragmatics by George Yule (8.80rmb; roughly US$1), Psycholinguistics by Thomas Scovel (8.80rmb), Second Language Acquisition by Rod Ellis (9.20rmb), Psychology for Language Teachers by Marion Williams and Robert L. Burden (23.90rmb, roughly US$3), and — the best buy in terms of immediate application — Lessons from Nothing by Bruce Marsland (8.90rmb). That last one is a great buy for any TEFL teacher.

I also picked up Hong Lou Meng (“Dream of Red Chambers”), Chinese edition. Anyone familiar with this Chinese classic should be thinking I’m crazy right about now, as it’s volumes and volumes long. However, I cleverly side-stepped the length issue by picking up the children’s verison. It’s a good level; it’s almost 300 pages long and it doesn’t have the pinyin for all the characters like really low-level children’s books, but it has parenthetical pinyin for the really tough characters. (That will save me a lot of time looking up characters by radical!) The rest of the characters are not too hard. I can read this thing!

Finally, I got a book called “100 Chinese Two-Part Allegorical Sayings.” I suppose there’s no really good translation for “xiehouyu,” but nevertheless, I hope the guy that came up with “Two-Part Allegorical Sayings” is not too proud of himself. The idea is that you deliver the first line, which seems kind of strange, but then you deliver the second line, and the meaning of the first line becomes clear. They’re usually pretty clever or funny, and sometimes involve puns. I first heard about these a while ago from my friend Andrew, but this is my first time actually studying them. Here are a few of the interesting ones:

> Putting make-up on before entering the coffin — saving face even when dying.

> Boiling dumplings in a teapot — no way to get them out.

> Killing a mosquito with a cannon — making a mountain out of a molehill.

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