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:
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.
It’s great because it can recognize fluid handwriting where the strokes run together. Yes, you may have seen that kind of software before, but keep in mind that this is a free online dictionary.
Below are some examples of horrible handwriting being correctly recognized.
(Each character to the right displays its pinyin when you mouse over it.)
One of the really cool things about the handwriting recognition is that it keeps going in realtime as long as you write, and it always guesses. I’ve used programs that reach their recognition limit and just say, “nope, can’t do it.” Well, not this one. It gets an A+ for effort.
This, of course, leads to some fun experimentation. Here are a few of mine:
Thanks to David for introducing me to this website.
I just found these on YouTube. Hilarious. Just watch.
The amazing thing is that there are apparently over 30 of them! The camera work and pedagogy don’t get any better over time.
The full description of the first one led me to believe that the whole thing is just mocking a well-meaning old Chinese man, but then why would it go on for over 30 lessons? Plus more and more effort is clearly going into the on-screen presentation with the later clips.
Shortly after I arrived in China and observed the deaf community in Hangzhou, a beautiful thought struck me. Deaf people communicate in an entirely different way. If all the deaf people in the world use sign language, they could all learn the same sign language and communicate with each other regardless of race or nationality. No barriers. A truly international language!
But alas, that was not to be. You see, sign language doesn’t just “substitute for” or “imitate” human language… it is a human language. As such, it is subject to the same restrictions and limitations by which all human languages are bound. In this case, one of the most important factors is that deaf communities are very often isolated. They’re isolated within a country, with a city, or within a district. Without a means to regularly communicate, communities drift apart linguistically over time.
Not only is Chinese sign language different from sign language of other countries, but it also varies from city to city. The sign language of Shanghai differs from that of Hangzhou or Beijing, for example. Even so, there is a national standard promoted. (I’m not sure how hard the Chinese deaf communities strive to adhere to it.)
One of the ways that Chinese sign language sets itself apart is its references to Chinese characters. Certainly not all signs make reference to Chinese characters, and those signs that do make reference to characters don’t necessarily do it in a character-for-character way, but the influence of characters in Chinese sign language is tangible.
So last week my hard drive stopped working right before the deadline for my semantics/pragmatics paper. I was able to get an extension, but “I had computer troubles” is the “dog ate my homework” excuse of the modern age, so, conscientious student that I am, I felt the need to get documented “proof” of my computer troubles. I had the computer shop that fixed my hard drive write up a note and put the company seal on it.
Yeah, the whole idea sounds kind of silly, but not nearly as silly as it ended up looking. The computer guy used a tiny scrap of paper to scrawl the note. It just looks ridiculous (and yet, somehow… awesome?):
Anyway, I thought I’d share it because I kind of enjoy the challenge of reading handwritten Chinese. This note isn’t too difficult to read, although a little challenging in parts. If you want help deciphering, though, click through to the Flickr page.
As academic director at ChinesePod, one of the things I deal with is the language questions of the users. Some of the questions are easy, and others are incredibly difficult. One of the types of questions I enjoy answering most are the ones that I had myself a few years back. Here is one such question (from this lesson):
> Just curious. Why does the transcript use the character 呆 dāi and not the character 待 dāi? Doesn’t the character 呆 dāi mean “stupid” and the character 待 dāi mean “stay”? Am I missing some fine distinction or something?
> The character 待 (dāi) would seem to make a lot more sense, meaning “stay/reside in a place,” but 呆 (dāi) is actually the character used. If you look it up in a dictionary, you’ll see.
> And yes, 呆 (dāi) does also mean something like “stupid.” But that’s an adjective [technically, stative verb], and it’s a verb when it means “to stay.”
> Are you imagining the following exchange?
> Chinese Person:你呆了多久了？
> Chinese Person: Hahaha!
> You: What?
> Chinese Person: You just admitted that you’ve been stupid for a year!
> You: No, wait! I thought you were using the “stay” meaning! Let me take it back!
> Chinese Person: No way, stupid!
> Don’t worry, that doesn’t happen. 你呆了多久了? (Nǐ dāi le duōjiǔ le?) will always be interpreted as “how long have you stayed” rather than “how long have you been stupid.”
Anyone know why the character 呆 is used to mean “stay?”
I’ve written about this before. I like creative ways of writing of Chinese characters. Here’s a simple one by 工商银行 (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China):
The characters read 融汇贯通, a kind of financial service the bank offers. The red part in 融 is the bank’s logo. The red part in 汇 looks similar to the bank’s logo, but actually more closely resembles half of an old-style Chinese coin, with the square hole in the middle. (The character 汇 refers to “currency.”)
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 聽 when I can write 听, or 醫 when I can write 医, or 讓 when I can write 让? 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.
This time John has attacked the theory that Chinese is hard. The chief reason that full (or even half-ass) mastery of Chinese is difficult is those darned Chinese characters, so that’s the focus of John’s analysis.
He provides stroke count statistics for groups of the most commonly used Chinese characters. The result is somewhat heartening. Check it out.
This kind of statistical work has certainly been done before by Chinese scholars, but it’s not very easy information to find online. I made a half-hearted attempt and didn’t find it. (Yes, that’s a challenge to you readers to prove that you’re better than me.) Plus, John offers it in English.
What I did find was some software that could be interesting: 汉字经 and HanziStatics [sic] (汉字统计程序). If anyone has some free time to check those out, let me know what you think (Chinese ability almost certainly required).
An older post by ChinoChano brought my attention to an amusing page on Chinese-Tools.com called New Chinese Characters. The characters are created by foreigners using existing character components (some knowledge of Chinese required). Some of them are pretty funny. Anyway, the page inspired me to create a few new characters of my own:
1. 口 (mouth) + 蒜 (garlic)
2. 口 (mouth) + 死 (death)
3. four 口 (mouths) + 女 (woman), arrangement based on 器
4. 肉 (meat) on top of 凹 (which means “concave” but represents the taco shell here). (Variant form adds the 鱼 (fish) radical.)
5. 贝 (cowrie, used in characters to mean “money,” as in 财, 购) over 众 (used as a pictographic representation of downlines)
6. 山 (mountain, but broken)
I suspect I will do more of these in the future. It’s kinda fun.
A recent post by Micah reminded me about this guy Li Yong (李咏). Before I followed Micah’s link to the NY Times article on Li Yong, I didn’t even know who Li Yong was, but upon seeing the picture accompanying the story, I was all, “Oh, that guy!”
This guy is extremely familiar to those of us who have lived in China for long because he has hosted quite a few of CCTV’s Chinese New Year Craptaculars (春节联欢晚会) in recent years. If you watch a lot of Chinese TV (I sure don’t), I suppose you might know him from other programs as well. He’s immediately recognizable because of his long hair and often weird clothing. I don’t really have any feelings about the guy one way or another. Really, all I wanted to know was his name. When a face becomes that familiar, it’s good to have a name to go with it.
Finally, a question for those with more native-like Chinese than my own. Is 咏 a really weird character to use for a name or what? When I started searching for a pic of the guy based on just the pinyin (no tone), I needed to guess at the characters, and I figured “Yong” was probably either 勇 or 庸 (like 朱德庸). I had to change tactics because none of my guesses were right. 咏?? 咏 means to recite or chant or something. Is this not a bizarre choice of characters for a name?
John “I build an entirely new weblog every two months” Biesnecker has just put up an interesting article on his newest new weblog, My Chinese Life. The article deals with mnemonic devices for memorizing Chinese characters. (You probably want to read it before you continue if you want to understand fully what I discuss below.)
John talks about how he remembers the characters 粪 (“manure”) and 商 (something like “business”). For the former, he uses the actual meanings of the character’s constituent parts: 米 and 共. For the latter, he assigns his own meaning to the character in order to remember it. Both work.
This mnemonic device thing is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time… I think most Chinese would be quick to suggest that students learn the actual etymologies of the characters in order to remember them, but in many cases, this task is ridiculously complex and just places more of a burden on the student. It reminds me of my Calc 2 teacher’s response when we asked if we could use a formula sheet for our tests: “why would you need a formula sheet? If you forget a formula, you can just derive it on the spot.”
An example of the complexities involved in using etymologies to memorize characters is the way that a human “hand” is written as part of many characters. Can you identify the seven components which each mean “hand” in the following four characters?
友 祭 授 手
If you can do it without some really lucky guessing, it means you know your Chinese character etymology. The problem is that the forces which created the modern Chinese character set were often not systematic, or at least not systematic enough to make memorization by etymology a simple matter.
The logical solution, then, is to use a mnemonic system not totally based on etymology. There are two approaches to this. One could take the “semi-etymological” approach to mnemonics by using the real Chinese meanings of the character components in mnemonic devices. For some characters (such as John’s example of 粪), this is not hard to do at all. Your mnemonic may very well be very similar to the logic of the character etymology. In this case, etymology is your ally. For other characters, however, this proves quite ineffective.
When studying the etymology and analyzing the meanings of the component parts doesn’t work for you, what can you do? Well, you could use some kind of rote memorization method, or you could try the other approach: the “to-hell-with-etymology” approach. In this approach, you make up your own meaning for the component parts (like John did for 商).
I first read about this method while I was studying in Japan. I discovered it in an excellent book by James W. Heisig called Remembering the Kanji. Heisig’s method for associating meaning with form readily abandons the original meaning of characters’ component parts if the original meaning does not aid in systematic memorization through simple mnemonics. It works, although the specific system Heisig developed for Japanese limps in a few areas.
I think that this concept of devising a self-consistent mnemonic system for remembering Chinese characters is the holy grail of Chinese character pedagogy, considered impossible (for very good reasons) by many. It’s a problem I hope to tackle down the road. There’s just got to be some systematic method of learning a large quantity of Chinese characters that’s better than rote memorization.
At first I was going to call this another Chinese pun, but now I’m not sure if it qualifies. It’s orthographically dependent (it won’t work when read aloud), and it involves grammar as well. But it’s still pretty easy for students of Chinese to understand.
Central to the understanding of this pun is the notion of the 多音字: a character that has multiple readings. The one you need to know for this pun is the rather basic character 都. In its adverbial usage it carries the basic meaning of “all” and is read dōu. It can also mean “capital (city),” as in 首都, in which case the character is read dū.
A friend was telling me a story about how some young Chinese students. They were learning about different cities in China and their relative importance to the nation’s economy. One city was especially important for coal production, so it was called the 煤都 (“coal capital”). The students had to memorize this. Another city was key in supplying iron ore, so it was called the 铁都 (“iron capital”). The students had to memorize this too, along with many others.
When it came time for the test, the students saw questions like this:
> 中国的煤都是 [China’s coal capital is ]
> 中国的铁都是 [China’s iron capital is ]
One clever student failed in his rote memorization duties, but he found a way to answer the questions anyway:
> 中国的煤都是黑的 [China’s coal is all black ]
> 中国的铁都是硬的 [China’s iron is all hard ]
What could the teacher do? Even though these were clearly not the answers sought, they were completely correct in that written form — even to someone with no knowledge of Chinese geography.
One of the fun things about studying a foreign language is learning the new angle from which that language approaches the world. Part of that angle is a language’s orthography. Below are a few differences of how the English language names shapes (using letters) compared to how Chinese names those shapes (using Chinese characters).
What shape do migrating ducks fly in?
English: a V-shape
Chinese: 人字形 (a “人 character” shape; “人” means “person”)
What is the symbol of Christianity?
English: the cross
Chinese: 十字架 (a “十 character” frame/rack; “十” means “ten”)
What do you call an intersection of two perpendicular streets?
Chinese: 十字路口 (a “十 character” intersection; “十” means “ten”)
What do you call a street which ends at another street at a perpendicular angle?
English: a “T,” a T-junction
Chinese: 丁字路口 (a “丁 character” intersection; “丁” has a somewhat obscure meaning, but it originally meant “nail”)
What do you call a street which diverges into two streets?
English: a “Y,” a fork
Chinese: 丫字路口 (a “丫 character” intersection; “丫” means “fork”)
Of the types of intersections, 十字路口 is the most common, and 丫字路口 is by far the least common (a Google search confirms this).
I’m sure there are more of these orthographically based shape descriptors, but I can’t think of any more at the moment. If you can, please chime in in the comments.