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.
When I bought my new bike, at the forefront of my mind was “this is so going to get stolen.” Bike theft is so common here that my roommate Lenny tells me he thinks of bikes as a disposable product. I think of it more like gambling. But in this game, “winning” means having your bike stolen, and the more you gamble, the higher chances you have of winning. For this reason I always go with as cheap a bike as I can find. It just has to be fully functional and big enough for me to ride. (If I weren’t so tall, I could find bikes for much cheaper.)
When I got my new bike, I also bought bike locks. I wasn’t sure which kind to buy… I know that some of them are incredibly easy to break. The U-locks for instance, can be opened with a ballpoint pen, I understand. Not cool. No U-lock for me. So which lock is good?
The clerk was amazingly useless. She just kept recommending the expensive ones, and she couldn’t even tell me why they were better. The one that was supposedly “best” was a thick chain lock. In Hanghzou I used to rely totally on the kind of lock that is attached to the back wheel and I never once had my bike stolen. So I bought one of each of those locks. Two locks.
When it came time to park, I realized one reason why bike theft is so common in China. When I used to bike all around the campus of the University of Florida, there were bike racks everywhere. Really sturdy metal frames, set in the ground with concrete. You felt pretty secure when you locked the frame of your bike to one of those. But bike racks are relatively rare here in Shanghai. So I’m finding the chain lock I bought to be of very limited value.
One thing a lot of people do is take their bike into their building and up the elevator. Then they either keep it in the hall by their apartment door, or they actually keep it in their apartment. I don’t like that method at all. Bikes should be kept outside, thieves or no.
My apartment complex has this underground parking garage/mosquito farm. I’m not sure how safe it keeps my bike, but it seems safe. In addition, there are locks set in the ground that can lock your bike wheel securely to the ground (above). You have to pay if you want a key to one of those “ground locks,” though.
I noticed that a lot of them are unused. I also saw that one other biker used a chain lock to lock his bike securely to one of the empty ground locks. I decided that was a good idea, so I did that too. When I returned to my bike a day or two later, I found this hand-written note on my bike (left).
Without even reading the note, I knew why I had gotten it. But, dilligent student of Chinese that I am, I wanted to know exactly what the note said. Did it threaten me with something, or what? The handwriting was really hard for me to make out, however. I found that I could only decipher about half of it on my own. I enlisted my girlfriend’s help, and it actually took some effort for her to decipher every character.
Can you read it? Take the challenge!
When you’re ready for the answer, drag your cursor from one bracket to the other: [ 如需要 / 地桩锁 / 请到物 / 业申请！ / 不要占用 / 别人的地 / 桩锁！！！ ]
In English it basically means, “If you need a ground lock, please apply at the office! Do not occupy other people’s ground locks!!!”
I found a thick metal pipe I can lock my bike to instead. Let’s see how long I can keep this bike.
Not long ago at work I was part of a team working on an educational cartoon about sea creatures. The term 鲸鱼 was used in the script. Someone pointed out that the correct term for the mammal is actually 鲸, since a whale is, in fact, not a fish at all (the 鱼 character in means “fish”). I found this quite interesting. In English we don’t need to worry about the actual name of a whale; its name doesn’t carry that information. Still, you hear some of the same kind of nomenclature lecturing from the zoologist crowd when people say “panda bear” or “koala bear.”
I think probably every language has funny words for animals that are based on other animals. In English we have guinea pig, groundhog, hedgehog, prairie dog, jellyfish, and sea lion. I don’t think those are going to change. The ones targeted for “revision” seem to be the ones that are actually potentially misleading due to great similarity.
If you’re a foreigner just learning the Chinese language, however, there are a lot of animal names that could be misleading. Some of the ones that come to mind:
I’m sure there are more, but I’m not a Chinese animal name encyclopedia.
Maybe I’ve left out a lot, but it seems to me that Chinese does a lot more “borrowing” of animal names to create new animal names than English does. Could it be related to Chinese characters? (A large number of animals have their own characters, but at some point that practice becomes impractical.) It seems that a much greater proportion of animal names in English are loanwords.
I’m not really trying to prove anything here… Just throwing out a few thoughts. Also, I think it’s names like the Chinese examples above that make learning a new language interesting, so it’s a fun thing to share.
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:
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.)
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 ジ 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).
Back in the year 2000 when I first started going to Catholic mass in China, I discovered some interesting interplay between the Church and the Chinese language. I’ll mention just one such example here.
Traditionally, God’s name has been capitalized in English, even in pronoun form. Hence you will find, “for He is our salvation,” “Follow Him,” “Do His will,” etc. The pronoun capitalization is intended to show respect.
An obvious problem appears when one attempts to continue this tradition in Chinese translations of the Bible. Chinese does not lend itself to the “capitalization” of just any character (though there may be an exception or two). I found the Chinese solution to be quite interesting.
To understand the solution, however, you need to first understand a few things about Chinese pronouns. The basic pronouns are 我 (I), 你 (you), 他 (he), 她 (she), and 它 (it). You’ll notice that the characters 你 (you) and 他 (he) have the same radical on the left side: 亻. This radical is derived from the character 人 and means “person.” Notice, too, that it is swapped out for a 女 to convert “he” (他) to “she” (她). Although it’s not done on the Mainland so much, the Taiwanese also sometimes like to make a female version of “you” (你) in the same way: 妳.
While the pronoun “you” (你/妳) is directly related to 尔 etymologically, “he/she” (他/她) is not directly linked to 也. Nevertheless, what the above usages seem to establish is that “you” and “he” each have a “core element” (尔 and 也, respectively) which, when combined with the appropriate radical, produce a gender-specific pronoun. (Interestingly, the use of 亻 — derived from 人, which means “person” — for the male element seems to be the reverse of the West’s former use of the word “Man” or “mankind” to mean “humans” or “humankind.” 人 is normally a very inclusive term, used even in the words for “alien” (外星人) and “robot” (机器人), where the English terms “person” or “human” would not apply. Perhaps the Chinese 人, at its core, means something more like “humanoid.”)
What the Chinese have done is make use of these “core pronoun elements” 尔 and 也. Rather than using either a “male” or “female” radical, an entirely different one is chosen (which seems to be in better keeping with a genderless understanding of God). The radical chosen was 礻.
礻 is derived from the character 示, which is generally understood to depict an altar. Karlgren states that 示 “occurs as a signific in characters bearing on religion, rites, etc.” (Wenlin). It seems the perfect choice. The pronoun characters you will see in the Chinese Bible when referring to God, therefore, are 祢 and 祂.
[Note: 祢 is already claimed as a surname pronounced Mí rather than Nǐ, but the Church seems to ignore this discrepancy. It’s also interesting that the Church rejected the use of 您 for God, which is the standard polite form of 你. I guess “polite” isn’t good enough. To me, at least, 祢 seems to simultaneously convey reverance (by radical) as well as intimacy (by pronunciation), but I have no idea how the Chinese feel about it.]
I also wondered what had been done with the pronoun “I.” True, God doesn’t speak in first person much in the Bible, but it does happen. Exodus is a good example. The issuing of the Ten Commandments contains a liberal sprinkling of God pronouns “I” and “me”. Just one example:
> I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. (Ex 20:2-3)
So I checked this verse in an online Chinese Bible. No luck. It’s just 我. [Not sure if there could be Chinese Bible version issues here…] I was kinda hoping for 礻+ 我 for consistency. I suppose we don’t see this for two reasons. The main reason is that the character apparently doesn’t exist, and never has, even as a variant form. The other reason is that 我 contains no swappable element such as 亻 or 女. Like the English first person pronoun “I,” which comes capitalized right out of the package, it seems to need no dressing up.
Note: Christianity was almost certainly not the first organized religion to make use of “god pronouns” in Chinese. A Google search turns up examples of it in Buddhist literature as well. Being Christian and not Buddhist, I simply discovered their usage in the Bible first.
I was recently introduced to a cute collection of Chinese jokes based on the small differences between similar Chinese characters. Some of them can even be appreciated without much knowledge of Chinese. I’ve translated a few of those below.
> 个 said to 人: I can’t keep up with you youngsters, and I can’t get anywhere without my cane.
> 日 said to 曰: Looks like it’s time for someone to go on a diet.
> 比 said to 北: Come on, now, you’re a couple! No more of this ridiculous divorce talk!
> 人 said to 从: You guys still haven’t undergone the separation surgery?
> 木 said to 术: Don’t think you’re so hot just because you have that beauty mark…
> 尺 said to 尽: The results are in, sis. You’re going to have twins!
> 由 said to 甲: Doesn’t practicing One-finger Zen make you really tired?
John over at Zero Dispance recently linked to a CNN story about the likely decline of the global importance of English and ascendancy of local languages. One language highlighted was Mandarin Chinese.
None of this really surprises me. Aside from just loving the language, practical matters such as future importance in the world market also motivated my academic pursuit of Chinese. So the message of the article doesn’t come as a shock to me.
What did catch my attention was the ugly graphic included in the story. I mean, come on! It’s just dumb. A red box with han zi (“Chinese characters”) written in it. A black background with a fuzzy character tree, clearly taken from zhongwen.com (they call their tree system 字普 — zipu). Random characters reading “speak Chinese” and “individual character,” and a generous helping of just the word CHINESE in English slopped about, along with a “stylish” gray transparent stripe. Weak. What’s most disappointing, though, is that if you click on FAQ at the top of the zhongwen.com homepage, you’re already at the page where everything for the graphic was lifted from. Look at the entry for 字 and the zi pu. It’s all there.
Western media, devoid of imagination, indirectly stealing from Chinese in its news. How ironic.