Archive for Writing systems


Near the Star Ferry terminal on the Hong Kong Island side, Bea Lam noticed a number of fantastic, huge, colorful posters plastered on the walls as part of a “LipsyncHK” project that showcases Cantonese phrases and encourages visitors to try them out.  Bea was (very happily) surprised to see this large and open demonstration of Cantonese pride in a government-sponsored project, given the political environment.

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Cactus Wawa revisited

One of the most intriguing and enthralling Language Log posts is this one:

"cactus wawa: the strange tale of a strange character" (11/1/14)

I spent months doing the research for that post and, although it garnered 80 helpful comments, I still felt that there were some loose ends.  Consequently, I was delighted to receive last week (4/13/16) the following message from Robert Cheng, the brother of the owner of the teashop:

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Character amnesia redux

This is a topic that we have frequently broached on Language Log:

In several recent messages to me, Guy Almog has raised the issue once again.  This is not unexpected for someone whose ongoing research focuses on the changing writing and reading habits of native Chinese and Japanese speakers, and mainly with issues of memory and forgetfulness of hanzi / kanji.

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Manchu illiteracy

Devin Fitzgerald, who works on Qing manuscripts at Harvard, posted an image on Twitter showing some of the difficulties that pre-conquest Qing archivists had with Chinese characters:

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More katakana, fewer kanji

In a comment to "Character amnesia and kanji attachment " (2/24/16), I wrote:

For the last 40 years and more, I have informally tracked kanji usage in Japanese books, newspapers, journals, magazines, signs, notices, labels, directions, messages, reports, business cards (meishi), packaging, etc., etc. and the conclusion I reach is that the proportion of kanji used now is much less than it was four-five decades ago. Conversely, the proportion of katakana, hiragana, rōmaji, and English has increased dramatically.

Has anyone done studies of this phenomenon in a more formal, rigorous way? And I would suggest extending the investigation back a hundred years or more.

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Simplified vs. complicated in New York state

Cullen Schaffer sent me the following scan (click to embiggen):

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Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 3

Previous posts in the series:

"Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions " (3/8/16)
"Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 2 " (3/12/16)

The following post is not about a sword or other type of weapon per se, but in terms of its ancient Eurasian outlook, it arguably belongs in the series:

"Of felt hats, feathers, macaroni, and weasels " (3/13/16)

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Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 2

Part 1 in this series was posted here on 3/8/16 and dealt with a sword called Mòyé 鏌鋣 / 莫邪.  The post was followed by a vigorous discussion that revealed the existence of a large number of words for "sword" in other languages that sound like the reconstructed Old Sinitic form (roughly *mˤak-ja or /makzæ/), stretching westward across Eurasia.  Surprisingly, such words were found prominently in Slavic and Finno-Ugrian languages, but these were determined to be of Germanic origin.  There were also parallels in Caucasian languages.  All of this strongly suggested the possibility that further research along these lines would be rewarding.

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Ask Language Log: Why are some Chinese PDFs garbled on iPad?

Mark Metcalf writes:

Since Language Log addresses lots of interesting language-related issues, I was wondering if you'd ever encountered a problem with Chinese PDFs being incorrectly displayed on an iPad. I searched the LL website and didn't find it previously addressed. I also unsuccessfully searched the Web for solutions.

Here's the issue: Last week I downloaded several articles from CNKI and they all display correctly on my Windows machine. However, when I transferred them to an iPad the Chinese text was garbled. Since I haven't had iPad problems with Chinese PDFs from other sources, one thought is is that CNKI uses a modified PDF file format that can't be properly handled by the iPad OS.

Has anyone previously addressed this problem? If so, could you point me to a solution? If not, would you be interested in addressing this on 'Language Log'? Below I've attached before/after versions of the displays.

I asked several colleagues and students whom I've often observed reading Chinese PDFs on their iPads what their experience with CNKI has been.  Here are a few of the replies that I received.

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Character amnesia and kanji attachment

The following short (5:48) interview video, in which a handful of Japanese speakers not only fail to remember exactly how to write some common Sino-Japanese words, but sometimes end up writing unrelated characters that share none of the same components, is a valuable addition to the ongoing conversation about character amnesia at Language Log (references below):

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Eruption over simplified vs. traditional characters in Hong Kong

Even while our debate on whether Cantonese is a language or just a dialect is still burning, the Chinese government adds more fuel to the fire:

"Hong Kong outrage over Chinese subtitle switch" (BBC, 2/24/16)

Hong Kong officials received more than 10,000 complaints in three days after a popular TV programme began subtitling output in the Chinese characters associated with mainland China.

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More on Chinese telegraph codes

John McVey was rooting around in Language Log for recent posts about telegraphic codes, and stumbled upon this:

"Chinese Telegraph Code (CTC)" (5/24/15)

What we learned there is that the CTC consists of 10,000 numbers arbitrarily assigned to the same amount of characters, one number per character.

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Women's words

In Wired (2/1/16), Liz Stinson has an article titled "This Little Red Book Confronts Sexism in the Chinese Language" (the text is accompanied by a total of 8 slides).

It begins:

Activism can take many forms. In the case of Women’s Words, it takes the form of a little red dictionary. The tiny book is the work of Karmen Hui, Tan Sueh Li, and Tan Zi Hao of Malaysian design collective TypoKaki. On its pages you’ll find made-up words and phrases—Chinese characters that, through their unusual arrangement and alteration, subvert the sexism ingrained in Mandarin.

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