Archive for Writing systems

Synesthesia and Chinese characters

Leo Fransella asks:

I'm curious to know whether, in your years studying and teaching written Chinese, you've ever come across synaesthesia as applied to Chinese characters (zi) or words (ci)?

The most common form of synaesthesia (~1% of people, I think) involves the systematic assignment of colours to letters, numbers or (sometimes) whole words. I have this 'grapheme-colour' quite strongly: when I hear a phone number or see a number written on a page, for example, I automatically sense it as bands of colour. Much the same for words: it literally bothers me when I don't know how to spell someone's name, as their associated colours can be so different (Catherine is bluey-green with a dash of red; Kathryn is green-yellow). Sounds a bit loopy to people who don't do this, but it's a very useful mnemonic trick when learning French vocab or Latin verb conjugations and noun declensions.

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Topolectal traffic sign

This has apparently been around for awhile, but I'm seeing it now for the first time:

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Difficult languages and easy languages

People often ask me questions like these:

What's the easiest / hardest language you ever learned?

Isn't Chinese really difficult?

Which is harder, Chinese or Japanese?  Sanskrit or German?

Without a moment's hesitation, I always reply that Mandarin is the easiest spoken language I have learned and that Chinese is the most difficult written language I have learned.  I learned to speak Mandarin fluently within about a year, but I've been studying written Chinese for half a century and it's still an enormous challenge.  I'm sure that I'll never master it even if I live to be as old as Zhou Youguang.

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Cantonese tones

If you ask Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM — Guóyǔ 國語 / Pǔtōnghuà 普通话) speakers how many tones there are in their language, most of them will tell you without much hesitation that there are four tones (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th) plus a neutral tone.

Chances are, however, if you ask a Cantonese speaker how many tones there are in their language, they will not give you a clear answer, or if they do, it will differ from what other Cantonese speakers claim.  That has always been my experience over the years, but I just did a little survey to reconfirm my earlier impressions.  The results are rather more amazing than I expected them to be:

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PiaPiaPia

As soon as I saw the reports about the mobile PaPaPa vans roaming the streets of Chengdu (see "PaPaPa" [2/15/17]), I immediately thought of a similar expression with a similar meaning that I heard forty years ago.  On that occasion, someone described to me the actions of a man who was trying (unsuccessfully) to get an erection as "PiaPiaPia".  Since that was the first time I had heard that expression, I didn't know for sure what it meant, but I could pretty well guess.

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Sun-moon mountain-wood

Boris Kootzenko was intrigued by this sign in China:

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A trilingual, biscriptal note (with emoji)

Message in a store window @ 826 Valencia, San Francisco:

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Hu Shih and Chinese language reform

Hu Shih 胡適 (Pinyin Hú Shì [1891-1962]) is widely regarded as one of the most important Chinese intellectuals of the 20th century.  As such, he is known as the "Father of the Chinese Renaissance".  In my estimation, Hu Shih was the single most influential post-imperial thinker and writer in China.  His accomplishments were so numerous and multifarious that it is hard to imagine how one man could have been responsible for all of them.

Before proceeding, I would like to call attention to "Hu Shih:  An Appreciation" by Jerome B. Grieder, which gives a sensitive assessment of the man and his enormous impact on Chinese thought and culture.  Another poignant recollection is Mark Swofford's "Remembering Hu Shih:  1891-1962", which focuses on aspects of Hu's monumental advancement of literary and linguistic transformation in China.  For those who want to learn more about this giant of a thinker and writer, I recommend Grieder's biography, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance: Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917-1937 (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1970) and A Pragmatist and His Free Spirit:  the half-century romance of Hu Shi & Edith Clifford Williams (Hong Kong:  Chinese University Press, 2009) by Susan Chan Egan and Chih-p'ing Chou.

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Creeping English in Chinese

Many years ago, I predicted that — due to the exigencies of technological change and the increasing tempo of life — China would willy-nilly gravitate either toward romanization of Mandarin (and the other Sinitic languages) or the gradual adoption of English for many aspects of written communication (e.g., business, science, medicine) because they are perceived as faster and more efficient.  In truth, I thought, and still do think, that there would be a transitional period during which both processes transpired, though naturally Chinese characters would continue to be used as well.  The evidence with which we are daily confronted, much of it presented in Language Log posts, confirms that my suspicions are being borne out.

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Nguyen: the most common Vietnamese surname

Dave Cragin writes:

I have a brother-in-law who is originally from Hong Kong and his last name is Yuen.  I learned from John McWhorter’s superb series on linguistics that this Chinese name is of Turkic origin.  I asked my brother-in-law about this and he said “Yes, family lore is that we originally came from North-West China” (i.e., where Turkic people had settled.)

According to Wikipedia, the Mandarin equivalent of Yuen is Ruan (阮) and the Vietnamese is Nguyễn.  Wikipedia further notes an estimated 40% of Vietnamese share this name.

I wonder if readers have information that contradicts the above – or is it correct?  (I’d like to know that our family story is accurate).  Is there a Turkish/Turkic equivalent of Yuen or did it remain Yuen?

Also, are there any other common last names that cover such a wide geographic, linguistic, and cultural span, particularly from such ancient times? (obviously, in modern times, people move everywhere).

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Zhou Youguang 1906-2017

Zhou xiansheng,

You were my dear friend for decades.  I wish that you had gone on living forever.  You will be sorely missed, but yours was a life well lived.

As the "Father of Pinyin", you have had an enormous impact on education and culture in China.  After you passed the century mark, you spoke out courageously in favor of democracy and reform.

Now, one day after your 111th birthday, you have departed, but you will always be in our hearts, brimming with light, as your name suggests.

Tearfully,

Victor

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Monumental laughing face

From an anonymous reader, who spotted this photograph on Instagram, where it was posted by nanorie, who has given her permission to repost it:

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Chinese lung cancer poeticizes in English

For several days I've been aware of a strange poem that has gone viral in China:

"Read The Smog-Inspired Poem That China Can't Stop Talking About" (NPR, 1/12/17)

The strangeness of the poem is due to its being written from the perspective of lung cancer and addressed to the patient.  You judge for yourself — here's the complete poem:

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