Archive for Writing systems

Mistranscribed character

Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 (1254-1322) is one of the most famous painters in the history of Chinese art.  Many of his priceless works still exist, and he was even honored by having a 167 kilometer-diameter feature on Mercury (132.4° west, 87.3° south), the "Chao Meng-Fu crater", named after him.

When Zhao Mengfu's name came up in a discussion on connoisseurship in one of my classes a few days ago, I almost fell off my chair upon hearing a graduate student from mainland China pronounce it as "Zhao Mengtiao".  Where did she learn that strange pronunciation for this ultrafamous artist's name?  Did she hear it from her teachers?  Her classmates?  Or was she just making a wild guess based on what she thought the ostensible phonophore, zhào 兆, would yield?  However she came up with "Zhao Mengtiao", the effect upon hearing it would be akin to hearing someone say "Michelanjump" or "Leonardo da Jump".

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Ask Language Log: Looking up hanzi for ignoramuses

From Mark Meckes:

I'm a regular Language Log reader, completely ignorant of Chinese languages.  I was just wondering whether there exist worthwhile online tools to help someone like me figure out the meaning of something written only in hanzi.  (The question is occasioned by my looking at a package of tea given to me by a Chinese student; the writing on the package is mostly hanzi, with a little English and no pinyin.)  I'm perfectly competent to use Google Translate and similar tools (and know how much skepticism to approach the results with) for the last stage of the process.  But starting from written hanzi on a physical object, I first need some way to translate that image into either pinyin, Unicode, English, or something equivalent to one of the above — and something that relies on no knowledge of the meaning or pronunciation of the characters, or knowledge of the structure of Chinese characters in general.  Do you have any suggestions?

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Kanji learning for coprophiliacs

Missed this earlier in the year:

"Poop-Themed Kanji Study Book a Bestseller in Japan" nippon.com (4/21/17)

Not only is there one book utilizing the theme of excrement to stimulate interest in kanji, there's a whole graded series of texts, and they're selling like hotcakes (pardon me).

It doesn't hurt that there's a general fascination with feces in Japan that has been enshrined in the "Pile of Poo" emoji:  💩

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Arabella Kushner, young ambassador of good will

New China TV, published on Nov 8, 2017:

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What does your tattoo mean?

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"War Symphony": a modern Chinese poem

From Bryan Van Norden:

It took me a while to "get" this, but it's very cool, and you can appreciate it even if you have never learned a Chinese character before in your life. It's a contemporary Chinese poem entitled "War Symphony." You only need to read four characters to understand it:

兵 bīng means soldier (you can imagine that the lines at the bottom are the soldier's legs)  [VHM:  The lines at the bottom are actually derived from the pictographic representation of two hands; they are holding an adze (you can see additional examples if you click on the "more" button at the top right of the linked section), the primordial tool-weapon, which is what the earliest form of the character actually stood for.  It was later used by metonymy to mean "soldier".  For a powerful woodcut (artist Dan Heitkamp) inspired by the oracle bone form of the glyph, see the title page of Victor Mair, tr. and intro., The Art of War:  Sun Zi's Military Methods (Columbia University Press, 2007).]

乒乓 pīng pāng is Ping Pong, but individually the characters are used to represent the sounds "ping" and "pang" (like the sounds of metal weapons clanging)

丘 qiū is a mound, like a funeral mound

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Is there a practical limit to how much can fit in Unicode?

A lengthy, important article by Michael Erard recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine:

"How the Appetite for Emojis Complicates the Effort to Standardize the World’s Alphabets:  Do the volunteers behind Unicode, whose mission is to bring all human languages into the digital sphere, have enough bandwidth to deal with emojis too?" (10/18/17)

The article brought back many vivid memories.  It reminded me of my old friend, Joe Becker, who was the seminal designer of the phenomenal Xerox Star's multilingual capabilities in the mid-80s and instrumental in the organization and foundation of the Unicode Consortium in the late 80s and early 90s.  Indeed, it was Becker who coined the word "Unicode" to designate the project.

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Lin Tianmiao's "Protruding Patterns": sexism in Chinese characters

Article by Sarah Cascone in Artnet (October 16, 2017):

This Artist Gathered 2,000 Words for Women—and Now, She Wants You to Walk All Over Them:  Lin Tianmiao's installation at Galerie Lelong puts contemporary language on top of antique carpets."

Here's an example of Lin's work:

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The degendering of the third person pronoun in Mandarin, pt. 2

Bilibili (bīlībīlī 哔哩哔哩; B zhàn B站 ("B site / station") "is a video sharing website themed around anime, manga, and game fandom based in China, where users can submit, view, and add commentary subtitles on videos" (Wikpedia).  When you register for this site, you're supposed to declare whether you're M(ale) or F(emale), in which case your posts will be referred to respectively as "tā de 他的" ("his") and "tā de 她的" ("hers").  If you do not specify your gender, your posts will be referred to as "ta的" or "TA的", i.e., neither M(ale) (tā de 他的) nor F(emale) (tā de 她的).

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Easy versus exact

Ever since people started inputting Chinese characters in computers, I've had an intense interest in how they do it, which systems are more efficient, and why they choose the particular ones they adopt.  For the first few decades, because all inputting systems presented significant obstacles and challenges, I remained pretty much of an onlooker because I didn't want to waste my time struggling with cumbersome methods.  It's only after I discovered how simple and fast it is to use Google Translate as my chief inputting method that I became very active in entering Chinese character texts.

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A polysyllabic character that can be read in two different ways

Photo taken in Hangzhou by Nikita Kuzmin's Chinese teacher:

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Twitter length restrictions in English, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean

Josh Horwitz has a provocative article in Quartz (9/27/17):  "SAY MORE WITH LESS:  In Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, 140 characters for Twitter is plenty, thank you"

The thinking here is muddled and the analysis is misplaced.  There's a huge difference between "characters" in English and in Chinese.  We also have to keep in mind the difference between "word" and "character", both in English and in Chinese.  A more appropriate measure for comparing the two types of script would be their relative "density", the amount of memory / code space required to store and transmit comparable information in the two scripts.

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Kazakhstan goes Latin

Excerpts from "Kazakhstan: Latin Alphabet Is Not a New Phenomenon Among Turkic Nations", by Uli Schamiloglu (a professor in the Department of Kazakh Language and Turkic Studies at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan), EurasiaNet (9/15/17):

Kazakhstan’s planned transition to the Latin alphabet raises complex questions. While alphabets may not be important in and of themselves, they play an important role in helping define a nation’s place in the world.

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