Archive for Writing systems

Sinographic memory in Vietnamese writing

Jason Cox sent in the following photograph of the cover of a Vietnamese religious text and asked what was going on with the "characters" along the left and right sides.


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Emojify the Web: "the next phase of linguistic evolution"

Today's announcement from the Google Chrome team (yes, note the date):


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Chineasy? Not

Last Friday, the following article appeared in The Wall Street Journal:

"A New Way to Learn Chinese:  Entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh aims to bridge the gap between East and West by teaching Westerners how to read Chinese".

The article is preceded by a video that begins with this note:

Entrepreneur and author ShaoLan Hsueh has devised a simplistic method for teaching English speakers to learn to read Chinese.

It is true that her system is "simplistic", but it is not true that people who use it "learn to read Chinese", despite her repeated claim that "it works."

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Bad shits

I received the following photograph of a sign taken by Son Ha Dinh in Damak, Nepal:

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A variable, transcriptional Chinese character

Gloria Bien sent in the following photograph and asked what to make of the Chinese text in it, especially the unusual character 叻, which is pronounced lè in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM; but see below for the Cantonese pronunciation and meaning). Wenlin says it's part of a name for Singapore, but not used alone, as it is in this picture. Google says Overseas Chinese use it for Singapore. But, as Gloria observes, "I'm the most Singapore" doesn't make sense.

This is from a package of noodles from Emeryville, CA, and says "Product of China," but complex characters are used throughout.

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Swype and Voice Recognition for mobile device inputting

In late 2012, while visiting my son Tom in Dallas, I noticed that he was doing something very odd with his cell phone.  Most people enter text into their cell phone by pressing their thumbs (or their fingertip) on the letters of a small keyboard, whether virtual or actual.  But Tom was doing something altogether different:  he was sliding his finger over the glass surface of his phone and somehow, by so doing, he was able to enter text.  I was dumbfounded!  What amazed me most of all was how casual he was about it.  He'd be talking to me about something, then glance down at his cell phone, move his fingertip around on the glass, and — presto digito! — he'd have typed a message to someone and sent it off.

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A trilingual, triscriptal ad in the Taipei subway

Mark Swofford took these photographs of an advertisement for a very well-known brand of instant noodles in the Taipei MRT (subway system). It makes use of three scripts (Chinese characters [including some rare, non-standard forms], bopomofo / zhùyīn fúhào 注音符號 [Mandarin "Phonetic Symbols" of the Republic of China, and Roman letters) and possibly as many languages (Taiwanese, Japanese, English) — with Mandarin apparently *not* being among them.


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Multiscript Taiwan advertisement

Jason Cox sent in the following ad for a Christmas-themed exhibition of papercutting artwork from Taiwan:

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Cantonese as Mother Tongue, with a note on Norwegian Bokmål

I just received this note from a colleague:

I found a document on the Hong Kong Education Bureau's website that says:  "Xiānggǎng de qíngkuàng shì yǐ Zhōngwén wéi mǔyǔ 香港的情況是以中文為母語" ("The situation in Hong Kong takes Chinese as the Mother Tongue").

Zhōngwén 中文 ("Chinese") is a rather curious, ambiguous, and imprecise term since it can essentially mean just about any kind of Chinese. I think using it to refer to a person's so-called mother tongue is especially dubious and sneaky.

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Sneeze, hiccup, cough

Exceedingly few people (almost none) can write the Chinese  characters for the Mandarin word for "sneeze" (dǎ pēntì).  I suspect that most people would also get one or both of the characters for "cough" (késou) wrong, though it's not as hard as dǎ pēntì.

I mentioned this surmise to several colleagues and encouraged them to test themselves, their friends, and their students to see whether they could write késou correctly, or even at all.  I cautioned them that it should not be permitted to use any electronic device or reference material (dictionaries, etc.) to remind those being tested how to write the two characters for késou.  They must simply be written out directly on paper by hand.

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The degendering of the third person pronoun in Mandarin

One of the first things a student learns when studying Mandarin is the third person pronoun, tā. This was originally written 他 (with "human" radical), and it stood for feminine, masculine, and neuter — "he", "she", and "it". During the early 20th century, however, some bright folks — undoubtedly in emulation of European languages — thought it would be a good idea to introduce gender into the Chinese writing system, so 她 (with "female" radical) came to be used for the feminine and 它 (with "roof" radical) for the neuter. I always thought that rather odd, because no attempt was made to differentiate the three forms in speech, only in writing, hence 他, 她, and 它 were still all pronounced tā.

Well, it's not quite right to say that no attempt was made to differentiate the three forms in pronunciation, since there was a half-hearted effort to introduce yī for feminine and tuō for neuter, but it didn't catch on.

Beyond 他, 她, and 它, there are also 牠 (with "bovine" radical) for animals and 祂 (with "spirit" radical) for deities, etc. All of these were — and still are — pronounced tā.

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No character for the most frequent morpheme in Taiwanese

Mark Swofford sent me the following photograph of two snack stands taken on September 8 on a mountain in Tucheng, Taiwan — somewhere around here:

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Japanese phonetically rendered in Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters

As used by the Chinese air force, according to a post on Twitter that Joel Martinsen sent to Brendan O'Kane, and Brendan relayed to me:

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Substituting Pinyin for unknown Chinese characters

On September 25, I posted on "Character amnesia and the emergence of digraphia", which occasioned a vigorous debate. A few of the commenters thought the essay in question wasn't actually written by a student. Be that as it may, this habit of replacing characters by Pinyin is becoming more and more common, especially among young students. Let us look at this scene from the Chinese documentary "Qǐng tóu wǒ yī piào" 请投我一票 (Please vote for me) at (34:29).

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Phonetic symbols of the Republic of China on American baseball caps

Below is a photo that Bryan Van Norden took of a baseball cap a guy was wearing at a casino in Atlantic City. Someone else at the table asked him what it meant, and he said he thought it was Chinese for "good luck." Bryan explained that he was wrong.

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