Archive for Writing systems

From "barbarian" to "very"

Earlier this week, I wrote a post titled "'Little Man' the eating machine" (5/22/17), in which I pointed out that "Man" here does not mean "(hu)man" or "male human", but that it signifies "(southern) barbarian", with extended meanings of “rough; reckless; fierce; rude; unreasoning; unruly; bullying”.  I also noted that this mán 蛮 has another set of meanings:  "quite; rather; somewhat; very".

In the sixth comment to the post, liuyao wrote:

I was hoping VHM would do a linguistic/philological analysis of 蛮 in the sense of “very”. Given that it was originally a derogatory term for “barbarians” in the south (possibly Austroasiatics that have long been displaced or assimilated), how did it come about that the southern topolects (or when they speak their variants of Mandarin) have this character or word for “very”? Are there alternative characters for this morpheme?

I will now attempt to answer all of liuyao's questions.

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Chinese emoji, with a twist

Adrienne LaFrance has an eye-opening article about "The Westernization of Emoji" in The Atlantic (5/22/17).  Here's the summary statement at the beginning:

The takeout box and the fortune cookie are perceived as emblems of Chinese culture, when they’re actually central to the American experience of it.

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Unknown language #9

Forwarded by Geoff Wade (sans Twitter comments):

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White dude challenges Chinese speakers in Shanghai

Jayme, his gangling arms covered with colorful tattoos, sallies forth onto Nanjing Road, the busiest shopping street in Shanghai, and tests the local denizens and tourists on their language skills (reading, writing, and pronunciation):

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Unknown language #8

Michael Carasik, on behalf of NAPH (National Association of Professors of Hebrew), has forwarded to me a letter that was written to Oscar P. Schaub in the 1920s. Can anyone identify the script and/or translate it for him?

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Last gasp of lead type

Chen Cheng-wei and staff writer Elizabeth Hsu, "Taiwan's last lead-character mold maker works to preserve the past" (Focus Taiwan, 5/1/17):

Rixing Type Foundry is home to the last remaining collection of traditional Chinese movable type character molds in the world. It possesses 120,000 molds of different characters in a wide range of sizes and three different typefaces — kaiti (楷體) or regular script, songti (宋體) and heiti (黒體) or sans-serif black — and has more than 10 million lead character pieces for printing or sale.

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Writing moxibustion is a bust

[This is a guest post by David Moser]

I took a group of my students, who are studying the Chinese medical system, to a yǎngshēngguǎn 养生馆 [VHM: "health center / club" — centered on TCM = Traditional Chinese Medicine], which are very common in Beijing.  I wanted them to see and experience firsthand the kinds of informal "well being" treatments that the lǎobǎixìng 老百姓 ("common people") indulge in every day, such as foot massage, cupping (báguàn 拔罐), medicinal foot baths, moxibustion, etc.

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Biscriptal juxtaposition in Chinese, part 3

Christopher Alderton saw this flyer on his way to work a few days ago:

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Long kanji readings

SoraNews24 (4/20/17) has an article by Scott Wilson titled "W.T.F. Japan: Top 5 kanji with the longest readings【Weird Top Five】 ".  Before attempting to read and critique this article, we need to familiarize ourselves with some basic terms and concepts about the modern Japanese writing system.  It basically consists of thousands of kanji (Chinese characters) and kana (a syllabary of 48 symbols, of which there are two different types, cursive hiragana and angular katakana).  As the name "syllabary" indicates, each of the kana symbols is pronounced as a syllable, except for one, which indicates the sound "n".

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How not to learn Chinese

In "Sinological suffering" (3/31/17), "Aphantasia — absence of the mind's eye" (3/24/17), and other recent posts, we examined the difficulty, for some the near impossibility, of mastering how to write hundreds and thousands of Chinese characters.  Yet, if one wishes to become literate in Chinese, one simply must do it.  Until the 21st century, there was basically only one way:  rote copying of the characters to engrave them in the neuromuscular pathways of the learner.

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You April fools!

Many Language Log readers have been complaining about the absence of any recognition of April Fool's Day at this site. I can only lament your lack of perceptiveness. There have been pranks all over the place and you simply didn't see them because you are too gullible.

The primary linguistic one was Victor Mair's amusing spoof post "Sinological suffering", cunningly posted on March 31st to be there when you read Language Log on Saturday morning, April 1st, about an imaginary Chinese character that couldn't be found in dictionaries no matter what lookup method you tried.

Do you really think a writing system could survive if it were so brain-wrenchingly complex, arcane, and impossible to document that there would be written characters that Victor Mair, one of the greatest experts on Asian languages on this planet, could not track down or translate?

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Sinological suffering

Since I became a Sinologist in 1972, hardly a day has passed when I didn't spend an hour or two vainly searching for a character or expression in my vast arsenal of Chinese reference works.  The frustration of not being able to find what I'm looking for is so agonizing that I sometimes simply have to scream at the writing system for being so complicated and refractory.

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The miracle of reading and writing Chinese characters

We have the testimony of a colleague whose ability to write Chinese characters has been adversely affected by her not being able to visualize them in her mind's eye.  See:

"Aphantasia — absence of the mind's eye" (3/24/17)

This prompts me to ponder:  just how do people who are literate in Chinese characters recall them?

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