Archive for Writing

Cantonese and Mandarin are two different languages

From Mengnan Zhang:

I found this very interesting image on Facebook. The three columns stand for how to write various terms in Cantonese, their pronunciation, and the meaning of the words listed. As a native speaker of Mandarin, I have no idea what these words are talking about even after reading the meaning of each. Linked back to what our professor had talked about in class, Cantonese is a language, which both script and speech have no correspondence with Mandarin at all.

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Handwriting recognition

The website has a new article that piqued my interest:

"96.7% recognition rate for handwritten Chinese characters using AI that mimics the human brain" (9/17/15)

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Sound rules

Stephen Halsey, who is spending the year in Taiwan doing research, observed an interesting linguistic phenomenon that shows the predominance of sound over symbol, even in the writing of Chinese, where the symbols are complex and semantically "heavy" in comparison to phonetic scripts like the Roman alphabet or bopomofo / zhuyin fuhao (Mandarin phonetic symbols), where the symbols are simple and semantically "light".

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The bearded barbarian

Ben Zimmer mentioned to me that he was on the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley talking about the origins of the word "gringo":

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Pop Japonesque nonsense?

[This is a guest post by Nathan Hopson]

Amazon's App Store for Android features a free daily app. The selection of a few days ago caught my eye not for the content of the app itself, but for the nonsensical (and incorrect) use of Japanese.

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How Mandarin became China's national language

K Chang asked:

Possible topic for Prof Mair: Any one know what is this "Wang ts Joa" writing system, allegedly a topolect writing system for Chinese?

Here's a specimen of the script in question, from imgur:

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Miswritten character on a Tokyo Metro sign

From Matthew Duggan:

As a Tokyo resident, I take an interest in the failing ability of those in China and Japan to write and distinguish characters due to computer use. [VHM:  See, inter alia, here, here, here, here, and here.]

I could write 1,000 characters at my peak, but with constant computer use I’m down to my address and a few other common ones.

 In that spirit, I thought you might like this news story.

The story Matthew linked to is in Japanese, but it features these two (perhaps not so) revealing photographs:

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Learning 100 characters at age 100

Xinhua / New China informs us:

After attending a 10-day literacy course, Zhao Shunjin, who had never learned to read or write, mastered over 100 Chinese characters at the age of 100.

Zhao, a former vegetable vendor from Hangzhou City in east China's Zhejiang Province, had never been to school and knew no characters except her own name before taking the course, part of a government-funded program.

Most people who applied for the community literacy classes were aged 70 to 80.


A census in 2010 found China's illiteracy rate was 4.88 percent, compared with 80 percent after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, thanks to a campaign that began in the 1950s.

"Across China: Centenarian learns to read and write" (7/21/15)

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Multiscriptal graffiti in Berlin

Gábor Ugray took this photo last week outside a Turkish-run Italian restaurant in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, a diverse mix between run-down and hip:

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More on Dior's "Quiproquo" cocktail dress

Last week (6/5/15), we examined the fantastic calligraphy on a dress created by the great French fashion designer, Christian Dior (1905-1957), that is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

"Christian Dior's 'Quiproquo' cocktail dress and the florid rhubarb prescription written on it"

During the course of the discussion carried on in the comments to the post, many fascinating details about the dress and its former owner were brought to light.

I am pleased to report that two members of the staff at the Met have kindly provided additional information that sheds further light on this most impressive cultural artifact.

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Budapest restaurant

Blake Shedd sent in this photograph of a Japanese restaurant in Budapest called "Tokio":

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Moar Verbs

A couple of days ago, Geoff Pullum noted that William Zinsser's On Writing Well echoes the Strunkish advice that "Most adverbs are unnecessary" and "Most adjectives are also unnecessary" ("Awful book, so I bought it", 3/21/2015). I share Geoff's skepticism about this anti-modifier animus, and indeed about all writing advice based on parts of speech.

But it occurred to me to wonder whether (various types of) good and bad writing actually do tend to differ in how much they use various parts of speech — and in particular, whether there's any evidence that bad (or at least less accessible) writing tends to use more adjectives and adverbs. Given how pervasive part-of-speech writing advice is, I decided to waste an hour exploring the question empirically.

The results are a bit surprising.  At least in this small and conceptually-limited pilot exploration, I found that writing regarded as bad (and perhaps also certain kinds of technical writing) tends to have more adjectives but fewer adverbs, and more nouns but fewer verbs.

The "more nouns and fewer verbs" effect seems to be especially strong — but I've never seen any writing guide that tells us to "write with adverbs and verbs, not adjectives and nouns".

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Awful book, so I bought it

A long time ago (it was 2010, but so much has happened since then) I noted here that Greg Mankiw recommended to his Harvard economics students not just the little book I hate so much (The Elements of Style), but also William Zinsser's book On Writing Well. About the latter, I said this:

I actually don't know much about Zinsser's book; I'm trying to obtain a copy, but it is apparently not published in the UK. What I do know is that he makes the outrageous claim that most adjectives are unnecessary. So I have my doubts about Zinsser too.

Well, last Thursday, as I browsed the University of Pennsylvania bookstore (I'm on the eastern seaboard in order to give a lecture at Princeton on Monday), I spotted that a copy of the 30th anniversary edition of Zinsser was on sale at the bargain price of $8.98. Should I buy it? I flipped it open by chance at page 67: "Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb…" Uh-oh! More passivophobia. I've definitely got a professional interest in hatred of passives.

I turned the page and saw "ADVERBS. Most adverbs are unnecessary" and "ADJECTIVES. Most adjectives are also unnecessary." Of course! I remember now that I tried to skewer this nonsense in "Those who take the adjectives from the table", commenting on a quotation from Zinsser in a book by Ben Yagoda. Zinsser only uses five words to say "Most adjectives are also unnecessary," but one of them (unnecessary) is an adjective, and another (also) is an adverb.

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