Archive for Writing

Pinyin memoirs

Chang Li-ching (my wife) wrote her childhood memoirs in Hanyu Pinyin (Romanized Mandarin):

Pīnyīn Rìjì Duǎnwén (Pinyin Diary Essays).

Li-ching specifically did NOT want her memoirs published in hanzi (Chinese characters).  She was passionately devoted to farmers and workers — like John DeFrancis — and she wrote her memoirs in Pinyin as a testimony of her devotion to them.

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Stylized characters

Dean Barrett sent in these two photographs of signs from, respectively, the Taiwan Literary Museum and a sex shop in Tainan that is well known for its wide selection of condoms:

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Writing Shanghainese, part 2

No one in this Douban thread (so far) can identify the script in the image below:

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The extent of Melania's plagiarism

The Trump campaign officially maintains that there was no plagiarism in Melania Trump's speech at the Republican convention. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort was astonishingly disingenuous: "These were common words and values"; "To think that she'd be cribbing Michelle Obama's words is crazy"; "There's no cribbing. What she did was use words that are common words"; "Care and respect and passion, those are not extraordinary words"; "50 words, and that includes and’s and the’s and things like that." But it is not words we are talking about, is it? It's word sequences. And you do not need to look at many word sequences, even quite short ones, before you start finding phrases that have apparently never occurred before in the entire history of the world (if we can judge by the sample of it that the web knows about).

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Learning to read and write Chinese

Responding to "How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08), Alex Wang writes:

Thanks for the great blog.  I have also enjoyed the articles of David Moser.  My path toward your blog started when I decided to teach my younger son, 4, to start to read Chinese and English.  It also was heavily influenced by watching my elder son, 7, struggle with learning how to write characters.  He is attending public school here in Shenzhen.  Both were born in HK and raised in Shenzhen.  Moreover, my wife's side is from the mainland.  After analysing the issue at length I have come to many of the same conclusions as your colleagues and you have.

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A confusion of languages and names

Xinjiang  新疆 (lit., "New Frontiers / Borders / Boundaries") is the northwesternmost and largest (one sixth of the whole country) among all of China's 34 provincial-level administrative units.  It got its present official name in the 1880s under the Manchus during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), but it has also been called, among other names, "Western Regions", Eastern Turkestan, and Uyghurstan.  When suitable, I prefer to refer to this region as Eastern Central Asia (ECA), since the latter designation is purely geographical in nature and has no political implications.

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McCrum's 100 best ways to ruin the 4th of July

The many Americans in the University of Edinburgh's community of language and information scientists had to celebrate the glorious 4th on the 3rd this year, because the 4th is an ordinary working Monday. I attended a Sunday-afternoon gathering kindly hosted by the Head of the School of Informatics, Johanna Moore. We barbecued steadfastly in the drizzle despite classic Scottish indecisive summer weather: it was cloudy, well under 60°F. Twice we all had to flee inside indoors when the rain became heavier. No matter: we chatted together and enjoyed ourselves. (I swore in 2007 that one thing I was not going to do was spend my time in this bracing intellectual environment grumbling about how the weather in Santa Cruz had been better. I'm here for the linguistic science, not the weather.) So it was a happy Fourth of July for me. Until this morning, the actual 4th, when people started emailing me (thanks, you sadistic bastards) to note that Robert McCrum had chosen America's independence day to make his choice for the 23rd in a series called "The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time," in the British newspaper The Observer. He chooses The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. For crying out loud!

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Sayable and now writable

In a comment to "Pinyin literature contest" (6/30/16), DG asked an excellent, reasonable question:

I am not a Chinese speaker, so I am wondering if the requirement that it's not originally written in Chinese characters is a sort of honor code, or is there some way to tell from the pinyin submission?

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Speak Cantonese

We started teaching Cantonese at Penn more than a quarter of a century ago, and it has been a very successful program.  Yale was teaching Cantonese long before us, and the title of this post is the same as that of a famous Yale textbook for the teaching of Cantonese by Parker Po-fei Huang and Gerard P. Kok.

I'm very pleased that more and more schools are offering Cantonese, and I'm hoping that the same will hold true for Taiwanese, Shanghainese, and other Sinitic languages.  Penn offers a dozen modern South Asian languages, which shows that linguistic diversity is possible in universities when there's a will to make it happen.

Cantonese language instruction is booming in Hong Kong as well, and that is entirely appropriate, since — although Cantonese is the Mother Tongue of the overwhelming majority of the population — in recent years, it has increasingly been threatened by the rise of Mandarin as the language of the central government, which has been exerting ever greater control in the SAR (Special Administrative Region), particularly after the British returned the former colony to Chinese suzerainty in 1997.

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The uses of Hanyu pinyin

Hànyǔ pīnyīn 汉语拼音 ("Sinitic Spelling") is the official romanization of the PRC.  It also comes with an official orthography which provides guidelines for word separation, punctuation, and how to deal with grammatical constructions.  An English translation of the basic orthographical rules by John Rohsenow can be found at the back of the various editions of the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary from the University of Hawai'i Press.

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Needless words

I know I've been a long-time critic of everything in The Elements of Style, not least William Strunk's platitude that you should omit needless words. "Needless" is not defined even vaguely; nobody really writes in a way that sticks to the absolute minimum word count; and if neophyte writers could tell what was needless they wouldn't have to be handed this platitude (which they don't really know how to use anyway). But every now and then one really does see a case of a word that screams at you that it should have been left out. The University of Oxford has an official form on which this is the heading:

CLAIM FOR REIMBURSEMENT OF ALLOWABLE EXPENSES

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Colloquial contractions in Mandarin

I've mentioned my old friend Liu Yongquan in various posts and comments — see, inter alia, here, here, and here, where I wrote:

A colleague, Liu Yongquan 刘永泉, who spent most of his life working in Beijing as an applied linguist (especially concerned with machine translation and computer applications), spoke quite good MSM, referred to people who speak "like that" (as I have described colloquial Pekingese in the above paragraph) as méi xiūyǎng 没修养 ("lacking cultivation"). I'm not sure where Liu originally came from, though I think it was from somewhere in the northeast. He had a curious speech mannerism: whenever he said zhè'er / zhèr 这儿 ("here") and nà'er / nàr ("there"), they always came out as zhèher and nàher. For the first few months when I heard him talk like that, I thought that it was an affectation, but later I heard the same pronunciation from a few other people, so I suppose it has some basis in a regional variety of Mandarin.

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The esthetics of handwriting

The following photograph of a page of Chinese characters comes from this BuzzFeed article:

"21 Pieces Of Handwriting So Perfect They’re Borderline Erotic" (5/4/16)

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