Archive for Writing

Chinese restaurant shorthand, part 4

Spotted by Greg Ralph in a London restaurant:

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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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VX in Chinese

By now practically the whole world knows that Kim Jong-nam, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s older half-brother, was killed by the extremely toxic nerve agent called VX.  VX is much more potent than sarin, which was used by the Aum Shinrikyo cult to kill 12 people and injure thousands of others in the Tokyo subway in 1995.  Apparently, it’s not clear why this series of nerve agents is called “V” ( “Victory”, “Venomous”, or “Viscous” are some of the possibilities).  Since research on these agents is restricted primarily to the military, not much is known about them in civilian circles.  Whatever the “V” stands for, and besides VX, other agents in the series include VE, VG, VM, and VR.

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Chinese restaurant shorthand, part 3

Yixue Yang and I were on a mission to find out what the mysterious “O” in this entry from the previous installment in this series stands for:

laan2 / lán 兰O — stands for gaai3laan2 / jièlán 芥兰O
(“Chinese kale / broccoli / gai lan / kai lan order”)

Since that “O” occasioned so much discussion in the comments to the previous post, we were determined to put the controversy to rest, once and for all, and we now have done so, as will be explained at the end of this post.  For the moment, though, let’s look at the bill we received this time (Saturday 2/25/17):

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Study hegemon

Here’s another example of Chinese writing frustration:

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Writing frustration

Somebody posted this in a WeChat group:

The character they were struggling to write is this:

xiāo 宵 (“night; evening; dark”)

Here it combines with yuán 元 (“first; primary; chief; principal”) to form the word yuánxiāo 元宵 (“Lantern Festival”, but in this sentence it means a super delicious kind of sweet dumpling made of glutinous rice flour that people eat on the Lantern Festival).

The Lantern Festival is celebrated on the night of the 15th of the first month of the lunisolar Chinese calendar and marks the last day of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations.  This year it falls on February 11.

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The origins of graphic communication, pt. 2

Annalee Newitz has a fascinating article on abstract Paleolithic notations in Ars Technica (

38,000-year-old carving includes enigmatic ‘punctuation’ pattern:  New finding suggests that paleolithic Europeans shared a common set of symbols.”

reporting on this paper:

R. Bourrillon, R. White, E. Tartar, L. Chiotti, R. Mensan, A. Clark, J.-C. Castel, C. Cretin, T. Higham, A. Morala, S. Ranlett, M. Sisk, T. Devièse, D.J. Comeskey, “A new Aurignacian engraving from Abri Blanchard, France: Implications for understanding Aurignacian graphic expression in Western and Central Europe”, Quaternary International (1/24/17).

http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2016.09.063

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Chicken is down

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Birth Happy Day!

I found this piece of framed calligraphy in a small arts and crafts shop named Noa Omanuyot in the Dan Panorama Hotel on Mt. Carmel in Haifa:

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Chinese restaurant shorthand, part 2

On Saturday the 26th, Yixue Yang and I went to the Ting Wong Restaurant in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. I took one look at the menu and knew right away that the first thing I wanted was the second item on the menu, the Congee with Chopped Beef.

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Language vs. script

Many of the debates over Chinese language issues that keep coming up on Language Log and elsewhere may be attributed to a small number of basic misunderstandings and disagreements concerning the relationship between speech and writing.

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…”such matters as Opinion, not real worth, gives a value to”

Recently, a series of serendipitous connections led me to read Mary Astell’s work, A serious proposal to the ladies, for the advancement of their true and greatest interest, first published in 1694.  And this experience led me to two questions, the first of which is, Why in the world are Mary Astell’s works not available in a readable plain text form, from sources like Project Gutenberg and Wikisource?

Astell’s Wikipedia entry explains that she “was one of the first English women to advocate the idea that women were just as rational as men, and just as deserving of education.” And she is important enough to merit an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which describes at length her contributions to metaphysics and epistemology.

I know that the first-order reason for this lacuna is that OCR is still pathetically incapable of dealing with 17th-century printing, and that no volunteers have stepped forward to transcribe her writings from the available paper or image sources. But this doesn’t really answer the question, it just moves it back a step.

Anyhow, my second question is one that I’ve wondered about before, without ever trying to find an answer: Why did authors from Astell’s time distribute initial capital letters in the apparently erratic way that they did?

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Bob Dylan’s poetry and the Nobel Prize

A. E. STALLINGS says: “At the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, poets, at least judging from my Facebook feed, were either very much pro- or very much con- (often along generational lines), delighted or outraged…”

I found I fell into neither camp. At first, I was pleased to hear the news, and judged the Nobel committee’s view of Dylan to be exactly right: although his early recordings suggest he could hardly win prizes as a singer, guitarist, or harmonica player (don’t confuse being strikingly different and new with being highly skilled), he did deserve to be considered seriously as a significant 20th-century poet. So I started with no negative feelings at all about the decision.

And then I looked at some of his lyrics in written form to see if I could find good evidence to cite for this, and found that even my favorite songs looked truly feeble on the page. I responded to some of them when they were originally sung; but looking at them now, I couldn’t find anything of high poetic quality at all. And mentally putting them back in their musical context didn’t help.

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