Archive for Writing

Embarrassing amnesia

[This is a guest post by David Moser]

Part I

I was giving a talk the other day, in Chinese, to Chinese students, about English pedagogy (go figure).  I wanted to mention something about the difficulty of remembering how to write Chinese characters, and I chose to use an example of the idiom 韬光养晦 tao1guang1yang3hui4, "to hide your light under a bushel."  Now the interesting thing about this example is that I had used it several times before as an example, in talks about the difficulty of Hanzi, and I said to the audience something like:

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Dumpling ingredients and character amnesia

A few nights ago I delivered the Watt lecture before an audience of over two hundred people at UBC. More than half the people in the audience were native speakers of Mandarin or another Chinese language, and everybody else present was familiar with at least one East Asian language.

When I showed the famous jiaozi ingredients shopping list from John DeFrancis's article on "The Prospects for Chinese Writing Reform" (exhibit 2), the entire audience audibly gasped, and some people almost fell out of their seats. I really didn't have to say anything to make my point about character amnesia, which was one of the main topics of my lecture, but I did elaborate on the connection between IT and writing by hand, etc., plus the fact that the person who wrote that list was a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher with a Ph.D.

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Is English a "writer-responsible language" and Chinese, Korean, and Japanese "reader-responsible languages"?

These are totally new concepts for me.  Until David Cragin told me about them, I had never heard of reader-responsible language and writer-responsible language.

Dave works for Merck in the Safety & Environment group, knows Mandarin, has been to China 12 times since 2005, and teaches a short course on risk assessment and critical thinking at Peking University every year.  He was recently appointed to the Executive Committee of the US-based Sino-American Pharmaceuticals Professional Association (SAPA), so he has a professional and personal interest in cross-cultural communication.

In an earlier post, we discussed another, related issue that interests Dave:  "Critical thinking".

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Ye Olde English katakana

Via HiLobrow (8/10/2014), Ben Zimmer came across this virtuoso display of Gothic katakana on feitclub's Tumblr:


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John McIntyre's notes on 'Word Crimes'

John Lawler (thank you!) pointed me to this blog entry by John McIntyre, which was written in response to readers' requests for his reactions to "Weird Al" Yankovic's Word Crimes.  I see that Mark Liberman is already a McIntyre fan (here, here, here, for instance), but I hadn't known about him before. I should — as John Lawler pointed out to me, he's an Oriole fan; and the Baltimore Sun, where he is an editor, was our family's daily paper through all my school years.

His notes on 'Word Crimes' really just consist of references that he agrees with, one by Stan Carey at Sentence first, and the recent guest post by Lauren Squires here on Language Log. He also refers to a couple of nice posts by our resident curmudgeon Geoff Pullum both here on LLog (on the curious English of police reports and the inability of journalists going on about the passive voice to accurately identify passive constructions) and in Lingua Franca (on ambiguity).

I don't have a very good excuse for passing this on — I'm just pleased to have been alerted to the existence of such a thoughtful and articulate writer who happens to be a copy editor by profession (and is a fellow Orioles fan!).  I love his self-description: "mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers' work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun's night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics."

I'm so glad that he's teaching editing, and wish there were more copy editors who were "moderate prescriptivists" like him!

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Critical take-downs

Kevin Roose, "Microsoft Just Laid Off Thousands of Employees With a Hilariously Bad Memo", New York Magazine 7/16/2014:

Typically, when you're a top executive at a major corporation that is laying off more than 10 percent of your workforce, you say a few things to the newly jobless. Like "sorry." Or "thank you for your many years of service." Or even "we hate doing this, but it's necessary to help the company survive."

What you don't do is bury the news of the layoffs in the 11th paragraph of a long, rambling corporate strategy memo.

And yet, this was Microsoft honcho Stephen Elop's preferred method for announcing to his employees today that 12,500 of them were being laid off.

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Is the Urdu script on the verge of dying?

Hindi-Urdu, also referred to as Hindustani, is the classic case of a digraphia, so much so that there has been a long-standing controversy over whether they are one language or two.  Their colloquial spoken forms are nearly identical, but when written down, the one in the Devanāgarī script, the other in the Nastaʿlīq script, they have a very different look and "feel".

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Cursive

Three years ago, we looked at the decline in handwriting skills, both in alphabetic languages and with characters:  "Cursive and Characters: Dying Arts".  See also "Japanese survey on forgetting how to write kanji ", "The esthetics of East Asian writing", and several posts on "Character amnesia".

Before the advent of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices which do our writing for us, it wasn't always this way.  Penmanship was a discipline that students practiced assiduously, and calligraphy was an art that vied with painting for compositional excellence and esthetic appreciation.

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Wantan soup for überman hubby

Here is a handwritten note left by a man for his wife:

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How to learn Chinese and Japanese

Some years ago (in 2008, as a matter of fact), I wrote a post entitled "How to learn to read Chinese".  The current post is intended as a followup and supplement to that post.

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More on Bokmål

[During the last week or so of December, we had a vigorous, extended discussion on "Cantonese as Mother Tongue, with a note on Norwegian Bokmål".  The following is a guest post by Håvard Hjulstad that takes up many of the issues that were raised in that earlier post and and attempts to situate them in a more systematic and comprehensive framework.]

It isn’t simple to explain the Norwegian language situation in a few words, but I shall try.

The word “mål” means “tongue” (or “language”; it also means “voice”) in the case of “bokmål”. It is very close to synonymous with “språk”, and it is used both for spoken and written languages. The word “mål” = “goal” and “measure” is a homograph. So “bokmål” could be translated as “book language”.

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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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Manchu loans in northeast Mandarin

Wei Shao, who hails from Liaoning Province in northeast China (formerly called Manchuria), rattled off the following sentence in her local language and asked me if I understood it:

Wǒ dǎ cīliū huá'r de shíhou bǎ bōlénggài'r kǎ tūlu pí'r le.

I could only sort of understand the following parts:  Wǒ dǎ … huá'r de shíhou bǎ …'r kǎ (?) … pí'r le ("When I was … slipping [?], I scraped [?] … the skin of…").  But it was all so fragmentary — mainly just the rough grammatical structure and three or four disconnected content words  — that I really didn't know what was going on.  Wei said not to worry, since no one from outside the area where she lives could understand it either.

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Poetry as "Word Temple" — NOT

Andrew Shields encountered the idea — on Facebook and vigorously promoted on this blog — that the Chinese character for poetry, shī 诗, consists of two parts meaning "word" and "temple".  Furthermore, it is claimed that this is a particularly apt way to represent the notion of poetry, one that is conspicuously missing in Western culture.

Such a facile interpretation commits several fallacies, the chief of which is to misunderstand the history and nature of the character in question.  After a careful examination of the evidence, it seems far more likely that shī 诗 has to do with the ritual performance of the odes by eunuchs, i.e., by reciters or singers who were castrati, than that it means "word" + "temple".

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