Dumpling ingredients and character amnesia

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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.

葱 cōng ‘scallion’ 猪肉 zhūròu ‘pork’
姜 jiāng ‘ginger’ 虾仁 xiārén ‘shrimp meat’
香油 xiāngyóu ‘sesame oil’ 白菜 báicài ‘Chinese cabbage’
鸡蛋 jīdàn ‘egg’ 韭菜 jiǔcài ‘chives’

Shopping list of ingredients for jiǎozi ‘dumplings’ written February 15, 2006, by a PRC social science researcher on a visit to my colleague Cynthia Ning, who kindly passed it on to me. I have added the printed equivalent of the list. Note that three of the thirteen different characters are rendered in Pinyin.

I believe that this humble scrap of paper has great historical importance as a brutally honest testimony to what is happening to the Chinese writing system, irrespective of any intentional language planning or engineering.

After the lecture, people came up to me to comment excitedly about the list, and several people have written e-mails to me to follow up on the lecture, especially expressing their astonishment over that jiaozi ingredient shopping list.

Sometimes extremely powerful and convincing evidence shows up in the most unexpected places.

Update:

As described above, the Watt lecture at UBC was about the impact of information technology and the internet on Chinese languages.

Last week, I delivered the keynote address before the 68th annual convention of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association.  In that address I spoke about the impact of information technology and the internet on the study of language and literature.  It may be viewed here.  See also FB and YouTube.  Also on G+ and Twitter.



44 Comments

  1. Rodger C said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 11:01 am

    Rather off topic, but as someone with a language (and philosophy) buff’s smattering of Chinese I can’t resist asking how “shrimp meat” came to contain 仁, the familiar character for the Confucian virtue usually rendered “humanity,”

  2. Brian said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

    Sorry, as somewhat who is illiterate in Chinese — I’m guessing the reason that this is noteworthy is that it is very badly executed? (Nowhere in this post or the original document is it said why this is striking, save for your oblique description of it as “brutally honest”.)

  3. Nathan said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

    DeFrancis’s article itself doesn’t even explain the significance of the shopping list. Is it just the use of Pinyin?

  4. Brendan said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

    The significance, presumably, is that a highly educated native speaker of Chinese was unable to write three characters in a list of everyday words. The “dan” and “xia” of the list (蛋 and 虾, respectively) would both be covered within the first year or two of an undergraduate course in Chinese as a foreign language.

  5. Dominik Lukes (@techczech) said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

    That was a great overview of the history of Chinese writing reform but I was quite disturbed by the level of unreflected ethnocentrism of DeFrancis bordering on bigotry. The constant unquestioning references to modernity, quotes from people about creativity and even stuff like: “an ordinary (and yet extraordinary) citizen, filled with dreams of creativity and imbued with an indomitable spirit, and on the other hand, a hidebound and all-powerful government that refused permission to extend this use of Pinyin”. That was just utter nonsense I would expect from someone brainwashed by the constant exultations of creativity in the West not an academic. In fact, in most Western countries, it would be difficult to give a child completely unusual names – not because of bureaucracy (or not exclusively) but to protect children from wacky parents. I would have hoped that a someone with pretensions to linguistic competence would know that.

    This whole debate is embarrassingly devoid of any comparative perspective or reflection on the future of technology. Right now pinyin is used to enter characters but what will happen with the proliferation of touch devices and/or expansion of standards. The apps that allow people to draw characters already exist and emailing something in characters is much more reliable than it used to be. China is not unique here. Russian or even language with non-ASCII diacritics like Czech or Romanian would often simply use the Latin characters available on a standard computer keyboard to avoid compatibility issues. I know a few older academics who still write diacritic-free Czech and in fact I often do because I find myself at computers without the Czech keyboard. In 1999, you might have made all sorts of predictions about the future of the facility of speakers of these orthographies.But in fact, the majority of communication has now reverted to full use of Cyrillic or other appropriate diacritics.

    This is different from character amnesia but again even this state may be temporary (to the extent that it is influenced by the use computers) and subject to the internationalisation of heretofore Western-centric technology.

    BTW: I’ve listened to the lecture and I was given pause by “vernacular is writing the way you speak”. That is very misleading – the written language reflects the spoken but it is never an exact representation. It has its own registers and ways of expression (including syntax and lexicon). So talking about the issues of lack of special characters for Cantonese or other Sinitic languages under pressure from Mandarin will neglect the political, socio-linguistic dimension of the issue.

  6. Ken said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 8:10 pm

    It’s interesting that in each case the writer started to write a Chinese character, then scratched it out and wrote the pinyin. Can you tell what characters were started?

  7. Gunnar H said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 8:18 pm

    Shopping lists are interesting evidence for trends like this, because they’re typically only for your own use, so there’s minimal pressure to conform to convention, and because they’re often dashed off as quickly as possible (in order to capture everything you have in mind before you forget), so you want to avoid even minor distractions and hesitations.

    It’s a somewhat different situation, but I know that I write shopping lists in an indiscriminate mix of Norwegian (my first language), English (my language of everyday use) and German (the language used in shops around here), all depending on whichever word comes first to mind… or is quickest to write.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 10:16 pm

    @ Rodger C

    Rén 仁 does indeed signify the redoubtable Confucian virtue we usually refer to as “benevolence” or “humanity”. But it also has a completely separate meaning, and that is “kernel” (as of a nut). In essence, when someone says 虾仁 xiārén (“shrimp meat”), they’re essentially referring to the “kernel” of the shrimp after its shell has been removed.

    @Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    DL: “That was a great overview of the history of Chinese writing reform….”

    VHM: I agree.

    DL: “bordering on bigotry”

    VHM: name calling but hedging your bets

    DL: “just utter nonsense I would expect from someone brainwashed by the constant exultations [sic] of creativity in the West not an academic.”

    VHM: No, plenty of ethnic Chinese language reformers say the same sorts of things. Those are very strong and serious, defamatory accusations you’re making against JDF.

    DL: “pretensions to linguistic competence”

    VHM: He had more than mere “pretensions”. I suggest that you read the following:

    “John DeFrancis, August 31, 1911-January 2, 2009”
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1077

    “John DeFrancis: Editor of the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary”
    http://www.wenlin.com/jdf

    John DeFrancis Memorial at wordpress.com
    http://johndefrancis.wordpress.com/

    “Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems”
    http://www.pinyin.info/readings/visible_speech.html
    John DeFrancis was an outstanding scholar and a passionate friend of the Chinese people. Your denigration of him as a near bigot and an inferior scholar does a gross injustice to a great man and accomplished linguist.

    DL: “what will happen with the proliferation of touch devices and/or expansion of standards.”

    VHM: Character enthusiasts have been asking the same sorts of questions for decades. It’s not happening. You’re not taking into account: 1. the essential complexity of the writing system; 2. the consequent dicey nature of the user-device interfaces you advocate.

    DL: “In 1999, you might have made all sorts of predictions about the future of the facility of speakers of these orthographies.”

    VHM: No, in 1999, I would have done no such thing. Czech, Romanian, Russian, etc. all use alphabets which are orders of magnitude simpler than the Chinese character writing system. In 1999, I would have known that it would be very easy to overcome the minor problem of diacritics. But, in 1999, I would not have known that it would be very easy to overcome the major problem of tens of thousands of characters. I still don’t know that it ever will be easy to overcome the problem of there being tens of thousands of characters.

    DL: “This is different from character amnesia….”

    VHM: I’m glad you’re admitting that, but you’re still not facing the magnitude of the character amnesia problem.

    DL: “even this state may be temporary” (VHM: emphasis added)

    VHM: Again, character enthusiasts have have been saying this for decades.

    In the 80s and 90s, I convened several large conferences on characters and computers at Penn. Believe you me, we examined the pros and cons for hundreds of different computer inputting systems, including those you’ve mentioned. Since that time, no substantial advances have been made, and the vast majority of Chinese vote with their fingers to use pinyin inputting.

    DL: “…’vernacular is writing the way you speak’. That is very misleading – the written language reflects the spoken but it is never an exact representation.”

    VHM: Oh, my goodness! Everybody knows that. Who ever said that it is “an exact representation” of speech? That would be daft. Except for technically elaborate transcription, it is not possible to write exactly the way we speak, and even then there will be a difference between speech and writing. As someone who has been studying Written Vernacular Sinitic (WVS) for over five decades, I can assure you that WVS is much, much closer to the way people speak than is Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese. That’s the point I was making in my lecture. I don’t know how you missed it.

    DL: “It has its own registers and ways of expression (including syntax and lexicon).”

    That’s for sure! There’s no need for you to be so preachily picayune and nitpicky. I’ve been studying vernacular since 1963, so I know what it means.

    DL: “So talking about the issues of lack of special characters for Cantonese or other Sinitic languages under pressure from Mandarin will neglect the political, socio-linguistic dimension of the issue.”

    No, it takes such issues fully into account. The need for special characters to write Cantonese and other topolects is precisely because of political and sociolinguistic issues. Otherwise, how can one explain the need for such special characters?

  9. spherical said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 11:10 pm

    The issue isn’t ethnocentrism, it’s technological efficiency.

  10. spherical said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 11:11 pm

    (that was directed at DL)

  11. julie lee said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 1:03 am

    Ken,
    To answer your question:
    Yes, the writer of the shopping list did start to write the first characters for the words “shrimp” and “eggs” but gave up and wrote pinyin romanization instead. For “chives” the writer barely started and then gave up and wrote pinyin.
    The handwriting is that of someone who knows Chinese well, not a beginner. I am Chinese and know Chinese, and find characters much harder to write than pinyin. On that list, the only character that would give me trouble would be the first character for the word “chives”. I often forget how to write that character.

  12. Akito said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 1:06 am

    In my personal notes, I substitute kana for kanji that I cannot recall facilely or whose strokes make it too cumbersome to write them out fully. I wouldn’t dream of writing romaji for the same purpose, though, because romaji tends to be needlessly analytic, requiring roughly twice as many characters for most words. This prompts me to ask: do Chinese who are more familiar with bopomofo than with pinyin use bopomofo for the same purpose? What about speakers of Sinitic languages for whom hanzi don’t provide a good match for their words? Just curious.

  13. Richard W said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 2:57 am

    1) When I was studying Japanese at a private language school in Tokyo nearly 30 years ago, a senior teacher excused himself from writing words on the board in kanji when asked to do so by students: “How do you write that in kanji?” (He had no problem with *reading* kanji, and this was a reading comprehension class.) I was somewhat taken aback, but made sure not to embarrass him by asking him myself after that.

    2) @julie lee, who wrote: “On that list, the only character that would give me trouble would be the first character for the word “chives”. I often forget how to write that character.”

    Isn’t it interesting that 韭, which looks very much like a picture of a leek protruding from the ground, is so difficult for highly literate Chinese people to remember. Is stroke order part of the problem, I wonder.
    http://www.nciku.com/search/zh/searchorder/21204/%E9%9F%AD/

  14. yc said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 4:16 am

    It really is bizarre. Here is a sinologist who dislikes the writing system of the language he studies; and goes around telling the natives that their system is wrong and must be changed.

    And for what purpose exactly? What will the Chinese be able to achieve if they discard the writing system they have been using for 3000 years? Will they become richer, more cultivated, healthier people? You surely have something to propose in exchange for the throwing away their cultural heritage and re-engineering the way they write, with serious consequences. It would break the way they write prose, their use of classic idioms, the way they accept homophones because they can tell them apart in writing. All of that wouldn’t work anymore, so you’d have to use something else.

    Perhaps your proposal is for them to use more English loans?

    Obviously the use of hanzi relies more on aesthetic and historical arguments than on efficiency. But what are those efficiency gains and what would they achieve?

    The only obvious gain that I see is that it would make it easier for foreigners to learn the language. And somehow that justifies with the only longest continuous culture on Earth.

  15. yc said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 4:20 am

    If anything, this advocacy against Hanzi is going to convince the non foreign-oriented portion of the Chinese people (most of them) that those pesky Americans not only want to introduce this eerie foreign concept named Democracy, but once they do they’ll do away with Hanzi and everything traditional in China.

  16. John said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 4:47 am

    @Akito: Substituting bopomofo for unknown characters is quite common in Taiwan, and in fact elementary school students are explicitly encouraged to do so in their Chinese workbooks up until third grade or so (when I went to school in the mid-late 1990s, anyway). After that you’re supposed to look up any unknown characters in the dictionary, but that really depends on how strict the teacher is about it. (Nearly all dictionaries in Taiwan targeted at students have an index of characters by bopomofo order in the back, so there’s no catch-22 situation of needing to know how to write a character to be able to look it up.)

    In adult writing this habit no doubt persists, sometimes obviously because the writer doesn’t know how to write the character and sometimes because it’s too annoying and time-consuming. Occasionally English letters are also enlisted for the substitution, but rarely in a pinyin-compliant way. For example, the character 雞 is often the target of such substitution because of its ubiquity in street food (and therefore handwritten signs and menus in roadside stalls); besides ㄐㄧ, the English letter G is often used as well, like in this sign advertising 鹽酥G (though, interestingly, the full character for 雞 is written out in the item next to it…):

    http://goo.gl/fwgxjl

    @Richard W: I think this also has to do with the fact that the character 韭 is not encountered in any other common word, and does not form the basis for any other character, so you would very quickly lose your muscle memory for writing that particular character. And, as you say, the stroke order is quite unintuitive.

  17. Matt said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 7:23 am

    The stroke order looks pretty intuitive to me — same as 非 with an extra line underneath. What would be more intuitive for a Chinese writer? Both vertical strokes first?

  18. Akito said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 8:52 am

    @John: Thank you for the good information on the use of bopomofo in Taiwan. It brings to light the ease with which to use phonetic/syllabic-based scripts, as the sound system in any natural language is mastered early on in life. This is just an aside, but in the early 1970s I took Chinese lessons from the wife of a former diplomat from Taiwan. I remember she often had to translate pinyin back to bopomofo.

  19. John said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 9:23 am

    I would be tempted to write the three horizontal strokes on the left side first, and in fact I’m pretty sure that’s how I would write the character if asked to produce it spontaneously.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 10:11 am

    @yc

    yc: “Here is a sinologist who dislikes the writing system of the language he studies; and goes around telling the natives that their system is wrong and must be changed.”

    “this advocacy against Hanzi”

    VHM: To whom are you referring? JDF? it certainly can’t be me. I am explicitly against doing away with the characters. I teach Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese and Mandarin, and I study Cantonese, Taiwanese, Shanghainese, and other topolects, both to Chinese and to Americans and people from other countries. I’ll do that to the end of my life, and — if I were to have another life — I’d do the same thing. All that I try to do is describe what’s happening in the Sinosphere, and that includes talking about “the emerging digraphia”. I must admit that I have been inspired by Chinese language and script reformers such as Zhou Youguang, Ni Haishu, Yin Binyong, and many others stretching back to the late Qing (Manchu) period. But, I repeat, I am definitely not in favor of the abolition of characters, and I can assure you that JDF, whom I knew very well over a period of four decades, didn’t advocate their abolition either.

    yc: “Perhaps your proposal is for them to use more English loans?”

    VHM: Where did you get that idea?

    yc: “Obviously the use of hanzi relies more on aesthetic and historical arguments than on efficiency.”

    VHM: Granted.

    yc: “And somehow that justifies with the only longest continuous culture on Earth.”

    VHM: I cannot comprehend the meaning of your sentence.

    Whatever happens to the hanzi will be the result of natural evolution. It is my job as a scholar of Chinese language and literature to describe that process.

  21. J. Nash said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 11:09 am

    I apologize in advance for this being so long.

    Having followed this blog for a while, I can see that you guys are experts in Chinese. So, whether you’re interested or not, here’s the view from the other side.

    If I have my history right, a country can’t achieve world domination without imposing its language, to at least some degree, on its empire and trading partners. It seems unlikely that China is going to militarily conquer the US and Western Europe. But it’s not impossible that China will expand its Asian territories and force us into a sort of client role, i.e., we need stuff and they make it.

    But for most non-Asians, the Chinese language is a non-starter because of (a) its writing system and (b) tones. You all are Chinese speakers so maybe it’s hard for you to realize how impenetrable and opaque the character writing system is, and that non-Chinese-speakers can’t even hear the tones, much less reproduce them. And if your language presents that degree of difficulty, your subject and client states won’t learn it, and you won’t truly have them under your thumb.

    So China will have to do something about its language problems. I can see how bopomofo could work for the spelling problem. It’s phonetic but it still looks Chinese. As for the tones, forget it. It’s impossible to imagine any significant number of non-Chinese being able to even hear them. There would have to be a system that would replace the tones with some sort of particle.

    So you’d end up with the Chinese speaking and writing their language in the hallowed old way, and their underlings using a pidgin system. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened.

    China needs to prepare for this if it is going to make a stab at conquering the world. From my perspective, I would give learning Chinese Lite a go, but I wouldn’t want to sink endless, fruitless effort into learning ChinesePro.

    So yeah, they’d have to dumb it down.

  22. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 1:51 pm

    I don’t think you need to apologise for the length of your post, but it’s relevance could do with some explanation.

  23. really now said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

    J. Nash: “And if your language presents that degree of difficulty, your subject and client states won’t learn it, and you won’t truly have them under your thumb.” Wow, the foreigner-splaining. Please don’t project your inability to learn the basics of the Chinese language to all non-Chinese. Also, I recommend that you learn some history about how the Chinese language used to be used all over East Asia. At least google “hanja” or “kanji.”

    And besides, as Pflaumbaum notes, your comment is irrelevant. If Chinese changes, it will be to serve the needs of its speakers, not to cater to outsiders who think it’s fruitless to learn it.

  24. J. Nash said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

    Well, I know it’s a leap from grocery lists to world domination, but reading this blog has gotten me to thinking about the Chinese language in worldwide terms. So I figured if I was/were going to post, I might as well drop the whole load and then shut up and let the experts take over. :)

  25. Chris Kern said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

    In my experience, the difficulty a Japanese person has with writing a character is almost completely a factor of frequency. They know how to write enough characters that the complexity or stroke order of a kanji is going to have very little to do with whether or not they can write a kanji.

    I would have a feeling the same would be true for Chinese people.

    (I study Japanese despite the writing system, not because of it, and I think it’s wrong to assume that anyone who studies East Asian languages must be in love with the writing system.)

  26. Christopher Culver said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 7:02 pm

    “In 1999, you might have made all sorts of predictions about the future of the facility of speakers of these orthographies.But in fact, the majority of communication has now reverted to full use of Cyrillic or other appropriate diacritics.”

    In Romanian, speakers typically do not use diacritics, unless the material is considered especially serious. Even a lot of texts for public release continue to lack diacritics, such as advertisements and job contracts. Having lived in Romania for some years, I don’t even notice any more, except when a newly arrived foreigner who is trying to learn the language complains about it.

  27. Aaron said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 7:23 pm

    @ J. Nash

    There are so many misconceptions in your post that it’s hard to know where to begin, but how about here:

    “As for the tones, forget it. It’s impossible to imagine any significant number of non-Chinese being able to even hear them.”

    Are you aware that many, many languages around the world have phonemic tone? Chinese is not at all unusual in this and it’s not a good reason to consider it hard to learn as compared to other languages.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tone_%28linguistics%29

  28. Richard W said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 9:39 pm

    @ Matt (“The stroke order looks pretty intuitive to me — same as 非 with an extra line underneath.”)

    Yes, that’s one intuitive way but there are at least two other ways of writing it. See the following pages. I know they are referring to Japanese kanji, but I still think they suggest how hesitation may arise in the handwriter’s mind. If not, then what’s your theory to explain the problem with remembering how to write 韭?

    http://jisho.org/kanji/details/%E9%9F%AD%20%E3%81%8F
    http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/cgi-bin/wwwjdic.cgi?163574_%F0%EC

  29. Richard W said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 9:55 pm

    Actually, I think that’s only *one* extra way of writing it. But I think my own confusion may point to something that is tricky about that character. If not, then once again, why did a PRC researcher with a PhD give up on trying to write such a “simple” character?

  30. Victor Mair said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 10:52 pm

    I’ve seen many Chinese acquaintances, including some quite learned (like the Ph.D. who wrote the dumpling ingredient list), stymied when they tried to write the Chinese character for “leek”. Here are some of the reasons why it happens:

    1. They know that 非 is pronounced fēi, so they suspect that 非 could not be the phonetic for jiǔ 韭.

    2. They are uncertain of the order of the strokes.

    3. Because of #1 and because of a general sense of unease about the character, they’re not sure whether there are two, short horizontal strokes on each side or three.

    4. Since it refers to a vegetable, they think that maybe it should have a grass radical on top, hence 韮, but then they have second thoughts about that, though some actually do write 韮, and they would be considered wrong, since 韭 is the correct, standard form both for simplified and traditional fonts. Ironically, 韮 is actually an old form of the character, but it is now considered nonstandard.

    etc.

    If you look carefully at the abortive character written by our dumpling ingredient list Ph.D., you can see how she began and — given that the correct form is 韭 — why she quickly gave up. She realized that she was on the wrong path, but didn’t know how to get off it onto the correct path.

  31. Richard W said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 12:01 am

    One of my comments didn’t appear. It was in response to Matt saying that the stroke order for 韭 is intuitive. In reply, I pointed out that the following webpage says that 韭 is written with a different stroke order in Japanese (both vertical strokes first):
    http://jisho.org/kanji/details/%E9%9F%AD%20%E3%81%8F

    Furthermore, just now I asked a well-educated native speaker of Japanese to handwrite the character for me, and I found that she writes it yet another way: with all three horizontal strokes *before* the vertical.

    The correct Chinese way may seem intuitive because one can find a rationale for it, as Matt did, but other ways are just as intuitive, it would seem.

  32. Matt said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 1:28 am

    I think you misunderstand me, Richard — I didn’t mean as a sneer or an accusation. For one thing, given that many surprisingly simple characters (田, 用, 王, the 右/左 thing) have different “correct” stroke orders in different countries, I knew better than to assume that 韭, in which the same sort of horizontal/vertical priority issues clearly arise, even had a single correct stroke order, let alone one that should be intuitively obvious to anyone. It was just that since I would have used precisely the stroke order that you initially linked to if writing 韭, so I was curious about why others (for example, those trained in the Chinese tradition rather than Japanese) might find it non-intuitive.

    I think Victor has about covered that issue… and, amusingly, thanks to his and your replies, I have learned that although in this case my intuition led me to the (apparently) favored order in China, (a) my understanding was based on a philologically unsound analogy with 非, 悲, etc., and (b) this is not the favored order in Japan, where I actually live. So much for intuition!

    (On the other hand, my handy cursive kanji dictionary’s entry for 韭/韮 shows both stroke orders in the several 行書 versions it offers, so clearly it was no big deal which way you wrote the character before the artificial standardization of today was imposed.)

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    I would be interested in seeing a parallel shopping list or similar document from Japan, to see whether the phonetic “workaround” for forgotten/uncertain kanji manifests as kana or romaji. Obviously, a single example might be idiosyncratic to a particular individual, so you’d need multiple examples before you could draw meaningful conclusions.

    Every time I think about this issue I am more convinced that it was a serious error for the Maoist regime to couple its support for pinyin with the total abandonment of bopomofo on the mainland (thereby hopelessly muddling up the question of how to accurately represent Mandarin phonetically with that of how to transcribe Mandarin for the benefit of foreigners working in the latin alphabet, with the latter project necessarily requiring more ill-fitting compromises than the former). Although given that other policy initiatives undertaken by the Maoist regime at around the same time led to the death or immiseration of many many millions of human beings, we ought, I suppose, to try to retain some perspective about how language policy issues are not always all that important in the larger scheme of things.

  34. WoD said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 12:00 pm

    J. W. Brewer said,
    “I would be interested in seeing a parallel shopping list or similar document from Japan, to see whether the phonetic “workaround” for forgotten/uncertain kanji manifests as kana or romaji.”

    As a native Japanese speaker, I doubt any native Japanese speaker would ever use romaji to substitute for forgotten kanji. Mixing romaji and kanji in that manner is just so alien, I don’t think it would ever occur to a native Japanese speaker to do such a thing. Mixing kana and kanji, on the other hand, is done regularly. School children are encouraged to do it for characters they have not yet learned, and even newspapers do it when a character is not on the list of “joyo kanji,” the government approved list of kanjis to be used in prit publications. So of course people writing shopping lists will mix kana and kanji when they have forgotten some kanji they are trying to write. It would be the most natural thing to do.

  35. JQ said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

    I have never written 韮 in my life, so I can’t say that I have forgotten it – but I am reasonably sure that in menus in HK that this is the form that is used (i.e. with the cao radical) rather than 韭

    As for stroke order, it would obviously be the same as 非 plus the line. I write 非 with 3 horizontal, 2 vertical, then 3 horizontal, and I wouldn’t have ever thought there could be a different correct order – until I discovered that the “correct” order for some Japanese kanji is counter-intuitive to me.

    非 to me is a L-to-R character, so each bit needs to be written in full top-down before moving right. Then of course when you have something like 翡, then it’s a top-down which has 2 parts that are both L-to-R (which have internal top-down components)

  36. Andrew Bay said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 1:50 pm

    The article seems like it started to set something up, then just dropped the ball. What did the other native speakers say about it? Why did they gasp?

  37. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 2:20 pm

    OK, so now we need to know (or guess) whether if the confused list-maker had had an ROC rather than PRC education he/she would have been more likely to use bopomofo rather than some Latin-alphabet transliteration.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 3:28 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    I was close friends with the linguists who invented and implemented pinyin. They were fully aware of bopomofo (several of them learned to write via bopomofo), and they created pinyin at a time when the People’s Republic of China looked up to the Soviet Union as lǎo dàgē 老大哥 (“Big Brother”). A deciding factor for why they chose the Roman alphabet over bopomofo or Cyrillic is that they thought it would afford the greatest opportunity for internationalization. It had nothing to do with Mao’s Great Leap Forward or any policy initiatives of that sort.

    @Andrew Bay
    It’s obvious that they gasped because:

    1. the highly educated person who wrote the list was unable to recall how to write such a high proportion of common characters

    2. she substituted pinyin for the ones she couldn’t write

    3. the public disclosure of something that is very widespread but usually kept secret

  39. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 3:51 pm

    Prof. Mair: The difficulty is that one man’s “opportunity for internationalization” is another man’s “hostility toward traditional Chinese culture,” and now in the post-Maoist era where the Communist Party is looking to rehabilitate certain sorts of traditional Confucian rhetoric as an alternative source of legitimacy and various sorts of popular nationalistic feelings are looking for an outlet (which will be problematic for both China and the rest of the world if no benign outlet is found) it seems a shame that the opportunity to build upon a more indigenous-looking solution for the genuine problems associated with the traditional writing system was passed up. Hindsight is 20/20, of course. Japan certainly manages both or rather all three (students learn kana and kanji and the Latin alphabet — even if they mostly use the latter for English and other foreign languages it means they can work with their own language in romaji when necessary/useful), but perhaps that seemed overambitious for those making educational-system decisions for the PRC at the relevant time.

  40. Richard W said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 5:52 pm

    @ JQ, who wrote “I write 非 with 3 horizontal, 2 vertical, then 3 horizontal and I wouldn’t have ever thought there could be a different correct order …”

    A “different correct order”? But actually, your way of writing 非 is incorrect, according to the sources I consulted. In both Chinese and Japanese, you’re supposed to write “vertical, 3 horizontal, vertical, 3 horizontal”.

    Chinese:
    http://www.nciku.com/search/zh/searchorder/11047/%E9%9D%9E/
    Japanese:
    http://jisho.org/kanji/details/%E9%9D%9E

    I would suggest that your way of writing 非 *feels* right to you because it’s the way you’ve always done it, not because it’s the only sensible way to write it, and certainly not because it’s the officially correct way (it’s not).

  41. Eidolon said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

    @J. Nash I hardly think this is the place for political discussions, but it is prudent to remember that the difficulty of a language is not what decides whether it becomes a regional, even international, lingua franca. English is not the simplest European language by a long shot – having a great deal of irregularities and special rules due to its colorful past – but it is the language of science and business today due to Anglo-American ‘hegemony’ in the post WW 2 world. Greek, Latin, and French, as shown in the very term lingua franca, all had their turns in the spot light. So did, in fact, the Sinitic languages in East Asia.

    To this end, and because few Chinese would agree with the assessment that their goal ought to be to impose their language on the rest of the world, it is best to stick to other arguments for writing reform in China.

  42. Richard W said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 6:49 pm

    @ JQ
    “非 to me is a L-to-R character”
    I’m sure many Chinese and Japanese people write 非 the same way as you. But my sources say it’s not the way you’re *supposed* to write 非.

    “As for stroke order, [韭] would obviously be the same as 非 plus the line.”
    It may *seem* obvious, but it’s not.
    1) People write 非 in at least two different ways.
    2) Both the official Chinese stroke order for 韭 and the Japanese are different from the way you write 韭. (The Chinese starts with one vertical; the Japanese starts with two verticals; you start with 3 horizontals.)
    3) The first eight strokes of 韭 typically look different from 非. They are all strictly vertical or horizontal, whereas in 非, the third “horizontal” stroke is typically written slanting upward in anticipation of writing the second vertical, and the first often vertical curves away to the left at the bottom of the stroke.
    https://www.dropbox.com/s/2ecyvkmjfdhsuba/feijiu.jpg?dl=0

  43. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

    French may have by the 18th century served as a lingua franca for the elites of Western Europe in certain contexts, but the original lingua franca was not French. It was, from the POV of the residents of the Eastern Mediterranean, whether Byzantine or Muslim, the language used by the “Franks” they interacted with in maritime trade, where “Franks” meant not the French but Western Europeans more broadly (cf its etymological descendant “farang” in Thai and I believe other SE Asian languages, meaning “Westerners” even more broadly). So the Ur-lingua-franca was based more on Italian than anything else. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mediterranean_Lingua_Franca

  44. Victor Mair said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 11:48 am

    The following is relevant to the comment of J. Nash and to those who responded to him.

    ==============

    Lee Kuan Yew on the pitfalls of “the Chinese language”

    From Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World

    By Graham Allison, Robert D. Blackwill and Ali Wyne

    http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/lee-kuan-yew (published February, 2013)

    Though Lee is generally upbeat about China’s economic prospects, he has a unique take on the hurdles in front of the country. Lee, a Cambridge-educated barrister, believes the country’s notoriously difficult language will be the biggest hurdle to attract and integrate talent from other countries.

    Lee’s belief in China’s inability to attract international talent due to its language barrier has been shaped by his experience in running Singapore. When he was the prime minister, he implemented and enforced vigorously an English-first policy in Singapore, including shutting the only Chinese language university in South East Asia.

    He deliberately turned his back on the Chinese language to make Singapore an internationally competitive place so it could attract and assimilate talent from other societies in the world. Lee believes it is next to impossible to engineer a similar cultural change in China, a country with 5,000 years of history.

    “We could do that in a small city-state with strong leadership. While I once advised a Chinese leader to make English the first language of China, clearly that is not realistic for such a great, confident country and culture. But it is a serious handicap,” he says.

    =====

    Of course, it is not just a matter of not being competitive in attracting and assimilating talent from other societies, the impact of the Chinese language on the entire citizenry is immense in terms of education, communication, and countless other aspects of society and culture.

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