The importance of proper parsing and punctuation

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Currently circulating on Facebook and on Chinese social media are seemingly impenetrable sentences with the same character repeated numerous times.  When you first look at them, your eyes glaze over and you can't make any sense of them.  But if you slow down and think about such sentences, you usually can figure them out without too much effort.  In fact,  I could read some of the following right off upon first encounter.  Others required more effort before I was able to crack them.

Although it looks formidable, of the six sample sentences treated in this post, this one was easiest for me.  I could understand it at one go.  [N.B.:  In my treatment of these sentences, I first give the Pinyin with spaces between each syllable, then repeat the Pinyin with requisite parsing and punctuation.]

1.

míng míng míng míng míng bái bái bái xǐ huān tā dàn tā jiù shì bù shuō

明明明明明白白白喜欢他但他就是不说

Míngmíng míngmíng míngbái Báibái xǐhuān tā, dàn tā jiùshì bù shuō.

"Mingming clearly knew that Baibai liked her, but he just wouldn't say it."

This one is also fairly easy:

2.

yòng dú dú dú shé dú shé huì bù huì bèi dú dú sǐ

用毒毒毒蛇毒蛇会不会被毒毒死

Yòng dú dú dúshé, dúshé huì bù huì bèi dú dú sǐ?

"If you use poison to poison a poisonous snake, will the snake be killed by the poison?"

This one isn't too hard either:

3.

jīn tiān xià yǔ wǒ qí chē chà diǎn shuāi dǎo hǎo zài wǒ yī bǎ bǎ bǎ bǎ zhù le

今天下雨我骑车差点摔倒好在我一把把把把住了

Jīntiān xiàyǔ, wǒ qíchē chàdiǎn shuāi dǎo, hǎo zài wǒ yī bǎ bǎ  bǎ zhùle.

"It was raining today and I almost fell over while riding my bike; fortunately, with one grasp I was able to gain control of the handlebar."

The following sentence is a bit of a challenge because it's hard to tell the time to which it is referring:

4.

guò jǐ tiān tiān tiān tiān qì bù hǎo

过几天天天天气不好

guò jǐ tiān, tiāntiān tiānqì bù hǎo

"After a few days, the weather is bad every day".

I really love the sound of the following example:

5.

xiào zhǎng shuō xiào fú shàng chú le xiào huī bié bié bié de ràng nǐ bié bié bié de bié bié bié de nǐ fēi děi bié bié de

校长说校服上除了校徽别别别的让你别别别的别别别的你非得别别的

Xiàozhǎng shuō:  "Xiàofú shàng chúle xiàohuī bié bié bié de, ràng nǐ bié bié bié de, bié bié bié de, nǐ fēiděi bié bié de."

"The principal said, 'Except for your school badge, don't pin anything else on your school uniform.  I told you not to pin anything else [on it], don't pin anything else [on it], but you had to pin something else [on it anyway]."

The part highlighted in red is likely to stymie many readers.  It is simply the repetition of the previous four characters, and its purpose is to express emphasis and annoyance.

Here's a recording of the preceding sentence which helps to bring out some of the nuances:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The last sentence is the hardest because it requires knowledge of a literary allusion:

6.

xiǎo lóng nǚ wǒ yě xiǎng guò guò guò er guò guò de shēng huó

小龙女我也想过过过儿过过的生活

Xiǎo Lóngnǚ: "Wǒ yě xiǎng guò guò Guòer guò guò de shēnghuó."

"Little Dragon Girl: 'I've also thought about living the life that Guoer lived."

Little Dragon Girl 小龙女 and Yang Guo 杨过 are two main characters of Jin Yong 金庸's (b. 1924) novel, Shéndiāo xiálǚ 神雕侠侣 (The Return of the Condor Heroes).  Yang Guo's nickname is Guoer 过儿.

Because of the existence of such sentences, many Chinese crow that their language is the world's hardest.  That claim is belied, however, by the existence of similar examples in English, such as "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" and "James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher".

Since Chinese is uninflected and morphosyllabic, though, it may be easier to construct such superficially baffling sentences in it than in other languages.

[Thanks to Tom Mazanec]



18 Comments

  1. jhholland said,

    June 4, 2018 @ 9:00 pm

    David where John had had had had had had had had had had had the examiner's approval.

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 4, 2018 @ 10:48 pm

    6. has another verb (I've also thought about /living/ the life…"). And they could have reduplicated it I guess (我也想过过过过儿过过的生活 "I've also thought about living-a-bit the life that Guo'er led") [VHM: verb added]

  3. John Walden said,

    June 5, 2018 @ 1:34 am

    'I eat what I can but what I can't eat I can'

  4. ~flow said,

    June 5, 2018 @ 2:28 am

    The one Japanese buffalo-buffalo I know is ももももももももです。˙sǝɥɔɐǝd pǝןןɐɔ ɥʇoq ǝɹɐ sǝǝɹʇ ɥɔɐǝd puɐ sǝǝɹʇ ɥɔɐǝԀ

  5. Jeff said,

    June 5, 2018 @ 2:50 am

    Japanese has a few similar ones, although writing them tends to spoil them.

    うらにわにはにわにわにはにわにわとりがいる
    裏庭には二羽、庭には二羽鶏がいる

    はははははははのははははははとわらう
    母は「はは」、母の母は「ははは」と笑う

  6. VV said,

    June 5, 2018 @ 12:07 pm

    @~flow — I’ve usually heard that one as すももももももものうち (where the first word is plum, not peach).

    There’s also “niwa niwa niwa niwatori ga iru” (庭には二羽鶏がいる – there are two chickens in the garden).

  7. David Morris said,

    June 5, 2018 @ 3:40 pm

    Why would people boast that their language is the world's hardest? Is that anything to be proud of? Is there, objectively, any 'easiest' and 'hardest' language?

  8. David Marjanović said,

    June 5, 2018 @ 3:54 pm

    Why would people boast that their language is the world's hardest? Is that anything to be proud of?

    Sure: only the smartest people are capable of learning the hardest language.

    Is there, objectively, any 'easiest' and 'hardest' language?

    …Sort of. Your starting point outweighs all else; but if all else is equal, which it never is, the average pidgin or creole is most likely easier than a hardcore polysynthetic language with a huge sound system, for example.

  9. fregimus said,

    June 5, 2018 @ 4:58 pm

    Another classic English example, which I'm reminded of by the “poison poisonous snake” one; more homophonic, but much less contrived than the “buffalo” and “had had had”: “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if the woodchuck would chuck wood?”

  10. Bathrobe said,

    June 5, 2018 @ 8:47 pm

    I notice that a lot of the Chinese examples rely on the use of proper nouns (personal names). While this is not actually cheating, it is pretty artificial.

    It's harder to do this in English due to the written convention of starting proper nouns with capital letters. So "Don't bill bills bill bills" is less confusing if you write "Don't bill bills Bill bills". But this is a very superficial property of language and is confined to the written language. Nothing very profound going on here.

  11. Alex said,

    June 6, 2018 @ 3:59 am

    Like David Morris I always wondered why that was a source of pride. Yeah I knew why but still wondered.
    It goes along with the thinking of why being the oldest civilisation is also something revered.
    My thoughts are, OK it took 5000 years and yet no modern plumbing until it was brought here?
    Perhaps it's because the language is so hard. Which goes back to one of my first questions. Is the language holding back gdp and innovation.

  12. dbmg said,

    June 6, 2018 @ 5:14 am

    Felt Felt felt felt Felt felt felt felt Felt felt felt felt Felt felt felt…

  13. liuyao said,

    June 7, 2018 @ 9:58 am

    I didn't see this in my social network, but it reminds me of a well-known couplet:

    海水朝朝朝朝朝朝朝落;浮云长长长长长长长消.

    (Modern "orthography" would mitigate the problem in this one.)

    Re proper nouns, I kind of wish we had adopted the "academic" convention from the Republican period, to underline all proper nouns and to squiggly-line book titles (instead of using 《》). Better still if we could do those with the "caps lock" key, and when copy&paste it goes with the text. (An unfortunate design flaw in English too, when it comes to Italic book titles.)

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 8, 2018 @ 9:11 am

    From Stephen Jones:

    https://stephenjones.blog/2018/06/05/bonking-in-chinese/

  15. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 9, 2018 @ 11:59 pm

    Funny joke in the link only the punch line
    不不还不呢,不不不不就更不了吗
    should be
    (Considering that) we 'bonk-bonk' and there's nothing, wouldn't it be even worse if we are not to 'bonk-bonk'?

  16. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 10, 2018 @ 12:00 am

    if we *were

  17. Dan Devaney said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 1:22 am

    David Morris, I don't know whether there is an objective way to determine the easiest or most difficult language. But the US Government has written on how long a native English speaker would need to reach proficiency in a number of different languages.
    https://www.atlasandboots.com/foreign-service-institute-language-difficulty/

  18. Yoandri Dominguez said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 4:44 pm

    That is silly. These are language games & distortions & riddles, nothing in the way of serious science nor typology, but more in the way of fiction & childishness, which, sadly, has been popularized by the likes of Noam Chomsky the great destroyer of true linguistics.

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