The distinguished Chinese linguist, Y. R. Chao, developed the concept of "sayable Chinese" and wrote a series of books illustrating what he meant by it. Basically, what Chao intended by "sayable Chinese" were texts that could be understood when read aloud. This may sound like a somewhat ludicrous proposition for most languages where what is written on the page may be easily understood when read aloud slowly and clearly. For Chinese, this is not the case, especially when texts are riddled with Classical terms, sentences, and whole passages that are divorced from spoken language. But even parts of supposedly pure Mandarin texts may not be intelligible to someone who hears them read aloud, since the semantic carrying capacity of the morphosyllabic characters is greater than their sounds alone. That is why, when people tell others their names or when someone is giving a lecture or reading a text, auditors will frequently ask the speaker to write down the intended characters for terms that cannot be understood merely by hearing. Thus, there are many instances where things are writable in Chinese but not sayable.
In this post, I'd like to talk about the opposite situation, where things are sayable but not writable. The subject arose in a striking fashion two days ago in my course on "Language, Script, and Society in China". The class is composed of about 40 students, around half of whom are from Mainland China. Of the latter, nearly all are graduate students, and several of them are quite advanced in Chinese language studies from some of China's best universities. So these are not slouches or country bumpkins who understandably would have low levels of literacy. Rather, these PRC graduate students represent the elite among China's humanities programs, hence they were selected for study abroad.
Here's how it happened.
I put the following colloquial expression up on the board:
lētè / lēte / lēde 肋脦[U+8126] ("slovenly; slipshod; untidy")
This is a sayable expression, but it is not very writable. None of the students in the class could recognize both graphs and their correct pronunciation in this expression. But when I read the term aloud, a couple of them knew what it meant. The second character is particularly obscure, such that it doesn't exist in most computer fonts, but has to be specially called up by the Unicode number.
As I was talking about the meaning and orthography of lētè / lēte / lēde 肋脦[U+8126] ("slovenly; slipshod; untidy"), I told an anecdote about how some merchants from Sichuan, not knowing that I could speak Mandarin, once pointed to me and said that I was "lāta" 邋遢 ("slovenly; dirty; dowdy; sloppy; slobby; shaggy; unkempt; ill-groomed; sluttery; slipshod; untidy") — there are many other ways to write the second character, e.g., with the phonetic of the second character written as 沓.
At first I did not write the characters for lāta on the board, but simply spoke it aloud, and most of the students from Mainland China knew what it meant, and even some of the more advanced American students knew the word by sound too. But not one single person in the classroom knew how to write the characters for this word. Arguably the most learned student in the class (in terms of Chinese language and literature studies), a woman who is a visiting graduate student from Peking University and is finishing up her Ph.D. dissertation in the Chinese Department there, volunteered to go to the board and try, but it was obvious when she started to write the characters that she didn't have a clue — she even got the radicals wrong, using zú 足 ("foot") instead of chuò 辵 / 辶 — and the rest of the first character was such a mess that she erased what she had written and ran red-faced to her seat at the back of the room.
Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic), 6.1167b says that lētè / lēte / lēde 肋脦[U+8126] ("slovenly; slipshod; untidy") is "like lāta 邋遢", but I think that they are probably just different ways of writing the same disyllabic morpheme and may perhaps reflect topolectal variants (see below for more on that score).
It has been suggested that lāta 邋遢 comes from English "litter", but the constituent characters are already in old Chinese rhyme books like Jíyùn 集韻 and Guǎngyùn 廣韻, and the disyllabic term itself occurs in literary works from at least the Yuan (Mongol) period.
Lāta 邋遢 and lētè / lēte / lēde 肋脦 are examples of what are known in Chinese as liánmián cí 聯綿詞 / 連綿詞 ("rhyming / alliterative binoms"). A reconstruction of the old (Middle Sinitic) sounds of lāta 邋遢 would be something like *laptap.
Nearly fifteen years ago, I made a case that lāta 邋遢 is related to lèsè / lājī 垃圾 ("garbage; refuse; waste; rubbish; trash"):
"On 'Transformationists' (bianjia) and 'Jumbled Transformations' (laza bian): Two New Sources for the Study of 'Transformation Texts' (bianwen): With an Appendix on the Phonotactics of the Sinographic Script and the Reconstruction of Old Sinitic." In Alfredo Cadonna, ed., India, Tibet, China: Genesis and Aspects of Traditional Narrative. Orientalia Venetiana, VII. Firenze: Leo S. Olschki, 1999. Pp. 3-70.
That article is available in this pdf, which is a rather large file, so download only if you're really interested in this subject.
I always tell the students in my classes that the sounds of the words in Chinese languages are much more important than the characters that might be used to write them — even in Classical Chinese — where there are often variant written forms for the same term. I demonstrated that for my students in the case of lāta 邋遢 ("slovenly; dirty; dowdy; sloppy; slobby; shaggy; unkempt; ill-groomed; sluttery; slipshod; untidy") by putting on the board more than two dozen different topolectal variants of this colloquial term. I read aloud the pronunciations of each of the variants and pointed out that the second and subsequent characters of these variants were mostly arbitrary transcriptions of the sounds of the local variants and that the surface signification of the characters used to write these syllables was essentially irrelevant. The fact that many terms in Chinese — even in ancient texts — have a variety of different written forms, e.g., wěiyǐ 委迤 / wēiyí 委蛇 / wēiyí 逶迤 / etc. ("winding; meandering; twisting") confirms the primacy of sound over symbol.
Maybe I'll write a future post entitled "Writable but not sayable". Suggestions welcome.
[Thanks to Richard Cook for helping me with the rare character 脦[U+8126]]