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.
I was pleasantly surprised when David Moser wrote back and told me that he had carried out an informal survey on exactly this subject about 5 years ago. The subjects were 43 undergraduates at Beijing Capital Normal University (the roommates for his American undergrad students at the CET program).
Most of those who took the test were 2nd or 3rd year students. Their majors varied, but were mainly liberal arts, literature, music, foreign relations, and even duìwài hànyǔ 对外汉语 ("teaching Chinese as a foreign language"), ironically, so they should have been well versed in written Chinese. The CET program arranges Chinese roommates for their American students, so these were all university students, and the administrators of the program deliberately avoid using English majors (since it's too tempting for them to practice their English with the CET students, which is verboten), so most of these students are pretty immersed in a Chinese language environment.
One of David's students volunteered to help him with this as part of a project he was doing. The results were as follows, exactly as I received them from David:
- About 1/4 of the students could not correctly produce the graphs for kesou (“cough”)
- About 1/2 of the students could not correctly produce the graphs for da ger (“hiccup/belch”)
- Only 2 of the 43 students could correctly produce the graphs for da penti (“sneeze”)
késou 咳嗽 31 correct
dǎ pēntì 打喷嚏 2 correct
dǎ gér 打嗝儿 19 correct
- Only 1 student succeeded in producing all the characters correctly.
- Fully 10 students got all the problematic characters wrong.
- 8 students made attempts at 嚏, starting with the mouth radical 口 and the top component of the right-hand graph, but stopped short of attempting the entire character.
- 13 students wrote approximations to 嚏 (such as 啑) but which were incorrect
- Some students wrote substitute graphs such as: 涕 tì (“nasal mucous, snot”), which is a reasonable mistake made by 5 students; other unreasonable guesses were 啼 tí (“sob, cry”) and 嗑 kè (“crack with the teeth”)
For the 嗝 of 打嗝儿, many students substituted other graphs, such as 咯 kǎ, 喀 kā, and 噶 ga.
David also kindly sent along several of the exam papers which he had kept, so I could see with my own eyes exactly how the students left blanks and made false starts, erasures, scribblings over, and so on. John Rohsenow, who was listening in on the conversation (via an online discussion group), asked: "I wonder how many people can spell 'hiccough' (sp?) in English?" To which Mark Swofford, who was also kibitzing, quipped: "Easy: h-i-c-c-u-p ;) ".
Furthermore, even if you spell it "hicup, hicupp, hicough," etc., you'll still get your message across. But if you can't remember all the strokes of the characters for késou, you'll probably just give up and write it in Pinyin or avoid writing the word altogether.
Bottom line: "sneeze", "hiccup", and "cough" are all very common involuntary human actions, nothing rarefied at all. One would think that persons of moderate literacy would certainly be able to spell them with ease, yet they pose severe difficulty even for university students in China.
I have written extensively on the deleterious impact of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices, into which the overwhelming majority of users enter characters by means of Pinyin (Romanization), upon writing by hand, thus contributing to character amnesia. See:
- "Spelling bees and character amnesia"
- "Of toads, modernization, and simplified characters"
- "Character amnesia revisited"
- "Character Amnesia"
However, in the matter of "sneeze", "hiccup", and "cough", I don't think we should be so hasty in blaming Pinyin inputting on electronic devices for the inability of literate Chinese to write them. Here we may refer to David Moser's classic article, "Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard", written well over two decades ago, before students had become attached to computers and cell phones.
In that entertaining and edifying piece, David related how once when he had a cold he wanted to write a note to a friend to cancel an appointment. Forgetting how to write the 嚔 of dǎ pēntì 打喷嚔 ("to sneeze"), he asked the three Peking University Chinese Department Ph.D. students with whom he was having lunch that day how to write it, and they all "simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character."
There must be some deeper — and probably very obvious — reason why presumably literate Chinese, indeed highly literate Chinese, fail to write out the characters for very common words. I have my own ideas about that, but would be interested in hearing the views of others on this conundrum.