Archive for Writing systems

Unknown Language #13

Submitted by François Lang on behalf of his neighbor:

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Simplified characters defeat traditional characters in Ireland

Article by Colm Keena in The Irish Times (8/2/21):

"Decision on Mandarin Leaving Cert exam ‘outrages’ Chinese communities:
Exam subject that students can sit from 2022 will only allow for simplified Chinese script"

Here are the first four paragraphs of the article:

Chinese communities in Ireland are “outraged” by the decision of the Department of Education to use only a simplified script in the new Leaving Certificate exam in Mandarin Chinese, according to a group set up to campaign on the issue.

The new exam subject, which students can sit from 2022, will not allow for the use of the traditional or heritage Chinese script, which is used by most people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other, mostly non-mainland-China locations.

The decision by the department is a “discrimination against the heritage Chinese learners in Ireland,” according to Isabella Jackson, an assistant professor of Chinese history in Trinity College, Dublin, who is a member of the Leaving Cert Mandarin Chinese Group.

“It is wrong for our Irish Government to deny children of a Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau background the right to sit an examination using the Chinese script that is part of their heritage.”

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Unusual Sarada inscription

The following are photographs of a supposedly Śāradā / Sarada / Sharada inscription, sent to me by an anonymous correspondent:

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Graphic forms for wú ("none; no; not") and qì ("vital energy") in ancient Chinese texts

[This is a guest post by Denis Christopher Mair]

Regular character versions of the Yijing (Classic / Book of Changes) use the character 旡 instead of 無 for wú ("none; no; not; nothing; nihility"). So 旡 is not really a simplified character. I have seen 旡 in Daoist contexts. The character 旡 evokes an atmosphere of antiquity. Some Daoist texts have two different words for qi/ch'i ("vital energy"). One is written 氣, and the other is written with 旡 over a four-dot fire radical. (Some Daoist texts use 炁 wherever the context is about internal disciplines.) This distinction is sometimes explained by saying that 氣 is "acquired" (hòutiān 後天) energy, and 炁 is "innate" (xiāntiān 先天) energy. In Tiāndì jiào 天帝教 ("Lord of Universe Church," a religious organization in Taiwan), the phrase qì qì yīnyūn 氣炁氤氳* sometimes comes up: "the intertwining of acquired and innate energies," which is something that happens in meditation. Sometimes it is fancifully likened to ground mist mingling with low clouds.

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Taiwan's gold medalist with an unusual name

Taiwanese weightlifter Kuo Hsing-chun (Guō Xìng-chún 郭婞淳) won a gold medal the other day in Tokyo:

"OLYMPICS/Kuo thrilled at winning Olympic gold, but could be hungry for more", Focus Taiwan (7/28/21)

Mark Swofford observes:

One odd thing about the weightlifter's name is the middle character: 婞. Wenlin gives that as an obscure character for a morpheme for "hate". That, at least for me, is an unexpected meaning, because the parts of the character are clearly, of course, 女 and 幸 — which are used for morphemes for "woman" and "good fortune".

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4-digit numbers versus 5-digit numbers

Phil H wrote these comments to "Uncommon words of anguish" (7/18/21):

The anguish is very real. My wife had a character in her name that most computers will not reproduce ([石羡]), despite it being relatively common in names in our part of the world, and has been refused bank accounts, credit cards, and a mortgage because of it. In the end she changed her name rather than continue to deal with the hassle. The character is in the standard, but it was too late for us.

…there have always been ways to get the character onto a computer, but any given piece of bank software might not recognise it, and any given bank functionary might be unfamiliar with them. We then had trouble when some organisations used the pinyin XIAN in place of the character, but that then made their documentation inconsistent with her national ID card (which had the right character on it) and so yet further bodies would not accept them… It was the standard "mild computer snafu + large inflexible bureaucracy = major headache" equation.

An anonymous correspondent, a computer scientist, sent in the following remarks:

Phil H is talking about a character which is in a "supplementary plane" in Unicode (and similarly in GB-18030).  Unfortunately, an awful lot of software was only ever tested on Basic Multilingual Plane characters.

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Absence of metaphysics

[The following is a guest post by Zihan Guo in response to this article by Bruno Maçães, a Portuguese politician and political philosopher, who asserts, among other things, that China lacks metaphysics because of the nature of its language (i.e., script):  "The Black Box:  A Theory of China", World Game on Substack (12/25/20) — excerpts below.]

I can hear Zhuangzi chuckling.

For me, the charm of a Chinese word is its ability to conjure up images beyond its denotational meaning. The word shānshuǐ 山水 ("landscape") does come from shān 山 ("mountain") and shuǐ 水 "water"), but it connotes much more than that. What immediately comes to my mind is Chinese landscape painting, where an infinitesimal figure (a being) plods along the trails leading up to an insurmountable cliff. To my amateurish eyes, those painters are not just depicting empirical reality. There is meaning behind the surface representation.

Asking Zhuangzi "what is red?", Zhuangzi might also ask "what is not red, what is redder, what is less red, why does it matter?" The Chinese answer with a collage of red objects can go through a similar philosophical rumination just as the scientific Western definition. If "red" can be represented by many different things, its concept becomes unstable and ambiguous. Cherries are red, but roses might be redder, so which is the "true" red? One sees that redness as phenomenal keeps changing and that one's own perception of reality can be deceptive. I believe Zhuangzi probes into similar questions as well as the eventual question of whether there is something unchanging beyond all phenomena.

I think the author is more interested in modern Chinese politics than the idea that Chinese script is purely physical. His ending note about Xi feels rather sarcastic.

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Emoji Heart Sutra

From the Library of Congress International Collections FB page (Saturday 7/17/21):

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Uncommon words of anguish

From a manual for a thermal printer:

Dǎyìn kòngzhì bǎn nèizhì GB18030 Zhōngwén zìkù, chèdǐ miǎnchú shēngpì zì de kǔnǎo

打印控制板内置 GB18030 中文字库,彻底免除生僻字的苦恼

Printer control panel built-in GB18030 Chinese character, thoroughly remove the uncommon words of anguish

(courtesy of Amy de Buitléir)

A more accurate English translation would be:

Printer control panel with built-in GB18030 Chinese character font, thoroughly removing the anguish brought about by uncommon / obscure characters

"GB" stands for "guóbiāo 国标" ("national standard"), and is used for many technical terms in the PRC (another instance of encroaching digraphia, for which see here and here [with extensive bibliography]).

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Nonbinary third person pronoun in written Mandarin

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Faux Manchu: Ornamental Manchu II

[This is a guest post by Jichang Lulu]

In “Ornamental Manchu: the lengths to which a forger will go” (LL, April 24), Professor Mair discussed a handscroll with faux-Manchu inscriptions. Although the writing clearly imitated Manchu, the imitation was so liberal and the forger so unfamiliar with the Manchu script that hardly any word was intelligible even to eminent Manjurists consulted for the post.

As a non-Manjurist, I found the text only more puzzling, but was able to identify its model by comparing a a conjectural reading of a non-recurring word in it to a published text of a Manchu translation of the Heart Sutra (Fuchs, Die mandjurischen Druckausgaben des Hsin-ching (Hṛdayasūtra) (non legi), transcribed in Hurvitz, “Two polyglot recensions of the Heart Scripture”, J Indian Philos 3:1/2 (1975)). That guess I shared in a comment embedded in the post, elaborated under it with the likely source text. That presumably settled the question, but, with the source given in transliteration only, didn’t make it any easier to appreciate the hilarious cavalierness of the copy without an ability to mentally untransliterate it back into the Manchu script.

Professor Kicengge has now compared the text to a Manchu-script rendition of the sutra and composed an image that juxtaposes the copy to its model. The juxtaposition verifies the identification of the source text: not only does the text (very roughly) match, so does its division into columns.


The handscroll’s faux Manchu and its model, juxtaposed. Supplied by Kicengge.

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African (il)literacy

The following article is so revelatory, at least for me, that I wish I could copy it entirely.  Since that's not what we do at Language Log, I will just quote the opening portion (probably less than a quarter of the total essay), while pointing to a few additional highlights, and encourage others who are interested to read the whole piece (4,700 words):

"Africa writes back:  European ideas of African illiteracy are persistent, prejudiced and, as the story of Libyc script shows, entirely wrong", Aeon (6/17/21), by D. Vance Smith, edited by Sam Dresser

Four different writing systems have been used in Algeria. Three are well known – Phoenician, Latin and Arabic – while one is both indigenous to Africa and survives only as a writing system. The language it represents is called Old Libyan or Numidian, simply because it was spoken in Numidia and Libya. Since it’s possible that it’s an ancestor of modern Berber languages – although even that’s not clear – the script is usually called Libyco-Berber. Found throughout North Africa, and as far west as the Canary Islands, the script might have been used for at least as long as 1,000 years. Yet only short passages of it survive, all of them painted or engraved on rock. Everything else written in Libyco-Berber has disappeared.

Libyco-Berber has been recognised as an African script since the 17th century. But even after 400 years, it hasn’t been fully deciphered. There are no long texts surviving that would help, and the legacy of the written language has been one of acts of destruction, both massive and petty. That fate, of course, is not unique. It’s something that’s characteristic of modern European civilisation: it both destroys and treasures what it encounters in the rest of the world. Like Scipio Africanus weeping while he gazed at the Carthage he’d just obliterated, the destruction of the other is turned into life lessons for the destroyer, or artefacts in colonial cabinets of curiosities. The most important piece of Libyco-Berber writing was pillaged and sold to the British Museum for five pounds. It’s not currently on display.

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Dungan, a Sinitic language of Central Asia written in the Cyrillic Alphabet

The linguistic importance of Dungan is greatly disproportionate to the number of its speakers, approximately 150,000, who live in seven different countries that are widely spread across Eurasia:   Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.  The main reason why Dungan has been the focus of so much interest during the half-century since I began studying this fascinating language is that it puts the lie to the fallacy that Sinitic languages can only be written with the Sinographic script (i.e., Chinese characters).  The only Sinitic language that needs to be written with morphosyllabic characters is Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, a language that, in terms of its sayability, has been dead for millennia.  The recent academic study of Dungan has played a key role in enabling language specialists and the lay public finally to come to this realization.

Because the Dungan people are so highly scattered across vast distances and live among dominant populations with completely different languages that they need to speak for daily survival, their own language — and consequently also its alphabetic script — is threatened with extinction.  Furthermore, in recent decades the Dungans have been buffetted by ethnopolitical winds that make it even harder to maintain their unique identity.  That is why I have long felt a sense of urgency about the need to document and research Dungan language and script in all of their dimensions (morphology, phonology, lexicography, grammar, syntax, script, literature, sociolinguistics…).

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