Archive for Writing systems

Emojis vs. emoticons

Here's an emoji:  😻

Here's an emoticon:  :‐)

As we will see below, the superficial resemblance of the two words is completely coincidental — even though they both have to do with the visual depiction of emotions and ideas in texts.

This post began as a comment to "Emoticons as writing" (7/7/19), but it soon became too long and too complex to fit in a comment, so it now receives separate treatment of its own.

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Emoticons as writing

This morning I received this card from a friend:

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The causes of myopia

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Amazing things you can do with the Japanese writing system

Hanasaki, a curious term, depending on how you read and interpret it:  "flower blooming" > "scab"

A Japanese correspondent asked me the following set of questions (below, after the page break) about the name of a Yosakoi-Sōran dance group.  I'm not sure what the meaning of "Yosakoi" is, other than that it is the designation of a festival in Kochi Prefecture where this type of dancing originated in the early 90s.  I've watched a few videos of Yosakoi-Sōran dance and find it fascinating and stimulating because it is extremely energetic and combines traditional Japanese dance moves with contemporary Western-influenced street dance routines.  It is accompanied with rhythmic beating of naruko 鳴子 ("clappers") and repeated shouts of "sōran そうらん" (with a long "o", i.e., "ō").  I'm not certain what that means either, since there are many homophonous expressions with quite different meanings; one that might be applicable here is 騒乱, meaning "disturbance; riot; mayhem" for the uninhibited, sweeping gestures characteristic of the dance.  More likely, though, it is derived from the chant of fishermen to encourage themselves as they went about their work of hauling nets, pulling ropes, and so forth, in which case it would perhaps mean roughly "that's right" or "like that".

N.B.:  When the Japanese correspondent says "Chinese symbols", he seems to mean just "Chinese characters", i.e., kanji.

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Water chestnuts are not horse hooves

One of my favorite ingredients in Chinese cooking is the crunchy water chestnut, but it always puzzled me that the name for this item is mǎtí 马蹄 / 馬蹄.  Although technically it's not a nut (it's the corm of an aquatic vegetable) and doesn't really look like a horse hoof, I tried to convince myself that maybe there was some sort of resemblance between the two after all.

It turns out that, while on the one hand mǎtí 马蹄 / 馬蹄 really does mean "horse hoof" and just happens to be the title of a chapter [the 9th] in my favorite early Chinese book (Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu / Wandering on the Way), on the other hand it also has a completely different etymology when applied to the water chestnut.  Namely, it is borrowed into Mandarin and other Sinitic topolects from Cantonese maa5 tai4-2, maa5 tai4, where it is the transcription of a Kra-Dai substrate word (Li, 2012) (compare Zhuang makdaez).  Source.  I became even more hopelessly confused when I learned the derived Cantonese expression maa5 tai2 fan2 馬蹄粉 and thought that, well, this must be some sort of gelatin made from horse hooves (but that's just an urban legend anyway), when in truth it's simply water chestnut starch.  This is but one example of how Chinese characters frequently lead us seriously astray when it comes to understanding the derivation and meanings of Sinitic words.

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Katakana nightmare

Bob Sanders writes from Kanazawa, Japan:

Today I bought some mouthwash at a national pharmacy chain and received a coupon for a discount on any two future purchases made later this month, with certain items excluded from this offer. In fact, it is this list of exclusions which immediately caught my attention (see photo below), because it so graphically highlights why for me, at least, as someone who came to Japanese much later in life with a background in Chinese language studies, katakana, rather than kanji or hiragana, is the most difficult of the three orthographies to process orally in my brain.

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Hong Kong protest puns

A truly amazing chain of Cantonese puns has sprung up from last Wednesday's protests in Hong Kong.

As police were about to shoot tear gas at them (virtually point blank), Hong Kong reporters shouted out, "gei3ze2 記者!" ("Press! [Don't shoot!]).

Applying the norm that you can insert virtually anything into the initial slot in the phrase "diu2 lei5 lou5 mou5*2 屌你老母" ("fuck your mother") to mean, roughly, "fuckin' X" or "X my ass," one of the police shouted back "gei3 lei5 lou5 mou5*2 記你老母" ("fucking journalists," "fuck you / fuck your mother, journalists," or "journalists my arse").

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How to write "write" in Chinese and Japanese

The word for "write" in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) is xiě.   The traditional form of the Sinograph used to write this word is 寫, var. 冩 (can you see the difference?).  In Japanese that would be pronounced "sha" or "utsusu", but it is considered an uncommon character (hyōgaiji), and means not "write", but "transcribe; duplicate; reproduce; imitate; trace; describe​; to film; to picture; to photograph".

There are a number of words for "write" in modern Japanese (e.g., arawasu 著す, shirusu 記す), but the most common is kaku 書く.  Yes, that kanji means "book" in MSM, but it meant "write" in early Sinitic, whereas 寫 means "write" in MSM but meant "to place; to displace; to relocate; to carry; to relay; to express; to pour out [one's heart, troubles, etc.]; to copy; to transcribe; to follow; to describe; to depict; to draft; to create quotations; to draw; to sketch; to make a portrait; to sign; to formalize" in Literary Sinitic (LS) and Classical Sinitic (CS)   This is a good example of how Japanese often tends to retain older meanings of characters in the modern language, whereas in MSM characters have a propensity to take on new and quite different, unexpected meanings (e.g., zǒu 走 ["walk" in MSM] meant "run" in LS and CS).

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Whence cometh linguistic meaning?

Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its two-hundred-and-eighty-seventh issue:

"Emotion, Reason, and Language: Meanings Are Made, Not Retrieved" by J. Marshall Unger.  A free pdf of this paper is available here.

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Writing: from complex symbols to abstract squiggles

There's a new exhibition on "Writing:  Making Your Mark" at the British Library.  Judging from the homepage and all that I've heard about it, this is an exciting, informative, comprehensive display of more than a hundred objects and forty different systems pertaining to the history of writing during the past five millennia and drawn from around the world.  Since it's open until Tuesday, August 27, 2019, if you're in the vicinity it would be worth your while to stop by and take a look.

There's also an excellent article by Kristina Foster about the exhibition in Hyperallergic (6/7/19):

"A History of Writing, from Hieroglyphs to Squiggles:  An exhibition at the British Library powerfully delves into the personal and political complexities of writing, driving home that it's not only one of humanity's greatest inventions, but born out of the strongest human motivations."

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An anecdote on the limitations of the Chinese writing system

[This is a guest post by Ari-Joonas Pitkänen]

I'm a frequent reader of Language Log, and I've been particularly interested in the debate about the usefulness / limitations of the Chinese script in modern society. As the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre approaches, I remembered an anecdote about the limitations of Chinese characters presented in Louisa Lim's book The People's Republic of Amnesia. It describes the way jailed activists communicated in prison after the crackdown on Tiananmen in 1989:

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Why Literary Sinitic is so darn hard

Two days ago, in "Difficult languages and easy languages, part 2" (5/28/19), we listed scores of languages from easiest to hardest to learn.  Spanish came out overall as the easiest widely spoken language for many people to learn, while Arabic and Turkish struck many people as quite difficult to master.

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Restaurant logo with a dingus

Klaus Nuber writes: "Sometime ago I saw the sign of this 'Asia Palast' with the logo consisting of the two chairs and the round dingus between. Is this logo just cute or has it a hanzi background?"

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