Archive for Alphabets

Sally Rooney bucket hat; Hittite, Ugaritic, and the alphabet

Earlier this week, my brother Thomas sent me the following note:

I recently read Beautiful World, Where Are You?, the latest novel by Irish millennial author Sally Rooney. As soon as I finished the book I started finding articles about her, including the famous Sally Rooney bucket hat. If you don't yet know about it, put Sally Rooney bucket hat into Google and you'll feel like you've been shipwrecked on a deserted island since the book came out in September.

I'm not sure if SR will go down in literary history, but I will say I can't stop thinking about the book. It's one of the few books I've read lately in which the characters discuss the big ideas: politics, religion, sex, and the collapse of civilizations.

The last is of great importance because the two main female characters are unmarried single women, and they're wondering why they don't yet feel the need to settle down and start families. Will they ever?

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Concept of turning pinyin into a syllabary

From Agni Gopireddy (the title is as they gave it):

If one likes the idea, one may be able to use it for pinyin advocacy. The reason for this idea is mainly to make pinyin take up less space, which would mitigate one of the disadvantages it has relative to Chinese characters. Here are some mockups of how such an idea would look:

 
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Parenthetical, alphabetical, ironical commentary in Sinographic texts

Occasionally I see pinyin (spelling) interspersed with Sinographs (usually for phonetic annotation), but this one threw me for a loop:

Yěxǔ (jué duì) shì, gāi lǐngyù zuì qiángdà de jiǎngzhě zhènróng.

也许(jué duì)是,该领域最强大的讲者阵容。

"Perhaps (definitely) it's the case that this is the strongest lineup of speakers in this field.

It occurs about two thirds of the way down in this Chinese article.

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Latinxua / Latinization — it worked in the 30s and 40s

Tweet from Alan DAI:

[Click on the photograph to see the complete Twitter thread, which has additional illustrations of printed Latinxua texts.]

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The missing variant

"WHO — You cannot be Xi-rious! The WHO’s decision to skip the Greek letter Xi in its ludicrous naming system shows exactly who controls it", by David Spencer, Taiwan News, Contributing Writer, 2021/11/28:


(source)

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Writing Mandarin phrases with Roman letter acronyms

Since the vast majority of inputting in the PRC is done via Hanyu Pinyin, netizens are thoroughly familiar with the alphabet and use it regularly as part of the Chinese writing system.

One common usage for the alphabet in the PRC is acronymically to designate frequently encountered Mandarin phrases.  In "The Chinese Internet Slang You Need to Know in 2021", CLI (10/19/21), Anias Stambolis-D'Agostino introduces six popular online acroyms:

1. yyds (永远的神)

永远的神 (yǒngyuǎn de shén; yyds) means “eternal God” and describes an outstanding person or thing. It's similar to the saying GOAT (Greatest of All Time) in English. The phrase is often used by fans to praise their idols or simply to describe something they are fond of.

For example:

    • 桂林米粉太好吃了,桂林米粉就是yyds!
    • Guìlín mǐfěn tài hàochī le, Guìlín mǐfěn jiùshì yyds.
    • Guilin rice noodles are delicious, they’re just yyds!

Here's another example:

    • 李小龙的中国功夫太厉害了,他就是yyds!
    • Lǐxiǎolóng de Zhōngguó gōngfū tài lìhài le, tā jiùshì yyds
    • Bruce Li’s kung fu skills are so good, he’s such a yyds!

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New expressions for karaoke: the phoneticization of Chinese

My first acquaintance with the word "karaoke" was back in the 1980s, when I was visiting my brother Denis, who was then a translator for Foreign Languages Press in Beijing.  He lived in the old Russian-built Friendship Hotel, a very spartan place compared to today's luxury accommodations in big Chinese cities. There wasn't much unusual, interesting, or attractive about the place (though they had bidets in the bathrooms, as did many other Russian style accommodations in China at that time), but I was deeply intrigued by a small sign at the back of one of the buildings that led to a basement room. On it was written "kǎlā OK 卡拉OK". The best I could make of that novel expression was "card pull OK," and I thought that it might have something to do with documentation. I asked all my Chinese scholar friends what this mysterious sign meant, but not one of them knew (remember that this was back in the mid-80s). It was only when I returned to the United States that I realized kǎlā OK 卡拉OK was the Chinese transcription for Japanese karaoke. It took a lot more time and effort before I figured out that karaoke is the abbreviated Japanese translation-transliteration of English "empty orchestra," viz., kara (空) "empty" and ōkesutora (オーケストラ). When I reported this to my Chinese linguist friends (Zhou Youguang, Yin Binyong, and others) back in Beijing the next year, they were absolutely flabbergasted. They had been convinced that the OK was simply the English term meaning "all right," but they had no idea what to make of the kǎlā portion.

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"Train hard, dream big"

[This is a guest post by Bernhard Riedel]

I stumbled across what was probably a mis-MT in the context of the Olympic Games.  (article in Korean)

"During a foot kick on the way to the gold medal, some hangul became visible. But…"

On the black belt of the athlete from Spain, one can see "기차 하드, 꿈 큰" which is wonderful gibberish. Netizens in Korea were puzzled but also quick to guess an erroneous machine translation.

기차(汽車): (railway) train (definitely *not* related to "to train")
하드: (en:hard, transliterated)
꿈: dream (noun built from the verb 꾸다(to dream) with the nominalizer ㅁ/음)
큰: big (from the verb 크다) in the form used when modifying a noun that follows

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Korean Romanization

I can't think of another language in the world where the Romanization situation is more chaotic than it is for Korean.  There are seven schemes in common use: 

  • Revised Romanization of Korean (RR, also called South Korean or Ministry of Culture (MC) 2000): This is the most commonly used and widely accepted system of romanization for Korean. It includes rules both for transcription and for transliteration. South Korea now officially uses this system which was approved in 2000. Road signs and textbooks were required to follow these rules as soon as possible, at a cost estimated by the government to be at least US$500–600 million. Almost all road signs, names of railway and subway stations on line maps and signs etc. have been changed. Romanization of surnames and existing companies' names (e.g. Hyundai) has been left untouched; the government encourages using the new system for given names and new companies.
    RR is similar to MR [see next item], but uses neither diacritics nor apostrophes, which has helped it to gain widespread acceptance on the Internet. In cases of ambiguity, orthographic syllable boundaries may be indicated with a hyphen, although state institutions never seemed to make use of this option until recently. Hyphenation on street and address signs is used to separate proper names and numbers from their assigned function. As of 2014, under mandate from the Roadname Address Act, Korea Post officially changed the older address system from lot-based district subdivisions to a street-based system that regularly utilizes hyphenation in order to disambiguate. The Ministry of the Interior also provided the public with various service announcements and websites forewarning of the change toward a clear and complete signage system classifying all streets and individual addresses with romanization (of which hyphenation is a systematic part).
  • McCune–Reischauer (MR; 1937?): the first transcription to gain some acceptance. A slightly modified version of MR was the official system for Korean in South Korea from 1984 to 2000, and yet a different modification is still the official system in North Korea. MR uses breves, apostrophes and diereses, the latter two indicating orthographic syllable boundaries in cases that would otherwise be ambiguous.
    Several variants of MR, often also called "McCune's and Reischauer's", differ from the original mostly in whether word endings are separated from the stem by a space, by a hyphen or not at all; and if a hyphen or space is used, whether sound change is reflected in a stem's last and an ending's first consonant letter (e.g. pur-i vs. pul-i). Although mostly irrelevant when transcribing uninflected words, these variants are so widespread that any mention of "McCune–Reischauer romanization" may not necessarily refer to the original system as published in the 1930s. MR-based romanizations have been common in popular literature until 2000.

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Character confusion: three-child policy

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Difficult tongues

Johnson, in the Economist (5/7/21), has an enjoyable article:  "Some languages are harder to learn than others — but not for the obvious reasons".

Here's the first part of the article:

When considering which foreign languages to study, some people shy away from those that use a different alphabet. Those random-looking squiggles seem to symbolise the impenetrability of the language, the difficulty of the task ahead.

So it can be surprising to hear devotees of Russian say the alphabet is the easiest part of the job. The Cyrillic script, like the Roman one, has its origins in the Greek alphabet. As a result, some letters look the same and are used near identically. Others look the same but have different pronunciations, like the p in Cyrillic, which stands for an r-sound. For Russian, that cuts the task down to only about 20 entirely new characters. These can comfortably be learned in a week, and soon mastered to the point that they present little trouble. An alphabet, in other words, is just an alphabet. A few tricks aside (such as the occasional omission of vowels), other versions do what the Roman one does: represent sounds.

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Tel Lachish and the origin of the alphabet

I've often heard of important discoveries at Tel Lachish, and I have a special interest in the origins of the alphabet, which I consider one of the most important inventions in the history of humankind.  So when I saw the title of this article, I perked up instantaneously.

"Archaeologists Think They’ve Found Missing Link in Origin of the Alphabet

A three and a half millennia old milk jar fragment unearthed at Tel Lachish in Israel has caused quite a bit of excitement."

By Candida Moss, The Daily Beast, Updated Apr. 25, 2021 8:18AM ET / Published Apr. 25, 2021 8:17AM ET

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Dissension over the role of the alphabet in literacy acquisition in the PRC

A graduate student from the PRC told me that the situation regarding instruction in Hanyu Pinyin has become quite chaotic in recent years in China.  Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音 ("Sinitic Spelling"), or Pīnyīn 拼音 ("Spelling") for short, is the official PRC Romanization of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), i.e., Pǔtōnghuà 普通话.

For many decades, it used to be that all students — beginning in first grade of elementary school — learned to read and write via Pinyin.  Indeed, under the program known as "Zhùyīn shìzì, tíqián dú xiě 注音识字,提前读写" ("Phonetically Annotated Character Recognition Speeds Up Reading and Writing"), or "Z.T." for short, which actively encouraged children to use Pinyin Romanization for characters they were unable to write, the promotion of Pinyin continued well into upper grades. See "How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08).  In the last few years, however, it seems that instruction in Pinyin — at least in some schools — has become "optional".  Some teachers are simply not teaching the basics of pinyin.  As a result, many students are no longer competent in it, so that when they get to the dreaded gaokao (National College Entrance Examination [NCEE]), where mastery of pinyin is required, they're not prepared for that part of the exams.  Parents are complaining.

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