Archive for Alphabets

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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Sinographic inputting: "it's nothing" — not

Last week in our Dunhuangology seminar, a student wanted to type "wǔ 武" ("martial; military") into the chat box, but instead out popped "nián 年" ("year").  I immediately said to her, "I'll bet you were using a shape-based inputting system", which left her a bit surprised.

Ever since information technologists began to wrestle with the problem of inputting, ordering, and retrieving Chinese characters in computers during the 70s, I have been intensely interested in the theoretical and practical obstacles they faced.  To better understand the overall situation with regard to characters in computers, I organized an international conference at Penn in 1990 on the computerization of Chinese characters that resulted in Victor H. Mair and Yongquan Liu, eds., Characters and Computers (Amsterdam, Oxford, Washington, Tokyo:  IOS, 1991).

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Kunlun: Roman letter phonophores for Chinese characters

Lucas Klein writes from Hong Kong:

I just read Don Wyatt’s Blacks of Premodern China (which I believe you published?), and I found that someone who had previously borrowed the book from the library had left a sticky note in it… and evidently whoever it was forgot how to write 崑崙, so wrote it out in pinyin with the mountain radical!

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On the origin of the term "hanzi"

[This is a guest post by Nicholas Morrow Williams]

I recently came across this article on the first occurrence of hanzi 漢字 ("Chinese character; Han character; Sinogram; Japanese: kanji; Korean: hanja; Vietnamese: hán tự/chữ hán漢字/漢"):
 
Wang Yong 王勇. "'Kanji' tanjō no isseki: 'bonzi' kara 'kanji' e" 「漢字」誕生の一齣――「梵字」から「漢字」へ.
Bukkyō shigaku kenkyū (The Journal of the History of Buddhism), 56.1 (2013): 1-11.
 

It's obvious when you think about it, but of course there was originally no need to write the word hanzi when Chinese characters were the only game in town, writing-wise. Wang first refers to some earlier identifications of the earliest use of hanzi dating to the Song (960-1279) or Yuan (1271-1368), and then points out that the Japanese monk-scholars Kūkai 空海 (774-835) and Saichō 最澄 767-822) seem to have used it in their works, though the details are a bit complex. The clearest single usage seems to be in a text completed by Saichō in 818, entitled the Jugokoku kaishō 守護国界章. But then Wang further points out the Fànyǔ qiānzì wén 梵語千字文 by Yijing 義浄 (635-713), which explains in its introduction that it uses hanzi in correspondence to each Sanskrit letter. The overall point is clear: the term hanzi first came into common usage among Tang-era (618-907) monks as it was required to distinguish Chinese writing from Sanskrit. This insight does not seem to have been incorporated into all the standard reference works yet (my Hanyu da cidian identifies the earliest usage in the Song).

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Toward a Linguistically Valid Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet

[This is a guest post by Frank Southworth]

Most subscribers to Language Log will be familiar with the NATO alphabet, and other alphabets such as the U.S. military version, which are used for spelling names and other words over the telephone and radio. I personally had experience with the military version when I served in the U.S. Army. It worked reasonably well, because Army people were accustomed to it, but–for a number of reasons–I do not find it useful now for occasions when I have to spell words over the phone.

However, there seems to be a need for such an alphabet, and I would like to invite any linguists interested in developing one which would meet some key linguistic criteria (see next paragraph) to join me in creating it. The version presented below is my first attempt, which I offer as a model to be discussed and modified as needed.

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Kanji-esque alphabet writing on a sake label

From Frank Clements:


(source)

Can you read it?

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"Spelling" Chinese characters without an alphabet

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Proto-Indo-European laks- > Modern English "lox"

From the time I began the systematic study of the language family in the summer of 1990, I have known that the word "laks-" ("salmon") is important for the early history of Indo-European, yet I felt that something was not quite right about the claims put forward in this article:

"The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years:  The word lox was one of the clues that eventually led linguists to discover who the Proto-Indo-Europeans were, and where they lived."

Sevindj Nurkiyazova, Nautilus, May 13, 2019

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Alphabetical storage, ordering, and retrieval

We just had a good discussion about a Sinitic language written with an alphabet:

"The look, feel, and sound of Dungan language" (10/15/20)

Under "Selected readings" below, there are listed additional earlier posts about writing Sinitic languages with Romanization.

One of the major advantages of the alphabet over a morphosyllabic / logographic ideopicto-phonetic writing system like the Sinographic script is that it is very easy to order and find / retrieve the entire lexicon with the former, whereas carrying out these tasks with the latter is toilsome at best and torturesome at worst.  See:

Victor H. Mair, "The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged General Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese: A Review Article of Some Recent Dictionaries and Current Lexicographical Projects", Sino-Platonic Papers, 1 (February, 1986), 1-31 pp.

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The look, feel, and sound of Dungan language

Here are a couple of YouTube videos by way of example:

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Writing Taiwanese with Romanization

Persuasive 14:09 YouTube video of Aiong Taigi explaining why he doesn't use Chinese characters (Hàn-jī 漢字) on his channel, but instead sticks to Romanization (Lomaji) as much as possible:  A'ióng, lí sī án-chóaⁿ bô teh ēng Hàn-jī? 【阿勇,汝是安盞無塊用漢字?】:

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Sinitic "ha ha ha" in Hangul letters

Screenshot of a comment on a funny video on Weibo:

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Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, Emojis and coded communication in Shanghai

Look everyone! it's a post about language in China by not-Victor! :)

I just had to drop everything and write this post while I was listening to the latest Reply-All podcast, this week consisting of a series of phone interviews with people around the world about the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic in their area. The first interview was with Justine from Shanghai, and she was talking about ways people were working around censorship in talking about…

…uh oh I suddenly realize I may be doing a disservice to the Chinese public by posting about this, so I won't go into all the detail I intended. Anyway, the basic idea is that folks were using homophonic transliteration with emojis to get around censorship of certain stories about the epidemic there. You can listen to the podcast here; the relevant bit is between minutes 4:40 and 6:15.

If you can imagine it, this would be like trying to parse "Little Red Riding Hood" from emojis  like💡💯🐀✍️👱‍♂️. Leaving comments open to see if anyone can figure out what homophonic transliteration words I intend for that sequence. First prize is a disinfected plastic cup with logo from the Language Log water cooler stash delivered by drone sometime in 2022.

It's probably worth noting that this idea of communicating via pictures of sound-alikes is basically the actual honest to god origin of phonetically based writing systems. Also worth noting that this way of repurposing symbols to represent sounds of another expression has a long history particularly in Chinese and related languages, whose linguistic features mean that you often have lots of homophones and near-homophones, and whose logographic writing systems probably lend themselves to that kind of graphemic/phonemic cross-indexing during lexical lookup. (Someone must be studying that, right? ) So you get a lot of punning and double-entendres in Chinese writing, if I understand rightly.

If the idea of homophonic transliteration is new to you,  you could get in the wayback machine and check out this archival LL post from simpler times, here.

Wishing all my fellow humans the very best from a living room in Arizona!

 

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