Archive for Alphabets

"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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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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