Archive for Alphabets

Sound over symbol (and meaning)

Zach Hershey called to my attention a phenomenon about the relationship between speech and writing (and meaning) that I long suspected might well be true, and I even collected plentiful evidence in support of it, but I was never absolutely certain that it was true, namely, that in many cases speakers of Sinitic languages have in mind sounds over characters.  Now, with information provided by Zach, we have proof that Sinitic speakers in some cases are indeed thinking of sounds separately (apart from) hanzi.

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Wheat and word: astronomy and the origins of the alphabet

Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-forty-first issue:

"On the Origins of the Alphabet: Orion/Osiris in Need of a Head/Seed, the Roots of Writing, the Neolithic Europe Word as Sun/Seed System (NEWS), and a Solution to the Tartaria and Gradeshnista Tablets," by Brian R. Pellar.

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Pinyin resurgent


Some exciting news.

A member of the PRC's National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (the yearly meeting of which is taking place in Beijing right now) is urging schools to increase the time spent teaching Pinyin (currently 4-6 weeks) to a semester or even longer to help ensure more students have a solid foundation in this skill. Intriguingly, there's also a mention of using more "texts."

Here's an account of what's happening:

"Schools should spend more time teaching Pinyin: PRC politician", Pinyin News (3/7/24)

Xu Xudong (徐旭東/徐旭东), a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and a professor at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, is advocating that public schools in China allocate substantially more time to the teaching of Hanyu Pinyin.

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Major romanization change coming in Japan

From Pinyin News (3/4/24):  

"Japan to switch official romanization from Kunrei-shiki to Hepburn"

Japanese newspapers are reporting that Japan will officially switch from Kunrei-shiki romanization to Hepburn romanization.

In a front-page column last week, the Asahi Shimbun said, “A draft report recently published by the Council of Cultural Affairs pointed out that the Hepburn system is more widely used than the Kunrei system, and it is expected that the notation will be adjusted to reflect this. It is surprising because the writing system has not changed for about 70 years, but if confusion can be avoided, the change is to be welcomed.”

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Pinyin nomenclature as an instrument of diplomacy

Ever since China began aggressively to assert territorial claims over the seas south of its southernmost border all the way to Indonesia, disregarding the arbitral ruling of the international tribunal in favor of the Philippines on July 12, 2016, it has increasingly resorted to Pinyin naming practices to stake its claims to specific geographical features.

Alyssa Chen, "South China Sea: how Beijing uses pinyin translations to double down on territorial claims", SCMP (2/4/24):

  • Chinese foreign ministry and state media articles have increased their use of pinyin for place names in the contested area
  • It follows a growing number of flare-ups between Beijing and Manila, including one run-in just a week ago

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Hangeul for Cia-Cia, part IV

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The Miracle of Western Writing

The following essay is from the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci's (1552-1610)  Xī zì qíjì 西字奇蹟 (The Miracle of Western Letters) published in Beijing in 1605. This was the first book to use the Roman alphabet to write a Sinitic language. Twenty years later, another Jesuit in China, Nicolas Trigault (1577-1628), issued his Xī rú ěrmù zī (Aid to the Eyes and Ears of Western Literati) 西儒耳目資 at Hangzhou. Neither book had much immediate impact on the way in which Chinese thought about their writing system, and the romanizations they described were intended more for Westerners than for the Chinese, but their eventual impact on China was enormous, and it is still unfolding.

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AI percolates down through the legal system

There has been considerable concern that AI (e.g., ChatGPT and other LLM-enabled devices) would unduly influence sensitive sectors of society (e.g., the law, health care, education, etc.).  Some of the anti-AI rhetoric has bordered on alarmist (I will write a post about that within a few days.

For now, here's an example of how humans will fight back.

AI in Court
5th Circuit Seeks Comment on Proposed AI Rule

Lawyers will have to certify they did not use AI, or verify any work produced by AI.

Josh Blackman, The Volokh Conspiracy (11/29/23)


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Pinyin vs. English

I knew that in the future it would come to this.  More than forty years ago, I predicted that one day China would have to make a choice between Hanyu Pinyin and English when it comes to phonetic writing.  As we say in Mandarin, "guǒrán 果然" ("as expected / it turns out")….

It seems that there's been quite a flap over the replacement of signs for subway station stops from English to Hanyu Pinyin, as documented (verbally and visually [many photographs]) in this Chinese article.  Naturally, the Chinese characters are there in either case, but what people are complaining about is the replacement of English with Hanyu Pinyin.  For example, changing "Library" to "Tushuguan" or "Hefei Train Station" to "Hefei Huochezhan".

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Happy Hangul Day!

Language wars, the Korean edition

"Foreign words dominate signboards, restaurant menus in Korea", omonatheydidn't, LiveJournal (10/8/23; page loaded 10/9/23); source: The Korea Times

Trendy use of foreign languages apparently sparks outrage in Korea as well.

A Seoul-based office worker surnamed Kim, 35, was perplexed at being unable to locate the Japanese restaurant he had reserved last week. The restaurant only had a signboard written in Japanese, which he was unable to read.

Kim said the name of the restaurant was spelled in Korean online. But the signboard was not.

"I had to call the restaurant after going around the block several times because I couldn’t find it on my own,” Kim said.

A Suwon resident surnamed Oh, 60, experienced similar trouble at a coffee shop in her neighborhood. All of the menu was written in English.

“For a moment, I thought, ‘Am I in Korea?’ I had no idea what they meant and had to wait for my daughter to arrive to understand what they sell and to make an order,” Oh said, pointing out that she had seen a growing number of coffee shops and restaurants in the newer and trendy districts with signboards written in foreign languages.

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Mental anguish from having too many English words in Japanese

One thing I revel in about the English language is the huge number of loanwords it has:  French, Latin, Greek, Native American, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, Irish, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Maori, Hebrew, Yiddish, Afrikaans, Zulu, Swahili, and so on and on and on.  English has words from more than 350 languages, and they amount to 80% of our total vocabulary. (source)  Not to worry, however, that English will lose its innate identity, since around 70 % of words in a typical text derive from Old English. (source)

I've also long admired Japanese for its rich assemblage of foreign words, perhaps next to English in having the largest proportion of borrowings.  That's quite the opposite of written Sinitic, which has relatively few recognizable foreign words for a major language.  I attribute the difference to Japan having the easy ability to borrow words phonetically via kana and rōmaji ローマ字 ("Roman letters"), whereas the morphosyllabic Sinoglyphic script has not yet developed an officially sanctioned standard for transcribing loanwords directly into Chinese texts.  Informally (on the internet, in private correspondence, etc.), however, writing in China is gradually moving toward a digraphia of Sinoglyphs and the Roman alphabet.  (See the second part of "Selected readings" below.)

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The alphabet in Kazakhstan — which one?

They were already talking about this when I was in Kazakhstan twenty years ago.

The ABC of alphabet reform in Kazakhstan

Moving from Cyrillic-based to modified Latin script will distance the central Asian state symbolically from Russia

By Tony Barber, Financial Times (7/3/23)


It took only a few hours after my arrival in Astana, Kazakhstan’s futuristic capital, to appreciate the immense changes since my first visit to the country 36 years ago. Most obviously, Kazakhstan was no longer the drab central Asian outpost of a drab communist empire ruled from Moscow. But what caught my eye most was the young man with one word on his T-shirt: “Qazaqstan.”

How to spell the country’s name, and which alphabet to use for the Kazakh language, are questions of the highest political sensitivity. Cautiously, the government is preparing to replace the Cyrillic-based alphabet used for Kazakh since Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship with a modified Latin alphabet. Some Kazakhs already spell their country’s name as they would like it in Latin script — Qazaqstan.

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AI for Akkadian

Article by Melanie Lidman in The Times of Israel (6/17/23):

Groundbreaking AI project translates 5,000-year-old cuneiform at push of a button

‘Google Translate’-like program for Akkadian cuneiform will enable tens of thousands of digitized but unread tablets to be translated to English. Accuracy is debatable.

Opening and key paragraphs:

Cuneiform is the oldest known form of writing, but it is so difficult to read that only a few hundred experts around the world can decode the clay tablets filled with wedge-shaped symbols. Now, a team of archaeologists and computer scientists from Israel has created an AI-powered translation program for ancient Akkadian cuneiform, allowing tens of thousands of already digitized tablets to be translated into English instantaneously.

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