Writing Sinitic languages with phonetic scripts

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This morning I was awakened by a bird calling outside my window, "m*ll*n*y m*l*rk*y", or maybe it was some squirrel chattering (I was half asleep and couldn't be sure which it was).  Since I was unable to distinguish the vowels clearly, I couldn't tell exactly what the call / chatter was, but the bird / squirrel kept repeating it over and over, so at least I was able to transcribe the general lineaments: "m*ll*n*y m*l*rk*y m*ll*n*y m*l*rk*y m*ll*n*y m*l*rk*y".

The call / chatter set me to thinking about a couple of Language Log posts of the last few days.  First came this one and the numerous pertinent comments that followed it:

"Ted Chiang uninvents Chinese characters " (5/13/16)

That led to this one, with an even greater abundance of comments, albeit many of them repetitious and mutually reinforcing / congratulatory:

"Backward Thinking about Orientalism and Chinese Characters" (5/16/16)

The initial comment to the latter post is about Xiao'erjing / Xiao'erjin / Xiaor jin — writing northwest Sinitic topolects by Hui Muslims in Perso-Arabic script.  There are also comments about Dungan people and their language (likewise originally a northwest Sinitic topolect, but located in Central Asia for more than a century after the Dungans fled from China) written with the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets.

We have touched upon these topics before on Language Log:

"Dungan: a Sinitic language written with the Cyrillic alphabet" (4/20/13)

"'Jesus' in Dungan" (7/16/14)

"Pinyin in practice" (10/13/11), esp. these two comments (here and here).

See also Victor H. Mair, "Implications of the Soviet Dungan Script for Chinese Language Reform", Sino-Platonic Papers, 18 (May, 1990) (free pdf).

One of my graduate students, Leopold Eisenlohr, knows all of the relevant languages and has taken an interest in Dungan, Xiao'erjing, and so forth.  I am confident that, in the years to come, he will have important things to say about them.  Ivo Spira of the University of Oslo has already been doing significant research on Dungan language and literature (see here and here).

During the medieval period (Tang Dynasty), Tibetan script was used to write northwest Sinitic (Takata Tokio and W. South Coblin both have scholarly works documenting this).

Cf. "Tibetan language instruction in Greater Tibet" (3/11/16).

Sinitic was also written in Brahmi script in Central Asia.

Two of the most important Chinese linguists / intellectuals of the twentieth century, Y. R Chao and Lin Yutang, both advocated the adoption of Gwoyeu Romatzyh spelling, aka GR or National Language Romanization system as the official romanization for Mandarin (the national language of the Republic of China).

Tonal spelling, Gwoyeu Romatzyh's most distinctive feature, was first suggested to Y.R. Chao by Lin Yutang.[9][10] By 1922 Chao had already established the main principles of GR.[11] The details of the system were developed in 1925–1926 by a group of five linguists, led by Chao and including Lin, under the auspices of the Preparatory Commission for the Unification of the National Language.[12] In 1928 GR was officially adopted by the government.[7] GR was intended to be used alongside the existing Juhin (Zhùyīn) phonetic symbols: hence the alternative name for GR, "Second Pattern of the National Alphabet."[13] Both systems were used to indicate the revised standard of pronunciation in the new official Vocabulary of National Pronunciation for Everyday Use of 1932.[14] The designers of GR had greater ambitions: their aim was complete reform of the script, using GR as a practical system of writing.[15]

As it turned out, the rules for tonal spelling in GR proved too intimidating for ordinary mortals, and even Lin Yutang's later (1972) simplified GR never caught on for common use.

It should be noted that it was the unrealizable dream of producing a workable Chinese typewriter that bankrupted the idealistic Lin Yutang.

"Chinese Typewriter" (6/30/09)  (includes important information about the abortive efforts to develop an "alphabet" for Chinese characters)

"Chinese typewriter, part 2" 4/17/11) (with precious vintage photographs, video, etc.)

A highly successful and widely used spelling system for Taiwanese Southern Min and Amoy Hokkien during the last century and more is what is popularly known as Church Romanization, for which see "Pe̍h-ōe-jī" and "Peh-oe-ji".

Some useful readings on POJ:

"How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language"

Lin, Alvin. 1999 "Writing Taiwanese: The Development of Modern Written Taiwanese," Sino-Platonic Papers, 89 (January): 1-4, 1-41, 1-4. (free pdf)

Lin, Christine Louise, 1999. "The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan and the Advocacy of Local Autonomy," Sino-Platonic Papers, 92 (January, 1999), i-xiii, 1-136.  (free pdf)

For intertopolectal romanizations, see this comment.

On the actual use of Pinyin (romanization) in the Sinosphere today, see this comment.

As for pedagogical materials employing Pinyin or bopomofo alone or as phonetic annotations of the characters, I have written about this so often on Language Log that it would be otiose even to begin to cite the relevant posts.  Suffice it to say here that all children in China learn to read via Pinyin romanization.  The role of phonetic annotation of characters in teaching reading and writing is also well nigh universal outside of China.

When Derrida attacked the alphabet (including Atatürk's adoption of it for Turkish), I just chuckled because of the absurdity of a deconstructionist trashing the instrument of his polemics.  And when Bachner savaged the tribe of Sinologists, I smiled mirthfully at the thought of comparing her feline mewlings to the leonine roar of a Paul Pelliot, a true Sinologist / philologist if ever there was one. See the reviews of Bachner's diatribe by Mary Erbaugh and Edward McDonald mentioned in the latter part of this post:

"Global imaginary Chinese " (10/10/15)

To sum up, writing Sinitic lects with phonetic scripts is not a problem.  It's already been done for more than a thousand years.  That said, I don't know why our discussions about IT questions, digital pedagogy, transcription, and so forth time and again get diverted into controversies over whether it is possible or desirable to replace Chinese characters with a phonetic script, comparative technologies, and — worst of all — Orientalism, postmodernism, and deconstruction.  To me, the latter are all non-issues, at best side issues, and should not occupy so much of our time, nor should we invest so much of our emotions in them.

Some folks keep putting up a straw man who supposedly advocates the abolition of characters and the imposition of an alphabetical script.  Neither John DeFrancis nor VHM nor Zhou Youguang nor David Moser nor Bill Hannas nor Mark Swofford nor John Rohsenow nor Liu Yongquan nor none of my other colleagues advocates that.  We have mainly been trying to document what happened in Chinese language and script reform for over a century and what the present situation is with regard to developments in language and script usage.  We consider that our duty as linguists and language teachers.  What's happening is happening naturally, and that is a gradually emerging digraphia, and no amount of handwringing by Orientalist-minded individuals and cultural preservationists is going to prevent that.  Time and change march on.  Haven't we seen enough of that on Language Log with regard to singular "they", split infinitives, and so forth?

In terms of developments with regard to Sinitic languages and Chinese script, I view my task as a teacher and researcher as one of describing their origins in the past and their current configuration, as well as to maximize the efficiency of Chinese language teaching and learning.  It is a waste of time to try to predict what will happen in the future, although for some at certain times it may be a more or less pleasant diversion.

The staunch defenders of the sacrosanct eternality and immutability of the hanzi / kanji / hanja ask:  if the language reformers are right that an alphabetical script would make better sense than characters for Sinitic languages in the modern world, then why haven't Chinese long since adopted one?  That reminds me of my Nepali landlady who, over half a century ago, thought it strange that I used knife, fork, and spoon to eat.  She used to say, "If god wanted us to use such implements for eating, he would have attached them to our hands when we are born."

Although plenty of Chinese language reformers have been advocating the development of a phonetic script for well over a century, it hasn't happened yet because the time isn't right and there hasn't been a widely supported model for doing so, nor has there been explicit government support for such a shift.  But such things do happen in various societies when the time is ripe:  the adoption of the Roman alphabet in Turkey and Vietnam, the adoption of Hangul in Korea, the abandonment of Latin in favor of the European vernaculars only a few centuries ago, and so forth.  Who's to say that something similar cannot or should not happen in China?  After all, character simplification is already a reality that is a partial recognition of the need for radical change in the way Chinese is written.  And government leaders and public intellectuals at the highest levels have skirted dangerously close to making romanization itself a fact of life.  It hasn't happened yet, but someday it might.

As for all the Orientalizing (irrelevant enough) and self-Orientalizing (hard to conceive of Lu Xun as "self-Orientalizing", whatever exactly that might be) blather that has been bandied about with regard to Chinese languages and scripts, I'll pass.  I'd rather stick with linguistics and language studies.


  1. JK said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:32 am

    Here's my two cents for trying to move the discussion forward:

    1. Perhaps we should make a distinction between basic literacy and advanced or professional literacy. I think most of us can agree that pinyin can be a very useful tool in achieving basic literacy (perhaps defined as the level attained after compulsory education finishes for Chinese students or foreigners studying Chinese for X amount of time), and the calls for pinyin reform by Mao and others were most likely targeted at helping every single person in China achieve basic literacy. The question for me is whether a phonetic script can provide enough information required for advanced or professional literacy. Pinyin works fine when you have lots of context (that's why the computer can get it right when you type out an entire paragraph in pinyin), but the less context you have the less you know about what exact words are being said or written. This is a big deal for technical writing, legal writing, and medical writing when it could mean the difference between life and death or millions of dollars are on the line and you have to guess between homophones with insufficient context. Other writing that provides less information in pinyin and may borderline on the absurd is names and poetry.

    2. The mainland's quest for literacy is still far from over, so we still might not have good data on the "efficiency" of Character-based learning. I believe on the mainland now compulsory education is for ages 6-15, which should be plenty of time to learn basic literacy with characters. Such education probably wasn't even imaginable decades ago when reformers were calling for use of pinyin, and guaranteed education for every child between the ages 6-15 still has not been realized on the mainland and may not be for many more years.

    3. Can we really say there is some sort of grassroots movement toward the usage of pinyin and English? I can think of plenty of counterexamples, such as the preference of Chinese Internet users to use website names like XXXXX.com, where the Xs are all numerals, the prevalence of Chinese-language forums for Chinese people living in foreign countries where English and pinyin are the exception rather than the rule, and the prevalence of Chinese characters on Wechat and Weibo.

  2. Chris Kern said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

    Why would there be "insufficient contexts" in these writings? If people can talk about these things, they should be able to also write about them in a way that doesn't require Chinese characters to make their meaning understood. If they aren't doing this, that's the fault of the Chinese writing style. Saying that characters must be used for professional or "advanced" literacy strikes me as similar to the old arguments that Latin had to be used for serious writing because the vernacular languages were insufficient for the purpose.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 2:35 pm

    I was just about to type the same thing that Chris Kern wrote. If we can't say everything and anything that it is essential for human well-being to communicate, then we're really in trouble. Sinitic languages have served people well for far longer than the Chinese characters have existed. Moreover, throughout history Chinese characters have only been mastered by a very small proportion of the population, and yet — through speech, drawings, and sketches — people have been able to communicate what is necessary to each other (how to plant a field, raise animals, build a house, make a machine, etc.).

    As much as anyone, I recognize the benefits of mass literacy, and am all in favor of it, but like generations of Chinese language reformers, I think that it should be as easy as possible to acquire. For that to happen, writing should readily approximate speech.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 2:37 pm


    Thanks so much for trying to move the discussion forward. Chris Kern and I have answered your call.

  5. WSM said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 4:38 pm

    The queries concerning lack of adoption of an alphabetic system don't stem from a desire to defend the "sacrosanct eternality and immutability of hanzi" (which, like any writing system, have always been in a state of evolution – talk about setting up straw men), but are rather a response to suggestions made by Ted Chiang and Dr Moser respectively concerning possible negative effects on ability to modernize and the "enormous cognitive burden" associated with interfacing with Chinese characters. Even ignoring the *clear* valuation underlying both claims, which seems to belie your own stated desire (and the stated intention of your colleagues) to neutrally "document what happened in Chinese language and script reform", I remain interested in why, if such negative effects of the writing system really obtain, there hasn't been more of a push away from them to date. To me, the lack of any real push away from character-based writing systems could be as easily explained by the fact that China's lack of "modernity" and/or shortfall of cycles for non-linguistic tasks (!) have nothing at all do with the writing system. Song dynasty technology would seem to have been at *least* on par with technology in Western nations at the same time; and I'm curious what kind of cognitive ill-effects having to read Chinese characters inflicted on either the thought or discourse of Lu Xun and Lin Yutang. So what real evidence is there that Chinese characters, specifically, are to blame for, or are involved in causing, either of these supposed problems?

    Your comment concerning intertopolectal romanizations seems to concede that "interdialectical romanizations… are not very practical for functioning as romanized scripts for the various topolects". So I am curious how adoption of a phonetic, alphabet-system is politically viable unless either the PRC disintegrates or regional topolects are stamped out (which the government is currently, sadly, trying to do).

    Finally, I think the effects of a move from characters to a purely phonetic system are hardly comparable to the transition between one phonetic transcription system and another. Consider the following basic conversation:

    nín guì xìng?
    wǒ xìng zhāng。
    nǎ ge zhāng?
    gōng cháng zhāng。

    This sort of thing, which one hears *all* the time and touches on the most fundamental possible issues of identity – familial affiliation – makes no sense without characters. So it is not a question of the "evolution" from chopsticks to forks (even though chopsticks are great for some things!), but rather between hands and robotic claws. Shifting away from characters would entail Attempts to ridicule questions about the current state of language practices in the mainland, while making highly dubious statements that phonetic script is the telos towards which Chinese writing is inevitably progressing, do nothing to advance the discussion.

    No-one has any difficulty recognizing the growing significance of digraphia in Chinese linguistic culture. What some people do have difficulty with, are statements such as "reading Chinese is a terrible burden" or "Chinese characters make it hard to modernize" that seem intellectually and evidentially suspect, and hardly in keeping with the descriptivist spirit you claim to espouse.

  6. WSM said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 4:47 pm

    Sorry. Hit The Button too soon. Please read:

    "Shifting away from characters would entail a radical reconfiguration of the Chinese cultural landscape, which is likely why Mao stopped short of abolishing characters entirely, as opposed to moving forward with simplification efforts which have clear linguistic antecedents within the Chinese context and do not at all imply romanization as an end goal."

  7. Eidolon said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 6:14 pm

    "Neither John DeFrancis nor VHM nor Zhou Youguang nor David Moser nor Bill Hannas nor Mark Swofford nor John Rohsenow nor Liu Yongquan nor none of my other colleagues advocates that. We have mainly been trying to document what happened in Chinese language and script reform for over a century and what the present situation is with regard to developments in language and script usage."

    Zhou Youguang most definitely was not just a descriptivist, and I'd also argue the same for most people on this list, who have been involved in efforts for script reform in China one way or another. Descriptivism might be the best practice currently, as script reform seems hopeless in the contemporary Chinese political climate, but I think it is counter-productive to present oneself as "not taking a side" as 1) most people on this list do take a side and 2) just because one is not advocating for the immediate abolishing of characters, does not indicate that one does not/cannot support the eventual abolishing of characters. I think there is an obvious air of hope for script reform in nearly all of the articles on the topic on Language Log, so I don't think it's a secret to anyone what the position of the scholars here are, even if they don't express it in the terms of direct advocacy.

    Most importantly, the future of script reform in China is not just a matter of internal development. As with anything in China, the opinions of those in education and power most definitely will play a large role, and insofar as such people are affected by the opinions of people beyond China, one cannot pretend to innocence. The Chiang-Mullaney-Moser debate, even though it might be a mere drop in the bucket, has repercussions, as they filter into the thought processes of both Chinese proponents and opponents of script reform. The idea that what Western proponents of script reform can only describe, never influence, is not true; they aren't the ones in charge, no, but what they write, and how they write about it, do have effects on the debate within China. A couple of wrong word choices, errors, and/or metaphors could, to this end, result in a set back of decades for the reform camp, if it were ever perceived in China that international advocates for pinyin have a condescending attitude towards the Chinese script and/or culture, which would then result in local advocates becoming guilty of being "cultural traitors" by association and losing their influence.

    But on the topic of Romanization itself, the break from tradition seems most acute in the case of Vietnam, as Hangul, in Korea's case, was already in use for centuries before it replaced Chinese characters, and the Turkish script prior to Romanization was already an alphabet to begin with, albeit one quite different from Latin. To this end I do want to pose the question for those who know more about Vietnamese culture and history: in what way has the abolishing of Chinese characters in Vietnam and its replacement with a Latin script resulted in fundamental changes to Vietnamese culture, society, and identity?

  8. JK said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 6:25 pm

    One example that comes to mind is contract law. I found companies that are named 添瑞, 天瑞, 天锐, and 天睿 online. To differentiate between them in a contract one would have to add identifiers for each character Tian1rui4 (tian1qi4 de tian1, rui4qi4 de rui4). I imagine the same would go for every personal name, company name, and street name appearing in contracts. At what point does this start to become a burden? When a company invents a new brand name or technique name, how are they going to tell people which characters are in their new name without all the extra context?

    I suppose the only way to really see if an all-phonetic or all-pinyin world would really work is to try it out in professional environments as an experiment.

  9. Rubrick said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 7:48 pm

    If the language reformers are right that an alphabetical script would make better sense than characters for Sinitic languages in the modern world, then why haven't Chinese long since adopted one?

    While I have no beef with any of your major points, I think this line of argument is a bit dubious. The world is full of systems which virtually everyone agrees are inferior, but which are so entrenched that changing them has thus far proven impossible. Classic examples are the QWERTY keyboard and the English system of measurement (in the US). And of course English spelling.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 8:13 pm

    …this line of argument is a bit dubious.

    It's unclear what "line of argument" you're referring to. The italicized quotation you cite is not a "line of argument". It is only a prelude to the sentences that follow.

    The non-italicized portion of your comment consists of instances that have been repeatedly brought up in the posts and comments on Chinese language reform of the last few days.

  11. ryanwc said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 10:30 pm

    >I was unable to distinguish the vowels clearly … at least I was able to transcribe the general lineaments: "m*ll*n*y m*l*rk*y m*ll*n*y m*l*rk*y m*ll*n*y m*l*rk*y".

    >The call / chatter set me to thinking about a couple of Language Log posts

    Might the vowels for the second half of the repeated phrase have been a, a and e?

  12. ryanwc said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 10:40 pm

    >Classic examples are the QWERTY keyboard and the English system of measurement (in the US).

    The old "inherent superiority of decimal measurement" argument. (I hear that bird outside singing – melony malarkey, melony malarkey).

    As binary machine language came to the fore, the ideology of metrics has given way to the realization that for most purposes, cups, pints and quarts make at least as much sense as the "mistype one letter and you're off by a couple orders of magnitude" system that gave us deciliters and decaliters.

  13. rosie said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 1:16 am

    Ryan, you misrepresent the case for a decimal system of units for weights and measures. The point isn't so much that decimal is inherently better than other ways to represent quantities, it's that decimal is how we represent numbers, so a decimal system of units matches that. There is also the fact that metric is what the rest of the world already uses.

    Binary? There are many aspects of the imperial system which don't fit binary any more than they fit decimal, e.g. miles, yards, feet and inches.

    Mistype? Where are both decalitres and decilitres used? Imperial is also prone to this sort of thing, e.g. mistyping 6' for 6" or vice versa.

    We replaced shillings and [old] pence with decimal currency; the USA can adopt metric.

  14. tangent said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 1:25 am

    I call shenanigans. No one has ever used a decaliter.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 7:09 am

    I take it that all those who are talking about the supposed illogicality of American addresses, the QWERTY keyboard, non-decimal measuring systems, etc. raise such issues in the context of the current discussions about script reform as recognition that there is room for improvement in the Chinese writing system.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 8:24 am

    Just did a Google search for "decaliter". Google asked me if I meant "deciliter". I insisted on "decaliter". Results:

    decaliter 69,100 ghits

    deciliter 542,000 ghits

  17. January First-of-May said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

    I call shenanigans. No one has ever used a decaliter.

    Decaliters were apparently used in the Soviet Union for measuring cattle feed. They come up in that context in old middle-school math problems occasionally.
    I'm more surprised that anyone had ever used a deciliter.
    (They're two letters apart in Russian, incidentally.)

    As far as unit systems in general go, it is very debatable whether decimal is specifically superior to, say, duodecimal (or hexadecimal, or sexagesimal, or binary).
    But the traditional English unit system (as well as, to be fair, nearly everyone else's traditional unit system, it's just that nobody except the Anglosphere and Myanmar actually still uses theirs) doesn't really use any specific base at all (it's duodecimal in some places, binary in others, and in a few it just has some random ratios of unclear origin, such as the commonly quoted 5280 feet/mile).
    I am not actually aware of any measuring systems, except for those recommended by groups specifically pushing for a non-decimal base (and/or those specifically invented for fictional settings), that fully or mostly use a particular non-decimal base throughout; a few that are fully or mostly decimal do exist (though most of them were created in response to the metric system).

    I do agree that QWERTY is certainly inferior to most of its alternatives (having been invented for reasons that made sense for technology of the time, but are pretty much explicitly counterproductive from the viewpoint of today).

  18. Thorin said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 8:07 pm

    As a student of Germanic and Slavic languages, I will not at all attempt – nor do I have nearly enough knowledge and insight to do so – to take a side on this issue. But I do want to thank everyone for their comments on the posts relating to this topic, and Professor Mair for posting the articles, because it's a really great source of information on a writing system that I know so little about.

  19. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 1:48 pm

    @January First-of-May:

    Most or all of what people commonly think they know about QWERTY and its relative efficiency is wrong:


  20. Elessorn said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 9:26 pm

    April 20, 2014:
    If I have time and opportunity to go into more detail, I still will always style myself as a Sinologist. When people look at me and say, "Huh, what's that?", I reply that a Sinologist is a philologist who specializes on matters pertaining to China. To which they will generally ask, "Huh, what's that?" Whereupon I will say, "A philologist is someone who studies ancient texts for the purpose of understanding the languages and cultures of the times in which they were written."

    May 22, 2016:
    It is unfortunate that a few participants in this debate have resorted to using "empirical" as a kind of meaningless shibboleth, just as several others have been employing "Orientalism" as a form of name-calling. Neither of these usages serve to advance the discussion in useful ways.

    In line with what WSM indicated above, these statements are hard to reconcile. The second is itself even hard to understand. There is no confusing the snarkiness of Tom Mullaney's facebook "apology" with the reasoned and respectful requests to Professor Mair for evidence that character education is a hindrance to the Chinese nation. There is no comparing the slander of "Orientalist!" with insistence on empirical proof when the claim is literally that–despite all appearances!–the people of the Sinosphere are deeply disadvantaged. And honestly, ask yourself: does the dismissal of empiricism as "a meaningless shibboleth" sound more like Paul Pelliot, or Derrida? I don't think there's much doubt about the answer.

    Also ask: it is really the philological attitude to be impatient with an accurate description of character systems as actually lived today? Discussions on character reform are not, in fact, frequently derailed by (1) "controversies over whether it is possible or desirable to replace Chinese characters with a phonetic script", or (2) "putting up a straw man who supposedly advocates the abolition of characters and the imposition of an alphabetical script", or (3) "staunch defenders of the sacrosanct eternality and immutability of the hanzi." It is true that there are people like this out there who will provide an eager audience for articles titled "Orientalism 2.0." But this is not a defensible reading of the sort of comments these posts have tended to inspire, not by any stretch of the imagination.

    Instead, people who would indeed "rather stick with linguistics and language studies" are not willing to just blithely accept assertions about "cognitive burden" when they know literate natives read characters just as fast and fluidly as Anglophones read the alphabet. They are not willing to assume that character education imposes a unique cost upon Japan and China because they know that no clear gap between, say, Taiwanese and American students or adults is visible in cultural, educational, or human accomplishments. Surely it is clear how someone could even be a strong proponent of script reform and yet be absolutely unwilling to let paragraphs like this slide by:

    … But such things do happen in various societies when the time is ripe: the adoption of the Roman alphabet in Turkey and Vietnam, the adoption of Hangul in Korea, the abandonment of Latin in favor of the European vernaculars only a few centuries ago, and so forth. Who's to say that something similar cannot or should not happen in China? After all, character simplification is already a reality that is a partial recognition of the need for radical change in the way Chinese is written…

    Putting aside the unintentional, but unavoidable implication that the autocratic whim of Atatürk was part of the natural life-cycle of the Turkish language, and passing over the extralinguistic effects of colonialism upon Vietnam and Korea, in the pertinent Chinese context is it seriously being proposed that the language policies of temporarily ascendant political factions should be uncritically taken by future linguists as proof that "the time was ripe" for them?

    Philologists are going to have preferences that shape, even inspire their work. And there will be disputes as to what philology even means. But I cannot conceive of any definition that does not put empirical care at its center, or proceed on the faith that empiricism is capable of trumping the pull of those preferences. "The need for radical change in the way Chinese is written" can no more be logically inferred from the switch to simplified characters, or the (indisputable!) spread of some form of digraphia, than the superiority of Mandarin can be inferred from its spread at the expense of other topolects (or the superiority of English from its spread at the expense of other languages).

    Are these distinctions otiose? If so, I don't see how philology itself avoids the charge.

  21. Jakob said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 4:37 am

    I'm more surprised that anyone had ever used a decilitre.

    It used to be fairly common in German-speaking Switzerland, typically when ordering a drink, and typically shortened to just deci [d̥ɛt͡sːi]. The choice used to be between 3 or 5 dl of coke, say. Over here is Germany, the same drink sizes are simply called gross 'large' or klein 'small'.

  22. Jakob said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 4:40 am

    That should be in Germany, obviously. As well as groß, too, since we're talking about Germany.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 6:37 am

    For the record, I am a Sinologist (a philologist who focuses on Sinitic materials) and an empiricist (someone who holds that knowledge comes primarily from observation and experience, rather than from theory — I already tried to explain that above and elsewhere on Language Log).

  24. John Chambers said,

    May 24, 2016 @ 5:13 pm

    I call shenanigans. No one has ever used a decaliter.

    No, but they have used dekaliters. ;-)

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