The political dangers of mispronunciation

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From Chinascope (4/3/17):

Party Officials Criticized for Mispronouncing Words during Public Speech

A Duowei News [Multidimensional News] article quoted an article from Jiefang Daily [Liberation Daily] on March 30 which sharply criticized a number of party officials for mispronouncing words during their public speeches and said that the phenomenon resulted in quite a lot of laughter and jokes in China. Some of the officials were reported to have even repeated the same mistakes at several locations. These officials were criticized for poor language skills and knowledge while the people around the officials were reportedly too scared to make any corrections or to say "No" to certain of their bosses' inappropriate behavior. As Duowei reported, the Jiefang Daily article questioned whether mispronouncing the words was simply mispronouncing the words or if it sent another kind of alarming signal.

Source: Duowei News, April 1, 2017
http://china.dwnews.com/news/2017-04-01/59808599.html

Are people in China discovering another linguistic means besides punning to subvert the established order?  Those who are making these errors are Communist Party officials, and the ones who are criticizing them are also Communist Party officials who consider themselves to be in a position or status that qualifies them to criticize those who are making the pronunciation mistakes.

When I first read the Chinascope and Duowei articles, I asked myself whether the frequent mispronunication of these officials is innocent?  Intentional?  The result of dialectal difference?  Politically motivated?  Or due simply to poor reading skills?

I asked several colleagues their opinion.  Here are two of the responses I received.

Maiheng Dietrich:

The mispronunciation is not intentional, and actually is not uncommon or anything new. I've witnessed it all my life and committed it a few times myself. I don't feel the criticism is politically motivated. Correct pronunciation and nice handwriting are indication of one's education level in Chinese tradition. I remembered spending 30 min a day to do calligraphy in elementary school as part of the regular curriculum. The critics must feel that those officials keep pronouncing relatively common characters wrong is an embarrassment to the Chinese government or society as a whole. This is probably just a nagging pain felt by the jīngyīngmen 精英们 ("elites") though.

A graduate student from Beijing:

I think the mispronunciation is simply because these officials do not know how to pronounce those Chinese characters. It is not intentional, not political, not the result of dialectal difference.

I don't think it is a big problem if an official occasionally pronounces some characters incorrectly. However, if it happens too often, it means the official did not prepare for what he was supposed to speak. Maybe someone wrote it for him, but he even did not look at it before he spoke to the public. People may think these officials are not responsible and not qualified at all, nor are they well educated. I guess officials at higher level will not be happy about it either. The highest level seldom make such mistakes.

One respondent attributed the poor reading skills of the officials to the fact that many of them had a military background which began at a young age, while others emphasized that practically everybody makes these kinds of mistakes.  Another respondent opined:

I think the newspaper, as official party mouthpiece, published such criticism on mispronunciation as a gesture to alert some kind of in-party "vile trends".

If you look at this specific quote from the article, "频繁出错,错在职场文化的落后唯上,错在工作作风的独断专横上"*, you will probably sense that it is not (only) the problem with pronunciation on the language level. The manner of being arbitrary at work is the target, and I believe there are certain names attached to that to be attacked. Politics…

*[VHM:  The gist of the quotation is conveyed in the following English clauses.]

Since neither Chinascope nor Duowei News speaks for the Party, and since the title of the Duowei News article is rather over the top (nù pī 怒批 ["angrily criticized"], jǐngzhōng 警钟 ["warning / alarm bells"]), it behooved me to read the original source of the story in Jiefang Daily.

Jiefang Daily is the official newspaper of the Shanghai Committee of the Communist Party of China, with a circulation of around 700,000, so this is serious business.  But just what is the nature of the problem of mispronunciation by Communist Party officials?  And what was the aim of Jiefang Daily in publishing their critique of this phenomenon?

First, let us see exactly what sorts of errors are being talked about.

Many of the mistakes occur in quadrisyllabic set phrases (chéngyǔ 成语) that usually have an ancient, literary source:

1.

yǐnzhènzhǐkě 饮鸩止渴 ("drink poison to quench one's thirst")

misread as

yǐnjiūzhǐkě 饮鸠止渴 ("drink dove to quench one's thirst")

N.B.:  zhèn 鸩 refers to a legendary bird whose poisonous feathers were added to alcoholic drinks for the purpose of assassination; the partially homophonous character jiǔ 酒 ("alcohol; liquor") may also have contributed to the misreading

2.
yìyì shēng huī 熠熠生辉 ("shining brightly")

misread as

xíxí shēng huī 习习生辉 (this doesn't really make sense)

N.B.:  xíxí 习习 could mean "aspect of flying; numerousness; aspect of walking; comfortable"; this mistake is particularly regrettable, since Xí 习 is the surname of the President of China, and all Party members surely should know that it is not the same as yì 熠

3.
qūzhīruòwù 趋之若鹜 ("go madly running / scrambling after something like a duck")

misread as

qūzhīruòyīng 趋之若鹰 ("trendy eagle", as Google Translate would have it)

4.
gūzhùyīzhì 孤注一掷 ("put all one's eggs in one basket; risk everything in a single venture")

misread as

gūzhùyīzhèng 孤注一郑 ("pour all into one Zheng" — gibberish)

Enough for longer expressions.  Here follows a series of misreadings of disyllabic terms, with the correct pronunciation given first and the mispronunciation given second:

5.
chànhuǐ 忏悔 ("repent; regret")

qiānhuǐ 千悔 ("thousand regrets")

6.
língyǔ 囹圄 ("prison; behind bars")

lìng wú 令吾 ("make me")

7.
huìlù 贿赂 ("bribe")

yǒu gè 有各 ("there are each")

Reading errors extend to names of fellow officials, such as when gàn 淦, a rather uncommon character (no. 4611 in a large data base) is mispronounced as jīn 金, an extremely common character (no. 260 in the same data base).

What really disturbs those who criticize these misreadings is that, when the officials commit them in front of large audiences, oftentimes nobody raises an eyebrow.  It's as though they were oblivious to the misreadings or just didn't care.

The extent of the problem can be seen in the fact that the author of the Jiefang Daily suggests that a responsible secretary who drafts a speech for his superior would thoughtfully add Pinyin annotations for rare words, but would never imagine that his boss wouldn't know how to pronounce even common characters, and so didn't provide as many phonetic annotations as he should have.

Of course, it's not just officials who are prone to make gross mispronunciations of characters, it's endemic even among the literate portion of the population in general:

"Massive attack of mispronunciation" (12/30/16)

For high level officials, who should have good speechwriters and responsible secretaries who will phonetically annotate the difficult characters, such reading errors ought to be kept to a minimum.  But the problem exists at the very highest levels of officialdom.  Witness the Core Leader's own colossal gaffe, where he mispronounced  "nóng / trad. 農" ("agriculture") as "yī 衣" ("clothing") in an extremely embarrassing and sexually suggestive way.  Not one person in the large audience so much as snickered or gasped when Xi Jinping committed this huge blunder.  See the video for yourself:

"Annals of literary vs. vernacular, part 2" (9/4/16)

As analyzed in detail in that post, Xi clearly was in over his head when he began to recite from an ancient text.  Indeed, many such pronunciation pratfalls are due to the fashion of more or less obligatory quotation of literary / classical phrases that the unlearned officials are incapable of reading.  So what begins as an attempt to impress the audience with the speaker's learning ends up making him look foolish for obviously being incapable of reading the classical passage properly.

It is surpassingly strange that Xi confused "nóng " ("agriculture") with "yī 衣" ("clothing") since his thesis for the Doctor of Law degree at Tsinghua University was titled "Tentative Study of Agricultural Marketization" (Zhōngguó nóngcūn shìchǎng huà yánjiū 中国农村市场化研究), unless, as some critics in China have alleged, it was ghostwritten for him.

See "Xi Jinping's Doctoral Thesis" in Dim Sums:  Bringing clarity to a murky Chinese economy" (2/7/12):

…The thesis is dated December 2001, which coincides with China's accession to the WTO that month. The degree is for a doctor of laws in Marxist theory and political thought education (a safe major for a budding Chinese communist party leader). Xi's undergraduate degree was in chemical engineering, also received from Tsinghua in 1979. The Chinese wikipedia entry about Xi notes that netizens have raised questions about Xi's thesis (there is no mention of it on the English wikipedia page). People questioned the appropriateness of the topic of the thesis for a doctorate in law (indeed there is no law to speak of in the document), saying it is more of a sociology paper. People also point out Xi was busy working as vice party secretary and governor of Fujian Province during the period when the thesis was written. Others questioned how he could get a doctorate without having first obtained a master's degree.

It is common for emerging leaders to collect education credentials on their way to the top, and the thesis is commonly ghost-written by someone else. Xi probably didn't write this one but he probably agreed with what was in it….

Xi Jinping was born in 1953.  He would have been 26 when he received his undergraduate degree and 48 years old when he received his doctorate, 22 years after receiving his undergraduate degree, and apparently with no other graduate degree during that long interim.

Oh, by the way, here's the title of the Jiefang Daily article:

"Guānyuán dú cuòzì, cuò de zhǐshì zì? 官员读错字,错的只是字?" ("When an official makes mistakes in reading / pronouncing characters, is it just the characters that (s)he is mistaking?"

That pretty accurately reflects the sentiment of the author, presumably one Zhōu Yúnlóng 周云龙, throughout.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng, Yixue Yang, Jing Wen, and Jinyi Cai]



21 Comments

  1. John Rohsenow said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 8:27 am

    "…when the officials commit them in front of large audiences, oftentimes nobody raises an eyebrow. It's as though they were oblivious to the misreadings or just didn't care."
    OR just weren't listening? ;-)

  2. cameron said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 10:28 am

    When you refer to "quotation of literary/classical phrases" are these phrases translated into MSM or direct quotes of an ancient or archaic form of the language?

  3. JK said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 10:33 am

    I wonder if this is linked in any way to the phenomena of mainland political speeches frequently being reread by news anchors, even for leaders at the highest levels. It is as if the media/propaganda organs prefer to have an anchor read long passages from a speech than directly rebroadcast the leader making the speech him/herself.

  4. WSM said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 10:41 am

    Sort of ironic that the quote of the article about mistakes includes a mistake in the quote, in the form of an extraneous 上 following 独断专横, which is not present in the source.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 11:40 am

    Here's the source that the respondent was working from and copied correctly:

    文章怒批,频繁出错,错在职场文化的落后唯上,错在工作作风的独断专横上。

    The source you give is irrelevant.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

    I think WSM means that the Dwnews article misquotes the original Jiefang Daily here, giving 错在职场文化的落后唯上,错在工作作风的独断专横上rather than the original 错在职场文化的落后唯上[…]错在工作作风的独断专横. The misquote does create a confusing sentence and suggests that the original was misunderstood or carelessly read. No fault lies with the LL correspondent though.

  7. John said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

    @cameron

    The listeners probably don't know the chengyu either

  8. Carl said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

    Regarding 熠熠生辉 being misread as 习习生辉, I think you should mention that the traditional form of 习 is 習, which is the right hand side and sound component of 熠.

  9. David Marjanović said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 5:07 pm

    When you refer to "quotation of literary/classical phrases" are these phrases translated into MSM or direct quotes of an ancient or archaic form of the language?

    Direct quotes in MSM pronunciation, routinely containing Classical-only grammar and obsolete words.

  10. Chris C. said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 5:13 pm

    I have to wonder if the lack of reaction to these sorts of blunders is primarily due to no one paying any real attention to the speeches in the first place. The officials have to be seen presenting the Party line, and their audiences have to be seen receiving it. Really caring much about what that Party line is might be an entirely different matter.

  11. hanmeng said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 8:59 pm

    If these officials are mispronouncing words, how does the writer of the Jiefang Daily article know which characters they're using? For instance, they claim that "熠熠生辉" is rendered as "习习生辉". In other words, the phrase was spoken as xíxíshēng​huī. But how can they be sure it was 习习? Maybe it was one of the other characters pronounced xí, like 覡.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 9:20 pm

    @hanmeng

    That's an astute observation. I was thinking exactly the same thing myself the whole time. The assignment of particular characters to the mistaken syllables read by the offending officials in many cases was purely arbitrary, though in other cases it is pretty clear which characters they mistook them for because of their visual resemblance.

  13. Bob Ladd said,

    April 6, 2017 @ 4:28 am

    To the extent that these involve chéngyǔ, how different are the mistakes under discussion from malapropisms and eggcorns in English? Obviously the writing system contributes to the problem in Chinese, but otherwise the mistakes seem comparable. Not very many people notice or comment when an English speaking politician says "nucular" or "as best as I can", so maybe the lack of comment from Chinese listeners is not really very remarkable or politically significant. Linguists can't help noticing things like this, but most language users aren't like that.

  14. liuyao said,

    April 6, 2017 @ 8:55 am

    熠熠生辉 could be part of the PRC lexicon. What contributes to this mispronunciation, is that Xi signs his name with the tradition form 習. Being a Communist official, they'd surely know it.

  15. william holmes said,

    April 6, 2017 @ 11:35 am

    Those who share my perception that CCP debates and battles ultimately relate to the issue of promotions might join me in seeing this as a subtext in the "mispronunciation" kerfuffle.
    Pity today's aspiring official! Starting some years ago, the dutiful recital of turgid party slogans no longer sufficed — certainly above certain grades/levels. Perhaps Victor and others can guide us on when it became acceptable, and then desirable, for cadres (other than Mao and other demigods) to mix archaic usages into their party pablum. (Not to mention the pressure to acquire an academic pedigree, as Victor mentions). Through family ties I was acquainted with a veteran of the Long March who joined as a boy from his Sichuan village, was duly awarded a place in (then-new) People's University and made his way up the hierarchy — but his career not typical for village-born cadres. Other readers may be more familiar than me with tensions over the years between peasant and "intellectual" cadres. Indeed, some may see this tension recurring through China's bureaucratic history.

  16. JK said,

    April 6, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

    Here's another possible trip-up for mispronunciation that is also related to Prof. Mair's other post about the frustrations in Sinology:
    The country name 东帝汶, which refers to East Timor. Is the 汶 pronounced men2 or wen4 as the dictionary zdic.net tells me are the two options for this character? Another online dictionary says it is wen2:
    http://ce.linedict.com/dict.html#/cnen/entry/ed903328d17449918761a199fd76a1e9
    Argh

  17. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2017 @ 11:18 pm

    @JK

    The Unihan Database gives the following possible Mandarin readings for this character 汶 (U+6C76): wèn,wén,mín,mén.

    It is usually read wèn in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), especially in place names. The zdic entry to which you have pointed us indicates that ménmén 汶汶 expresses a sense of darkness or dimness in one's mind.

    I suspect that the transcription of the "-mor" of "Timor" by 汶 is based on a topolect where the pronunciation of this character doesn't end with an "-n" or at most where the vowel is nasalized. That would likely not be Cantonese where we have dung1dai3man6 nor Minnan where we have Tong-tè-būn.

  18. Jichang Lulu said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 3:07 pm

    As far as I'm aware, the standard PRC pronunciation is Dōng Dìwèn. The country's former ambassador to China Vicky Fun Ha Tchong 张芬霞 has a dissenting tone.

  19. Rodger C said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 12:07 pm

    @Victor Mair: Perhaps the dialect that gave us "Amoy" for Xiamen?

  20. Victor Mair said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 8:43 pm

    From Geoff Wade:

    Chinese renderings of names relevant to East Timor:

    Batak 島名﹐見印嶼
    Belo 見美羅港﹑美膋港
    Dili 帝力,見美羅港
    Giri Timor 見吉里地悶
    Hala 哈拉,見加羅
    Jamdena 延德納(島),見小知汶﹑龜島
    Kupang 古邦,見龜邦﹑居邦﹑故邦﹑息里尖
    Leti 萊荻(群島),見高地
    Mutis 木提斯(山),見池汶大山﹑犀頭山
    Ocussi 歐庫西,見美羅港
    Pantar 潘塔爾(島),見印嶼
    Pariti 見息里尖
    Semao 塞毛(島),見加羅
    Tanimbar 丹尼巴(群島),見小知汶﹑丹黎抹﹑龜島
    Timor 帝汶,見馬五洲﹑巴亞巴﹑古里地悶﹑印嶼﹑地漫﹑吉里地悶﹑池悶﹑龜邦﹑遲悶﹑知汶﹑底勿﹑居邦﹑故邦﹑啞森﹑美羅港﹑致物﹑息里尖﹑高地﹑匏洛﹑ 犀頭山
    Timor Besar 見小知汶
    Timor Kechil 見小知汶

  21. Victor Mair said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 8:46 pm

    From Jichang Lulu:

    According to Wade's links, the earliest recorded transcription for Timor seems to be one occurring in the 13th century Zhu fan zhi 诸蕃志: 底勿, dǐwù in modern Mandarin, but the second syllable has initial m- in Middle Chinese (and modern Cantonese).

    The first character in some of the transcriptions suggests a Minnan transmission: 知 zhī, 池 chí, 迟 chí are poor Mandarin matches for the Ti- in Timor, but I think all three characters admit [ti]-like readings in Minnan.

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