Language vigilantism

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In "The Eagle-Eyed Vigilantes Defending the Chinese Language:  As new lingo springs up and grammatical errors persist, one magazine is battling to maintain linguistic standards", Yin Yijun (Sixth Tone [1/19/18]) describes an unusual PRC journal:

Shanghai-based Yaowen Jiaozi — whose name literally translates as “biting phrases and chewing characters” — was established in 1995 and operates under the slogan: “Bite every mistake that deserves to be bitten, and chew every article worth chewing.” The monthly magazine’s mission is to attack every grammatical error it encounters — and the staff take the job seriously. Over the past 20 years, the magazine has amassed a long list of mistakes, from a nearly unnoticeable Chinese character error on a chopstick wrapper, to a series of mistakes author and Nobel laureate Mo Yan made in his award-winning works.

Joel Martinsen had already written an insightful article about this magazine back in 2006:  "Gnawing at language, biting the ankles of Chinese media" (Danwei [5/4/06]) — via Language Hat.  Martinsen's article begins thus:

Among all of the copycat urban lifestyle magazines, the paparazzi rags, and the ever-changing array of undistinguished special-interest publications that make up China's periodicals market, Yaowen-Jiaozi (咬文嚼字) stands out as one of the most delightfully peculiar magazines available. With a title variously translated as "Correct Wording," "Verbalism," and "Chewing Words," it turns a critical eye to the misuse and abuse of language in Chinese society.

Now I'm going to do a bit of yǎowénjiáozì 咬文嚼字 of my own.  What does that jarring expression really mean?  Yin Yijun says that it "literally translates as 'biting phrases and chewing characters'” and Joel Martinsen tells us that it is "variously translated as 'Correct Wording,' 'Verbalism,' and 'Chewing Words'".

This is an expression that I learned long ago, but pronounced as "yǎowénjuézì" (it was spoken that way by my teachers and Chinese friends).  It usually conveyed a lightly pejorative, satirical implication in the sense of being overly concerned with the individual words of a text or composition and not grasping the substance and meaning of what is written, often thereby showing off one's scholastic abilities.

The way I understood yǎowénjiáozì 咬文嚼字 (henceforth I will use the current, "correct" pronunciation) in those days was more or less as it is defined in zdic:

literarism (= literaryism); chop logic (where "chop" is being used in the 16th-century sense of "bandy words", hence "argue in a tiresomely pedantic way; quibble"); pay excessive attention to wording

One of the definitions provided by Wiktionary captures the negative spirit in which the phrase is sometimes used:  "to nitpick like a grammar Nazi".

The ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary has an interesting definition:  "hypercorrection".

"Yǎowénjiáozì 咬文嚼字" goes back to the Yuan period (1271-1368).  Its usage is from the vernacular realm, in fiction, drama, and popular verse.

Let's take a closer look at the morphology and semantics of this colorful expression.  Basically, it is constructed from two words:  yǎojué 咬嚼 ("chew; masticate") and wénzì 文字 ("script; writing; characters"), hence "to chew / masticate script / writing / characters").

Now, it is very common to take two disyllabic words, divide their syllables, and intermix them into a single quadrisyllabic fixed phrase, thus:

yǎojué 咬嚼 + wénzì 文字 –> yǎowénjiáozì 咬文嚼字

Ah, but there's the rub!  Dictionaries (e.g., here and here) customarily annotate 咬嚼 as yǎojué, not yǎojiáo.  By all rights, 咬文嚼字 should be read yǎowénjuézì, not yǎowénjiáozì.

Incidentally, the derivation of yǎowénjiáozì 咬文嚼字 from yǎojué 咬嚼 + wénzì 文字 is reminiscent of the construction of the title of the first Chinese character dictionary:

shuōjiě 説解 ("explain") + wénzì 文字 ("characters") –> Shuōwén Jiězì 說文解字 ("Explanation of Characters")*

*N.B.:  Completed in 100 AD, this is the fountainhead of traditional Chinese character studies.  There is an excellent Wikipedia article on it.  In the "References", note especially the publications by Françoise Bottéro, who is doing pathbreaking work on the classification scheme of this monument of Chinese lexicography.

Narrowing in on the problematic, ornery / refractory, 20-stroke character 嚼, it actually has three pronunciations:

jiáo    "chew; masticate"

jué    used in polysyllabic expressions such as jǔjué 咀嚼 ("chew; masticate")

jiào    chew the cud, as ruminants do after reverse peristalsis

Going back to the discussion of the journal with which we began this post, perhaps the editors need to do a bit of introspection.  In the spirit of genuine, earnest 咬文嚼字, I suggest that the title of their journal should be pronounced "yǎowénjuézì", not "yǎowénjiáozì".

If what I say is true, it wouldn't be the first time the editors of a famous Chinese journal mispronounced the title of their publication.  Starting in the mid-1980s, there was a Chinese poetry magazine whose contributors and readers (at least some of them whom I knew) used to refer to as "Yī xíng 一行" ("First Line"), but I thought (and told them so) it should be read as "Yī háng", since 行 has these pronunciations and meanings:

xíng — "walk; go"

háng — "row; line"

Judging from this interview with its founder, it seems that it later did come to be referred to as "Yī háng".

Be that as it may, this is all the stuff of language nerds and pedants.

[h.t. Ben Zimmer]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 24, 2018 @ 11:58 am

    "Be that as it may, this is all the stuff of language […] pedants."

    Long may they continue to exist. In my 70+ years, I have watched our beautiful language being adulterated and debased almost beyond recognition. I abhore and despise "blog" and "app", the regularly recurring injunctions to "Shop Our …", Capitals Every Word For No Reason Whatsoever, and the countless other debasements that have taken place in my lifetime. I admire the work of l'Académie française and its ceaseless efforts to defend the purity of the French language, and now commend Yaowen Jiaozi for their analogous efforts to maintain rigour in Chinese. If only we had an analogous and equally effective organisation for English. Sadly the Society for Pure English is apparently no more, and today's grammarians almost universally prefer to describe the plethora of abuses that everyday take place rather than, as their predecessors were more wont to do, comment on the desirability or otherwise of such changes.

  2. Lupus753 said,

    January 24, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

    @Taylor: I must say, that is a pitch-perfect parody of people who think that every language change debasing the language in some way. For a second, I actually thought you were serious.

  3. Keith said,

    January 24, 2018 @ 1:58 pm

    I rather like the idea of a magazine dedicated to pointing out such nefarious word-manglings.

    I have a question about the formation of such words as yǎowénjiáozì 咬文嚼字.

    It looks to me, on the basis of your explanation

    yǎojué 咬嚼 + wénzì 文字 –> yǎowénjiáozì 咬文嚼字

    that we have a pattern 12 + 34 -> 1324

    1 is 咬
    2 is 嚼
    3 is 文
    4 is 字

    Is this the main or dominant pattern for forming such compounds?

  4. David Marjanović said,

    January 24, 2018 @ 5:00 pm

    that we have a pattern 12 + 34 -> 1324

    Specifically, 12 is a verb composed of what are or once were two more or less synonymous verbs (a very common phenomenon), and 34 is a noun that is likewise, at least historically, a compound, so that "1 3, 2 4" says more or less the same thing twice.

  5. Not a naive speaker said,

    January 24, 2018 @ 5:33 pm

    In German is the word for this type of person is Korinthenkacker

  6. Victor Mair said,

    January 24, 2018 @ 8:08 pm

    From Bathrobe:

    I understand that there are some authors in Hong Kong who pursue a different agenda in 'rectifying Chinese', by railing agains 洋化中文 (Western-influenced Chinese). They are less welcome, in China at least, than the petty prescriptivism of 咬文嚼字 because one of their targets is the clumsy 'un-Chinese' prose of the CCP.

    Two such writers I have heard of are 陳雲 and 古德明. Regrettably I have been unable to get hold of their works as yet.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 24, 2018 @ 8:32 pm

    In general I don't think these A1-B1-A2-B2 structures are generated from two disyllabic words. At times A2-A1 is a word but not A1-A2, or no combination (A1-A2, B1-B2, etc.) is a word at all, for instance. But it seems their emergence must be a product of the same (ambiguity-reducing?) trend that gave increasing numbers of disyllabic compounds in Chinese beginning say a couple millennia ago. And of course it is possible to coin new examples analogically from existing disyllables.

  8. Carolanne Reynolds said,

    January 24, 2018 @ 8:39 pm

    re Philip Taylor's comment
    As another lover of the language, I sympathize, however was shocked to see 'abhor' misspelled. Given Mr T's position, presume he will appreciate my concern and agreement in having a Society for English (but I wouldn't say "Pure").
    Language will evolve and that's great. It reflects growth and change. It's the way it does that that is important. It needs to be guided in a logical fashion. Great that English borrows words from other languages. No problem.
    Keeping our basic grammar is desirable and lessens misinterpretations. By that I mean the mechanics, the function of subjects, prepositions, nouns, verb/tense sequence. Misuse, of course, is to be discouraged. In fact, there are some things that should be changed or improved. Selectivity is important. Sometimes I refer to myself as a grammar mechanic (and sometimes Lady Literacy, while others have said lexorcista).
    As someone said today: The power of positive persistence.
    Let's put the emphasis on improvement.
    Not all in the past is better than the future, nor vv.
    We even have different spellings for British, American, and Canadian English. That's one reason we haven't something like L'Academie francaise.
    Agree to disagree in the interests of national identity.

  9. Chris Button said,

    January 24, 2018 @ 10:33 pm

    In the spirit of genuine, earnest 咬文嚼字, I suggest that the title of their journal should be pronounced "yǎowénjuézì", not "yǎowénjiáozì".

    It might also be worth adding that jiáo is a modern corruption (and hence a rare sound), while jué is more faithful to its roots and thus more appropriate to something evoking the name of a historical document.

  10. liuyao said,

    January 24, 2018 @ 11:29 pm

    I remember browsing through this magazine at bookstore many years ago. Some fun materials, but at times overly pedantic. I confess that I mentally read it as Yaowen Jiaozi. It should be remarked that -ue and -iao are a classic example of the phenomenon of literary/formal and vernacular/informal readings of a character (within one dialect/topolect, in this case Mandarin). Cf 学 觉 角.

  11. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 25, 2018 @ 4:09 am

    jiáo "chew; masticate"

    jiào chew the cud, as ruminants do after reverse peristalsis

    Would I be correct in presuming these share a common origin? A remarkable coincidence otherwise.

  12. Michael Watts said,

    January 25, 2018 @ 2:16 pm

    You also have 血 xuè meaning "blood" and 血 xiě meaning "blood", which seems more likely to be a formalization of local pronunciation differences than some weird historical convergence. Then 做 zuò meaning "do" and 作 zuò meaning "do".

    I get tripped up on 收 shōu "receive" and 受 shòu "receive", though those seem more like an unfortunate coincidence.

  13. Chris Button said,

    January 26, 2018 @ 6:34 am

    @ Andreas Johansson

    jiáo "chew; masticate"

    jiào chew the cud, as ruminants do after reverse peristalsis

    Would I be correct in presuming these share a common origin? A remarkable coincidence otherwise.

    I can't imagine otherwise, although jiào is probably the word more commonly written as 噍 which would need to be reconstructed in Old Chinese with -qs to parallel the -q in 嚼

    @ liuyao

    It should be remarked that -ue and -iao are a classic example of the phenomenon of literary/formal and vernacular/informal readings of a character (within one dialect/topolect, in this case Mandarin). Cf 学 觉 角.

    Yes, although it should be added that the case of 嚼 is particularly conspicuous even without knowing the jué reading since I don't think there is really any other way outside of a vernacular pronunciation for a reading such as jiáo to occur in Mandarin.

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