A revolution in Sinitic language conceptualization and learning

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[The following is a guest post by Georgi Mladenov]

I am another student who seems to have hit a brick wall in learning Mandarin, and I would like to ask you for advice. I have thoroughly read most of your forum posts and I totally share your opinions on language learning, especially as expressed in this post.

Your post captures my situation in its entirety. "The first year of learning Mandarin was pure torture in the classroom" – it feels as if I had written that! In short, I have been studying Chinese in Taiwan for more than a year. I am fluent in English, German, Russian and Bulgarian, I have a B2 level in Polish, Spanish and Serbian, my French is quite good, my Latin is quite decent, and I also know some Hungarian.

However, my disappointment with Chinese teaching methods has been growing daily. No matter what language I learned, the main focus of any beginner's course has always been on pronunciation and mastering any peculiar "tricky" sounds. Not here, though. I personally know quite a few people who have passed TOCFL Level 3 and 4 (reading and listening) and still have no tones! Or students who still say "zh" instead of "z", or "s" instead of "sh", not to mention that many students do not differentiate between "zh" and "j", "sh" and "x", "ch" and "q". And most teachers still try to persuade us how bad Pinyin is.

Honestly, I don't care about Hanzi, many words which have the same meaning and pronunciation have a different orthography in Russian, Bulgarian, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, Czech, Ukrainian. I don't see the point of remembering 7-8 different systems for the same thing (not to mention that Bulgarian and Serbian had language reforms which render anything pre-1945 rather laborious to decipher). So, if we can use Pinyin to read (and type much faster than a native speaker would write), why do we spend 90+% of our class time on Hanzi? We had Pinyin removed from our curriculum after just 2 months. I mean, I see zero ROI and no skill in memorizing characters.

I am using this website to read texts. Luckily, we are not in the old days, and it is very easy to convert any interesting text into Pinyin. All my teachers advised strongly against it. I am also having a hard time remembering characters, I have the so-called "Chinese dyslexia", yet obviously my spelling of phonetic languages is extremely good, and my Pinyin is definitely much better than my teachers'.

I have everything mentioned in the article on Chinese dyslexia cited above but point 2:

1. Frequently mix up Chinese characters that look the same, for example 人 (ren2) and 入 (ru4) when reading.

2. Experience problems understanding that similar sounding Chinese characters may have different meanings. For example, the Chinese characters 话 (talk) and 画 (draw) sound the same but have different meanings.

3. Encounters difficulties recalling and writing the correct shape of a symbol or Chinese character.

4. Display a poor stroke sequence when writing Chinese characters.

5. Encounters difficulties recalling Chinese words from memory.

So, right now, I need to decide whether to enroll in an easy Chinese class for the next semester (I don't mind being qualified as dumb or lazy) and concentrate on self-studying with my great language exchange partners or to continue struggling in the upper level where we just study characters like crazy.

And a more important question – I have no problems with the tones themselves, I find it a bit hard to remember the tone for each syllable, i.e., if I know the tone, I say it correctly, my problem is to remember the exact tone for a particular word. I have looked on the Internet for some advice, but I haven't found anything helpful. Can you advise me how to speed up the process? Currently I am using this tool; it speeds up the process a lot. Could you suggest me some other methods to remember the correct tone for each syllable?

Thank you very much for your posts, it is very inspirational as some of my teachers suggested that I should probably give up (yeah, a great way to motivate your student) and that is quite weird, considering that my spoken interaction, my pronunciation and grammar structures, are significantly better than my fellow students'. I mean, most teachers, students and educators measure success, i.e., Chinese progress, by the TOCFL (Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language) Reading score, while pronunciation and spoken interaction are often overlooked. While I can write relatively well in Spanish and Serbian, and I can write very well in Russian, I rarely needed to write any text in these three languages. Or let's rephrase it – I never needed to produce any handwritten text, I literally mean never. I just occasionally needed to type, but never needed to use a pencil to write something down. On the other hand, I speak Russian and Spanish almost on a weekly basis. Honestly, I don't think that Chinese will be much different and typing in Pinyin is fairly easy. My point is why 60% of our class time is spent on handwriting, including almost daily tests where we need to write down characters from memory and not more than 5% on spoken interaction. Yet it is this very spoken interaction that will count most both professionally and personally.  I believe that the pedagogical priorities of Chinese language teaching and learning need to be reordered.

 

Selected readings



60 Comments »

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 8:17 am

    Clearly a cri de cœur, on which I feel competent to comment on only one point :

    And a more important question – I have no problems with the tones themselves, I find it a bit hard to remember the tone for each syllable, i.e., if I know the tone, I say it correctly, my problem is to remember the exact tone for a particular word. I have looked on the Internet for some advice, but I haven't found anything helpful. Can you advise me how to speed up the process? Currently I am using this tool; it speeds up the process a lot. Could you suggest me some other methods to remember the correct tone for each syllable?

    I looked at the link that you cited, but did not feel that colours really communicate anything onto which I could usefully latch. I studied Mandarin Chinese for a couple of hours each week for three years, with native Chinese speakers (mainly native speakers of Shanghainese, I might add, but with an excellent grasp of MSM) and we completely eschewed anything to do with hanzi other than as a side issue which we might investigate if we were interested. We used as the standard text Kan Qian's Colloquial Chinese, and I find to this day, maybe fifteen years after my last formal lesson, that when I recall the phrases used in the conversational exercises, I recall them with every tone in place. It is as if, in my mind, tone is inseparable from phrase. Which is not, of course, the same as "tone is inseparable from word". There I may have a little more difficulty. But if I can remember the phrase in which any given word occurred, I can recall the tone with close to 100% accuracy. My advice is therefore not to learn words but rather to learn phrases (and, for that matter, complete sentences). Just as if I were to ask you, for example, what it was that the sailor asked for in addition to "a tall ship", you might have difficulty in recalling that it was "a star to steer her by", I am certain that if you recalled the entire poem, or even just that verse, the answer would be immediately and blindingly obvious.

  2. alex said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 8:49 am

    I went through the same experience as you with my older sons education in shenzhen. I also found that article you found as i was beyond frustrated with seeing how they taught and with the writing system.

    "Thank you very much for your posts, it is very inspirational as some of my teachers suggested that I should probably give up (yeah, a great way to motivate your student)"

    That made me smile as I had a preschool teacher tell me perhaps I should just accept that my younger son is slow. They never think its their teaching methods. Took my son out within a week and started teaching him with my own methods that I thought of while watching my older son tortured using antiquated methods.

    Its amazing that they love saying 'this is the way we did it for decades'

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJ5LuC6rXua-4J1ltPOhaFw

    you can scroll to the bottom to the chinese reading and english reading to see the results.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 9:30 am

    Bless your soul, Georgi! You are obviously an intelligent person with an innate understanding of how to learn languages.

    I've often mentioned that my dear wife, Li-ching Chang*, who was one of the finest Chinese language teachers ever to have walked the face of the earth, told me that her smartest, best students always hated to learn characters and wanted to concentrate on language.

    Now, as you've shown in your post and as we've documented repeatedly on Language Log, the technology to bridge the gap between the burdensome writing system and the spoken Sinitic languages is now readily available.

    All the talk of amnesia and aphantasia and dyslexia make it sound as though those who rebel against character memorization have some sort of deficit or defect. I think that, in an age of ever burgeoning knowledge and increasing commitments, to spend 90% of one's learning time on the characters just doesn't make sense when one now has the tools to become fully fluent in the spoken Sinitic languages without getting bogged down in the minutiae of profuse, intricate strokes and mystifying phonophores and semantophores. As you have shown for Mandarin and as many others have demonstrated for Cantonese and other languages and topolects, one can attain high degrees of fluency in Sinitic languages through intelligent pedagogical methods without suffering endless bondage to the characters. If, at later stages of acquisition, one wishes to acquire proficiency in reading and writing characters, that will actually be much, much easier than if the learning process is turned upside down and one starts by concentrating on the writing system.

    I have always advised, both for myself and for others, learn languages naturally, like a baby. Learn to speak first; learn to write later. That's the way native speakers do it.

    =====

    *

    "Li-ching Chang, 1936-2010", Pinyin News (7/20/10)

    "Pinyin memoirs" (8/13/16)

    "Pinyin literature contest" (6/30/16) — we actually received several worthy entries, and it has been our intention to make the awards, but have delayed only because of the press of other commitments

    "English and Mandarin juxtaposed" (9/6/13) — see the penultimate paragraph

  4. Moa said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 11:30 am

    When I started to learn Mandarin Chinese, our teacher told us to make hand gestures when speaking to learn to remember the tones (silly pantomines is always good for memory). I'm not sure if it's more efficient than the methods you read about already, but at least it's fun (and doesn't rely on writing things down). Most memory techniques take some time to learn, but the advantage is that you can use the same technique from everything from grocery store lists to language learning.

    It's interesting to read that pinyin is used but impopular in Taiwan. I guess old-fashioned teachers prefer zhuyin (bopomofo) still. I'm surprised that there's so little emphasis on correct pronunciation, Mandarin is perhaps the language I've taken classes in where we have had most focus on pronunciation. For European languages, we were taught some rules in the beginning and then left to figure it out on our own. So that's the opposite of your experience.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 11:52 am

    I must have been lucky, then; the professor who taught the introductory courses I took – not a native speaker, but someone who had spent a long time in Taiwan, IIRC – did not try to sweep the pronunciation under the rug and did not try to drop pinyin; indeed both of the textbooks he used (one from Germany, one from the PRC) used pinyin.

    I agree with Philip Taylor that learning whole phrases makes it easier to remember the tones. Sometimes anyway.

  6. David Moser said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 12:13 pm

    Great post! Effectively learning Chinese is always a matter of balancing the character acquisition and speaking ability. I just have to recount a recent argument I had with someone about this: I was asked to give a talk to a book club in Shanghai about my book "A Billion Voices: China's Search for a Common Language." (I did the lecture via Zoom.) At one point the issue of character amnesia came up, and the question of the effectiveness of Pinyin. I mentioned that my daughter (who was for the most part born and raised in China), and the fact that though her spoken Chinese is very good, but she never got very good at reading Chinese because she found the characters just too daunting. "If only there were more books printed in Pinyin," I said, "my daughter would probably have enjoyed reading, because she could just easily retrieve the sounds of the language from the text." Someone in the audience, a male foreigner, contested this. "I've been learning Chinese for several years," he proclaimed, "and my experience is that Pinyin can never work as a written language. Whenever I read Pinyin texts, I can never get the gist. But when I read characters, the meaning becomes clear. So I don't agree that people could read books in Chinese." I explained to him that, yes, we foreigners very often need to see the characters, because we aren't native speakers of Chinese! There are too many unfamiliar words for us, and we need characters to disambiguate. But native Chinese speakers don't have that problem. The foreign chap was not convinced. "Look," I said to him, "If we took this Chinese book and simply read it out loud to a Chinese person, do you think they wouldn't be able to understand it?" "No, of course they could understand it," he admitted. "Well that's all Pinyin is!" I said "Pinyin is simply, in effect, someone reading the text outloud to the reader." He still wasn't convinced and continued to argue with me. I felt the argument was futile so I just dropped the issue and moved on to other matters. Later on the subject came up again, and I said something like "I just still think it's a tragedy that so many foreigners, including my daughter, could have the joy of reading Chinese books if there were more Pinyin editions." Then the foreign guy who had been arguing with me, piped up again, saying "You're complaining about your daughter, well, I have a solution for her. China now has a large market for audio books and books on tape. Why not buy some of those for her, and she could just listen to them. Problem solved." I was thunderstruck. He had made my point exactly! "Pinyin is just reading the book out loud!" If it were impossible for Chinese people to read books only in Pinyin, then HOW COULD AUDIO BOOKS HAVE A MARKET?? I don't think I was able to convince him in the end, but he had unwittingly disproved his own contention.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 12:50 pm

    At the risk of over-simplifying a very complex and highly divisive issue, I think that one might equally argue "[i]f it were impossible for Chinese people to read books only in Pinyin, [how could they ever understand their collocutor(s) in everyday spoken conversation] ?"

  8. cliff arroyo said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 1:04 pm

    ""If only there were more books printed in Pinyin," I said, "my daughter would probably have enjoyed reading"

    That's pretty much my position. If there were learning materials (like graded readers) in pinyin I would probably want to try learning Mandarin but some contact with characters in Japanese…. no. Just…. no.

    I can appreciate characters for their aesthetic properties and can understand enthusiasts messing around with them for fun, but as a practical writing system (when there are any other options)….. no.

    Also I think the tone writing is not sufficiently worked out. Full tone marking seems like too much and no tones…. like too little.

  9. MattF said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 1:45 pm

    The problem here is political, not linguistic.

    Those who read Mladenov's post, and then can't figure out what's going on– you should read the post linked through 'English and Mandarin Juxtaposed' in Victor Mair's comment above. The clear (although always implicit) message is that the Chinese government believes that use of ideographs rather than a phonetic alphabet is essential in combatting centrifugal ethnic tendencies within China. The various 'dialects', 'topolects', and 'languages' all use the same characters.

  10. Chris Button said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 3:53 pm

    Or students who still say "zh" instead of "z", or "s" instead of "sh"

    Surely in Taiwan, you're encountering plenty of native Mandarin speakers who don't distinguish the retroflexes either though?

    And most teachers still try to persuade us how bad Pinyin is

    Is the comparison with bopomofo or with hanzi? If it's with bopomofo, then I agree with the teachers; I prefer it to pinyin. If it's with hanzi (I assume that's the case), then I agree with the complaint being made in this post.

  11. slz said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 6:20 pm

    @MattF

    I believe you made a technical mistake in asserting that characters are a unifying force in China because "the various 'dialects', 'topolects', and 'languages' all use the same characters." There are several issues with that statement.

    Chinese characters form a script. Attempting to use characters to suppress separatist sentiments is about as effective as if the European Union tries to use the common Latin script as a unifying force among French and German speakers, as different branches of Sinitic topolects are as mutually unintelligible as, if not more than, French and German.

    On the contrary, it is the common written _language_ (wenyanwen, Literary Sinitic) that served as the unifying force for 2000+ years of imperial Chinese history. Yes, Qin's promulgation of a standard script helped, but that was only because there was already a common literary standard language among the former Warring States.

    Traditionally, Literary Sinitic was pronounced differently according to each Sinitic speaker's local topolects, despite the common written standard script. But this doesn't mean that if the local vernacular was written down in characters, a speaker of a different topolect could magically understand it without knowing the underlying language. As a Mandarin speaker, I cannot understand most written Cantonese, despite being able to read the traditional script. Nor would a Cantonese speaker be able to understand those early modern novels written in Wu Chinese.

    Of course, Literary Sinitic has outlived its usefulness as a practical means of communication among Sinitic speakers. The modern age demands a common spoken language, not just a literary one. That common language is Modern Standard Mandarin, aka Putonghua, aka Guoyu.

    The central government in Beijing understands this. Language Log has many posts documenting the Chinese government promoting MSM in the public sphere and in media, often at the expense of local topolects. So while it is true that there is certainly a government agenda to use language to suppress any real or imagined separatist sentiments, the tool they use to do so is MSM the language. Characters are merely used to write down that standard language.

    Of course, this is not to say that the same confusion isn't also rampant among Chinese speakers. The late Zhou Youguang argued forcefully in his book The Historical Evolution of Chinese Languages and Scripts that as Pinyin is a writing system for the common national language MSM, it is a tool of unification, not separatism. He laments the various 大人先生们 dàrén xīanshengmen who still cannot or refuses to understand this after a century of language reform that freed us from the shackles of Literary Sinitic.

  12. alex wang said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 8:04 pm

    @cliff arroyo
    totally agree with your daughter, more material is needed. both my sons can read pure pinyin and its easier.

    @mattf

    yep totally political

  13. PJM said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 8:21 pm

    Learning characters is difficult, but allows one a much greater access to the beauty and depth of the language, culture, and history. Native speakers are generally and almost instinctively more wordy when speaking chinese precisely because spoken chinese is highly contextual, while written chinese can be more precise and efficient because one can see the character and grasp the specific meaning.
    Phonetic writing systems are processed through the brain via a pathway that recognizes what the word would sound like IF it were read aloud. Idiographic writing systems like chinese are not. They are directly processed by the brain as concepts. This is why deaf chinese people generally have a much higher reading comprehension than deaf speakers of other phonetically written languages. It’s also why people who have become good at learning languages often get frustrated with chinese characters because it requires a different method of language acquisition than the one they are accustomed to.
    Everyone I know who invested the time to learn characters is very glad they did and cites the rewards of doing so as the well worth the investment. No shortcuts, just memorizing a few characters each week for a couple of years. You don’t need to remember how to write them, just how to recognize them.
    But, one certainly doesn’t need to know them to be proficient in “spoken chinese”. Each individual must decide for themself if the investment is worth it.
    I have a different experience than many who post here. When I first enrolled in chinese class in Beijing I asked my teacher to teach characters from day one. I did not want to invest years in learning a new language in order to be functionally illiterate. That school’s curriculum generally focused on pinyin and spoken language for the first year, but eventually he teacher acquiesced. She would teach each new phrase or word by writing the chinese characters on the white board with pinyin pronunciation written above the character. We were expected to take note, practice a couple of times, and then she would erase the pinyin. From that point on, she would only write those words in characters. If the pinyin is present, as in a printed learning guide, a foreign language speaker will find that the eye and the mind tend to lock on to the familiar and ignore the chinese character. I read technical chinese every day and my mind still does this if I pick up a publication that includes pinyin romanization above the characters. The best advice I ever got about learning chinese was to find some “young adult” level literature (easy to read, but not too easy) in characters only (no pinyin) and read them. It required looking up almost every character in the beginning and it would take hours to get through one page. It was torture for the first month. By month two, it was difficult, by month three or four it was was getting easier. Six months in and I could read fairly well and even get the gist of newspaper articles. Not a bad ROI. This ability has paid off in spades every single day of my life since then. I am able to read, write, speak, and understand even nuanced chinese and it only took at the most one year to get “over the hump”.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 9:33 pm

    You got what you wanted. Most people don't want what you got.

  15. Chris Button said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 9:49 pm

    While I sympathize with the point of this post, part of the problem is how Chinese characters are taught. Essentially, you have rote memorization or ridiculous mnemonics that soon become useless.

    The motivation for my dictionary (https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=49614#comment-1581074 ) is partly linguistic and partly to provide a pedagogical aid. To me, understanding why a character is a certain way (even just knowing what it's being used as a rebus for) really helps with memorization.

    Unfortunately, major problems with the reconstruction of the sounds of Old Chinese and an inexplicable separation in academia between historical linguists and palaeographers have prevented an authoritative dictionary of its kind from being created in the past. The most notable attempt is Todo Akiyasu's "Kanji Gogen Jiten" in Japanese.

  16. Twill said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 10:22 pm

    @PJM Definitely agree with the utility of learning hanzi, and I would even say the dreaded rote writing of characters in my experience means the difference between hazily remembering phrases, not being able to visualize much less attempt to write them and often forgetting the reading or the meaning, to being able to distinctly recognize, read and recall, and naturally write, each character in a phrase. The notion that you're going to make do with pinyin/zhuyin/etc. and even try to bend the entire body of literature to it, as some declare, is positively Quixotic.

    That doesn't, however, mean that devoting most class time to learning hanzi is a sensible pedagogical technique in teaching Mandarin, which is really the question here. For scripts that really can be learned in a week, I don't understand why you would not just get it out of the way at the very start (surely the appreciable headstart on literacy outweighs being a lesson behind on fluency), but we are talking about a system that requires sustained effort over a substantial period of time. Either you let fluency outpace literacy, or you markedly retard the former to let the latter keep up. The trade-off there really isn't worth it. Personally, I don't see the necessity of teaching the two in lockstep. You can learn to speak in one class or context and practice writing in another.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 10:33 pm

    Someday Chris Button will finish his dictionary, and it will be a big help for those who want to learn the characters through a scientific understanding of their construction, morphology, and phonology. Up until now, the closest thing we had to it was Léon Wieger's Chinese Characters: Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification And Signification (1915, more than a century old), which was my bible for learning characters AFTER I knew how to speak. I preserve its tattered body in a sacred cloth, as Zhuang Zi said of a tortoise shell used for divination. But Chris's dictionary will be much superior to Wieger because it will be based on advanced understanding of the reconstruction of ancient sounds, orthographic transformations, comparison with other languages, and diachronic change.

    Robert S. Bauer's monumental ABCD Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, which he worked on for more than a decade, is now a reality (I received a copy and held it in my hands today; it now sits proudly on my table at my left elbow). An amazing achievement! This shows what can be done with determination and persistence.

    https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=48643

    BTW, like all dictionaries in the University of Hawaii Press ABC dictionary series, Bob Bauer's Cantonese dictionary is alphabetically ordered.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 11:09 pm

    As for mastering the tones, I agree with those above who point out the utility of learning words in the context of whole phrases and even whole sentences. That is true of all the people in the field I know who have the best control of the tones.

    Another useful trick that nobody points out is to master — absolutely cold — the tones of the 300 highest frequency morphosyllables. That will enable you to pronounce nearly 65% of the syllables with the correct tone. If you up that to the 600 highest frequency morphosyllables, that will cover nearly 80% of the syllables you utter. The top 900 highest frequency morphosyllables will take you up to nearly 90% of all the syllables that you utter. As for the remaining 10%, you can fudge them in the flow of your elocution until you gradually pick them up naturally from their collocation in useful lexemes.

    Do not stubbornly memorize the tones of individual characters beyond the top 300 or 600 or 900…. That's almost as bèn 笨 ("stupid; silly; foolish") as stubbornly, arbitrarily memorizing by rote the strokes of thousands of characters.

    And don't wag your finger in the air or bob your head to "draw" the contours of the tones. Some people start that way and get hooked on it, a habit they never outgrow their whole life.

  19. Daniel said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 11:35 pm

    I wonder why no one is mentioning Rick Harbaugh's dictionary (zhongwen.com) as a way to learn and understand the composition of characters. It was invaluable for me in learning Chinese. I know that some of the "character etymologies" are not quite right, but even ignoring them completely, the character 'family trees' are very helpful in understanding how hanzi are composed. It also helped me to understand how much variation in pronunciation to expect for two characters that have the same phonetic part.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 4:57 am

    I too am a great fan of Rick Harbaugh's dictionary (zhongwen.com), but I just wish that the physical edition had been printed at a larger size — wonderful as the book is, it is just too small to make out the details of each hanzi unless one has exceptional eyesight.

    Even the online version uses only bitmaps — each page is a single GIF, overlayed with an HTML <MAP> element to provide interactivity.

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 5:28 am

    Incidentally, regarding PJM's suggestion that "[i]diographic writing systems like chinese are not [processed through the brain via a pathway that recognizes what the word would sound like IF it were read aloud]. They are directly processed by the brain as concepts". Is that not the very idea that the late lamented John DeFrancis set out to debunk in his seminal The Chinese Language — Fact and Fantasy ?

  22. Terry K. said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 9:42 am

    I think it's perhaps not so much whether a writing system triggers sounds or concepts in our brain, but the degree to which they do one, the other, or both. In English, for instance, someone using the wrong homophone can cause me to completely fail to understand something. It's not a case of the written word not triggering sound, it does. But it also triggers a concept that matches with the spelling.

  23. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 10:37 am

    @Chris Button
    I'd love to have installments of that dict, instead of having to wait for the whole work.

    @V. Mair
    Any dictionary is more useful if published as an electronic resource with hyperlinks.
    https://mega.nz/file/9BgiET4S#MHd7Ht4T6gfuqO76BIkyoXHce-rpkQH3OF4VH8EAlzA

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 11:18 am

    What an excellent link/resource — thank you, Antonio. Incidentally, I see that on page 5 (for example) the word "prehistoric" is partially obscured by the glyph pair / hanzi below, but the two are independently positioned and the glyphs (which I think are 皇帝) can be moved to a better position using (for example) Adobe Acrobat CC.

  25. OvV said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 11:22 am

    @ Antonio L. Banderas
    I also do like electronic versions. The file you refer to is a partial copy of Wieger. The pdf has 386 pages, but my paper version of the Dover edition of Wieger has 820 pages, so a lot of lists were omitted in the pdf.
    Furthermore, the scan resolution of the smaller characters is too low to read them with any success. The paper Dover reprint is a copy, so the quality of the characters is a bit degraded, but everything is perfectly readable. Not so in the electronic (pdf) version, alas.

  26. ~flow said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 1:13 pm

    To claim there's no return-of-interest in learning Chinese characters alongside Mandarin is of course neglecting that hundreds upon hundreds of millions of people use Chinese characters as their primary means of writing, the existing mountain of literature that uses characters to write (among other things) Mandarin and Literary Chinese, and the ongoing written output of a cultural sphere comprising one seventh or so of the world's population. Not to speak of the role characters play in written Japanese, another language with a huge body of written material spoken and written by hundreds of millions. Sure one doesn't need any of that or have as one's goal to learn how to read and write characters when all one wants is to learn listening comprehension and the ability to express one's thoughts orally in Mandarin, but to claim there's no useful point in learning the script is missing the point.

    Also to see 'no skill in memorizing characters' is being unaware that no matter what you spend your time and dedication on, there will always be some learning, some training, some skill involved, and be it only patience. This is pretty much the definition of skill. Of course everyone's free to decide that a given skill is not interesting, not worth the while and effort, but skill there definitely is. Basically, being perplexed at the sheer size and difficulty of the task is acknowledging there's skill involved, otherwise one would just do it and not think much of it.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 1:53 pm

    There are useful skills and useless skills.

    "everyone's free to decide that a given skill is not interesting, not worth the while and effort"

    Like counting the sands of the Ganges.

  28. cliff arroyo said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 4:35 pm

    "to claim there's no useful point in learning the script is missing the point."

    I wouldn't say there's no useful point, it's just an effort I've chosen to make after exposure to it.

    In addition to Japanese, I also expended some effort to learn Vietnamese characters in an online course (since disappeared) but I found they were far less… connected? profound? memorable? for Vietnamese than is the current Latin-based script.
    Looking at a character and trying to remember (and then seeing the quoc nguu and immediately understanding it) was a valuable experience.

  29. cliff arroyo said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 4:41 pm

    " I've chosen to make"

    should be " I've chosen not to make"

  30. Twill said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 6:43 pm

    @Victor Mair All is vanity and striving after the wind, and so on. At least beyond the slog of learning a writing system everyone admits can be tortuous is, as flow says, a literary culture that has continued thriving for millennia, which is much more than can be said about e.g. cluing out hieroglyphs or cuneiform. Again, not that any linguistic or philological pursuit would stand.

  31. PJM said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 7:20 pm

    On the subject of how to use one’s time learning language, it seems logical to use classroom time with a teacher as efficiently as possible. A good chinese teacher will be most valuable to helping the student understand grammar, tones, pronunciation, even stroke order (if learning to write chinese characters).
    I propose that one of the points being circled in this discussion is that spending large amounts of classroom time learning things that could be studied outside of the classroom (like memorizing characters) is frustrating to some students. Most people I know who learned chinese as adults and are quite comfortable in the language invested a lot of their personal time to learning to read and write chinese, sometimes with the help of classroom instruction, often without.

  32. PJM said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 9:02 pm

    In reply to Philip Taylor: I knew that statement would be controversial. However, I firmly believe it to be true based on my personal observations and experiences in language learning and teaching. I don’t want to write another long comment, so I’ll leave it at that. Everyone is free to make up their own mind on that issue, but I’m convinced. I mention it only because I think a consideration of that possibility might help some language learners better tailor their own approach to learning chinese characters.

  33. ~flow said,

    January 9, 2021 @ 4:22 am

    @PJM "I propose that one of the points being circled in this discussion is that spending large amounts of classroom time learning things that could be studied outside of the classroom (like memorizing characters) is frustrating to some students."

    This sure is true, but then no matter what a teacher does, there will likely always be some students who experience difficulties. Based on my experience, solely relying on what can be reasonably presented in the classroom is not going to suffice when it comes to acquiring vocabulary and certainly not the Chinese or Japanese orthographic systems.

    OTOH there is undeniable value for the student of being part of a group that experiences similar difficulties, has similar learning goals, comes up with helpful insights and so on. So as far as character memorization goes, a certain amount of it certainly should take place in lectures. Ways to do that include looking into the historical development of characters, studying the aesthetics of calligraphy, and analyzing the regularities (and lack thereof) of the inner makeup of characters.

    May I say coming to grips with the disconnect there is in the English language between the spelling and the speaking has cost me countless hours spread over decades. I'm not a speaker of Arabic but I strongly suspect that it would not be any easier as far as the link of the spoken word with the orthography goes; Thai is another living language known for its intricate orthography. When it comes to a certain fixation onto orthography when what one wants to learn the language Tibetan is a good match for Chinese: you classically learn it by the letter, literally. It is a pretty straightforward Abugida that in itself is not so hard to learn but all those minor spelling variations that have no straightforward counterpart in the spoken language make it quite hard to memorize.

  34. Philip Taylor said,

    January 9, 2021 @ 5:26 am

    [In reply to PJM] — I think that Terry K's comment might well get to the heart of the matter, and it is a great shame that John DeFrancis is no long alive to debate the point with Terry. As Terry says " It's not a case of the written word not triggering sound, it does. But it also triggers a [mental model of a] concept that matches with the spelling".

  35. Moa said,

    January 9, 2021 @ 6:16 am

    It will be interesting to see how the popularity of audiobooks and podcasts will affect the attitdtes towards chinese characters. The popularity of audiobooks in English doesn't seem to have lead to increased interest in phonetically spelt English, but of course English isn't Chinese.

    I think the comparision between audiobooks and pinyin poses another question, though. If pinyin is just the same as the text read aloud, why do we need pinyin (and written language) at all?

  36. ~flow said,

    January 9, 2021 @ 8:00 am

    @Philip Taylor

    In addition to the triggering of some kind of semantic correlate in addition to the sound which is more complicated in orthographies with many distinct spellings for homophone morphemes / words (as opposed to 'shallow' systems like Pinyin or, I think, Vietnamese spelling), which may have been somewhat neglected by DeFrancis in Fact and Fantasy, the other omission in his book is a discussion of the points he makes with respect to the closely related, but otherwise unique Japanese orthography.

    When you only look at the way that Mandarin sounds relate to character spellings—as in, say, 马吗骂妈 and so on—you can very much make a point that the orthography relies on using a medium-sized inventory of (imperfect) sound indicators (马 in this series) that combine with a smallish number of very loose semantic hints (here 口吅女) to obtain a relation that tends to a 1:1 ratio between the written sign and the spoken morpheme (again, in details this is broken in many ways; 足 is 'foot' or 'sufficient'; 葡萄 is a single morpheme but two syllables and two characters; and so on). You can then close the case, as DeFrancis makes abundantly clear, by adding to this the sheer numbers of phonosemantic characters used in writing Mandarin (either absolute numbers or usage frequency, as opposed to characters built on other principles) to conclude that Chinese writing is really predominantly phonetic in nature (though not analytically phonetic, more akin to a syllabic system) with the addition of a pinch of 'ideographic salt'.

    As far as a discussion of Chinese goes, that is probably fine, but it is partially contradicted by what we see in Japanese orthography where several thousand common characters have at least one reading derived from Chinese (onyomi), and one unrelated, autochthonous (kunyomi) reading. As far as kunyomi readings are concerned, readers and writers have to commit to and retrieve from memory a sizable inventory of rather arbitrary sign—sound/meaning relationships. This extends from the level of morphemes to the level of words and the written context: 石鹸 (alternatively, 石けん, 石っけん, せっけん) is sekken ('soap'), containing 石 with the onyomi seki; but the same 石 is read ishi in 石田 (Ishida, a common family name). Whether 石 is semantically relevant to readers when encountering 石鹸 (lit. stone + salt/lye/soap — 'soap') or 石田 (lit. Stonefield) is certainly debatable, but it certainly is semantically active in 石工 sekkou 'mason' and 石焼き (also 石焼) ishiyaki 'earthenware; (food preparation on a) hot stone'. In short, at least Japanese orthography cannot be well explained without taking recourse to an amount of 'ideographical salt' that is rather larger than the bit needed to come up with a congruent picture for Chinese.

    All of which can of course be viewed as a waste of time, like counting the sands of the Ganges. Learning Go or Chess is likewise a total waste of anybody's time, especially now that computers have become better than people.

  37. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    January 9, 2021 @ 8:35 am

    Is "Visible speech : the diverse oneness of writing systems" still on point today as far as Chinese is concerned?

    https://mega.nz/file/EJZ23JzZ#r-65xbO37_7fMn7LPOVVPVAJdAvBB8JuOTKxPaEjKtc

  38. Jeffrey said,

    January 9, 2021 @ 9:57 am

    Two days ago, I took the last test of my last of four semesters learning Putonghua at a university in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China. Yes, I was one of those who got stranded here in China by Covid-19.

    I'm a veteran ESL/EFL teacher who was interested in learning a little Chinese and also learning how Chinese are teaching their language to foreigners. I have a long list of issues, but I'll set out two complaints using what I call the Curse of the Double TTT.

    The Double TTT is a combination of very high Teacher Talking Time along with the Tyranny and Tedium of the Textbook. In four semesters, no classroom teacher ever created a varied lesson plan. They simply stepped into the classroom, opened the textbook, and began talking. We were never given any communicative task, no pair work, no small groups. We sat each and every day in the same seat looking up at the teacher who read from the textbook. The audio files that were part of the book series were very long dialogues that had no relation to the short exchanges I was making in service encounters off campus. Two different worlds.

    In many classes, the quiet students never once opened their mouth. I always tried to engage the teachers, just to practice speaking. I mean, I was paying for the course, so it seemed fair that I get to try to use the language a bit. The best exchanges happened when I got the teachers, one of whom was old enough to have experienced the tail-end of the Cultural Revolution, to talk about their personal lives. Wo xiao de shihou, wo conglaibu he niunai, she said. That's called vocabulary in real context.

    Last year, here at Language Log, I commented with the same frustration that Georgi detailed above. I should add, though, that on the first day of class I was very frank with my teachers. I explained to them that I wasn't interested in learning a single hanzi. I would use pinyin for everything.

    As Victor suggested above, as learners we need to know what we want and start from there. Hats off to PJM. He wanted to immerse himself in hanzi. That's cool. But not for me. I was far more interested in the sound system and the grammar, which offers a great contrast to English. I have to say that I've really come to love the way Chinese grammar excludes so much that is not necessary for communication–for example, with pro-drop and two-syllable words that can function as nouns, verbs, and adjectives, depending on context.

    During tingxie, I would write entire sentences in pinyin while my classmates wrote a single hanzi. At the end of the first semester, the final exam was mixed between hanzi and pinyin. In the next three semesters, the exams were all in hanzi. For those exams, I simply used the hanzi that I recognized (but had never written) and guessed the answer, or I used that old test strategy of using either gou or cha marks for entire columns of questions. Gou, gou, gou, all the way down — hey, you're bound to get a few correct answers, right? In the final essay, I wrote in pinyin and the teachers gave me half a point instead of a whole point.

    I didn't care in the least about the grade, but as it turned out I passed the course each semester because of the huge weight given to attendance in university courses, and maybe even from my teachers pumping up the grade to avoid scrutiny by higher-level administrators and to save face as a teacher. Remember, I'm in China.

    I had planned to fly out of China last summer, but had two flights canceled, so I ended up dong one more semester. Now I'm starting to look around for another flight out of China. Wish me luck.

  39. Philip Taylor said,

    January 9, 2021 @ 11:17 am

    I am so sorry to learn of your experiences, Jeffrey. All I can say is that my experiences, with three different teachers all of whom were based in SISU (Shanghai International Studies University), could not have been more different. We used only Pinyin, we probably spoke more than our teachers did, and all in all it was a wonderful experience. If there is any possibility at all of your enrolling at SISU, I would say "go for it !".

  40. Jeffrey said,

    January 9, 2021 @ 12:31 pm

    Philip,

    Hey thanks.

    No, my time in China is over.

    It's really good to hear about your experience at SISU. I have heard about courses like that. I think that Jiao Tong in Shanghai also uses Pinyin at least in the first year. But I didn't know that until I was already settled here in Ningbo.

    I still liked my teachers, of course. They just don't know how to teach Chinese as a second language. With one of my teachers, I spent a few hours on a Saturday explaining the basics of course design and lesson planning. She was interested, but for Chinese teachers it just means a lot of extra work to teach the way we do in the West. When using a textbook, Chinese teachers don't need to do any outside preparation. They just turn to the next page in the book. They don't get paid any more for creating a better course.

    This last semester was hard. In one class I only had two other students, one of them a very soft-spoken Russian woman. She is one of those students who has no confidence in her speaking ability. She really knew her hanzi, but she struggled when she tried to speak. In some classes, she would not say a single word because the teachers never gave us opportunities to use our vocabulary and knowledge to communicate. Also, in the first semester they never focused on tones, so she was still mangling tones and very hesitant.

    As a teacher, it was hard for me to sit through that. I quickly devised a strategy of really, really slowing the class down by bombarding the teachers with questions and pulling them out of the textbook. For example, like I said above, by asking them personal questions or like, a few days ago, asking, "Laoshi, Ma Yun zai nali?" Yep, that slowed the class right down. Haha.

    Sitting here in China, my guess is that China will be closing its doors to foreigners again and it could last a long time. The other issue is that as a foreigner you're never really feel secure from the reach of the CCP. You have to be very careful in what you say. Yes, I know in general we all just go about our lives here and don't think about it, but the reality is that if the Chinese government wanted to detain us for any reason no one would be able to help us. That also must affect people's motivation to learn the language. An element of what in ESL/EFL pedagogy is called an affective variable.

  41. Philip Taylor said,

    January 9, 2021 @ 2:20 pm

    Just to clarify, Jeffrey, I did not spend time at SISU, but was taught by three different SISU teachers, each of whom came (with their students) to spend a year at my university in the UK. All were very different, but all were superb teachers, and I could not have been in better hands.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    January 9, 2021 @ 6:37 pm

    Playing go or chess is a lot more stimulating and interesting and exercises the mind a lot more than counting the sands of the Ganges.

  43. Jeffrey said,

    January 9, 2021 @ 10:03 pm

    Philip,

    A few questions. Did those teachers create their own material and lessons? And were the written elements in Pinyin?

    I had to explain to my teachers that the words gōngzuò, shuǐjiào, and zhǎodào look the same to a non-Chinese speaking person. We can say shuǐ le jiào, but not gōng le zuò. I had to introduce the word líhécí into the class. The teachers, as native speakers, know that those three words function differently, but they couldn't see that, to us, they looked the same.

    Because I'm a teacher, when I sit in the classroom, I'm using a kind of double vision, being both a student and a visiting teacher trainer. I ended up creating my own booklets, one of them a selection of the first 500 one-syllable words broken down into their families: a-family, e-family, i-family, o-family, u-family, and ü-family.

    Commenters above have stated the importance of mastering these foundational words, and I concur. It's amazing how many words flow from those first 500. To use just one simple example: xīn, xiǎoxīn, kāixīn, dānxīn, rèxīn, hēixīn, xīnténg, zhōngxīn, and xīnlǐxué.

    The second booklet is on tone pairs and tone groups. As others mentioned above, learning tones in pairs and groups is the best way to nail down tones.

    zhǔnbèi / zhǔnbèi hǎo le / zhǔnbèi hǎo le ma

    Or:

    shā / shā jī / shā jī jǐng hóu

    The third booklet, called Putonghua Daizou! (Chinese to Go!), I'm still working on. The first chapter is only about using numbers, which is the first thing you need to learn when arriving in a new country.

    So I'm very curious about what types of materials and lesson plans your teachers used.

  44. Jeffrey said,

    January 9, 2021 @ 10:49 pm

    Georgi,

    I feel your pain. I'm not so far away from you. I'm in Ningbo, a short flight away from Taiwan. Dang. Those godawful tingxie. I felt pretty bad for the classmates. As I said above, I refused to write a single character stroke. I would write a complete sentence in Pinyin while my classmates wrote one hanzi. The teacher would check my sentences for grammar and word choice while she pointed out stroke errors for the other students.

    Yesterday I came across a website called Mandarin Blueprint. They belong to the group of Hanzi Nuts, but it seems that they also emphasize nailing down tones at the beginning.

    Mandarin Blueprint.

    They have a free trial. Maybe take a look. I'm going to do that today to see what they're up to.

  45. Jeffrey said,

    January 9, 2021 @ 11:10 pm

    Victor,

    I remember reading one of your blog entries where you talked about how once you had acquired a higher level of Chinese, the tone-mark diacritics slowed down your reading speed. Well, that's been my experience, too.

    For the first two semesters, I absolutely needed to use tone marks for each and every morphosyllable. But now it's so much easier to write and read without tone marks. So I'd say learners should maintain using the diacritics for the first year or two. After that, it feels more natural not to use them.

    To use a basic example from a previous comment:

    Ni zhunbei hao le ma?

    I don't need tone marks to understand or read this sentence out loud. The tones are already in my head.

    Or: Ni ji dian qi chuang?

    The phrase ji dian uses biandiao, but again that's already in my head. I don't need the san sheng diacritics above the vowels.

    I was really lucky that I was already stopping by Language Log before I started learning Chinese. Thank you, sir.

  46. cliff arroyo said,

    January 10, 2021 @ 5:09 am

    "once you had acquired a higher level of Chinese, the tone-mark diacritics slowed down your reading speed"

    Not true with Vietnamese… without tone marks (and other diacritics) it can be hard slogging… it can be done but only by imagining the misssing diacritics…

    I stand by my statement that optimal tone marking for pinyin has yet to be cracked (and if it were then it would be easier to read with tones marked).

  47. Thomas said,

    January 10, 2021 @ 5:09 am

    I have been learning Chinese, on and off, for over 9 years. And during the first few years, I invested a lot of time into learning to read and write. Drilling all the hanzi into your brain takes time, but as millions of literate Chinese show, is not an impossible feat. Now maybe I am conservative or maybe it is because I probably am a visual learning type, but to me, sitting in a Chinese classroom and downright refusing to learn the characters is absolutely missing the point. I think learning the characters is basically homework for the students and cannot be done in class. That is, learning the vocabulary cannot be separated from learning the characters, and that includes of course the stroke order which automatically helps remembering the shape of the characters. Writing helps remembering the characters, and therefore it is an essential part of learning Chinese.

    I know that this discussion on LL has effectively been going on for years now, and many here are of the opinion that learning Chinese should be separated into the oral and optional written hanzi classes, but I feel like this creates a disconnect between written and spoken language in the head of the learner. Leaving out the characters is leaving out a large part of the language that is used in literature and media. Being able to read signs and such is a skill not to be underestimated.

    As I said, I have been learning Chinese on and off, and after some years I stopped to actively study any characters or vocabulary in general. Since then, I apparently forgot to write many of the numerous characters I once knew how to read and write. I can still recognize them, but writing Chinese without a Pinyin input system has become a torturing task for me. Of course, I never need to do this, anyway. Some might say I learned to write many characters in vain, but I do not think that is true. Learning how to write helped learning how to read.

    Amazingly, I mostly remember the vocabulary with the correct tones, but the corresponding character is not in my active memory anymore. This is exactly the other way around from how I would have expected it, as I always struggled more with the tones than the character shape.

  48. Philip Taylor said,

    January 10, 2021 @ 5:47 am

    Two answers in one, to avoid unnecessarily cluttering the forum —

    To Jeffrey — We worked primarily from Kan Qian's Colloquial Chinese, ignoring the hanzi therein. Frequently an exercise would provoke discussion (e.g., why does the "r" in "rènshi" ( 认识) sound different to the "r" in "nà liǎng gè rén" (那兩個人) ?), and our teachers were more than happy to leave the syllabus at this point and discuss questions that interested the class. The whole thing was remarkably informal — for example, none of the three wanted to be addressed as "Lǎoshī" (老師) and asked us to use their given names — but at the same time very effective.

    Apart from tone sandhi, Cliff, where do you feel that "optimal tone marking for pinyin has yet to be cracked" ? I personally find the existing tone marking very effective — the mere sight of the tone marker creates a tone contour model in my mind.

    And regarding Vietnamese, my wife (a native speaker) thinks that Vietnamese lacking tone markers is not especially difficult to understand, but Vietnamese lacking both tone markers andletter-distinguishing diacritics (a/ă/â, d/đ, e/ê, o/ô/ơ, u/ư) is — or can be — quite hard going.

  49. cliff arroyo said,

    January 11, 2021 @ 9:11 am

    "where do you feel that "optimal tone marking for pinyin has yet to be cracked" ? I personally find the existing tone marking very effective"

    I think it's a good system in theory but… it's a bit busy (not as busy as Vietnamese but….).

    With the little I know about Mandarin, if I were asked to devise a system I'd start with just three marks (meaning the first tone is not marked) and probably not write sandhi but as much as possible write morphemes with the same tone all the time… and then I'd practice, a lot and write and see how or if it works and see what changes would need to be made. I might also try to do something about the umlaut…
    I might have an expanded system for learning (with first and zero tone marking) and/or but for daily use I think the starting point I mentioned would be the most readable and learnable…
    But I only know a little about Mandarin so there might be reasons fro very exact tone marking….

  50. ~flow said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 5:44 am

    @Georgi and others, I took a look at the https://www.mandarinblueprint.com/ site and must say the introductory video is worth watching for its motivational aspect alone. I cannot speak to the claims of the presenter in that video but he does outline a plan to get to grips with learning the written and spoken language that sounds very reasonable. As for their method to learn characters, the learning of which they embrace from early on in the course, is apparently based on the memory palace method, a venerable way to aid retention that dates back to antiquity. In my opinion the best bet is fiddling around with the ideas of this method until you find something that resonates with you. Two fundamental insights in language learning are that (a) recurrent things tend to stick around, but sometimes you need a hanger for your coat, and (b) as long as the deeper parts of your brain are not convinced it's a worthwhile endeavor, you're fighting uphill. The first part is where you use mnemonics, the second part is harder to fabricate. An personal relationship might work, or absence of any opportunities not to speak, read, write the language in order to go on with your life. Having to depend on the language for friendship and food is a strong incentive that all parts of your brain will understand.

    Lastly let me point you all to https://www.mandarinblueprint.com/chinese-characters-learn-them-asap/ where the ASAP part already tells you that these guys endorse learning characters from early on (and writing them with a pen); that page is free from kind of woo-woo that you'll find in the likes of Heisig's or Chineasy.

  51. Philip Taylor said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 7:34 am

    ~flow — "the other omission in [John DeFrancis'] book is a discussion of the points he makes with respect to the closely related, but otherwise unique Japanese orthography". I didn't overlook this, but was waiting for me copy of JDF's Visible Speech to arrive, which it now has. When I have finished reading it (I started only last night), I will be in a better position to discuss to what extent, if at all, he took Japanese into account in formulating his findings.

  52. ~flow said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 8:46 am

    @Philip Taylor—"he took Japanese into account in formulating his findings" yes, that's part of the reason I'm looking forward to reading Visible Speech.

  53. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 8:54 am

    Is Bauer's "ABCD Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dict" available electronically? Otherwise I do not think it's really worth buying as a physical copy.

  54. Philip Taylor said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 10:15 am

    At a mere USD 42-00 for 1248 pp, I think that I would respectfully disagree with that last observation. It is clear, to me at least, that neither author nor publisher is seeking to profit financially from this stupendous enterprise.

  55. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 10:26 am

    @Philip Taylor
    1248 physical pages for a lexicographic resource, especially with such a font for its romanization, is not a good option in 2021, even if for free as OCRing it is just not feasible.

  56. Philip Taylor said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 10:59 am

    Well, I'm not in a position to comment on the choice of font, as sadly I not have a physical copy nor a scan thereof, but as to "1248 physical pages", my 1933 OED has 21730 physical pages, and I do not regard the £180 that I paid for it in any way a waste of money. Of course I consult the online edition, but only because my institutional affiliation allows me unlimited access — if I had to pay for access, I would stick to my 1933 13-volume printed edition.

  57. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 11:18 am

    @Philip Taylor

    The online OED, 2nd edition, is "free", https://www.oed.com/oed2/00089640.
    If you need the list of citation forms and their number, or the PC desktop software, let me know.

    Again, it's 2021.

  58. Philip Taylor said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 11:33 am

    Good Lord, I was completely unaware of that (although I was unable to successfully hack my way from the entry for "free" to a headword index), so if you could let me have a copy of the PC desktop software I would be most grateful. Institutional e-mail address accessible via my "Hellenic Institute" link under "Members & Staff".

  59. Philip Taylor said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 12:37 pm

    P.S. Well received, with many thanks, but looking at "tablespoonful" I am rather depressed :

    table-spoon
    A spoon (larger than a dessert-spoon) used for taking soup, and, in a larger size, for serving vegetables, puddings, etc. at table. Also loosely, = tablespoonful.

    "Used for taking soup" ?! One uses a soup-spoon for taking soup, which is of a markedly different shape (roundish, not elongate). Sadly my 1933 hardback copy has identical prose, so it would seem that the definition has Murray's tacit acquiescence.

  60. Philip Bowler said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 4:57 am

    @Philip Taylor
    You remind me of one of the many shocks I experienced on my exchange visit to a French family, ca 1963, when I was 16: they took their soup with what seemed to me a table spoon!
    At home in England we of course used the kind of soup spoon you describe, but I wonder if the OED definition reflects the possibility that earlier in the century, at least, there had been a fashion in certain social circles for following the French custom.

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