Language is not script and script is not language, part 2

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[This is a guest post by Paul Shore.]

    The 2022 book Kingdom of Characters by Yale professor Jing Tsu is currently #51,777 in Amazon's sales ranking.  (The label "Best Seller" on the Amazon search-results listing for it incorporates the amusing mouseover qualification "in [the subject of] Unicode Encoding Standard".)  I haven't read the book yet:  the Arlington, Virginia library system's four copies have a wait list, and so I have a used copy coming to me in the mail.  What I have experienced, though, is a fifty-minute National Public Radio program from their podcast / broadcast series Throughline, entitled "The Characters That Built China", that's a partial summary of the material in the book, a summary that was made with major cooperation from Jing Tsu herself, with numerous recorded remarks by her alternating with remarks by the two hosts: (scroll down to the May 26th episode).  Based on what's conveyed in this podcast / broadcast episode, I think many people on Language Log and elsewhere who care about fostering a proper understanding of human language among the general public might agree that that ranking of 51,777 is still several million too high.  But while the influence of the book's ill-informed, misleading statements about language was until a few days ago mostly confined to those individuals who'd taken the trouble to get hold of a copy of the book or had taken the trouble to listen to the Throughline episode as a podcast (it was presumably released as such on its official date of May 26th), with the recent broadcasting of the episode on NPR proper those nocive ideas have now been splashed out over the national airwaves.  And since NPR listeners typically have their ears "open like a greedy shark, to catch the tunings of a voice [supposedly] divine" (Keats), this program seems likely to inflict an unusually high amount of damage on public knowledge of linguistics. 

     Throughline specializes in tracing the historical roots of events and situations of current concern.  It's produced by its two hosts, Mr. Ramtin Arablouei and Ms. Rund Abdelfatah, plus a staff apparently numbering almost a dozen.  Mr. Arablouei, who's Iranian-American (though he speaks with what sounds like an African-American accent, which I mention just to forestall confusion on the part of readers who might end up listening to the podcast/broadcast), holds a B.A. in Psychology and History from St. Mary's College of Maryland, a smallish liberal-arts college that offers little in the way of linguistics curriculum (though it has, interestingly, a language faculty member named Jingqi Fu who's recently worked on documenting the Lemo dialect of the Bai language of Yunnan province).  Ms. Abdelfatah, who's Palestinian-American, holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Spanish from Princeton, though she apparently never thought to incorporate any learning about linguistics into her study of either of those subjects.  Actually, on the evidence of this episode "The Characters That Built China", it'd seem that not a single member of the show's staff, or Jing Tsu herself, has ever heard so much as the first lecture of a Linguistics 101 course, the lecture in which it's explained that writing systems are not language and that confusing the two has historically been almost lethal to rational thinking about linguistics.  The two hosts do seem, however, to have one dominating NPR-style notion about language in their heads, namely the idea that if you or your parents or grandparents have a relatively recent immigrant background, then you should pronounce your own name with absolute native-language-phonology authenticity, no matter how elusive to the ears of your listenership that pronunciation might be (listen to the hosts' name pronunciations at the 47:43 mark); but that on the other hand, that respect should not be extended to the names and words of any other language, except possibly Spanish.  It follows that Mr. Arablouei and Ms. Abdelfatah, who'd probably dismiss as a racist anyone who questioned the wisdom of their native-language-phonology name pronunciations, make no serious effort to pronounce the Chinese names and words in the episode accurately, gleefully failing to render even an acceptable English-like approximation of many of the vowels and consonants, and of course ignoring the tones.  Ms. Abdelfatah even says "Beiʒing"!

     Here, in rough order of appearance in the episode, are some of the nuggets of ostensible wisdom that listeners to the episode are presented with, together with some square-bracketed, italicized commentary of mine (those nuggets expressed directly by Jing Tsu are marked "[JT]").  Note that the most frequent underlying fallacy appearing in these statements is the idea that the Sinographic writing system is "the Chinese language", to the point where doing away with the characters would actually cause "the Chinese language" to have died (wait, did Jing Tsu actually say that? did she actually mean that? well, yes . . . and no . . . and yes . . . and no . . . and . . . in any case, how are these cogitations of hers Yale-worthy?). 

          — [JT]  "[Chinese is] the oldest living language we have that is still used."  [She really means the Sinographic writing system, sort of.]

          — [JT]  "[The] Western alphabet has twenty-six letters.  And once you've learned these twenty-six letters, you can compose any word you want from basically all Indo-European languages.  [Speakers of some of those Indo-European languages should perhaps share their thoughts on this subject with JT.]  [Chinese, on the other hand, is] not made of letters, but is made of strokes".  [The hinted-at notions here that alphabetic writing is foreign to the true nature of "the Chinese language", and that such things as pinyin are at best a somewhat distasteful compromise with the demands of a Western-dominated world, come to be more fully developed towards the end of the program.]

          — In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western hostilities towards and incursions upon China threatened to "destroy" "the Chinese language", and in doing so destroy Chinese culture and the Chinese nation as well.  [Note the resemblance to General Jack D. Ripper's fears, in the film Doctor Strangelove, of an international communist conspiracy attempting "to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids".  Note also that JT avoids the corollary that if "the Chinese language" were to be "destroyed" by the depredations of the West, then it can only follow logically that the majority of the Chinese populace would be left with no language.  How would JT explain that reductio ad absurdum?  Her idea of a linguistico-political threat, which seems to particularly involve Westerners' suggestions of introducing alphabetic writing, comes to be a recurring theme in the program.]  The key to countering this linguistico-political threat was initiating a "fight to modernize Chinese as a language", mainly through proposed and actual writing reforms of various kinds as well as confirmation of Mandarin as the standard dialect, a fight that "represents the beginning of China's climb to being a superpower".

          — In the year 1900–which, according to Mr. Arablouei, was the first year of the twentieth century–the reformer W<áng Zhào 王照 (1859-1933) introduced his new, roughly-fifty-symbol writing system [the now-long-disused Mandarin Harmonic Alphabet] for "the Chinese language".  According to Ms. Abdelfatah, no one had ever before attempted a "purely phonetic representation" of Chinese characters.  [Did you hear that from your graves, Padre Lazzaro Cattaneo, and Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles, and all of your foreign-devil Romanizing kind?  You and your work have all just been cancelled by the wokesters at Yale and NPR!  Note, by the way, that the episode's repeated talk about "phonetic representation" is really referring to wholly or almost wholly phonemic representation:  none of these script innovators was actually contemplating a systematic representation of the allophonic variability of Mandarin (or other) phonemes.]  W<áng Zhào's system, we are told, constituted a "simplifying" of "Chinese", and a "new version of the language".  The system "would let people of other dialects sound out words in Mandarin" . . . but, says JT bafflingly, it would also help non-Mandarin-speakers "hear how [a character is] pronounced in their own dialect as well as the standard dialect".  [JT seems to have simply misspoken here, actually meaning "hear how [a character is] pronounced in the standard dialect in addition to merely already knowing how that morpheme is pronounced in their own dialect"; but the inclusion of her remark-gone-awry in the program just goes to show that someone linguistically knowledgeable should've been involved in the editing, so that the remark could've been excised.  As things stand, it's just one more thing that'll confuse both knowledgeable and uninformed listeners.]

          — [JT]  The only reason Mandarin came to be endorsed as the national standard dialect at the 1913 Conference on Unification of Pronunciation was the stubbornness and force of character of W<áng Zhào.  "It could've been any other dialect [that became] the national language, because [. . .] a language is a dialect with an army and a navy".  [Actually, the figurative army-and-navy issue is precisely a major reason it was unlikely that something other than Mandarin might've become the national language; the sentence is another of JT's misstatements.  And she seems to think that the facts that Mandarin was the dialect of the national capital, and already had a huge number of speakers, and was by long tradition already pretty much the national standard, were irrelevant to its being chosen.]

          — [JT]  All Western libraries, even the Library of Congress, are alphabetically organized.  [Has JT never noticed that the libraries of her alma maters U.C. Berkeley and Harvard, and of her current university Yale, predominantly use the subject-based Library of Congress system?]  Good library organization was a massive challenge for mid-twentieth-century China to overcome, a problem whose resolution was crucial for national renewal.  [This may actually be a legitimate point, but the program makes it seem slightly absurd by overstating it, and by failing to place it in the context of the PRC's push to vastly increase the number and accessibility of libraries nationwide.  There's also no explanation of why Dewey Decimal or some other already-extant subject-based system wasn't chosen; and the program seems to take the position that the radicals-and-strokes system didn't exist, with Ms. Abdelfatah claiming that "Chinese characters didn't have a distinct order like the A-B-C's".]  What JT calls the "Character Index Race" lasted three decades and was ultimately won by a new Sinograph-analysis-based system [one that's never fully explained] created by a librarian named D<ù Dìngyǒu 杜定友 (1898-1967).  The two hosts tell us that his accomplishment went beyond librarianship, constituting a pioneering step in "organiz[ing] the written language" and in "fus[ing the Chinese language] with modern technology", with the former achievement in particular being "essential to the survival of the Chinese language".

          — When Mao came to power, he made simplifying Chinese a high priority.  [Referring, as always, not to the language itself but to writing:  specifically, character simplification and the development of pinyin.]

          — [JT]  Pinyin is "a standard Romanization system for Chinese [. . .] one single, unifying way of representing Chinese characters in Roman letters [. . . b]asically a first standardizable proposal and scheme for how you represent Chinese in letters", the main reason for whose creation was to achieve compatibility with global communications technology.  [Around this point the program admits that there were some pre-pinyin Romanization systems, but as can be seen here JT implicitly condemns them as somehow being not unifying and not standardizable.]  Pinyin [she continues] was an answer to the question "Do we build a modern technological environment for the Chinese alone, or do we find a way to coexist with existing alphabet infrastructure?"  [Again, the theme of alphabetic writing being a distasteful but necessary compromise with the outside world.] 

          — [JT]  In discussing the role of pinyin in elementary literacy education, JT switches, without signaling the switch, between discussing how Mandarin-speaking learners use it and how non-Mandarin-speaking learners use it, a switch facilitated by her indiscriminate use of the word "Chinese" to encompass both types of learners.  [A prime example of someone who could benefit from Confucius's doctrine of the rectification of names!  This passage in the program would, I assume, be almost impenetrably confusing to listeners not familiar with the subject.]

          — In keeping with Throughline's style of constantly alternating among different speaking voices, an unidentified Chinese-accented voice says "Sometimes people wonder if they can only learn Pinyin and ignore the actual [sic] Chinese characters. The short answer is no!".  [It's not explained whether this is supposed to mean "no, not at the present time" or "no, both now and in the future".  I suspect most uninformed listeners will assume the latter.]

          — [JT]  In conclusion, although the various twentieth-century writing reforms have caused a certain degree of loss to "the Chinese language", loss that's even comparable, though in a smaller degree, to the ongoing process of language extinction worldwide, in the end the loss was worth it because it helped "the language" "survive".  But if the characters ever go, the language will suffer that death that "outside pressure" already attempted to inflict upon it in the past.  At least, that's sort of what she seems to be saying.  But anyway, so far "the Chinese language" and Chinese civilization have survived.  Yay!

    So once again we have a mainstream- or near-mainstream-media setback to public understanding of linguistics, the Sinitic languages, and the Sinographic writing system.  In fairness, it’d be excessive to expect the Throughline production team to have learned about the science of linguistics and created a respectable linguistics-oriented podcast/broadcast in the relatively short time they presumably had available; but if even one member of that group had ever taken a linguistics course or read a serious linguistics book–remember, this is NPR, the intellectually superior radio network–that person might've been able to alert the others that Kingdom of Characters was not a respectable basis for an episode, and that if the team wanted to do an episode on this general subject they'd want to devote an unusually large amount of preproduction, production, and postproduction time to it, in order to get things right within what for most people is a pretty obscure field.

     As the program came to an end, there was an unintentionally humorous moment, namely the spoken credit "Fact checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl".  What does it mean to be the fact checker for a production that gets things so overwhelmingly wrong?  I was reminded of the story of how, for the chaotic, psychedelic 1967 James Bond parody movie Casino Royale, co-director Val Guest (one of five) declined the offered title of "Coordinating Director" because, he argued, accepting that credit for such a hopelessly uncoordinated production might be a professional embarrassment.  I wonder whether, if by some miracle public knowledge of linguistics improves in the coming decades, Mr. Volkl will live to regret taking the credit he took.


Selected readings


  1. Cervantes said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 7:48 am

    I'm not at all knowledgeable about the Chinese writing systems or Sinitic languages, so I hope this isn't naive. But it seems to me that an important reason why the idea of China as a political and national identity could survive through millennia, across people with many languages and with multiple regime changes including dynastic rulers who also spoke various languages (at least initially), is that the writing system was, and remained, mutually comprehensible. I recently read a history of China in which this idea seemed to be implicit but it was never overtly stated.

  2. Mark S. said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 8:29 am

    There's nothing special about Chinese characters in this regard. The Latin alphabet can work the same way — but much, much more efficiently. The notion that Chinese characters somehow transcend languages is incorrect. The fact that people in different areas can pronounce Chinese characters in different ways doesn't make Chinese characters transcend anything, it just makes them damn hard to learn. Similarly, speakers of different Sinitic languages aren't all writing their own languages the same way in some sort of universal "Chinese," they're just taught to write Mandarin — to the detriment of the survival of their own languages.

    If you're going to read just one book on the subject, the one to start with is The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy," by John DeFrancis.

    I'd also like to recommend the outstanding Latin or the Empire of a Sign (title in the original French: Le Latin ou l’empire d’un signe XVIe-XXe Siècle), by Françoise Waquet. There are a great many parallels between the situation of Latin in Europe in the old days and Chinese characters and Literary Sinitic (sometimes called "Classical Chinese") in China and beyond.

  3. Nick Cadigan said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 8:37 am

    One needs not go back to Christian missionaries to find the first phonetic/alphabetic representations of the Sinitic languages. State Preceptor Drogön Chögyal Phagpa conceived his eponymous script circa 1270.

  4. ~flow said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 10:30 am

    > the program seems to take the position that the radicals-and-strokes system didn't exist, with Ms. Abdelfatah claiming that "Chinese characters didn't have a distinct order like the A-B-C's"

    Well this single point is not wrong, is it? After all even the Kangxi system does not provide a total order of characters in the sense that for every pair a, b of distinct characters either a comes before b or the other way round; this is of course because under a given radical all characters with the same number of remnant strokes are in one unsorted group. Likewise, the ordering of the radicals with the same number of strokes has only been fixed by convention (as is the case with the ABC, just presumably harder to remember because of the bigger number of the radicals). But, more importantly, there has been and still is a plethora of categorization systems for characters (cf 辞海, 新华字典), each of which will result in a different linearization for even smallish collection of characters. The list of Roman Letters has been fixed for over two thousand years, but no corresponding fixed list of characters, their components or even their strokes has ever come into existing in China.

  5. Cervantes said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 10:30 am

    Mark S., I'm afraid I don't understand your point. Latin characters can be used to write various languages, but the words are spelled differently. Just because the Spanish alphabet is mostly similar to the English alphabet doesn't mean that English speakers can read Spanish. Rome used Latin as the common administrative language in its empire, which seems to me similar to Mandarin; but only administrators could speak it, and people literate in their own language couldn't read it. They didn't think of themselves as Romans, but as subjects and had a different political identity for themselves. Actually the lingua franca in the later stages of the Roman empire was Koine Greek, which wasn't even written in Latin characters. But the existence of the Septuagint didn't make the Jews think of themselves as Greek, or Roman.

    Cantonese speakers can and do read and write their own language in Chinese characters. In Boston Chinatown most people speak Cantonese and the signage and menus use Chinese characters. So you aren't getting the distinction across. Evidently there's something I'm not getting here but it isn't being explained clearly.

  6. M. Paul Shore said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 11:03 am

    ~flow: I recognize your point about how, in the unaugmented Kangxi system, under a given radical all characters with the same number of remnant strokes form one unsorted group. I was assuming, though–without wanting to take the time to discuss the matter–that it would've been possible to create some sort of character-geometry-based system, something vaguely like the Four-Corner Method, to impose an ordering on those unsorted groups of characters, without resorting to explicitly or implicitly alphabetical phonemic ordering. Or maybe the unsorted groups could've been ordered by Bopomofo. In retrospect I probably shouldn't've included the clause in question, particularly since the technical validity of Ms. Abdelfatah's statement is protected by the word "distinct"; but I gave in to the temptation to try to skewer her on one more misrepresentation, even though it was only a partial one.

  7. Philip Anderson said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 11:29 am

    That wasn’t the linguistic situation in the Roman Empire; in the Western Empire, Latin replaced most local languages, most of which were not written, and evolved into the Romance languages.
    They were all Romans, and other identities only emerged after the empire had been carved up into medieval kingdoms. It was in the Middle Ages that Latin became the administrative language for these states, and where your comments apply (but Latin was then a dead language, unlike Mandarin).
    Greek was the common language in the Eastern Empire only, where some groups did keep their own religious languages and identities, including the Jews and the Copts.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 3:14 pm

    Cantonese speakers can and do read and write their own language in Chinese characters.

    And often enough, the results are not any more comprehensible for someone who only speaks and reads Mandarin than written Romanian is for someone who only speaks and reads French.

    Some very common characters used in written Cantonese were even invented for Cantonese and are used neither in Classical Chinese nor in Mandarin.

    With the exception of Taiwanese (on which we just had a post!), other Sinitic languages have practically never been written; and Taiwanese is in the situation where there is no commonly accepted character for some of the most common morphemes, so people resort to other characters with similar meanings or similar pronunciations (in Taiwanese or in Mandarin!) or wild guesses about what the Classical Chinese equivalent might be (there isn't always one) or Latin-letter transcriptions.

    Or maybe the unsorted groups could've been ordered by Bopomofo.

    Bopomofo is a 20th-century invention.

    The 'Phags-pa alphabet could have been used, but it became politically untenable as soon as the (Mongolian) Yuán dynasty fell; afterwards it was only known to a few specialists (…like King Sejong of Korea, the most powerful nerd the world has yet seen…).

  9. M. Paul Shore said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 3:57 pm

    David Marjanović: Yes, I realize that Bopomofo is a twentieth-century invention–basically from the 1910's. My point, whether good or bad, was that if someone had wanted to try the approach of beefing up the Kangxi character organization system as a contribution to the mid-twentieth-century drive for better indexing, filing, library organization, etc., Bopomofo was available as a potential native-Chinese tool to supplement Kangxi.

  10. AntC said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 6:44 pm

    Thank you @Paul S, I love a good rant — especially one so carefully substantiated and explained.

    You've suffered the podcast, so I don't have to. Hero! Do you really want to wade through the whole book? Glutton for punishment.

  11. AntC said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 7:01 pm

    Cantonese speakers can and do read and write their own language in Chinese characters. In Boston Chinatown most people speak Cantonese and the signage and menus use Chinese characters.

    Does the signage use Mandarin characters? Or a large proportion of the characters invented specifically for Cantonese? As David M points out. Mandarin readers just don't recognise them. Furthermore many of the Mandarin characters borrowed for Cantonese don't have the Mandarin sense — they're borrowed for their (approximate) sound.

    Is the signage just names of the business rather than trying to communicate anything? Do the menus have pictures/could you cope perfectly well without the words? (whatever writing system it's using.)

    Walking around Hong Kong with fluent natives — before the hand-back, but when plenty of mainlanders were visiting — was vastly entertaining. 'Oh, that sign is complete nonsense.' 'Oh, I see what they mean [because I can look inside the shop], but the sign doesn't say that at all.' 'The poor mainlanders don't stand a chance.' And indeed most of them were conspicuous by being in tight groups chaperoned by a local.

  12. AntC said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 7:37 pm

    I thought the learning was clear: a language is not a script — with substantial examples.

    only the initiated would be anyone who's read an elementary intro to Linguistics — which would seem to be beyond Jing Tsu, or the broadcasters.

  13. Chester Draws said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 8:19 pm

    why the idea of China as a political and national identity could survive through millennia

    The idea of China as a "national" identity has been invented, not survived. Centuries of Mongol rule, Manchu rule, splits into north and south, warlordism and Communism mean the dislocations have not been short either.

    Iran hasn't gone anywhere in the last 2,500 years. But there we recognise that Macedonian and Mongol invasions, among others, mean that the modern attempts to reach back to the Achaemenid Persians are a bit silly. Yet China gets a pass when it attempts the same?

    China has no more cultural unity than Europe, really. That it is, for the time being, united under a native dynasty doesn't mean that is its natural state of being. If the EU were to unite most of Europe into a new Holy Roman Empire, successor to the first Roman Empire, we would scoff at it "surviving through millenia", yet that is what is claimed for China.

  14. John Swindle said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 8:33 pm

    Two things. First, didn’t some Chinese intellectual around the turn of the 20th century say China might have to switch to a different, more “modern” language? Language replacement is real but of course doesn’t happen quite like that.

    Second, if English speakers started writing their language in Chinese characters as in John DeFrancis’s thought experiment, then they, too, could trace characters on their hands in Beijing or Hong Kong or Tokyo and have one out of every so many vocabulary items understood. Why haven’t we done that?

  15. M. Paul Shore said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 9:11 pm

    John Swindle: Chinese intellectuals suggested all kinds of envelope-pushing ideas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The particular one you've brought up isn't mentioned in the podcast/broadcast, though perhaps it's mentioned in the book Kingdom of Characters. I think it's fair to say that that's one idea that would've run, and still would run, too afoul of Chinese national pride and cultural/historical consciousness.

    I trust that your putting of quotation marks around the word "modern" is intended to express irony, and that what you mean is "language with a more modern writing system". Although having said that, I think we do have to admit that circa 1900 the major languages of Europe actually were more modern than Mandarin in one notable respect, namely that they had much more highly developed scientific and technological vocabularies. Of course vocabulary deficiency in particular fields is a superficial and potentially only temporary characteristic of a language, a characteristic that's at least somewhat straightforward to rectify when a language comes to need such vocabulary.

  16. John Swindle said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 1:28 am

    @M. Paul Shore: About 45 years ago I scared some older, Korean-speaking women away from the men's restroom at the beach by pointing to the sign and writing 男 in the air. Some of the reasons to think what I did was foolish: (1) Men, women, so what? (2) Hanja already on the way out in Korea. (3) We're in Hawaii. (4) The sign I'm pointing to says "men" in either English or Hawaiian, I forget which.

    Might still get some Korean customers for "Eat at Zhou's," though.

  17. Chris Button said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 8:37 am

    I’ll pass on making any comments regarding the original post. But, in response to the comments above regarding alphabets/syllabaries for Chinese, I would argue that the concept was already there thousands of years ago, but for a variety of reasons was not promulgated:

    Some more speculative stuff here:

  18. Chris Button said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 10:47 am

    It’s also worth noting that the “mouth” symbol seems to have been sometimes used in the earliest inscriptions as a “desemantifier” to tell the reader to take the character for its pronunciation only.

    The decision not to create an alphabet or syllabary seems not due to a lack of awareness of the concept and its possibilities. There were other factors at play.

  19. J K said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 10:49 am

    Perhaps relevant to the question of "building a modern technological environment for the Chinese alone," in the 1970s Taiwan computerized its 104 telephone directory using a Bopomofo lookup system.

  20. Kaleberg said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 11:06 am

    That's a lot of stuff to get wrong.

    Writing systems and languages are two different things. Hebrew didn't vanish when the old Phoenician based writing system was dropped in favor of an Aramaic based system, a changed noted in many Hebrew-English dictionaries. That latter writing system has been used for other languages aside from Hebrew including versions of German, Spanish and, if you look at some of Berenice Abbot's photos, English.

    I was considering reading Kingdom of Characters, but I've since reconsidered.

    I've been fascinated by the influence of new technologies on Chinese writing ever since the early 70s when a friend of mine acquired a big box of punch cards of character stroke data indexed by an EBCDIC compatible naming system. My friend, who spoke Cantonese, explained that each card had a phonetic syllable followed by a number and then the obscurely encoded stroke data. I helped him find a suitable calligraphic printer, a Stromberg-Carlson 4020, itself a fascinating historical artifact for anyone interested in the history of computer graphics.

  21. M. Paul Shore said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 11:58 am

    Among the little flaws I've spotted in my guest post since it went up, there's one that I want to point out here: In the eighth paragraph, in my square-bracketed comments about Jing Tsu's description of the 1913 pronunciation conference, I carelessly refer to Mandarin as "the dialect of the national capital", whereas I should've written "the "dialect" (actually topolect-group) that included the national capital". My apologies.

  22. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 1:35 pm

    Hahahahha, keep calm and carry on all — where scientists have theory, humanists have narrative, in this case the tale of Wang Zhao / Du Dingyou / Mao Zedong modernizing and rescuing "Chinese" language+script+nation. Facts often really do go in the front end but tend to become denatured in the brewing process.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 5:59 pm

    The original post seems unduly flattering to both the intellect and social importance of NPR listeners by way of expressing alarm that NPR was giving publicity to Prof. Tsu's book. Surely as a matter of sociology the median NPR-American is exactly the sort of person to have both heard and propagated the "Chinese character for crisis is danger+opportunity" myth?

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 6:08 pm

    I take the point about how Mao's regime pushing simplified characters is not the same as pushing simplified language, but what's the story there? It would not surprise me in the least if the Communist regime's schools had encouraged a different sort of prose style than the old-timey Confucian education system had encouraged, although perhaps "simpler" would be a contested description of how it was different.

  25. AntC said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 3:30 am

    writing 男 in the air

    trace characters on their hands in Beijing or Hong Kong or Tokyo and have one out of every so many vocabulary items understood. Why haven’t we done that?

    Because there's a more effective method that works across any languages/irrespective of writing system(s). We're considering face-to-face interactions where there's a very narrow range of things someone (or a sign) is trying to say. (Gender-specific restrooms are to be expected.) Then merely act them out by dumb-show/pointing/using the universally understand happy-face vs frowny-face (or OK hand-sign, having first checked it translates to that culture).

  26. Michael Watts said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 8:01 am

    (…like King Sejong of Korea, the most powerful nerd the world has yet seen…)

    Sennacherib, the King of Assyria from 705 to 681 BC, left us many unusual royal inscriptions which display a very nontraditional enthusiasm for the details of machinery and of metalworking techniques. He would have been a more powerful ruler than a king of Korea.

  27. Terpomo said,

    July 23, 2022 @ 12:38 pm

    >The list of Roman Letters has been fixed for over two thousand years

    Ultimately an inconsequential nitpick, but no, the U/V and I/J split, and the regarding of W as a separate letter and not a digraph, is much newer than that.

    And wouldn't the simplest approach to giving an order to the same-radical same-residual-stroke-count characters to be to order the residual portions by the same radical-and-strokes system, recursively if need be?

    >and, if you look at some of Berenice Abbot's photos, English.

    Now that I'd like to see.

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