Hanziyu: The (cursed) Conlang of Characters

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Fiendishly clever conlang (constructed language) invented by Eleanor Olson.

Some Language Log readers will love it, some will hate it.  Most will probably not understand what the devil she is up to with her Hànzìyǔ 汉字语 ("Sinoglyphish").

Natural writing systems are created with the intention of mapping to and recording the sounds of spoken languages.  This artificial (planned / invented), engineered language (engelang) has been created on exactly the opposite premise.  It takes an existing script (Chinese) and works backward from that to produce a spoken language.  For the moment, never mind how the Chinese script actually came into being and never mind how the Sinitic languages arose — both of which questions we here at Language Log have dedicated enormous amounts of time and energy to.  Let us allow Olson's Hànzìyǔ 汉字语 ("Sinoglyphish") to stand on its own. 

Is Hànzìyǔ 汉字语 ("Sinoglyphish") not diabolically ingenious?

As demonstrated near the end of the 14:24 video, Eleanor can pronounce her conlang, and she is impressively proficient at that (a veritable tour de force!), but I doubt very much if she can speak it with someone else in a spontaneous conversation.  The words tend to be very long because they are based on the decomposition and pronunciation of the strokes that constitute the characters representing them.  If a character has 12 strokes (the average number of strokes per character), that means an awful lot of graphemes (hence syllables) for a typical character.

I can say with considerable confidence that Hànzìyǔ 汉字语 ("Sinoglyphish") is an idiolect with only a single speaker on the planet, nay, in the universe — well, only a single fluent speaker, since I suspect that a few determined souls, after reading this post, will stubbornly (foolhardily) attempt to master it themselves.

Astonishingly, Hànzìyǔ 汉字语 ("Sinoglyphish") sounds like a mixture of several living Sinitic topolects!

Fare thee well, Hànzìyǔ 汉字语 ("Sinoglyphish")!  I will not be pursuing you.  That way lies madness!


Selected readings

[hat tip Ben Zimmer]


  1. Mark S. said,

    September 16, 2023 @ 8:39 am

    That's perhaps the most perverse thing I've ever seen. Even so, it's still preferable to certain well-publicized methods for learning Chinese characters.

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 16, 2023 @ 10:14 am

    Um, it's just a (conlang community in-)joke, complete with clever "bees can't fly" reference. Funny though (or I guess because) way too close to home — really should have been 10 min shorter however.

    Re: too close to home, the idea that a Chinese message might be generated by actually listing out written-character strokes/components in linear-ish order is tragically not at all new — cf. wubi input methods, where a spoken account of the horrors at work in principle = Hanziyu. See e.g. here for 你好, or the whole video for the full "circus" experience.

    Also 汉字 'Chinese characters' not 汉子 'dude' :D

  3. David Marjanović said,

    September 16, 2023 @ 5:54 pm

    Impressive. Vaguely reminds me of two things:

    1) the (rare) practice of writing Plains Indian Sign Language by just drawing the hand movements;
    2) the Tangut script, the most wrong-headed idea ever actually implemented.

  4. Christopher Henrich said,

    September 16, 2023 @ 9:49 pm

    "the most wrong-headed idea ever actually implemented" …

    Be careful, there. That's a very strong claim.

    In the world of programming languages, there is a well-established tradition of deliberately concocting bad languages, i.e.
    ones which make it harder to program. INTERCAL is the name of one of these.

  5. John Swindle said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 1:23 am

    I didn't understand the part about China being "the land of John Cena's native tongue."

    According to Wikipedia there's a John Cena, professional wrestler from Massachusetts, who learned Mandarin in midlife and stumbled into a China-Taiwan quarrel. Is he the one? What's the joke?

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 10:58 am

    @John Swindle: That's a screenshot from a much-memed video where John Cena eats an ice cream cone while promoting one of the Fast & Furious movies in Mandarin. See Know Your Meme.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 10:58 am

    @John Swindle A Weibo video wherein Cena promotes Fast & Furious 9 while eating ice-cream and saying bīng​qí​lín 'ice cream' repeatedly went viral a couple years back ("bing chilling")


    (incidentally while dictionaries insist on bīng​qí​lín OR bīng​jī​líng, my sense is that many people (?) say ~bīng​qī​líng, which best matches "bing chilling")

    Shortly after this yes he felt he had to apologize for Hurting China's Feelings(TM) by referring to Taiwan as a country — sad times :(

  8. Adam C said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 5:12 pm

    This might actually be brilliant. My memory is very auditory so I have an especially hard time learning characters. When studying flashcards I have to subvocalize each one as something like “guy with square head running downhill.” The problem is that so many characters are so similar that I can’t verbally describe the difference, and traditional/Japanese characters are even worse.
    If I could learn this and use it as a mnemonic for the harder characters, it would greatly accelerate my learning pace.
    (With all due respect to @VHM’s stance on delaying characters, I expect to do way more reading of Chinese than speaking or listening, so delaying characters for several years isn’t an option and wouldn’t help much anyway.)

  9. John Swindle said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 8:10 pm

    Ben Zimmer, Jonathan Smith, thanks! In the video I hear him saying "bīng qīlìng," which to me sounds closer to bīngqílín 'ice cream' than to "bing chilling." The cursed language would of course clear up the confusion.

  10. David Marjanović said,

    September 18, 2023 @ 10:55 am

    In the world of programming languages, there is a well-established tradition of deliberately concocting bad languages, i.e. ones which make it harder to program.

    Yes, and the one whose name starts with "Brain-" actually came to mind. But nobody really uses these except to play with. Tangut writing was in actual use – for centuries.

  11. Terpomo said,

    September 24, 2023 @ 2:38 am

    I'm reminded of another conlang I saw called Oyarese which amounted to first writing out what you want to say in Cantonese and then pronouncing the Cangjie codes of the characters according to some set of rules which more or less just amount to reading their Latin representations as spelled (hence 'Oyarese' from OIAR). As for most wrong-headed ideas ever put into use, Book Pahlavi seems up there. Some of the more abstruse adaptations of cuneiform, perhaps.

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