remove fox news from apple news

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PSA: to remove fox "news" from your apple news feed, go into one of the articles, hit the share button, and choose "Mute Channel".

News app screenshot

Here is a rather hilarious excerpt from Y. R. Chao 1916, "The Problem of the Chinese Language", The Chinese Students' Monthly, 11:7-8. I think this was Y. R. Chao's first article in English.

"A very interesting and important part of etymology is the question of the origin of Chinese words. Various Occidental philologists have conjectured a common origin between Chinese and Indo-European languages; and while a good deal of similarity between corresponding words are accidental, especially in the case of onomatopoeic words, still, if we look over the list of hundreds of words that have been regarded as being cognate with Indo-European words we cannot but consider the fact as established. A few examples are:

EnglishChinese cognateAncient pronunciation
king(German, König)
mill(Latin, mola)

"Some may object that most of these characters are modern characters. So they are, but the words themselves have existed and have been modified in their spoken form through all the vicissitudes of change of writing. This fact is what many ought to appreciate, for it dispels the wrong notion that the Chinese language consists of the sum total of the characters."

I imagine it's like sitting on a plane.

That's what I imagine for my mom's final hours. The seat's not very comfortable, the constant drone of the oxygen machine like an engine in the background, you're tired and drifting in and out of sleep, you want to get to your destination but it's still hours and hours away, but still you wish you could just be there already.

I wonder what she thought of all the people that came by. The RN who also happened to be a nun who knew exactly how much morphine to give her. "God loves you," the nurse tells her. "Jesus is waiting for you," she says, though she's Korean so her f's are p's and her v's are b's. The friends and relatives who come by with flowers and stuff. My sister, who wanted to be there for everything. Me, who didn't but went anyway out of obligation. "Thank you," she tells me, "for taking care of all the financials." "Don't be silly, it's all stuff that you taught me," I tell her.

I wonder what it was like in the months leading up to the end. Did she realize after her 42-day juice fast that it had failed to cure her cancer? Was her 25+ year faith in "alternative" and "naturopathic" medicine shaken at all? Did she even have time to think about it before the cancer fogged her brain? How much of her pain was she hiding so we wouldn't "worry" about her? When did the pain become so unbearable that she finally agreed to take morphine? When she complained about the pain after I had just given her painkillers, did it help at all when I held her hand?

I think of when Him Mark was dying and I went to visit. "I believe that when you die, you're just gone," he says, with a wave of his hand. I think that's when I started believing that too. I don't tell this to the Korean nurse/nun who speaks approvingly of my family's Catholicism.

But the end, I think, must have been like sitting on a plane. I think of her settling down in her uncomfortable seat for a very long plane ride to her final destination. She's tired and sleepy and oblivious to most things around her. It takes hours and hours and hours, as all long-distance plane rides do. The plane travels fast through the vast sky. And finally, the long journey is over.

hella gay uncles

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While reading up on Macklemore's song "Same Love", I came across an article on the Huffington Post which says that Macklemore's "four 'hella gay' uncles were an influence":

Macklemore Talks 'Same Love' Inspiration, Homophobia In Hip-Hop

I thought that was a little weird, but didn't think too deeply about it... until I saw the full quote. Here's a transcript of the relevant dialog (from his interview with Angie Martinez in NYC):

AM: You have a gay uncle, right?

Macklemore: I have hella gay uncles.

AM: "Hella gay uncles"!?

Macklemore: Hella gay uncles!

AM: How does that -- how do you have multiple gay uncles?

Macklemore: Well, on my dad's side out of like his four brothers two of those brothers are gay. And then they have their respective partners, and I consider those my uncles as well, so that makes four gay uncles....

Macklemore Speaks On Having 'Hella' Gay Uncles [VIDEO]

As it turns out, the phrase "hella gay uncles" is actually ambiguous: "hella" could be a modifier on an adjective (i.e., "very gay uncles"), or it could be a noun quantifier (i.e., "many gay uncles"). However, the context makes it clear that Macklemore is using "hella" in its capacity as a quantifier. Whoever wrote the article on HuffPo was either confused or not familiar with the noun-quantifier sense of the word "hella".

an update for 2013

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It's been over two years since my last entry, which I think can be blamed on the craziness of the last year of writing a dissertation and the ensuing craziness of being jobless and then finding a job and moving three times within the space of a year. That, and the existence of facebook status updates. I think there's still a place for the blog, though. Here are significant milestones from the last two years:

The Thesis: Proto-Ersuic (yes, my thesis title is one word!)

... well gee, I guess that's the only linkworthy news from the last two years.

Meanwhile I've been having server troubles since the server moved, but I think I've finally fixed the major issues: Phoenix Slides no longer complains about there being a new version when there actually isn't one, Movable Type has been upgraded to the latest version, and various CGI scripts are working again. Hooray!

[Note: For the convenience of the reader, all proper names in this essay have been converted to pinyin. However, you can hover your mouse over them, or refer to the Fulu* for translations into the local "dialect". Obviously I am only including this for scholarly completeness, because why would anyone else want them?]

It has become increasingly common for names of people, places, and languages within the confines of present-day Zhongguo* (or rather, the territory under the control of the Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo*) to be represented in Yingwen*-language texts using pinyin without tones. Most people seem to do this with an implicit, unspoken assumption that pinyin is "the standard" and that standardization is good because it reduces confusion from multiple variant spellings, makes internet searches easier, facilitates communication with Yingyu* speakers, etc; although some, e.g. Li* 2010 ("Call it what you will"), make this argument explicit. In this essay, I will argue that standardization to pinyin is actually a bad thing, and confuses matters more than it helps.

At the crux of the matter is the fact the Zhongguo is a vast territory, encompassing speakers of many diverse and genetically unrelated languages. Pinyinization masks this diversity, replacing it instead with a dull and opaque uniformity. Take, for example, the city of Jiujinshan* (aka Sanfanshi*), where I grew up, and the neighboring cities of Wulun* and Saint Hexi*. In the Jiujinshan Wanqu* (and much of Jialifuniya* and Meiguo* at large), the Zhongguonese* population is predominantly Guangdongese*. My Zhongguonese classmates in elementary school had last names such as Lam, Chan, Hom, Toy, Lee, Yan, and Cheung, which if pinyinized would be rendered as the less-interesting Lin, Chen, Tan, Cai, Li, Zhen, and Zhang, respectively. Let me be clear: I am not saying that names like Lin and Chen are inherently uninteresting — I am saying that pinyinized names are inappropriate for people who never spoke Putonghua* to begin with. "Standardizing" these people's names hides the diversity among people who identify themselves as Zhongguonese*, who speak a large number of mutually unintelligible languages. It's easy to take linguistic diversity for granted when we can spell our names however we want; but ask yourself this question: would Xianggang* still be Xianggang* if everyone had to pinyinize their last names from Yip into Ye, from Sham into Cen, from Ng into Wu? (Or, indeed, if you had to call it "Xianggang" instead of "Hong Kong"?)

One problem is that Putonghua* has a rather limited phonology. There are no consonant clusters, the only consonants at the end of words are -n and -ŋ (no -m, -p, -t, or -k), there are no voiced stops and almost no voiced fricatives. These characteristics, combined with the large number of originally distinct but now homophonous syllables in Putonghua*, can create ambiguity. If you tell someone that you went to visit "Taishan" over winter break, did you mean Taishan the mountain in Shandong (on the Lianheguo Jiaoyu Kexue Ji Wenhua Zuzhi*'s Shijie Yichan* list), or Taishan, the origin of much of the earliest Zhonguonese immigration into Meiguo? But if you say that you went to "Toisan" or "Hoysun", it's immediately obvious that you mean the latter, the name of a Guangdongese-speaking area.

Of course the problem gets worse as you move farther away from Zhongguonese* languages, and there are hundreds of minority languages spoken in Zhongguo*. In the southwest of Sichuan, local "Zang"* (actually Lusu*) and Yi* place names like "Ndayo" and "Nbishy" have been pinyinized (via a second obscuring layer of Southwestern Putonghua*) as "Dayao" and "Mishi". Are you going to Lhasa or Lasa? Shigatse or Rikaze? Mongolia or Menggu? Too often I see the pinyinized forms of place names in maps and guidebooks. Often pinyinized names of places are thrust upon remote places where Putonghua* has little to no currency or even relevance. Maps sold in Zhongguo* are often the worst offenders, pushing the boundaries of uselessness by labeling in roman letters, next to the Zhongguonese names of Yuenannese* cities, "Henei" (Hanoi), "Laojie" (Lao Cai), "Huzhimingshi" (Ho Chi Minh City), etc.

Look what has happened in the name of "standardization"! People, places, and languages are having their names — their names! — replaced by poor approximations. And in the process, consonants, vowels, tones, and syllables are lost, collateral damage from stuffing square pegs into round holes. A once interesting linguistic landscape is being slowly painted over with a veneer of suffocating uniformity.

Shashibiya* once wrote: "That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet." Be that as it may, if I'm going to the Bokelai Ruosi Jiadun*, I'll take a "Rose" over a "Ruosi" any day.


Bokelai Ruosi JiadunBerkeley Rose Garden
JiujinshanSan Francisco
Jiujinshan WanquSan Francisco Bay Area
Lianheguo Jiaoyu Kexue Ji Wenhua ZuzhiUNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)
MeiguoThe United States
Saint HexiSan Jose
SanfanshiSan Francisco
Shijie YichanWorld Heritage Site
XianggangHong Kong
YingwenEnglish (written)
YingyuEnglish (spoken)
Zhonghua Renmin GongheguoPeople's Republic of China

Stop sitting on the floor!

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I just saw a commercial on the local Liangshan TV channel that literally made my jaw drop. The overly dramatic announcer proclaims: 一个小板凳,一个大工程 "One Little Stool, One Big Project". I can't find the commercial itself, but here's the first google hit for "凉山 一个小板凳".

News report on the Big Stool Project

Apparently, distributing free stools to Nuosu (Yi) people will stop their backwards practice (陋习) of sitting <gasp> on the floor(!), and move them closer to being healthy (健康) and civilized (文明) people.

If they want to get rid of backwards practices, how about getting people to (1) stop burning their trash, and (2) stop throwing the rest of their trash on the ground (including plastic, batteries, etc.)?

Tibetan chopstick fonts

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In China it seems de rigueur to use Tibetan-looking fontified Chinese characters to make posters and book titles, etc., about things related to Tibet. I've always found this practice to be vaguely offensive, perhaps because of the "chopstick" font that you see sometimes on Chinese restaurant menus. (You know, the kind that's supposed to be vaguely reminiscent of brush strokes in Chinese characters, but if you ever opened your own Chinese restaurant you would only ever use such a font in an ironic sense.)

Take, for example, this monstrosity on a book cover (a travel book about Tibet, being sold at a Walmart in Kunming). For those who don't know Chinese, or can't recognize the mangled characters, it's supposed to say 西藏 'Tibet', in that horrible "Tibetan" font. The second character is especially bad: it's made up of various disembodied bits of Tibetan letters rotated in all sorts of awkward angles. Frankly, it's butt-ugly, and has none of the aesthetic of actual Tibetan script.

Perhaps why this disturbs me is that you typically never see actual Tibetan script in China unless it's meant for Tibetans to read. A book about Tibet will talk about all the pretty tourist places you can visit, and how the happy Tibetans just love drinking their butter tea, but will say next to nothing about actually understanding Tibetan history, culture, or language. This book, where the cover uses (badly-done) faux Tibetan script contains zero examples of actual Tibetan script.

I suppose it's all part of the whole Chinese cultural superiority complex. Remember, you're only counted as literate in China if you're literate in the Chinese script. You only "have culture" (有文化) if you've been educated—in Chinese. Places have names, but their "real" name is the one written in Chinese characters. Buy a map in China and all the place names in Vietnam will be in Chinese characters (good luck actually using it in Vietnam). The Korean girl who won the Olympics? Her name's not Kim, it's Jin.

But hey, if it doesn't conform to the phonotactic constraints of Mandarin, it's not real, right?

January 25. Getting off the train at Xichang (西昌) at 5am, I see a white girl. WTF? So I'm all, hey, where are you from? She says in Mandarin, Gélìxī. I think to myself, is that even a country? She must have read my mind, since the next thing she said was "it's in Europe," in Chinese. Oh, ok. I told her I was from San Francisco, also in Chinese, assuming it was her language of choice. She had a sort of blank look on her face, but it was 5am, so I let it go. In retrospect, I think I could have told her I was from the moon and she wouldn't have batted an eye.

I continued the conversation in Mandarin. Do you come here often? I asked. "I LIVE in Xichang," she replied, rather defensively. So then I left her alone, and thought nothing more of it, other than to wonder what foreigners living in Xichang might be doing.

March 9. I get to the bus station and have to go to the bathroom, so I go into the waiting hall. On the wall is a huge map of all the tourist destination in Liangshan. As I am taking in the map, lo and behold, who should come in but the girl from Gélìxī, wherever that is. She's wearing a red bicycle helmet, and she takes out her digital camera and snaps a photo of the map. She runs over to the other end of the hall and takes some photos of the screen showing upcoming bus departure times. She looks very serious and very busy, so I'm afraid to interrupt her. Then she leaves and rides away on her bike.

Who is that girl???

March 24. I am riding a bus along Hangtian Avenue, Section 1, on the way to visit a friend at Xichang College (north campus). I look out the window, and lo and behold, who should be riding along on a bicycle next to the bus but that girl from Gélìxī! But since I was on a bus and she was on a bike, I couldn't very well stop and have a conversation with her. I couldn't very well ask her what she was doing in Xichang, or if when she said Gélìxī she really meant Greece, and isn't that funny but the Chinese word for Greece is actually Xīlà. And I couldn't very well tell her that I was impressed that she was biking everywhere, and by the way I'm a card-carrying member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. I couldn't do any of those things. So I just sat on the bus helplessly while we passed her going twice her speed.

White girl in Xichang, who are you? The three times I've been to Xichang this year, why has fate had us cross paths -- every time -- only to rip us cruelly apart?

White girl in Xichang, if you see this... I really want to know what you're doing in Xichang! And no, I'm not some random mainland dude trying to 攀關係, and I have the passport to prove it! Fate, spurn me no longer!

New Sun Baiyun Airport

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Baiyun airport is the worst airport ever. To get to the bathroom you have to navigate through the designated smoking area, and the bathroom itself is even smokier. I literally had to run out of there after having barely stepped in. I spent maybe 15 seconds in the smoking area/bathroom (they were really one and the same) and half an hour later I still smell like smoke.

But wait, that's not all! To even get to the bathroom, you have to jump over multiple lines of people waiting at their gates for their flight, and even if you manage to avoid all that, at YOUR OWN GATE there are people clogging the gate entrance waiting for their OTHER flight which happens to leave from the same place.

People sometimes wonder about my disdain for China. Well, what's not to dislike about a country where you can't even go to THE BATHROOM at the friggin AIRPORT?!! I mean this isn't Joe-the-plumber hard-seat train facilities, this is the airport in the city that's refacing ("Don't replace, reface!") Beijing-style in anticipation of the 2010 Pan-Asian games. "New" Baiyun Airport my a$$.

solar eclipse

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first day in hong kong, i'm lazing around surfing the internet thinking "why am i lazing around surfing the internet when i should be wandering around outside?" when i come across the news that there's totally A SOLAR ECLIPSE visible from Hong Kong AT THAT VERY MOMENT. It's only a partial eclipse here, but still... "So that's why it's not so bright outside," I thought, and I rushed outside to check it out. (The other thing I thought was, "Good thing I was surfing the internet instead of wandering around outside"). I took this picture of the sun's image (look in the lower left quadrant) as projected through a pinhole of a leaf.*

Apparently the Space Museum in Tsim Sha Tsui was having a public viewing, which probably would have been more exciting, but I wasn't sure how long it was going to last. I took this picture at 4:30pm local time, about half an hour before the maximum. According to the Hong Kong Observatory, the eclipse started at 3.33pm, maxed at 4.54pm, and ended for HK viewers when the sun set at 6pm. Pretty cool, huh?

  • and yes, people were like, why is he taking a picture of the wall?


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Apfeaeiip stands for "A Place For Everything, And Everything In Its Place". In the fourth edition of The Macintosh Bible (which, by the way, was an excellent book... i don't know of any modern equivalent introductions to the Mac that do it with the same humor), Arthur Naiman asserts that the word also, coincidentally enough, spells the Fijian word for "good housekeeping".

Anyway, this supposed factoid, which I didn't know if I should take seriously or not, has been bothering me for almost two decades now, so now that we have wikipedia, I decided to finally look up "Fijian language". It turns out that it can't possibly be true: for one thing, "apfeaeiip" violates Fijian CV syllable structure: furthermore, [p] and [f] only occur in loanwords in Fijian, not in the native vocabulary.

So there, mystery solved. And Mr. Naiman... you got me.

BibTeX and Chinese names

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As wonderful as BibTeX is, it's always bothered me that it formats non-initial names as "First Last" even when they're Chinese names (or Japanese, etc., but most of the citations I use are Chinese), which customarily put the surname first. "But how would BibTeX know that the name's Chinese?" you ask. Actually, it's nothing magical, I stick the actual characters into my bibliography file. E.g., Author = {Ikeda, Takumi \TC{池田巧}}, where \TC means "use a traditional chinese font" (defined in my XeLaTeX file). If only I could get BibTeX to check if the name includes that string, and handle it differently....

WARNING: the following code is in a language that uses Reverse Polish notation. Viewers who might be offended by RPN should not view this program.

As it turns out, the fix is quite simple. Just add a function to your .bst file:

{ 'text :=
    { text empty$ not }
    { text #1 #3 substring$ duplicate$ "\SC" = swap$ "\TC" = or
      { pop$
        "" 'text :=
        text #2 global.max$ substring$ 'text :=

And then, where the file calls$, you can add an if statement to see if it contains Chinese or not. So, this:

s nameptr "{ff~}{vv~}{ll}{, jj}"$

would turn into this:

s nameptr
    s nameptr "{ff}"$ cjk.contains
      { "{vv~}{ll}{~ff}{, jj}" }
      { "{ff~}{vv~}{ll}{, jj}" }

Neat, huh? By the way, BibTeX doesn't define the boolean function not, so if your .bst file doesn't define it you'll have to add that in. For a down-and-dirty guide to BibTeX, check out this link:

Or more generally, this page:

Update on 2012 August 2: Wow, I can barely read my own code anymore! Let me try to clarify:

First, the code assumes that (1) you have identified all your CJK text using your custom commands \TC{ or \SC (if you use different commands you should change the code accordingly), and (2) any author in your bibliography file whose first name contains either of the strings \TC{ or \SC should be formatted with the last name first.

Now we look at the function with some comments added:

STRINGS{text} %% define "text" as a variable
FUNCTION{cjk.contains} %% the name of this function is "cjk.contains"
{ 'text := %% store whatever value is on the top of the stack in "text"
  #0 %% return 0 (false) unless the following code changes that

    { text empty$ not }
    %% the condition for the "while" loop: while text is not empty...

    { text #1 #3 substring$ duplicate$ "\SC" = swap$ "\TC" = or
    %% the "if" clause: if the first through third characters of "text"
    %% equals "\SC" or "\TC" (we have to duplicate and swap
    %% because we do two equality tests, and then "or" them)
      { pop$ %% get rid of the 0
        #1 %% and put 1 (true) on the stack
        "" 'text := %% set "text" to empty
        text #2 global.max$ substring$ 'text :=
        %% if "text" does not start with "\SC" or "\TC",
        %% delete the first character and try again

And now for the formatting code: s nameptr "{ff}"$ extracts only the "first name" portion of the name and passes it to cjk.contains. If it returns true we order the last name before the first name, with no comma in between; otherwise we use the same format as before. So basically this format string

"{ff~}{vv~}{ll}{, jj}"

gets surrounded by a giant "if" clause, like so:

    s nameptr "{ff}"$ cjk.contains
      { "{vv~}{ll}{~ff}{, jj}" }

If this is still too abstract, perhaps a concrete example will help: I have now posted both the original and modified bst file that I used for my dissertation, which follows the Linguistic Inquiry stylesheet:



Hopefully people out there will find this useful!

One of the terms that's always confused me in linguistics is that of languages being genetically related. Linguistic relatedness doesn't necessarily have anything to do biological relatedness, so why use this term?

As it turns out, the term "genetic" here doesn't mean "having to do with genes", but rather "having a common origin" (think "genesis"). I.e., there's two distinct meanings of the word genetic, one for biology and one for linguistics. Of course, no one's ever bothered to explain this to me... a glaring oversight, especially since the biological meaning is the common one.

Now how about the Chinese translation? In Chinese, to say languages x, y, and z are genetically related, you can use an awkward phrase like this: "x, y, z 等語言在發生學上具有淵源關係". WTF? What does that even mean? I mean, I know it's supposed to mean "x, y, z etc. are genetically related", but really what it translates to is something like "in genetics, x, y, and z have a common-origin relationship", since 發生學, short for 發育生物學 (according to the wikipedia redirect), means genetics or developmental biology—in the biological sense. This is a terrible mistranslation of the English term, imbuing it with a biological significance that it really shouldn't have.

So, I object to the use of the term 發生學 to mean "genetic" in the linguistic sense. It's a good thing I've figured this out... Whereas before I would furrow my eyebrows in confusion whenever I encountered the term in Chinese, I will now shake my head in disapproval instead.

Waikiki Gun Clubs

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[Guest post by Andrew]: While walking along Waikiki Beach, I was struck by the large numbers of people carrying flyers advertising indoor shooting ranges. The predominant language in all of these flyers was Japanese (see image for a representative sample). The people passing out flyers were clearly profiling - aiming for Japanese-looking tourists, and generally avoiding white tourists. When I made the mistake of expressing the slightest bit of curiosity, I was subjected to a rapid fire sales pitch in broken Japanese. I forget the exact phrasing of the pitch, but it more or less corresponded to the copy on the flyer. To provide some idea of the sales pitch: “SHOOT WITH LIVE AMMUNITION: FEEL THE REFRESHING POWER OF EACH SHOT” and, even more interesting, “The only Hawaii Gun Club with a Japanese owner.” The back of the flyer lists the various “courses” that one can select. The cheapest option ($25) offers 32 shots with a combination of small caliber (22) pistol, rifle, and revolver. The VIP ($95) and SWAT ($115) options include higher caliber weapons (12 gauge shotgun, 44 Magnum) and assault weapons (M-16, AK-47, H&K USC, etc.)

The verbal sales pitches often had a barely veiled sexual subtext: e.g. “be a real man, and go upstairs and fire a few rounds” or “Haven’t you ever fired a gun before? You’ll never know what it’s like until you’ve tried it.” The gun club advertisements emphasis on the “reality” of firing “real” weapons with “real” ammunition seems like an overcompensation for the essential artificiality of walking off the Waikiki beach into a supremely artificial and controlled shooting range environment in order to get a taste of the “real” experience of firing assault weapons. There also seems to be a strange historical irony at work - more than fifty years after Pearl Harbor, visitors from a quasi-demilitarized Japan are being encouraged to pick up assault weapons and release their frustration and stress in a safe and friendly tourist environment. I suppose one way to read the Waikiki gun clubs is that they are in a way, the most honest and authentic elements in the Waikiki bubble - the closet references to the violent history of American annexation and military occupation of Hawaiʻi. While the hotels and shopping malls of Waikiki all maintain an atmosphere of carefully composed tranquility and paradise, the gun club, in all its awkward display - might be the closest thing to reality.

On Penkyamp and other atrocities

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I recently stumbled across a romanization system for Cantonese called Pênkyämp (which, amazingly enough, is supposed to be pronounced [pʰɪŋ³³jɐm⁵⁵], or "ping yum", for the non-IPA-readers). Yes, it is even discussed on mainland bulletin boards and promoted in blogs.

Pênkyämp is, hands down, the most confusing Cantonese romanization ever devised. I suppose the distinguishing feature is that it encodes the length distinction, e.g. between [sɐm⁵⁵] 'heart' and [saːm⁵⁵] 'three'. But it does this adding a consonant symbol at the end of the short-vowel syllable. So, 'three' is spelled "sam", which is fine, but 'heart' is spelled "samp", which just looks ridiculous. Similarly, 'square' [fɔːŋ⁵⁵] is "fong", whereas 'wind' [fʊŋ⁵⁵] is "fonk"; and 'eat' [sɪk²²] is "sek", while 'rock' [sɛk²²] is "seg".

This scheme offends me because it's wildly non-iconic—i.e., things that are longer should look longer. But for "sam" vs. "samp", the vowels, which are crucially different here, look exactly the same, and to make the vowel shorter you add something to the end, rather than modify the vowel symbol itself, which I think would be the desirable thing since the vowel is the most salient part of the syllable. Most systems for Cantonese do this, viz. "saam" vs. "sam".

Now, it is true cross-linguistically that voiceless coda consonants (like -p, -t, -k) make vowel durations shorter, and voiced ones (-b, -d, -g) make vowel durations longer. However, this is only subphonemically true for languages that already have a voicing contrast in that position. I know of no orthographies that use this fact to indicate actual, phonemic vowel length. Furthermore, syllables like [saːm⁵⁵] and [sɐm⁵⁵] tend to have the same overall duration. When the vowel shortens, the coda consonant lengthens to make up for it. So if you're going to tack something on the end, why not write "saam" and "samm"? Isn't that much more intuitive?

My next objection is the tone marks. Apparently you can choose between numbers and diacritics, and since the numbers are standard (1 through 6 stand for high 55, rising 25, mid 33, low 21/11, low rising 23, and low-mid 22), I have no problems with them. The terrible design choice is the diacritic tone marks. Going from tones 1 through 6, we have ä, ã, â, a, á, à.

First of all: an umlaut for the high tone? An umlaut?! Umlauts, whenever they are used, are used to change vowel quality, i.e., the vowel itself, and not length or pitch or stress or whatever. Umlauts are not appropriate for marking tone. Ever. (As an example, look at pinyin "u" vs. "ü".) And besides, what's wrong with the macron? Wouldn't "ā" do just as well, if not better?

Next, the second and fifth tones. The second tone is by far the more common of the two, and so should get the less weird tone mark. If you're going to use an acute accent for rising tone, then "á" should mark second tone, not the fifth tone. I suppose the use of the tilde for rising tone may be inspired by its use for the glottalized rising tone in Vietnamese; however, in most orthographies, the tilde is used for nasalization. The tilde is also reminiscent of the IPA falling-rising tone mark, a complex symbol which looks like this: [a᷈]. But this association also seems inappropriate for the straightforwardly rising tone in Cantonese. For the fifth tone, a haček would seem more appropriate (cf. the third tone in Mandarin).

The third tone, a level tone marked with a circumflex, is completely puzzling to me. Why mark a level tone with a hat? It makes no sense. In Vietnamese, circumflexes are used to distinguish vowels; in IPA, they're used for falling tones. There's just no motivation for this usage here.

Finally, the low (fourth) tone is left unmarked in Pênkyämp. This decision also seems counter-intuitive to me. If any tone should be unmarked, it should be the first tone. This is the tone that most (stressed syllables of) loanwords and many onomatopoeic words have. Yale romanization doesn't take this strategy, choosing instead to mark the more extreme (high or low) tones, and leaving the mid tones unmarked, which I suppose is also a reasonable strategy. But an unmarked low tone for Cantonese? Again, there is no motivation for this, and no easy way to remember this.

The choice of vowel notation for [y] and [œ], namely "eu" and "eo", are also sub-optimal. Cantonese romanizations have been using "ue" for [y] for years. Jyutping uses "yu", which is also OK. "eu" looks like it should be [ew]; alternatively, "eu" is the common (and Yale) romanization for [œ] (cf. my own name 祥 "Cheung"). This is a poor design choice. Similarly, why use "eo" for [œ] when "oe" looks more like IPA and "eu" is the romanization you see on the street? These choices are especially illogical considering that the [-ɛ] rhyme is spelled "-e", and considering the existence of the rhyme [-ɛːw]. Well, OK, that should be spelled "-eu", right? No! That's been taken by [-y] already, so instead Pênkyämp makes an awkward work-around and spells it "-eau". This problem could have been avoided by choosing more sensible vowel spellings in the first place.

But back to vowel length. This system makes a choice. It chooses to represent the vowel length distinction in Cantonese as primary, and kind of ignores vowel quality. Most other romanizations go the other way, distinguishing vowel quality but not representing length. But the fact of the matter is that you get both. There is a length distinction, and the short vowels all happen to be higher and more central than their long vowel counterparts. So who's right? Is it vowel length, or vowel quality? The answer is that it's both; the system is redundant. Why don't we just let our romanization system be redundant as well? Take, for example, the case of Taiwanese romanization, where the the [-wa] rhyme is spelled "-oa", and the [-wi] final is spelled "-ui". Why not use "u" or "w" as the medial for both? Well, because they're different rhymes, and you might as well make them visually distinct. It might be a surprising design choice, but it's not a bad one.

Pênkyämp basically makes everything it can make obscure, obscure. The vowels are spelled funny. The tones are marked funny. Short/long vowels are distinguished, but not in any normal way: no doubled letters, no colons or IPA length marks, no macrons. No, to figure out if a vowel is long or short (which, remember, essentially changes what vowel it is), you have to glance over one or two letters and see if there's a -p, -t, -k, -y, or -w there, then modify the vowel in your head to match. (One could argue that you're supposed to read the entire rhyme as a unit, but the questions remains: how to make these units, which are composed of alphabetic symbols, most easily learned/parsed?) Moreover, making this short/long distinction serves no purpose. It just makes it more confusing.

I actually tried reading a sample text written in Pênkyämp, and it was pure torture. When every symbol is used in a nonconventional way, which Pênkyämp does, it becomes a monumental task to just to parse one syllable. Does Pênkyämp offer any ideas or insights of value to the larger issue of Cantonese romanization? I'm afraid the answer to that is an emphatic "no".

handy chart for Yi script

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The Yi (Nuosu) script is crazy! I've been trying to learn Nuosu, and have made a handy reference chart (inspired by the jiǎnzhì 简志, which has a foldout chart in the back).

Some of the characters are adapted from Chinese. See, e.g., cyp 'one', nyip 'two', suo 'three', ly 'four, fut 'six'. The characters have been turned 90 degrees clockwise since their inception. So unturn it in your mind, and you'll see the resemblance.

By the way, the -t and -p are tone marks: -t is high tone, -p is low tone (and -x is rising).

PDF and html versions below:



Japanese delicacies

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Last night, at the Association for Linguistic Typology banquet, I was picking up some sushi rolls from the table when an elderly gentleman (his name is E---- K----, I later discovered) said to me, "Aren't those delicacies from your country?"

I was like, "What?"

E---- K---- clarified by asking, "those are Japanese, aren't they?"

I was so shocked that I didn't know what to say. I think I said something like, "Close, but not quite," and ran off.

Who says linguists can't be racist?

Korean totem poles

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While at the Korean Bell of Friendship in San Pedro, I saw these two wooden figures that had written on them 天下大將軍 and 地下女將軍. (They also look like they've seen better days.) I was puzzled, took a picture, and now have looked them up on the internet.

Apparently these are called jangseung 장승, and traditionally they're placed outside villages to ward off demons, etc. There's even a 184-page photo book of them, called Changsŭng, Village Guardian God of Korea (1993, Hwang Hŏn-man 黃憲萬).

Traveler's Tales: Tibet

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I've been reading Traveler's Tales: Tibet (link to Google books), and I must say it has some pretty incredible stories... I recommend!