Recently in hysterical linguistics Category

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."

[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


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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.

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.

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I must say, I am somewhat disappointed in the local library. The other day I went to the Chinatown branch to find some books for school, and I came across no fewer than THREE copies of that 1421 book. Then, in the Chinese section, I found The Egyptian: The source of The Taiwanese 古埃及文(台灣話的淵源)by 林明華. It makes no sense, but here's a little excerpt that I could make out from the preface:

This book was five years in the making. But, it is a little mysterious, in the first four years I was constantly encountering obstacles, until ten months ago I found the "Way"... practically overnight, using Taiwanese to read each Egyptian pictograph, no matter how long or short, it went just as smoothly as reading a newspaper....

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