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news and discussions mainly related to Chinese characters and romanization
Updated: 2 hours 36 min ago

Pingdong signage

Mon, 11/29/2010 - 13:45

I was recently in southern Taiwan’s Pingdong County to spend a few quiet days — I wish it had been more — by the sea. (Taiwan’s official spelling for this county remains the bastardized Wade-Giles form, Pingtung, rather than Pingdong, which is how it is spelled in MPS2, Tongyong Pinyin, and Hanyu Pinyin.)

The official signs I saw were predominantly in Tongyong Pinyin. The exceptions to this were generally errors (though perhaps official errors — see below) rather than instances of Hanyu Pinyin or other systems. I was surprised to see that this was the case not only with street signs but also with highway signage. Street signs are local. But highway signs fall under the jurisdiction of a ministry of the central government and thus usually follow national guidelines — and follow them more quickly than other signage. But while highway signs in many other parts of Taiwan have been changed to Hanyu Pinyin, Pingdong lags, for whatever reason.

Click on the photos for larger versions.

Here’s a street sign unmistakably in Tongyong Pinyin. “Wunzih” is written “Wenzi” in Hanyu Pinyin.

Here’s a fancy street sign for the tourists in Hengchun — thus the stylized “春” (below “Hengnan Rd.”) for “恆春” (Héngchūn). “Hengnan” could be any of lots of romanization systems. The interesting parts are the use of a counter-productive English translation (“South Bay”) rather than the Mandarin place name “Nanwan” and the use of the bastardized Wade-Giles form Kenting for Kending. The Kenting spelling, though wrong, was by far the most common one on official signage, which leads me to suspect that this is another case of the Taiwan government embracing the delusion that an obscure-to-the-world place is actually world famous in its bastardized Wade-Giles spelling and thus foreigners would be confused if signs actually represented the right way to pronounce this. Ugh. So even though every one of Taiwan’s official romanization systems for the past quarter century would spell this the same, Kending, the government says it should be spelled Kenting … at least from one source; but the Ministry of the Interior, which should have the greater jurisdiction, says to use Kending.

If you look carefully (click on the image to zoom in), you can see that the previous version of the sign (underneath the new one) did not have any romanization. The ‘r’ in Erluanbi is especially odd, given that it doesn’t belong there. (Éluánbí / 鵝鸞鼻 / n.: bulbous nose) The error appears to come from Taiwan government itself, whose Research, Development, and Evaluation Commission’s site on “bilingual” forms gives the r spelling — though it also gives the correct “Eluanbi” spelling for other instances of this.

Or maybe the sign makers just borrowed the r from this sign.

Another distinctly Tongyong sign:

I was pleased to see this trilingual sign, with Mandarin, English, and Vietnamese.

ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary out soon

Fri, 10/01/2010 - 10:11

The ABC Chinese-English Dictionary was published ten years ago. It was revolutionary in that, for the first time, a Mandarin-English dictionary was ordered entirely by the headwords’ pronunciation as written in pinyin. (Stroke and radical indexes are also there to aid finding a character when its shape is known but not its pronunciation.) Other dictionaries in the DeFrancis ABC series have followed. But up to now there been no ABC dictionary with an English to Mandarin section as well as a Mandarin to English one.

At the end of this month the University of Hawai`i Press is releasing the ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary. The new dictionary, which is 1,252 pages long, has 29,670 entries in its English-Mandarin section and 37,963 entries for Mandarin-English (total 67,633 entries). (The much larger ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary has some 196,000 entries — all Mandarin-English).

This is a big year for Mandarin-English dictionaries, with the forthcoming release of the ABC ECCE and the release three months ago of the massive Oxford Chinese Dictionary. From the standpoint of Pinyin, however, the Oxford dictionary is a disappointment. For example, the Oxford dictionary has no Pinyin in the English-Mandarin section, just Chinese characters; in some other places tone marks are missing from some of the Pinyin, where it appears at all. Perhaps this will be rectified in the online edition, which has yet to appear. At the moment, though, the Oxford looks like a fairly traditional dictionary — albeit a huge one — aimed mainly at English learners in China, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you happen to be among that very large group of people. For more on the Oxford, see the video at Danwei and the entries at Chinese Forums (with some images) and Language Log.

Unlike the Oxford dictionary, the ABC ECCE offers both Pinyin and Chinese characters for all entries and sample sentences. (See samples below. Click on those for more extensive examples in PDF files.)

From what I’ve seen so far of the ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary, I expect it to become the dictionary for English-speaking students of Mandarin. I’ll write more about this once I’m able to see a hard copy.

The ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary retails for only US$20, compared to US$75 for the Oxford.

From the Mandarin-English section. But don’t expect the text in the printed edition to be this large. I’ve enlarged the image to make it easier to read on the Web.

From the English-Mandarin section:

(ISBN-10: 0824834852; ISBN-13: 978-0824834852)

See also:

Xin Tang 4

Thu, 09/23/2010 - 09:50

The fourth issue of Xin Tang is now online.

For those of you wondering why Xin Tang is spelled Xin Talng on the cover, that’s because parts of this particular issue use a tonal-spelling variation of Hanyu Pinyin, as follows.

Simple rules for tonal spelling

  1. ma (媽) / ling (拎)
  2. mal (麻) / lilng (零)
  3. maa (馬) / liing (領)
  4. mah (罵) / lihng (另)
  5. “‘” biaaoshih qingsheng, kee’shi “‘de” dou –> “d”.

Here, for example, is a message from the publisher.

Colng zheih yihqi qii SHIN TARNG gaai weil XIN TALNG, shiiyohng d welnzih yii Pin Yin (jiaan xiee PY) weil jichuu. Duobahn d welnzhang yohng yooudiaoh PY xiee. Biaodiaoh faa qiing kahn fengmiahn erh xiah’tou d jiaandan shuomilng.

The same passage in Pinyin with tone marks:

Cóng zhèi yì qī qǐ SHIN TARNG gǎi wéi XIN TANG, shǐyòng d wénzì yǐ Pīn Yīn (jiǎn xiě PY) wéi jīchǔ. Duōbàn d wénzhāng yòng yǒudiào PY xiě. Biāodiào fǎ qǐng kàn fēngmiàn èr xià’tou d jiǎndān shuōmíng.

Not all of the romanization in this issue follows that form. Some has no special spellings but instead uses tone marks. Some has no tone marks. Give ‘em all a try and see what you think.

Xin Tang 4 (PDF)

Xin Tang 6

Mon, 09/20/2010 - 11:22

My previous post linked to a new HTML version of Homographobia, an essay by John DeFrancis. The work was first published in November 1985, in the sixth issue of Xin Tang (New China).

Xin Tang (Xīn Táng) is an especially interesting journal in that it is primarily in Mandarin written in romanization. A variety of romanization systems and methods are employed over the course of the journal. Indeed, over the course of its run one can see many questions of systems and orthographies being worked out.

I want to stress, though, that the journal does not restrict itself to material of interest only to romanization specialists. It also features poetry, illustrated stories, philosophy, letters to the editor, children’s material, and much more.

English and a few Chinese characters are also found; and there are even articles in languages such as Turkish (with Mandarin and English translations).

Most of what appears in English is also translated into Mandarin — romanized Mandarin, of course. So DeFrancis’s essay also appears, appropriately, in Pinyin:

Homographobia is a disorder characterized by an irrational fear of ambiguity when individual lexical items which are now distinguished graphically lose their distinctive features and become identical if written phonemically. The seriousness of the disorder appears to be in direct proportion to the increase in number of items with identical spelling that phonemic rendering might bring about….

Tongyinci-kongjuzheng shi yi zhong xinli shang d shichang, tezheng shi huluande haipa yong pinyin zhuanxie dangqing kao zixing fende hen qingchu d cir hui shiqu tamend bianbiexing. Kan qilai, zhei ge bing d yanzhongxing gen pinyin shuxie keneng zaocheng d tongxing pinshi shuliang d zengjia cheng zhengbi….

All of the issue with the DeFrancis essay is now online: Xin Tang no. 6.

Note the occasional employment of a tonal spelling (shuui).


Fri, 09/17/2010 - 05:25

Twenty-five years ago, John DeFrancis wrote a terrific essay on what he aptly dubbed homographobia (in Mandarin: tóngyīncí-kǒngjùzhèng). It’s a word that deserves wider currency, as the irrational fear he describes still affects a great many people.

Homographobia is a disorder characterized by an irrational fear of ambiguity when individual lexical items which are now distinguished graphically lose their distinctive features and become identical if written phonemically. The seriousness of the disorder appears to be in direct proportion to the increase in number of items with identical spelling that phonemic rendering might bring about. The aberration may not exist at all among people favored by writing systems that are already closely phonemic, such as Spanish and German. It exists to a mild degree among readers of a poorly phonemic (actually morphophonemic) writing system such as English, some of whom suffer anxiety reactions at the thought of the confusion that might arise if, for example, rain, rein, and reign were all written as rane. It exists in its most virulent form among those exposed to Chinese characters, which, among all the writing systems ever created, are unique in their ability to convey meaning under extreme conditions of isolation

That the fear is a genuine phobia, that is an irrational fear, is attested to by the fact that it is confined only to those cases in which lexical items that are now distinguished in writing would lose their distinctiveness if written phonemically, as in the case of the three English homophones mentioned above. Quite irrationally, the fear is not provoked by lexical items which are not now distinguished in writing, even though the amount of already existing homography might be considerably greater than in projected cases, such as the mere three English words pronounced rane. The English graphic form can, for example, has at least ten different meanings which to a normal mind might appear as ten different words. But no one, either in or out of his right mind in such matters, suffers any anxiety from the problems which in theory should exist in such extensive homography.

The uncritical acceptance of current written forms as an immutable given ignores the accidents in the history of writing that have resulted in current graphic differentiation for some homophones and not for others. Such methodological myopia cannot lead to any useful consideration of ambiguity….

The complete essay is now online: Homographobia.

new book in Pinyin

Mon, 09/13/2010 - 05:38

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a new book, Pīnyīn Rìjì Duǎnwén, by Zhāng Lìqīng. Other than one introductory letter in English, the work is entirely in Mandarin.

This is perhaps the world’s first Mandarin-language book to be published in Hanyu Pinyin without so much as one Chinese character. Thus, it is of historic importance. But it’s also a wonderful collection of stories. The author generously granted Pinyin.info the right to release all of this book online.

The work will also soon be available in an inexpensive printed edition.

Some of you will recall Zhang’s lovely story Dàshuǐ Guòhòu (“After the Flood”), which first appeared here three years ago. It leads the new collection. The remaining twelve memoirs/stories are mainly in the same vein, recalling a childhood in China and Taiwan.

Zhè shì yī gè lǎo gùshi. Shìqing fāshēng zài 1946 nián xiàtiān. Nà nián wǒ jiāngjìn shí suì, zhù zài Sìchuān Chéngdū jiāoqū d Bǎihuā Qiáo. Zhōngguó Kōngjūn Tōngxìn Xuéxiào d jīdì zài nàli. Wǒ bàba shì nà ge xuéxiào d jūnguān….

The author died earlier this year. She was able to view proofs of the work, though her illness prevented her from making any corrections herself. Fortunately, several people stepped in, contributing substantially to the checking of the Pinyin and other aspects of the work. I’d like especially to thank the following people: David W. Goodrich, Jiao Liwei, Kuo Hsin-chun, Melvin Lee, and Victor H. Mair. Any errors found in the book should be considered my own.

Please report any divergences from the Pinyin orthography established by Yin Binyong and the spellings used in the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary (Zhang was, after all, one of the associate editors of that massive work) to me. I’ve made very few intentional departures from those.

Please note that the use of “d” (where most authors would use “de”) is intentional. This is not a bug but a feature, something I came to understand better the more time I spent with this text. The use of “d” is explained in the second introductory letter (Liǎng Fēng Gěi Biānzhě d Xìn: 2).

a brief list of some romanization-related books

Thu, 08/26/2010 - 09:31

My good friend Jim, known to many through his blogs Beijing Boyce (the guide to the bars of Beijing — and lots of restaurants there as well) and Grape Wall of China (for China’s wine scene), has a new site focusing on books about or touching upon China.

He asked me to contribute my list of the top five romanization-related books in English. I cheated some, such as by leaving out Palmer’s The Principles of Romanization, with Special Reference to the Romanization of Japanese, which is difficult to find, somewhat outdated, and doesn’t focus much on Sinitic languages; and by including other works primarily in romanized Mandarin.

But it’s a start.

To see my list and lots of others, go to China Book Bites (a.k.a. Chuānchuànr).

roots of the stone lions story

Fri, 08/20/2010 - 03:35

The tongue-twisting tale of Mr. Shi, the poet who likes to eat lions (better known as the story that goes Shi shi shi shi shi… — see section 3 of that page), is often reproduced — though usually by people who misunderstand its meaning. (It is not an argument against romanization.)

I haven’t been able yet to track down just when and where Y.R. Chao (Zhao Yuanren / Zhào Yuánrèn / 趙元任) first published this. But what is particularly interesting, at least to me, is that this — probably the most widely known thing Chao ever wrote, outside the musical realm at least — is not entirely original to him but was inspired by another shi-story … by Chao’s roommate at Cornell.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Problem of the Chinese Language,” which Chao wrote in 1916.

I agree with Mr. Hu [Shih], therefore that living words are not intrinsically vulgar and that we should use them in writing. Secondly, whether we write with characters or with letters, we should use sounds that are at least auditorily intelligible. Differences between the spoken and the written languages do, and ought to exist in all languages, but the two must not be separated by a chasm. A poem must be recitable, an oration must be deliverable, not to oneself, but to others. I wager that if a poem is read aloud to a hundred educated persons of the same dialect as the reader, unless it is on a hackneyed them with hackneyed phrases, it will not be understood by more ears than one can count on his fingers — two ears to a person.

With one syllable shi and four variations of tones in northern mandarin, one can write a whole story. The example in 石1室1詩1士3史2氏3,嗜3豕2,失3仕3,誓3食1十1獅1。獅1似3嗜3虱1,史2氏3設1寺3,恃3師1勢3,使3施3氏3拾1獅1屍1。俟3食1時1,始2識1世3事3。史2使2侍3逝3適1市3,視3施3氏3。試3釋1是3事3…… was written by Mr. M. T. Hu. (Similar homonymic passages can be constructed in other dialects.) If we paraphrase it as in 石頭房子裏的詩翁,姓史的,愛吃豬肉,云云, we shall notice two points. First, the auditorily intelligible form has polysyllabic words for single ideas. Secondly, it uses better sounding syllables. Sin3 for surname, ai3 for like, chu1 for swine, are both more pleasant and less ambiguous than shi. Such spoken words as hao2 (good), men1 (door), yao3 (want), in their proper tones have no other common words of the same sound. This polysyllabism and the choice of sounds are the results of natural selection of speech sounds according to their survival value.

M.T. Hu stands for Minfu Ta Hu (also sometimes written Minfu Tah Hu), who went on to get his Ph.D. in mathematics at Harvard in 1917. (My initial guess was that he’s “Hu Minfu” and that his nickname is “da Hu”, given how there were several Chinese with the family name of Hu studying at Cornell at the same time. But he seems to have used the long form even in formal contexts.)

Here’s the text again without the tone numbers (which don’t correspond with current systems anyway, something that might make a good post (“Tone Wars and the Standardization of Guoyu/Putonghua”) but which I’ll probably never get around to writing). I’ve highlighted sections longer than two characters that also appear in Chao’s version (see below).


And here’s Chao’s version:


So Chao certainly made this his own.

For more from the same essay, see Responses to objections to romanization, which is well worth reading.

ɑ vs. a

Thu, 08/12/2010 - 10:51

About a year ago (which is roughly how overdue this post is), a commenter noted that some Chinese publishers “are convinced that Pinyin must be printed with ɑ (single-story „Latin alpha“, as opposed to double-story a), and with ɡ (single story; not double story g).”

But does Hanyu Pinyin in fact call for this longstanding Chinese habit of bad typography? This was one of the first questions I asked of Zhou Youguang, the father of Hanyu Pinyin, when I met with him: Are those who insist upon the ɑ-style letter correct?

“Oh, no,” Zhou replied. “That ‘ɑ’ is just for babies!” And he laughed that wonderful laugh of his that no doubt has contributed to his remarkable longevity.

Zhou was referring to the facts that the “ɑ” style of letter is usually found specifically in books for infants … and that this style generally does not belong elsewhere. In fact, ɑ and ɡ (written thusly) are often referred to as infant characters. A variant of the letter y is sometimes included in this set.

Letters in that style are also found in the West — but almost always in books for toddlers, and often not even in those. Furthermore, even in those cases the use of such letters appears to have no positive effect on children’s reading.

The correct-style letters for Pinyin are the same as those for English, Zhou stated.

I hope that anyone who has been using “ɑ” will both officially and in practice switch to “a”. It’s long past time that the supposed rule calling for “ɑ” was treated as a dead letter.

Long live good typography!

persistent MPS2

Thu, 08/05/2010 - 06:04

Poagao sent me this photo of signs on Zhong’an Bridge, which joins Xindian and Zhonghe (both in Taipei County). (So the zhong is probably for Zhonghe; but I’m not sure what the an is meant to be short for.) The signs are a good illustration of the sloppy approach to romanization in Taiwan. Because this is a new bridge, these are definitely new signs and thus should be in Hanyu Pinyin, which is official not just in Taipei County but nationally.

As the table below shows, however, the only name that definitely isn’t written in MPS2 — the romanization system that predated Tongyong, which in Taiwan predated Hanyu Pinyin — is a typo. MPS2 hasn’t been official for the better part of a decade.

on the sign system Hanyu Pinyin Junghe MPS2 Zhōnghé Benchian wrong in all systems Bǎnqiáo Jingping (MPS2, Tongyong, Hanyu Pinyin) Jǐngpíng Shioulang MPS2 Xiùlǎng

And there’s no excuse for making “Shioulang Bridge” so small and squashed. This also brings to mind another aspect of Hanyu Pinyin: because of its design and the fact that it uses abbreviated forms of some vowel combinations (e.g., uei -> ui, iou -> iu), it doesn’t need as much horizontal space as MPS2 or Tongyong Pinyin, which means it can be written with larger letters — an important factor in signage. (See the second table of the comparative typing chart to see such differences between Hanyu Pinyin and Tongyong Pinyin.)

system spelling MPS2 Shioulang Tongyong Pinyin Sioulang Hanyu Pinyin Xiulang

history bite: around this time in 1977

Wed, 08/04/2010 - 06:18

Thirty-three years ago the third United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names voted 43-1 in favor of adopting Hanyu Pinyin as “the international system for the romanization of Chinese geographical names,” which was a major step in establishing the use of Hanyu Pinyin internationally.

The one nay vote came from the United States, which said that changing the Library of Congress’s records from Wade-Giles to Pinyin would be prohibitively expensive. (The Library of Congress did not begin its Pinyin-conversion project until twenty years later.) This may also have had to do with the fact that at the time the United States did not recognize the People’s Republic of China but instead had diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (i.e., Taiwan), which didn’t adopt Hanyu Pinyin itself until more than thirty years later (and its implementation here is still incomplete).

1977 nián zài Yǎdiǎn jǔxíng de Liánhéguó dì-sān jiè dìmíng biāozhǔnhuà huìyì shàng, yǐ 43 piào zànchéng, 1 piào fǎnduì de jiéguǒ, tōngguò le cǎiyòng Hànyǔ Pīnyīn zuòwéi Zhōngguó dìmíng Luómǎ zìmǔ de guójì biāozhǔn de tí’àn. 1 piào fǎnduì de shì Měiguó. Jùshuō shì yīnwèi rúguǒ gǎiyòng Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, Měiguó Guóhuì Túshūguǎn jiāng “hàozī tài dà” (cǐ túshūguǎn de Zhōngwén shūkān míng yǐqián quán yòng Wēituǒmǎshì pīnyīn).

source: Xinhua Pinxie Cidian, by Yin Binyong.

Li-ching Chang, 1936-2010

Tue, 07/20/2010 - 08:59

Li-ching Chang (Zhāng Lìqīng / 張立青 / 张立青 / Zhang Liqing) was born in Changyi (near Qingdao), Shandong Province, China, on October 5, 1936. When she was 5 years old, her family sought to escape the fighting (between the Communists and the Nationalists) in her native Shandong Province and fled inland to Sichuan, eventually settling in Chengdu. In 1947 Li-ching’s family followed Chiang Kai-shek’s armies and moved to Gangshan, southern Taiwan. Li-ching attended Tainan Normal School. The same school at the same location has since been expanded to become the National University of Tainan. Upon graduation from this teacher training high school, Li-ching taught in elementary schools for several years. During this period, she also joined an army drama troupe.

After an intensive period of preparation for the college entrance examinations, Li-ching was successful in entering the Chinese Department at National Taiwan University, from which she received her B.A. degree in 1964. She also went on to earn an M.A. (1966) at NTU, with a thesis focusing on the works of the early medieval poet, Tao Yuanming. Later, she enrolled in a graduate program of Chinese studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, and there she earned another M.A., writing a thesis on the modern Chinese playwright, Cao Yu.

Li-ching was a superb teacher of Mandarin and was employed by numerous outstanding institutions of higher education, including the University of Washington, the Oberlin program at Tunghai University (Taichung, Taiwan), Middlebury College, Harvard University, Bryn Mawr College (joint program with Haverford College), the University of Pennsylvania, and Swarthmore College. Li-ching was co-founder and co-editor of Xin Tang, a journal of romanized Chinese. She served on the editorial board of the ABC Chinese-English dictionaries at the University of Hawaii and made a virtuoso translation of Zhou Youguang’s The Historical Evolution of Chinese Languages and Scripts (published by The Ohio State University National East Asian Language Resource Center in 2003).

She generously provided several of her important works to this Web site, including:

Li-ching lived in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, with her husband, the scholar Victor H. Mair.

Chomsky to lecture on linguistics in Xinzhu, Taiwan

Tue, 07/06/2010 - 11:00

Noam Chomsky will come to Taiwan in August to deliver two lectures.

The first lecture — on Monday, August 9 — is “Contours of World Order: Continuities and Changes.” This will likely cover political and human rights concerns, not linguistics.

The second, “Poverty of Stimulus: The Unfinished Business,” held the following day at Qīnghuá Dàxué (Tsinghua University) in Xinzhu (Hsinchu), will focus on linguistics.

Online registration for the lectures starts on Thursday, July 15.

For more information, see Qinghua’s Web pages (in Mandarin) on this.

Hat tip to Dan for this.

Chinese characters: Like, wow.

Fri, 07/02/2010 - 06:35

Some recent comments on the Hanzi domain name situation brought to mind a rant I was working on last month and then abandoned. But it seems worth finishing — relatively speaking, because this is a topic that touches upon so many areas that I could never get through it all — because the problem I discuss is a fairly common one. So today I’d like to address what I think of as the “like, wow” fetish of Chinese characters. In this, Chinese characters are regarded as if they bestowed a wonderful gift upon the reader that no other script could. But exactly how they do that and what exactly that gift is, though, generally doesn’t make too much sense.

This sort of thing is common, and not just among New Age nonsense. A good example of this approach is found in Search Engine of the Song Dynasty, an op-ed piece published in the New York Times in mid May. Basically, the author discusses how having URLs in Chinese characters is a good thing, but does so in a vague, flowery way that brings to mind a stoned grad student with a large vocabulary — which might not be so bad if the author had gotten the facts straight.

I had hoped for at least a little better, given that the author, Ruiyan Xu, has completed a novel, The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai, whose protagonist has bilingual aphasia. So one would expect Xu, who was born in Shanghai and moved to the United States at the age of 10, to have a better-than-basic understanding of linguistics. Alas, no — not if the article is anything to go by.

My annoyance here, though, isn’t specifically with Xu, who seems like a nice person and whose book has been getting some good advance reviews. It’s more with the “like, wow” phenomenon in general and the eagerness of the mainstream press to publish things about “Chinese” even though the substance of such articles falls apart if one devotes even just a little effort to examining it.

So let’s get into it.

Baidu.com, the popular search engine often called the Chinese Google, got its name from a poem written during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The poem is about a man searching for a woman at a busy festival, about the search for clarity amid chaos. Together, the Chinese characters bi [sic] and dù mean “hundreds of ways,” and come out of the last lines of the poem: “Restlessly I searched for her thousands, hundreds of ways./ Suddenly I turned, and there she was in the receding light.”

For reference, I’ll provide the poem. I’ve put the Chinese characters used by Baidu.com in bold and red.



The author of the poem, Xin Qiji (Xīn Qìjī / 辛棄疾 / 辛弃疾), lived from 1140 to 1207 and was thus a contemporary of such Western poets as the troubadours Bertran de Born, Bernart de Ventadorn, and Giraut de Borneil — hardly poets whose work suffered for having been written with an alphabet.

Baidu, rendered in Chinese, is rich with linguistic, aesthetic and historical meaning. But written phonetically in Latin letters (as I must do here because of the constraints of the newspaper medium and so that more American readers can understand), it is barely anchored to the two original characters; along the way, it has lost its precision and its poetry.

Ugh. Where to start?

I’ll go ahead and skip “precision,” even though that’s perhaps not a word best applied to most poetry written in Literary Sinitic, and start with “rendered in Chinese.” However common the word might be, “Chinese” is a poor choice. In this case, the word seems to be intended to mean not any particular language but rather “Chinese characters,” which are not a language. Here, too, she appears to be blaming Pinyin for having lost something from Literary Sinitic, which is what the poem was written in. But Pinyin isn’t for Literary Sinitic; it’s for modern standard Mandarin. Also, whatever language Xin Qiji spoke could have been written with an alphabet with no loss of meaning, just like all other natural languages.

As Web addresses increasingly transition to non-Latin characters as a result of the changing rules for domain names, that series of Latin letters Chinese people usually see at the top of the screen when they search for something on Baidu may finally turn into intelligible words: “a hundred ways.”

Baidu vs. 百度 on the Baidu.com home page:

Can you feel the difference in precision and poetry? No?

Also, it’s not clear just how much of a “transition to non-Latin characters” there’s going to be, especially where Chinese characters are concerned, especially in places like Singapore.

Of course, this expansion of languages for domain names could lead to confusion: users seeking to visit Web sites with names in a script they don’t read could have difficulty putting in the addresses, and Web browsers may need to be reconfigured to support non-Latin characters. The previous system, with domain names composed of numbers, punctuation marks and Latin letters without accents, promoted standardization, wrangling into consistency and simplicity one small part of the Internet.

For “could have difficulty putting in the addresses” read “could find it next to impossible to enter the correct address.” And by “one small part of the Internet,” she appears to mean the name of every single domain on the entire Internet.

But something else, something important, has been lost.

Part of the beauty of the Chinese language comes from a kind of divisibility not possible in a Latin-based language. Chinese is composed of approximately 20,000 single-syllable characters, 10,000 of which are in common use.

No, no, and no.

  • By “Latin-based language” the author seems to be referring not to a Romance language but to a language that uses the Latin alphabet for its standard script.
  • What exactly is this divisibility? Mandarin words can be divided into morphemes. The words of English, French, etc. work the same way.
  • No language is composed of Chinese characters.
  • There are a hell of a lot more than 20,000 Chinese characters.
  • “Common use” is difficult to pin down. But most authorities would give a lower number.

These characters each mean something on their own; they are also combined with other characters to form hundreds of thousands of multisyllabic words.

No, that’s wrong. Again: words — whether they be multisyllabic or monosyllabic — are not made of Chinese characters. Instead, Chinese characters are the script most seen for written Mandarin.

Níhăo, for example, Chinese for “Hello,” is composed of ní — “you,” and hăo — “good.” Isn’t “You good” — both as a statement and a question — a marvelous and strangely precise breakdown of what we’re really saying when we greet someone?

Again, this is assigning meaning to characters, when the meaning is of course in the word itself.

Note, too, that “níhăo” is incorrect in several ways.

  • One of the basic rules of Hanyu Pinyin is that tone sandhi is not indicated. So even though — because in Mandarin if something has two third tones in a row, the first shifts to second tone — the greeting is pronounced níhǎo, the diacritical mark over the i should indicate third tone (ǐ) rather than second (í).
  • The diacritic over the a is wrong. It should be ǎ (Unicode ̌), not ă (Unicode ă) — sharp vs. rounded. (You may need to enlarge the fonts on the screen to see this.)
  • Most careful authorities write this with a space rather than as solid: nǐ hǎo rather than nǐhǎo. This, though, is something I don’t much care about. Popular usage of Pinyin as a real script will eventually work this out one or the other. Also, if someone is going to err in word parsing, I’d much rather they do it by making words solid rather than by breaking up the syllables.

The Romanization of Chinese into a phonetic system called Pinyin, using the Latin alphabet and diacritics (to indicate the four distinguishing tones in Mandarin), was developed by the Chinese government in the 1950s.

I’m a bit surprised the copy editors at the New York Times let that muddled sentence though. But I’ll pass over it without further observation.

Pinyin makes the language easier to learn and pronounce, and it has the added benefit of making Chinese characters easy to input into a computer. Yet Pinyin, invented for ease and standards, only represents sound.

In other words, Pinyin represents language — that being what writing systems are designed to do. And, yes, it’s easy to learn and use, which happens to be a good thing, not a bad one.

In Chinese, there are multiple characters with the exact same sound. The sound “băi,” for example, means 100, but it can also mean cypress, or arrange. And “Baidu,” without diacritics, can mean “a failed attempt to poison” or “making a religion of gambling.”

My dictionary gives some different phrases. But whatever. Then there’s also the simple point: If there’s a problem with writing Pinyin without diacritics, then don’t write Pinyin without diacritics, write it with diacritics. But I have a hard time imagining how anyone would get such things confused in context.

Q: “Honey, could you check Baidu for information on when that new movie is coming out?”
A: “Baidu? Sorry, could you write that in Chinese characters for me. I can’t tell if you mean “a failed attempt to poison,” “making a religion of gambling,” or the search engine.”

Behind this is just the usual homonym canard. In English, as in other languages, there are many morphemes with the exact same pronunciation (sound). If we look at the closest English has to the Mandarin sounds bai and du, we can get by, buy, bye, bi-, and dew, do, due, etc. — all of which have various meanings. Take a look.

Those who don’t need to be hit over the head again and again to understand the simple point that English has plenty of homonyms but does just fine with an alphabet — as would every other natural language, including of course Mandarin and the other Sinitic languages– may wish to just skim the following blockquote.


bi, bi-, buy, by, bye

buy (transitive verb)

  1. : to acquire possession, ownership, or rights to the
    use or services of by payment especially of money :
    1. : to obtain in exchange for something often at
      a sacrifice <they bought peace with their
    2. : redeem
  2. : bribe, hire
  3. : to be the purchasing equivalent of <the dollar
    buys less today than it used to>
  4. : accept, believe <I don’t buy that hooey> -often
    used with into

buy (intransitive verb)

  1. : to make a purchase

buy (noun)

  1. : something of value at a favorable price; especially :
    bargain <it’s a real buy at that price>
  2. : an act of buying : purchase

bi (noun or adjective)

  1. : bisexual

bi- (prefix)

    1. : two <bilateral>
    2. : coming or occurring every two
    3. : into two parts <bisect>
    1. : twice : doubly : on both sides
    2. : coming or occurring two times
      <biannual> – compare semi-
  1. : between, involving, or affecting two (specified)
    symmetrical parts <bilabial>
    1. : containing one (specified) constituent in
      double the proportion of the other constituent or
      in double the ordinary proportion
    2. : di- 2 <biphenyl>

bi- (Variant(s): or bio-) (combining form)

  1. : life : living organisms or tissue
    <bioluminescence> <biosphere>
  2. : biographical <biopic>

bye (noun)

  1. : the position of a participant in a tournament who
    advances to the next round without playing

by (preposition)

  1. : in proximity to : near <standing by the
    1. : through or through the medium of : via
      <enter by the door>
    2. : in the direction of : toward <north by
    3. : into the vicinity of and beyond : past
      <went right by him>
    1. : during the course of <studied by
    2. : not later than <by 2 p.m.>
    1. : through the agency or instrumentality of
      <by force>
    2. : born or begot of
    3. : sired or borne by
  2. : with the witness or sanction of <swear by all that
    is holy>
    1. : in conformity with <acted by the
    2. : according to <called her by name>
    1. : on behalf of <did right by his
    2. : with respect to <a lawyer by
    1. : in or to the amount or extent of <win by a
    2. b chiefly Scottish : in comparison with :
  3. -used as a function word to indicate successive units or increments <little by little> <walk two by two>
  4. -used as a function word in multiplication, in division, and in measurements <divide a by b>
    <multiply 10 by 4> <a room 15 feet by 20 feet>
  5. : in the opinion of : from the point of view of
    <okay by me>

by (adjective)

  1. : being off the main route : side
  2. : incidental

by (noun)

  1. : something of secondary importance : a side issue

by/bye (interjection)

  1. : short for goodbye
dew, do, due

dew (noun)

  1. : moisture condensed upon the surfaces of cool bodies especially at night
  2. : something resembling dew in purity, freshness, or power to refresh
  3. : moisture especially when appearing in minute droplets: as

    1. : tears
    2. : sweat
    3. : droplets of water produced by a plant in transpiration

due (adjective)

  1. : owed or owing as a debt
    1. : owed or owing as a natural or moral right
      <everyone’s right to dissent is due the full protection of the Constitution – Nat Hentoff>
    2. : according to accepted notions or procedures : appropriate <with all due respect>
    1. : satisfying or capable of satisfying a need, obligation, or duty : adequate <giving the matter due attention>
    2. : regular, lawful <due proof of loss>
  2. : capable of being attributed : ascribable -used with to <this advance is partly due to a few men of genius -
    A. N. Whitehead>
  3. : having reached the date at which payment is required
    : payable <the rent is due>
  4. : required or expected in the prescribed, normal, or logical course of events : scheduled <the train is due at noon>; also : expected to give birth

due (noun)

  1. : something due or owed: as

    1. : something that rightfully belongs to one
      <give him his due>
    2. : a payment or obligation required by law or custom : debt
    3. plural : fees, charges <membership dues>

due (adverb)

  1. : directly, exactly <due north>
  2. <obsolete> : duly

do (transitive verb)

  1. : to bring to pass : carry out <do another’s wishes>
  2. : put -used chiefly in do to death
  3. : perform, execute

    1. <do some work> <did his duty>
    2. : commit <crimes done deliberately>
    1. : bring about, effect <trying to do good>
      <do violence>
    2. : to give freely : pay <do honor to her memory>
  4. : to bring to an end : finish -used in the past participle <the job is finally done>
  5. : to put forth : exert <did her best to win the race>
  6. : to wear out especially by physical exertion : exhaust
    <at the end of the race they were pretty well done> b
    : to attack physically : beat; also : kill
  7. : to bring into existence : produce <do a biography on the general>
  8. -used as a substitute verb especially to avoid
    repetition <if you must make such a racket, do it
    somewhere else>
  9. : to play the role or character of b : mimic; also : to behave like <do a Houdini and disappear> c : to perform in or serve as producer of <do a play>
  10. : to treat unfairly; especially : cheat <did him out of his inheritance>
  11. : to treat or deal with in any way typically with the sense of preparation or with that of care or attention:

      1. : to put in order : clean <was doing the kitchen>
      2. : wash <did the dishes after supper>
    1. : to prepare for use or consumption; especially : cook <like my steak done rare>
    2. : set, arrange <had her hair done>
    3. : to apply cosmetics to <wanted to do her face before the party>
    4. : decorate, furnish <did the living room in Early American> <do over the kitchen>
  12. : to be engaged in the study or practice of <do science>; especially : to work at as a vocation lt;what to do after college>
    1. : to pass over (as distance) : traverse <did 20 miles yesterday>
    2. : to travel at a speed of <doing 55 on the turnpike>
  13. : tour <doing 12 countries in 30 days>
    1. : to spend (time) in prison <has been doing time in a federal penitentiary>
    2. : to serve out (a period of imprisonment)
      <did ten years for armed robbery>
  14. : to serve the needs of : suit, suffice <worms will do us for bait>
  15. : to approve especially by custom, opinion, or propriety <you oughtn’t to say a thing like that — it’s not done – Dorothy Sayers>
  16. : to treat with respect to physical comforts <did themselves well>
  17. : use 3 <doesn’t do drugs>
  18. : to have sexual intercourse with
  19. : to partake of <let’s do lunch>

do (intransitive verb)

  1. : act, behave <do as I say>
    1. : get along, fare <do well in school>
    2. : to carry on business or affairs : manage
      <we can do without your help>
  2. : to take place : happen <what’s doing across the street>
  3. : to come to or make an end : finish -used in the past participle
  4. : to be active or busy <let us then be up and doing
    – H. W. Longfellow>
  5. : to be adequate or sufficient : serve <half of that will do>
  6. : to be fitting : conform to custom or propriety
    <won’t do to be late>
  7. -used as a substitute verb to avoid repetition
    <wanted to run and play as children do> ; used especially in British English following a modal auxiliary or perfective have <a great many people had died, or would do – Bruce Chatwin>
  8. -used in the imperative after an imperative to add emphasis <be quiet do>

do (verbal auxiliary)

    1. -used with the infinitive without to to form present and past tenses in legal and parliamentary language <do hereby bequeath> and in poetry <give what she did crave – Shakespeare>
    2. -used with the infinitive without to to form present and past tenses in declarative sentences with inverted word order <fervently do we pray -
      Abraham Lincoln>, in interrogative sentences
      <did you hear that?>, and in negative sentences <we don’t know> <don’t go>
  1. -used with the infinitive without to to form present and past tenses expressing emphasis <i do say> <do be careful>

do (noun)

  1. chiefly dialect : fuss, ado
  2. archaic : deed, duty
    1. : a festive get-together : affair, party
    2. chiefly British : battle
  3. : a command or entreaty to do something <a list of dos and don’ts>
  4. British : cheat, swindle
  5. : hairdo

All that’s without me bothering to get out a big dictionary.


Alas, poor English! How confused we must be to be using a mere alphabet. Oh, if only we could achieve linguistic, aesthetic, and historical meaning!

In the case of Baidu.com, the word, in Latin letters, has slipped away from its original context and meaning, and been turned into a brand.

Baidu is a brand, and as is generally thought of as such regardless of what script it is written in. Furthermore, it’s understood as a “word” only as that search engine. In the poem the characters “百度” are used to write not one word but two — and even written in Hanzi this is not something more than a relative handful of people in China or Taiwan would recognize as having come from that poem unless someone told them about it first.

Language is such a basic part of our lives, it seems ordinary and transparent. But language is strange and magical, too: it dredges up history and memory; it simultaneously bestows and destabilizes meaning. Each of the thousands of languages spoken around the world has its own system and rules, its own subversions, its own quixotic beauty. Whenever you try to standardize those languages, whether on the Internet, in schools or in literature, you lose something. What we gain in consistency costs us in precision and beauty.

When Chinese speakers Baidu (like Google, it too is a verb), we look for information on the Internet using a branded search engine. But when we see the characters for băi dù, we might, for one moment, engage with the poetry of our language, remember that what we are really trying to do is find what we were seeking in the receding light. Those sets of meanings, layered like a palimpsest, might appear suddenly, where we least expect them, in the address bar at the top of our browsers. And in some small way, those words, in our own languages, might help us see with clarity, and help us to make sense of the world.

Clarity? Clarity?!

I understand that the author, as a novelist rather than a linguist, might be preoccupied with the whole Ezra Pound “make it new” and “give people new eyes” thing. If so, good for her. But, still, one should not not confuse flights of fancy, no matter how cool they might sound, with facts and should at least attempt not to be completely wrong about almost everything, especially when publishing in the New York Times.

If the argument for Chinese characters is supposed to be that their continued, indeed expanded, use is necessary so people can quote poems in Literary Sinitic out of context so that what would be at best a low-single-digit percentage of native speakers of Mandarin or another modern Sinitic language might recognize the allusion despite a lack of context and might get a Hanzi-licious frisson out of the experience … that would have to be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read.

Kicking the irony meter way up on all this is that the author of those remarks on the really cool feelings one can get from reading Chinese characters cannot herself read texts written in them, though she neglected to mention that little bit of information in her New York Times piece.

And for irony on top of irony, as someone who left China at the age of 10, she likely still knows her native Sinitic language, so texts written in romanization could give her the literacy in that language that she lacks in Chinese characters. Romanization could provide meaning; but instead she harps upon the virtues of Chinese characters.

Oh, and for a final bit of irony, here’s something else the author apparently didn’t bother to check: 百度.com already exists. And is anyone surprised to hear that the site at that address is not a search engine of the Song dynasty? Here’s what it looks like.

That’s right: 百度.com is just a linkspam site. But apparently because, unlike baidu.com, it has Chinese characters in the URL it’s linkspam with its own quixotic beauty; it’s linkspam with its own sets of meanings, layered like a palimpsest; and it’s linkspam that is rich with linguistic, aesthetic and historical meaning.

C’mon, people! Feel the poetry of it! The precision!

Like, wow.

X marks the spot?

Sat, 06/26/2010 - 07:25

In December Taiwan will be getting a new city. In fact, it will be the most populous city in the entire country: Xīnběi Shì (新北市).

For those not familiar with the situation, I should perhaps give a bit of background. Taiwan won’t suddenly have more people or buildings. Instead, the area known as Taipei County (which does not include the city of Taipei but which occupies a much greater area than Taipei and has a much greater total population) will be getting a long-overdue official upgrade to a “special municipality,” which means that it will get a lot more money and civil servants per capita from the central government. And as such the area will be dubbed a city, even though in appearance and demographic patterns it isn’t really a city at all but still a county containing several cities (which are to become “districts” despite having hundreds of thousands more inhabitants than some other places labeled “cities”), lots of towns, and plenty of empty countryside.

The Mandarin name will change from Táiběi Xiàn to Xīnběi Shì. (Xīn is the Mandarin word for “new.” Xiàn is “county.” Shì is “city.” And běi is “north.”)The official so-called English name is, tentatively, “Xinbei City.” Hanyu Pinyin! Yea!

Talking about “English” names is often misleading, since many people conflate English and romanization of Mandarin; and the usual pattern of Taiwanese place names not written in Chinese characters tends to be MANDARIN PROPER NAME + ENGLISH CATEGORY (e.g., “Taoyuan County”). So, at least in this post, I’m going to be a bit sloppy about what I’m calling “English.” Forgive me. OK, now back to the subject.

A couple of days ago, however, both major candidates for the powerful position of running the area currently known as Taipei County (Táiběi Xiàn) had a rare bit of agreement: both expressed a preference for using “New Taipei City” instead of “Xinbei City.” Ugh.

And to top things off, a couple dozen pro-Tongyong Pinyin protesters were outside Taipei County Hall the same day to protest against using Xinbei because it contains what they characterize as China’s demon letter X. Actually, that last part of hyperbole isn’t all that much of an exaggeration of their position. The X makes it look like the city is being crossed out, some of the protesters claimed.

This is, of course, stupid. But unfortunately it’s the sort of stupidity that sometimes plays well here, given how this is a country that pandered to the superstitious by removing 4′s from license plate numbers and ID cards and by changing the name of a subway line because if you cherry-picked from its syllables you could come up with a nickname that might remind people of a term for cheating in mah-jongg (májiàng). (Why bother with letting competent engineers do things the way they need to be done when problems can be fixed magically through attempts to eliminate puns!)

The protesters would prefer the Tongyong form, Sinbei. I suspect foreigners here would rapidly change that to the English name “Sin City,” which I must admit would have a certain ring to it and might even be a tourist draw. Still, Tongyong has already done enough damage. Those wanting to promote Taiwan’s identity would be much better off channeling their energy into projects that might actually be useful to their cause.

The reason the government selected “Xinbei City” is that “New Taipei City” would be too similar to “Taipei City,” according to the head of the Taipei County Government’s Department of Civil Affairs. And, yes, they would be too similar. Also, Xinbei is simply the correct form in Hanyu Pinyin, which is Taiwan’s (and Taipei County’s) official romanization system. It would also be be much better still to omit “city” altogether.

Consider how this might work on signs, keeping in mind that Taipei and Xīnběi Shì are right next to each other. So such similar names as “New Taipei City” and “Taipei City” would run the risk of confusion, unlike, say, the case of New Jersey and Jersey. I wonder if the candidates for mayor of Xinbei are under the impression that they should change the name of the town across from Danshui from Bālǐ to something else because visitors to Taiwan might otherwise think they could drive to the Indonesian island of Bali from northern Taiwan.

They probably said they liked “New Taipei City” better because it sounds “more English” to them. And it is more English than “Xinbei.” But that’s not a good thing.

Once again it may be necessary to point out what ought to be obvious: The reason so-called English place names are needed is not because foreigners need places to have names in the English language. If it were, I suppose we could redub many places with appropriate names in real English: “Ugly Dump Filled With Concrete Buildings” (with numbers appended so the many possibilities could be distinguished from each other), “Nuclear Waste Depository,” “Armpit of Taiwan,” “Beautiful Little Town that Turns Into a Tourist Hell on Weekends,” etc. The possibilities are endless, though perhaps some of the nicer places would need to be given awful names — following the Iceland/Greenland model — lest they be overrun. The problem is that Chinese characters are too damn hard, and people who can’t read them (i.e., most foreign residents and tourists) need to be able to find places on maps, on Web pages, through signs, etc. And they need to be able to communicate through speech with people in Taiwan about places. Having two different names — the Mandarin one and the so-called English one — is just confusing. Having one name in Mandarin written in two systems (Chinese characters and romanization), however, makes sense and works best. (If Taiwan were to switch to using Taiwanese instead of Mandarin, that would be a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.)

But things that make sense and politicians don’t often fit well together.

Consider the signs. What a @#$% mess this could be. Let’s compare a few ramifications of using Xinbei and Taipei vs. using New Taipei City and Taipei City.

Xinbei and Taipei.

  • basically no chance of confusing one with the other
  • short (6 characters each), thus fitting better on signs
  • preexisting “Taipei [City]” signs wouldn’t have to be changed
  • Xinbei would be the correct romanization and not repeat the misleading pei of bastardized Wade-Giles
  • definitely no need to add “city” to either name, because there would be no “Taipei County” that might need to be distinguished from the city of Taipei, nor would there be a “Xinbei County” that would need to be distinguished from the city of Xinbei

Now let’s look at the case of New Taipei City and Taipei City.

  • relatively easy to confuse at a glance
  • relatively easy to confuse in general
  • long, and don’t fit as easily on signs (“New Taipei City” = 15 characters, including spaces; “Taipei City” = 11 characters, including the space)
  • “New Taipei City” would continue to ill-advised and outdated practice of using bastardized Wade-Giles spellings
  • any time the common adjective new needs to be applied to something dealing with “New Taipei City” or “Taipei City” the chances for confusion and mistakes would increase even more, esp. in headlines
  • the worst choice

The Taipei County Council will determine the final version of the name in September.


See also

(By the way, if any Taiwan reporters want to pick up on this blog post, please don’t just follow the usual practice here of simply asking one or two random foreigners if they think the name “New Taipei City” sounds OK, so then you conclude that there’s no problem. Try to get people who’ve actually thought about the situation for more than a few seconds and who could give you an informed opinion. My apologies to those reporters who of course know better.)

sg domain names in Chinese characters lag

Wed, 06/23/2010 - 14:04

Between November, 23, 2009, when Singapore first began registering .sg names in Chinese characters, and June 10, 2010, when registrations of Chinese-character .sg domain names opened to all without any additional fee, only 1,024 such names were registered, or just 0.88 percent of all .sg domain names. This apparently includes not just second-level domains (e.g., 中心.sg) but also third-level domains (e.g., 中心.com.sg).

The percentage will likely rise in the coming months, as the process has only recently opened to everyone on a first-come, first-served basis. But, still, demand for such names in Singapore has so far been underwhelming.

A bit more information:

Registrations were accepted in phases, with registrations for government organizations starting on Nov. 23, 2009. Beginning in January, SGNIC began accepting domain name registrations from trademark holders.

During the third phase, the general public was allowed to register domain names starting on March 25, but applicants were charged a “priority fee” of S$100 (US$72) for each domain name, with domain names sought by several applicants awarded to the highest bidder.

In all three phases, applicants could apply for a domain name made up of Chinese numbers or a name with just one Chinese character for a fee of S$500 [US$360]….

The fourth and final phase began on June 10, with SGNIC accepting domain name applications on a first-come, first-served basis. The S$100 priority fee is no longer required, but applicants are no longer allowed to register domain names using Chinese numbers or names with just one Chinese character….

When IDA announced the introduction of Chinese-language domain names last year, SGNIC said the effort was partly intended to help Singaporean businesses target the Chinese market.

source: Singapore registers 1,000 Chinese-language domain names, IDG News Service, June 23, 2010

Taiwanese-English, English-Taiwanese dictionaries posted

Thu, 06/17/2010 - 15:37

Maryknoll Language Service Center has put online the complete texts of its Taiwanese-English and English-Taiwanese dictionaries. Better still, these have been released under a Creative Commons license. These are a terrific resource for anyone who’s interested in Hoklo.

Maryknoll deserves praise for this great work. Thanks are due, too, to Tailingua, which I know has been working behind the scenes to help make this happen.

From the English Amoy Dictionary (英語閩南語字典):

And from the Taiwanese-English Dictionary (台語英語字典):

source: Maryknoll dictionaries now free to download, Tailingua, June 17, 2010

Baidu adds handwriting input

Wed, 06/16/2010 - 05:32

Baidu has just added a function that allows people to use their mouse to write Chinese characters for searches.

On the Baidu home page, click on “手写” (shǒuxiě/手寫/handwrite).

This will bring up a pop-up box in which you can use your mouse to write Hanzi. This functions in basically the same way as the mouse-writing tool that Nciku added about two years ago.

source: Baidu.com’s Search Box Now Supports Chinese Handwriting Input, China Tech News, June 16, 2010

Le Grand Ricci now available on DVD

Wed, 05/19/2010 - 06:24

The magnificent Grand dictionnaire Ricci de la langue chinoise, better known as le Grand Ricci, has just been released on DVD, almost a decade after its release in book form and exactly four hundred years after the death of Matteo Ricci.

The list price is 120 euros (about US$150), which is much cheaper than the printed edition. A long video in French (16:31) discusses the work. For those who would prefer something in English, a PDF gives background information on the dictionary project.

For a sample of the dictionary’s format and entries, see the 25 pages of entries for shan. Alas, as this example shows, the entries are not word parsed. But at least Hanyu Pinyin is now available for those who prefer it to Wade-Giles.

As long as I’m mentioning Ricci-related work, I might as well use the occasion to note that the Taipei Ricci Institute is putting its collection of books on permanent loan to Taiwan’s National Central Library.

Also, I’d like to note that parts of Matteo Ricci’s original dictionary can now be viewed through the Google Books scan of a publication from earlier this century of his Dicionário Português-Chinês.


OMG, it’s Hanzified English

Tue, 04/13/2010 - 11:05

In Taiwan, the new movie Date Night has been given the Mandarin title Yuēhuì o mài gà (約會喔麥尬/约会喔麦尬).

Yuēhuì is simply the word for “date.” The interesting part is “o mài gà” (喔麥尬), which is a Mandarinized form of the English “oh my god.” (I wonder if this, being written in Hanzi despite still being basically English, would pass China’s new need for supposed purity.)

Most people here — especially those younger than about 40 — would simply write “oh my god” (or, less frequently, “o my god”) in English in the middle of an otherwise Mandarin text. (I’ll spare everyone the chart of Google searches; but it backs this up.) But brevity is standard in movie titles here, and “喔麥尬” is a lot more compact on a movie poster than “oh my god.” This, however, raises the question of why “喔麥尬” instead of the equally concise “OMG”. I don’t know the answer to that. But the path of lettered words in Mandarin is certainly not without twists and turns.

Like most other uses of Hanzified English, the results are not entirely faithful to the original sounds.

Mandarin’s ou would be a closer phonetic fit than o for the English “oh”.
There’s Ōu (區/区), a surname. But most of the time this Chinese character is pronounced qū (being one of those many Chinese characters with multiple pronunciations), so that certainly wouldn’t work well. There’s ǒu, which has a more clearly phonetic Hanzi (嘔/呕), but which has to do with vomit (ǒutù/嘔吐/呕吐). Another possible choice would be ōu (歐/欧); but that is associated mainly with Europe and doesn’t get used much as a phonetic component in non-Europe-related loan words outside the word for ohm: ōumǔ (歐姆/欧姆).

Mài (the Mandarin word for wheat), unlike most other Mandarin morphemes pronounced mai (various tones), gets used phonetically in lots of various loan words, such as Màidāngláo (McDonald’s/麥當勞/麦当劳), Màijiā (Mecca/麥加/麦加), Dānmài (Denmark/丹麥/丹麦), and Kāmàilóng (Cameroon/喀麥隆/喀麦隆). So its use is to be expected, though semantically there’s no link. And mài is certainly a better fit for the English my than it is for the Mc of McDonald’s, the Mec of Mecca, the mark of Denmark, or the me of Cameroon.

For ga there’s not a lot of choice. 咖 is often seen in the phonetic loan gālí (curry). The biggest problem here is that the same 咖 is also used as kā in a different, common phonetic loan: kāfēi (coffee). There’s 嘎; but, like 尬, it’s not exactly a well-known character.

Anyway, I could go on for a long time listing various possibilities. But the main point is that Chinese characters just don’t do well at this sort of thing.

As for Pinyin, I suppose the orthography could get interesting: o mài gà, o màigà, omài gà, or omàigà. But a Pinyin orthography would probably simply encourage people to write this in the original: oh my god.

BTW, you may wish to try the following experiment. The in o mài gà is most often seen in writing the word gāngà (尷尬/尴尬), which means awkward/embarrassed. Ask native speakers of Mandarin to write gāngà in Hanzi for you by hand without using a dictionary, a computer, or any other form of assistance. I bet that most people — even those with university degrees — won’t be able to write this common, ordinary word correctly.

And for lagniappe, the character 尬 is also sometimes seen in written Taiwanese as the equivalent of Mandarin’s jiā (加/add). I spotted an example of this just the other day on a cafe sign (in the sense of “buy something and ga something else for a special price”) but didn’t have a camera with me.