Saturday, March 12, 2016

English "can" and Chinese "会"

An auxiliary verb is one that cannot be used alone and must work with a regular verb. English "can" is an example, e.g. "I can speak Chinese", where the verb "speak" cannot be omitted. But in the case of Chinese "会", both "我会说中文" and "我会中文" are perfectly grammatical. In this blog posting, we'll compare the English "can" with its Chinese counterpart "会" particularly in the context of language study.

The sentence "我会中文" must be translated to English as "I know Chinese", or "I can [a verb such as speak] Chinese", but not "I can Chinese", because "会" is used as a regular transitive verb, a usage not existing for English "can". In the first translation here, "会" matches "know". But if you mull over the connotation, there's a subtle nuance that easily escapes our attention. To know is to have knowledge. "I know Chinese" implies that I have knowledge of this language, a passive knowledge not readily leading to an action. The Chinese "会", on the other hand, often suggests a more active role, and "我会中文" is more accurately translated to "I can [a verb such as speak] Chinese" than to "I know Chinese". The only problem with this "more accurate" translation is that we can't assume "会" is unambiguously "can speak"; of the various aspects of the language skill, speaking is only one, parallel with reading, writing and listening comprehension.

There seems to be a deficiency in second language education in China when compared to that in other countries. "哑巴英语" (literally, "mute or dumb English"), referring to English education with emphasis on scoring high on paper tests at the expense of speaking skills, was and probably still is widespread in China. But language study in other countries is generally in a better shape, where someone said to know a language is assumed to be able to speak that language. As a result, "我中文" and "I can speak Chinese" become equivalent in real-life situations.

It's obvious that Chinese "会" is used as an auxiliary verb when it's followed by a regular verb, just like English "can". When "会" is followed by a noun, a usage missing for English "can", it is a full-fledged regular verb. In this sense, "会" means "be capable of" or "know" as in "know a language". The noun that follows must represent a type of skill. A language is probably the most common example. But many other skills work as well, e.g., "他会魔术" ("he can do magic", "he knows how to perform magic"), "他会书法" ("he can do calligraphy", "he's good at calligraphy"), "他会量子力学" ("he knows quantum mechanics", although this English sentence may be better interpreted as "他懂量子力学"). In other cases, it becomes ambiguous whether the object is a noun or verb, e.g., "我会游泳" ("I can swim", "I know how to swim"), where "游泳" can be both a noun and a verb.

Chinese is not the only language where the verb "会" may function not only as an auxiliary verb but also as a regular verb. In the Facebook Polyglots group, one German learner asks, "Why do I come across sentences where the main verb is left out; 'Ich kann Deutsch auch'....Where is 'Sprechen'?!". That's simply because the German word "können" (for which "kann" is the first person singular form) serves as a regular verb here. Interestingly, the question asks "Where is 'Sprechen' [speak]?", consistent with the above observation that "speaking" is the dominant or default aspect of the language skill.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Restrictive and non-restrictive clauses

In English, a restrictive clause restricts the scope of the noun or pronoun in front of it (antecedent, head word), while a non-restrictive clause does not. For example,

Restrictive: The New Yorkers who like to walk are healthy.
Non-restrictive: The New Yorkers, who like to walk, are healthy.

In a posting to the Facebook Polyglots group, I'm surprised to find that many non-English-native-speakers have a hard time understanding the difference. I started the discussion because I wanted to see how the sentences are translated to other languages, especially German, where commas are used "profusely". (The two commas in the English sentence are essential in making the distinction between the two types of clauses.) According to the polyglots' responses, it looks like the distinction exists in Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, etc.), but not in many others (German, Polish, possibly Russian). In the latter group of languages, breaking up the sentence into two parts is a solution, e.g., "The New Yorkers like to walk and are healthy".

The reason I bring up this topic here is that, when I think of the distinction in Chinese, I find that it too has the difficulty: both sentences would be translated to "爱走路的纽约人身体健康". Does that mean only those New Yorkers who like to walk are healthy (in the restrictive sense), or New Yorkers in general are healthy because they like to walk (in the non-restrictive sense)? If we were to ask the people who understand Chinese and more or less know that New Yorkers walk a lot, I bet most people will interpret it the non-restrictive way: New Yorkers like to walk and they are healthy. But I strongly believe this is context-dependent. By that I mean, if we ask people who understand Chinese and know that Houston is the fattest city in America how to interpret "爱走路的休斯顿人身体健康" (literally "The Houstonians(,) who like to walk(,) are healthy", where the commas are ambiguous as in Chinese), I'm sure most will think in the restrictive sense: Only those Houstonians who like to walk are healthy. It would be unthinkable to say Houstonians in general like to walk, because many start to pant after dragging their unwieldy bodies for one-eighth of a mile. Sadly, fat Houstonians and lean New Yorkers affect the way we read an English sentence.

Lack of distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses in a specific language of course does not mean the grammarians of that language are unaware of it. In case of Chinese, 定语 or attributive word or phrase or clause is said to have both 修饰 (literally "decorative", corresponding to "non-restrictive" here; not "modifying" as some would translate it to) and 限制 ("limiting", "restrictive") functionalities. Nevertheless, most Chinese are not aware of it and subconsciously mix them up, leading to confusion or misinterpretation.

Lastly, I'd like to point out that if English uses an attributive word instead of a clause, the same ambiguity arises. Consider "The hard-working first-generation immigrants deserve our respect". It can mean (restrictive) "The first-generation immigrants that are hard-working deserve our respect", or (non-restrictive) "The first-generation immigrants, who are hard-working, deserve our respect". Since the first-generation immigrants in general are relatively hard-working, the second interpretation may prevail. But if you are of the opinion that a significant proportion of first-generation immigrants are just as lazy as the population in general, the first interpretation sounds better.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What language is popular? A revisit

Four and half years ago, I checked language popularity based on the number of shelves for the foreign language books at a local Borders Bookstore here in south Texas. The result was as follows:

March 2011 at Borders
Spanish: too many
French: 4
Italian: 3
German, Japanese: 2
Latin: 1.5
Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese: 1
Russian: less than 1
Korean: less than 0.5

The Borders bookstore was closed down soon after that. Recently I went to a local Barnes and Noble store and checked the foreign language books just as I did before, and the result is:

November 2015 at Barnes and Nobles
Spanish 7
French 3
Italian 1.3
Chinese 1
German, Japanese 0.8
Russian 0.6
Latin, Portuguese 0.5
Arabic 0.4
Korean, Vietnamese 0.3

The following is a summary of the two sets of data (Spanish is excluded; the numbers less than 1 and 0.5 are artificially set to 0.8 and 0.4, respectively):

It's probably safe to assume that the two bookstores carry approximately the same total number of books. Then we see that either foreign language books are genuinely sold less in 2015 than in 2011, or the two stores have different focus, i.e., Barnes and Noble cares less about these language books than Borders.

But more interesting is the difference in change for specific languages. Of all that have data for both years (excluding Spanish), only Chinese has kept at the same level, taking one full bookshelf in both years. On average, the 2015-to-2011 ratio is 0.57. Relative to that, Chinese is way above average in books to be sold, and French, Russian and Korean are above average as well. The rest are attracting lower customer interest now than before, Portuguese > Italian > German = Japanese > Latin. Latin, with the biggest drop, occupies one-third of the space on the shelf after elapse of four and half years. There may be a shift of people's interest away from pure intellectual enjoyment to practical economic benefit.

This is of course a crude way to measure language popularity. Commercial bookstores such as Borders and Barnes and Noble make an effort to meet the demand of the market but there's no perfect, up-to-the-minute, match.

For completeness, here is another measurement of language popularity, based on an April 2014 poll of what language the language-loving people are studying conducted in the Polyglots group on Facebook, which had 16,000 members at the time. The popularity order,

French (935) > Spanish (807) > German (799) > English (651), Italian (448), ..., Mandarin+Chinese (360)

is obviously different from the bookstore popularity in 2011 or this year. For one, the stores are in Texas, where the presence of Spanish is particularly strong. Secondly, the market-determined popularity may differ from that in the Polyglots-poll because the latter is more of a reflection of the fun or leisure time enjoyment, not necessarily going along with the economic development in the region where a specific language is spoken; while studying Chinese may increase your chance to find a job in the global market, it may not be as much fun as studying the sexy Italian. It would be interesting, though, if the Polyglots group could conduct a poll every once in a while, so that we could see if the fun factor could also go up and down as the usefulness does. It probably will, but on a much smaller scale.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

On a proposed new name for China combining Mainland and Taiwan

Xi Jinping of Mainland China and Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan, two top leaders on each side, had a historic meeting on November 7, 2015. It was an unprecedented event to ease the tension across the Taiwan Strait since one government split into two in 1949. Some people on the Internet are excited about making up new names for a possible merger of the two governments.[note1] It would be unfair to reuse either of the current names

  • 中华人民共和国, People's Republic of China, used in Mainland
  • 中华民国 (中華民國), Republic of China, used in Taiwan (but 中华台北, Chinese Taibei, in certain international events)

if such merger were to happen. Of all possible names proposed in the half-serious half-hilarious online discussions, "中华共和国" merits linguistic and historical analyses. The first component of this neologism, "中华", combines the central theme of the names from both Mainland and Taiwanese governments, and represents the common cultural element that ties both sides together. Generally translated to "China", it literally means "central" or "middle" (as in "Middle Kingdom") and "flowery beauty" (see Name of China).

The latter component of "中华共和国", i.e. "共和国", is not that straightforward. It is the third component of the compound word "中华·人民·共和国", but superficially differs from the second of the compound "中华·民国". But are they truly different and how? Confusingly, both governments take "Republic" as part of the official English name. While English "republic" most commonly maps to "共和国" in Chinese, the Wikipedia 共和制 article states that "在東亞有一些共和制國家也以舊譯「民國」为名" (In East Asia, there are some republican states that take an old translation "民國" as their names.) So "民国" as a general term (as opposed to a proper noun) is simply an alternative translation of "republic". The problem of this one-to-many relationship, "republic" translated to both "共和国" and "民国", is that "中华共和国" will have to be translated to "Republic of China". But that English phrase has already been taken; it's the official English name for "中华民国". While the Mainland government may be happy with the Chinese name "中华共和国", its potential English name "Republic of China" would be a horrible choice precisely because of the conflict with the English name of the current Taiwanese government. (This reminds me of cybersquatting in which people register Internet domain names in the hope of selling them for a good price later. But the Taiwanese government of course didn't do this intentionally and had no intention to make money out of such good English name.) I have not found the originator of this English translation for "中华民国". A message was sent to asking for help but I have yet to receive a response. Apparently, soon after 中华民国 was established in 1912, both "Republic of China" and "Nationalist China" were used, but the former prevailed as time passed by, even though "Nationalist China" is literally closer in meaning.

The English word "republic" comes from Latin "res publica", meaning "public affair(s), public matter(s), public thing(s)" (not "people's public affairs" or "people's affairs" as some sources claim). Over time, it has evolved into the modern sense of "a form of government or country in which power resides in elected individuals representing the citizen body and government leaders exercise power according to the rule of law" (from Wikipedia Republic). The Latin source of the word does not inherently conceive its modern meaning, nor does it map to Chinese "共和国" or "民国". So we just need to examine the relationship between the modern meaning of "republic" and the two Chinese translations. "民国" is an easy term, literally "people's country" or "people's state", or a country "of the people, by the people, for the people". On the other hand, "共和国" is more complicated. "共和" as the name of the political system was coined by Japanese scholar Bankei Otsuki (大槻磐溪) referring to Gonghe Regency when the Zhou Dynasty was ruled jointly by two dukes more than 2000 years ago.[note2] This translation using Kanji characters was later brought into the Chinese vocabulary as a loan word. Now, it's clear that neither "共和国" nor "民国" is a perfect translation of "republic" in its modern sense, in terms of intension (not intention) of the words. But "民国" as "people's country" is definitely closer than "共和国" if understood literally; why a country ruled by two dukes would in any way be likened to a modern republic is beyond me. Unfortunately, for unknown historical reasons, the Chinese word "共和国" is actually very much more common as a translation of English "republic" and "民国" has fallen out of fashion.[note3]

In short, the proposed name "中华共和国" is a good one in Chinese. But its translation in English and all other languages with a writing system not directly based on Chinese characters pose a curious challenge.

[note1] The Mainland government calls the Taiwanese counterpart "authority", not "government". But that's a point beyond my interest.
[note2] Nowadays more historians seem to attribute another event at the very beginning of the Chinese chronology, i.e. 841 BCE, as the source for "共和". This is called "共伯和干王位" (The Count of Gong named He ruled as a regent.).
[note3] As a proper noun, "民国" is short for "民国时期", referring to a historical period, either from 1912 (beginning of ROC) to 1949 (beginning of PRC) used in Mainland, or from 1945 (beginning of ROC's rule of Taiwan) on.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Funny Chinese transliterations to help remember English words

Some Chinese guy with too much free time came up with interesting Chinese transliterations of some English words. Part of the list is as follows, with my English translation of the transliterations in parentheses.

救护车 ambulance 俺不能死 (I can't die)
雄心 ambition 俺必胜 (I must win)
强壮 strong 死壮 (die strong; this Chinese "word" only exists as a transliteration for English "strong")
羡慕 admire 额的妈呀 (Oh my God; literally, my mom; 额 is a dialectal pronunciation of 我)
脾气 temper 太泼 (too surly or boorish and rowdy)
经济 economy 依靠农民 (rely on farmers)
海关 customs 卡死他们 (block them to death)
怀孕 pregnant 扑来个男的 (a man throws himself down on me)
地主 landlord 懒得劳动 (too lazy to work)

What's special about these phonetic transliterations is that they are meaningful phrases or sentences on their own and there's semantic connection, although no equivalence, with their English counterpart. An "ambulance" doesn't mean "I can't die", but imagine what the person being transported is saying to himself. "Customs" ("custom" in the original posting) maps to "block them to death", consistent with the practice of economic protectionism.

English-speaking people learning a European language, particularly a Romance (Latin) language, can greatly benefit from etymology.[note] When etymology fails to help, some sort of mnemonics may be conjured up, unless the learner prefers rote memory, as young children tend to do. Alison Matthews and Laurence Matthews' Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters does exactly that to help English speakers learn Chinese words. The book exists because there's too little etymological connection between English and Chinese. To go in the other direction, a Chinese cramming English vocabulary has to rely on mnemonics as well. I only hope to see a more complete list of Chinese transliterations than the one shown above, ideally published as a pocket dictionary, so the student can look up a word to read the suggested mnemonic while enjoying the fun that serves to strengthen the memory.

[note] In fact, I've been writing my book Learning Spanish Words Through Etymology And Mnemonics for almost a year, inspired by this idea. See here for more details.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Prepositional separation as a difficulty of Chinese

For lack of a better term, I call this prepositional separation: In Chinese, a concept normally denoted by a single preposition in most other languages must be expressed by two characters or words separated by other words. For instance, English "in" is "在...中" or "在...里面" in Chinese. In short simple sentences, this is not a problem. But when a sentence becomes longer, even a native speaker begins to struggle when he crams more and more intermediate components into short-term working memory, in eager anticipation of the end marker such as "中" or "里面", to finish processing the information. Take the following as an example,

He put the ring in a bright color box that has an exquisitely decorated label on it, which reads "For Julia".

Of course, a good translator may choose to break up the long-winding Chinese sentence, precisely because the long-winding attributive clause sounds awkward, unnatural, or simply, non-Chinese. In addition to attributive clauses, Chinese suffers from potentially long complement clauses as well. Take the following as an example.

A sophisticated computer behaves like a human in the sense that it can generate its own commands according to the current situation it encounters.

The Chinese translation is almost forced to have two sentences; otherwise, the "in the sense that" clause would be too foreign to be a Chinese ear.

Separation of a semantic structure that provides one single functionality is generally undesirable, in Chinese or any language. Winston Churchill allegedly made up a sentence, "This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put" in response to the picky editor. German has tons of separable verbs (as well as its ending "not") that swell the brains of simultaneous interpreters. Fortunately, English and many other languages normally consolidate the words or phrases that represent one concept, or can do so as an option. You can say "put on the jacket", or "put the jacket on". But when the "jacket" becomes long due to a series of adjectives, it's unlikely you'll separate "put" and "on", and you'll definitely not do so if "jacket" has an attributive clause. In Chinese, on the other hand, the "word ... word" (e.g. "在...中") construct is the only option. A translator has to be clever enough to shorten the "..." part to a comfortable level.

The Chinese language is difficult not just because of its large repertoire of characters, but also because of other aspects such as its prepositional separation, which may become increasingly cumbersome in expressing complicated ideas in the modern world.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Translation of a poem "Snow falling on high branches..."

Somebody asked for a translation of this poem:


My translation:

Snow falling on high branches befits blooming flowers
I'm amazed at this clean beauty
So demonstrative as to debase myself?

The last sentence may be a challenge. 摧眉 literally means "make lower eyebrows". But figuratively it means "lose confidence; flatter (in the bad sense)".

This poem, technically ci rather, was probably composed by a person named 啼非 in 2004.

(The image of the fan below is from Mr. Vishal Upadhayay's Facebook posting.)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

English words that seem to have opposite meanings, "sanction", "bash", "bashful"

Somebody in a forum mentioned a few English words that seem to have opposite meanings. One is "sanction", which according to Wiktionary means (1) an approval, by an authority, generally one that makes something valid; (2) a penalty, or some coercive measure, intended to ensure compliance; especially one adopted by several nations, or by an international body. A quick response from another guy is "really? somebody should tell Putin that sanction can mean something better!!" That's interesting! Anyway, I've always worried about the seemingly conflicting meanings of this word and sometimes avoid using it in my writing or speech, unless it's very clear, as in "economic sanction (against a country)".

Another example mentioned is "bash". On the one hand, it has the meaning of to strike heavily, to criticize harshly (source), as in "Bashing Hillary? Don't go there, GOP". On the other hand, the word "bashful" means shy, timid (source). How could you justify these two opposite human behaviors with one single word (or word with a suffix)? This word, though, is different from "sanction", in that "bashful" actually has a completely different etymology and is related to the verb "abash", to make ashamed or embarrassed (source). In any dictionary, when two words have the same spelling but are descended from two etymological sources, they're usually listed as two headwords or entries. In case of "bashful", it's not the word "bash" with the suffix "-ful", but was formed by "abashed" + "-ful" and later lost the initial unstressed vowel (a process called aphesis). "bash" does have the same meaning as "abash" except that sense is now obsolete.

Well, some words that look like having different meanings but they don't, such as "flammable" and "inflammable". That's another topic, for now.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thought experiment: reading speed of a trilingual

I've always wondered about this. Imagine a person perfectly trilingual[note1] in English (or any language using a phonetic writing system hereinafter), Korean, and Chinese. I predict that his reading speed is Chinese > Korean > English. The speed can be measured by reading a culture- and language-neutral passage telling the same simple story. (But see [note2].) I suppose that the information the brain and eyes acquire within a given moment is the most for Chinese, less for Korean and the least for English. Suppose the text font is about the same on three sheets of paper (or computer screens), each written in one of the three languages. The eyes scan from left to the right. Due to the nature of English, the eye movement is completely linear. The amount of information thus gained within, say, one tenth of a second, may be less than in the case of Chinese. A language- and culture- neutral passage about the same content is normally printed shorter in Chinese than in English. But the eye scanning speed is about the same. So the total reading time will be shorter for Chinese. Let's call that advantage of information density for Chinese.

Secondly, I suppose human eyes focus on circular areas, instead of horizontal lines. That is, the very focal point is a round dot, the farther away from it, the less focus; eyes do not focus on one fixed-width line, the farther away above or below or to the left or right to it, the less focus. Chinese characters have the advantage of packing semantic information in a square block, compared to English which spreads the same information out horizontally, whose acquisition requires left-to-right scan by the eyes.

The Korean language is a unique case in that its letters are arranged both in a block and horizontally. It's a perfect compromise between English and Chinese. The eyes can gain some information focusing on one spot but usually must move horizontally to gain enough for a word. So the reading by the same person reading the same content will have the intermediate speed.

On the other hand, a March 24, 2015 article reports the research by Georgetown University scientists, After learning new words, brain sees them as pictures (probably based on this publication). Indeed, our brain does not process English text strictly linearly when our eyes horizontally scan the line into our brain. This means that the distinction between a language with largely block-based information (Chinese) and one with line-based information (English etc.) is not so dramatic. Nevertheless, I would be very delighted if we could find a person perfectly trilingual in English, Korean and Chinese, or at least perfectly bilingual in two of the three, to test his reading speed. Personally I'm not sure if I'm perfectly bilingual in English and Chinese. But I do feel that my reading speed in Chinese slightly better than in English. But I have not done a well-prepared test.[note2]

[note1] He's said to be a maximal trilingual, in the field of Second Language Acquisition.
[note2] Obviously the test must be given by another person. Since the person taking the test naturally reads the passage faster if he's already read the same content in any language, the passage actually cannot contain the same content translated into different languages in real implementation of this test. How the test can be given in the most appropriate way may be a technical challenge.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

My first book

I just self-published my first book, Random Thoughts while Studying English and Chinese. The table of contents are as follows:

1 "主席" (Zhǔxí) was Chairman, is President
2 "Ni Hao Ma" (你好吗) is not a native Chinese greeting
3 Affective meaning of "中国" (China)
4 Chinese Character Usage Frequency
5 2015: The Year of "羊"
6 Why do Chinese choose uncommon English names?
7 Scholarly translation should be literal
8 "We should all be learning Chinese..." thus they say
9 "He" (他) and "she" (她) mix-up for Chinese students
10 "第几" has no English equivalent
11 New Chinese Acronyms
12 "Dragon" for "龙": a mistranslation?
13 Joke due to translation: "Oracle bone script" was registered as a software brand by Americans
14 Chinese religious language
15 "Modern" and "现代" or "近代"
16 Translation: a case study, "feminism" and "女权主义"
17 Translation of "computer", "calculator", and others
18 New Year's Wish: Less new usage of 被 (bei)
19 "谢谢叔叔!" (Thank you Uncle) said not to a family relative
20 "NBA" as an entry in Chinese dictionary
21 ESL methods: bilingual and immersion
22 Linguistic authority
23 Chinese "empty word" 虚词
24 虚词"虽然": empty word "although"
25 虚词"当然": empty word "of course"
26 虚词"很": empty word "very"
27 Interjection (叹词)
28 Why should the Chinese language not adopt a phonetic writing system?
29 Learning ... as a second language
30 Technical document needs literal translation
31 Levels of translation quality proposed by Yan Fu: A small example
32 Proper name translation: semantic or phonetic
33 Proper name translation: standardization
34 What language is popular?
35 Which English letter do Chinese pronounce wrong the most?
36 Language education to solve Chinese ethnic conflict

Any comments and reviews, good or bad, are highly appreciated. In case you ask, the landscape painting featured on the cover of the book is my hand-drawn replication of 山水图 (Picture of Mountains and Water) by 黄鼎 (Huang Ding, 1660-1730), an early Qing dynasty painter.