Monday, January 9, 2017

Comparison of Chinese and Western Etymology

In my last post, I said "Most languages in the world take the alphabetic writing system. Studying the internal history of its vocabulary primarily means analyzing phonological and morphological changes through time." In this post,[note1] I'll expand on that point and contrast that with the Chinese tradition.

Take the word language as an example. In English, we read

late 13c., langage "words, what is said, conversation, talk," from Old French langage "speech, words, oratory; a tribe, people, nation" (12c.), from Vulgar Latin *linguaticum, from Latin lingua "tongue," also "speech, language," from PIE *dnghu- "tongue" (see tongue (n.)).
The -u- is an Anglo-French insertion (see gu-); it was not originally pronounced. Meaning "manner of expression" (vulgar language, etc.) is from c. 1300. ...

Source: Online Etymology Dictionary

In Spanish, we have

idioma m. language. [LL. idiōma: id. <Gk. idiōma: peculiarity (as lang.) <idiousthai: to make one's own <idios. See idio-.]; idiomático,ca a. idiomatic. [Gr. idiōmatikos: particular.]
Source: A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Spanish Language with Families of Words based on Indo-European Roots by Edward A. Roberts, 2014.

And most importantly, in French, we have

LANGUE, sf. a tongue; formerly lengue, from L. lingua. For in=en=an see § 71, and Hist. Gram. p. 48. — Der. langage, languette.
Source: An Etymological Dictionary of the French Language by Auguste Brachet, 1882.

The reason for my praise "most importantly" is that Auguste Brachet, the "romanistischer Autodidakt"-turned-professor according to (German) Wikipedia, created a monumental masterpiece in not just French etymology but etymology in general. In addition to what a regular etymologist would do, such as tracing the word form to its etymons in the same or other languages, Mr. Brachet systematically summarized the rules of the morphological and phonological changes and applied them to individual words in his dictionary. In the said example, he noted that for the derivation of in < en < an in the development of Latin lingua to French langue, the reader can consult his rule 71 in the book, where he says

I in Latin position [i.e. "when followed in the Latin word by two consonants" according to him, a convention not exactly the same as adopted today; my note] is changed to e in Merovingian Latin: thus fermum, ..., for firmum, ...' and this e, pronounced ei (see § 66), has produced two distinct French forms, according as it has preferred the open è sound, or the i sound.

You can choose to follow up to rule 66 in this book and p.48 of his A Historical Grammar of the French Tongue for more information about these sound (phonological) as well as spelling (orthographic) changes.

Western etymological publications may be divided into two groups: (1) dictionaries that give etymons or source words; (2) scholarly books and research articles on phonological and orthographic changes over time. Mr. Brachet's dictionary is unique in that it merges the two into one, so that the reader is conveniently offered the explanation of sound changes right in the headword entry, obviating the need to research as to why, e.g., the first i in *linguaticum would change to a in the history of the English word language.

However, a word contains more than its sound and spelling, but its meaning as well, which etymology cannot avoid tracing. But as linguist Calvert Watkins warned us, it is "more hazardous to attempt to reconstruct meaning than to reconstruct linguistic form". Sense development is much less researched and also less described in dictionaries. Unlike phonology, semantics or the study of meanings of words is not easily subject to formal (as in "formal logic") structural analysis. And yet tracing the sense development is the primary task of Chinese etymology. Chinese phonological development is a separate field of study; it is not incorporated in etymology, because the meaning of Chinese characters (or words, whose meanings are almost always based on the component characters) is largely dissociated from the sound. Take the character 文 ("text") as an example.

Source: 谢光辉《汉语字源字典》, 北京大学出版社, 2000年, 29页
Translation of the embedded text: "文" is a pictographic character. "文" in oracle bone script (甲骨文) and bronze inscription script (金文) resembles a standing person facing forward. His chest bears tattoo of decorative patterns. This is in fact a vivid description of the ancient "文身" (tattoo) custom. Thus the original meaning of "文" was a person with tattoo on his body, as well as pattern, texture. Later, the meaning was extended to character, article, culture, civilization etc.

That was a typical entry of Chinese character etymology. For simple characters especially pictographic ones, it is simply pure 依类象形 or description of the object according to what it looks like. The focus is on the meaning, not the reading or sound. Some more complicated characters may be decomposed into elements each of which is analyzed the same way, as in the case of "秦" (see my last post).

Needless to say, the majority of the characters (at least 80%) are of the type 形声字 or characters of form and sound, such as "指" (finger; to point), where the form radical "扌" suggests the meaning, i.e. something related to hand, and the sound component "旨" suggests its reading , i.e. zhǐ. The classical Shuowen Jiezi (说文解字) dictionary, unsurprisingly, points out that this character "从手旨聲" (the meaning is based on "手" and the sound on "旨").

Similarities and differences between Chinese and Western etymology can also be revealed from the definition of the word etymology itself. The Webster dictionary defines it as "the history of a linguistic form (as a word) shown (1) by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language where it is found, (2) by tracing its transmission from one language to another, (3) by analyzing it into its component parts, (4) by identifying its cognates in other languages, or (5) by tracing it and its cognates to a common ancestral form in an ancestral language" (I added the parenthesized numbers). Thus we see that most western dictionaries with etymological information meet the requirements (1) and (2), sometimes (3). Wiktionary and Friedrich Kluge's An Etymological Dictionary of the German Language also meet (4) and (5) most of the time. What if we apply these requirements to Chinese character etymology? (1) is often met if we interpret it as finding the first occurrence in history, which nowadays is made drastically easy with the aid of a computer-based search. But tracing its development in the course of long history, either inside Chinese or (2) across different languages, is rarely done. (3) is done, though with significant differences from that in western languages. (4) and (5) are rare because they're mostly irrelevant to Chinese characters.

How is analyzing a Chinese character into its components special compared to the western tradition? While a character e.g. "指" can be analyzed into "扌" (for meaning) and "旨" (for sound), there is no systematic change of a component from one form to another. Take rule 126, one of the many summarized by Mr. Brachet for French, as an example, "Before a, initial c ... passes through the successive aspirated sounds k'h, tk'h, kch, ch." He supports this rule of ca- > ch- with about 80 words as evidence, champ < campus, chien < canis, etc. Can we construct an analogy of this rule and find supporting examples in Chinese etymology? Since Chinese does not use an alphabetic writing system, there's hardly any need in dealing with the sound change of a character in etymology. Instead, we may substitute the change in form of a character. For example, after studying the 金文, 小篆, and 楷体 forms of "指" and other characters with "扌" on the left side, we may conclude that all (or most) such characters have gone through the predictable change of this radical in these forms, just as the French ca- changed to ch-. Similarly, all or most characters with "旨" on the right side probably went through the same change as shown here (see the row for 字源演变). Thus, we find in etymological studies a parallel between Chinese and western languages in identifying common component change in characters or words.

However, Chinese etymological dictionaries are also interested in finding the "root cause" of the most basic characters. Because the characters are ultimately from pictographs in origin, this "root cause" finding is mostly "依类象形" (describing the object according to what it looks like). If we must find a parallel for this practice in western etymology, it is equivalent to answering the question why e.g. the Proto-Indo-European stem from which Modern English word word is ultimately derived is *were-, that is, why that sound. Obviously, except for some onomatopoeias, there is no answer, or no such research. While Chinese etymologists have forged ahead in that direction, so far this "research" is, I'm afraid, very much based on guess work, simply because there is no record left in history about why a specific character was invented to be of that form. "文" may indeed be a symbol for a person with tattoo, with no hard proof anyway. But this is too error-prone. In my last post, I quoted the article 许慎为何将象释成母猴——“为”字趣释 (Why did Xu Shen interpret an elephant as a female monkey: interesting interpretation of character "为"). In a recent weibo blog post, a scholar interpreted, purely based on its resemblance, "夷" in its original oracle bone script as a person squatting, while in 《汉语字源字典》 (Dictionary of Chinese Character Etymology) by another scholar in this field, it was thought to represent a man bound by ropes, to be served as a slave or for sacrifice. On this stretch of imagination, I have but one comment: "汉字字源,看图识字,见仁见智" (Chinese character etymology / Look at pictures and learn to be literate / Trust your opinions and beliefs).

[note1] Due to the unique nature of the Chinese language, etymology can be of characters as well as words. This post is about character etymology.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Why is it rare to see Chinese etymology?

People speaking English as the native language are used to dictionaries in which each headword contains not only the definition of the word and example phrases or sentences, but also brief etymology, as in this example in the Merriam-Webster dictionary for the word word.

Middle English, from Old English; akin to Old High German wort word, Latin verbum, Greek eirein to say, speak, Hittite weriya- to call, name
First Known Use: before 12th century

A Chinese dictionary, on the other hand, almost never gives the etymology. In this blog posting, I'll try to explain why.

For the sake of discussion, we need to make a distinction between two types of Chinese dictionaries. Due to the nature of the Chinese language, the English word dictionary (or its equivalent in most other languages) can mean either "字典" (literally "character-dictionary") or "词典" also written as "辞典" (literally "word-dictionary") in Chinese. I have not seen a dictionary for general Chinese words published by anyone that contains etymological information for the headwords.[note1] Thereinafter, a Chinese etymological dictionary only refers to a character-dictionary.

The disappointment at lack of an etymological dictionary of Chinese words does not extend to that for a dictionary of Chinese characters or 字典. Back in the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 AD), the scholar Xu Shen (c. 58 – c. 147 CE) wrote the monumental dictionary Shuowen Jiezi (literally "Explaining Graphs and Analyzing Characters" according to Wikipedia). Since Xu lived in a period only one thousand or less years after a large number of Chinese characters were invented, the etymology he gave in the book for each of the 9000 plus characters is mostly trustworthy. Take the character "秦" (qín) as an example. (This character is significant in that it is the ultimate source for the word China in English or its equivalent in most other languages in the world. Two other sources of the word referring to China are Khitan as in the case of Russian, and silk.)

(The fief given to the descendant of Boyi. The land is suitable for crops. The character has a meaning based on "禾" ("crop") and contains an abbreviation or syncope of the character "舂". Another theory claims that this character is the name of a crop. This character in Zhouwen script [a script used just before the time of the First Emperor], "𥠼", is based on "秝". Pronounced with the initial consonant of 匠 combined with the final of 鄰.)

This is an excellent example of Chinese character etymology; it not only describes the source of the character but also analyzes the morphology or form of the character, as evidenced by the construction of "秦" through "禾" and part of "舂". The significance of Xu's book in the history of the Chinese language is such that almost two millennia later, scholars are still using his book in research. The only major revision came after the 1899 discovery of oracle bones, which the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 BC–c. 1046 BC) people used for divination. The oracle bone script predates Xiaozhuan script, the primary source for Xu Shen's character etymology because the latter is the earliest script known to Xu. Owing to this gap of knowledge, Xu inevitably made numerous mistakes in his otherwise near-perfect dictionary. One good example can illustrate the point. In the article 许慎为何将象释成母猴——“为”字趣释 (Why did Xu Shen interpret an elephant as a female monkey: interesting interpretation of character "为"), the author explained how the simple character "为", meaning "for" or "to do" nowadays, evolved from the oracle-bone pictograph depicting a man holding an elephant leash but mistaken for a female monkey by Xu Shen. (By the way, elephants indeed roamed around middle and northern China three thousand years ago, but the species was not the same as in southern China or India today.)

With all the background information, now we may answer the question why it is rare to see Chinese etymology. By that I don't mean you can't find character etymology at all. Books such as 《汉语字源字典》 ("Dictionary of Chinese Character Etymology") and the Web site Chinese Etymology by Richard Sears are available. But this is almost never incorporated into a Chinese dictionary other than a specialized etymological dictionary. If a general English reader is not more academically inclined than a Chinese reader, why does a common English dictionary such as the Webster, American Heritage, or OED (Oxford English Dictionary) include etymology without hesitation? The reason may be that Chinese (character) etymology almost never helps a reader in studying the Chinese language due to the long history and evolution of the character. (Can you stretch your imagination far enough to associate the scene of a man and an elephant with the sense of "for" or its slightly older sense of "to do"? See above.) In addition to the long history, I believe there's another, more subtle, element in clouding the Chinese etymology. Most languages in the world take the alphabetic writing system. Studying the internal history of its vocabulary primarily means analyzing phonological and morphological changes through time; e.g., there was a systematic change of f to h in Spanish for a large number of words. Secondly, less conducted is the semantic evolution of words; it's less done because it is "more hazardous to attempt to reconstruct meaning than to reconstruct linguistic form" as linguist Calvert Watkins said. And yet, the Chinese characters rarely went through systematic morphological changes that apply to a large number of characters and, since Chinese is not based on an alphabetic writing system, phonological changes are not conducive to the study of etymology per se. This leaves a large part of Chinese etymology to the study of semantic evolution, which is, as stated, more error-prone in scholarly reconstruction.

There is another reason for not incorporating etymology in Chinese dictionaries. Many characters originate from pictographs or pictograph-like glyphs such as Xiaozhuan script. Publication has to render them as images instead of text, which is an editorial inconvenience. The images with their explanatory texts take a significant amount of space relative to the definitions and examples in usage, which a regular user cares more about. This is in contrast with the etymology in an English dictionary, which can be made brief and still makes sense to the minority of interested readers. And yet a third reason may be that it's just the custom of Chinese lexicography, i.e. no etymology except in specialized dictionaries. This is probably also the reason why dictionaries of other languages than English lack etymology. (Try to find etymology in any dictionary of Spanish, French, German or Italian in a bookstore or library!) But nobody knows the original cause or reason for this custom.

Therefore, unlike a language where a student may make use of etymology in vocabulary study optionally combined with some mnemonics (as demonstrated in my book for Spanish), the Chinese characters have to be studied in a different way. Etymology comes in handy only for the very first few characters, such as "火" ("fire"), "山" ("mountain"), which are frequently used to impress complete beginners. After 10 or 20 such "pictographs", rote memory is commonly adopted, but books such as Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters that laboriously make up mnemonics are helpful. Fortunately, a large portion of the character repertoire consists of characters combining two parts, one more or less representing its meaning and the other representing the sound. However, in none of these cases would etymology play any role.

[note1] By emphasizing "general", I'd like to point out that a special group of Chinese words, 成语 (idioms), are an exception, in that dictionaries of Chinese idioms almost always give the first occurrence of the idioms and sometimes even briefly describe the sense development as well.
With regard to dictionaries of words in general, one may think of the book 《辭源》, literally "word origin". First published in 1925, it takes a misleading title because it's no more than a dictionary (albeit of high-quality) of Chinese words with no etymology. In fact, even if we take an alternative interpretation of "辭源" as "first occurrence of word", this book fails as well; e.g., the entry for "中国" does not list its first occurrence in the Book of Documents, or the bronze inscription which the Book records. Another book we can even more readily dismiss is the 《詞源》 by Zhang Yan in the Song dynasty because the book is on the subject of the literary genre , not "words".

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Translation of "technical"

The dictionary translation of "technical" is "技术的", as in "technical skill", "technical innovations". But the word is often used in a more general, "non-technical", context, particularly as an adverb, "technically", e.g., "Technically, driving at 31 mph at a speed limit of 30 is speeding." In this case, instead of "技术的", a very natural Chinese equivalent may be "严格说来" (strictly speaking).

Another example (modified from the original),

--- begin quote ---
the problems are technical, not systemic. Afterward, when she told her sister they had named the problems as "technical," her sister responded “What does that mean?” Indeed that was the question I had, because the discussion was not about technical issues at all
--- end quote ---

The word "technical" literally translated to "技术的" in this context indeed causes confusion to people not speaking English at all, but might make some sense if the Chinese knows a little English. A more meaningful translation, I think, would be "具体操作的", as "这些问题是有关具体操作的,而不是整体上的(或体制上的)". But if the reader or listener is moderately proficient in English, the translation "这些问题是有关技术性细节的" works, too.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"Oriental" is not derogatory

On May 20th, Obama signed a bill that removes "Negro," "Oriental" and a few other terms from federal laws, specifically, "striking 'a Negro, Puerto Rican, American Indian, Eskimo, Oriental, or Aleut or is a Spanish speaking individual of Spanish descent' and inserting 'Asian American, Native Hawaiian, a Pacific Islander, African American, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Native American, or an Alaska Native'." The bill, sponsored by New York congresswoman Grace Meng, an Asian American born in 1975, focused on the word "Oriental" but included other derogatory terms such as "Negro".

No doubt "Negro" is offensive, derogatory, reminding us all of the dark history of slavery. But does "Oriental" have the same effect to arouse a mental image of Chinese exclusion, coolies, or other more subtle discriminations in later decades? As an Asian American myself who came to the United States in early 1990's, I say No to this specific question. Discrimination against Asian Americans has never been completely eliminated and takes different forms from those against, say, African Americans: secretly raising college entrance standard, racial slurs in public broadcast with impunity, and others. But it never occurred to me that the word "Oriental" would be offensive to me in any way. About twenty years ago, I worked at a lab, where we all shared one telephone. One day the phone rang. My coworker, a white technician, came to me saying, "It's for you. The guy has an Oriental accent". That sounded absolutely normal to me. Interestingly, now I just realize that the word "Oriental" was indeed rarely used in recent years. In fact, I don't recall hearing it again in daily conversation ever since. But that may be just due to a natural evolution of the English language in which some words gain and some words lose popularity, instead of people's realization of the newly acquired offensive sense.

I'm not the only Oriental, a.k.a Asian, that considers the word neutral. Two years ago, a reader commented on an article saying "the word 'Oriental' is still widely used here in Japan". I want to add that the word is also commonly used as part of English translations for thousands if not millions of hotels, restaurants, all kinds of businesses in China, including the famous 东方明珠, officially named Oriental Pearl Tower, the tallest structure in China from 1994–2007 and one of the most visited places in Shanghai. Right after Obama signed the bill, an Asian American wrote My 'Oriental' Father: On The Words We Use To Describe Ourselves on Her father emigrated from Hong Kong to the US in 1969 and has always insisted on using the term "Oriental" to refer to himself and the style of his Chinese restaurant, in spite of the author's repeated reminders that the term has picked up an offensive connotation over the years. Readers of the article generally consider "Oriental" to be neutral as well. I can't agree more with the following comment currently at the top:

As a dumpy old white guy, I have never thought of Oriental as a disrespectful term. Yet, regardless of my feelings on the matter, if someone feels marginalized by the term, it shouldn't be a problem for me to use a word or phrase that they find more appropriate.

That being said, there is indeed a distinction we can make between self-referral and referral-to-others, as one reader comments

This is a critical point that is very different from words used by others to describe each of us. Your wife [referring to another reader's comment] is comfortable referring to herself as "Oriental," like the author's father. But it may be different for her if someone else uses the same word in a different way, such as "it is hard to tell what Orientals are thinking" or "inscrutable Oriental."

That is because there is often a need to consider intent (versus ignorance) in the words used by others to describe each of us. A shift to geographically based terms like European, African, Asian reduces that need somewhat.

Very well said! However, whether a word becomes derogatory should follow a simple "democracy" rule, so to speak. If a large number of people speaking this language use the word in a derogatory sense, it is so. If not, it is not. There's no magic. It's a descriptive rule not, in this case, challenged by prescriptive linguists or scholars, but ironically, challenged by some young generation Asian Americans, up to Congresswoman Grace Meng, good intentions notwithstanding. Although eliminating one word from our vocabulary or limiting its use to specialized areas is harmless, if we continue to move words into the dictionary of tabooed language, our life will nevertheless become increasingly more inconvenient.

By the way, it would be interesting to find the origin of the new, allegedly derogatory, connotation of "Oriental", something no article I've read touched upon. It's not likely that one single incident or a fictional scene created such a dramatic effect. Certain young Asian Americans may have suffered from weak and implicit unfairness in whose context the word "Oriental" was used. If this wild guess is completely unfounded, another source of this connotation may be a continuation and re-surge of Orientalism most famously expounded by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said in late 1970's. In a Foreign Policy article Chinese Is Not a Backward Language, the author uses the term "Orientalism 2.0" as a label for the re-emerging notion of western superiority and corresponding eastern inferiority. Is there a causal association with "Oriental" derogation? The Orientalist ideas are largely restricted to the academic circles. If the derogatory sense of "Oriental" has truly been felt by mostly scholars and "leaked" to some highly educated young Asian Americans, that may indeed be the origin of the new connotation we are looking for, and it's consistent with the fact that the general public is not aware of the semantic evolution.

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 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.