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.