Sunday, January 15, 2023

Grammatical particle 把 in Chinese and word order

According to Wikipedia, 42% of world languages follow the subject-verb-object (SVO) order, and 45% follow the SOV order. In a Facebook group, someone said that Chinese is SVO in general, but changes to SOV if the object is a prepositional object. Two examples are given

(1) 我把手机忘了 ("I forgot the cell phone"; very literally "I 把 the cell phone forgot")
(2) 一本书从桌子掉下来 ("a book falls from the table")

I agree that sentence (1) follows the SOV order, as 把 shifts the object 手机 to before the verb 忘. But 把 is not a prepositon. It is a grammatical particle, which has no meaning whatsoever, unlike a preposition. A grammatical particle, e.g. 把 in Chinese and to (as in to do) in English, only serves certain grammatical purposes and if omitted would render the sentence ungrammatical unless other adjustments are made.

On the other hand, sentence (2) is not SOV, because 从桌子 ("from the table") cannot be the object acted upon by the verb 掉 ("fall"). Instead, it is an adverbial clause. In fact, it is wrong to consider any prepositional object (which may be better called prepositional phrase) an object in a sentence. Contrast that with a noun phrase (NP), which bahaves like a noun and can be the subject or object in a sentence, because the last element of a NP is its "head"; "a big boat" still refers to a boat. But in a prepositional object, neither the preposition nor the noun following it can serve as the "head". Omitting either one would make the sentence ungrammatical and meaningless.

Chinese particle 把 moves the object of a sentence to the position before the verb, but no such construct exists in English. This explains why foreigners learning Chinese say 我拿书过来 ("I bring the book over") more than 我把书拿过来.


Monday, November 21, 2022

Translation of a few function words (几个“虚词”的翻译)

* 作时间副词的“最近”:recently(或lately)仅用于过去。一个较常见的错误是将表示“不远将来”的“最近”也译为recently,此时正确的用词是soon、in the near future、甚至now、currently等,或不译,如“我最近在搬家”(Currently I'm moving),“我最近准备买辆车”(I'm thinking of buying a car),“他最近要结婚”(he's going to get married soon / in the near future;但soon更常见)。更多可见

* “虽然/尽管”:although和though没有词义上的区别,有文章绞尽脑汁找区别,没必要。它们只在文体上有点区别:前者更正式。另外,in spite of和despite也是“虽然”,但后面接名词而不是从句;despite更正式但稍微更不常见。有文章说in spite of和despite后不能接动名词(如in spite of being a manager),但这常见于英语母语者的文章,包括一些较正式的,因此不能算错,也许有些考试会认为错,建议避免。另外,从句用了although或though,主句起首不能用but(对应汉语的“虽然……但是……”),很多中国人和有些南亚、西亚人常犯这种错误;老式英语中会出现主句以yet起首,可以用,尤其在从句较长时,但不能用but。

* “直到”:until和till没有词义上的区别,有文章绞尽脑汁找区别,没必要。它们只在文体上有点区别:前者更正式。英语是世界上十几大语言中唯一对这个词赋以特殊含义的语言:在until/till的时间点后,语句所述状况翻转而不是维持不变,如The scientists had not found a solution to the problem until 1970意味着科学家在1970年终于发现了这个问题的解决方法,而汉语或其他很多(不敢说所有)语言直译对应的语句“直到1970年科学家没有发现这个问题的解决方法”意味着在1970年他们仍然没有发现。更多可见

* 做时间副词的“很少”:很多人想到seldom,但据Google ngrams图,这个词两百年来使用频率一直在下降,1950年左右被rarely超过。建议用rarely,或not often,如he rarely goes biking / doesn't go biking that often。注意:如果seldom或rarely用于句首(常见于正式文体),句子要倒装(如rarely / seldom did the parliament elicit sharp reactions from...),但如果后面加个逗号停一下就最好不要倒装了,否则听起来有点哽咽。

* 疑问词“第几”:英语(和其他几种语言)中没有。详见

* “当然”:英语of course或certainly语气一般较强(如"You can swim?", "Of course [I can]")。汉语“当然”也常用于语气较弱、较缓和的语句中,如“明天每个人都必须到办公室,当然你事先请假了可以不来”(Everybody must come to office tomorrow. But of course you don't have to come if you asked for leave earlier),用of course对译不错,但如果语气平和点像汉语那样,可不译或译为obviously,或要正式一点说needlesss to say.

* “很”:汉语中的“很”不一定是英语的very,如“他很好”既可以真是说“他非常好”但也可能是“他好”的一种更通顺的变体。更多可见 英语中用very很多的名人首推特朗普,他还喜欢联用如I will very, very probably do it。但大家知道他的manners of speech are unrefined, uncouth, below standard. Don't learn English from him.

* “曾经”:疑问句、否定句中可用ever,如Have you ever been to New York? I've never been(“你曾去过纽约吗?”“我从未/不曾去过”)。但肯定句中的ever就不是“曾经”了,而是老式英语中的“一直”、“永远”,如it was ever thus(总是如此)。“我曾去过纽约”(I've been to New York / I went to New Work before),英译不能用ever,但可用once,如once I had a car accident.

* last与“上个”:last Thursday字面意思是“上个星期四”,但严格地说它指最近过去的星期四;假如今天星期五,它其实指昨天而不是上个星期的星期四。但如果你问英语母语者,他们有时也觉得含混。建议只在不会有混淆的情况下这样用last,如今天是星期天至四的某一天,否则就分别说Thursday last week、the past Thursday(但今天是星期五的话还不如说yesterday)。详见

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Debate about dropping English as a mandatory course

The debate in China about keeping or dropping English as a mandatory course in middle school and high school has been going on for at least two decades. The support of keeping English is based on the fact that English is the de facto lingua franca in the world, although, contrary to a common misconception in China, English is not a mandatory course in all countries; among the 41 where it is not are France, Finland, and Poland. The opposing side claim that some college majors such as Chinese philology or research of ancient Chinese archives require no or very little English in future studies or work. Both sides got the basic facts correct and have strong arguments, leading the debate to a deadlock, while the government takes no action in changing the current policy that happens to be what the supporters want.

In fact, the solution is a simple one: attach a weight that varies between 0 and 100% depending on the major, to the English test score on the college entrance exam. For example, since high-impact work on Chinese philology is still mostly written in Chinese, the Ministry of Education or individual universities or colleges can assign a value of 0 or slightly higher to this weight. (If the weight is only 5%, who is willing to take time to study English? Well, imagine a high school student who grew up bilingual or speaks English as the first language.) For the major of ancient Chinese history, how about 20%? For modern Chinese history, 80%? Obviously, for any major other than these or a specific foreign language other than English (say, Spanish), the weight should be 100% or close to that. Assignment of the weight should be exclusively the work of the professionals and practitioners in this field, free of any lobbying influence from the general public and interference from politicians.

There are still lots of debates or disputes in the world that are zero-sum or nearly zero-sum. A relatively good solution is one that seeks compromises among contenders and balances their degree of satisfaction, to achieve an approximate equilibrium in this satisfaction. The advantage of my solution is that both sides are somewhat satisfying with it and complain the least, and the satisfaction and complaint are about the same in intensity on both sides.

Note: By no means am I suggesting categorically dropping English as a mandatory course. That would lead to total ruin of our future generation. It's the undeniable fact that some Chinese students are so incapable of a foreign language in spite of an extraordinary amount of time of study and that English is truly nearly useless in certain fields of study as of 2022 that prompts me to propose this practical and realistic solution for this year and some years in the future.

(The Chinese version of this article is scattered in Weibo 2022-11-06 and 2022-10-07 postings.)

Friday, July 8, 2022


安倍晋三遇刺身亡,美国田纳西议员Steve Cohen刺杀行为是a dastardly act,日本首相岸田文雄对刺杀行为的说法被英译为dastardly and barbaric。英语词dastardly不很常用,它兼有“怯懦”和“邪恶”的意思,似乎没有合适的汉语词同时体现这两个意义,有些词典译为“卑怯”,但这并不很恰当,因为其中的“卑”可能是“自卑”(如茅盾《烟云》“我的自杀是逃避,是卑怯”),但dastardly一定是对他人造成伤害的“卑鄙”、或更准确地说“邪恶”、“坏”。

许多不大常用的词或词组常让人想到历史上的名篇,如作“二十”解的score让人想到林肯的《葛底斯堡演说》(Four score and seven years ago[八十七年前]),ask not让人想到肯尼迪的就职演说(Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country[不要问你的国家能为你做什么——问你能为你的国家做什么]),而dastardly让人想到罗斯福在珍珠港袭击后到国会做的宣战演讲,称日本的袭击是unprovoked and dastardly attack[无端和卑怯的攻击]。今天,田纳西议员选用dastardly大概是巧合,但在他是巧合,在他的读者却产生了有历史意义的联想;英译岸田文雄选用这个词也有同样的效果。词汇本身是无辜的,只是它曾经被某个名人用于某个有名的事件而多生了一层与词义完全无关的阴影、或光环,迫使小心的后人在遣词造句时多一点考虑,如果你不想考虑,读者也许会考虑。

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Use International Phonetic Alphabet to help improve pronunciation

In my last posting, I said "成年后学外语,口音几乎不可能完全消除,略带外国口音不是坏事,但如果华人希望更好地与人交流、或从政、或跻身公司高层,减少口音即使不是必须的,也是有益的。它需要仔细听、模仿、学习,和长时间不懈的努力" (It is almost impossible to completely avoid having an accent if you learn a foreign language as an adult. A slight foreign accent is not a bad thing, but if you as a Chinese want to better communicate with people, take on a career in politics, or climb the corporate ladder, reducing the accent is beneficial, if not necessary. It requires careful listening, imitation, learning, and long hours of unremitting effort.) Honestly though, careful listening and imitation may not bring you forward as much as you want. But as an adult, if you're moderatly interested in linguistics, carefully studying International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA may benefit more. IPA has the ambition of recording with distinct symbols all sounds of all human languages in the world. But for us, we only need to focus on the sounds and symbols used in the English language for the purpose of improving English pronunciation. For example, if you have a hard time pronouncing bug as /bʌɡ/ and always, like many Chinese learners do, mispronounce it like /baɡ/ (where /a/ is the same sound as the vowel in Chinese character 爸), you can check vowel chart of IPA, and find where /a/ and /ʌ/ are. You can see that to move from /a/ to /ʌ/, all you need to do is move the location where the sound is produced back (toward the throat) and up a little. But a better description of this method is recently described in three online articles, which I highly recommend

Improve Your Accent with the International Phonetic Alphabet (Part 1)
(Part 2)
(Part 3)

IPA is not widely used in American education. Chinese learners may know some symbols to the extent of pronouncing the words by the symbols correctly most of the time. But the vowel and consonant charts are not part of the curriculum and so subtle differences between similar sounds are not fully grasped. The three articles above will hopefully make up for this deficiency.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Words often mispronounced by Chinese learners


* southern:它的第一音节元音是/ʌ/(即cut的元音),不是/aʊ/,虽然south中的元音是/aʊ/。的确有词典说加拿大或苏格兰方言有读southern为/ˈsaʊðɚn/的,但这绝不是主流,反而是在移民中才经常听到。

* clothes:知乎上查到说这个词“英音[kləʊ(ð)z] 美音[kloðz] 结尾是THZ不是S”。这个说法基本正确,但在美国,其中的元音应为/oʊ/,不是/o/。其实在英语里单独成为音节的/o/音(不是双元音的一部分)并不常见。

* town:读为/taʊn/,但很多华人读为/taŋ/(汉字“唐”音)。其实发/aʊn/音不难,可先发/aʊ/再紧接/n/即可。类似的词还有down、downtown、gown、renown等。

* bowl:读为/boʊɫ/,但很多华人会省掉/ɫ/,结果与bow发音相同。如果你能正确念people(注意不可念作/'pi:pəʊ/),为什么不能念bowl呢?

* idea:应读为/aɪˈdiə/,但很多中国人会在末尾加上儿话音,好比是在念一个写为idear的词。至少在idea单独用时(如I have no idea),加儿话音是不对的。



Saturday, May 29, 2021

Chinese-English coincidence of words

Apart from onomatopoeias, borrowed or transliterated words, or cognates [note], what are some English and Chinese words that happen to have the same meaning and similar pronunciations? I can think of two, Chinese "石头" and English stone, Chinese "苦力" and English coolie (note: coolie is from Hindi and Urdu, not Chinese). When I posted this message to Weibo, one user contributed Chinese "费" and English fee, another "屎" and shit, and "好诶" and hooray (which partially meets the requirement). For these linguistic coincidences and surprises, there is even a Facebook group dedicated to these amusing findings.

[note] A pair of cognates are two words that are in two different languages but descend from the same word in their common parent language. Since English or any Indo-European language and Chinese are not even in the same language family, it's difficult to say there exist any true cognates, while borrowings or loan words are abundant. An interesting case is the very old borrowing, for which cognation may be justified if the term is loosely used, is the Chinese word "蜜" ("honey") and this word in a Romance language, such as French or Spanish miel. "蜜" is said to be a loanword from Tocharian, a branch of the Indo-European language family. (The latest research may be the 2017 article The Word for ‘Honey’ in Chinese, Tocharian and Sino-Vietnamese, by K. Meier, M. Peyrot.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Chinese translation of a history professor's summary poem

At the end of Dr. James C Davis's The Human Story, a great overview of world history, he wrote a four-line poem that summarizes his positive view of the human history:

The world's still cruel,
That's understood.
But once was worse,
So far so good.

Here's a Chinese translation:


(My translation was first posted on weibo. My review of the book is on Goodreads.)

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Mutual intelligibility to distinguish between language and dialect: case of Chinese and Cantonese

Sometimes it is debatable to say that two language varieties are two different languages, or that they are two dialects of one single language. It comes down to the concepts of "language" and "dialect". Among various criteria to distinguish between a language and a dialect, mutual intelligibility may be the most popular one, and appears to be easy to follow. But is it really easy?

1. First of all, we have to absolutely refrain from any political and nationalist influences if we are determined to adopt the mutual intelligibility criterion. They are not conducive to a technical or linguistic study. Although non-linguistically based definitions serve other, pragmatic purposes, they are not part of the following discussion.

2. Mutual intelligibility requires mutual understanding of the speaker or author. One-way or uni-directional understanding may only serve as an intermediate step in measuring the degree of understanding.

3. Mutual intelligibility itself does not stipulate the modality of the source language production. It is generally interpreted as understanding of speech. But that's only because the majority of world languages use the alphabetic writing system so that speech and written text are generally consistent. (There is the concept of orthographic depth, which measures this consistency.) But in case of the character-based writing system, strictly applying the mutual intelligibility criterion requires separate analyses with regard to modality, one for speech, the other for writing. In the case of Chinese and Cantonese, it is generally agreed that a person speaking a variety of Chinese (typically Mandarin) with no ability in Cantonese and a person speaking Cantonese with no ability in the Chinese variety that the other person speaks cannot verbally communicate. Therefore Chinese and Cantonese are said to be different languages in terms of oral mutual intelligibility. From this point to the end of this blog posting, let's discuss written mutual intelligibility only.

4. To test whether two language varieties are languages or dialects of one language, we must not fall for the fallacy of contrived test materials cherry-picked to prove a pre-supposed conclusion. This practice is particularly widespread when people, not just language amateurs but also professional linguists, argue for the two-language-verdict of Chinese and Cantonese. The correct test should be based on a very large language corpus. In giving materials to volunteers in a test, the sentences must be randomly selected from a comprehensive corpus, ideally the whole Internet content, probably supplemented by some text commonly produced but rarely uploaded to the Internet. Notably, in case of Cantonese, if the test materials contain a higher ratio of Cantonese-specific characters and words than average, the test is biased and becomes invalid.

5. To check for percentage of understanding of the materials given in the tested language, the multiple choice questions should have a relatively high number of choices (at least 4), to avoid random-guess correctness.

So far I have outlined an experiment to check whether Chinese and Cantonese are languages or dialects by strictly applying the mutual intelligibility criterion. We can see that the result is not a Yes or No, but a percentage, unless you arbitrarily declare that above a certain cut-off value they are dialects and below that they are languages.

I personally only know Chinese, specifically its Mandarin and Sichuanese dialects, and don't know Cantonese at all. In terms of written mutual intelligibility, I don't know how much percentage of an absolutely randomly selected Cantonese document I can read and understand. If I may hazard a guess, I would say at least 70%, i.e. I can answer 7 or more out of 10 reading comprehension questions correctly. But without such an experiment, it's only a guess.

6. To make this discussion complete, we have to prevent one trivial trap in applying the mutual intelligibility criterion, which we must consider to be a necessary but not sufficient condition. We cannot conclude that language varieties A and B are dialects as long as they meet the mutual intelligibility requirement. The missing condition that must also be met is that A and B are under one genus as defined by Dryer and Haspelmath. As other scholars have done, we add this condition to preclude the obviously incorrect but otherwise possible conclusion that, for example, Chinese and Japanese become two dialects of one language because a Chinese and a Japanese can communicate by writing. We avoid this specious claim by realizing that Chinese and Japanese are not closely related, or specifically, not of one genus in language classification. (When using Dryer and Haspelmath's Genealogical Language List, we should, for the purpose of strictly applying the mutual intelligibility criterion to distinguish languages from dialects, disregard the fact that they list Cantonese under the heading of Chinese.)

Summary It is possible to strictly apply the mutual intelligibility criterion to determine whether Chinese and Cantonese are two languages or dialects. Due to the unique writing system, this criterion must be separated into oral and written intelligibility. Thus, in terms of oral mutual intelligibility, Chinese and Cantonese can be said to be two languages. In written mutual intelligibility, the decision can only be made after an actual experiment and after setting a cut-off value for intelligibility.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

2021: The Year of "牛"

Of the twelve Chinese zodiac animals, some are translated into English as various names, such as 羊 as "sheep", "goat" or "ram", 鸡 as "rooster" or "hen", and when a year falls on such a zodiac animal, there is invariably a debate as to which English word is the best fit. Other animals are much less debated. For instance, nowadays 牛 is almost always translated as "ox".

So another question arises, Why is "ox" preferred to, say, "bull", "cow", "buffalo", or "cattle"? In fact, such translations did exist, but they gradually died out over the past decades, specifically since 1960's or 1970's according to Google Ngram. The reason for "ox" to eventually come to the top is not easy to explain, as is the case with many things in human languages. Let's break up the question a little bit. To be precise, an ox is a castrated male cattle, a bull is an uncastrated one, and a cow is a female. I think the reason why the word "cow" is not chosen, in spite of its higher usage frequency, is that in the western zodiac, there is the Taurus, which is male, and that word and its referent probably had some influence on the early choice of word for the Chinese zodiac animal 牛. Next, let's analyze the choice between "ox" and "bull". According to an Internet user who answered the question I posted to a Facebook group, an ox is a bovine trained as a draft animal, as stated on Wikipedia. Similarly, a 牛 in the mainstream traditional Chinese culture is also a draft animal, not one as the source for food (beef, milk, etc.). In this sense, English "ox" is the more appropriate translation than "bull".

Back in 2015, I blogged about the English word for 羊 as the Chinese zodiac animal, and I proposed the idea that to eliminate the ambiguity in the Chinese word or character, we simply find the biological name at the lowest level in taxonomy under which the species the various English names refer to are. For example, a sheep belongs to the genus ovis, which belongs to the subfamily caprinae, and a goat belong to genus capra, which belongs to subfamily caprinae. Therefore, the best word to translate 羊 is caprinae. Well, it is best only if we can ignore the ignorance of the general public. But generally that's not a very good idea. Fortunately, in the case of 牛, the word "cattle" seems to cover both "ox", "bull", "cow" or even "buffalo", and "cattle" happens to be a common word that even an ignorant John Doe knows the meaning of. So I think "cattle" is the best translation for 牛. But it's too late to promote this because the English-speaking people have already been saying "ox" for Chinese 牛 for 50+ years.