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, 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.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

English teacher's accent (英语老师的口音)

Facebook一语言学习群有人说他在法国一所小学教英语。学校招了一名印度裔英语老师(英语是她的母语),他是这名新老师的领导。学校其他老师向他抱怨说新老师的口音对小孩是个问题,特别是发r这个音时。他认为这些老师不对,因为他认为习惯不同口音是非常好的一件事。(他说“i dont want to be angry. I want to make them understand the wonderful benefit of learning from different accents. Do you have any suggestions?”)