A FOOLISH INTOLERANCE.

Lord knows I get frustrated with the general level of ignorance concerning language and linguistics out there in the world; lashing out at it has been a feature of LH from the beginning. But I direct my fire at those who have a professional responsibility to know better, primarily journalists. Journalists reporting on language cannot be expected to know the facts as a linguist would (apart from those rare exceptions like Michael Erard, who took the precaution of getting an MA in linguistics before going into journalism), but they have the same responsibility to get the basic facts right as those reporting on astronomy, nuclear physics, or for that matter politics. When they fail egregiously, as they do on a regular basis, I let them have it.
But it is folly to expect a member of the general public to get things right. To expect the public at large to grasp the fundamentals of physics or chemistry is setting oneself up for disappointment, but at least they are taught these things in high school, so one can, if one is so inclined, blame them for being inattentive or for forgetting what they once knew. No one who has not taken a linguistics course can be expected to know about, let alone understand, the scientific view of language. So I was not pleased to visit Language Log this morning and find Victor Mair attacking the Chinese-American author Ruiyan Xu for a brief op-ed piece she wrote for the NY Times a couple of months ago (finding her “claims to be highly dubious, some to be rather troublesome, and yet others to be downright annoying”) and saying “Mark Swofford, over at pinyin.info, has just written a masterful dissection: ‘Chinese characters: Like, wow‘, 7/2/2010.” Upon visiting pinyin.info, I found Swofford saying Xu writes like “a stoned grad student with a large vocabulary” and dissecting her little op-ed practically word by word as though it were a dissertation, or a paper in Language, scrawling contemptuously “No, no, and no…. No, that’s wrong….” and hauling out the big guns of sarcasm (“Alas, poor English! How confused we must be to be using a mere alphabet. Oh, if only we could achieve linguistic, aesthetic, and historical meaning!”) and irrelevant snide observations (“The author of the poem… lived from 1140 to 1207 and was thus a contemporary of such Western poets as the troubadours Bertran de Born, Bernart de Ventadorn, and Giraut de Borneil — hardly poets whose work suffered for having been written with an alphabet”). I am reminded of Pope’s line “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” (though I’m afraid I tend to remember it as I first learned it from William Rees-Mogg’s famous 1967 Times editorial attacking the prison sentences handed down by a vengeful court to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, the title of which ended “….on a wheel”).
What was Xu’s sin? Talking about language in general and Chinese characters in particular the way virtually everyone who has learned any Chinese and is not a linguist talks and thinks about them. What was her main point? That something valuable is lost when the phrase 百度 bǎidù ‘hundred times,’ which in Chinese alludes to a well-known poem by Xin Qiji (or, for people who still use Wade-Giles, Hsin Ch’i-Chi), becomes in a non-Chinese context the meaningless Baidu. Is her point correct? Unquestionably. Does either Mair or Swofford appear to understand or care about it? No. They are far too concerned with bashing her for not being a linguist.
Now, if her little op-ed were somehow to become a major source of people’s understanding of language, then sure, blast away; I attack Strunk and White on precisely those grounds. But to drag out an inoffensive little op-ed by a novelist who makes no pretense of being a linguist and is concerned with other matters and to attack it at such length suggests exactly the kind of seething rage the Loggers are always attributing to those who get upset about “incorrect usage” in English. If a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I guess a foolish intolerance is the hobgoblin of frustrated specialists.


Incidentally, you can hear a musical rendition of Xin Qiji’s poem here (you can find the poem itself at Swofford’s post), and for sheer amusement value, here’s what Google Translate does with it:

Dongfeng night, the Arcadia. More Blew, star like rain. BMW Man Road, Hong Thai car. Fung study on three dynamic, glimmer turn, fish and dragons dance night. Moth child Xueliu gold thread. Laughter floats. Searching for her 1000 Baidu public. Looking back, that person is in, the lights dim.

Comments

  1. Yay flamewar! :)
    Talking about language in general and Chinese characters in particular the way virtually everyone who has learned any Chinese and is not a linguist talks and thinks about them.
    I don’t think there are only these two extremes. There is – or should be – such a thing as “an average educated person talking and thinking about language” and I think this is what Mair and Swofford object to. Ms. Wu’s cardinal sin is to confuse language and writing (“rendered in Chinese”, “Latin-based languages”). Now granted, as some commenters over at Pinyin news have noted, she may have a point with Chinese (both the language in all its varieties and hanzi), but with all the factual errors and the WTF general point, the verbal thrashing is more than appropriate. It’s not that she’s not talking about language the way a linguist would, it’s that she’s talking about something she has no fricking clue about. I understand this is par for the course for your average NYT op-ed, but that doesn’t mean we should let it go.
    Ms. Wu’s op-ed may be inoffensive, but it is also full of total mystically sounding bullshit. I mean, for the love of God: “Each of the thousands of languages spoken around the world has its own system and rules, its own subversions, its own quixotic beauty. Whenever you try to standardize those languages, whether on the Internet, in schools or in literature, you lose something.” What is ‘standardize’ supposed to refer to? As a linguist, I might make a several guesses (orthography, dialectal levelling, various language policy issues), but what is your average reader of NYT supposed to make of it? To quote a great philosopher: “I don’t trust books, they’re all facts, no heart.” Well, Ms. Wu’s op-ed is all heart and no facts. Again, par for the course for your average NYT op-ed.

  2. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I am reminded of Pope’s line “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” (though I’m afraid I tend to remember it as I first learned it from William Rees-Mogg’s famous 1967 Times editorial attacking the prison sentences handed down by a vengeful court to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, the title of which ended “….on a wheel”).

    First, let me say I completely agree with your principal point.
    However, I was struck by your remark that I quoted because I also knew this line a long time before I knew it was from Pope. Mary Midgley quoted it in her attack on Richard Dawkins in 1978 (when he was much less famous than he is today): she said that she had previously “not attended to Dawkins, thinking it unnecessary to ‘break a butterfly upon a wheel’. But Mr Mackie’s article is not the only indication I have lately met of serious attention being paid to his fantasies.”

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Each of the thousands of languages spoken around the world has its own system and rules, its own subversions, its own quixotic beauty.”
    I’m with Ruiyan Xu on this. And I was more interested to discover the origin of the name Baidu than I was annoyed by the very routine confusion of script with language she displays.
    Victor Mair, based on previous LL posts, has it in for the traditional Chinese script; not an unnatural feeling for anyone who has actually had to learn it, as opposed to admire the beauty of it … but still.

  4. What gets to me is this:
    In the case of Baidu.com, the word, in Latin letters, has slipped away from its original context and meaning, and been turned into a brand.
    So what? This happens all the time. Every time I see a copy of Pravda at a news stand, I see the latest edition of a shitty quasi-leftist newspaper, nothing more. I don’t think of all the philosophers who ever pondered the meaning of truth or of Pontius Pilate’s “Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια;” or of John 8:32 (“καὶ γνώσεσθε τὴν ἀλήθειαν καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια ἐλευθερώσει ὑμᾶς”). So what is so special about the Baidu and more importantly, what does it have to do with Chinese characters?

  5. David,
    I’m with Ruiyan Xu on this.
    What does that mean? Do you think that Victor Mair disagrees with that particular point?

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    No, it means I disagree with your calling this “totally mystical sounding bullshit.”

  7. David,
    I see, thanks. If you don’t mind, could you please tell me what you understood ‘standardize’ to mean in the context of Ms. Wu’s op-ed?

  8. So what? This happens all the time. Every time I see a copy of Pravda at a news stand, I see the latest edition of a shitty quasi-leftist newspaper, nothing more.
    Heck, you don’t have to go to translation for that. Who thinks of “time” when they see Time magazine?
    But a bigger issue, for me, is that any time the word is transliterated instead of translated, unless (as with Pravda) I happen to know the language, everything gets lost. (Often I don’t even know how to pronounce it. But at least with Baidu, if it’s Romanized I can say it; if it’s in characters I can’t even do that.) So does she have a point? Of course. Is it unique to Chinese into English? Of course not.

  9. (I think maybe two anachronisms, Pravda.Sk and Правда.Ру, are being confused, though I’m not sure how that bears on the main discussion.)

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    Bulbul (if that is your real name …)
    It’s pretty clear in context that she means transliteration into Pinyin, as a specific example of the homogenizing tendency of the internet. Her point is naively made, as various people have somewhat brutally pointed out, but not entirely valueless, surely.
    The odd thing about this is the over-the-top reactions. Swofford’s post in particular is really quite vindictive. Wrong diacritic? Inappropriate tone sandhi? This is just bullying.

  11. mollymooly says:

    What was her main point? That something valuable is lost when the phrase 百度 bǎidù ‘hundred times,’ … becomes in a non-Chinese context the meaningless Baidu.

    Was that her main point? I thought that was just a jumping-off point for some vague musings about how wonderful language is and stuff.

  12. Well said, Language.
    Om the other point, it would be hard to think of anyone less like a butterfly than Jagger or Dawkins. They are both more like rhinos, though in the Stones’ case it was at the time a perfect image. The editorial didn’t defend Keith, by the way, only Mick; it wasn’t advocating decriminalisation of drugs, it only said Mick was innocent (he’d been caught with some speed, but it had been prescribed by a physician).
    Lord Rees-Mogg’s daughter Annunziata recently ran for parliament. She ran as an A-list Tory in Somerset, but even so failed to get elected. His son, Jacob, ran too in an adjoining constituency and won. William R-M himself once gave us a talk, at school. All I remember is that he had a speech impediment that was very distracting.

  13. I guess I’m with LH on this one. True, the lady is not talking about language; she’s talking about a writing system, a writing system that is a vehicle for a major literature and culture. The fact that she makes her point fuzzily doesn’t detract from it.
    I didn’t know where 百度 came from. Now that I know, I can certainly appreciate the importance of the literary tradition. The point is not that most Chinese wouldn’t recognise the reference. The point is that someone with a literary background reached back to a poem written a thousand years ago to come up with the name of a search engine. And that person’s knowledge of his/her tradition was almost certainly mediated by Chinese characters — the characters 百度 — and not the romanisation bǎi dù.
    After you make allowance for the fuzzy reference to language rather than writing systems, you have to admit that she has a point. For better or for worse, Chinese characters mould the way Chinese speakers see their language and literature. Of course it would be possible to convert to a system where Bǎi Dù was the normal spelling. Functionally you could say that Bǎi Dù and 百度 are virtually equivalent, in that they are simply ways of writing down the spoken language. But it wouldn’t be the same. There might be cogent reasons for using a romanisation, but a lot would (as Hat pointed out) be lost if characters were abandoned. Mark Swofford is technically correct in much of what he says, but he’s missed the entire spirit of her argument. By being so literal-minded, he’s completely missed the point.

  14. David,
    It’s pretty clear in context that she means transliteration into Pinyin, as a specific example of the homogenizing tendency of the internet.
    It is far from clear to me. And even if I were to interpret her words in that way, well, it doesn’t help, since it looks to me like a load of nonsense. First, Baidu is a domain name and the reason it is written that way has very little to do with standardizing any language (or writing). Second, what homogenizing tendency? Are you and Ms. Wu trying to tell me that pinyin is generally used on the internet to such extent that it threatens hanzi? And finally, what does ‘standardize’ mean in connection with “Each of the thousands of languages”? If anything, the internet has allowed many of the small languages to flourish – we have a wikipedia in Arpitan, Fiji Hindi and Moksha ferchrissakes, so we’ve gain more than we’ve lost in this Great Homogenizing Republic of teh Intert00bz. So, you know, whiskey-tango-foxtrot?

  15. I agree that Mair and (especially) Swofford are too harsh; in fact, I think I’d go a bit further than you.
    It seems to me that as much of their harshness stems from objections to the op-ed’s conclusions as from objections to its facts. If Xu’s conclusion had been anti-character and pro-pinyin, I suspect Mair and Swofford would have gone easier on her, just as much as if her facts had been sound but her conclusions the same.
    So to me it seems that the problem is not just “bashing her for not being a linguist”, but also a lack of respect for other people’s opinions.

  16. If Xu’s conclusion had been anti-character and pro-pinyin
    Where does this come from? No matter where Mair and Swofford stand on pinyin vs. hanzi, this has little to no bearing on this debate.
    a lack of respect for other people’s opinions
    At the risk of sounding like an asshole (which I am), some people’s opinions don’t deserve respect. That’s not to say Ms. Wu is among them, quite the contrary. The treatment she received is that any journalist/pundit would receive. Sure, Swofford didn’t pull any punches (“a vague, flowery way that brings to mind a stoned grad student with a large vocabulary”), but come on, we’ve seen worse. Someone should perhaps put up a sign on the borders of the Internet reading “Grow a set.”
    And somewhat OT: ‘inoffensive’ I get, although I’m not sure it applies. But to describe Ms. Wu’s op-ed as ‘harmless’, as someone did over at LL, that strikes me as a much more offensive thing to say to a writer than anything Mark Swofford could dish out.

  17. Bathrobe says:

    Ran is right. Mair and Swofford came out with all guns blazing because this is their Great Cause. Xu stands for what they hate most: an ‘irrational’ emotional attachment to Chinese characters. She embodies every myth that they want to bust. Everywhere this kind of thinking raises its often muddled head, they appear to be committed to shooting it down with a mixture of cold hard (if sometimes painfully overdone) logic and ridicule.
    To be honest, I found “All the Peonies of Chang’an” more disturbing than Xu’s little piece. That blog, with its uncritical sentimentalisation and adulation of ancient Chinese culture, I found unsettling and uncomfortable in a way that is hard to put into words. Perhaps if you read Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road you would understand better why such cosy celebrations of China’s ancient high culture are somehow offputting. Since it is merely a personal blog by someone writing about what they love, there is no reason to start breaking butterflies on wheels, but I am sure that one could marshal some pretty harsh logic if one were as single-minded as Mair and Swofford.

  18. @bulbul: Perhaps I shouldn’t have made the accusation, because I really don’t have good evidence for it, just a strong feeling about it from of the comments they make. (For example, Swofford devotes a long digression to explaining that English has the same homonym “problem” as Chinese. If he were a more thoughtful writer, and more open to the opposing point of view, I think he would have noticed that his example clearly and greatly weakens his point: the English writing system, unlike the pinyin that he advocates for Chinese, actually provides a lot of disambiguation among those homonyms. Perhaps I am wrong to conclude this, but I really get the impression that he sees the entire article through a single lens, that of his advocacy for pinyin.)

  19. Bathrobe,
    Mair and Swofford came out with all guns blazing because this is their Great Cause.
    All guns blazing? Hardly. Mair held back a lot and Swofford did to Wu’s piece what any smart dude or gal with a blog does to someone they disagree with all the time. Y’all act as if this was some big deal – it’s not. Some wrote a lot of stupid stuff and someone else called them on it, point by point.
    She embodies every myth that they want to bust.
    Embodies? Seriously? With one single inoffensive op-ed? Seriously?
    And no, it’s not just about the Chinese myths, there are plenty of examples of general language-related nonsense. I’ve already named a few, let’s add “Isn’t “You good” — both as a statement and a question — a marvelous and strangely precise breakdown of what we’re really saying when we greet someone?”.

  20. By the way, when I criticize Swofford’s ardor for pinyin, I don’t mean to criticize pinyin itself. I agree completely with Hat’s comment in the other thread, which stated (if I may paraphrase) that pinyin’s promise of universal literacy more than makes up for what would be lost if China abandoned characters more or less completely. But I’d add that, as long as characters are in use, it doesn’t do much good if the promised universal literacy only applies to Internet domain names!

  21. Ran,
    point taken. The thing is, I am not aware of any advocacy for pinyin on Swofford’s part. His site is, to me, a place to find information on how Chinese writing and pinyin with a lot of space devoted to dispelling various myths that have developed around them, not one that advocates a particular stance in the pinyin vs. characters conflict (and I’m not even sure there is one). That’s why I think the homonym digression was not used to prove the superiority of pinyin, but only to refute Ms. Wu’s – barely hinted at, true – explanation of homonymy in Chinese.

  22. Bathrobe says:

    The 你好 example was a pretty dumb one, actually. Xu said that “(Chinese characters) are also combined with other characters to form hundreds of thousands of multisyllabic words.” Unfortunately, while Chinese characters do (roughly speaking) combine with other characters to form words (more usually disyllabic than multisyllabic), 你好, her first example, is not a word; it’s a sentence employed as a conventional greeting. I didn’t say she had her shit together; I merely pointed out that her overall point about the cultural value of the writing system is correct.

  23. The odd thing about this is the over-the-top reactions. Swofford’s post in particular is really quite vindictive. Wrong diacritic? Inappropriate tone sandhi? This is just bullying.
    Exactly.
    At the risk of sounding like an asshole (which I am), some people’s opinions don’t deserve respect.
    You, uh, do kind of sound like an asshole, but I think that’s because you’re suffering from the same defensive-aggressive scientism as Mair and Swofford. When you read Babbage’s response to Tennyson (“I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase….”), I can see you scribbling “Quite!” in the margin.

  24. Bathrobe says:

    Embodies? Seriously? With one single inoffensive op-ed? Seriously?
    Yes, seriously. That’s why Swofford went to town on one single inoffensive op-ed. Why else would he want to expend so much time and energy breaking a butterfly on a wheel. That little inoffensive op-ed made Swofford see red, where a lot of less single-minded people wouldn’t see any colour at all.

  25. But I’d add that, as long as characters are in use, it doesn’t do much good if the promised universal literacy only applies to Internet domain names!
    But what’s that got to do with anything? Baidu is not pinyin per se, just a Roman-script approximation of Bǎidù.
    Hm, are there actually registered pinyin domains?

  26. hat,
    I think that’s because you’re suffering from the same defensive-aggressive scientism as Mair and Swofford
    What about the person who wrote this, would you apply the same diagnosis and same description?
    I guess what I’m wondering at this point is where is the line between a well-deserved thrashing such as was delivered in the link above and foolish intolerance and what are the rules?
    And indeed, the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.

  27. would you apply the same diagnosis and same description?
    Heh. Well, sure, to some extent. I never claimed to be above assholery and scientism. But 1) DFW was not simply tossing some silly layman’s nonsense about language into a piece primarily about something different, the entire piece was nonsense about language, and belligerently stated nonsense at that; and 2) that (long, long) DFW screed is regularly cited to this day as justification for people’s silly ideas about language, and thus falls into the Strunk ‘n’ White category.

  28. Bathrobe,
    I didn’t say she had her shit together;
    Excellent, so there *is* something we can agree on, although I would phrase it more … Ah who am I kidding, I wouldn’t.
    I merely pointed out that her overall point about the cultural value of the writing system is correct.
    Well if this is her main point, she chose a very questionable way of making it – “layered like a palimpsest”, “clarity”, “precision and … poetry”.

  29. Looking around a bit, I suspect that Mair’s willingness to speak out on certain “myths” associated with China (in particular those related to Chinese characters) have a broader background. See, for instance, Hawai‘i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture, which he helped edit and argues against narrow conceptions about Chinese culture (which is really the culture of the literati). Or this interview about the discovery that a person of west Eurasian ancestry was one of the workers building Qinshihuang’s tomb. A bit like the Warring States Project, Mair seems to me to be opposed to a narrow focus on the “Sinitic”, especially the high culture of the literati, in favour of a broader view that includes non-Sinitic elements. Focussing on Chinese culture through the medium of Chinese characters results in a blinkered approach to both culture and history.

  30. Noetica says:

    Baidu is not pinyin per se, just a Roman-script approximation of Bǎidù.
    This may be true according to the strictest understanding of the term pinyin; but in fact Chinese see the tone indications as optional. If I request the pinyin corresponding to a character, I nearly always have to ask again for the tones to be added.
    Wikipedia (a sufficient guide to the common usage, at least) puts the matter like this:

    The tone-marking diacritics are commonly omitted in popular news stories and even in scholarly works. An unfortunate effect of this is the ambiguity that results about which Chinese characters are being represented.

  31. @bulbul: Thanks for the clarification. So, maybe I read too much into it. I retract my accusation, pending more information. :-P

  32. Bathrobe says:

    Hey, I remember that DFW rant! Have I been reading Languagehat that long?

  33. Frightening, isn’t it?

  34. J.W. Brewer says:

    I am somewhat sympathetic to LH’s point that the reaction seems disproportionate, but I’m puzzled about how he’s applying his distinction between journalists (who supposedly ought to know better) and members of the general public (who can’t reasonably be expected to). If you’ve got a by-lined piece being published in the NY Times (not a letter to the editor, an actual piece, which I take it this was), why should you still get the extra slack afforded to members of the general public? That seems especially odd here since the whole thrust of the piece presupposed her opinion about language-and-writing-systems-stuff was particularly noteworthy. At a minimum, should’t the editor who decided to run the piece in the final form be deemed a jounralist and expected to know something about the subject matter? It’s not like it was an op-ed about estate tax policy that repeated in passing the supposed myth about the character for “crisis” being danger + opportunity.

  35. Does anyone know whether Vietnam now enjoys “universal literacy”? I’ve always wondered about the utilitarian claims pinyin supporters make – it’s “common sense” that an alphabet is more practical, but is there any empirical evidence? Spanish is one of the easier languages to learn to read and write, yet literacy in Mexico is at a far lower level than China from what I can tell. Taiwan does not seem to be suffering very much from continuing to use traditional hanzi. You don’t have to be a “romantic” to question Swofford and Mair’s commitment to radically changing Chinese society. I see little evidence that any of the 20th century orthographic changes (Russia in 1918) or radical overhauls (changing the Turkish writing systemt to latin script) really resulted in any direct improvement in the quality of life of the average citizen. Probably not coincidentally these “reforms” tend to be associated with nasty authoritarian regimes, which makes me suspicious of language reform in general.

  36. Bathrobe says:

    Vanya, you are probably right. The biggest writing reform in pre-modern China was by that nasty authoritarian Qin Shihuang, who decreed that not only the many types of script but also systems weights and measures should be unified. We often castigate nasty authoritarians while enjoying the fruits of their ruthlessness.

  37. Does anyone know whether Vietnam now enjoys “universal literacy”?
    From here:

    Gender: Male 94.0% Female 86.9%
    Area: Urban 94.8% Rural 88.7%
    Ethnicity: Kinh 92.8% Non-Kinh 72.2%
    Age: Under 35 years 94.1% 35 years and over 85.8%
    All: 90.3%

    The recent effects of Đổi mới are, of course, much more significant than the (relatively) ancient history of alphabetization.

  38. J.W. Brewer says:

    Further to vanya’s point, another counterexample for the pinyin enthusiasts would seem to be Japan, which doesn’t really display enough dysfunction (at least the sort of dysfunctions that could credibly be blamed on a suboptimal writing system . . .). But I have my own grudge against the pinyin enthusiasts for having largely succeeded in changing the *English* spellings of Chinese place and proper names (thus making English langauge sources and maps more than a few decades old increasingly opaque to the young) without having caused any alphabetical eschaton to be immanentized back in the PRC. And vanya’s broader point that there’s none so impractically romantic as the enthusiast for rationalistic reform applies equally well in many non-linguistic contexts.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    vanya: Spanish is one of the easier languages to learn to read and write, yet literacy in Mexico is at a far lower level than China from what I can tel
    Not everyone speaks Spanish, or has it as a first language, in Mexico. There are large populations who are, if not monolingual, at least much more comfortable in their own native languages. In addition, Mexico has never had a government as powerful and monolithic as that of China. (On the other hand, China also has sizable minorities speaking non-Mandarin or non-Sinitic languages).

  40. If the twenty-something immigrants in Chicago are any indication, the average Mexican mother finishes the fifth or sixth grade, although I have had some students who dropped out in the 3rd grade and a small minority that finished secondary school. Students tell me the Mexican teachers beat them and pull their hair.
    I don’t trust literacy statistics at all, especially in countries where they charge students a fee.
    Which reminds me, my Spanish students want to know why el día is masculine if it ends in “a”. Maybe m-l knows.

  41. Victor H. Mair says:

    Mark Swofford may be a bit of a curmudgeon, but don’t we need public consciences to protect us from those who romanticize, exoticize, and distort what they don’t understand? And, when it comes to linguistics, are we to let sentiment rule over science?
    Comment from one of my graduate students: My response to Language Hat’s comments might be that it is fine not to know, but not fine to pontificate at length as if you do on the pages of the NY Times (who should really share some of the blame). The description of the novel’s plot, incidentally, was also nausea-inducing.
    (Because some of the participants in this debate have commented on two or more of the relevant sites [LL, LH, and Pinyin News; i.e., there is a triangular discussion going on], I am cross-posting this comment to all three sites.)

  42. The folks at Language Log always keep a flaming torch at the ready. Sometimes I think they forget that languages are spoken by people, and – like every other topic under the sun – people make mistakes in talking about language. It’s OK! Chillax already.

  43. There are only two words in Old Spanish that break the -a / -o norm: masculine dia and feminine mano. manus is one of a handful of feminine fourth declension nouns. dies is fifth declension, which is otherwise always feminine, but was found with both genders in Classical Latin. In Late Latin, the fifth joined the first (almost all feminine and in -a) and the fourth the second (almost all masculine and in -o). But those two still kept their unusual genders.
    In Modern Spanish there are more exceptions, because of things like abbreviation for foto and radio.

  44. Noetica says:

    … the kind of seething rage the Loggers are always attributing to those who get upset about “incorrect usage” in English.
    We don’t like to generalise; but there is often a presumptuous and scarcely warranted certitude at The Other Language Blog. I can’t remember in which LL thread, but I once floated the idea that if linguistics illiteracy is so pernicious and ubiquitous, the first place to look for causes might be within the tenured linguistics establishment, so much of whose high-priestly writ is utterly opaque to outsiders. It’s not as if they agree among themselves even on basic terminology and categories; but pity the non-specialist who puts a foot wrong.
    LH is a more balanced forum, and no less intellectually weighty for having achieved that balance.
    The description of the novel’s plot, incidentally, was also nausea-inducing.
    De gustibus, &c. Some have similar visceral responses to writing with any soupçon of academic self-righteousness.
    [Crossed with MMcM; but I'll post it anyway:]
    … my Spanish students want to know why el día is masculine if it ends in “a”.
    Why should we think that every Spanish or Italian noun ending in -o ought to be masculine, or every noun ending in -a feminine? After all, Latin nouns of the “masculine” second declension are sometimes feminine: most names for trees, for example (pomus, “apple-tree”; normally cypressus, “cypress”, etc.; cf. some first-declension nouns, especially from Greek, that are masculine, like poeta). And then there are those fourth-declension nouns that end in -us and are feminine (manus, “hand”, yields Italian and Spanish la mano). Spanish día (“day”) is from Latin dies, a fifth-declension noun (but cf. Vulgar Latin dia). All fifty or so of these are feminine, except that dies and its compounds (like meridies) can also be masculine, and in their plural forms regularly are.

  45. caffiend says:

    The most salient connotation of 百度 bǎidù is clear and is no Song poem: 100 degrees = 200 proof = strongest possible liquor.

  46. Noetica says:

    There are only two words in Old Spanish that break the -a / -o norm …
    Many more masculines, I think. El poeta; el agrícola (only modern? somewhat rare?; cf. Latin masculine agricola); el íncola (rare); el altruista and el pianista (or many truly old forms made in the same way); el profeta; el planeta; and so on. Any more feminines in -o, beyond la mano? I find none.

  47. Any more feminines in -o, beyond la mano? I find none.
    An indexing anomaly in Google makes it seem as if there were an expression la chingado. Searching it (don’t ask how it occurred to me so search this, of all things), I got 830 results. When I checked some of them, I found la chingada instead. Except for one blog comment with A la chingado con todos los pinchis principiantes de narco …. But the very next comment was by the same person: Perdon quise decir a la chingada.
    So much for deictic proof, which fails in the presence of misspelling, and for which polite retraction is no sure remedy. It reminds me of a remark by Augustine that, when a person points at something, a dog will look in the direction of pointing, whereas a cat will look at the pointing finger. Dogs are easily led by indices, cats not. Feline attentiveness is very much à la mode in our times, under the name of deconstruction.
    At any rate, I remember reading years ago that Augustine wrote such a thing, but I have never been able to locate the passage. Can you confirm or disabuse, Doctor ?

  48. hat,
    I never claimed to be above assholery and scientism.
    *GASP* Well I guess it is true what they say, there are no more good role models for us youngsters…
    RE DFW:
    the entire piece was nonsense about language, and belligerently stated nonsense at that
    Whereas Ms. Wu’s op-ed was only 50% about language (the rest was about writing) and her nonsense was stated charmingly and innocently? So it’s the delivery that counts?
    that (long, long) DFW screed is regularly cited to this day
    And there is a good chance Ms. Wu’s will be cited for some time in the future with all the authority of NYT (such as it is) and Ms. Wu’s Chinese name. Some nipping in the bud is more than appropriate. And am I to assume that the social impact is also to be considered when evaluating the appropriateness of a good verbal thrashing?
    Noetica,
    but in fact Chinese see the tone indications as optional
    I don’t. Tones are phonemic in Mandarin, so not to include them is akin to leaving out vowels. Initials, finals, tones – that’s pinyin. Anybody here back me up on this?

  49. michael farris says:

    The _only_ research (as opposed to opinions and anecdotes) I’ve ever heard of comparing character vs alphabetic writing systems is this:
    “LEARNING EFFICIENCIES FOR DIFFERENT ORTHOGRAPHIES:
    A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF HAN CHARACTERS
    AND VIETNAMESE ROMANIZATION”
    http://www2.twl.ncku.edu.tw/~uibun/chuliau/lunsoat/english/phd/index.htm
    The final sentence of the abstract: “In short, these results lead to the conclusion that Vietnamese CQN is more efficient than Chinese characters in learning to read and write.”
    You can open up the dissertation at that site but I won’t have the time to read through it anytime soon.

  50. Language, is the title A Foolish Intolerance a quotation?

  51. Oh, I get it. Sorry.

  52. I think the Google translation LH quotes at the top of the comments stands on its own as a delightful poem if you ignore the origin …
    And I heartily agree with Mr. Brewer’s comment on the change from Wade-Giles to Pinyin, if you are of an older generation who absorbed spellings in early post WWII days. I don’t know how Chiang kai-shek is now rendered, but I suspect it would puzzle me.

  53. Bathrobe says:

    Well, Chiang Kai-shek is neither Wade-Giles nor pinyin. In Wade-Giles his name is Chiang Chieh-shih. In pinyin his name is Jiǎng Jièshí.
    Besides Wade-Giles and pinyin there are a number of other fantastical romanisations of Chinese. One of these, the Gwoyeu Romatzyh, was based on the idea that tones shouldn’t be written with diacritics, they should be represented by letters within the word, i.e., via the spelling. Although it was officially adopted as the nation’s romanisation system in 1928, it never caught on.
    If you follow the link to the Warring States Project I gave earlier, you will find one of the most baffling romanisations around. They spell 论语 (Lun yü or Lùn yǔ, aka the Analects) as Lun Yw, 墨子 (Mo tzu or Mòzǐ, founder of the Mohists) as Mwodz, 庄子 (Chuang Tzŭ or Zhuāngzǐ) as Jwangdz, the 吕氏春秋 (Lü-shih ch’un-ch’iu or Lüshì chūnqiū) as Lw-shr Chun/Chyou, etc.

  54. Stu: The Augustinian text you’re referring to is presumably his early dialogue “De magistro”, which discusses pointing fingers and the role of ostension in teaching. I don’t think it mentions dogs and cats, or I would have included these in my notes.

  55. Noetica says:

    Initials, finals, tones – that’s pinyin.
    Fine. You need no backing up, and we agree on the strict sense of pinyin; I only report the habits and terminology of Chinese with whom I have dealings, who sometimes use diacritic-free “pinyin” in texting, and call it “pinyin”. Regiment the words à votre gré.
    Can you confirm or disabuse, Doctor?
    Augustine is not on my watchlist, so neither is dogly deixis or ailuric indexicality – pregnant though those notions be. Try me on Lucretius, or David Lewis. Then again, don’t: I’ve got a bad cold and am off to bed. It’s been a rough couple of days in this hemisphere.

  56. Noetica says:

    We are all doctors, now.

  57. Noetica,
    we agree on the strict sense of pinyin
    Excellent. But why strict, is there any other?
    I only report the habits and terminology of Chinese with whom I have dealings
    Who apparently are using it wrong. No?
    Get well soon :)

  58. I suspect that if pinyin ever were commonly used as an everyday all-purpose writing system people would tend to cheat on the tones and only use them to disambiguate where the writer thought disambiguation would be necessary. I know that one of the problems with reading the old Mongol script and sometimes Arabic or Persian is failure to put in disambiguating dots — for want of a dot, Genghis Khan’s son Jochi is called Tushi in much of the early Sinological literature.
    The primary use of pinyin for Chinese is probably indicating pronunciations in dictionaries and elsewhere, which is a case when strictness about tones is important.

  59. If you’ve got a by-lined piece being published in the NY Times (not a letter to the editor, an actual piece, which I take it this was), why should you still get the extra slack afforded to members of the general public? That seems especially odd here since the whole thrust of the piece presupposed her opinion about language-and-writing-systems-stuff was particularly noteworthy.
    Oh, come now. People invited to write op-eds are by no stretch of the imagination journalists; her opinions on language are considered noteworthy because she is a novelist, and to anyone but linguists, writers are considered experts on language. Op-ed columns are filled with dreadful tosh every day of the week; to spend time deconstructing and countering them point by point seems like a complete waste of time. I personally am grateful if one happens to contain a valid point or interesting insight; I take it as a given that most of the verbiage on an op-ed page is padding or worse.
    I have my own grudge against the pinyin enthusiasts for having largely succeeded in changing the *English* spellings of Chinese place and proper names (thus making English langauge sources and maps more than a few decades old increasingly opaque to the young) without having caused any alphabetical eschaton to be immanentized back in the PRC.
    I quite agree.
    And there is a good chance Ms. Wu’s will be cited for some time in the future with all the authority of NYT (such as it is) and Ms. Wu’s Chinese name.
    For “good” read “vanishingly small,” but in the unlikely event that were to happen, the piece would, as I said above, fall under the Strunk-White Clause, and I too would point people to the Swofford rant as a thorough refutation. But I would put money on alien contact in my lifetime before I put money on that. (Frankly, I suspect more people have read Xu’s piece as a result of all this ruckus than ever read it with attention when it was first published. Op-ed pieces are pretty much by definition padding to fill out the editorial section of a newspaper.)
    I suspect that if pinyin ever were commonly used as an everyday all-purpose writing system people would tend to cheat on the tones and only use them to disambiguate where the writer thought disambiguation would be necessary.
    Again, I agree; this would almost certainly be the case, disappointing as that would be to Bulbul the Strict.

  60. Conrad, thanks for the tip – in particular “ostension”, a promising search token which hadn’t occurred to me. I’ll check out de magistro and later, on my blog, try to clear up this little matter between me and myself. Somebody may have been glossing Augustine, but it’s still a dazzling gloss whose after-image has persisted over the years.

  61. I’ve got a bad cold and am off to bed. … We are all doctors, now.
    Physician, thou art healing thyself ? That is the best medicine, but the most bitter.

  62. Mr. Emerson, hat,
    people would tend to cheat on the tones and only use them to disambiguate
    Being vaguely familiar with the human nature (as well as with the trappings of Perso-Arabic script), I fully share your suspicions. But as you said, it’s cheating.
    My objection is the usual one: don’t call a thing something it’s not. Pinyin indicates tones, if it doesn’t, it’s not pinyin and don’t call it that. Pasta alla carbonara consists of pasta, olive oil eggs, guanciale and/or pancetta, pecorino romano and generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. A pasta dish with cream, garlic, bacon and parmiggiano reggiano is not and will never be pasta alla carbonara and you’d better take this abomination away from here now or I’ll fucking stab you with the fork.
    but in the unlikely event that were to happen, the piece would, as I said above, fall under the Strunk-White Clause
    Oh I see. Well I submit that it falls under the Journalism Clause: anything published in a newspaper is fair game.

  63. Danny Bloom says:

    One thing readers here should note and be aware of: this NYTimes oped
    piece was assigned to Ms Xu because her agent told the Times oped desk
    that Xu has a new novel coming out in Octobe and sure would be cool to
    get a kind of free, unpaid advertorial mentioning the novel’s title in
    the author’s ID in the print edition of the Times as a good way to
    spread news of the upcoming novel’s pub date. Capice? This is how the
    Times does business. Xu wrote that piece for the Times because the
    Times commissioned it because her book agent asked for it and there it
    is. These opeds don’t just appear magically out of the blue. It is all
    agenting and marketing behind it all. I know. The Times pretends these
    pieces are sent in cold, they are not. Every oped in the Times was
    assigned and commissioned, ask David Shipley there, he will dish. And
    this oped was not even about her new novel, so why in the world was it
    assigned to her? Guess. Name awareness. She is now a star, as
    “published in the New York Times” the early reviews will say. The
    Times should be more transparent, one, and the public should be more
    aware of how these oped shenanigans work.

  64. michael farris says:

    “I suspect that if pinyin ever were commonly used as an everyday all-purpose writing system people would tend to cheat on the tones and only use them to disambiguate where the writer thought disambiguation would be necessary.”
    The evidence from Vietnamese would suggest otherwise. There are a few cases where Vietnamese don’t use tones but when feasible, they always write them.
    I would assume that Chinese are sloppy about writing tones now in Pinyin because it’s not taught as an autonomous writing system but as an auxiliary way of writing Chinese names in English where the tonemarks are unnecessary.
    If pinyin were taught as a full writing system (tones included), I assume Chinese would write the tones the same way that Vietnamese speakers do.

  65. What we have here is a case of Rectification of Names.

  66. Bathrobe says:

    Don’t bet on it. The Chinese are notorious shortcut takers. If they can get away without doing something, then they will by all means dispense with doing it.
    Anecdotally speaking, when in Japan I got used to the idea that addresses must be written out in full, from the prefecture down to the banchi. It’s just a matter of doing things properly. I soon discovered that China was different. People will cheerfully leave out parts of the address that they regard as unnecessary information, as long as they figure that the letter will be delivered. My experience with the Vietnamese is limited, but my feeling is that they tend towards the Japanese end of the spectrum. I could imagine the Vietnamese writing out words with every diacritic clearly marked, as that’s the way that it’s done. I could equally imagine the Chinese leaving off most tone marks if they considered them ‘unnecessary’.

  67. So as far as I can tell Mair and Swofford have graciously judged the author worthy of their contempt, while LH feels her quite beneath it (the piece is “verbiage”; “padding or worse”; “silly layman’s nonsense”). Danny Bloom’s remarks certainly support the latter and harsher position–so have M. and S. not been entirely too generous?

  68. poeta, agrícolaprofeta, planeta
    Yes, you’re quite right. I think these are later borrowings from Latin, after Old Spanish (and its core lexis) existed in some sense. But I admit that that sense and all the dates are pretty fuzzy, so my case is pretty weak.

  69. It’s always been my theory that a certain proportion of intelligent, educated Chinese immigrants to America never bother to learn the parts of English that they don’t see the need for (inflections, plurals, articles).
    I’ve come to agree with these imaginary Chinese in my head. Languages don’t need to be junked up that way. The German noun declensions are insane and evil.

  70. Grumbly Stu, check out the recent research on whether the accepted wisdom (dogs can, cats can’t, chimpanzees can’t, even wolves can’t) is in fact true.
    Time popular piece.
    One of Hare’s studies.
    Refutation(?) for wolves.
    Also, there’s something about learning and pointing in Confessions, but no animals that I recall.

  71. Pasta alla carbonara consists of pasta, olive oil eggs, guanciale and/or pancetta, pecorino romano and generous amount of freshly ground black pepper.
    My fiancee feels the same way.

  72. jamessal,
    you, sir, are a lucky man.

  73. Bathrobe is right. Chinese *are* notorious shortcut takers. We don’t need a thought experiment to see whether pinyin-ised Chinese would be “mostly” toneless. This is already happening in Chinese Braillie as used in Mainland China.
    In 1937, Republic of China finally finalised (Mandarin) Chinese Braille, replacing previous less systematic methods. This braille is based on Zhuyin, and requires all tones to be marked. However, this braillie does not use spacing, which is why tone indication acts as a kind of syllable separator. Of course, like most things started by the RoC, it is only still used in Taiwan. Unlike what I said earlier though, the first tone (high level) is also indicated, leaving no possible ambiguities in syllable length (previously, 1st tone is unmarked and left as a space).
    People’s Republic of China has promulgated Hanyu Pinyin in 1958, and with that comes a new braille that is based on pinyin. The striking feature of this braille is that spacing is required (like the readable pinyin) and tone marking is *no* longer required, it was promoted that “the new Braille removes tone marks!”. The braillers take heed to that promotion, and ridded themselves with tone indications. As a result, only 5% of syllables in Chinese brailled work features tone indication, and it was thought that if every syllable were to be remarked, it would add 50% to the bulk of the brailled work! It is often lamented though that the de-toned braille cause quite a bit of ambiguities, and that no two brailler indicate tones alike!

  74. Thanks, Bulbul.

  75. Noetica, Stu, MMcM: there are also several Spanish masculines in -ma (Greek via Latin) – problema, sistema, dilema, programa, drama, tema…

  76. Nicola di Cosmo is a guy. Cosma Shalizi is a guy. Cosmas Indicopleustes was also a guy.

  77. So as far as I can tell Mair and Swofford have graciously judged the author worthy of their contempt, while LH feels her quite beneath it (the piece is “verbiage”; “padding or worse”; “silly layman’s nonsense”).
    That’s an unfair and rather nasty characterization of my position. What I said is that “most of the verbiage on an op-ed page is padding or worse”; i.e., “padding or worse” was a general characterization of most op-ed pieces, not an attack on Ms. Xu, for whom I feel no contempt whatsoever. As for “silly layman’s nonsense,” most of what laymen have to say about language is silly nonsense; again, it is not an aspersion directed against Ms. Xu in particular. The entire thrust of my post is a defense of Ms. Xu against the overheated attacks of Messrs. Mair and Swofford, and I don’t appreciate your painting me as one of the attacking crew.
    jamessal, you, sir, are a lucky man.
    You, sir, are correct.

  78. Pasta alla carbonara consists of pasta, olive oil eggs, guanciale and/or pancetta, pecorino romano and generous amount of freshly ground black pepper.
    Well stick a fork in my back and turn me over: I didn’t even know olive oil laid eggs!
    I’d certainly like to second the motion heaping contempt on anyone who knowing reads the NY Graybladet’s OpEds, though. When I used to occasionally read the Intergalactic Herald-Tribune (which is the Paris edition of said ‘bladet) the thought never dreamed of the possibility of entering my mind.

  79. Said the man who obsessively follows the Princessor Social Bladet.

  80. I’ve always lived in constitutional monarchies; I understand that in republican meritocracies the undertakings of Ms Paris Hilton are considered of wider public interest, but I’m not quite progressive enough for that sort of thing, sadly.

  81. caffiend says:

    Pinyin on signs in China always lacks tones and often lacks spaces or other punctuation and is in all upper case. Pinyin with tones only exists in textbooks.
    One explanation is that tones vary by place even more than other dialect features, so that tone indication is less useful for speakers of anything but the standard language and the dialect of Beijing itself. I think simple convention and inertia is the main reason though.
    No script indicates all phonetic features; it’s always some subset that disambiguates most words but usually not all. Notation of extra features may add only a little more disambiguation, at the cost of slowing down writing significantly, and be discarded where possible, like the non-use of vowel points in modern Hebrew.

  82. caffeind,
    Pinyin with tones only exists in textbooks.
    And dictionaries.
    One explanation is that tones vary by place even more than other dialect features
    But isn’t pinyin supposed to represent pǔtōnghuà and pǔtōnghuà only, where the tones aren’t supposed to vary?
    No script indicates all phonetic features
    True, not even pinyin does, see tone sandhi.
    like the non-use of vowel points in modern Hebrew
    Yeah, but in modern Hebrew, you have matres lectionis all over the place, essentially replacing some, if not all, of the functionality provided by vowel points.

  83. I would like to point out this quote from Wikipedia:
    “The tone-marking diacritics are commonly omitted in popular news stories and even in scholarly works. An unfortunate effect of this is the ambiguity that results about which **Chinese characters** are being represented.”
    According to Pinyin enthusiasts, this is a blatant error. Pinyin does not represent “characters,” it represents “words of spoken Mandarin.” This is why pinyin has spaces between words, etc.
    So, why did Wikipedia make this mistake? Two reasons come to mind.
    1.) You get what you pay for.
    2.) In China, there is a widespread lay-belief that spoken language represents Chinese characters, rather than vice-versa. This belief can also be seen to pervade Ms. Xu’s oped piece.
    Is this lay-belief wrong? Pinyin enthusiasts would describe it as wrong, but I am inclined to say it’s not entirely inaccurate. For the many centuries that literary written Chinese was in use, it was arguable that the writing system was an independent language with only a loose connection to the spoken language. Today, the written language has been yoked much more closely to Mandarin, but bits of non-Mandarin remain in the writing system.
    As to Ms. Xu’s other point about the importance of 百度 vs. Baidu, it’s arguable that a medieval poem would be as completely obscure and unreadable for the general Chinese public as medieval English is to the general Anglophone public, were it not for the use of characters in writing, which makes obtaining passing acquaintance with literary Chinese much more practical for the average person, although it of course still requires a fair amount of independent education.

  84. danny bloom says:

    Trying to get to the bottom of this, from the Oped page’s viewpoint, to ascertain if editors there were aware the Ms Xu is not a speaker or reader or writer of Chinese, and yet she says she is in the oped, I asked David Shipley at the Times to email me at home. His office mail said: “I will be out of the office and away from email until Wednesday, July 14. If you have urgent Op-Ed business, please contact deputy oped page editor Mary Duenwald at Duenwald@NYTimes.com. Thank you. David Shiplay at Shipley@nytimes.com….” so I’ve asked her, too. Not to criticize anyone, I am sure everyone was innocent in this unvettting episode, but it’s important for a paper like the Times to be aware of such things for future reference. The damage is already done, if damage it was. We shall find out.
    Also, as the Times website says, Ms Xu’s oped piece only appeared in the New York City edition of the Times that day, not the national edition. What does that mean? And why only in the local edition, if it was a good oped, why not national edition, as well? Maybe Shipley can explain this later. Maybe the NYC edition is for insiders, locally known, who live in Brooklyn and other nearby areas, and the national edition is for top-flight PHD oped people? The Times is a mystery to me.
    I wonder how the Times oped desk will react to seeing their work characterized as:
    … “most of the verbiage on an op-ed page is padding or worse”; i.e., “padding or worse” was a general characterization of most op-ed pieces…”

  85. caffiend says:

    The dogma of the primacy of spoken language is steadily becoming even sillier as more people spend more time on computers and written-first features like acronyms and rebuses flourish even in the slang of the less educated.
    Did spoken Chinese’s evolution from an inflected to an isolating language owe something to the use of a morphemic script that did not capture the inflections? Perhaps, though English became analytic without benefit of such a script.
    But isn’t pinyin supposed to represent pǔtōnghuà and pǔtōnghuà only, where the tones aren’t supposed to vary?
    Yes, but this doesn’t make marking tones easier for people with less than perfect command of the national language, or more helpful for comprehension by those people.
    matres lectionis replacing some, if not all, of the functionality provided by vowel points
    Two (or three in final position) vs. 15 niqqud symbols. Roughly, one bit of information vs. four.

  86. Bathrobe says:

    The dogma of the primacy of spoken language
    A dogma deconstructionists love to, er, deconstruct. Still, it’s interesting that for most of Chinese history, the overwhelming majority of Chinese couldn’t read or write. And it’s doubtful if the written language could ever have arisen without people speaking the language first. So much in Chinese characters actually tries to represent pronunciation, you’d have a hard time proving that Chinese characters exist in a vacuum of their own without the life support of the spoken language.

  87. caffeind,
    Two (or three in final position) vs. 15 niqqud symbols. Roughly, one bit of information vs. four.
    15 niqqud symbols, but only five vowels in Modern Hebrew, six if you count the shwa.

  88. Carl,
    According to Pinyin enthusiasts, this is a blatant error.
    According to anybody with half a brain and a passing understanding of the difference between language and writing.

  89. I’m not qualified to have an opinion about whether Chinese people would omit “unnecessary” tone marks in writing Pinyin, but I think the (much simpler) example of Spanish diacritical marks is interesting. 15 years or so ago, when email software was much more primitive than it is now, and non-ASCII characters tended to be transformed into weird and unrecognizable “equivalents”, I noticed that writers of messages in Spanish were uniformly happy to omit stress accents, but equally adamant that ñ could not be written as n (though they didn’t agree as to how it ought to be written: some favoured ny, others gn and others ni — curiously never nn, which would seem to be the historically best choice). So people who would see no objection to writing á as a would never write ñ as n. I asked one or two about this and the usual answer was that ñ is not n with a tilde but a separate letter. Maybe that is technically correct, but I think it has more to do with distinctions they consider “necessary” and ones they don’t.

  90. michael farris says:

    One advantage of tone marks in Pinyin is that they create a larger number of visually distinct syllables which can be important in a language with such a restricted inventory of morphemes/syllables.
    The homophony problem isn’t as extensive with Vietnamese but I also have the idea that Vietnamese orthography (which is not a transcription of any particular spoken dialect) goes out of its way to have as many visually distinct syllables as possible.
    On the other hand, maybe polysyllablic pinyin reduces that by itself. And …. tones work differently in different tone languages. Even with as little contact with / knowledge about Mandarin as I have I often get the idea that maybe linguists haven’t really figured out the system as well as they think they have and that the current system of tone marking isn’t really capturing what’s going on at some crucial basic level (whereas the tone marking in Vietnamese or Standard Thai mostly does).

  91. though they didn’t agree as to how it ought to be written: some favoured ny, others gn and others ni — curiously never nn, which would seem to be the historically best choice
    Surely not. “gn” would be the best choice – it would bring spanish more in line with Italian and French. Funny you don’t mention “nh” – the Portuguese spelling.

  92. vanya,
    “gn” would be the best choice
    Michael did say ‘historically’…
    michael,
    One advantage of tone marks in Pinyin is that they create a larger number of visually distinct syllables
    And here’s the thing: the distinction is not that pronounced, especially in some fonts. Even I, a native speaker of a language with shitloads of diacritics, find it sometimes difficult to tell the syllables apart. In that respect, Gwoyeu Romatzyh makes a lot more sense.

  93. Michael did say ‘historically’…
    “Nn” makes no sense to a modern reader. Yes, once upon a time the tilde was used to indicate doubling of the consonant, and not only “n”, but modern ñ does not stand for a double consonant and is used in many, many words where there probably never was a double consonant “n” sound – like baño, montaña or campaña – all derived from Vulgar Latin “ni”.

  94. “Nn” makes no sense to a modern reader.
    Of course, but he did say ‘historically’…

  95. That’s my point. Was “montaña” ever really spelled “montanna”?

  96. Bathrobe says:

    Even with as little contact with / knowledge about Mandarin as I have I often get the idea that maybe linguists haven’t really figured out the system as well as they think they have and that the current system of tone marking isn’t really capturing what’s going on at some crucial basic level
    There are big differences in tones even among North Chinese (Mandarin) dialects, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any evidence that the system itself is in doubt. Care to elaborate?

  97. Was “montaña” ever really spelled “montanna”?
    Sure. What happened is both etymological nn and /n/ + /j/ (e.g., montanea) became /ɲ/, and they got spelled like the former, with or without the abbreviation.

  98. Pwned!

  99. It sucks to have all that Western traditional Phd style clogging Chinese thought being communicated in English to be shared with anyone outside the Chinese tribe who is interested. You know what I would like? Talk to me like your the homegrown original recipe with something interesting to share – trust the audience as if they are your genuine and sincere friend who won’t nitpick or otherwise be petty out of a need to make someone feel inferior so they can feel superior – deliver the message you so generously want to share as if I am an interested Overseas Chinese who automatically feels at home and has no prejudices against you. Do it in English but in this style that doesn’t torture the original Chinese style thought. And be American in your attitude i.e. Take it or Leave it – Like it or Shove it – I don’t care.
    Just tell me what you want to say and be satisfied that the message is now out there. Develop a talent for ignoring the peanut gallery. Nobody has leverage over you if you don’t give it to them. Do it this way and you will make a lot of money. Forge ahead.

  100. What’s ‘making a lot of money’ got to do with anything, Cleo?

  101. Dammit, MMcM, you’re google-fu is strong…
    But since I took the trouble of digging up my copy of Pountain’s A History of the Spanish Language through Texts, here is a fragment from Primera crónica general by Alfonso X (p. 84):
    DE COMO LOS MOROS ENTRARON EN ESPANNA LA SEGUNDA UEZ.
    Andados tres annos del Regnado del Rey Rodrigo que fue. En la era de sietecientos & cinquaenta & dos. Quando andaua ell anno de la encarnacion en siete cientos & quatorze. & el dell imperio de Leo en uno.
    And then there’s ‘sennor’, ‘Luzenna’ and even ‘yennego’ as in “Hello, my name is Yennego Montoya.”

  102. michael farris says:

    The best n-tilde substitute for me would definitely be ny as AFAIk it doesn’t occur in Spanish (unlike nn, gn, ni and even nh all of which have non-tilde values in modern Spanish).
    On the other hand, it might be considered too Catalan for polite company…..

  103. Oddly, Portuguese doesn’t use the tilded “n” though they use 12 other diacriticized forms (and until recently, 13). I was recently very proud of myself when I transcribed two pages of Portuguese with only two missed diacritics (or so I was told, rightly I hope).
    I did it mechanically without understanding every mark, and apparently what seems to be an umlaut or diaeresis sometimes represents a tilde.

  104. It’s not surprising Portuguese doesn’t use the tilded “n” if MMcM is right about Latin “nn” and “ni” merging into /ɲ/ in Castilian. Those sounds did not merge in Portuguese. Latin “annus”, for example, become “ano”, not “anho.”

  105. vanya,
    if MMcM is right about Latin “nn” and “ni” merging into /ɲ/ in Castilian
    Pountain (see above), p. 67:
    “… engannado … and
    mannana … represent
    /engaɲado/ and /maɲana/, as in Modern Spanish, /ɲ/ being the expected
    development of both /nn/ and /nj/ …”
    It’s not surprising Portuguese doesn’t use the tilded “n” … Those sounds did not merge in Portuguese.
    But that assumes that the tilded n can only represent the original geminated consonant. With all the variation in medieval Latin script, someone in Portugal could have easily pulled a Hus and used a tilde to denote the palatalized nasal.

  106. Someone in Portugal could have risked being burned at the stake by using a tilde to denote the palatalized nasal. They took these things seriously in the old days.

  107. Etienne says:

    1-The Portuguese digraphs NH and LH are Old Provencal in origin, and apparently were enshrined in the standard in order to further differentiate the language from Spanish. I quite agree with Bulbul, there was no linguistic reason why Portuguese could not have used the same symbols as Spanish to represent the same phonemes (even if the distribution/origin of said phonemes differs between the two languages). I suspect a similar story lies behind Modern Catalan NY and LY: for the palatalized lateral Medieval Catalan could use LL.
    2-MMcM is quite correct, in Old Spanish MANO and DIA are the only two nouns which break the pattern whereby nouns ending in /o/ are masculine and those in /a/ feminine. All the other exceptions in Modern Spanish entered the language later (typically, after the Renaissance).
    3-Bulbul’s point, that syllables with diacritics can be hard to tell apart even for native speakers/readers of a language whose orthography is diacritic-rich, seems to have been recognized in China: I understand that the names of the provinces of SHANXI and SHAANXI (whose names differ solely because of the tone of the first syllable) are thus spelled, in defiance of the usual rules of PINYIN, in order to make them more visually distinctive.

  108. Trond Engen says:

    I was recently very proud of myself when I transcribed two pages of Portuguese with only two missed diacritics (or so I was told, rightly I hope).
    I did it mechanically without understanding every mark, and apparently what seems to be an umlaut or diaeresis sometimes represents a tilde.
    Back in the glue-and-paper-typesetting 80′s my wife (well, at that time she was blissfully unaware of her destiny) was engaged in publishing a Catholic youth magazine. In spite of her not knowing a word Vietnamese, one of her regular tasks was to prepare for printing a handwritten text in that language. She says that after a short while she was able to spot and correct errors in tonal marks when she was typing.

  109. I recently reconstructed the almost-correct spelling of Turkish name (Çakmakoğlu, though I missed the ğ) based on an ad hoc 19th c. French transliteration. I’ve never have studied Turkish so I was very pleased with myself.

  110. Etienne says:

    Correction: In my comment, under “1″, please ignore what I wrote about Catalan. Note to self: do not send comments on linguistics at LH without coffee and research, in that order.

  111. Etienne,
    there was no linguistic reason why Portuguese…
    And this brings me back to the original subject of this exchange: it’s fine with me if people assign all sorts of meaning to Chinese characters – clarity, precision, poetry, what have you. But only as long as they realize that they it’s them (or other people) who put that meaning there and as long as they do not pretend that these are some intrinsic features of the script.

  112. I quite agree with Bulbul, there was no linguistic reason why Portuguese could not have used the same symbols as Spanish to represent the same phonemes
    But why would it ever occur to a Portugese scribe to do so? The Spanish scribes were using the tilde to abbreviate a double consonant that had merged phonetically with “ni”. The “nh” sound in Portugese was never a geminated “n”. (Portuguese is “enganado” for example, NOT “enganhado”) Especially in an age where people may have been more conscious that the tilde was a diagraphical shortcut, putting a tilde over the n in “banho” would probably have seemed nonsensical. (Portuguese is “enganado” for example, NOT “enganhado”)

  113. Etienne says:

    Vanya: I would agree with you to a degree if Spanish and Portuguese had each created its spelling standards in isolation. But considering the close contacts enjoyed by Spanish and Portuguese speakers for most of the Middle ages, a spelling feature such as a Spanish tilde could quite easily have been adopted by Portuguese scribes.

  114. That’s an unfair and rather nasty characterization of my position. [...] The entire thrust of my post is a defense of Ms. Xu against the overheated attacks of Messrs. Mair and Swofford, and I don’t appreciate your painting me as one of the attacking crew.
    Sorry–I did not mean to be nasty, and thoroughly enjoyed this post! What interested me was that your focus is not on the value of the article (there is agreement that it leaves something to be desired), but on the view that it does not merit experts’ attention: hence emphasis on the generally low quality of op-ed pieces (agreed), the “butterfly” metaphor, etc. I only wanted to point out that, arguably, Mair and Swofford’s disappointment implies a higher set of expectations for author, medium and general public. You really don’t offer a “defense” (we have yet to hear from the butterfly’s litigator) so much as a dismissal–and it is not obvious to me that Ms. Xu would prefer to escape the wheel as your butterfly than to stand accused, fit and cognizant, before M./S.

  115. vanya,
    But why would it ever occur to a Portugese scribe to do so?
    This could be one of the reasons:
    The Spanish scribes were using the tilde to abbreviate a double consonant that had merged phonetically with “ni”.
    What I’m saying is that the use of the digraph nh is most likely the result of writing habit combined with cultural adaptation, not of philological or linguistic considerations. It’s just that at that time, your average literate Portuguese was probably more likely to be influenced by Occitan tradition than by the Spanish one and had things been different… You get the point – time and chance happen to them all.
    What’s more, you’ll find ‘sennor’ in Cantigas de Santa Maria.
    the tilde was a diagraphical shortcut
    According to Cappelli, it was a shortcut for a left-out nasal, but also for other things, like word-final -ta, -tio, -ur.

  116. Etienne says:

    Vanya, Bulbul: actually, in Modern Galician the Spanish tilde is used to note the palatal nasal (whose diachronic origin, by and large, is the same as that of Portuguese). I suspect that in an alternate universe where Portugal did not regain its freedom from Spain in 1640, this would also be the case for Portuguese itself…

  117. Athel Cornish-Bowden: I asked one or two about this and the usual answer was that ñ is not n with a tilde but a separate letter. Maybe that is technically correct, but I think it has more to do with distinctions they consider “necessary” and ones they don’t.
    Well, it is “technically correct” — that’s how the Spanish alphabet is conceived and taught. There are officially 29 symbols in the Spanish alphabet, including both “n” (pronounced “ene”) and “ñ” (pronounced “enye”). Now, two of those “symbols” are digraphs — “ch” and “ll” — but the others are considered distinct letters (“letras”). See here, for example (or the Spanish version).
    The accent diacritics are a secondary system, used primarily to indicate which syllable has the emphasis if a particular word deviates from the standard system for pronunciation, and occasionally for differentiating homonyms (e.g., “te” vs “té”). From the Spanish point of view, this is a completely separate (and much less important) system than the basic 29 symbols.

  118. Noetica says:

    Etienne:
    MMcM is quite correct, in Old Spanish MANO and DIA are the only two nouns which break the pattern whereby nouns ending in /o/ are masculine and those in /a/ feminine. All the other exceptions in Modern Spanish entered the language later (typically, after the Renaissance).
    A courageous assertion, if you mean by “Old Spanish” what most linguists (and MMcM) appear to mean. I doubt that you could prove such a claim. See here for poeta and planeta, at least, in Spanish “before the thirteenth century”. Surely much of the Greek-transmitting ecclesiastical terminology (like profeta, whose French cognate is recorded from 980; or evangelista, matched in French from 1190) is also of very early date.

  119. (Or “BY the thirteenth century”, was it?)

  120. But do note what that same work (Penny) says of the two uncontested words. This is a “standard fact” one learns about Old Spanish.
    I concede, as I did earlier already, that it’s hard to point to a time and place at which this “pure” Old Spanish was spoken free of those other Latinisms and Hellenisms. But there is still a meaningful distinction here.

  121. caffiend says:

    for most of Chinese history, the overwhelming majority of Chinese couldn’t read or write.
    By some estimates, a substantial minority had some literacy, and figures for elites or urban populations would be much higher. The literati’s thought pervaded all of society over time; compare the Taoist afterlife’s courtrooms with judges, scribes and bailiffs to the Christian afterlife which hasn’t evolved past monarchy.
    And it’s doubtful if the written language could ever have arisen without people speaking the language first.
    Yes, of course there is “primacy” in this sense. Needless to say, being first does not imply retaining dominance forever.
    So much in Chinese characters actually tries to represent pronunciation, you’d have a hard time proving that Chinese characters exist in a vacuum of their own without the life support of the spoken language.
    Um, who was proposing a “vacuum”? It only makes sense that spoken and written language both influence one another. What would be absurd would be maintaining that speech influences writing but never the other way around.
    The partial but substantial correlation between pronunciation and the phonetic parts of compound characters was essential to formation of the Chinese script and remains a major mnemonic aid for Chinese speakers learning the script. But this correlation is not simply a recent or constant derivation of characters from speech; rather, the structure of the writing system continues to encode phonetic features lost from Chinese speech millenia earlier.

  122. Funny you don’t mention “nh” – the Portuguese spelling.
    True, I didn’t, but I also don’t think I’ve ever seen it in an email message in Spanish. My impression is that few Spanish speakers see Portuguese as a useful source of precedents. My own preference was for ny, but otherwise the main people who wrote it that way were Catalan — no big surprise there.

  123. MMcM is always quite correct.

  124. Noetica says:

    Krŵn:
    MMcM is always quite correct.
    But you will recall this ruling of yours also, recorded in the Annals:
    Noetica is always correct.
    Given that your own judgement is infallible, there would be a serious rift in the logico-factual continuum if MMcM and Noetica disagreed on any point. Such a breach did threaten, earlier in this thread; but it turns out that we are in accord. It is the precise expression of “facts” that has gone astray in the literature, and as usual chez LH it falls to us to set things right.
    MMcM reports Penny (A History of the Spanish Language) on día and mano. These are mentioned also on the page that follows MMcM’s locus, p. 123, where we start (my emphasis in bold):

    In spoken Latin [as opposed to the refined literary language] this correlation [-us masculine, -a feminine] was strengthened [...] and by the Old Spanish period the correlation was almost absolute. At that stage, probably the only aberrant forms were the fem. mano and the masc. día.

    Then some invaluable discussion of tree-names; and also gem-names, which “were slower than tree-names to find a settled form and Old Spanish hesitated wildly over their form, while adhering to the pattern /-a/ = feminine, /-o/ = masculine: [examples]“. Then something on two kinship terms and attempts to “correct” them in spoken Latin (against the demotic trend), so that they might remain exceptions: socrus not socra (“mother-in-law”); nurus not nura (“daughter-in-law”). Then this summation (p. 124):

    There were, then, in Old Spanish perhaps only two exceptions (mano and día) to the rule [...]. However, from the late Middle Ages the force of this rule has been weakened and there are now large numbers of nouns which contravene it: [examples]

    The examples are of three sorts: First, Greek-sourced words in -a that had originally been masculine or neuter (masculine profeta, planeta, neuter clima, are given; but surely also many other neuters such as Breffni has mentioned above, with tema especially no doubt having an early date). Second, masculine agential metonymic conversions from feminine abstract nouns (guardia, guarda, corneta). Third, the feminines like moto and foto that MMcM mentions above.
    I have highlighted in bold points of vagueness in Penny’s excellent survey: by the Old Spanish period may mean by the start of that period, by the end of that period, or something else. At that stage, then, has particularly uncertain reference. Finally, there is a failure to distinguish what was the case in Old Spanish broadly and what was the case from the late Middle Ages more narrowly – unfortunate, since the common usage would include the late Middle Ages in the Old Spanish period. The intention with from is also unclear (from the start of the late Middle Ages?; from the end?), as is the exact way that however is to be understood (“with this proviso”?; “on the other hand”?).
    In conclusion, the facts close to the ground are not in dispute; only careless but commonplace slippage in demarcation of periods and the like has enabled these “standard facts” to masquerade as genuine facts. I find similarities, once again, with the confused state (usually ignored except by alert beginners) of the terms diatonic and chromatic, which I have laboured to untangle at Wikipedia. (When I had patience for such an exercise, that is; the opposition from one or two die-hard analysis-refusers was noisome.) There are many similar failures in the logical layout of famous claims that we could look at, and they lead to deeply entrenched confusions. (A research interest of mine, as a philosopher.)

  125. Thank God we’ve cleared that up! I feared for the logico-factual continuum.

  126. Don’t let them off so easy, Hat. Insist that they clarify a few points.

  127. Noetica says:

    Quite right, John Emerson. I was all ready to defend myself for the elusive grammatical oddity here, at least: “A research interest of mine, as a philosopher.”

  128. Bathrobe says:

    @caffeind
    My take on this is that the idea of the primacy of speech was originally introduced to breach the wall that the literate classes had erected against ordinary spoken language, a counterproductive wall that prevented a proper, purely linguistic approach to language. Originally, the “literate” view gave primacy to writing. Returning the initiative to the language as spoken was an important methodological and theoretical assumption to clear the air of red herrings and false premises.
    But I don’t think it ever meant that language was exclusively speech or that the written language had no place in linguistic analyses. And I personally see nothing wrong with including the written language in the domain of linguistic analysis — as long as we don’t end up back in the muddle-headed days of uncritically mixing judgements about the two together. I happen to agree that insisting totally on speech and excluding the written language is too simplistic (there are so many things that you miss or can only explain clumsily) and also rather dishonest (most people who insist on the primacy of speech are unconsciously talking about the written language, anyway).
    The problem is that in languages using Chinese characters there is still a massive conceptual mixup in people’s thinking between the spoken and written languages that leads to muddled thinking. One example was the original approach to Chinese dialects adopted by Chinese scholars, which consisted in investigating the readings of characters in local dialects. This missed out a lot of things — words that didn’t have characters to represent them, different grammatical structures, different vocabulary (the fact that a character/word exists doesn’t guarantee it is used), etc. For pre-scientific scholars and modern laymen, giving primacy to the written word may seem like the most natural thing in the world, but in investigating dialects it is ludicrous. That is not to deny that the way dialects are intertwined with the written language isn’t important, but it’s essential to start with the primacy of the spoken language before tying yourself in knots over the relationship of dialect to characters and the written language.
    Similarly, when northern Chinese dialects shifted from 企 to 站 as the word for ‘to stand’, it’s important to see this as one morpheme/word supplanting another — not one character supplanting another. It was the spoken language that made the move. The written language followed along by creating a character to represent the new word. There is nothing inherently superior about the character 站 over 企 (use of the radical 立, for instance) that meant it was better suited to survive. The change was one that occurred in the spoken language.
    I would be the first one to defend the study of the influence writing as a legitimate aspect of research into language, but as far as I can see, kicking against the “primacy of speech” concept could only too easily lead us straight back into the jungle.

  129. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Noetica might not always be correct. Sorry for the confusion. I had skipped quite a lot of the previous comments, all of them, actually, and had only noticed the one reference to M.
    So I’m glad your respective correctnesses are once again in equilibrium — though any Greek would tell you that they’re also dependent on my being always right, and that argument is what we philosophers call “a can of worms”.

  130. By the way, I’m very impressed that you were able to retrieve that comment, Noetica. I can’t remember things that were said more than 12 hours ago. I’m currently reading a biography of the Scots-baiter Hugh Trevor-Roper, and I will soon be able to reveal the extent of his dealings with the German language.

  131. Bathrobe has pretty much exactly my take on the relation between speech and writing.

  132. My take on this is that the idea of the primacy of speech was originally introduced to breach the wall that the literate classes had erected against ordinary spoken language….But I don’t think it ever meant that language was exclusively speech or that the written language had no place in linguistic analyses…..but as far as I can see, kicking against the “primacy of speech” concept could only too easily lead us straight back into the jungle.
    That’s a trap for every academic discipline. An idea like “the primacy of speech” starts out as one man’s proposal, and then it’s discussed and debated and finally accepted, and then it’s taught to students (in a rather brisk, dogmatic way in order to save time), and then in the final phase it’s taught to students by rote by teachers who had learned it by rote from teachers who also had learned it by rote, and in this stage it tends to be treated as a law of nature rather than as the convenient working assumption it really is.

  133. And next thing you know, it’s the Spanish Inquisition.

  134. caffiend says:

    The problem is that in languages using Chinese characters there is still a massive conceptual mixup in people’s thinking between the spoken and written languages that leads to muddled thinking. One example was the original approach to Chinese dialects adopted by Chinese scholars, which consisted in investigating the readings of characters in local dialects. This missed out a lot of things — words that didn’t have characters to represent them, different grammatical structures, different vocabulary (the fact that a character/word exists doesn’t guarantee it is used), etc
    Which Chinese scholarship are you thinking of? 切韻 prescribed a standard pronunciation for each character, transcribed in a rudimentary phonetic notation, while
    方言 listed differing regional vocabulary and idioms. Neither was “investigating the readings of characters in local dialects”.
    Similarly, when northern Chinese dialects shifted from 企 to 站 as the word for ‘to stand’, it’s important to see this as one morpheme/word supplanting another — not one character supplanting another. It was the spoken language that made the move. The written language followed along by creating a character to represent the new word. There is nothing inherently superior about the character 站 over 企 (use of the radical 立, for instance) that meant it was better suited to survive. The change was one that occurred in the spoken language.
    This is more likely to be a semantic shift or geographical expansion of an existing word, than creation of a completely new word from nothing. The word’s predecessors were likely also written, at least in the region where the word was used.
    Anyway, it is hardly controversial that a change in spoken language could be reflected in writing; I’ve never seen an assertion that a change like that happened simply because someone decided they liked writing a different-shaped character better and made one up. (You come up with the most original strawmen.) The point is that there may be other kinds of change (or lack of change) where the written language influenced speech, which you don’t address at all.

  135. Strawmen? Hm.

  136. Bathrobe says:

    Looking around (e.g. Handbook of Reading Research), it appears that Saussure was fairly uncompromising on the primacy of speech:
    “Language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first.”
    Bloomfield said:
    “Language is not language, but merely a way of recording language by means of visible marks.”
    I would find it difficult to support a position as extreme as these, as most people probably would. However, the quoted source notes that:
    “The title of one section of (Saussure’s) Course in General Linguistics, though, may explain the tone: ‘Influence of writing; reasons for its ascendance over the spoken form.’ At the same time… Saussure’s purpose was to replace prescriptive grammars based on literary forms with a more fundamental description of natural language.
    “Similarly, Bloomfield’s remarks were made in the context of the development of techniques for the description of unwritten native American languages.”
    As for my “straw man”, it is merely an illustration of the fact that writing represents the spoken language, not the other way around. No one is denying an influence, often a profound influence, in both directions. But to say that “writing is ultimately a way of representing speech” is far more defensible than it is to say “speech is ultimately a way of representing writing”.

  137. Bathrobe says:

    Bloomfield of course said “Writing is not language”, not “Language is not language”.

  138. Thanks to everyone who commented about día: MMcM, Noetica, Breffni, (although I’m not completely sure what a declension is in Latin, so I’m not quite sure how I will explain it to the kids). But a fascinating discussion. I’m hoping to have time at some point to explore MMcM’s latest gem dredged up from the depths of google books on the history of Spanish language. I did sense a disturbance in the time-space continuum, but I don’t think MMcM and Noetica ever actually disagreed, so that’s probably not it. I think it was because I’m still reeling from the discovery that the “letters” ch and ll are no longer in the Spanish alphabet.

  139. Noetica says:

    El género (continuación):
    I got home from an interstate trip late last night, and this morning found that my copy of Nueva Gramática de la Lengua Espanola (Manual) (2010) had turned up from Amazon. At US$12.20 this resource of 1080 densely packed pages is a great bargain. Of course I looked up the material on gender. We can now add these anomalies: seo (“cathedal”, in Aragon) and nao (“ship”, cf. la nave), both from Catalan; libido (parallel to libídine); and other curiosities (such as el mapa, which is not from Greek).
    The news gets better. The “manual” grammar is a shortened version of the full Nueva gramática de la Lengua Espanola (Real Academia Española y Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, 2010; 4032 pages; US$175); and while this is not available for preview, you can download a searchable PDF of the chapter on gender here. Ach! Read about virago (preferably feminine, but can be masculine), and glean a thousand informatinos* muy deseados. The analogous chapter in the “manual” version is also the stuff of lexicological dreams. Both deal comprehensively with los sustantivos epicenos, as they should.
    *Informatino is a happy slip made by a philosopher friend of mine in an email. We immediately adopted it, and furnished it with the meaning “quantum of information; charming factoid”.
    Here is another excellent resource in PDF form, studded with historical detail. It turns out that nao entered Castilian as early as the fourteenth century – just in time to be in “Old Spanish”, to use this term that I discover is rarely given explicit definition, even by the best scholars. The author (Ángel Rosenblat) analyses el mapa as a sort of “ultracorrección”, citing Greek forms like planeta and cometa as models. That’s the sort of thing we need.

  140. Noetica says:

    O Nijma (f.), you got in before me. A declension is a paradigm or pattern for all the forms (or cases) that a noun can take. In Latin declensions one gender normally predominates, or at least there are sub-patterns in the declension for which this is so. There are five declensions in Latin (by long-settled convention). The first declension (with the nominative singular case ending in -a) is overwhelmingly feminine; those nouns of the second declension that end in -us are overwhelmingly masculine, but those ending in -um are all neuter; and so on.

  141. O Noetica, what fun. But it must wait until after my weekend classes — the next 12 hours of this horrific heat wave will be spent standing in front of (mercifully air conditioned) blackboards. Since today is Music Friday, the kids have been promised a quiz over Cielito Lindo and De Colores.

  142. Wow. I enjoy this blog because I find language fascinating. I don’t particularly find fascinating the “mine is bigger than yours” petty bitching that takes up the first quarter of the comments here, which is all I could stand to read. I hope the lunatics give back the asylum soon. Until then I think I’ll skip the comments.

  143. David, I think you’ve completely misunderstood what’s going on here. There was no “‘mine is bigger than yours’ petty bitching,” the commenters are trying to understand each other’s views and critique the linked pieces. When one of them says “Bulbul (if that is your real name …),” you may have mistaken that for an actual attack, when in fact it was a joke. I’m glad you like the blog, but try not to be so sensitive. We can be acerbic here, but I crack down on actual nastiness.

  144. Apropos de various references to pinyin stricto sensu or otherwise:
    Strictly, 拼音 (pīnyīn) means “phonetic/alphabetic writing system”. The pinyin we’re discussing is Hanyu Pinyin, 汉语拼音 (Hànyǔ Pīnyīn), a standard system of transcribing spoken Mandarin into Roman letters, used with a greater or lesser degree of accuracy by some Chinese people to type (but not normally to write) Mandarin and by non-Chinese people to refer to Mandarin names and words.

  145. Though mine is, in fact, bigger than yours.

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