Chinese Language and Usage “is for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Chinese language.” It’s apparently a new site (it’s still in beta: “The site is still in the process of being defined and constructed, so a temporary placeholder design will be used until the site is fully formed and ready to leave beta”), but it certainly looks useful. I learned about it from user hippietrail, who sent me a link to his question “Do acronyms borrowed from English use neutral tone for all syllables?” He summarizes the responses this way: “It seems Chinese speakers think they pronounce the letters in borrowed acronyms like in English and that they don’t or can’t have tones.” It’s an interesting topic, and both he and I will be interested in what people here have to say.


  1. Stackoverflow is a website originally for computer scientists to answer research-level questions from other computer scientists. It has a math sister site, mathoverflow. I didn’t know they’d extended to questions about language — this seems like a bad idea because everyone fancies themselves an expert on languages they speak, and so you’ll get a bunch of bad answers. You can definitely see this in the linked thread.

  2. Dunno, is working pretty good IMHO. Well, at least when I tried it a few months ago, the average answer quality was considerably better than the typical Japanese-learning forum. And you know, I think that even when the linguists don’t show up, there are certain questions where convenient input by lay natives is valuable (though certainly not all questions).

  3. “this seems like a bad idea because everyone fancies themselves an expert on languages they speak, and so you’ll get a bunch of bad answers. You can definitely see this in the linked thread.”
    Actually F that’s why this is a goodd idea. Everyone who speaks a language (natively) is not exactly an expert but is in fact piece of data. at least that’s the case if you are approaching the study of a lnaguage emprically as opposed to trying to adhere to some artificial conlang version of a language. An example of that is what most people call “proper English.”
    Forunately there is less danger of that kind of nonsense in the case of Chinese because Mandarin as a spoken language never had the status of Classical Chinese the ewya that spoken French or spoken English had in Europe.

  4. StackOverflow extended itself into StackExchange and anybody can propose a topic for a new Q&A site there. First you need so many people to follow your proposal. In this stage the followers submit example questions and vote them up or down, and discuss the scope and other aspects of the proposed site. When it gets enough followers it then needs a certain number of people to commit to the project and example questions and votes are frozen. When it gets enough people it becomes a beta site like you see for the Chinese one, which is very new and not fully formed yet. When the the site stats say the site has become popular it then gets launched as a full site with its own look and feel.
    Readers of this blog might be interested in the per-language beta sites: Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish. There is also a Linguistics beta site which is not faring too well so far.
    The English Language & Usage beta was so popular it became a popular full site some time ago.
    I would also like to plug my own proposal there if I may, Georgian Language & Usage since I’m in Tbilisi trying to learn some Georgian for fun (-:

  5. Jim: Sure, but there’s a difference between speaking a language and being able to successfully introspect about the way you speak it. The people on the site, while clearly native speakers, don’t seem to have been able to satisfactorily answer hippietrail’s question.

  6. I say “syi1di4” and “di1vi1di4”, i.e. flat tone for all the non-final syllables and falling for the last. But all the “disyllabic” letters, like “f”, “em”, “es” are pronounced “ê2fu”, “ê2mu”, “ê2si”, with the rising tone on the first part, and neutral tone on the second to simulate the non-syllabicity in the original English. Ditto with “w”, “da2buliu”.

  7. Wait, it’s not as simple as I thought…
    “WTO” is “da2buliu-ti1-ou1”, with no falling tones.
    “OK” is “ou1-kei1”.
    “BBC” is “bi4-bi4-syi1”.
    “XYZZY” is “ê2kesi-wài-zzê4de-zzê4de-wài” (zzê4de is an idiosyncrasy on my own, normal people say “zzyi4” instead)
    A better approximation seems to be that each letter has its inherent tone:
    ei1, bi4, syi1, di4, yi4, ê2fu, ji4, ei2qi, ai4, jei1, kei1, ê2you, ê2mu, en1, ou1, pi4, kiu1 (with a real “u” sound not “kiou”), ar2, ê2si, ti4, yu1 (with a real “u” sound not ü), vi1, da2buliu, ê2kesi, wai4, zzê4de
    But those fourth-tone letters can become first tone in contexts that remain unclear to me:
    DVD “dì1vi1di4”
    DJ “di1jei1”
    CCTV “syi1syi1ti1vi1”
    BBS “bi1bi1ê2si”

  8. StackOverflow was not created for computer scientists to answer research questions. It was created for computer programmers to answer engineering questions. This seem like hairsplitting but it strikes me as analogous to the difference between linguists and writers.

  9. This _may_ seem like hairsplitting.

  10. John Emerson says:

    F’s first post strikes me as an astonishing overreaction. Native speakers know their language better than anyone, including fluent second-language speakers. There may be particular issues involving linguistic theory, prescriptivism, etc., that some native speakers get all wrong, but they are ultimately the only authorities. (You do have to distinguish between their folk theory of their language, which might be all wrong, and their use of their language, which is authoritative. But even at the theoretical level, not all native speakers are prescriptivists or nationalists.

  11. @John: The problem is that introspection is not always reliable (e.g. many English speakers deny to make mergers that they actually do if you record them unawares).
    I basically agree with you that native speakers are our source of primary data and that often they’re great as informants, but I also concede that certain kinds of questions are better answered by someone with relevant linguistics knowledge, even if she’s not a native.

  12. John Emerson says:

    Sure, but this is a very general site with many different kinds of questions, and you have to assume that readers are able to sort through the answers. And the quality of the responses will depend on who posts, which we don’t know yet. “Bad idea” is enormous overkill.

  13. I vouch that for this kind of very general questions, a native, even a linguistically-literate one (like me) is less reliable than a linguist. I must be pronouncing those damned acronyms in a certain way, but when I think really hard about it, my generalizations interfere with my performance and now I’m not really sure how I do pronounce them.

  14. John Emerson says:

    I don’t get it. I didn’t say that the science of linguistics should be abolished or that native informants are always right. I just said that this site is not “a bad idea”.
    I also didn’t say that the site asks very general questions, I said that it’s a very general site asking all kinds of questions. Some answers will be better than others, some questions will get better answers than others.
    There’s also nothing preventing linguists from posting there.

  15. hippietrail says:

    I argued on one of the Stack Exchange language sites, I think it was the Japanese one, but maybe it was the Spanish one, that it would be best to attract answers from both linguistically knowledgeable people and linguistically naive native speakers.
    Somebody was arguing against welcoming one or the other type of contributor but I strongly feel the two kinds of answers will complement each other very well indeed.
    But there is a tendency for some native speakers to be adamant that their introspections are 100% accurate 100% of the time no matter what people with training have to say. And this goes for all languages, not just Chinese of course.
    Actual linguists don’t seem to react this strongly because they’re all descriptivists that rely on native informants but they also know the pitfalls of the informants’ introspections.

  16. “Jim: Sure, but there’s a difference between speaking a language and being able to successfully introspect about the way you speak it. The people on the site, while clearly native speakers, don’t seem to have been able to satisfactorily answer hippietrail’s question.”
    Totally agree, F. Native speakers are typically not really aware of anything but the habits they sue to speak and not anything deeper than that. That’s why field work is such a specialized skill. But that doesn’t mena they are not the final authority on what is or is not normative for their lanaguage.
    Native speakers are often piss poor teachers of beginning students, because they assume a lot is obvious that is far from obvious. Watch an English speaker try to teach verb tenses to a Chinese learner. But that’s not the kind of learner who is oing to profit from that site anyway

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