Joel Martinsen reports on a Chinese publication that makes me wish I knew Chinese:

Among all of the copycat urban lifestyle magazines, the paparazzi rags, and the ever-changing array of undistinguished special-interest publications that make up China’s periodicals market, Yaowen-Jiaozi (咬文嚼字) stands out as one of the most delightfully peculiar magazines available. With a title variously translated as “Correct Wording,” “Verbalism,” and “Chewing Words,” it turns a critical eye to the misuse and abuse of language in Chinese society…
Perhaps there’s a bit of guilty pleasure to be had in unmasking the usage foibles of major papers, but it’s done with a wink rather than a warning of impending social breakdown. The strongest condemnation is reserved for those who should know better: copyeditors who let malapropisms slip by, sign-makers who splash typos across storefronts, and monks in TV shows who mispronounce their Sanskrit transliterations.
In 2005, the magazine featured a different evening paper’s errors in each issue, while this year the scheduled targets are television stations. In addition to biting the popular media over language misuse, Yaowen-Jiaozi also chews on pressing usage questions: What’s the pronunciation of 峠, which appears in names in translations of Japanese novels? What’s the correct usage of · ? What are the usage differences between 三部曲 and 三步曲?

What fun! But lest you think they’re nothing but “a curmudgeonly group of conservative language pedants,” they’re quite willing to accomodate change when it makes sense to them:

On the subject of Internet slang, for example, the magazine has no issue with its use online, although it cautions against its use in more conventional communication. Other areas of language change and development are given the same sort of consideration. After an examination of the term “since all along” (一直以来), the editors conclude:

Back in 2000, this magazine mentioned “since all along.” At the time we took a position against the term, and we maintain that position now. We believe that there is a semantic contradiction between “all along” and “since.”
….However,….in practice, we cannot find another term to replace “since all along.” Although in many circumstances, “since all along” is used to indicate “all along” or “for a long time,” they are in fact not identical. We ought to respect society’s power of choice in language. As we have not found any words to replace it, this magazine will no longer criticize the use of “since all along.”

Oh, and the answers to those “pressing usage questions”:

峠 has the provisional pronunciation shà, though some people pronounce it kǎ. The separator · should be allowed in titles—the editors conclude: “To say that if there is no rule in Punctuation Usage then it must not be used means that punctuation usage would never develop, and it would be unable to satisfy real usage needs.” 三部曲 is a foreign import for “trilogy” that applies to literary works; it has been tweaked to apply to three-step processes using the homophone 三步曲.

Many thanks to P. Kerim Friedman for the link!


  1. Daanish says:

    Surprisingly, our local paper, Deccan Chronicle [], would make many such mistakes in the past but has spruced up its act quite a bit. The Hindu [] is regarded as the premier news source of the country while The Times of India [] tries to straddle both the spheres of entertainment and journalism, with varying degrees of success.
    I’ve found myself correcting mistakes from time to time in all of them and you’re right—it does sound like fun.:)

  2. caffeind says:

    峠 is a character coined in Japan, representing a Japanese word “tōge” meaning “mountain pass”. Normally they would adapt the Chinese term for “mountain pass” and overload the Japanese word onto the Chinese character or compound, but in a very few cases they coined a new character instead. Characters created in Japan are known as kokuji 国字 meaning national characters, which is probably as confusing to Chinese people as Japanese use of 国語 which means “the national language (standard or schooling)” in both ROC and Japan.
    Googling the character brings up which is a guide to winter driving in Japan’s mountains. The name is readable because “tō” is the Japanese (not Sino-Japanese) word for 10!

  3. 峠 is a terrific character, one that I’d never seen before. The imagery it evokes is wonderful, going through a pass with mountains (山) above (上) and below (下) you. It’s also cool because it’s got two horizontal strokes, instead of the merged horizontal in 卡, which is presumably where people (wrongly, I guess) get the idea that it should be pronounced kǎ.
    I wonder how pronunciation gets assigned to characters backported from Japanese… you’d need it for place names, if nothing else.
    Curiouser and curiouser.

  4. The 峠 presumably gets translated into a Chinese equivalent (山口 perhaps), unless it’s used in a place name or personal name. The question was originally brought up because of the immense popularity of Kafka on the Shore, in which one character is named 峠口.
    According to the article, the pronunciation was taken from merging shàng (上) and xià (下). Typically, Chinese pronunciation of Japanese 国字 (also 和制汉字 or 和字) is done on a “best guess” basis – 辻, 榊, 畑, 働, 畠, 鱈 are all pronounced as if they were semantic-phonetic compounds.         — Joel

  5. Learn Chinese! You’ll write more posts about it, and it will make *my* learning it more fun. A selfish wish, to be sure, but there you are.

  6. There is a something like kokuji 国字 within Chinese. Look in the dictionary under the wood or grass radicals and you will find all kinds of plant species that don’t occur in the north, whose names are probably originally Hmongic or Daic or whatever – they came into Chinese and had to be written somehow.
    In Cantonese there are some local coinages, such as the character for ‘mouh’ – not have – along with all their borrowings from the Thai substratum, like 粥, which in the course of time has leaked back into Mandarin. The Cantonese pronounce it ‘jook’.

  7. Jimmy Ho says:

    Jim, I am not sure I understand that about zhou (Cantonese zug) 粥 “leaking back into Mandarin”. The character occurs in the Liji 禮記.

  8. Jimmy,
    Good point, and thanks for that, but it raises a another question. The issue is the Thai word ‘jook’. It looks cognate to the Cantonese word, and now you point out that it occurs in an ancient text. The question is what a word that specifically refers to a cultigen with a southern origin, rice, doing in such an ancient text.
    It seems to me that there are about four possibilities. One is that it doesn’t really refer to rice in that text. One is that it is an early loan from some now extinct and untraceable Dai language in the north, into Chinese of the period, maybe even a little piece of a larger substratum. One is that the Liji as a text has some kind of southern provenance, or failing that, some kind of southern influence. One is that the word ‘jook’ is a redundant and unnecessary Chinese loanword into Thai for a Thai cultigen – God knows languages across the world have plenty of those.
    It looks to me that the second is the likeliest possibility. What do you think?

  9. Jimmy Ho says:

    Thanks for the response, which does make things clearer for me, since I didn’t know about the Thai word ‘jook’. Actually, the old meaning of ‘zhou’1 is broader than the modern one: a soup or porridge made with any kind of cereal, not necessarily rice. It is worth noting that the pronunciation indicated with the traditional fanqie system (for instance in Lu Deming’s Jingdian shiwen 經典釋文) is zhi-liu 之六, which explains why the character is sometimes also given with the reading zhu4, closer to the current Cantonese reading (the final consonant -g probably marks what is indicated as a rusheng 入聲).
    That said, I think that only your fourth hypothesis would be reasonable, although my appalling ignorance of Thai language and history doesn’t allow me to state anything else than an apparent similitude between Cantonese ‘zug’ and Thai ‘zoog’, but I cannot exclude, a priori, that this is coincidental. I lack whatever elements might help me to decide this.

  10. Jimmy,
    Thanks for the explanation about the semantic range of zhou1. The fanqie settles the phonetic question.
    Final question about the direction of borrowing – if these words do turn out to be cognate, would the flow of borrowing necessarily be from Chinese to Thai? Is the linguistis map for China 2,000 or 2,500 so absolutely settled that Thai (or some other Dai language) presence and possible influence in the north is ruled out?

  11. The most recent slip-up I saw in America on words was embarrassing for the person involved. He gave me a business card about his funtional and fine artwork, only in giant letters across the top of the card was functional spelled “funcitonal.” Seriously. On a business card???

  12. bathrobe says:

    I had always thought of 峠 as meaning you go up and then you go down. Not sure why, though!

  13. Jimmy Ho says:

    Not being a linguist, I am unable to answer that question. I can only suppose that, if there really is a “borrowing” process (instead of a coincidence), it did not necessarily take place very early in pre-imperial history. One would have first to verify whether ‘zoog’ has always been the word used to designate this particular meal in Thai.
    I did a quick check in Maurice Coyaud’s 1987 Les langues dans le monde chinois to see if he references that word in his samples of Dai languages in modern China. He does not, but there are others, which he identifies as loanwords, like, in Lai 倈 (a Dai language with less than a thoudand locutors in Yunnan at the time), ‘pe’ “to carry (a baby) on one’s back” (Chinese bei 背), ‘fa:n’ “opposite” (fan 反), ‘tsja:ŋ’ “craftsman, artisan” (jiang 匠), ‘tshva:ŋ’ “window” (chuang 窗) and even ‘hva:i’ “to doubt” (huaiyi 懷疑).
    Here is an other point I wanted to address: the character 粥 appears mainly in the canonical “ritual” books: Zhouli 周禮, Yili 儀禮 and Liji 禮記. However, one should keep in mind that the transmitted texts we have are based on the Han dynasty reworking of material that was not older that the 4th Century B.C. Moreover, those books offer an idealised vision of a golden past (the Great Zhou), rather than a description of contemporary practices. Only what has been confirmed by archaeological findings should be considered as accurate.

  14. Jimmy Ho says:

    Sorry, I misread Coyaud: the main Lai-speaking population is in Guangxi (after moving from Guizhou); Yunnan Lai, according to him, have abandonned the language for Yi 彝. Also, it’s “thousand”, not “thoudand”.

  15. Jimmy Ho says:

    One last point:
    In Cantonese there are some local coinages, such as the character for ‘mouh’ – not have –
    I cannot retrieve the comment where I addressed this before, but many of the “special” characters used to write colloquial Cantonese are in fact, either common characters that are just rarely used in Mandarin (like 乜, Mand. ‘mie’ “to squint”/the surname Nie, the most common interrogative in Cant., see 乜嘢 ‘med ye’ “what”, etc.; the negation 唔 ‘m’ is another example), or characters that have been used to write other dialects as well, and thus are not specific to Cantonese. I think that this is the case for 冇 (Mand. ‘mou’/’mao’, Cant. ‘mou’), but I’d have to check it again.
    Sometimes, what looks like a “local coinage” is just the adaptation of something that was already in use elsewhere.

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