David Prager Branner and Yuan-Yuan Meng have written a paper called “‘Syntactic Yoga’ in Chinese-English Lexicography” that Zackary Sholem Berger thought I would find interesting, and so I do. Here’s the abstract:

This paper argues that Chinese-English dictionaries should include more thorough part-of-speech notations. Chinese part of speech is recognized to be highly fluid and requires the learner to master what we call ‘syntactic yoga’: the contortion or exchange of one part of speech into another. It is suggested that this pedagogical technique can be applied to great effect in the construction of dictionary entries.

They say “the fact that it is hard to identify Chinese parts of speech does not mean that it is impossible, nor that it is therefore somehow unnecessary,” and conclude:

The need for marking parts of speech in a Chinese-English dictionary is two-fold: From the point of view of Chinese usage, since part of speech can certainly vary in Chinese, part of speech notations are necessary to ensure that the Chinese usage being described is correct. From the point of view of English renderings, since English translations and definitions inevitably vary as Chinese usage varies, part of speech notations for the Chinese are also necessary to distinguish among English translations for varying Chinese usages.

Makes sense to me.


  1. DBP is da man, even if he is attached to that craaazy Gwoyeu Romatzyh.

  2. Bathrobe says:

    Well, I can’t open that website, possibly because I’m in China again…
    But if DBP is a Gwoyeu Romatzyh man, I somehow get a whiff of ‘outsider looking in trying to re-interpret Chinese things through non-Chinese eyes’ approach to China. A bit old-fashioned and unlikely to prevail over Chinese orthodoxy. (Just a personal impression).

  3. And a mistake!
    >> “你别看纪太太对你冷言冷语的,她心里对你很亲的…” (2008:128), we must render it as something like “Don’t imagine that Mrs. Jì is being cold to you; she feels very close to you… .”
    “别看”, literally “don’t look”, in fact means “although the appearance is” here. It should be translated as something in the lines to “Although Mrs. Ji seems to be cold to you, she’s very close in heart…”

  4. GeorgeW says:

    I don’t understand this. Maybe, if I knew something about Chinese — which I don’t — it would would make sense to me.
    Does this mean that some words can be a noun or a verb in Chinese (hmmm, like in English)?

  5. Bill Walderman says:

    “‘outsider looking in trying to re-interpret Chinese things through non-Chinese eyes’ approach to China.”
    Isn’t that exactly what a dictionary is supposed to do?

  6. This would go a long way to helping people get past their Chinglish, and whatever the L1 English equaivaleet is. “Oh, so that’s why you can’t say that and it sounds ludicrous! Who’d'a guessed?”

  7. David Prager Branner says:

    @minus273: Thanks for noticing the error. You are reading the pre-final draft; this sentence was corrected in the published text, which reads (p. 633): “Don’t imagine that Mrs. Jì is being cold to you; she feels very close to you…” . I will regularize the posted draft against the published version shortly. (I didn’t like the formatting of the published version, hence I posted my typescript.)

  8. David Prager Branner says:

    @Bathrobe: Yes, my site is blocked in China. Dangerous philologist, etc. etc. Thank you for looking, though, and thanks to languagehat for the plug.

  9. @David: Thanks :) But I didn’t notice the difference between the two versions…
    I’m curious about your opinion on the matter of static verbs and transitive static verbs and adjectives in Chinese. Do you have a single criterion to separate ‘em or they are labeled by intuition/English translation?

  10. Needless to say, if you guys are doing a dictionary, I’ll recommend it to all my Chinese learner friends. It’s just the best one considering the meanings given!

  11. Bathrobe says:

    I guess I should add (in case anyone has got the wrong impression) that describing DPB as “old-fashioned and unlikely to prevail over Chinese orthodoxy” is not meant as a criticism of DPB. But I think he understood.

  12. David Prager Branner says:

    @minus273: We distinguish parts of speech only by syntactic context. But a single word can appear in multiple contexts and therefore have multiple parts of speech, and a failure to see this clearly and act on it is one of the problems of past dictionaries. VI and Adj are hard to distinguish perfectly even by this principle, but it’s still better than the other principles we’ve seen tried. VI/ADJ do not occur with an object the way a VT does, and Adj is commonly used with ADV of degree (hěn, zuì, etc.), which VI normally cannot do. However, there are cases of special VT that can be used with ADV of degree, sometimes dropping their objects (hěn xǐhuān). VI can take aspect particles followed by extent complements; if an ADJ does that (máng le sāntiān) we consider it to be functioning as VI in fact, not ADJ, at that time. We also feel that ADJ with sentence-final de should be treated as VI phrases (nàge qǐgài shòushòude).

  13. David Prager Branner says:

    @minus273: Yes, we’re producing a couple of dictionaries; we’ve been at work on them intensively since about 2005. The first one to come out will be a dictionary of political discourse, since we feel the need to be greatest there. My hope is issue it initially in electronic form for smart-phones and tablet computers, since that market makes it much easier to publish initially in beta and get the inevitable kinks worked out of the text. But all of my programming experience is with Python and C++, rather than ObjC (iPhone) or Java (Android) and I am hoping not to have to do the whole thing all by myself. I’d welcome any recommendations about existing frameworks (basically database GUIs for smartphone dictionaries) that can be used; most of the companies vending “self-publish” software are just talking about expensive and insecure ways to market a PDF, which really won’t work for a dictionary.

  14. Just read more of DPB’s posts on his site. (The Taiwanese/Pianwen/… materials are fascinating!) Glad to know that the review to the ABC dictionary, that I had much loved during a library browsing, is in fact his work. Bravo, David, for a lifelong of nice work, and nicely typeset in PDF :)

  15. David Prager Branner says:

    I’ve posted the final draft of the Syntactic Yoga paper, as well as a copy of what actually appeared in print. Sorry for the confusion.
    There should be a couple of additional dictionary and philology reviews posted in the next weeks.

  16. “别看” is still translated as “Don’t imagine”, which sounds wrong to me. Maybe it’s just because that in my idiolect, “别看” is grammaticalized to a concession marker, while in the Chinese of older generations (DPB and Yuan-Yuan Meng), it could still be analyzed apart.

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