UNWRITABLE CHINESE.

Victor Mair has an intriguing post at the Log, “Sayable but not writable,” about Chinese expressions that most Chinese don’t know how to write. Here’s the last couple of paragraphs:

I was also surprised that only a couple of the students from China had ever heard of, much less were able to write, the words gūlu 軲轆 (“wheel”) and gūlù 轂轆 (“reel”). These are old colloquial terms that seem to have survived mostly in the oral realm and are related to some form of the Indo-European word for “cycle; wheel”. See Robert S. Bauer, “Sino-Tibetan *kolo ‘Wheel’,” Sino-Platonic Papers 47 (Aug. 1994), 1-11.
I always tell the students in my classes that the sounds of the words in Chinese languages are much more important than the characters that might be used to write them — even in Classical Chinese — where there are often variant written forms for the same term. I demonstrated that for my students in the case of lāta 邋遢 (“slovenly; dirty; dowdy; sloppy; slobby; shaggy; unkempt; ill-groomed; sluttery; slipshod; untidy”) by putting on the board more than two dozen different topolectal variants of this colloquial term. I read aloud the pronunciations of each of the variants and pointed out that the second and subsequent characters of these variants were mostly arbitrary transcriptions of the sounds of the local variants and that the surface signification of the characters used to write these syllables was essentially irrelevant. The fact that many terms in Chinese — even in ancient texts — have a variety of different written forms, e.g., wěiyǐ 委迤 / wēiyí 委蛇 / wēiyí 逶迤 / etc. (“winding; meandering; twisting”) confirms the primacy of sound over symbol.

I was irresistibly reminded of a great anecdote in Jack Seward’s Japanese in Action about his going to considerable pains to learn the complicated Japanese character for ringo ‘apple’ to impress Japanese acquaintances only to discover that none of them knew it.

Comments

  1. Some people find writing Massachusetts too testing. Others Hawaii. Yet others Connecticut.

  2. There was a brave girl from Connecticut
    Who flagged the express with her pecticut,
         Which her elders defined
         As presence of mind
    But deplorable absence of ecticut.
    See? Easy-peasy.

  3. Someone in that thread asked if there was unwritable English. The neologism “ratchet”

  4. John Emerson says:

    I had a very learned Sinologist friend in Taiwan (the late Eldon McNeese) who realized one day that he didn’t know how to write “wazi” (socks). I also saw “lese” (trash)written two different ways, and also “sanmingzhi” (sandwich). But one of the sandwich examples was from Hong Kong and it may have been Cantonese based.

  5. John Emerson says:

    The ancient texts are, if anything, more variable, since there’s been some standardization recently through public education.

  6. ‘The neologism “ratchet”‘?

  7. I remember playing poker in the Army forty years ago when a common opening bet was ‘half a ratchet’, where ratchet = ratshit = insignificant amount = $1. Same thing, perhaps? I never saw it written.

  8. More likely this, I think.

  9. Well, yes, but the main problem with Victor Mair is that he is being deliberately provocative since he’s determined to prick bubbles. With their love for and pride in their cherished script, Victor Mair’s basic message to the Chinese is: Bullshit!, with the further implication that they’d be better off using a romanisation to write Chinese.
    Not that he is totally wrong, but the relationship between language and script can be a bit of a fraught topic (as well as being an endlessly fascinating topic) in any language. His viewpoint appears to be fairly doctrinaire (in a nutshell, ‘speech is prime; a “phonetic” script is superior’) and runs the risk of presenting a one-sided version of reality. There is great clarity to be gained from grounding the analysis of a script solidly in speech, but it’s not the only way of looking at things. Even in English we tend to take for granted that words have unique spellings (or at least fairly rigidly defined spelling variants), which can distract from how things really are. (I could give an example, but I want to do a blog post on it before I bring it up here!)

  10. Well, we’ve had this go-around before; as you know, I’m on Mair’s side here, and see nothing wrong with being deliberately provocative and pricking bubbles in a good cause, which this is. But I respect your views and look forward to your blog post!

  11. Victor Mair has a rather interesting article from the end of the last century about Transformationists which throws some light on his hostility to the distortive effects of seeing Chinese through the prism of Chinese characters.
    At page 47 he writes:
    “I believe that the Sinographic system, particularly in its later developed stages, is a mortal trap for those who wish to reconstruct Old Sinitic. Unless it is abandoned in favor of the phonological systems of the Sinitic languages themselves, a satisfactory reconstruction of Old Sinitic will never be achieved. Instead of such heavy reliance upon the sinographs and their Qieyunian categorizations, I propose the following steps toward the recovery of the sound system of Old Sinitic. They are listed in order of importance:
    “1. Direct recording and analysis of the sounds of all the living Sinitic topolects.
    “2. Reconstruction of the Old Min, Old Cantonese, Old Wu, Old Mandarin and other branches of Sinitic. (…section omitted…)
    “3. Identification and analysis of very early loan-words in Sinitic, such as those for “milk,”, “magus,”, “honey,” “river (jiang),” “crossbow,” “wheat,” “lion,” and so forth.
    “4. Thorough analysis of Sinitic languages at diverse periods of history as transcribed in Brahmi, Tibetan, Tangut, Khitan, Latin, Arabic, Runic, and other scripts.
    “5. Thorough analysis of Sanskrit, Sogdian, Khotanese, Turkic, Uyghur, Khitan, Tibetan, Tangut, Thai, Mongolian, and other terms from diverse periods of history as transcribed in Sinographs.
    “6. Thorough analysis of the vernacularisms of the late Classical and Medieval periods.
    “7. Phonological analysis of Sino-Tibetan and other Tibeto-Burman cognates.
    “8. Examination of the rhyming, assonance, consonance, and other prosodic features of all extant literatures starting from OSBIs (Old Sinitic bronze inscriptions).
    “9. Paying more strict attention to variant orthographies and miswritings as eveidenced in manuscripts…, stele inscriptions…, and as recorded in the vast commentarial and lexographical traditions of China.
    “10. Utilization of the duruo (“read as”), fanqie (“countertomy”), and other traditional methods for indicating the sounds of sinographs, … [including] the nascent spelling system devised by the lat Tang monk Shouwen…
    “11. Tentative establishment and analysis of “word families” in Sinitic.
    “12. Analysis of the meager and imprecise phonological and semantic data available from the Sinographic script itself (“radicals,” phonophores, etc.)
    “13. Consultation of the Qieyun
    (A 14th method):
    “…restoration of Old Sinitic words and etyma by reversing the process of dimidiation…Through the application of…”reverse dimidiation” we may obtain undimidiated forms independent of the Sinitic script”. (Dimidiation refers to the “phonological process of splitting or fission of monosyllables”. My own understanding is that dimidiation is what occurs when the English word ‘clone’ is transformed into ‘kèlóng (克隆)’ in modern Chinese. Mair claims that dimidiation also occurred in ancient Chinese, possibly in rendering old consonant clusters as two syllables.)
    Mair says: “It is a tragic irony that the enormous efforts which have been expended to reconstruct the sounds of Old Sinitic have been are to this day delimited chiefly by the least useful tool for that purpose. So long as Old Sinitic reconstructions are governed primarily by the artificial and abstract Qieyun system, they can only amount to “anti-reconstructions” (to use David Prager Branner’s brilliant term).”
    The brick wall that Mair is fighting against is the fact that the Chinese cultural identity is so closely aligned with the writing system that attempts to analyse the language in terms of anything but ideographs (Mair’s sinographs) are regarded as irrelevant or hostile. It’s therefore understandable that Mair has become frustrated by this cultural inertia and is untiring in his efforts to debunk the fallacy of Chinese characters. The problem is that it has become something of a personal crusade, which diminishes the persuasive power of his arguments. Crusades are unfortunately too easily dismissed in a couple of words: “Oh, him again”.

  12. If I remember rightly, Seward got stuck (behind his back) with the nickname ‘Ringo’ (Apple) because of his ability to write the character for apple correctly. Thanks to Seward, I can actually make a fairly good attempt at writing the character.
    It’s 林檎 (so easy on a computer!). Chinese is 蘋果 (simplified 苹果). Thought it was the same, didn’t you!

  13. Of course, he was given the nickname by a bunch of now probably wrinkly old bar girls (if they are still alive). Great stories live forever, unlike the people they are about.

  14. Just checked: Jack Seward himself passed away on 10 November, 2010.

  15. 1. Direct recording and analysis of the sounds of all the living Sinitic topolects.
    2. Reconstruction of the Old Min, Old Cantonese, Old Wu, Old Mandarin and other branches of Sinitic. (…section omitted…)

    This is of course the way to go. However, except for Old Min, everything you can reconstruct from branches of Chinese does look quite a lot like Qieyun… Especially as “branches” of Chinese, as commonly recognized (Wu, Xiang…) are often just Sprachbunds arising from an already dialectally differentiated landscape.

  16. 4. Thorough analysis of Sinitic languages at diverse periods of history as transcribed in Brahmi, Tibetan, Tangut, Khitan, Latin, Arabic, Runic, and other scripts.
    This one also gives very Qieyun-ish results.

  17. Just out of curiosity, where are Chinese words recorded in Runic? Or is the reference to the Orkhon script? This sounds like a case for Ahnenkult.

  18. “8. Examination of the rhyming, assonance, consonance, and other prosodic features of all extant literatures starting from OSBIs (Old Sinitic bronze inscriptions).”
    and
    “Instead of such heavy reliance upon the sinographs and their Qieyunian categorizations,”
    He needs to make up his mind.
    OTOH he is right about remembering speech is primary. For one thing it helps make sense out a lot of otherwise confusing uses of sinographs in old texts, where the simplest expanation for this or that puzzle is just that the scribe used a phonetically similar substitute. Sometimems it’s just a question of a misleading radical, which may very well have been added in transmission, long after the text was composed.

  19. He needs to make up his mind
    His criteria are listed in order of importance. Unlike previous approaches, he places Qieyun at the bottom.

  20. J. W. Brewer says:

    The katakana article title of http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%83%AA%E3%83%B3%E3%82%B4 suggests that to this day many Japanese don’t know those kanji but are perfectly capable of writing about apples without that knowledge.

  21. That was the point of Seward’s story. His knowing the characters was unusual (weird?) enough to get him a nickname from the bargirls. It’s usually written in kana (りんご or リンゴ), although in Matsuda Seiko’s immortal song ガラスの林檎 it’s written in characters.

  22. J. W. Brewer says:

    In terms of the Mair stuff quoted above, “what’s the best use of what sorts of evidence to reconstruct the phonology of some long-ago Sinitic language that we don’t have audio recordings of” (not something of interest to anyone except a few specialists) seems to me to be an entirely separate question from “what writing system should be used for Mandarin in the 21st century, taking into account all relevant circumstances including the massive transition costs of switching away from the status quo.”

  23. Does anyone know if there’s a connection between the nickname of Richard Starkey and the name of the Beatles’ company, Apple Corps? Sounds too good to be true.

  24. J. W. Brewer says:

    Probably not, but Mr. Starkey did cash in on the coincidence by appearing in a Japanese commercial for apple juice decades later, which can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcdeVCV-OvI. Further evidence he was the brains of the outfit.

  25. Just checked: Jack Seward himself passed away on 10 November, 2010.
    Sorry to hear that; I enjoyed his writing tremendously.

  26. Re: what’s the best use of what sorts of evidence to reconstruct the phonology of some long-ago Sinitic language that we don’t have audio recordings of seems to me to be an entirely separate question from what writing system should be used for Mandarin in the 21st century, taking into account all relevant circumstances including the massive transition costs of switching away from the status quo.
    You’re being too analytical. It’s a package deal, a ‘mentality’. Mair has good reason to be unhappy with the mentality as a whole because of the damage he sees it doing on many fronts, from scholarly concerns like reconstructing ancient Sinitic to practical ones like teaching literacy. I hasten to add that I’m not in a position to speak for or defend his views; you’d best check them out yourself.

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