Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard.

This classic David Moser essay has been mentioned here in comments a few times, but I think it deserves its own post; it’s not only thorough and convincing (except, of course, to those who will never be convinced) but brilliantly written. It begins:

The first question any thoughtful person might ask when reading the title of this essay is, “Hard for whom?” A reasonable question. After all, Chinese people seem to learn it just fine. When little Chinese kids go through the “terrible twos”, it’s Chinese they use to drive their parents crazy, and in a few years the same kids are actually using those impossibly complicated Chinese characters to scribble love notes and shopping lists. So what do I mean by “hard”? Since I know at the outset that the whole tone of this document is going to involve a lot of whining and complaining, I may as well come right out and say exactly what I mean. I mean hard for me, a native English speaker trying to learn Chinese as an adult, going through the whole process with the textbooks, the tapes, the conversation partners, etc., the whole torturous rigmarole. I mean hard for me — and, of course, for the many other Westerners who have spent years of their lives bashing their heads against the Great Wall of Chinese. […]

Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves “Why in the world am I doing this?” Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say “I’ve come this far — I can’t stop now” will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.

He divides his argument into sections with headings like “Because the writing system is ridiculous” and “Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated”; I’ll quote in extenso from “Then there’s classical Chinese,” because it’s so much fun:

Forget it. Way too difficult. If you think that after three or four years of study you’ll be breezing through Confucius and Mencius in the way third-year French students at a comparable level are reading Diderot and Voltaire, you’re sadly mistaken. There are some westerners who can comfortably read classical Chinese, but most of them have a lot of gray hair or at least tenure.

Unfortunately, classical Chinese pops up everywhere, especially in Chinese paintings and character scrolls, and most people will assume anyone literate in Chinese can read it. It’s truly embarrassing to be out at a Chinese restaurant, and someone asks you to translate some characters on a wall hanging.

“Hey, you speak Chinese. What does this scroll say?” You look up and see that the characters are written in wenyan, and in incomprehensible “grass-style” calligraphy to boot. It might as well be an EKG readout of a dying heart patient.

“Uh, I can make out one or two of the characters, but I couldn’t tell you what it says,” you stammer. “I think it’s about a phoenix or something.”

“Oh, I thought you knew Chinese,” says your friend, returning to their menu. Never mind that an honest-to-goodness Chinese person would also just scratch their head and shrug; the face that is lost is yours.

Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here’s a secret that sinologists won’t tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway. An uninitiated westerner can no more be expected to understand such writing than Confucius himself, if transported to the present, could understand the entries in the “personal” section of the classified ads that say things like: “Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please.”

In fairness, it should be said that classical Chinese gets easier the more you attempt it. But then so does hitting a hole in one, or swimming the English channel in a straitjacket.

Thanks for the link go to Kobi; Anatoly Vorobey recently posted (in Russian) about the Moser piece, saying that the bit about “esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms” reminded him very much of studying Talmud.

Comments

  1. SFReader says:

    Anecdotal evidence suggests that spoken Mandarin Chinese is comparatively easily acquired by Asians, at least.

    I know many Mongolians who learned to speak Chinese in a few months, but failed to learn English, for example.

  2. “Because the writing system is ridiculous” and “Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated”

    These days every smartphone has a character recognition app. Don’t need no dictionary nor even to understand the writing system — except to get your phone in the right orientation.

    I especially see the Chinese youth using it for restaurant menus: most of the restaurant trade in NZ is Cantonese; whereas most of the youth/recent immigrants are from the Mainland. They don’t recognise traditional script, nor Cantonese food words.

  3. Stu Clayton says:

    Chinese was written before its time. It has come into its own with the advent of apps.

    Unfortunately, this means a worldwide internet outage will have a devastating effect on Chinese restaurants.

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    Chinese needs more study apps.

    # … as Rabbi Naftali Brawer makes clear in this parable.

    A young man goes up to a Rabbi and says “Please explain the Talmud to me.”

    “Very well,” replies the Rabbi, “but first, I’ll ask you a question. If two men come down a chimney and one comes out dirty, and the other comes out clean, which one washes himself?”

    “The dirty one,” answers the man.

    “No,” says the Rabbi. “They look at each other and the dirty man thinks he’s clean and the clean man thinks he’s dirty, therefore the clean man washes himself. Now, another question. If two men climb up a chimney and one comes out dirty, the other comes out clean, which one washes himself?”

    The young man smiles and says, “You just told me, Rabbi. The man who is clean washes himself because he thinks he’s dirty.”

    “No,” says the Rabbi. “If they each look at themselves, the clean man knows he doesn’t have to wash himself, so it’s the dirty man who washes himself. Now, one more question. If two men come down a chimney and one comes out dirty, and one comes out clean, which one washes himself?”

    “I don’t know, Rabbi. Depending on your point of view, it could be either one.”

    Again the Rabbi says: “No. If two men climb up a chimney, how could one man remain clean? They’re both dirty, and therefore they both wash themselves.”

    Scratching his head, the confused man says: “Rabbi, you asked me the same question three times and you gave me three different answers. Is this some kind of a joke?”

    “This is not a joke, my son. This is Talmud.” #

  5. Expecting to understand Classical Chinese because you can read modern Chinese is akin to expecting to read Latin because you speak Italian. I get why Moser put that bit in his essay, since a lot of people start learning Chinese without realizing that (and I‘m one of them), but Classical Chinese really has little relevance to whether modern Chinese is hard or not. If you live in Italy Latin also pops up everywhere, including paintings, and sometimes even in restaurants, but few foreigners learning Italian are embarrassed when they can‘t understand an old Latin inscription on a public building.

  6. A bit much, that description of classical Chinese. As a basis of comparison, how many native speakers of English could read this Star Chamber document without serious help?
    https://bit.ly/2X2GLMx

  7. Stu Clayton says:

    To defuse ignorant expectations, “Classical Chinese” should be called something else, on the analogy of Olde Englysshe. Maybe Honorable Ancient Sinitic.

  8. David Marjanović says:

    Let it be mentioned that Moser has gone on to become a respectable Sinologist. 🙂

    how many native speakers of English could read this Star Chamber document without serious help?

    But here the only difficulty is the style of handwriting (which reminds me a lot of the Voynich Manuscript). And that’s not half as hard as the grass script mentioned in the quote.

    Maybe Honorable Ancient Sinitic.

    Victor Mair goes with Literary Sinitic.

  9. Ellen K. says:

    Not very impressed with the article. The first 3 items are all basically the same thing. And the 5th is closely connected. And the ones that aren’t about the writing system are all versions of “Chinese is difficult because it’s different and unfamiliar.”.

    None of the reasons are any evidence at all that Chinese languages are innately difficult. If one’s trying to learn to read Chinese, then the writing system is certainly an issue. But if one is trying to learn to speak a Chinese language, it’s only an issue if using a teaching system that relies on it.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    The basic point that if you’re starting with a given L1, some L2’s are objectively much harder than others to pick up seems difficult to argue with. Is Mandarin harder, from an Anglophone starting point, than all rivals? Well, you could look at Moser’s complaints and try to generate questions like “How much harder is Mandarin to learn than Japanese?,” which might help separate the tones issue from the writing-system issue. Or “Is how much harder is Mandarin to learn than Thai?,” which would do the same separation in the other direction. (Don’t complain that Thai isn’t written in a Roman script — it’s a more or less phonemic one, albeit with a lot of spellings that are a bit odd/opaque for historical reasons — just like English!)

  11. Bathrobe says:

    I’ve never found Moser very convincing. He makes some valid points but mostly harps on about the script.

    Yes, the script is mind-boggling onerous memory-wise, but it’s not difficult. The main problem is that generations of scholars have multiplied them beyond belief, like barnacles upon barnacles. The fact that the Chinese accept this is a mindset problem, not an intrinsically linguistic one.

    Compared with Mongolian, Chinese is easy-peasy. It’s a good example of a language where you just have to pattern words correctly — and there is a lot of fluidity.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    not an intrinsically linguistic one

    Moser didn’t say it was.

  13. Stu Clayton says:

    Everything is a mindset problem. A prominent one is the Reality mindset (and its twin, the Smartass mindset). Its purpose is to distract attention from the mindset problem. Works pretty well, provided you don’t think about it too closely.

  14. Bathrobe says:

    Moser didn’t say it was

    Ok, but instead of throwing everything at it he should have kept to the writing system. There is no doubt that the sheer bulk of the writing system and its not inconsiderable ramifications for the language are a problem. But he had to make it into a complaint about everything and only succeeded in making his piece sound like a long whinge. Having been through all that (except Classical Chinese), I found him remarkably unenlightening. Nice pyrotechnics for the uninitiated but not much real value. These days I find myself longing to read something that goes beyond 20th century stereotypes. Moser is literally “old hat”.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Since I know at the outset that the whole tone of this document is going to involve a lot of whining and complaining, I may as well come right out and say exactly what I mean. I mean hard for me, a native English speaker trying to learn Chinese as an adult, going through the whole process with the textbooks, the tapes, the conversation partners, etc., the whole torturous rigmarole. I mean hard for me — and, of course, for the many other Westerners who have spent years of their lives bashing their heads against the Great Wall of Chinese.

    And that’s exactly what he delivered. Of course that includes the writing system, the tones, and the fact that it’s not Standard Average European – it has to.

    I’m not sure what you expected?

  16. He makes some valid points but mostly harps on about the script.

    The script is a big part of the language! The fact that you have a writing system with a) an arbitrarily large number of characters that b) have no systematic relation to the way the language is spoken is a big problem. He also mentions the tone system.

    Yes, the script is mind-boggling onerous memory-wise, but it’s not difficult.

    What distinction are you trying to draw here?

  17. Yes, I’ve never understood the “it’s only the script that’s hard” argument — who learns only spoken Chinese, except for practical purposes like communicating with people in the market (which is the kind of language-learning my mother did)? If you’re learning Chinese for any cultural/intellectual reason, you’re going to have to learn the script, and it’s silly to separate it off as if it could be ignored when talking about learning Chinese.

  18. SFReader says:

    have no systematic relation to the way the language is spoken

    not true.

    Eg, 鮦 ranks 8943 in the character frequency list, I’ve never encountered it before(and I suspect neither did 99.999% of Chinese), but I (and every literate Chinese speaker) can reasonably guess it is pronounced “tong” and somehow related to fishes.

    ’cause Chinese characters are actually kind of vaguely systematic in relation to how they are spoken.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    can reasonably guess it is pronounced “tong” and somehow related to fishes

    Three thousand years ago, the script appears to have been basically an untidy syllabary (with more than one character for very common syllables, while others stood for several similar syllables) with added determinatives. The current situation, however, is in the article:

    Now imagine that you, a learner of Chinese, have just the previous day encountered the Chinese word for “president” (总统 zǒngtǒng ) and want to write it. What processes do you go through in retrieving the word? Well, very often you just totally forget, with a forgetting that is both absolute and perfect in a way few things in this life are. You can repeat the word as often as you like; the sound won’t give you a clue as to how the character is to be written. After you learn a few more characters and get hip to a few more phonetic components, you can do a bit better. (“Zǒng 总 is a phonetic component in some other character, right?…Song? Zeng? Oh yeah, cong 总 as in cōngmíng 聪明.”) Of course, the phonetic aspect of some characters is more obvious than that of others, but many characters, including some of the most high-frequency ones, give no clue at all as to their pronunciation.

  20. who learns only spoken Chinese, except for practical purposes like communicating with people in the market

    I have met one Westerner, well-educated, who spent some childhood years in China, became fluent in spoken Mandarin, and is now conducting business there, but who can’t read a Chinese newspaper at all.

  21. Crawdad Tom says:

    What Bathrobe said. And Stu–as far as I understood what he said. It’s a mindset problem. Everyone says Chinese is so hard, so it is when you try it. I heard that before I started in 1975, but decided to ignore it, since I had the chance to study in Taiwan, and what the hell, it’s just another language. Of course the writing system is difficult, but it’s not insurmountable. After two years of instruction in Taiwan, with very little actual instruction in reading and writing, and then a lot of reading on my own, at first with the aid of Mandarin Phonetic Symbols, I was able to read most texts without too much trouble. Later, after experience reading documents as a university professor and administrator, my reading ability advanced even further. I can’t write very well, because I don’t need to write much in Chinese. I still have trouble producing tones accurately sometimes, mostly in isolated utterances as opposed to extended speech. But it’s not a major problem, and several times on the telephone I’ve been mistaken for a local. Every language is hard in some ways, maybe not in others. I never got anywhere close to mastering Spanish verb forms, despite hearing Spanish all through my early life in California, three years of study in high school, and two years living in Spain.

  22. John Cowan says:

    several times on the telephone I’ve been mistaken for a local

    A local, or a native speaker? Chinese people, especially in big cities, must be very used to native Mandarin-speakers who speak very differently from themselves, and the details of tone realization is often part of that. But even I, who come from very near by and have been here for forty years, would never be mistaken for a New York City native. (Indeed, my accent has been called “half-British”, though not by people who have actually heard me speak, and an Indian English speaker once praised me for my “light American accent”.)

    Someone I knew spoke Chinese with such a perfect accent, but had so little grasp of non-basic vocabulary, that he was mistaken on the phone for a mentally retarded native speaker.

  23. Stu Clayton says:

    Yes, the perfect guise has at least two components: an impeccable accent, and an impressive vocabulary.

    Goffman called them “sign equipment”.

  24. Bathrobe says:

    I’m not sure what you expected?

    The fact that he delivered what he promised doesn’t mean it is a good article. Since LH mainly links to popular articles I guess I shouldn’t have expected more, but for the most part Moser doesn’t say anything new.

    What distinction are you trying to draw here?

    The distinction is between sheer grunt work — memorisation — and things that require some intellectual effort. Although I’ve never studied it, I have been given to understand that Sanskrit is difficult for its complex grammar. Chinese characters only require the ability to commit to memory thousands of symbols. They’re not intellectually difficult; just a huge burden on the memory.

    I’ve never understood the “it’s only the script that’s hard” argument… who learns only spoken Chinese, except for practical purposes like communicating with people in the market?

    Others have responded to this, but that’s a pretty crude way of putting it — “it’s stupid to learn the language without learning the writing system”. I didn’t suggest that people shouldn’t learn the writing system, although as Y pointed out, there are people who get by without it. Mair has a more nuanced response, that students should be taught to speak (using pinyin for pronunciation) before they are subject to the full ferocity of the writing system. That would certainly seem to be a way to allay the difficulty of the written language as Moser presents it. Going full bore into a language like Chinese while piling up hundreds of characters as you go might be compared to sailing into Antarctic pack ice.

    But more than anything I’m simply disappointed in Moser’s piece. It makes some good points, but in the main it is little more than a rant and holds little that is fresh or new. I might have nodded my head at this in 1975 but not in 2019. In short, it’s boring.

    There are other far more interesting discussions of Chinese, some appearing at Sino-Platonic papers. One was a fairly polemical comparison between the argumentativeness of the ancient Greeks and the matter-of-fact, laconic presentation found in Classical Chinese, which I am unfortunately unable to locate. Polemical it may have been, but it was more thought-provoking than Moser’s outburst. Another is The Four Languages of “Mandarin” from way back in 1987. There is much more out there that is more worth reading and more interesting than Moser’s puff piece.

    As Crawdad Tom pointed out, Moser simply overdramatises the difficulty of the language. He does a service to no one but himself by getting the whole thing off his chest.

  25. But more than anything I’m disappointed in Moser’s piece. It makes some good points, but in the main it is little more than a rant and holds little that is fresh or new. I might have nodded my head at this in 1975 but not in 2019. In short, it’s boring.

    You seem to be under the impression that it’s new, despite my calling it “classic.” I don’t know how old it is, but it may very well be from 1975. In any case, “boring” is in the eye of the beholder; I find it lively myself. But then I still read things from the 19th century!

  26. John Cowan says:

    The essay was apparently first published in 1991 and reflects Moser’s experiences in 1987 or so. Moser now has a 2015 update of his views. Tl;dr: “Use the phone, grasshopper.”

  27. Stu Clayton says:

    # At the outset, your primary goal for reading is to improve your speaking #

    Not only at the outset, but forevermore. Otherwise you can’t tell whether you’re fooling yourself as to how much you have understood. Making a fool of yourself in front of others concentrates the mind wonderfully.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    Someone I knew spoke Chinese with such a perfect accent, but had so little grasp of non-basic vocabulary, that he was mistaken on the phone for a mentally retarded native speaker.

    That could be me, except even my basic vocabulary is too small to try that…

    Moser now has a 2015 update of his views. Tl;dr: “Use the phone, grasshopper.”

    Read and bookmarked.

  29. Bathrobe says:

    Read and bookmarked

    Ditto

  30. Crawdad Tom says:

    @John Cowan: a local native speaker, Taiwanese

  31. SFReader says:

    A few years ago, I found out that while I mostly understood Mandarin spoken in China and Mandarin of Taiwanese officials, “Mandarin” spoken in the streets of Taipei was completely incomprehensible.

    At least I hope it was Mandarin, they wouldn’t speak in dialect with an obvious foreigner, would they?

  32. At least I hope it was Mandarin, they wouldn’t speak in dialect with an obvious foreigner, would they?

    It wouldn’t be obvious that a foreigner could speak Mandarin. If they figured you could understand that, they might have switched to ‘Taiwanese’, because there was something they didn’t want you to understand.

    ‘Taiwanese’ is what Victor Mair calls it. That means Taiwan-flavoured Hokkien/Southern Min, possibly with a sprinkling of Japanese vocab. Unless they were speaking Hakka? BTW all the public service announcements on trains/buses are in at least Mandarin and Taiwanese. Plus Hakka in Hakka areas/suburbs of Taipei, plus aboriginal languages in those enclaves — which wouldn’t be Taipei.

    And Prof Mair takes great exception to describing non-MSM Sinitic languages as ‘dialect’. He invented the term ‘topolect’.

    But you knew all that already??

  33. Bathrobe says:

    ‘Topolect’ is useful because it reflects Chinese usage so closely. 方言 are ‘local varieties of Chinese’, with no judgement as to whether they are closely related to the national standard (like many northern dialects) or far distant members of the family like Toishan or Hakka. It also reserves judgement on whether they are widely-recognised regional standards (like Cantonese in Guangzhou and Hong Kong) or just local patois.

    You could call these ‘dialects’ but they are so far removed from the national standard that they are virtually separate languages. Using the term ‘dialect’ is a stretch.

    You could call them ‘languages’ but there is no tradition of treating them as such and it is politically sensitive to do so. You could say Toishan is a ‘dialect’ of the Cantonese ‘language’, but in the absence of a clear classification into regional ‘standard languages’ and their respective ‘dialects’ — something the Chinese resist — this is not as easy as it looks.

    ‘Topolect’ avoids this by adopting the Chinese approach: 方言 is an undifferentiated term for local speechways, whether a major prestige variety like the Cantonese of Guangzhou, or the local patois of a village in Jiangxi.

    While it may be a good way to avoid the misuse of the term ‘dialect’ for Chinese and the politically and culturally sensitive term ‘language’, it also represents a compromise with (maybe even a capitulation to) the Chinese viewpoint.

  34. John Cowan says:

    方言 [ fāngyán] are ‘local varieties of Chinese’

    Historically at least it could be any of the varieties spoken in the Empire, whether related to Chinese or not. After all, it is not obvious to the untrained ear and mind which ones are Sinitic and which are not. As Mair says in one of his SPP articles: “As proof of the great disparity between fangyan and “dialect”, we need only take note of the fact that, during the last dynasty, the former was applied by Chinese officials and scholars who drew up bilingual glossaries to such patently non-Sinitic languages as Korean, Mongolian, Manchu, Vietnamese, and Japanese.”

  35. SFReader says:

    Well, I can see Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese being Chinese dialects.

    Sino-Korean, Sino-Vietnamese and Sino-Japanese vocabularies (accounting over 50% of all words in each language) really function like a Chinese dialect anyway (kind of Southern Chinese, something between Cantonese and Hakka)

    Mongolian and Manchu are not like that.

  36. I can see Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese being Chinese dialects.

    When you say ‘dialects’, do you really mean 方言 [ fāngyán]? If not, then you appear not to understand the scope and extent of the English word ‘dialect’. Large borrowings of vocab do not turn one language into a variety of another.

    Would a Korean/Vietnamese/Japanese speaker be understood on the streets of Taipei? Er, well I guess they might: there’s quite a large Vietnamese immigrant population; there’s plenty of Japanese and Korean TV programs and other cultural influences; there’s plenty of contact with Japan, because the KMT needed friends after the U.S. pulled out in favour of the Mainland. But they wouldn’t be understood to be speaking a variety of Sinitic like Hokkien/Hakka.

    You might as well say “… English, Frisian and Danish being German dialects” or “… Spanish, Portuguese and Rumanian being Italian dialects”.

    My earlier comment that But you knew all that already?? must be wrong.

  37. SFReader says:

    Large borrowings of vocab do not turn one language into a variety of another.

    That only applies to borrowings between normal languages which is not the case here.

    Classical Chinese used to be the literary language of Japan, Korea and Vietnam for almost two thousand years.

    For example, old Vietnamese literature was written in Chinese characters, following Classical Chinese grammar, but using Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation.

    It was exactly how the Cantonese speakers used to read Classical Chinese (or how they read Mandarin these days) – foreign language, foreign grammar, but local pronunciation (Sino-Vietnamese and Cantonese pronunciation of Chinese characters were very similar, by the way).

    Not sure what word can be applied here except dialect.

    I know these registers are technically dead, but they kind of form a superstrate in Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese.

    Also I am not sure they are really loanwords – ‘case they weren’t actually borrowed from some foreign language, but rather INHERITED from the previous literary language of the country.

    Someone mentioned on other thread that large Persian dictionaries contain all of Classical Arabic vocabulary (along with its grammar). Well, that’s the kind of impact we are talking here.

    Terms like “borrowing” or “loanword” somehow sound totally inadequate when what we have is a situation when one language literally borrowed another in its entirety.

  38. Literary/classical Chinese is no more present on the streets of Taipei/Hanoi/Okinawa/Incheon than Latin is on the streets of Naples or Homer on the streets of Piraeus (I think we have a parallel thread on that last). Observe what a dog’s breakfast Xi Jinping makes of pronouncing literary allusions/characters that his speechwriters think he’s obliged to use.

    Not sure what word can be applied here except dialect.

    Listen up: ‘dialect’ is entirely inappropriate. ‘Topolect’ serves much better. Or just use fāngyán, on the grounds English has no word for X. Because normal languages which is not the case here.

    Or are you trolling? I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said many times in all the places I expect you to have looked at.

  39. SFReader says:

    Literary/classical Chinese is no more present on the streets of Taipei/Hanoi/Okinawa/Incheon

    https://thumbs.dreamstime.com/z/detail-exit-sign-japan-japanese-exit-sign-108053684.jpg

    That’s Classical Chinese.

    No trolling, honest.

  40. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s not: it reads deguchi, neither component of which is Chinese at all. That’s like saying “12” is Arabic.

  41. than Latin is on the streets of Naples … although Latin is alive and well on the airport signs(?) in Japan it seems, and all over the English-speaking world. Thus showing, as the folk on the Clapham omnibus will readily tell you, that English is a Romance language. And of course

    “I take it, Mr Gray, that your client is familiar with the maxim: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” “Indeed my lord, responded the QC drily. “In Barnsley they speak of little else.”

    Large borrowings of vocab do not turn one language into a variety of another. Not even if those borrowings form a superstrate amongst a literate elite, in an illiterate/semi-literate language community.

  42. SFReader says:

    “illiterate community” in Japan, Korea and Vietnam is minuscule. Japan, in particular, is the most literate country in the world and was such for a long time.

  43. SFReader says:

    It’s not

    Perhaps next you will claim that 東京 (MC tuŋkˠiæŋ) is not Classical Chinese either.

  44. You guys are talking past each other and making different points.

  45. John Cowan says:

    You might make the same case (descended from a former literary language, heavy and pervasive influence on the vocabulary) to show that English is a dialect of French: but we all know it is not.

    You might have a slightly better case for Burmese: see my Recycled Knowledge post on it.

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