Robert Bruce.

No, not Robert the Bruce, King of Scots; this is a much more recent guy, who (as “R. Bruce”) wrote a book I happen to own, [Teach Yourself] Cantonese. In investigating the mysteriously initialed author, I turned up his 1999 obit in the Independent, which made it clear he was of considerable Hattic interest:

A career of high achievement in the service of one’s country would be enough for most people but in Robert Bruce’s case there was a great deal more. What he attained in diplomacy and scholarship, particularly in relation to the languages and peoples of China, would have set him apart in any case, but the fact that he did so under the burden of virtual blindness throughout much of his life makes his story all the more remarkable.

Bruce was born in 1911 in Fraserburgh on the north-east corner of Aberdeenshire, the second son of Henry George Bruce, who owned the family herring-curing business and to whom Robert declared at the age of 11 that he was an atheist. Such iconoclastic utterances were to be entirely characteristic of him over the following decades but the atheism did not survive the course; he died on his 88th birthday as an Episcopalian.

Having gained a first class honours degree in History and Economics at Aberdeen University, in 1933 he applied to the Colonial Service. His interview consisted merely of being asked to which colony he would like to go. Choosing Malaya, he was sent for training to Wadham College, in Oxford, a city he described as embodying “the tradition of Platonic superiority. It held the guardian class of parliament and India; the aristocratic class.”

Once in Malaya, his extraordinary ability in languages led to a two-year appointment in Canton to study Cantonese, and to be an inspector of Chinese schools. In this period, too, he had his first encounter with Buddhism, which was to become central to his personal philosophy. Whatever his ambitions, however, they were soon compromised as, not yet 30 years old, he discovered that he was losing his sight. […]

His war work consisted initially of censorship duties. In 1943 he was appointed by the British Council to open their Aberdeen office, providing cultural support for everyone from Newfoundland lumberjacks to members of the Polish Brigade. His success in that position was such that five years later he was invited to open the Hong Kong office with the opportunity to pursue once again his passion for Chinese culture.

Transferred again to Malaya to be Principal of the Government Officers’ Language School, he taught Cantonese and Mandarin, in which he was fluent as well as having what he considered as only a “working knowledge” of Hokkien and Hakka. He now wrote two books for teaching on the first two languages and edited two on the others, published between 1952 and 1955 in the series “Teach Yourself Chinese”.

He became the British Council’s representative in Bangkok from 1955 to 1963 and, naturally, the language was learned, to the level at which he could converse in any circumstance, including sustaining television interviews, while his wife, in an echo of another story, taught English to one of the royal children. Bruce, apparently, spoke Thai with a Bangkok accent.

If the Bangkok episode was the highpoint of his Asian service, perhaps his most challenging posting occurred in 1963 when he became Cultural Attache to the British Embassy in Budapest. Three months of intensive tutoring was sufficient for him to learn Hungarian but the real problems were of a different nature. His job was in effect to restore the status and credibility of British culture in Hungary, through progressing the Britain-Hungary Cultural Relations Treaty, in a society which had been suspicious of Britain to the point where there had been recent expulsions of British personnel.

Bruce’s success was later reflected in the re-establishing of a British Council Office in Budapest and in the respect for him vouched by Hungarian intellectuals because of, as one said, “his great modesty and profound knowledge”.

A final stint in Hong Kong, in 1966, with time to write a biography, Sun Yat-Sen (1969), and, for the general market, Teach Yourself Cantonese (1970), finished his formal career if not his involvement with China. Academic appointments in America followed, before a return to the east coast of Scotland in the late 1980s, when he lectured on Asian religions in the Extramural Department of St Andrews University.

Robert Bruce had a most extraordinary effect on people. His death brought tributes from all over the world. They have in common references not only to his intellect but to his humanity and humour. A few years ago, an American student wrote, “He openly criticised our ignorance, praised our enthusiasm, admired our self-confidence and detested our bad manners.”

I can attest that Cantonese is a good little book which I found very useful when trying to learn that language (45 years ago now); it begins:

Cantonese is one form (or “dialect”) of the Chinese language. It is spoken in Kwangtung, the most south-easterly province of China, of which Canton is the capital. The word ‘Canton’ is a rather rough rendering by early European visitors of the name of the province, Kwangtung, the city itself being to the Chinese Kwangchow.

I consider that an admirably concise and informative presentation of basic facts; I particularly like the “form (or ‘dialect)” formulation, and I admire the alliteration of “rather rough rendering.” The obit itself is delightfully written, in the fine old English tradition; I can’t resist phrases like “who owned the family herring-curing business and to whom Robert declared at the age of 11 that he was an atheist” and comments like “Bruce, apparently, spoke Thai with a Bangkok accent.” The “apparently” shows admirable caution!


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    But did his early Sixties tenure in Budapest somehow indirectly contribute to the “Misleading Hungarian-to-English Tourist Phrasebook” crisis of 1970, as documented in cinema verite by the Monty Python folks?

  2. Hush — it’s still too soon to talk about that!

  3. Christopher Culver says

    The pace of language replacement in our modern world is a bit depressing. Two decades ago, browsing the shelves of an antiquariat, I probably would have pounced on a Teach Yourself Cantonese, thinking that I could put it to use on a future trip to the region. Today, hearing that Shanghai dialect is practically already lost and children in Guangdong are speaking back to their parents in Mandarin, I wouldn’t see the book as an attractive investment like that.

  4. @Christopher C, the status of Cantonese is indeed alarming.

    But this is not due to ‘language replacement’ of the natural kind. It’s deliberate cultural suppression of a piece with the genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang.

    Cantonese survived happily for centuries alongside the language of the rulers/administrators (Mandarin or English). Cantonese survives happily along the S.E. Asian littoral, and the diaspora in U.S. Chinatowns, Soho — even in New Zealand. Shanghai dialect is alive in Taiwan.

    We should be grateful to Bruce (in retrospect) for helping to preserve those “forms or dialects”.

  5. I found the language of the obit quite wooden and it’s enthusiasm for the deceased in disconnect from the reported facts, because the only thing I see is that Mr. Bruce had many postings in colonial service and learned languages with ease. I am inclined to believe that he was a remarkable individual, but I fail to see it. And I am sorry, but “…a society which had been suspicious of Britain to the point where there had been recent expulsions of British personnel” is rather daft. By the way, isn’t cultural attache a conventional spy posting? I didn’t watch a cold war movie in some time.

  6. Brilliant Scots with lapidary prose styles seem to be overrepresented among the authors of the Teach Yourself series. A number of phrases from Michael Coulson’s Teach Yourself Sanskrit have etched themselves permanently into my memory, though it’s been decades since I used the book. I haven’t been able to find out anything about Coulson except for the sad fact that he committed suicide before the book was published.

  7. (Which overrepresentation makes me wonder if David E has considered pitching them a Teach Yourself Kusaal?)

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    Indeed, it must be time to bring down the average.

  9. In Kusaasi context I remind that respectable people publish things like this🙂

  10. I don’t know what is “natural ‘langauge replacement'”.
    Replacement of Brittonic by English (both medieval and modern) was not natural.

    (and my intent is NOT to defend China, I find their policy very ugly).

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Some others of the Teach Yourself series are by no means negligible works of original scholarship: both Teach Yourself Hausa and Teach Yourself Yoruba definitely merit honourable mentions, for example. (In the case of Teach Yourself Yoruba there isn’t really much else, so it’s as well it’s a worthy effort.)

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    I think I vaguely recall coming across an earlyish edition of _Teach Yourself Malay_ and finding that it had hilarious example sentences. Definitely not focused on the potential discourse needs of tourists but instead on those of young Oxbridge grads who’d signed up to become junior imperial bureaucrats bearing the White Man’s Burden.

  13. I suppose some, but not all good language teachers are also good grammarians (and thus linguists).

    Some, because it must be good when a teacher understands how the language works and knows how to express it in such a way that her student can understand and remember it. Must be harder than sharing the same knowlege with a linguist. Not all, becase a student can learn a structure from your sample – which you picked not because it is instructive, but just because it is the appropriate thing to say in the context.
    It must be embarrassing, when you are a young Oxbidge grad and find that you can’t discuss Cicero with Orientals after having completed a whole Tearch Yoreself course – only good for finding a MacDonald’s to pee.
    Some would say that it is even more embarrassing when you want to pee and only can discuss Cicero with Orientals, but those are not young Oxbridge grads…

    (I know, it is not Cicero in textbooks)

  14. John Cowan says

    Cantonese survives happily [in] the diaspora in U.S. Chinatowns

    It’s being replaced by Mandarin in O.G. Chinatown, NYC, because of the large and increasing number of Mandarin-speaking immigrants. I would characterize this as “natural language replacement”[*]; the resident Cantonese-speakers are not being coerced to learn Mandarin, it is simply becoming more useful.

    The case of an immigrant coming to a country of immigration is livery similar. There may be coercion in schools, but otherwise you can get a lot more done in 1934 Detroit with English than with German (my mother’s case).

    [*] I first read this as “(natural language) replacement”, as if natural languages were being replaced by Volapük or Python.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    I think writing a good paedagogically oriented grammar is very difficult, and requires a whole lot of skills that perfectly good descriptive linguists are very likely to lack. It may have been marginally easier when the target audience contained more people like your typical Hatter, viz self-winding folk who just need a nice set of texts, a lexicon and a good reference grammar and they’re all set.

    Whereas with a descriptive grammar aimed at linguists or the linguist-adjacent you can make a lot of assumptions about your reader and just get on with trying to explain the facts, with a paedagogical grammar you need to be lot more aware of your audience (as it were.)

    Quite often you end up with a sort of mishmash. Some of the most depressing words (for me) to find at the beginning of a grammar of an interesting language are “this book is written for a variety of audiences.” (Though not as despair-inducing as discovering that the author has decided that Tagmemics is the One True Path to grammar.*)

    A traditional solution one used to see more often was to start with graded lessons, and then after a bit to declare that your reader now knew enough that you could take the gloves off, so you could start on your Part Two with all the real hardcore stuff. I think Ashton’s Swahili Grammar does that quite well. The very worst example I can think of is R C Abraham’s Language of the Hausa People, which is far and away the worst-organised indispensable grammar I have ever seen (“indispensable”, because despite a near-total inability to organise his material lucidly, Abraham had an astonishing ability to notice details and subtleties that nobody else had ever picked up on.)

    * Happily, Tagmemics has long since gone to meet its maker (Kenneth Pike.)

  16. ” requires a whole lot of skills that perfectly good descriptive linguists are very likely to lack. ”

    Yes, I only wanted to say that some teachers likely also possess the skills we expect from linguists. And I would say, for those who write pedagogical grammars these skills are desirable. Descriptive linguistics is the foundation of … applied linguistics:)

    “self-winding folk who just need a nice set of texts, a lexicon and a good reference grammar and they’re all set.”
    Motivation. It is not that people need language lessons as offered in school – those are both boring and inefficient. But learning stuff alone is something which some people like less than learning from people (also true for linguists).

    It is quite sad that the only genre of language learning familiar to most Russians is “school”. If they instead were familiar with the “texts and good reference grammar” genre – and sought to reproduce this experience each time they want to learn a new language, it would not be worse.

  17. Assimil (“X sans peine”) that inspired La Cantatrice chauve is just funny texts, audio, interlinear – and detailed explanations of all grammatical constructions that occur in the texts. The quality is uneven for different authors/langauges (I compared their Le Russe sans peine, 3 of them), and the expected level that the student achieves is not very high. Particularly, recent editions are simpler.

    The idea was exactly presenting an alternative to (much feared) French school. It is “texts and grammar”, just arranged in an easier/funnier way, in hope that students won’t lose interest halfway.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    There are *some* Calvinists who speak very highly of Pike (and indeed think his theories about language are “trinitarian” and consonant with the broader theories of Cornelius Van Til):

  19. Oh, and I remembered Ashley, the English learner of Russian langauge, the only person who said Russian is easy on my memory. The thing is: no previous experience with foreign lanaguages (and thus no attmepts to learn it like you would learn Spanish – just doing what she enjoys and enjoyings the process of doing what she enjoys). Polyglots find Russian scary…

    (speaking of people’s expectations and habits obtained in school).

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    I think one can be quietly confident that Pierce Taylor Hibbs has never attempted to actually use a grammar written in what R M W Dixon aptly calls the “impenetrable formalism of tagmemics.” (I was glad to come across these words. “It’s not just me, then …”)

    I presume also that PTH gets everywhere by tricycle.

  21. Reliant Robin.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    Had I considerably more spare cash than I do, I would try to symbolize my devotion to the Holy and Life-Creating Trinity out on the highway by purchasing and driving one of these.

    But inscrutable Providence has not yet made that feasible.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t know. It’s very nice and all, but I can’t shake off the feeling that tricycles are just more godly, somehow.

  24. David Marjanović says

    So I finally checked out the Wikipedia article on tagmemics. It is very short, but I get the impression that tagmemics is a horribly abstract theory of how language works – and quite unlikely to be testable.

    The first two external links in the article don’t work; this archived page from 1998 is very short and rather unsettling.

  25. David Marjanović says

    I have one question about the Morgan Super 3:


    Is it a legal loophole to let people drive at the speed limit after their driving licence has been confiscated?

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    @David M: I don’t know about the situation in the U.K. or EU, but in the US three-wheeled motor vehicles are generally “motorcyles” by definition regardless of design and configuration, and thus exempt from certain federal regulatory requirements (safety equipment blah blah blah) applicable only to “cars” and/or “trucks.” But it’s a very niche market — probably if it grew too large it would be viewed as indicating a loophole in need of closing. At least in N.Y. state you need to get a motorcycle endorsement on your drivers license in order to be on the road with one. Here’s a somewhat less expensive/exotic alternative to the Morgan that’s currently marketed in the U.S.

  27. David M: If you were a cartoon character, you wouldn’t ask.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    I have a feeling that I’ve read somewhere the mystic-theological aspect of tagmemics originated with Pike himself, but I can’t find anything much by desultory googling (and am not bothered enough to look properly.)

    At any rate, it spent a good while as SIL’s house style, but fortunately they’ve got better now.
    (You may note a certain acerbity in my tone. I have tried to extract useful information from grammars written tagmemically. The flashbacks are coming less frequently these days, though.)

  29. Having seen soul-body-spirit diagrams of a human being, I believe it is not difficult to give trinitarian interpretation to a bicycle.

    One wheel propels you, the other turns left and right, both help you keep balance, the rest of the construction keeps them togerher and all metaphorically stand for…

  30. A sandwich? For anything.

    (in other words, I was nto impressed by soul-body-spirit diagrams:()

    P.S. On the other hand: if you are to explain the concept of Trinity to unbelievers, bicicle has the advantage in that all its parts are inseparable. Without a wheel it is not a bicycle anymore.
    Tricycle may seem contrieved.

    P.P.S. the first line in google results for tricicle is: Tricycle: The Buddhist Review
    We are the leading independent Buddhist journal in the West dedicated to making Buddhist teachings and practices broadly available.


    Why “Tricycle”?
    A three-wheeled vehicle aptly evokes the fundamental components of Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism itself is often referred to as the “vehicle to enlightenment,” and the tricycle’s three wheels allude to the three treasures: The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, or the enlightened teacher, the teachings, and the community. The wheels also relate to the turning of the wheel of dharma, or skillfully using the teachings of the Buddha to face the challenges that the circle of life presents.

    it says in the “about” section.

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    Is it about a bicycle?

  32. What it? (I know, you posted it before I added PS and PPS, but I still don’t understand the question. (just in case: a sandwich is what a bicycle represents metaphorically) (which is not to say that a mechanical model of an RLC circuit is not informative)).

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    (It was the natural association of bicycles and mysticism.)

    It is the ultimate and the inexorable pancake.

  34. I have no idea what you’re talking about, so here’s a bunny with a pancake on its head.

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    I had forgotten (if indeed I had ever known) that Pike et al. borrowed/adapted the “tagmeme” concept from Leonard Bloomfield, whose own mystic-theological affinities are unknown to me.

  36. I just realised that Russian quadrocycle means this because bicycle is velosiped.

    Accordingly -cycle in motocycle “motorcycle” is understood as a motosuffix.

    (It does not explain the situation when Russian WP has “quadricycle” (not to be confused with quadrocycle), “quadrocycle” (not to be confused with quadricycle), “quadrocycle” corresponds to English “quadracycle” and is treated as an international, not Russian word: even though the article tells that in Russia “quadrocycle” means мотовездеход, quadrocycle is described in the article “мотовездеход”).

  37. David Eddyshaw says



  38. Don’t mind David, everyone — he has let things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle already. He spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.

  39. J.W. Brewer says

    Is the quadrocycle not foreshadowed typologically in the tenth chapter of the prophecy of Ezekiel?

  40. Stu Clayton says

    (It does not explain the situation when Russian WP has “quadricycle” (not to be confused with quadrocycle), “quadrocycle” (not to be confused with quadricycle), “quadrocycle” corresponds to English “quadracycle” and is treated as an international, not Russian word: even though the article tells that in Russia “quadrocycle” means мотовездеход, quadrocycle is described in the article “мотовездеход”).

    For clarity:
    quadricycle appears to be what old-timey 4-wheel bike-like vehicles were called. There are also mini modern cars called quadricycle, as the photos show.

    Some quadracycles look like what Germans cart around 2-6 small kids in – they’ve been all the rage here for the last 10 years at least. The others look like pedal-driven golf carts.

    The мотовездеход appears to be a four-wheeler or ATV, like for example a dune buggy.

  41. The мотовездеход appears to be a four-wheeler or ATV, like for example a dune buggy.

    Stu, yes, but I never heard this word (мотовездеход, motoeverywherego[er]) before. Everyone calls them quadrocycle.

    As you correctly noted, we usually observe them in Sahara….

    A four-wheeled bicycle is velomobile (a similar thing just based on a motorcycle could be called *motomobile, but this word is not in use)

  42. Keith Ivey says

    Google translates квадроцикл as the oxymoronic “quad bike”.

  43. I love that English has both unicycle and monocycle, for two different kinds of one-wheeled vehicles. The difference (for those unfamiliar) is that with the former, the rider(s) are positioned above the wheel; for the latter, inside the circumference of the wheel.

  44. Seems I should count myself lucky to own a copy of both TY Hausa and TY Yoruba (+ 6 more in the series)

  45. I skimmed a scan of Bruce’s Cantonese just now, and it was interesting to see that in 1970, Bruce makes no mention of the merger of initial /n/ and /l/ as /l/ now widespread in the colloquial speech of Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangzhou — either in the phonological sketch at the beginning, or anywhere else in the book that I could find. He also doesn’t mention any loss of initial /ŋ/. Offhand, I would have assumed these changes were well underway at the time. However, Bruce also gives the following instructions for study, p. 4:

    But the most infallible guide must be your ear, not your eye, and you must therefore find your Cantonese speaker and record him if possible.

    I wonder if Bruce’s extensive experience in Southeast Asia with diasporic Cantonese — more conservative with regard to these ongoing changes? — led him to decide to let learners discover these changes for themselves in their interactions with native speakers. Or perhaps disapproval of the merger of initial /n/ and /l/ and the loss of initial /ŋ/ was so strong among older speakers at the time, that even mentioning these changes would have brought down a storm of opprobrium on the author.

    Compare, from 1994, the 1st edition of Matthews and Yip Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar, p. 4:

    The grammar adopts the descriptive approach which is the basis of modern linguistics: it aims to describe how the language is actually spoken, rather than to tell the reader how it should be spoken. For example, the pronunciation léih is adopted in place of the traditional néih 你 ‘you’. Under this approach, there is no issue of ‘correct’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Cantonese (except perhaps in reference to a non-native speaker’s use of the language, where ‘good’ means ‘approximating to a native speaker’s usage’).

    (Bruce gives 你 ‘you’ as năy.)

  46. Thanks @Xerib, very informative.

    Bruce gives 你 ‘you’ as năy.

    And yet ‘you’ has initial /n/ in Putonghua. And I thought Southern topolects tended to be more conservative (?)

    Or is what I’m hearing in Taiwan more conservative than the Mainland? Are claims about ‘conservative’ to be taken with large helpings of salt?

  47. John Cowan says

    And I thought Southern topolects tended to be more conservative (?)

    Conservativeness as applied to whole languages is as meaningless in Sinitic as in any other family. Cantonese conserves the Middle Chinese stop finals, but has lost all initial glides. Shanghainese (and Wu generally) conserves the MC breathy-voiced initial consonants, but has changed all diphthongs to monophthongs and (in Shanghainese) arguably replaced the tone system with a pitch system spread over whole phrases. Mandarin conserves the feature of retroflexion, having merged MC palatals into retroflexes (and then grown its own palatals later), whereas Southern varieties generally have merged retroflexes into palatals.

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