a brief list of some romanization-related books

My good friend Jim, known to many through his blogs Beijing Boyce (the guide to the bars of Beijing — and lots of restaurants there as well) and Grape Wall of China (for China’s wine scene), has a new site focusing on books about or touching upon China.

He asked me to contribute my list of the top five romanization-related books in English. I cheated some, such as by leaving out Palmer’s The Principles of Romanization, with Special Reference to the Romanization of Japanese, which is difficult to find, somewhat outdated, and doesn’t focus much on Sinitic languages; and by including other works primarily in romanized Mandarin.

But it’s a start.

To see my list and lots of others, go to China Book Bites (a.k.a. Chu?nchuànr).

roots of the stone lions story

The tongue-twisting tale of Mr. Shi, the poet who likes to eat lions (better known as the story that goes Shi shi shi shi shi… — see section 3 of that page), is often reproduced — though usually by people who misunderstand its meaning. (It is not an argument against romanization.)

I haven’t been able yet to track down just when and where Y.R. Chao (Zhao Yuanren / Zhào Yuánrèn / 趙元任) first published this. But what is particularly interesting, at least to me, is that this — probably the most widely known thing Chao ever wrote, outside the musical realm at least — is not entirely original to him but was inspired by another shi-story … by Chao’s roommate at Cornell.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Problem of the Chinese Language,” which Chao wrote in 1916.

I agree with Mr. Hu [Shih], therefore that living words are not intrinsically vulgar and that we should use them in writing. Secondly, whether we write with characters or with letters, we should use sounds that are at least auditorily intelligible. Differences between the spoken and the written languages do, and ought to exist in all languages, but the two must not be separated by a chasm. A poem must be recitable, an oration must be deliverable, not to oneself, but to others. I wager that if a poem is read aloud to a hundred educated persons of the same dialect as the reader, unless it is on a hackneyed them with hackneyed phrases, it will not be understood by more ears than one can count on his fingers — two ears to a person.

With one syllable shi and four variations of tones in northern mandarin, one can write a whole story. The example in 111323,嗜32,失33,誓3111。獅1331,史2313,恃313,使333111。俟311,始2133。史2使23313,視333。試3133…… was written by Mr. M. T. Hu. (Similar homonymic passages can be constructed in other dialects.) If we paraphrase it as in 石頭房子裏的詩翁,姓史的,愛吃豬肉,云云, we shall notice two points. First, the auditorily intelligible form has polysyllabic words for single ideas. Secondly, it uses better sounding syllables. Sin3 for surname, ai3 for like, chu1 for swine, are both more pleasant and less ambiguous than shi. Such spoken words as hao2 (good), men1 (door), yao3 (want), in their proper tones have no other common words of the same sound. This polysyllabism and the choice of sounds are the results of natural selection of speech sounds according to their survival value.

M.T. Hu stands for Minfu Ta Hu (also sometimes written Minfu Tah Hu), who went on to get his Ph.D. in mathematics at Harvard in 1917. (My initial guess was that he’s “Hu Minfu” and that his nickname is “da Hu”, given how there were several Chinese with the family name of Hu studying at Cornell at the same time. But he seems to have used the long form even in formal contexts.)

Here’s the text again without the tone numbers (which don’t correspond with current systems anyway, something that might make a good post (“Tone Wars and the Standardization of Guoyu/Putonghua”) but which I’ll probably never get around to writing). I’ve highlighted sections longer than two characters that also appear in Chao’s version (see below).


And here’s Chao’s version:


So Chao certainly made this his own.

For more from the same essay, see Responses to objections to romanization, which is well worth reading.

ɑ vs. a

image of the rounded 'a' and the normal 'a' with the example given of the word 'Hanyu' (with tone marks)About a year ago (which is roughly how overdue this post is), a commenter noted that some Chinese publishers “are convinced that Pinyin must be printed with ɑ (single-story „Latin alpha“, as opposed to double-story a), and with ɡ (single story; not double story g).”

But does Hanyu Pinyin in fact call for this longstanding Chinese habit of bad typography? This was one of the first questions I asked of Zhou Youguang, the father of Hanyu Pinyin, when I met with him: Are those who insist upon the ɑ-style letter correct?

“Oh, no,” Zhou replied. “That ‘ɑ’ is just for babies!” And he laughed that wonderful laugh of his that no doubt has contributed to his remarkable longevity.

Zhou was referring to the facts that the “ɑ” style of letter is usually found specifically in books for infants … and that this style generally does not belong elsewhere. In fact, ɑ and ɡ (written thusly, as opposed to g) are often referred to as infant characters. A variant of the letter y is sometimes included in this set.

Letters in that style are also found in the West — but almost always in books for toddlers, and often not even in those. Furthermore, even in those cases the use of such letters appears to have no positive effect on children’s reading.

The correct-style letters for Pinyin are the same as those for English, Zhou stated.

I hope that anyone who has been using “ɑ” will both officially and in practice switch to “a”. It’s long past time that the supposed rule calling for “ɑ” was treated as a dead letter.

Long live good typography!

persistent MPS2

Poagao sent me this photo of signs on Zhong’an Bridge, which joins Xindian and Zhonghe (both in Taipei County). (So the zhong is probably for Zhonghe; but I’m not sure what the an is meant to be short for.) The signs are a good illustration of the sloppy approach to romanization in Taiwan. Because this is a new bridge, these are definitely new signs and thus should be in Hanyu Pinyin, which is official not just in Taipei County but nationally.

two large directional signs above a road across a bridge, as described in this post

As the table below shows, however, the only name that definitely isn’t written in MPS2 — the romanization system that predated Tongyong, which in Taiwan predated Hanyu Pinyin — is a typo. MPS2 hasn’t been official for the better part of a decade.

on the sign system Hanyu Pinyin
Junghe MPS2 Zh?nghé
Benchian wrong in all systems B?nqiáo
Jingping (MPS2, Tongyong, Hanyu Pinyin) J?ngpíng
Shioulang MPS2 Xiùl?ng

And there’s no excuse for making “Shioulang Bridge” so small and squashed. This also brings to mind another aspect of Hanyu Pinyin: because of its design and the fact that it uses abbreviated forms of some vowel combinations (e.g., uei -> ui, iou -> iu), it doesn’t need as much horizontal space as MPS2 or Tongyong Pinyin, which means it can be written with larger letters — an important factor in signage. (See the second table of the comparative typing chart to see such differences between Hanyu Pinyin and Tongyong Pinyin.)

system spelling
MPS2 Shioulang
Tongyong Pinyin Sioulang
Hanyu Pinyin Xiulang

history bite: around this time in 1977

Thirty-three years ago the third United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names voted 43-1 in favor of adopting Hanyu Pinyin as “the international system for the romanization of Chinese geographical names,” which was a major step in establishing the use of Hanyu Pinyin internationally.

The one nay vote came from the United States, which said that changing the Library of Congress’s records from Wade-Giles to Pinyin would be prohibitively expensive. (The Library of Congress did not begin its Pinyin-conversion project until twenty years later.) This may also have had to do with the fact that at the time the United States did not recognize the People’s Republic of China but instead had diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (i.e., Taiwan), which didn’t adopt Hanyu Pinyin itself until more than thirty years later (and its implementation here is still incomplete).

1977 nián zài Y?di?n j?xíng de Liánhéguó dì-s?n jiè dìmíng bi?ozh?nhuà huìyì shàng, y? 43 piào zànchéng, 1 piào f?nduì de jiégu?, t?ngguò le c?iyòng Hàny? P?ny?n zuòwéi Zh?ngguó dìmíng Luóm? zìm? de guójì bi?ozh?n de tí’àn. 1 piào f?nduì de shì M?iguó. Jùshu? shì y?nwèi rúgu? g?iyòng Hàny? P?ny?n, M?iguó Guóhuì Túsh?gu?n ji?ng “hàoz? tài dà” (c? túsh?gu?n de Zh?ngwén sh?k?n míng y?qián quán yòng W?itu?m?shì p?ny?n).

source: Xinhua Pinxie Cidian, by Yin Binyong.

Li-ching Chang, 1936-2010

Li-ching Chang (Zhāng Lìqīng / 張立青 / 张立青 / Zhang Liqing) was born in Changyi (near Qingdao), Shandong Province, China, on October 5, 1936. When she was 5 years old, her family sought to escape the fighting (between the Communists and the Nationalists) in her native Shandong Province and fled inland to Sichuan, eventually settling in Chengdu. In 1947 Li-ching’s family followed Chiang Kai-shek’s armies and moved to Gangshan, southern Taiwan. Li-ching attended Tainan Normal School. The same school at the same location has since been expanded to become the National University of Tainan. Upon graduation from this teacher training high school, Li-ching taught in elementary schools for several years. During this period, she also joined an army drama troupe.

After an intensive period of preparation for the college entrance examinations, Li-ching was successful in entering the Chinese Department at National Taiwan University, from which she received her B.A. degree in 1964. She also went on to earn an M.A. (1966) at NTU, with a thesis focusing on the works of the early medieval poet, Tao Yuanming. Later, she enrolled in a graduate program of Chinese studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, and there she earned another M.A., writing a thesis on the modern Chinese playwright, Cao Yu.

Li-ching was a superb teacher of Mandarin and was employed by numerous outstanding institutions of higher education, including the University of Washington, the Oberlin program at Tunghai University (Taichung, Taiwan), Middlebury College, Harvard University, Bryn Mawr College (joint program with Haverford College), the University of Pennsylvania, and Swarthmore College. Li-ching was co-founder and co-editor of Xin Tang, a journal of romanized Chinese. She served on the editorial board of the ABC Chinese-English dictionaries at the University of Hawaii and made a virtuoso translation of Zhou Youguang’s The Historical Evolution of Chinese Languages and Scripts (published by The Ohio State University National East Asian Language Resource Center in 2003).

She generously provided several of her important works to this Web site, including:

Li-ching lived in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, with her husband, the scholar Victor H. Mair.

Li-ching Chang / Zhang Liqing / ???

Chomsky to lecture on linguistics in Xinzhu, Taiwan

Noam Chomsky will come to Taiwan in August to deliver two lectures.

The first lecture — on Monday, August 9 — is “Contours of World Order: Continuities and Changes.” This will likely cover political and human rights concerns, not linguistics.

The second, “Poverty of Stimulus: The Unfinished Business,” held the following day at Q?nghuá Dàxué (Tsinghua University) in Xinzhu (Hsinchu), will focus on linguistics.

Online registration for the lectures starts on Thursday, July 15.

For more information, see Qinghua’s Web pages (in Mandarin) on this.

Hat tip to Dan for this.

Chinese characters: Like, wow.

Some recent comments on the Hanzi domain name situation brought to mind a rant I was working on last month and then abandoned. But it seems worth finishing — relatively speaking, because this is a topic that touches upon so many areas that I could never get through it all — because the problem I discuss is a fairly common one. So today I’d like to address what I think of as the “like, wow” fetish of Chinese characters. In this, Chinese characters are regarded as if they bestowed a wonderful gift upon the reader that no other script could. But exactly how they do that and what exactly that gift is, though, generally doesn’t make too much sense.

This sort of thing is common, and not just among New Age nonsense. A good example of this approach is found in Search Engine of the Song Dynasty, an op-ed piece published in the New York Times in mid May. Basically, the author discusses how having URLs in Chinese characters is a good thing, but does so in a vague, flowery way that brings to mind a stoned grad student with a large vocabulary — which might not be so bad if the author had gotten the facts straight.

I had hoped for at least a little better, given that the author, Ruiyan Xu, has completed a novel, The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai, whose protagonist has bilingual aphasia. So one would expect Xu, who was born in Shanghai and moved to the United States at the age of 10, to have a better-than-basic understanding of linguistics. Alas, no — not if the article is anything to go by.

My annoyance here, though, isn’t specifically with Xu, who seems like a nice person and whose book has been getting some good advance reviews. It’s more with the “like, wow” phenomenon in general and the eagerness of the mainstream press to publish things about “Chinese” even though the substance of such articles falls apart if one devotes even just a little effort to examining it.

So let’s get into it.

Baidu.com, the popular search engine often called the Chinese Google, got its name from a poem written during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The poem is about a man searching for a woman at a busy festival, about the search for clarity amid chaos. Together, the Chinese characters bi [sic] and dù mean “hundreds of ways,” and come out of the last lines of the poem: “Restlessly I searched for her thousands, hundreds of ways./ Suddenly I turned, and there she was in the receding light.”

For reference, I’ll provide the poem. I’ve put the Chinese characters used by Baidu.com in bold and red.



The author of the poem, Xin Qiji (X?n Qìj? / ??? / ???), lived from 1140 to 1207 and was thus a contemporary of such Western poets as the troubadours Bertran de Born, Bernart de Ventadorn, and Giraut de Borneil — hardly poets whose work suffered for having been written with an alphabet.

Baidu, rendered in Chinese, is rich with linguistic, aesthetic and historical meaning. But written phonetically in Latin letters (as I must do here because of the constraints of the newspaper medium and so that more American readers can understand), it is barely anchored to the two original characters; along the way, it has lost its precision and its poetry.

Ugh. Where to start?

I’ll go ahead and skip “precision,” even though that’s perhaps not a word best applied to most poetry written in Literary Sinitic, and start with “rendered in Chinese.” However common the word might be, “Chinese” is a poor choice. In this case, the word seems to be intended to mean not any particular language but rather “Chinese characters,” which are not a language. Here, too, she appears to be blaming Pinyin for having lost something from Literary Sinitic, which is what the poem was written in. But Pinyin isn’t for Literary Sinitic; it’s for modern standard Mandarin. Also, whatever language Xin Qiji spoke could have been written with an alphabet with no loss of meaning, just like all other natural languages.

As Web addresses increasingly transition to non-Latin characters as a result of the changing rules for domain names, that series of Latin letters Chinese people usually see at the top of the screen when they search for something on Baidu may finally turn into intelligible words: “a hundred ways.”

Baidu vs. ?? on the Baidu.com home page:

Can you feel the difference in precision and poetry? No?

Also, it’s not clear just how much of a “transition to non-Latin characters” there’s going to be, especially where Chinese characters are concerned, especially in places like Singapore.

Of course, this expansion of languages for domain names could lead to confusion: users seeking to visit Web sites with names in a script they don’t read could have difficulty putting in the addresses, and Web browsers may need to be reconfigured to support non-Latin characters. The previous system, with domain names composed of numbers, punctuation marks and Latin letters without accents, promoted standardization, wrangling into consistency and simplicity one small part of the Internet.

For “could have difficulty putting in the addresses” read “could find it next to impossible to enter the correct address.” And by “one small part of the Internet,” she appears to mean the name of every single domain on the entire Internet.

But something else, something important, has been lost.

Part of the beauty of the Chinese language comes from a kind of divisibility not possible in a Latin-based language. Chinese is composed of approximately 20,000 single-syllable characters, 10,000 of which are in common use.

No, no, and no.

  • By “Latin-based language” the author seems to be referring not to a Romance language but to a language that uses the Latin alphabet for its standard script.
  • What exactly is this divisibility? Mandarin words can be divided into morphemes. The words of English, French, etc. work the same way.
  • No language is composed of Chinese characters.
  • There are a hell of a lot more than 20,000 Chinese characters.
  • “Common use” is difficult to pin down. But most authorities would give a lower number.

These characters each mean something on their own; they are also combined with other characters to form hundreds of thousands of multisyllabic words.

No, that’s wrong. Again: words — whether they be multisyllabic or monosyllabic — are not made of Chinese characters. Instead, Chinese characters are the script most seen for written Mandarin.

Níh?o, for example, Chinese for “Hello,” is composed of ní — “you,” and h?o — “good.” Isn’t “You good” — both as a statement and a question — a marvelous and strangely precise breakdown of what we’re really saying when we greet someone?

Again, this is assigning meaning to characters, when the meaning is of course in the word itself.

Note, too, that “níh?o” is incorrect in several ways.

  • One of the basic rules of Hanyu Pinyin is that tone sandhi is not indicated. So even though — because in Mandarin if something has two third tones in a row, the first shifts to second tone — the greeting is pronounced níh?o, the diacritical mark over the i should indicate third tone (?) rather than second (í).
  • The diacritic over the a is wrong. It should be a? (Unicode ̌), not ? (Unicode ă) — sharp vs. rounded. (You may need to enlarge the fonts on the screen to see this.)
  • Most careful authorities write this with a space rather than as solid: n? h?o rather than n?h?o. This, though, is something I don’t much care about. Popular usage of Pinyin as a real script will eventually work this out one or the other. Also, if someone is going to err in word parsing, I’d much rather they do it by making words solid rather than by breaking up the syllables.

The Romanization of Chinese into a phonetic system called Pinyin, using the Latin alphabet and diacritics (to indicate the four distinguishing tones in Mandarin), was developed by the Chinese government in the 1950s.

I’m a bit surprised the copy editors at the New York Times let that muddled sentence though. But I’ll pass over it without further observation.

Pinyin makes the language easier to learn and pronounce, and it has the added benefit of making Chinese characters easy to input into a computer. Yet Pinyin, invented for ease and standards, only represents sound.

In other words, Pinyin represents language — that being what writing systems are designed to do. And, yes, it’s easy to learn and use, which happens to be a good thing, not a bad one.

In Chinese, there are multiple characters with the exact same sound. The sound “b?i,” for example, means 100, but it can also mean cypress, or arrange. And “Baidu,” without diacritics, can mean “a failed attempt to poison” or “making a religion of gambling.”

My dictionary gives some different phrases. But whatever. Then there’s also the simple point: If there’s a problem with writing Pinyin without diacritics, then don’t write Pinyin without diacritics, write it with diacritics. But I have a hard time imagining how anyone would get such things confused in context.

Q: “Honey, could you check Baidu for information on when that new movie is coming out?”
A: “Baidu? Sorry, could you write that in Chinese characters for me. I can’t tell if you mean “a failed attempt to poison,” “making a religion of gambling,” or the search engine.”

Behind this is just the usual homonym canard. In English, as in other languages, there are many morphemes with the exact same pronunciation (sound). If we look at the closest English has to the Mandarin sounds bai and du, we can get by, buy, bye, bi-, and dew, do, due, etc. — all of which have various meanings. Take a look.

Those who don’t need to be hit over the head again and again to understand the simple point that English has plenty of homonyms but does just fine with an alphabet — as would every other natural language, including of course Mandarin and the other Sinitic languages– may wish to just skim the following blockquote.

bi, bi-, buy, by, bye

buy (transitive verb)

  1. : to acquire possession, ownership, or rights to the
    use or services of by payment especially of money :
    1. : to obtain in exchange for something often at
      a sacrifice <they bought peace with their
    2. : redeem
  2. : bribe, hire
  3. : to be the purchasing equivalent of <the dollar
    buys less today than it used to>
  4. : accept, believe <I don’t buy that hooey> -often
    used with into

buy (intransitive verb)

  1. : to make a purchase

buy (noun)

  1. : something of value at a favorable price; especially :
    bargain <it’s a real buy at that price>
  2. : an act of buying : purchase

bi (noun or adjective)

  1. : bisexual

bi- (prefix)

    1. : two <bilateral>
    2. : coming or occurring every two
    3. : into two parts <bisect>
    1. : twice : doubly : on both sides
    2. : coming or occurring two times
      <biannual> – compare semi-
  1. : between, involving, or affecting two (specified)
    symmetrical parts <bilabial>
    1. : containing one (specified) constituent in
      double the proportion of the other constituent or
      in double the ordinary proportion
    2. : di- 2 <biphenyl>

bi- (Variant(s): or bio-) (combining form)

  1. : life : living organisms or tissue
    <bioluminescence> <biosphere>
  2. : biographical <biopic>

bye (noun)

  1. : the position of a participant in a tournament who
    advances to the next round without playing

by (preposition)

  1. : in proximity to : near <standing by the
    1. : through or through the medium of : via
      <enter by the door>
    2. : in the direction of : toward <north by
    3. : into the vicinity of and beyond : past
      <went right by him>
    1. : during the course of <studied by
    2. : not later than <by 2 p.m.>
    1. : through the agency or instrumentality of
      <by force>
    2. : born or begot of
    3. : sired or borne by
  2. : with the witness or sanction of <swear by all that
    is holy>
    1. : in conformity with <acted by the
    2. : according to <called her by name>
    1. : on behalf of <did right by his
    2. : with respect to <a lawyer by
    1. : in or to the amount or extent of <win by a
    2. b chiefly Scottish : in comparison with :
  3. -used as a function word to indicate successive units or increments <little by little> <walk two by two>
  4. -used as a function word in multiplication, in division, and in measurements <divide a by b>
    <multiply 10 by 4> <a room 15 feet by 20 feet>
  5. : in the opinion of : from the point of view of
    <okay by me>

by (adjective)

  1. : being off the main route : side
  2. : incidental

by (noun)

  1. : something of secondary importance : a side issue

by/bye (interjection)

  1. : short for goodbye

dew, do, due

dew (noun)

  1. : moisture condensed upon the surfaces of cool bodies especially at night
  2. : something resembling dew in purity, freshness, or power to refresh
  3. : moisture especially when appearing in minute droplets: as

    1. : tears
    2. : sweat
    3. : droplets of water produced by a plant in transpiration

due (adjective)

  1. : owed or owing as a debt
    1. : owed or owing as a natural or moral right
      <everyone’s right to dissent is due the full protection of the Constitution – Nat Hentoff>
    2. : according to accepted notions or procedures : appropriate <with all due respect>
    1. : satisfying or capable of satisfying a need, obligation, or duty : adequate <giving the matter due attention>
    2. : regular, lawful <due proof of loss>
  2. : capable of being attributed : ascribable -used with to <this advance is partly due to a few men of genius –
    A. N. Whitehead>
  3. : having reached the date at which payment is required
    : payable <the rent is due>
  4. : required or expected in the prescribed, normal, or logical course of events : scheduled <the train is due at noon>; also : expected to give birth

due (noun)

  1. : something due or owed: as

    1. : something that rightfully belongs to one
      <give him his due>
    2. : a payment or obligation required by law or custom : debt
    3. plural : fees, charges <membership dues>

due (adverb)

  1. : directly, exactly <due north>
  2. <obsolete> : duly

do (transitive verb)

  1. : to bring to pass : carry out <do another’s wishes>
  2. : put -used chiefly in do to death
  3. : perform, execute

    1. <do some work> <did his duty>
    2. : commit <crimes done deliberately>
    1. : bring about, effect <trying to do good>
      <do violence>
    2. : to give freely : pay <do honor to her memory>
  4. : to bring to an end : finish -used in the past participle <the job is finally done>
  5. : to put forth : exert <did her best to win the race>
  6. : to wear out especially by physical exertion : exhaust
    <at the end of the race they were pretty well done> b
    : to attack physically : beat; also : kill
  7. : to bring into existence : produce <do a biography on the general>
  8. -used as a substitute verb especially to avoid
    repetition <if you must make such a racket, do it
    somewhere else>
  9. : to play the role or character of b : mimic; also : to behave like <do a Houdini and disappear> c : to perform in or serve as producer of <do a play>
  10. : to treat unfairly; especially : cheat <did him out of his inheritance>
  11. : to treat or deal with in any way typically with the sense of preparation or with that of care or attention:

      1. : to put in order : clean <was doing the kitchen>
      2. : wash <did the dishes after supper>
    1. : to prepare for use or consumption; especially : cook <like my steak done rare>
    2. : set, arrange <had her hair done>
    3. : to apply cosmetics to <wanted to do her face before the party>
    4. : decorate, furnish <did the living room in Early American> <do over the kitchen>
  12. : to be engaged in the study or practice of <do science>; especially : to work at as a vocation lt;what to do after college>
    1. : to pass over (as distance) : traverse <did 20 miles yesterday>
    2. : to travel at a speed of <doing 55 on the turnpike>
  13. : tour <doing 12 countries in 30 days>
    1. : to spend (time) in prison <has been doing time in a federal penitentiary>
    2. : to serve out (a period of imprisonment)
      <did ten years for armed robbery>
  14. : to serve the needs of : suit, suffice <worms will do us for bait>
  15. : to approve especially by custom, opinion, or propriety <you oughtn’t to say a thing like that — it’s not done – Dorothy Sayers>
  16. : to treat with respect to physical comforts <did themselves well>
  17. : use 3 <doesn’t do drugs>
  18. : to have sexual intercourse with
  19. : to partake of <let’s do lunch>

do (intransitive verb)

  1. : act, behave <do as I say>
    1. : get along, fare <do well in school>
    2. : to carry on business or affairs : manage
      <we can do without your help>
  2. : to take place : happen <what’s doing across the street>
  3. : to come to or make an end : finish -used in the past participle
  4. : to be active or busy <let us then be up and doing
    – H. W. Longfellow>
  5. : to be adequate or sufficient : serve <half of that will do>
  6. : to be fitting : conform to custom or propriety
    <won’t do to be late>
  7. -used as a substitute verb to avoid repetition
    <wanted to run and play as children do> ; used especially in British English following a modal auxiliary or perfective have <a great many people had died, or would do – Bruce Chatwin>
  8. -used in the imperative after an imperative to add emphasis <be quiet do>

do (verbal auxiliary)

    1. -used with the infinitive without to to form present and past tenses in legal and parliamentary language <do hereby bequeath> and in poetry <give what she did crave – Shakespeare>
    2. -used with the infinitive without to to form present and past tenses in declarative sentences with inverted word order <fervently do we pray –
      Abraham Lincoln>, in interrogative sentences
      <did you hear that?>, and in negative sentences <we don’t know> <don’t go>
  1. -used with the infinitive without to to form present and past tenses expressing emphasis <i do say> <do be careful>

do (noun)

  1. chiefly dialect : fuss, ado
  2. archaic : deed, duty
    1. : a festive get-together : affair, party
    2. chiefly British : battle
  3. : a command or entreaty to do something <a list of dos and don’ts>
  4. British : cheat, swindle
  5. : hairdo

All that’s without me bothering to get out a big dictionary.

Alas, poor English! How confused we must be to be using a mere alphabet. Oh, if only we could achieve linguistic, aesthetic, and historical meaning!

In the case of Baidu.com, the word, in Latin letters, has slipped away from its original context and meaning, and been turned into a brand.

Baidu is a brand, and as is generally thought of as such regardless of what script it is written in. Furthermore, it’s understood as a “word” only as that search engine. In the poem the characters “??” are used to write not one word but two — and even written in Hanzi this is not something more than a relative handful of people in China or Taiwan would recognize as having come from that poem unless someone told them about it first.

Language is such a basic part of our lives, it seems ordinary and transparent. But language is strange and magical, too: it dredges up history and memory; it simultaneously bestows and destabilizes meaning. Each of the thousands of languages spoken around the world has its own system and rules, its own subversions, its own quixotic beauty. Whenever you try to standardize those languages, whether on the Internet, in schools or in literature, you lose something. What we gain in consistency costs us in precision and beauty.

When Chinese speakers Baidu (like Google, it too is a verb), we look for information on the Internet using a branded search engine. But when we see the characters for b?i dù, we might, for one moment, engage with the poetry of our language, remember that what we are really trying to do is find what we were seeking in the receding light. Those sets of meanings, layered like a palimpsest, might appear suddenly, where we least expect them, in the address bar at the top of our browsers. And in some small way, those words, in our own languages, might help us see with clarity, and help us to make sense of the world.

Clarity? Clarity?!

I understand that the author, as a novelist rather than a linguist, might be preoccupied with the whole Ezra Pound “make it new” and “give people new eyes” thing. If so, good for her. But, still, one should not not confuse flights of fancy, no matter how cool they might sound, with facts and should at least attempt not to be completely wrong about almost everything, especially when publishing in the New York Times.

If the argument for Chinese characters is supposed to be that their continued, indeed expanded, use is necessary so people can quote poems in Literary Sinitic out of context so that what would be at best a low-single-digit percentage of native speakers of Mandarin or another modern Sinitic language might recognize the allusion despite a lack of context and might get a Hanzi-licious frisson out of the experience … that would have to be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read.

Kicking the irony meter way up on all this is that the author of those remarks on the really cool feelings one can get from reading Chinese characters cannot herself read texts written in them, though she neglected to mention that little bit of information in her New York Times piece.

And for irony on top of irony, as someone who left China at the age of 10, she likely still knows her native Sinitic language, so texts written in romanization could give her the literacy in that language that she lacks in Chinese characters. Romanization could provide meaning; but instead she harps upon the virtues of Chinese characters.

Oh, and for a final bit of irony, here’s something else the author apparently didn’t bother to check: ??.com already exists. And is anyone surprised to hear that the site at that address is not a search engine of the Song dynasty? Here’s what it looks like.
screenshot of ??.com -- a linkspam site -- as of July 1, 2010

That’s right: ??.com is just a linkspam site. But apparently because, unlike baidu.com, it has Chinese characters in the URL it’s linkspam with its own quixotic beauty; it’s linkspam with its own sets of meanings, layered like a palimpsest; and it’s linkspam that is rich with linguistic, aesthetic and historical meaning.

C’mon, people! Feel the poetry of it! The precision!

Like, wow.