‘dialect’ and ‘Chinese’ from a linguistic point of view

Another back issue of Sino-Platonic Papers has been released, this one of particular relevance to the themes of this site: What Is a Chinese “Dialect/Topolect”? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms (1991), by Professor Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

Here is the abstract:

Words like fangyan, putonghua, Hanyu, Guoyu, and Zhongwen have been the source of considerable perplexity and dissension among students of Chinese language(s) in recent years. The controversies they engender are compounded enormously when attempts are made to render these terms into English and other Western languages. Unfortunate arguments have erupted, for example, over whether Taiwanese is a Chinese language or a Chinese dialect. In an attempt to bring some degree of clarity and harmony to the demonstrably international fields of Sino-Tibetan and Chinese linguistics, this article examines these and related terms from both historical and semantic perspectives. By being careful to understand precisely what these words have meant to whom and during which period of time, needlessly explosive situations may be defused and, an added benefit, perhaps the beginnings of a new classification scheme for Chinese language(s) may be achieved. As an initial step in the right direction, the author proposes the adoption of “topolect” as an exact, neutral translation of fangyan.

The entire text is now online as a 2.2 MB PDF: What Is a Chinese “Dialect/Topolect”? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms.

Strongly recommended.

Y.R. Chao works being reissued

cover of the book 'Linguistic Essays, by Yuenren Chao'The Commercial Press has begun issuing a set of the complete works of Y.R. Chao (Zhao Yuanren / ??? / ???). This project, which will comprise some twenty volumes, will contain works in both English and Mandarin Chinese. All of the many fields Chao wrote about will be covered. Letters and journals will also be included, as will sound recordings. Wonderful!

For those who don’t want to wait for the whole series or don’t feel the need to buy all of them, the Commercial Press has also two volumes of Chao’s selected essays on linguistics: one in English and one in Mandarin. These are, respectively, Linguistic Essays by Yuenren Chao (ISBN: 7-100-03385-3/H·860) and Zhào Yuánrèn y?yánxué lùnwénjí (?????????) (ISBN: 7-100-03127-3/H·789).

cover of the book '????????? Zhao Yuanren Yuyanxue Lunwenji'Note how the cover of Linguistic Essays, a book printed just last year in China, uses “Yuenren Chao,” the traditional spelling and Western order of his name, rather than “Zhao Yuanren,” the spelling used in Hanyu Pinyin. Also note how the Mandarin title is given in traditional, not simplified, characters: ?????????, not ?????????. A nice surprise, on both counts. On the other hand, the botched romanization on the cover of the Mandarin-language collection, which gives “ZHAOYUANREN YUYANXUELUNWENJI” instead of “Zhào Yuánrèn y?yánxué lùnwénjí,” is particularly inappropriate and painful to look at on a collection of the works of this brilliant linguist. But don’t judge this book by its cover.

Here are links to all the volumes in the complete works that I’ve been able to locate information on:

cover of the first volume of Y.R. Chao's collected works

Hong Kong’s pride in Putonghua

Pride in the Mandarin language (Putonghua) in Hong Kong has risen from 18 percent in 1996 to 34 percent today, according to the results of a survey of survey conducted in October by the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for Communications Research.

The center surveyed a total of 1,013 people about their feelings of pride associated with various Chinese things. A five-point scale was used to record the answers, with 1 representing a complete lack of feeling of pride and 5 representing an intense feeling of pride. (1 fēn dàibiǎo wánquán wú zìháo gǎnjué, 5 fēn dàibiǎo yǒu hǎo qiángliè jì zìháo gǎnjué / 1分代表完全無自豪感覺,5分代表有好強烈既自豪感覺).

Percentage of pride was calculated as the sum of the percentages of respondents giving 4 or 5 points when asked about their feeling of pride towards a certain icon.

Here is the breakdown for the recent survey question on Mandarin:
Where 1 is a complete lack of pride and 5 is very strong pride, the responses in 2006 were as follows: 1: 25.4%; 2: 9.1%; 3: 30.0%; 4: 17.6%; 5: 14.4%; don't know/no answer: 1.4%;

And here is how pride in Mandarin has changed over time:
1996 18.6%, 1997 21.3%, 1998 19.9%, 1999 28.0%, 2002 25.2%, 2006 34.0%

Of course, if a response of 4 or 5 indicates pride, it may well be that 1 or 2 indicates a lack thereof, in which case those without pride in Mandarin (34.5%) still outnumber those with pride in it (34.0%).

Unfortunately, related questions on pride in Cantonese and English were not asked, so we don’t know how feelings about Mandarin stack up against those for the two other important languages of Hong Kong.

On the other hand, the survey covered other areas, which may be useful for purposes of comparison:

Almost half (48 per cent) of those questioned said they felt proud of the national flag and anthem of China compared to 30 and 39 per cent of those questions in a survey in 1996, one year before the former British colony became part of China again.

More than 28 per cent admitted pride in the China’s People’s Liberation Army compared to 10 per cent in 1996….

However, pride in Hong Kong remained higher with respondents grading their love for their home city at 7.52 on a scale of 1 to 10, compared to an average of 6.49 for China and only 2.91 for the Communist Party.

The Great Wall elicited some of the most positive feedback with 73 per cent saying it made them feel proud while the Chinese mainland security officials came out as being one of the most unpopular things in China, evoking pride in only 6 per cent of those questioned. (DPA)

I’d like to thank those at the Center for Communications Research for providing me with the data on Putonghua and answering various questions.

additional resource: Proud To Be Chinese – But Hongkongers Still Love Their City More, DPA, November 2006

Guangzhou subway to switch from Pinyin to English-Pinyin mix

Guangzhou’s Metro will be reportedly be changing from Hanyu Pinyin to a mix of English and Pinyin in the naming of its stations. Thus, for example, “Guangzhou Huochezhan” will become “Guangzhou Train Station” (or something like that) and Tiyu Xilu will become Tiyu West Road.

If the official website of the Guangzhou Metro is anything to go by, the Pinyin presently used there is terrible. The official website is infected with the Pinyin-crippling diseases of InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion and FailUreToSePaRateWords. ????, for example, is given not as T?yù X?lù but as TiYuXiLu. Horrible! And, of course, there are some typos too, which make matters even worse, such as TiYuZhongZin for what should be T?yù Zh?ngx?n.

The last time I was in Guangzhou the subway didn’t exist, so I haven’t seen this signage for myself. Can anyone supply photos of station signage in Guangzhou? I’d also appreciate receiving photos of official Pinyin signage from elsewhere in China. (Photos can be sent to the address on my contact info page.)

And, of course, there’s no word on supplying what ought to be a basic: additional signage in romanized Cantonese.

I have written the authorities there seeking details about the conversion but have not received a reply.

source and resources:

Turkey, Hunchback, and Stinky Head — more on no-no names in Malaysia

A-giâu’s attempt at reconstructing some of the Sinitic names on Malaysia’s list of forbidden personal names (which I posted on yesterday) had me feeling a little guilty that I didn’t do more research on this. So I did some additional digging and came up with an article that listed some of the Hanzi (Chinese characters).

Here are the Sinitic names, as given in the article (see ref. below). I’ve added romanization in Pinyin and approximate English translations. A few of these, though, have me perplexed. What, for example, is so bad about Hor Kianh (??)?


source’s romanization Hanzi Romanization in Pinyin (Mandarin) English translation
Ah Chwar 阿蛇 Ā Shé Snake
Ang Mor 紅毛 Hóngmáo Westerner (figuratively; literally: “red hair”)
Heoy Kay 火雞 Huǒjī Turkey
Hor Kianh 虎仔 Hǔzi Tiger
Khiow Koo 駝背 Tuóbèi Hunchback
Tok Sim 毒心 Dúxīn Evil Mind
Tua Pooi 大肥 Dà Féi Fatty
Tua Bug 大目 Dà Mù Big Eyes


source’s romanization Hanzi Romanization in Pinyin (Mandarin) English translation
Ai Chai 矮仔 Ǎizi Dwarf
Chow Kow 臭狗 Chòu Gǒu Smelly Dog
Chow Tow 臭頭 Chòu Tóu Stinky Head
Sor Chai 傻仔 Shǎzi Fool
Kou Lou 高佬 Gāo Lǎo Tall Devil
Tai Ngan 大眼 Dà Yǎn Big Eyes
Soh Low 傻佬 Shǎ Lǎo Stupid Imp
Tai Yee 大耳 Dà Ěr Big Ears


source’s romanization Hanzi Romanization in Pinyin (Mandarin) English translation
Ar Loo 阿驢 Ā Lǘ Donkey
Hwai Sze 壞死 Huàisǐ Bad Death
Chang Chee 娼妓 Chāngjì Prostitute
Ho Sze 猴子 Hóuzi Monkey
Sun Choo 山豬 Shānzhū Wild Boar
Tha Thaw 大頭 Dàtóu Wastrel, Silly Person (lit. “Big Head”)
Chue Sze 豬仔 Zhūzi Piggy
Sze Kwee 死鬼 Sǐguǐ Devil

source: Jiazhang wèi háizi qumíng xuzhi: Agou, Jizi, A-Zhuàng jìn yòng (????????? ????????), China Press (Malaysia), July 30, 2006

Malaysia deems some names ‘unsuitable’

Malaysia’s National Registration Department has compiled a list of personal names deemed “unsuitable.” Parents will be blocked from having their children registered under these names. Among the groups contributing to the compilation of the list are the Buddhist Missionary Society of Malaysia, the Malaysian Hindu Sangam, and the Universiti Malaya Tamil Language Association.

Parents will be prevented from bestowing upon their children specific names in a variety of languages (including Cantonese and Hoklo/Hokkien/Taiwanese). In addition, entire categories of names — such as the names of animals, colors, fruits, and vegetables — will also be blocked. Numbers and initials are also to be denied approval.

According to Jainisah Mohd Noor, a spokeswoman for the National Registration Department, parents who insisted upon using a name on this list could appeal to the department.

“We can only advise them, but if they are insistent even after knowing they are unsuitable, they may be allowed to use them,” Jainisah said.

I haven’t been able to find a copy of the list. Perhaps it’s on the National Registration Department’s Web site; but that’s only in Malay.

Here are some “unsuitable” names from Sinitic languages, as given in the news stories below. I’m just copying these from the news stories listed below, so don’t blame me for the romanizations.

  • Ah Kow (dog)
  • Ah Gong (unsound mind)
  • Chai Too (pig)
  • Kai Chai (chick)
  • Sum Seng (gangster)
  • Ah Chwar (snake)
  • Khiow Khoo (hunchback)
  • Chow Tow (smelly head)
  • Sor Chai (insane)

Here are some forbidden names from other languages:

  • Zaniah (female adulterer)
  • Zani (male adulterer)
  • Woti (sexual intercourse)
  • Karruppan (black fellow)
  • Sivappi (fair)
  • Vellayan (fair)
  • Amma-kannu (mother’s eye)
  • Batu Malai (stone hill)

You will also have to prove your lineage if you want your child to carry the prefix Ungku, Engku, Ku, Syed or Syarifah to your name.

Names with officials titles such as Tun, Tan Sri or Dato’ Wira Jaya, Haji, Nabi, Rasul, Guru, Ustaz and Hakim are also out.

Taishan dictionary

A recently published dictionary of Taishan — Táish?n f?ngy?n zìdi?n (??????), edited by Dèng J?n (??) and Lín Róngyào (???) — has been selling relatively well, according to news reports. But I haven’t been able to find out much more, such as if the book is available for purchase online.

Cantonese input method for Chinese characters

There’s a new Unicode-based phonetic input method for inputting Chinese characters … using Cantonese: Canto Input.

Here’s the author’s description:

What is it?
CantoInput is a freely available, Unicode-based Chinese input method (IME) which allows you to type both traditional and simplified characters using Cantonese romanization. Both the Yale and Jyutping methods are supported. A Mandarin Pinyin mode is also available.

Why does the world need another Chinese input method?
While there already exist excellent phonetic input methods based on Mandarin Pinyin pronunciation, there is a general lack of support for Cantonese. As a Cantonese learner, I was frustrated by the difficulty of typing Chinese, especially Cantonese-specific colloquial characters. Most existing Cantonese input methods require a Chinese version of Windows and operate using non-Unicode encodings such as BIG5 or GB, while non-phonetic methods such as Cangjie have a very steep learning curve. I originally wrote this program for my own personal use but decided to make it freely available since I felt that other Cantonese speakers and learners might also find it useful. It’s still really basic at this time, but hopefully I’ll have time to impove the interface and add more features in the future.

Those interested in trying this out might find the comments on Chinese Forums useful.