Growth in US postsecondary Mandarin enrollments stalls

Back in 2008 I took a close look at U.S. post-secondary enrollments in foreign languages and the position of Mandarin. I’ve recently been examining the latest figures (for which there is still a lag of a couple years).

I’ve included data for all available years, other than 1969 and a couple years in the early 1970s because the numbers were calculated differently then.

These represent the total enrollments for courses labeled “Mandarin” or some form of “Chinese” (including “classical” but excluding modern languages such as Cantonese, Taiwanese, etc.). Failure to add the sometimes separately categorized “Mandarin” to the figures for “Chinese” would produce the wrong results.

As can be seen in the graph below, over the most recent period (2009–2013) growth in enrollments in Mandarin in U.S. universities basically came to a halt, increasing just 0.6 percent. I do not expect a return to the dramatic increases common before 2009.

graph of enrollments in Mandarin Chinese in U.S. universities, including 26,471 in 1995, 28,456 in 1998, 34,153 in 2002, 51,381 in 2006, 61,612 in 2009, and 61,968 in 2013
Click to enlarge.

Remembering Hu Shih: 1891-1962

black and white photo of the face of Hu Shih (??)

Hú Shì
17 December 1891 — 24 February 1962

Today, on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Hu Shih (Hú Shì/??/??), I’d like to say a few things in his memory. This is, after all, someone I regard as a hero in many ways. I even keep a photo of him in my office.

The opening of the preface to a splendid new biography of Hu Shih covers the basics:

Hu Shi (1891–1962), “the Father of the Chinese Renaissance,” towered over China’s intellectual landscape in the first half of the twentieth century. Among other achievements, he is credited with having made everyday speech respectable as a medium of written communication. Groomed as a traditional scholar-bureaucrat in his father’s footsteps, he had already turned into an iconoclastic renegade by the time he left Shanghai at the age of eighteen to study in the United States. In John Dewey, whose approach to philosophy was to treat all doctrines as working hypotheses, Hu felt he found “the proper way to think.” He and his associates who studied with Dewey at Columbia University established the framework of China’s modern educational system. A dedicated humanist, social reformer and promoter of women rights, he was, at different periods of his life, president of Peking University, president of the Academia Sinica, and ambassador to Washington.

To return to the most important point, at least in terms of the focus of this site, it was he, more than anyone else, who helped break the stranglehold of Literary Sinitic (a.k.a. classical Chinese). The vernacular movement he spearheaded is of far greater significance and has had a much greater impact on Chinese culture and people’s lives than so-called character simplification. Yet it receives relatively little attention, perhaps because many do not understand — or do not want to admit — how very different Literary Sinitic is from modern standard Mandarin.

Hu Shih is also the one who, more than anyone else, popularized the use of modern punctuation in Chinese texts, such as through his book Zh?ngguó Zhéxuésh? Dàg?ng and his editions of earlier works. That alone should be enough to earn him the eternal gratitude of all who read texts written in Chinese characters.

There’s so much more to the man than this, though most of it falls outside the bounds of this site. So rather than go into it here I will just encourage people to read more by and about him.

Shortly after Hu Shih’s death his son wrote:

father passed away during a cocktail party in honor of the members of the Academia Sinica after the completion of the members’ meeting. He passed away without any pain, and from every one present at the party, I gathered that he died happy, for the last words he said was, “Let’s have some drinks!”

I lift my glass.

Further reading:

dàd?n ji?shè

xi?ox?n qiúzhèng
N? bùnéng zuò w? de sh?,
zhèngrú w? bùnéng zuò n? de mèng.

—Hú Shì
from “Mèng y? Sh?” (???)

Oxford Chinese Dictionary goes online

cover image of the Oxford Chinese DictionaryOxford University Press has just announced that its massive Oxford Chinese Dictionary is now available through its Oxford Language Dictionaries Online subscription service.

I haven’t seen the online version yet myself; but from the publisher’s description it appears to be largely the same as the published edition, whose paucity of Pinyin is disappointing. The publisher, however, is promising that “Pinyin will be added to all Chinese translations” in November, which should be a major step forward.

Perhaps some of you at universities have institutional access. I would welcome reports.

source: What’s New, Oxford Language Dictionaries Online, May 2011.

US grad enrollments in Mandarin fall

Although the number of people studying Mandarin in the United States has continued to rise (more about that in a later post), enrollments there in graduate courses in Mandarin have declined.

No. of U.S. Graduate School Enrollments in Mandarin from 1998 to 2009

(year: enrollments): 1998: 1220, 2002: 934, 2006: 1127, 2009: 1009

Grad School Enrollments in Mandarin as a Percentage of Total U.S. Post-Secondary Enrollments in Mandarin

1998: 5.15%, 2002: 3.35%, 2006: 2.63%, 2009: 1.96%

Here’s something I wrote the last time I addressed this topic.

The much-ballyhooed but also much-deserved increase in students studying Mandarin has all been at the undergraduate level. Given that the grad enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment for Mandarin is about the same as that for French (2.63 percent and 2.73 percent, respectively) it might appear that Mandarin has simply reached a “normal” ratio in this regard. But native speakers of English generally need much more time to master Mandarin than to master French. Simply put, four years, say, of post-secondary study of French provides students with a much greater level of fluency than four years of post-secondary study of Mandarin.

Also, there is a great deal more work that needs to be done in terms of translations from Mandarin. I do not at all mean to belittle the work being done in French — or in any other language…. I just mean that Mandarin has historically been underrepresented in U.S. universities given the number of speakers it has and its body of texts that have not yet been translated into English. U.S. universities need to be producing many more qualified grad students who can handle this specialized work. And right now, unfortunately, that’s not happening.

That still holds, except that grad enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment for Mandarin is even lower than before (1.96% vs. 2.37% for French, 1.99% for Spanish, and an impressive 4.68% for Korean).


Wenlin releases major upgrade (4.0)

Wenlin logoOne of my favorite programs, Wenlin (which bills itself as “software for learning Chinese”), has just released a major upgrade for both Mac and Windows versions. This doesn’t happen often; it has been three-and-a-half years since the most recent big change was issued (Wenlin 3.4) and heaven only knows how long since 3.0 came out. So, yes, this release has many substantial improvements.

One of the features nearest and dearest to my heart is that Wenlin 4.0 features greatly improved handling of Pinyin. I was among the field testers for the new version, so I’ve already spent a lot of time examining this feature. Here are a few important aspects of this:

  • Conversions from Chinese characters follow Hanyu Pinyin orthography much more closely than before. This is a major change for the better. (There’s still some room for improvement. But I don’t think we’ll have to wait years for this.)
  • In the past, using Wenlin to convert long texts in Chinese characters into Pinyin could be a real chore, with users having to examine example after example of Chinese characters with multiple pronunciations in order to select the proper pronunciation for that particular context. But now users may, if they so desire, tell Wenlin not to ask users for disambiguation input. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Wenlin will always guess right; but many users will be happy that this trade-off allows them to skip the frustration of, for example, having to tell the program over and over and over that, yes, in this case ? is pronounced shu? rather than shuì.
  • Relative newcomers to Mandarin may appreciate that for common words tone sandhi is indicated in Wenlin with additional marks (a dot or line below the vowel). This feature can also be turned off, for those who want standard Pinyin.

There are, of course, many improvements beyond the area of Pinyin. Here are a few:

  • One limitation of Wenlin 3.x was that its English dictionary wasn’t very large. But Wenlin 4.0 includes not only the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary but also the excellent new ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary (now finally in stock in the printed version).
  • The flashcards are now set up to handle not just individual characters but polysyllabic words.
  • There’s full Unicode Unihan 6.0 support for more than 75,000 Chinese characters.
  • And for those who think 75,000 just isn’t enough, users can now access Wenlin’s CDL technology. Through this, users can create new, variant, and rare characters; moreover, these can be published and shared with other Wenlin users or CDL-friendly devices.
  • Seal script versions of more than 11,000 characters are provided.
  • Wenlin contains an e-edition of the Shuowen Jiezi (Shu?wén Ji?zì / ???? / ????).
  • Coders will be interested to know that Wenlin appears to be headed toward becoming open-source.
  • Both Mandarin and English entries are marked with grade levels, which aids learners by indicating relative frequency of use. The levels for Mandarin words are based on the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (Hàny? Sh?ipíng K?oshì / ?????? / ?????? / HSK).

The full version (i.e., the CD with the program comes in a box and is likely packaged with a hard copy of the manual) is US$199, or US$179 if you download it from the Wenlin Web store. Upgrades from 3.x cost US$49.

For more information, see the summary of features and outline of what’s new in Wenlin 4.0.

screenshot from Wenlin 4.0 -- click for larger version

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 / ???) 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 ?1?1?1?3?2?3??3?2??3?3??3?1?1?1??1?3?3?1??2?3?1?3??3?1?3??3?3?3?1?1?1??3?1?1??2?1?3?3??2?2?3?3?1?3??3?3?3??3?1?3?3…… was written by Mr. M. T. Hu. (Similar homonymic passages can be constructed in other dialects.) If we paraphrase it as in ????????????????????, 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.

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., 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 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 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, 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, 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.

Le Grand Ricci now available on DVD

cover of le Grand Ricci numeriqueThe magnificent Grand dictionnaire Ricci de la langue chinoise, better known as le Grand Ricci, has just been released on DVD, almost a decade after its release in book form and exactly four hundred years after the death of Matteo Ricci.

The list price is 120 euros (about US$150), which is much cheaper than the printed edition. A long video in French (16:31) discusses the work. For those who would prefer something in English, a PDF gives background information on the dictionary project.

For a sample of the dictionary’s format and entries, see the 25 pages of entries for shan. Alas, as this example shows, the entries are not word parsed. But at least Hanyu Pinyin is now available for those who prefer it to Wade-Giles.

As long as I’m mentioning Ricci-related work, I might as well use the occasion to note that the Taipei Ricci Institute is putting its collection of books on permanent loan to Taiwan’s National Central Library.

Also, I’d like to note that parts of Matteo Ricci’s original dictionary can now be viewed through the Google Books scan of a publication from earlier this century of his Dicionário Português-Chinês.


image from a manuscript page of Ricci's original dictionary