A new look at early character forms

Cover of the book: 'Orthography of Early Chinese Writing'A review in a recent journal issue focusing on romanization led me to discover online the entire text of an interesting new book: Orthography of Early Chinese Writing: Evidence from Newly Excavated Manuscripts, by Imre Galambos.

This gives an idea of what the book covers:

Beside offering a more useful approach to both studying Warring States manuscripts and variant character forms in general, this study sheds new light on the development of the Chinese script, its transition into the clerical script stage, and the reality of the Qin reforms. The variability of Warring States character forms demonstrates that Chinese characters evolved not along a linear path that stretched from the oracle-bone inscriptions to the modern script but followed a complex process involving distinct cultures and languages. The “fuzziness” of the line of evolution with respect to the spoken languages and dialects of ancient China raises questions regarding the national identity of the Chinese script. A related issue is how far can one go back in time and say with certainty that the various scripts were not only the predecessors of the Chinese script but were in fact Chinese.

Some numbers for searches:

  • ISBN 963 463 811 2
  • ISSN 1787-7482

angling through dictionaries

The most recent rerelease from Sino-Platonic Papers is Tiao-Fish through Chinese Dictionaries (4.3 MB PDF), by Michael Carr.

The tiáo < d’ieu < *d’iôg fish, a classical Chinese happiness metaphor, has been contradictorily identified as a chub, culter, dace, eel, goby, hairtail, hemiculter, loach, mullet, paddlefish, and pike. This paper illustrates the history of Chinese lexicography by comparing tiáo definitions from thirty-five Chinese monolingual dictionaries with tiáo translation equivalents from sixteen Japanese and seventeen Western language bilingual ones.

As Carr explains, “The tiáo fish provides a historical microcosm of Chinese lexicography because every principal dictionary defines it, and because *DZIOG‘s multifarious pronunciations and writings illustrate some unique linguistic problems in Chinese dictionaries.”

This was first published in September 1993 as issue no. 40 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

some tiao fish

Y.R. Chao’s responses to arguments against romanization

Y.R. Chao. Also, FWIW, Wikipedia took this image from Pinyin.Info, not the other way around.Pinyin.Info has a new reading: Responses to objections to romanization, written by the brilliant linguist Y.R. Chao in 1916, when he was a young man of 24.

It’s an unfortunate irony that another writing associated with Chao, the famous “stone lions” (a.k.a. shi, shi, shi) piece, is often mistakenly cited as evidence that the author opposed romanization. In fact, Chao favored using romanization for Mandarin, as his essay reveals.

It’s written in the form of 16 “objections,” each followed by Chao’s reply. For example:

Obj. 8 Alphabetized Chinese loses its etymology.

Rep. 8 This argument is like that often urged against simplified English spelling and is to be met similarly. In actual usage, how much attention do we give to etymology in words like ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, through, draught, etiquette, row, disaster? Of how many of these very common words do you know the original meaning? It is not to be denied, of course, that it is useful to know the etymology of words by looking them up, and our future dictionaries of alphabetized polysyllabic words should no doubt give their derivations.

The etymology of disaster (which is pretty cool) is certainly easy enough for an educated person to guess, if you stop to think about it. But I must admit I never had.

I have added notes following the text.

Writing Taiwanese: 1999 study

This seems as good an announcement as any to end my hiatus from posting. Sino-Platonic Papers has just rereleased a popular issue of likely interest to many readers of Pinyin News: Writing Taiwanese: The Development of Modern Written Taiwanese (2.2 MB PDF), by Alvin Lin.

The table of contents gives a pretty good picture of what’s inside:

The Status Quo: Characters and Taiwanese writing

  1. The Roots of Writing in Taiwanese: Wenyan, baihua and academic Taiwanese
  2. The Missing 15 Percent: Developing a written vernacular
  3. One Attempt at Finding the Missing 15 Percent: Yang Qingchu’s Mandarin-Taiwanese Dictionary

Writing Romanized Taiwanese

  1. The Roots of Romanized Taiwanese: Church Romanization
  2. Church Romanization Today: The Taigu listserver
  3. An Indigenous System: Liim Keahioong and Modern Literal Taiwanese

Linguistic and Social Considerations

  1. Some Linguistic Classifications
  2. Dealing with Homonyms: Morphophonemic spelling
  3. Tones in Taiwanese: Surface vs. Lexical tones
  4. Representing Dialects: Picking a standard written form or representing all dialects
  5. Summary of Linguistic Concerns: Deciding the degree of coding
  6. Writing, Reading, Printing, Computing, Indexing and other Practical Concerns
  7. Social Concerns: Tradition and Political Meaning
  8. Conclusion: Future Orthography Policy on Taiwan


  • Email Survey
  • Pronunciation guide to church romanization

List of Tables and Illustrations:

  • Table 1: Suggested Characters for Taiwanese Morphemes from Three Sources
  • Figure 1: Yang Qingchu’s Taiwanese-Mandarin Dictionary
  • Figure 2: Church romanization
  • Figure 3: Modern Literal Taiwanese
  • Figure 4: Sample e-mail from Taigu listserver

This was first published in 1999 as issue number 89 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

writing four-syllable idioms in Pinyin

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyThe latest excerpt from Yin Binyong’s book on Pinyin orthography covers how to write four-syllable idioms in Hanyu Pinyin (929 KB PDF). Here’s a key passage:

almost all four-character idioms can be broken in two halves, called y?jié ?? (language segments), on the basis of phonetic structure. The simple expedient of connecting the two y?jié with a hyphen then provides idioms with their own distinctive written form, and assures ease of writing and reading. It is also a simple rule for students of HP to master.

But not all four-syllable idioms follow this rule, as the reading shows.

This is a worthwhile reading for Mandarin learners, even if you’re not particularly interested in Pinyin. There are many examples of idioms here, all given in Hanzi, Pinyin, and English.

Penghu street signs

My wife and I recently spent a weekend in Penghu, a beautiful, stark archipelago between the main island of Taiwan and China.

Since Penghu is under KMT rule, I expected to find street signs in Magong, the capital, in some old system (e.g., MPS2 or perhaps bastardized Wade-Giles) or perhaps even Hanyu Pinyin. (Highway signs, however, are a different matter. They’re put up by the central government, which means that relatively recent ones are in Tongyong Pinyin, regardless of which party might control the area.)

This first street sign, however, is unmistakably in Tongyong Pinyin, giving “Wunsyue” (for what in Hanyu Pinyin would be “Wenxue”).
street sign reading 'Wunsyue Rd.' (Wenxue Road)

But I looked around some more and saw signs in Hanyu Pinyin, such as “Huimin” for what in Tongyong would be “Hueimin” and “Hui[‘]an” for what in Tongyong would be “Huei[-]an.”
street sign reading 'Huimin Road'

street sign reading 'Huian first Road'

So were there some signs in Hanyu Pinyin after all? Apparently only coincidentally. The previous two hui signs were probably just a mistake, the result of Taiwan’s standard, sloppy chabuduo jiu keyi approach to signage. Here’s a sign on the same street as above; but in this case “?” is romanized huei and not hui. (And “first” is missing, from both the Hanzi and romanization.)
street sign reading 'Hueian Rd.'

Most signs were in Tongyong, such as these. (Note that Penghu, too, has a Hot Milk Road.)
street signs: 'Jhongjheng Road' (Zhongzheng Road) and 'Renai Road' (Ren'ai Road)

So, Tongyong after all. Well, at least they don’t have InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion … or do they?
street signs reading 'JhongShan Rd.' -- note InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion -- (Zhongshan Road) and 'Jhongjheng Rd.' (Zhongzheng Road) -- no intercapping

Fortunately, that sign was a one-off. I didn’t spot InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion elsewhere. Here’s another sign from the same road:
street sign reading 'Jhongshan Rd.' (Zhongshan Road)

So, in short, Penghu’s street signs are in Tongyong Pinyin — but with plenty of mistakes and inconsistencies (e.g., missing apostrophes/hyphens, “first” rather than “1st”, and both “Road” and “Rd.”). It’s especially ridiculous that the KMT-administered Penghu bothered with Tongyong, especially since it was free to adopt Hanyu Pinyin. Now it’s going to have to change its signs over to Hanyu Pinyin. But some of the signs would need to be updated anyway, since many already show signs of age, with letters missing. (My guess is that Penghu put up such low-quality signs that in the annual windy season some of the letters just get blown away.)

Here’s a sign in little danger of having its writing blow away any time soon. This is what a much older Magong street sign looks like. Note that it must be read from right to left: ??? (Fuguo Road — “Recover Atlantis the Lost Country Road”).
old concrete street sign reading, right to left, '???' (Fuguo Road)

Finally, here’s something that isn’t a street sign at all. But it is nonetheless a sign of historic importance, since it’s a stela that commemorates the Ming Chinese official Shen Yourong telling the red-haired barbarians (i.e., Westerners — in this case, the Dutch) to get the hell out of Penghu. (The Dutch were told they could instead go to Taiwan, since back then China didn’t care about it in the least.) The composite photo shows both the 400-year-old stone original and a modern reproduction in wood.

photos of the original stone stela and a modern reproduction in wood

The text reads “Sh?n Y?uróng yù tuì hóngmáo f?n[zi] Wéimálàng d?ng” (??????????????): “Shen Yourong orders the red-haired foreigners under [Dutch commander] Wybrand van Warwijck to withdraw.”

Sino-Tibetan, Indo-European, and the word for ‘wheel’

The latest rerelease from Sino-Platonic Papers is “Sino-Tibetan *kolo ‘Wheel‘” (800 KB PDF), by Robert S. Bauer. Those of you who like historical linguistics should be sure to read this one.


That the horse-drawn chariot appeared suddenly in China in the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1500-1066 BC) has led some Western scholars to believe that it was not independently invented by the Chinese but was introduced there by Western invaders. This paper is based on the premise that there is a connection between the transmission of the horse-drawn chariot from the West into China and the origin of some words meaning “wheel” and “wheeled-vehicle” in Sino-Tibetan languages. In particular, the paper proposes that words for “wheel” in some northern Chinese dialects and Bodic (Tibetan) languages are ultimately derived from an Indo-European source. On the basis of the comparison of words for “wheel” from various Sinitic and Bodic languages, the author has reconstructed the Proto-Sino-Tibetan root *kolo “wheel” which is itself an Indo-European contact loanword.

This was first published in August 1994 as issue no. 47 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

The Art of War: a companion volume

Sonshi, the largest website dedicated to Sun Zi’s (Sun Tzu’s) Art of War, recently selected Victor H. Mair’s new translation as “the #1 Art of War edition.”

In announcing its judgment, the site stated, “how rare a book that courageously stands up to centuries of established thought, proceeds to knock it down with sound logic and proof, and succeeds in convincing even the Old Guard to change their views.”

Professor Mair has just published a free, book-length companion to his translation: Soldierly Methods: Vade Mecum for an Iconoclastic Translation of Sun Zi bingfa, with a complete transcription and word-for-word glosses of the Manchu translation by H. T. Toh (1 MB PDF).

Yes, all that and Manchu too. The appendixes might well supply the longest text in romanized Manchu available online — not to mention the longest one with English translation. (Perhaps someone from Echoes of Manchu can comment.)

And I’d like to note the introduction to the transcription offers a cool word I hadn’t come across before: Mandjurist, which is German for “Manchu philologist.”

Here’s the table of contents:

  • Preface
  • Principles of Translation
  • Guide to Pronunciation
  • Key Terms
  • Abbreviations
  • Discussion
    • The Book and Its Title
    • Authorship
    • Historical Background
    • Dating
    • Stylistics and Statistics
    • Techniques and Technology
    • Taoistic Aspects
    • Eurasian Parallels
    • On the World Stage
    • Notes
  • Appendix I: The Pseudo-Biography of Sun Wu
  • Appendix II: Further Notes on Selected Key Terms
  • Appendix III: Transcription of the Manchu Translation of the Sun Zi with Word-for-Word English Glosses by Hoong Teik Toh
  • Appendix IV: Transcription of the Manchu Translation of the Sun Zi by Hoong Teik Toh
  • Bibliography

This is issue no. 178 of Sino-Platonic Papers.