New database of cross-strait differences in Mandarin goes online

Last week, on the same day President Ma Ying-jeou accepted the resignation of a minister who made some drunken lewd remarks at a w?iyá (year-end office party), Ma was joking to the media about blow jobs.


screenshot from a video of a news story on this

But it was all for a good cause, of course. You see, the Mandarin expression chu? l?ba, when not referring to the literal playing of a trumpet, is usually taken in Taiwan to refer to a blow job. But in China, Ma explained, chu? l?ba means the same thing as the idiom p?i m?pì (pat/kiss the horse’s ass — i.e., flatter). And now that we have the handy-dandy Zh?nghuá Y?wén Zh?shikù (Chinese Language Database), which Ma was announcing, we can look up how Mandarin differs in Taiwan and China, and thus not get tripped up by such misunderstandings. Or at least that’s supposed to be the idea.

The database, which is the result of cross-strait cooperation, can be accessed via two sites: one in Taiwan, the other in China.

It’s clear that a lot of money has been spent on this. For example, many entries are accompanied by well-documented, precise explanations by distinguished lexicographers. Ha! Just kidding! Many entries are really accompanied by videos — some two hundred of them — of cutesy puppets gabbing about cross-strait differences in Mandarin expressions. But if there’s a video in there of the panda in the skirt explaining to the sheep in the vest that a useful skill for getting ahead in Chinese society is chu? l?ba, I haven’t found it yet. Will NMA will take up the challenge?

Much of the site emphasizes not so much language as Chinese characters. For example, another expensively produced video feeds the ideographic myth by showing off obscure Hanzi, such as the one for ch?ng.

WARNING: The screenshot below links to a video that contains scenes with intense wawa-ing and thus may not be suitable for anyone who thinks it’s not really cute for grown women to try to sound like they’re only thwee-and-a-half years old.


In a welcome bit of synchronicity, Victor Mair posted on Language Log earlier the same week on the unpredictability of Chinese character formation and pronunciation, briefly discussing just such patterns of duplication, triplication, etc.

Mair notes:

Most of these characters are of relatively low frequency and, except for a few of them, neither their meanings nor their pronunciations are known by persons of average literacy.

Many more such characters consisting or two, three, or four repetitions of the same character exist, and their sounds and meanings are in most cases equally or more opaque.

The Hanzi for ch?ng (which looks like ??? run together as one character) in the video above is sufficiently obscure that it likely won’t be shown correctly in many browsers on most systems when written in real text: ????. But never fear: It’s already in Unicode and so should be appearing one of these years in a massively bloated system font.

Further reinforcing the impression that the focus is on Chinese characters, Liú Zhàoxuán, who is the head of the association in charge of the project on the Taiwan side, equated traditional Chinese characters with Chinese culture itself and declared that getting the masses in China to recognize them is an important mission. (Liu really needs to read Lü Shuxiang’s “Comparing Chinese Characters and a Chinese Spelling Script — an evening conversation on the reform of Chinese characters.”)

Then he went on about how Chinese characters are a great system because, supposedly, they have a one-to-one correspondence with language that other scripts cannot match and people can know what they mean by looking at them (!) and that they therefore have a high degree of artistic quality (g?odù de yìshùxìng). Basically, the person in charge of this project seems to have a bad case of the Like Wow syndrome, which is not a reassuring trait for someone in charge of producing a dictionary.

The same cooperation that built the Web sites led to a new book, Li?ng’àn M?irì Y? Cí (???????? / Roughly: Cross-Strait Term-a-Day Book), which was also touted at the press conference.

The book contains Hanyu Pinyin, as well as zhuyin fuhao. But, alas, the book makes the Pinyin look ugly and fails completely at the first rule of Pinyin: use word parsing. (In the online images from the book, such as the one below, all of the words are se pa ra ted in to syl la bles.)

The Web site also has ugly Pinyin, with the CSS file for the Taiwan site calling for Pinyin to be shown in SimSun, which is one of the fonts it’s better not to use for Pinyin. But the word parsing on the Web site is at least not always wrong. Here are a few examples.

  • “???” is given as p?oshénr (good).
  • And apostrophes appear to be used correctly: e.g., fàn’?n (??), ch?n’?n (??), and f?i’?n (??).
  • But “???” is run together as “dìèrch?n” (no hyphen) rather than as shown correctly as dì-èr ch?n.
  • And “??????” is given as yí?e tóu li?n??e dà (for Taiwan) and y??e tóu li?n??e dà (for China). But ge is supposed to be written separately. (The variation of tone for yi is in this case useful.)

Still, my general impression from this is that we should not expect the forthcoming cross-strait dictionary to be very good.

Further reading:

Pinyin font: MarkerScript

If you need a font for Pinyin graffiti, one possible choice is MarkerScript, which is donationware. The dots over the i’s can resemble tone marks even when they’re not; but with the material best suited to this sort of font there’s probably not much chance that people won’t know just what you mean.

Shei zai haipa Ai Weiwei?

additional sample

Pinyin Dongwuyuan: an illustrated Pinyin alphabet

Here’s a new book I made for fun: P?ny?n Dòngwùyuán (4.3 MB PDF).

It goes through the letters of the alphabet: A is for ?nchun, B is for b?nm?, C is for chángj?nglù, etc., all the way through Z, which is for zh?ngyú.

But X is not for xióngm?o. I’m sick of pandas. Let’s let some other animals have some time in the spotlight.

Although technically speaking the Pinyin alphabet is the same as that for English, I prefer to go with A–Z, minus V but plus Ü.

O and R were the tricky ones to find animals for.

Perhaps some teachers will print this out and hang it up in their classrooms. Or kids could use it as a coloring book. You have my permission to do just about anything you like with this — other than add Chinese characters. (The world already has plenty of material in Hanzi, but not nearly enough in Pinyin.)

I made sure to include multiples of some common morphemes (e.g., b?nm?, h?im?, and m?; è and zh?ng; h?im? and h?i’?u; niú, w?niú, and x?niú), which I hope will be useful.

For fonts, I used the Linux Libertine family.

This took me far longer to make than I thought it would, so I hope some people enjoy it or at least find it interesting.

Pinyin font: Linux Libertine

Linux Libertine in Wikipedia logoLinux Libertine is perhaps most familiar as the font used in the Wikipedia logo. This surprisingly large font family also works well with Hanyu Pinyin, though a few adjustments need to be made before all of the fonts in this family work as they should with Pinyin texts.

Here’s how those working on Linux Libertine describe it:

We work on a versatile font family. It is designed to give you an alternative for fonts like T*mes New Roman. We’re creating free software and publish our fonts under terms of the GPL and OFL. Please have a look at the paragraph concerning the license.

It is our aim to support the many western languages and provide many special characters. Our fonts cover the codepages of Western Latin, Greek, Cyrillic (with their specific enhancements), Hebrew, IPA and many more. Furthermore, typographical features such as ligatures, small capitals, different number styles, scientific symbols, etc. are implemented in this font. Linux Libertine thus contains more than 2000 characters.

Here’s what it looks like with Pinyin. (Click to view a PDF, which is much clearer.)
screenshot of Linux Libertine in action on Pinyin text

image of a rhinocerous (xiniu) and the word 'xiniu' in Linux Libertine

All in all: Not bad.

Botanical descriptions: English at last

Camellia Japonica. Rose Camellia.As of the beginning of this year, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature no longer compels botanists to write descriptions of new species in Latin. Instead, they can opt for English, though the names of the species themselves will still be given in Latin.

As James S. Miller, dean and vice president for science at the New York Botanical Garden, noted in the New York Times earlier this week:

No longer will botanists have to write sentences like: “Arbor usque ad 6 m alta. Folia decidua; lamina oblanceolata vel elliptica-oblongata, 2-7 cm longa,” as I did in 2009, describing a new species from Mexico. Instead, I could simply write that Bourreria motaguensis was a six-meter-tall tree with deciduous leaves that were 2 to 7 centimeters long.

The change “will help to speed up the race to catalog the world’s plant life,” he added.

Elsewhere, plant biologist Jerrold Davis of Cornell University was quoted as saying that he did not think the permitted switch to English would speed things up. Nevertheless, he called the move an “overdue modernization.”

Mark Watson, of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden and secretary of the International Botanical Congress’ special committee on electronic publication, expressed the same sentiment, saying of the move away from Latin, “About time too,” adding that translation into Latin is not necessarily an easy task for researchers in countries such as China.

Davis noted, “The removal of the Latin requirement is an acceptance that English has become the language of science, and Latin has become an encumbrance rather than a facilitator of communication” [emphasis added].

Even if it does not accelerate the publishing process, the end of the Latin requirement may allow for greater inclusion of scientists from countries where education rarely includes instruction in classical languages. According to Sandra Knapp, a botanist with the Natural History Museum in London: “In places like Ethiopia, for example, people are finding it very difficult to write in Latin. But in reality everybody’s bad at it.” [emphasis added]

cover of the book _Latin, or, The Empire of a Sign_, by Francoise WaquetIn case you’re wondering why I’m writing about Latin and English on a blog that focuses mainly on Pinyin and Sinitic languages, I’m struck by the parallels between the position of Latin in the West (see Françoise Waquet’s terrific Latin, or, The Empire of a Sign: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries) and (1) notions of Literary Sinitic (a.k.a. “classical Chinese”) in the Sinosphere and (2) beliefs in the efficacy of Chinese characters despite extensive problems with their near-exclusive use as a script for Mandarin. I’m pleased that scientists no longer are forced to follow a tradition that many found cumbersome and outdated.

Another noteworthy modernization in the world of scientific botany is that the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature now also recognizes publication in online academic journals as valid; print publication is no longer required.

Sources and further reading:

Editions of Latin, or, The empire of a sign, by Françoise Waquet:

Just a random sampling of Latin from Linnaeus -- this has nothing in particular to do with the flower above

just another random example of Latin in the field of botany

Some fonts *not* to use for Pinyin

One of the traditions in advance of Chinese New Year is housecleaning — something not among my favorite activities. But I thought I’d do a bit of housecleaning of half-finished posts and get at least one up before the new year (tomorrow). So here it is.

Although I occasionally bemoan the fact that relatively few font families are made such that they can handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks (at least not right out of the box), it’s worth noting that some of the commonly found fonts that do cover all of the letters and diacritics really suck at it and should be avoided when writing in Pinyin.

Typically, such fonts were designed mainly with Hanzi in mind.

Here’s one example:
screenshot of a Pinyin text set in Adobe Ming -- and, boy oh boy, is it ever hideous


That was Adobe Ming. Yes, Adobe.

I’ll go ahead and point out the obvious problems:

And I’m not so sure about the consistency of the x-height either. Those stubby little descenders are puzzling, too, but are not necessarily wrong.

Perhaps the designers intended these letters for use in vertically aligned text — though I don’t think these forms would work well even then. Perhaps there’s some context in which these might make sense, though I’m inclined to doubt this. Perhaps the designers have an irrational hatred of romanization and wanted to make Pinyin look as ugly as possible. Whatever the reason, even though this and the other Unicode-compliant fonts below have all of the letters with diacritics that Pinyin requires, using them for Pinyin texts would be a very bad idea.

Since there is apparently still some confusion about why the “?” form (in contrast to the normal “a” form) is incorrect, see the chart below.

table showing that the fonts discussed in this post that use the rounded style for the letter 'a' do so only with diacritics, not elsewhere. This is wrong. The rounded a's should not be used at all.

Note how the odd form of the letter a does not appear in regular text or even in double-width forms; instead, it’s seen only when accompanied by a tone mark. In other words, even within individual fonts the ? form is treated not as a normal “a” that happens to look that way but as something specifically for Pinyin, which is flat-out wrong. Other than the addition of diacritics themselves, there is no reason to alter letter shapes in any way for Pinyin.

Let’s get back to the broader issue. Here are some more examples of fonts that render Pinyin in ugly ways. (Click image to view PDF.)

click to view PDF with much larger and clearer text

To aid Web searches, here’s a text list of the fonts above, none of which should be used for Hanyu Pinyin:

  • Adobe Fangsong Std
  • Adobe Heiti Std
  • Adobe Kaiti Std
  • Adobe Ming Std
  • Adobe Song Std
  • MS Gothic
  • MS Mincho
  • MS PGothic
  • MS PMincho
  • MS UI Gothic
  • NSimSun
  • SimHei
  • SimSun

SimSun is probably the least awful of the bunch. But even so, there’s no good reason to use it instead of something else that would do the job much better, such as Gentium:
screenshot of the same Pinyin text, but this one is set in Gentium -- and it looks great

Generally speaking, if you wouldn’t want to use a font for English, French, Italian, etc., then don’t use it for Hanyu Pinyin.

Say no to making Pinyin ugly!

I wish you all a happy and P?ny?n-rich year of the dragon.

It’s Poetry Time

Shì shíhou le

Shì shíhou le, Zh?ngguórén! Shì shíhou le
Gu?ngch?ng shì dàji? de
Ji?o shì zìj? de
Shì shíhou yòng ji?o qù gu?ngch?ng zuòch? xu?nzé

Shì shíhou le, Zh?ngguórén! Shì shíhou le
G?q? shì dàji? de
Hóu[lóng] shì zìj? de
Shì shíhou yòng hóu[lóng] chàngch? x?nd? de g?q?

Shì shíhou le, Zh?ngguórén! Shì shíhou le
Zh?ngguó shì dàji? de
Xu?nzé shì zìj? de
Shì shíhou yòng zìj? xu?nzé wèilái de Zh?ngguó

—Zh? Yúf? (??? / Zhu Yufu), recently arrested in China for just this poem

Thanks to VHM for finding the full text of this poem for me.