Remembering Y.R. Chao: 1892-1982

Y.R. Chao

Y.R. Chao
November 3, 1892 – February 25, 1982

Today, the thirtieth anniversary of the death of the brilliant linguist and all-around interesting guy Y.R. Chao (Zhao Yuanren / Zhào Yuánrèn / ??? / ???), I’m remembering him by rereading some of his work. (Chao died twenty years and one day after his good friend Hu Shih.)

Here are some readings here on by or about Y.R. Chao that you may wish to review:

Xin Tang no. 1: articles in Gwoyeu Romatzyh

click to view the PDFI’ve just put up another issue of Xin Tang.

As you may have noticed already, the name on the cover is given not as Xin Tang but as Shin Tarng. That’s because the journal started out being published in the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system. But using the Hanyu Pinyin spelling here helps me keep track of these better.

Almost all of this issue is in Mandarin written in Gwoyeu Romatzyh. One article also has an en face translation into English. And as is the case with the other issues of Xin Tang, a variety of topics are covered.

Shin Tarng no. 1 (September/Ji?yuè 1982)

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.

books bought in Beijing

cover of a book by Zhou YouguangI didn’t have any luck finding anything in Sin Wenz (Lādīnghuà Xīn Wénzì / 拉丁化新文字), despite trips to several large used book stores. (Fortunately, the Internet is now providing some leads. Thanks, Brendan and Joel!) But I did find some other books to bring home.

I acquired lots of books by Zhou Youguang, not all of which focus primarily on linguistics:

Other than the Zhou Youguang books, here are my favorite finds of the trip, as they are for the most part in correctly word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin (with Hanzi underneath), along with a few notes in English:

I’ll soon be posting more about the above books with Pinyin, so watch this site for updates. Really, this is gonna be good.

Although this collection of Y.R. Chao says it’s volume 15, it’s actually two books:

  • Zhào Yuánrèn quánjí, dì 15 juàn (趙元任全集第15卷)

Some more titles:

  • Measured Words: The Development of Objective Language Testing, by Bernard Spolsky
  • Pǔtōnghuà shuǐpíng cèshì shíshī gāngyào (普通話水平測試實施綱要). Now with the great smell of beer! Sorry, Brendan, I owe you one — more than one, actually.

The following I bought because Yin Binyong, the scholar primarily responsible for Hanyu Pinyin’s orthography, is the author of these titles from Sinolingua’s series of Bógǔtōngjīn xué Hànyǔ cóngshū (“Gems of the Chinese Language through the Ages” (their translation)), all of which are in Mandarin (Hanzi) and English, with Pinyin only for the sayings being illustrated:

cover of 'Chinese-English Dictionary of Polyphonic Characters' (多音多义字汉英词典)cover of 'Putonghua shuiping ceshi shishi gangyao' (普通話水平測試實施綱要)cover of 'Xinhua pinxie cidian'


And finally:

Of course I already have that one — more than one copy, in fact. But it’s always good to have more than one spare when it comes to one of the two most important books on Pinyin orthography. I really need to follow up on my requests to use excerpts from this book, as it is the only major title missing from my list of romanization-related books (though it’s in Mandarin only).

sign in a Beijing bookstore reading 'Education Theury' [sic]

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 學, 暴, 發, 旋, 之, 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.