‘language with no boundaries’

I read today that scientists in Japan have demonstrated that paddy birds are able to distinguish between English and Mandarin — well, at least if they’re given an incentive to do so. The researchers didn’t use Japanese because the birds were already used to hearing that language.

This might have implications beyond just the category of “hmm, researchers have been spending a lot of time playing recordings of English and Mandarin Chinese translations of Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) and Wagahai wa Neko de Aru (I Am a Cat)(?!) to birds.”

“Humans are able to distinguish between languages, even ones they don’t know, from the intonation and pronunciation, and it seems that paddy birds have the same ability,” [Keio University professor Shigeru] Watanabe said. “If we study common traits, such as brain structure, this may shed light on the mechanisms of speech recognition.”

According to the article, monkeys, mice, and other mammals have already been shown to have the ability to distinguish between a variety of languages, but this is “the first time that birds have been scientifically found to possess the same ability.”

Mammals distinguishing between languages brings to mind the much-reported efforts of the PRC to push some pandas on Taiwan, which took a turn toward the silly last month when China announced the pandas were being “taught” Taiwanese/Hoklo/Hokkien (or the Minnan dialect [sic], as China likes to refer to it).

“We began our language training with songs because music is a language with no boundaries,” said Li, the 25-year-old keeper who has taken care of No.19 since he was born.

“Girls are more gifted than boys in learning languages,” said Xu, No.16’s keeper, adding that the female cub began to react when they translated her nickname Huangmao Yatou (meaning a chit of girl in Chinese) into Minnan dialect.

“No. 19, however, is too naughty to study,” said Li….

“We immediately started our training program because the two cubs not only need to adapt themselves to the climate and geographical environment of the tropical island, but also to understand the language of their new keepers and visitors,” said Li Desheng, director assistant of the center.

“It’s not an easy task for the pandas as they are already familiar with the Sichuan dialect of their current keepers. They need more time to improve,” said Li Desheng.

China’s strained claims that this isn’t all one big propaganda ploy hit an especially rocky patch about a week ago when the results of a nationwide vote for the pandas’ names were announced. The winning names are Tuántuán and Yuányuán, more examples of reduplication in naming.

The source of these names is the Mandarin word tuányuán (?? / ??), which means “reunify.”

Fat chance Taiwan will accept them now.

Supposedly 100 million people voted in the name-selection process. Maybe it’s true. There are probably at least that many people there who would love a chance to vote for something.


Just a cartoon. Not to be taken seriously.
It's a cartoon. Not to be taken seriously.

MRI study: literate vs. illiterate subjects

For those who are interested in such things, here’s a new MRI study related to reading Chinese characters: Cognitive processing in Chinese literate and illiterate subjects: An fMRI study (also available in PDF).


Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) were used to map brain activation during language tasks. While previous studies have compared performance between alphabetic literate and illiterate subjects, there have been no such data in Chinese-speaking individuals. In this study, we used fMRI to examine the effects of education on neural activation associated with silent word recognition and silent picture-naming tasks in 24 healthy right-handed Chinese subjects (12 illiterates and 12 literates). There were 30 single Chinese characters in the silent word recognition task and 30 meaningful road-signs in the silent picture-naming task. When we compared literate and illiterate subjects, we observed education-related differences in activation patterns in the left inferior/middle frontal gyrus and both sides of the superior temporal gyrus for the silent word recognition task and in the bilateral inferior/middle frontal gyrus and left limbic cingulated gyrus for the silent picture-naming task. These results indicate that the patterns of neural activation associated with language tasks are strongly influenced by education. Education appears to have enhanced cognitive processing efficiency in language tasks.

(emphasis added)

I have a lot of objections to some of the language in the article, such as describing the subjects as “pictographic-language speakers.” And I wish the article had indicated whether any of the literate subjects were also literate in a language with an alphabetic script. Be that as it may, some may well find this of interest.

source: Human Brain Mapping, vol. 27, issue 2, pp. 144-152

online course material from MIT

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare makes available selections from the teaching materials for more than one thousand MIT courses. Some of these, such as those in linguistics, may be of particular interest to readers of Pinyin News.

MIT also makes available much of the material from its classes on languages, including those for Mandarin:

and Japanese:

Many of these sections include audio and even video.

source: link spotted in Forumosa’s “learning Chinese” forum.

emblem books

Before Champollion deciphered the Rosetta stone and unlocked the secrets of hieroglyphic writing, many wrongly believed that Egyptian hieroglyphs represented an ideographic form of writing. Indeed, the very word “ideographic” comes to us via Champollion. “It is ironic that the scholar who demonstrated the falsity of the old belief in Egyptian as symbolic and nonphonetic should have helped to popularize terms that powerfully reinforced the popular misconception of both the Egyptian and Chinese systems of writing,” DeFrancis notes in his discussion of the ideographic myth.

During the Renaissance, notions of ideographic writing helped spawn the creation of emblem books, which in their most common form were volumes of allegorical illustrations accompanied by a motto, a short explanatory caption, and often a brief poem, too. (The English department of the Memorial University of Newfoundland has an example of an emblem book online.)

The fact that these images require extensive knowledge particular to certain cultures to read — and even then not with any guarantee of correctness — should have been enough to clue people in that the notion of ideographic reading was bunk. But myths die hard.

The library of the University of Illinois has more than 600 emblem books. A recent article in that school’s campus paper gives some information on emblem books and the ideas behind them:

Interestingly, the impetus for emblem books was a misunderstanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Renaissance Italy humanists. “They thought that hieroglyphs were a secret language … that they were ideograms that could more accurately relate hidden mysteries about human life and nature,” Mara Wade, University professor of German, said.

The Renaissance scholars created a form where the full meaning depended on an intricate interplay between text and image, both had to be understood in order to understand the meaning of the emblem. All elements drew on complex academic themes that demanded a high degree of knowledge for their creation. “It’s the key way the Renaissance views itself, in that you can have universal truths within a short exposition of picture and text. … It’s alien to how we gain knowledge these days,” Elizabeth Black, a graduate student who works with emblems, said.

The idea of emblems spread throughout Europe, with publications in every major language, including German, Italian, French, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English. The emblem books are a hybrid not just of text and image, but also languages, with many containing text in both the vernacular language and Latin.

“It was the first time you could mass-produce images,” Wade said. Even in America, emblem books attained popularity, where Benjamin Franklin printed an emblem book in 1776.

What is interesting about the emblems is that they do not present simple images, repeating what is written in the text, as in an illustrated novel. Rather, they display “a picture of something commonplace in a new or unusual setting,” Wade said. For example, to convey the title “the way of the world” an emblem from 1617 displays a crayfish with a globe on his back. In order to understand the emblem, one must know that crayfish scuttle backwards. In other words, the point of the image is the moral message one step forward, two steps back.

The ambiguous nature of emblems has invited interpretation for centuries. Subsequent editions of emblem books were sometimes accompanied with “reams of commentaries helping to enlighten, expand or completely re-order the emblems,” Black said….

Emblem books waned in popularity around 1800 when the notion of “text-image puzzles,” as Wade characterizes emblems, became no longer attractive. Nonetheless, Wade said he sees a certain connection between emblems and modern marketing logos, such as the Nike swoosh.

“A lot of the earliest emblems were designs for printers’ marks,” Wade said. In the University’s Main Library reference room, the stained glass windows contain printers’ marks that can be interpreted both as types of emblems and types of modern advertising logos.

For more information, see the University of Illinois Library’s Open Emblem Portal.

source: Emblem books: First multimedia experience, Daily Illini, Friday, October 14, 2005.

For more on how people before our time saw such matters, see Peter DuPonceau, very much a man of the Age of Enlightenment, who criticized the ideographic myth.

Tonal languages and the tone deaf

In its most recent column, USA Today‘s Wonderquest takes up the question “How do tone-deaf Chinese communicate?” The author, April Holladay, gets the most important point correct:

Tone-deaf Chinese talk just like other Chinese. Their profound musical disability makes no real difference in understanding and talking a tonal language.

She continues:

You’d think it would. Tone deaf means a person cannot hear the difference between two successive tones. The two tones are indistinguishable. In a tonal language, like Chinese, different tones give words different meanings.

The phrasing here is a little off in saying that “different tones give words different meanings.” Compare with the following sentence I created for the purpose of this example: “In English, different vowels give words different meanings: cat, cot, cut, cute, coat.” I hope this makes it easier to see the problem. Vowels don’t change the meanings. (From what?) But this is not a particularly important point.

Here’s an example of two different tones each meaning a different word from the Mandarin Chinese dialect (using diacritics to indicate the tones). See figure for the corresponding pictographs.

— pronounced with a long high level tone, meaning woman [sic]
— pronounced with a low tone, dipping down briefly before slowly rising to the high-~ tone, meaning horse

First, is not the Mandarin word for “woman.” It’s a word for “mother.” (The more common Mandarin word for “mother” is the same as it is in many, many other languages: māmā.) But let’s skip that for now.

Holladay gets a point for using “Mandarin” rather than just “Chinese,” but she slides back a notch for the common but still incorrect label of “dialect.” And the use of the word “pictograph” to describe Chinese characters is very wrong indeed, as is clear from even the limited example given in the article.

Here’s the article’s pullbox, which is labeled “Mandarin Chinese pictographs”:

媽 [妈] Woman
馬 [马] Horse

(The characters in brackets are simplified forms. Both forms appear in the article just as they do here.)

These characters are unmistakably related to each other — the one on the second line comprising part of the one on the first. So, if the second one is a pictograph of a horse — which, indeed, is how that character started out — how exactly is the first one a pictograph of a woman? Or, more properly, how exactly is the first one a pictograph of a mother? (Remember that the identification of /媽 with “woman” is wrong.) Does a mother really look like a horse standing next to a 女? Of course not.

So if 媽 isn’t a pictograph, what is it? The answer is a phonetic compound, which is what the vast majority of Chinese characters are. In 媽, 馬 is a phonetic element that hints that the character is probably pronounced sort of like . The 女 portion is one of the so-called radicals. In the 媽 character, 女 serves to hint that the meaning of the character might be related in some way with women.

This is a fairly transparent example. But the connection is not always so clear.

So, you’d think that a tone-deaf Chinese would be stuck. How can he tell the difference in speech between, say, “woman” and “horse” with only their distinct tones to distinguish the meanings?

Easily enough, it turns out. Mostly, he uses context and other language clues. Homonyms in Chinese (or English: “I’m a little hoarse”), rarely confuse a listener — when heard in context.

This is an extremely important point — and a correct one.

For a little more on Chinese characters and pictographs, see my earlier post software designer on Chinese.

source: Tonal languages for the tone-deaf [or a horse is a hoarse of course of coarse], USA Today, October 6, 2005

Wm Hannas to speak in Philadelphia

William Hannas, author of The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity and Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma, will speak at the University of Pennsylvania on Wednesday, October 5. His talk will cover his controversial thesis on the impact of orthography on patterns of thought. For details, see the events calendar of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for East Asian Studies.

Those of you in the Philadelphia area should make an effort to attend.

interesting blog entries at Shadow

Gary Feng’s blog, Shadow, has a number of posts of interest to readers of Pinyin.info. Recent posts include 汉字简化,得不偿失 (Hànzì jiǎnhuà,débùchángshī), Japanese Kanji that are not Chinese, 汉语拼音教学的历史与现状 (Hànyǔ Pīnyīn jiàoxué de lìshǐ yǔ xiànzhuàng), and Teaching Pinyin and word parsing in Chinese.