Xin Tang 6

cover of Xin Tang, no. 6My previous post linked to a new HTML version of Homographobia, an essay by John DeFrancis. The work was first published in November 1985, in the sixth issue of Xin Tang (New China).

Xin Tang (Xīn Táng) is an especially interesting journal in that it is primarily in Mandarin written in romanization. A variety of romanization systems and methods are employed over the course of the journal. Indeed, over the course of its run one can see many questions of systems and orthographies being worked out.

I want to stress, though, that the journal does not restrict itself to material of interest only to romanization specialists. It also features poetry, illustrated stories, philosophy, letters to the editor, children’s material, and much more.

English and a few Chinese characters are also found; and there are even articles in languages such as Turkish (with Mandarin and English translations).

Most of what appears in English is also translated into Mandarin — romanized Mandarin, of course. So DeFrancis’s essay also appears, appropriately, in Pinyin:

Homographobia is a disorder characterized by an irrational fear of ambiguity when individual lexical items which are now distinguished graphically lose their distinctive features and become identical if written phonemically. The seriousness of the disorder appears to be in direct proportion to the increase in number of items with identical spelling that phonemic rendering might bring about….

Tongyinci-kongjuzheng shi yi zhong xinli shang d shichang, tezheng shi huluande haipa yong pinyin zhuanxie dangqing kao zixing fende hen qingchu d cir hui shiqu tamend bianbiexing. Kan qilai, zhei ge bing d yanzhongxing gen pinyin shuxie keneng zaocheng d tongxing pinshi shuliang d zengjia cheng zhengbi….

All of the issue with the DeFrancis essay is now online: Xin Tang no. 6.

illustration of a dragon reading a copy of Xin Tang, from an illustrated story
Note the occasional employment of a tonal spelling (shuui).


Twenty-five years ago, John DeFrancis wrote a terrific essay on what he aptly dubbed homographobia (in Mandarin: tóngyīncí-kǒngjùzhèng). It’s a word that deserves wider currency, as the irrational fear he describes still affects a great many people.

Homographobia is a disorder characterized by an irrational fear of ambiguity when individual lexical items which are now distinguished graphically lose their distinctive features and become identical if written phonemically. The seriousness of the disorder appears to be in direct proportion to the increase in number of items with identical spelling that phonemic rendering might bring about. The aberration may not exist at all among people favored by writing systems that are already closely phonemic, such as Spanish and German. It exists to a mild degree among readers of a poorly phonemic (actually morphophonemic) writing system such as English, some of whom suffer anxiety reactions at the thought of the confusion that might arise if, for example, rain, rein, and reign were all written as rane. It exists in its most virulent form among those exposed to Chinese characters, which, among all the writing systems ever created, are unique in their ability to convey meaning under extreme conditions of isolation

That the fear is a genuine phobia, that is an irrational fear, is attested to by the fact that it is confined only to those cases in which lexical items that are now distinguished in writing would lose their distinctiveness if written phonemically, as in the case of the three English homophones mentioned above. Quite irrationally, the fear is not provoked by lexical items which are not now distinguished in writing, even though the amount of already existing homography might be considerably greater than in projected cases, such as the mere three English words pronounced rane. The English graphic form can, for example, has at least ten different meanings which to a normal mind might appear as ten different words. But no one, either in or out of his right mind in such matters, suffers any anxiety from the problems which in theory should exist in such extensive homography.

The uncritical acceptance of current written forms as an immutable given ignores the accidents in the history of writing that have resulted in current graphic differentiation for some homophones and not for others. Such methodological myopia cannot lead to any useful consideration of ambiguity….

The complete essay is now online: Homographobia.

ɑ vs. a

image of the rounded 'a' and the normal 'a' with the example given of the word 'Hanyu' (with tone marks)About a year ago (which is roughly how overdue this post is), a commenter noted that some Chinese publishers “are convinced that Pinyin must be printed with ɑ (single-story „Latin alpha“, as opposed to double-story a), and with ɡ (single story; not double story g).”

But does Hanyu Pinyin in fact call for this longstanding Chinese habit of bad typography? This was one of the first questions I asked of Zhou Youguang, the father of Hanyu Pinyin, when I met with him: Are those who insist upon the ɑ-style letter correct?

“Oh, no,” Zhou replied. “That ‘ɑ’ is just for babies!” And he laughed that wonderful laugh of his that no doubt has contributed to his remarkable longevity.

Zhou was referring to the facts that the “ɑ” style of letter is usually found specifically in books for infants … and that this style generally does not belong elsewhere. In fact, ɑ and ɡ (written thusly, as opposed to g) are often referred to as infant characters. A variant of the letter y is sometimes included in this set.

Letters in that style are also found in the West — but almost always in books for toddlers, and often not even in those. Furthermore, even in those cases the use of such letters appears to have no positive effect on children’s reading.

The correct-style letters for Pinyin are the same as those for English, Zhou stated.

I hope that anyone who has been using “ɑ” will both officially and in practice switch to “a”. It’s long past time that the supposed rule calling for “ɑ” was treated as a dead letter.

Long live good typography!

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 (Xīn Qìjī / 辛棄疾 / 辛弃疾), 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. 百度 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.

Níhăo, for example, Chinese for “Hello,” is composed of ní — “you,” and hăo — “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 “níhăo” 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 níhǎo, the diacritical mark over the i should indicate third tone (ǐ) rather than second (í).
  • The diacritic over the a is wrong. It should be (Unicode ̌), not ă (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: nǐ hǎo rather than nǐhǎo. 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 “băi,” 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 “百度” 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 băi 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: 百度.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 百度.com -- a linkspam site -- as of July 1, 2010

That’s right: 百度.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.

OMG, it’s Hanzified English

Taiwanese movie poster in Mandarin for 'Date Night', a.k.a. '約會喔麥尬'In Taiwan, the new movie Date Night has been given the Mandarin title Yuēhuì o mài gà (約會喔麥尬/约会喔麦尬).

Yuēhuì is simply the word for “date.” The interesting part is “o mài gà” (喔麥尬), which is a Mandarinized form of the English “oh my god.” (I wonder if this, being written in Hanzi despite still being basically English, would pass China’s new need for supposed purity.)

Most people here — especially those younger than about 40 — would simply write “oh my god” (or, less frequently, “o my god”) in English in the middle of an otherwise Mandarin text. (I’ll spare everyone the chart of Google searches; but it backs this up.) But brevity is standard in movie titles here, and “喔麥尬” is a lot more compact on a movie poster than “oh my god.” This, however, raises the question of why “喔麥尬” instead of the equally concise “OMG”. I don’t know the answer to that. But the path of lettered words in Mandarin is certainly not without twists and turns.

Like most other uses of Hanzified English, the results are not entirely faithful to the original sounds.

Mandarin’s ou would be a closer phonetic fit than o for the English “oh”.
There’s Ōu (區/区), a surname. But most of the time this Chinese character is pronounced (being one of those many Chinese characters with multiple pronunciations), so that certainly wouldn’t work well. There’s ǒu, which has a more clearly phonetic Hanzi (嘔/呕), but which has to do with vomit (ǒutù/嘔吐/呕吐). Another possible choice would be ōu (歐/欧); but that is associated mainly with Europe and doesn’t get used much as a phonetic component in non-Europe-related loan words outside the word for ohm: ōumǔ (歐姆/欧姆).

Mài (the Mandarin word for wheat), unlike most other Mandarin morphemes pronounced mai (various tones), gets used phonetically in lots of various loan words, such as Màidāngláo (McDonald’s/麥當勞/麦当劳), Màijiā (Mecca/麥加/麦加), Dānmài (Denmark/丹麥/丹麦), and Kāmàilóng (Cameroon/喀麥隆/喀麦隆). So its use is to be expected, though semantically there’s no link. And mài is certainly a better fit for the English my than it is for the Mc of McDonald’s, the Mec of Mecca, the mark of Denmark, or the me of Cameroon.

For ga there’s not a lot of choice. 咖 is often seen in the phonetic loan gālí (curry). The biggest problem here is that the same 咖 is also used as in a different, common phonetic loan: kāfēi (coffee). There’s 嘎; but, like 尬, it’s not exactly a well-known character.

Anyway, I could go on for a long time listing various possibilities. But the main point is that Chinese characters just don’t do well at this sort of thing.

As for Pinyin, I suppose the orthography could get interesting: o mài gà, o màigà, omài gà, or omàigà. But a Pinyin orthography would probably simply encourage people to write this in the original: oh my god.

BTW, you may wish to try the following experiment. The in o mài gà is most often seen in writing the word gāngà (尷尬/尴尬), which means awkward/embarrassed. Ask native speakers of Mandarin to write gāngà in Hanzi for you by hand without using a dictionary, a computer, or any other form of assistance. I bet that most people — even those with university degrees — won’t be able to write this common, ordinary word correctly.

And for lagniappe, the character 尬 is also sometimes seen in written Taiwanese as the equivalent of Mandarin’s jiā (加/add). I spotted an example of this just the other day on a cafe sign (in the sense of “buy something and ga something else for a special price”) but didn’t have a camera with me.

Journal issue focuses on romanization

cover of this issue of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic SocietyThe most recent issue of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (third series, volume 20, part 1, January 2010) features the following articles on romanization movements and script reforms.

  • Editorial Introduction: Romanisation in Comparative Perspective, by İlker Aytürk
  • The Literati and the Letters: A Few Words on the Turkish Alphabet Reform, by Laurent Mignon
  • Alphabet Reform in the Six Independent ex-Soviet Muslim Republics, by Jacob M. Landau
  • Politics of Romanisation in Azerbaijan (1921–1992), by Ayça Ergun
  • Romanisation in Uzbekistan Past and Present, by Mehmet Uzman
  • Romanisation of Bengali and Other Indian Scripts, by Dennis Kurzon
  • The Rōmaji movement in Japan, by Nanette Gottlieb
  • Postscript from the JRAS Editor, Sarah Ansari

Unfortunately, none of these cover any Sinitic languages or the case of Vietnam. And Gottlieb’s take on rōmaji is certainly more conservative than Unger’s. But I expect this will all make for interesting reading.

I am able to view all of the articles on my system. But perhaps others will run up against a subscription wall.

I thank Victor H. Mair for drawing this publication to my attention.

Script differences complicate matters for Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan

Ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan are reportedly suffering from problems with the education system, including that Uzbekistan has switched to the Latin alphabet but Kyrgyzstan has not.

Kyrgyzstan is home to more than 766,000 ethnic Uzbeks out of an overall population of roughly 5 million, according to figures compiled by the State Statistics Committee. Although their numbers are slowly declining, Uzbeks remain the largest minority group in the country. Today, there are just 14 Uzbek language schools in Osh, compared with 21 in 1991….

A shortage of Uzbek-language textbooks and teaching materials constitutes another large obstacle. Many children in Uzbek-language schools must use textbooks that were published in Uzbekistan during the Soviet era. “The situation [became] complicated after Uzbekistan changed from using Cyrillic and started using the Latin [alphabet] in 1993,” explained Erkin Bainzarov, the editor of the Uzbek section of the Osh Shamy (“Evening Osh”) newspaper. “As a result, Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek schools were forced to stop using textbooks published by Tashkent,” and must rely on antiquated materials. Teachers in Kyrgyzstan have not adapted to the Latin alphabet.

To help, the Kyrgyz-Uzbek University, the only university in the country to provide instruction in Uzbek, established a Textbook Development Center in 1997 with the help of Batyrov’s Friendship of Peoples University in Jalalabad.

“Since Uzbekistan switched to Latin, we started developing our own [Uzbek] textbooks [written in Cyrillic],” said Tursunbai Kamilov, the director of the center. “Since 1997, we have developed a set of seven textbooks for the primary school and 20 textbooks for secondary and high schools.” Yet more is needed. Kamilov says that due to inadequate financing, Uzbek schools only have 34 percent of the textbooks they need.

Some representatives of the Uzbek community say that if current trends persist, southern Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek-language educational structure could experience a complete collapse. “We have to maintain our schools, and have our children go to Uzbek language schools to preserve our language, culture and identity,” said Khalturaev, the school principal.

source: Kyrgyzstan: Uzbeks in Southern Regions Wrestle with Cultural Dilemma, Eurasianet, October 27, 2009

further reading: