how long until we learn?

October 17th, 2014

This morning I sat in the classroom reading as I waited for students to arrive for their spoken tests. Among other things, I read chapters 3o and 31 of the Dao De Jing:

30: 以道佐人主者,不以兵強天下。其事好還。師之所處,荊棘生焉。大軍之後,必有凶年。善有果而已,不敢以取強。果而勿矜,果而勿伐,果而勿驕。果而不得已,果而勿強。物壯則老,是謂不道,不道早已。

He who would assist a lord of men in harmony with the Dao will not assert his mastery in the kingdom by force of arms. Such a course is sure to meet with its proper return.
Wherever a host is stationed, briars and thorns spring up. In the sequence of great armies there are sure to be bad years.
A skilful (commander) strikes a decisive blow, and stops. He does not dare (by continuing his operations) to assert and complete his mastery. He will strike the blow, but will be on his guard against being vain or boastful or arrogant in consequence of it. He strikes it as a matter of necessity; he strikes it, but not from a wish for mastery.
When things have attained their strong maturity they become old. This may be said to be not in accordance with the Dao: and what is not in accordance with it soon comes to an end.

31: 夫佳兵者,不祥之器,物或惡之,故有道者不處。君子居則貴左,用兵則貴右。兵者不祥之器,非君子之器,不得已而用之,恬淡為上。勝而不美,而美之者,是樂 殺人。夫樂殺人者,則不可以得志於天下矣。吉事尚左,凶事尚右。偏將軍居左,上將軍居右,言以喪禮處之。殺人之衆,以哀悲泣之,戰勝以喪禮處之。

Now arms, however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen, hateful, it may be said, to all creatures. Therefore they who have the Dao do not like to employ them.
The superior man ordinarily considers the left hand the most honourable place, but in time of war the right hand. Those sharp weapons are instruments of evil omen, and not the instruments of the superior man; – he uses them only on the compulsion of necessity. Calm and repose are what he prizes; victory (by force of arms) is to him undesirable. To consider this desirable would be to delight in the slaughter of men; and he who delights in the slaughter of men cannot get his will in the kingdom.
On occasions of festivity to be on the left hand is the prized position; on occasions of mourning, the right hand. The second in command of the army has his place on the left; the general commanding in chief has his on the right; – his place, that is, is assigned to him as in the rites of mourning. He who has killed multitudes of men should weep for them with the bitterest grief; and the victor in battle has his place (rightly) according to those rites.

And it occurred to me that in similarly ancient times at the opposite end of Eurasia from where Laozi sat somebody said:

Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.

— Matthew 26:52

And yes, Laozi was writing circumstances very different to those in which Jesus was speaking, but the two sentiments are similar and not unrelated.

And it occurred to me that if people living 2000 and more years ago in places as diverse as Roman-occupied Palestine and Warring States China could come to such similar conclusions as to the value of weapons and violence, then surely, just like the Golden Rule, it must be a principle and a value so universal it can be found in one formulation or another in many different cultures, many different philosophical and religious traditions, many different times from ancient to modern, many different places.

Apparently people have done studies counting up deaths and their causes through history and have concluded that as time has marched on, people’s chances of dying early from violent causes have gradually trended downwards. Our species has been getting less violent, not that you’d know it from watching the news (so don’t watch the news). There is evidence that we are in fact slowly evolving from barbarity into something approaching civilisation. But for all the painfully slow cultural evolution over the four or five thousand years for which we have some form or another of written records (of varying and frequently dubious quality), some things about our species remain stubbornly the same. And so the writings and ramblings of ancient prophets, loudmouths, poets, madmen, sages, rabble rousers and philosophers remain as relevant now as when Socrates was handed his cup of hemlock.

And yet for all of our slow evolution into finding less drastic, more civilised methods of dispute resolution than grabbing the nearest weapon and lashing out and for all the people who have read the two books just quoted over the last couple of thousand years, our leaders still seem awfully eager to bellow their bellicose rhetoric, beat their drums, and march us off to War.

The Ancients warned us: War may sometimes be necessary, but it is never good, and really should be avoided if at all possible.

How long will it take until we learn?

woty wot hey

December 11th, 2013

Over at Public Address it’s Word of the Year time. All the nominations for WOTY are fair enough, but there’s one that I want but that doesn’t fit there, and I don’t know of any more appropriate place running a WOTY competition. So I’ll run my own. And I’ll win it, because there won’t be any other nominations accepted.

Here’s my word of the year:

And its standard English translation: Haze

Alright, so that’s two words, but it’s my competition, and I told you I’d make sure I’ll win it. But whatever, here’s why:

Back in January, when the air looked, smelled, tasted, and felt like it had been piped directly in from Hell’s chimney (and no, I don’t mean the Hell I’ve been to, that’s a nice place, at least in the summer), and the snow looked like it had been dusted with salt, pepper, and heavy fuel oil, I was taking a course in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language. All my classmates were Chinese – well, I found out later one was Singaporean Chinese, but still, I was the only non-Chinese in the room for the whole course. I had a habit of getting up ridiculously early, making some doujiang to get me through the trip up to the Bei Da East Gate, then get some breakfast and a copy of the Beijing News from the stands up there, before heading up to the classroom. One day I was staring at yet another full-page spread on the smog crisis wondering what the second character in “雾霾” was, a character I couldn’t find in my dictionary. One of my classmates, another member of a fairly tight group of five of us who sat at the front and worked pretty solidly together, asked what that character was. Another said, yeah, I was wondering about that too. My reply was, well, if you don’t know how should I know? I was quite bemused that they’d ask me this because Chinese is a language I started learning at 23 years of age, whereas they’d all started learning Chinese by the time they were 23 months old. But another member of this group piped up and said, oh, that’s mái, it means like this dirty stuff floating in the air.

Then, of course, the question turned to how to say 雾霾 in English, so I taught them the word “smog”, explaining that just as 雾霾 is a combination of perfectly ordinary fog (雾/wù) with dirty stuff hanging in the air, “smog” is a combination of “smoke” and “fog”.

And since then, of course, 霾 has been all over the place, on Weibo, in newspapers, on TV. There’s a new system of smog alerts, with set procedures for responding to each level of alert. Basically, it seems to me that January was the point when China finally decided, right, that’s enough, we have to clean this place up. And I think that’s a pretty sweet silver lining to what was a really foul cloud.

But that brings me to the standard translation: Haze. I don’t get it. It just doesn’t seem to fit. To me, haze could be natural or artificial. It could be clean, caused by just a light mist or salt spray in coastal areas on a windy day (can you tell I’m from Wellington?), or it could be dirty, caused by fires or industry. Haze just doesn’t seem to cut it. Every Chinese-Chinese dictionary I’ve checked makes it clear that 霾 is dirty stuff hanging in the air. The possibility of a natural source is left open – and fair enough when you’re living somewhere as dry and dusty as northern or western China. But it’s clearly dirty stuff. “Smog” may be a bit too harsh a translation, referring as it does to pollution caused artificially by burning things like fossil fuels combined with natural phenomena, but “haze”, to me, just doesn’t cut it. And besides, every time I see or here 霾, it is referring to what is undeniably smog.

So there you go, there’s my Word of the Year: 霾 and haze.

October 28th, 2012

Last Wednesday after the morning’s classes I stopped by one of the campus newsagents on the way to lunch, as is my habit. I was quite presently surprised to see a pile of Mo Yan’s books on the table and had a look through them. None that I’d heard of, so I picked the one that struck me as most immediately appealing. That happened to be 《牛》 it doesn’t appear on Paper Republic’s list of Mo Yan’s works, for whatever reason, nor can I see it in Paper Republic’s list of books, but it is listed under ‘novellas’ in the list of works on Baidu Baike’s article  on Mo Yan – although the link takes you to an article on bovines rather than an article about the novella. So I guess it’s up to me to give 《牛》 a temporary English name to tide us over until Howard Goldblatt gets around to translating it. I think Ox will do for now – all Mo Yan tells us about the the particular species of bovine is that two are called Big and Little Luxi (鲁西) and the other is called ‘Double Ridge’ (双脊) because of his apperance. A bit of poking around reveals that 鲁西 is a kind of ox from western Shandong. He also tells us that they’re a ‘means of production’ (生产资料) – a statement that is repeated throughout the story. And Ox strikes me as being equally short and punchy as 牛.

So. Ox.

The story is told from the point of view of a 14-year old boy, Luóhàn (罗汉, meaning ‘arhat’), caught up in the events following the castration of three bulls owned by a production team (生产队), although the narrator is looking back at events in the past, remembering and telling us this story that happened when he was 14. But he doesn’t seem terribly much older than 14 – the language feels as if he’s in his late teens or early 20s. And I think it’s that language that’s the key – it’s earthy in that it is firmly rooted in the people of the production team and the few officials of the commune they deal with. And it’s narrated with a directness that grabbed me right from the first sentence. The book opens thusly:

那时候我是个少年。

那时候我是村里最调皮捣蛋的少年。

那时候我也是村里最让人讨厌的少年。

I was a youth then.

I was the naugtiest, most trouble-making youth in the village then.

I was also the most irritating youth in the village then.

And the story proceeds with that same simple, direct honesty. We’re sucked so much into the narrator’s world that it’s a surprise to see a helicopter mentioned in the final chapter, but no surprise to see a motorbike described as the fastest thing they’d ever seen*.

As for That Question, based on simply this novella, I’m going to have to agree with Brendan. Through Luóhàn’s 14-year old trouble-makers eyes, as remembered by an older self, we see his uncle, the production team chief,Grandpa Du, the old man in charge of the production team’s cattle and Old Dong, the commune vet all trying to manipulate each other into doing what they want while maintaining their own image of squeaky socialistic cleanliness, as defined by the dictates of the Cultural Revolution. And as it turns out, the commune officials they’re so terrified of aren’t any better, but are just as much out to pursue their own interests through the chaotic system of the time as the lowly production team members. Nobody comes out of this story looking all angelic.

Chapter 12 started with what was for me a good laugh – partly through sudden similarity with personal circumstance, but mostly because it was quite a pleasingly awful twist for the fates of some who should’ve known better. ‘Pleasingly awful’ – yes, the black humour of this book is most enjoyable.

In short: Read this.

And so I would like to thank the Nobel literature committee and my campus newstand for finally spurring me to read Mo Yan.

*Chapter 12 reveals the events of the story as having taken place at the end of April, 1970, which would make Luóhàn roughly the same age as Mo Yan himself. Luóhàn and his Pockmarked Uncle, the production team chief, are surnamed 管 (Guǎn), which just happens to be Mo Yan’s surname. I would be surprised if those characters in the story old enough to remember the War had never seen anything as fast as a motorbike, but I’m going to trust Mo Yan on the absence of such things in the rural Shandong of his youth.

one more Huailaihua word

January 31st, 2012

bēi. That’s what my mother in law just asked for. My quizzical look reminded her to speak either Putonghua or Yanqinghua, and she asked for a 笔/bǐ. I had a quick flip through a dictionary, and found no alternative pronunciations, so asked her, and she said, “就是咱们的河北口音” – that’s our [inclusive] Hebei accent. Hence the title labelling it Huailaihua – modern Hebei, after all, is made up of most of the late Qing and/or RoC Zhili, Chahar and Rehe, with Chahar (modern northwest Hebei, parts of Inner Mongolia and Beijing’s Yanqing County) being historically Mongolian (Chahar being the name of the Mongolian tribe that dominated the area) and Rehe (modern northeast Hebei and neighbouring regions of Beijing, Inner Mongolia and Liaoning) Manchu and before that Khitan (Jehol). As Mr Ji suggests in this comment, it would certainly seem that both geography (in Hebei, as in Beijing, the west and north are mountainous, the south and east plains) and ethnic mixing certainly seem to have had quite an impact on local accents and dialects. Given that, I think it fair to interpret my mother in law’s “Hebei accent” as meaning “Huailai accent”.

Update: My wife says Yanqingren also pronounce 笔 as bēi. I’m surprised, but then again, the Yanqingren I know don’t often use pens or pencils, at least, not when I’m around or not when they’re speaking Yanqinghua.

adventures in Huailaihua

January 27th, 2012

As in every year, we spent Spring Festival up in the village eating jiaozi, visiting relatives and blowing things up. Well, as family fuselighter in chief (i.e. the only one dumb enough to approach explosives of dubious origin with a naked flame (or lit cigarette, usually – ciggies don’t blow out in the wind). I have noticed my father in law is quite happy to lay fireworks out for me, but retreats quite a conspicuous distance when I light the fuse) while my wife, daugther, mother in law, brother in law and his wife, stayed inside, safe. And the fact my brother in law got married last year meant he had to visit absolutely all his relatives to introduce his wife. This meant a lot of squeezing our car through narrow village lanes, divided into two separate trips, with a boot-load of large, heavy gifts, the first trip with the car and an electric scooter filled to capacity, the second trip only the car as it wasn’t essential for my wife and daughter to visit everybody.

On the second trip we got to the house of a great uncle and great aunt. He’d had a firework explode next to him, deafening him in at least one ear, and was feeling poorly, so he sat on the kang and didn’t say much. Great aunt did most of the talking, and was in quite a nostalgic, teary mood. Now, I’d always had trouble understanding these two, but I’d always put it down to their advancing age and the trouble that can wreak with clear speech combined with the much stronger accents one seems to encounter in older, less educated people. Turns out there was more, and I should’ve recognised certain aspects of great aunt’s speech. Well, in my defence, I only see them once a year at Spring Festival, maybe also when there’s some big family event. So great aunt turned to me and said, “你还喝x吗?”, the x being a word I didn’t catch. Except what she said came out as “nǐ hái hā x ma?” I turned to my mother in law, who translated into standard Yanqinghua. Great aunt’s mood of weepy nostalgia meant I understood even less of the ensuing conversation, which seemed to be largely a review of her life and the people she’d known. Not being familiar with the history of her branch of the family didn’t help either. And it could’ve actually been a fascinating discussion to listen to. But a couple of phrases here and there stood out, for example, “不是这个的” came out as something like “basì jǐgede” and “是这个的” as “sì jǐgede”, with the ‘a’ in ‘ba’ being short and somewhat rounded, about halfway between a regular Pinyin ‘a’ and ‘o’ and somewhat schwa like, and the ‘i’ in sì being pronounced as if it were preceded by ‘x’ or ‘j’ rather than ‘s’.

I asked my mother in law as we left, and she said, “Oh, she’s from out west, Huailai County,” and I allowed myself a Homer Simpson moment. Her pronunciations of 喝 and 不 were Huailaihua pronunciations  I’ve been familiar with for years now. I don’t know why I missed the x in “你还喝x吗?”, considering I was drinking tea it would most likely have been either 茶 or 水, both of which would’ve been pronounced pretty close to standard Putonghua, and which I must’ve heard in Huailaihua plenty of times before. I don’t know which part of Huailai she was from or why her accent seemed so much stronger or somehow subtly different from those of other Huailaihua speakers I’ve heard – all of whom come from one village in northeastern Huailai (ah, the perils of using your family for research) very close to the border and our village, and most of whom moved to Yanqing in their youth, as great aunt did.

Anyways, the next day my brother in law and his wife needed transport out to his mother’s home village – the aforementioned “one village in northeastern Huailai very close to the border and our village” – to visit her younger brother, uncle and aunt, the last of her family to still live in the village that bears their surname.

So I got the car warmed up (winter mornings out there can make it very hard to get the car started, and when it’s started it can take quite a few minutes before the oil in the gearbox is warmed up enough for me to move the gear lever easily or get it properly into gear, and I need to drive a long way before the wiper fluid is warm enough that it will squirt far enough to hit the windscreen, although it is supposed to be good down to minus 25 degrees and Yanqing is not supposed to get that cold – get a bucket of hot water? Done that, it freezes as soon as it hits the glass. But I digress), we loaded up, and off we went northwestwards up the G110. As we passed Xiaying, the Last Village in Beijing (at least, as you travel that road in that direction. Turn around and it’s the First), only 6 kilometres from our own village, the commentary turned to how Xiaying’s accent is quite distinct from that of our village’s. On the one hand, that makes sense, Xiaying is on the border with Huailai, logically speaking it’s accent should sit somewhere between those of Huailai and Yanqing. But it’s only six kilometres up the road.

A couple more kilometres took us winding under the G7 expressway and the Datong-Qinhuangdao Railway (which seems, so far as I can tell, to transport only coal in kilometres-long trains down to the port and the empty coal cars back to Datong for refilling. Fortunately the locomotives are all electric), then up to the border. We entered Hebei with a thud. Literally. There was a sign by the road proclaiming the Hebei border and a line level with that sign right across the road where the smooth G110 leading back into Yanqing dropped into a series of potholes, lumps, bumps, judders, shudders and shakes covered in the most cracked up tarseal you can imagine. The car went thud as it fell from smooth road to once-was-road. All road markings – lane markings, crossings, arrows, speed limits, whatever, disappeared, and with them went any attempt by the drivers to drive where they should’ve been. My brother in law’s talk went from the differences in different villages’ accents to, “Wow, this place hasn’t changed a bit! It’s exactly the same as last time I was here 10 years ago!” I’d been out there once before, the New Year after we got married when we had to do the same tour around absolutely all the relative’s houses, and my reaction was pretty similar, except I’m sure that after so many years of thousands of heavy trucks and no repairs, the road is in even worse state than the first time I was out there.

My brother in law, his wife, and myself where the only ones there who did not speak Huailaihua. Well, I’m not the most talkative type, and was there as driver only, so I kept to myself for the most part and just listened. My brother in law and his wife, both Yanqinghua speakers, took part in conversations, but his wife is even less talkative than me and he was deferential to his elders, so we were pretty much in a sea of Huailaihua. 喝 and 不 pronounced as the hā and ba described above, ‘h’s disappearing from ‘sh’ (hardly unique to Huailai, I know), generally the same pronunciations and rhythm patterns I know from when my mother in law code switches into Huailaihua.

My mother in law generally speaks Yanqinghua, sometimes to other natives from Huailai, like her sister or niece, who now live in Yanqing, but generally speaking, when she is talking to another Huailairen she switches to Huailaihua. Sometimes she code mixes and speaks to us in a mash up of Yanqinghua and Huailaihua, which can draw quite an amusing command to speak proper Yanqinghua from my wife. She can speak standard Putonghua when she wants to, but rarely wants to. What was amusing this time, though, was that she turned to me and forgot to switch back to either Yanqinghua or Putonghua, saying, “nǐ hái hā suì ma?” (你还喝水吗?). But two of the people there were a great uncle and great aunt of roughly a similar age as the great aunt in our village in Yanqing whose accent had given me so much trouble, and yet I understood them perfectly. Sure, there was no weepy nostalgia this time. But nor did I hear 这 pronounced jǐ. As I said, I don’t know which part of Huailai the great aunt in our village was from, but it felt like I’d had enough exposure to the Huailaihua of my mother in law’s home village that it no longer gives me any trouble.

And I left my cellphone in Yanqing, so I couldn’t get any surreptitious recordings. Sorry. You’ll just have to trust my transcriptions of the above remembered snippets of conversation. Oh, sure, I’ve never added any recordings before, but I might start doing that in the future if I get my recording act together.

But I do have to wonder, considering the huge amount of intermarriage between Yanqing and Huailai, how a series of three villages strung along the G110 separated by distances of only 6 to 7 kilometres can maintain distinct accents.

And as I was writing this, Firefox again ate the language bar. Language bars are kinda necessary for polyglot computer users, and having to close and reopen Firefox and rewrite the beginning of this post is a pain in the arse. I hope Firefox isn’t planning on making a habit of this.

rou

January 19th, 2012

Another word I’ve heard a lot since my daughter’s birth – well, no, since she learnt to throw, sounds to me like ròu and it’s very clear from context that it means ‘throw’ (hence me hearing it a lot since she learnt to throw). I mention it now because I heard it the other day from a woman working in a photo studio in the 718 art and media park. Now, I have no idea where she was from, but she was speaking very standard Putonghua and there was no comment on my mother in law’s accent, which normally happens when people from Yanqing and Huailai meet, so I’m going to assume she’s from Neither Yanqing Nor Huailai, which narrows the range of possible hometowns down drastically.

I just checked three dictionaries* and none give either any alternative pronunciation for 扔 (rēng) or any character pronounced rou in any tone with a meaning even remotely close to ‘throw’. Nor does nciku’s entry for ‘throw’ throw up anything similar to what I’m hearing. Now, experience with Yanqinghua means I can think of plenty of words that have no written form**, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a word used by a non-Yanqinghua speaker before, certainly not such a word in Putonghua. So this leaves me wondering – is this one of the words common across northern and northeastern Chinese dialects? If so, why doesn’t it have a character? I ask about the lack of a character because in my experience those words common across northern and northeastern dialects can usually be written.

I’m also wondering if this word specifically refers to a throwing action by a baby because I never heard such a word until my daughter discovered she can throw things (and now I hear it a lot because she loves to throw things around). Update: Just before lunch my mother in law used ròu in reference to her throwing out rubbish, so perhaps it’s not limited to babies.

Has anyone else come across this ròu meaning ‘throw’? Is it specifically about babies or young kids throwing things? Sinophone parents, I’m looking at you lot specifically…

*A Chinese-English Dictionary (Revised Edition), Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 1997.

《现代汉语词典(第5版)》商务印书馆,2005.

《新华字典汉英双解 Xinhua Dictionary with English Translation》商务印书馆国际有限公司,2000.

**At the risk of starting a fight: Sure, I can write ròu in pinyin, and doubtless in the myriad other phonetic and phonemic schemes devised for Chinese, as well as IPA, but I say “no written form” because real world written Chinese exists in Chinese characters. The existence of words with no character (and there’s no shortage of them once you get into non-standard dialects) may be an argument for full time Romanisation of everyday written Chinese, but that’s not what I want to explore here.

shai

January 6th, 2012

A Chinese word that has grabbed my attention of late is shǎi. I don’t know why I just noticed it now, but my wife and mother in law have been using it a lot, especially when discussing the colour or propensity to dye the water of baby clothes. At first I couldn’t quite figure out if it should be spelt shěr, shǎr, or shǎir, as the vowel in their pronunciation seems to fall somewhere in between those three, and I’ve never been much good at phonology. I also got to wondering if it was an alternate pronunciation of 色 (sè) or a different character. So, now that I’ve got my end of semester paperwork done and handed in and the baby’s asleep, I opened up the dictionary and had a wee look.

So I grabbed A Chinese-English Dictionary (Revised Edition) (FLTRP, 1997) and checked 色, and sure enough it had a see also shǎi note, and on seeing also shǎi the dictionary confirmed that that is an alternate pronunciation also meaning colour with an example sentence “这布掉~吗?” which just happens to be in the exact context I’ve been hearing so often. There’s also a little inf. notation, marking it as informal, and the word 色子 meaning dice.

My 《现代汉语词典(第五版)》 (中国科学院语言研究所词典编辑室编,商务印书馆,2005)confirms that, but also has a note (儿) confirming the 儿话音 I hear, and instead of inf., tells us (口) – I can’t find a list of abbreviations to explain, but it strikes me that there’s a difference between informal and oral. It also gives the word:

色酒:shǎijiǔ(方)名:用葡萄或其他水果为原料制成的酒,一般带有颜色,酒精含量较低。

I wish dictionaries would indicate which dialect or dialects a word marked as dialect comes from. Anyway, in some unspecified dialect there is a word 色酒 meaning an alcoholic drink brewed from grapes or other fruit, generally coloured and with a rather low alcohol content. In other words, a noun for wine, fruit wine and other alcoholic drinks made from fruit. But why is beer not included? This word broken down means “coloured booze”, not “fruit plonk”, and beer is plenty colourful. And does anybody know which dialect or dialects use this word? I just asked my mother in law if she knows the word, and she semi-correctly guessed that it means wine (she asked, “是不是葡萄酒?”) but she denies ever having heard it before. Most curious indeed. What is it about the character 色, which means colour and seems to have no other meaning except in the term 色子, which would indicate specifically “alcoholic drink made from grapes or other fruit”? Sure, colour is used to denote traditional Chinese alcoholic drinks – 白酒 (white booze) and 黄酒 (yellow booze). But how does a non-specific “coloured plonk” tell us “plonk made from grapes”?

Now, I’m pretty sure that I’ve only heard my wife and mother in law and other residents of Yanqing pronounce 色 as shǎir. I’m not sure what that tells me. It’s marked as either informal or spoken depending on the dictionary, not dialect. My initial confusion over the vowel I certainly put down to accent and my wife’s code switching (Putonghua with most people, including me and our daughter; Yanqinghua with her parents, uncles, aunts, brother, cousins, etc), but my mother in law is a native of a village whose name bears her surname in Huailai County and is known to switch between and even mix Huailaihua and Yanqinghua, so she’s not always the most reliable source for information of a dialectological nature. And in any case, it’s not marked dialect in the dictionaries.

Side note: Although they lie in the same basin, Huailai and Yanqing have distinct accents and dialects. Well, a bit like Australasian accents and dialects – distinct to those who know them, indistinguishable to most outsiders. And Yanqinghua can be divided into Eastern and Western variants with even subtler distinctions, just as New Zild can be divided into Southern (Southland and (mostly rural) Otago) and The Rest of the Country, again, with the differences clear to Those In The Know and utterly mysterious to the rest of the world.

And why does 色子 mean “dice”? Is there a separate word for “die”? That would be unusual considering singular/plural distinctions in Chinese are generally limited to words for people and not very strict. Oh, wait, I’m being unnecessarily pedantic again.

Anyway, there’s my little linguistic discoveries for the day.

random thought

December 17th, 2011

I don’t know why, it’s a Saturday morning, my wife has gone off to inform Father Christmas of what gifts to bring my daughter, my daughter is taking a nap (life is simple when you’re not yet nine months old), I’m feeling a bit ragged in that ‘almost the end of semester’ kind of way, I’m still caffeinating and had just started reading this when I suddenly thought, wouldn’t the relative sparseness and general lack of pollysyllabic words make Classical Chinese ideal for microblogging?

Now, that’s not even close to hypothesis quality. Not even a random thought, barely makes it to random thot level. Really, it’s just a thotikin. But how to test this wee thotikin? Being the least diligent student of Chinese in all of recorded history, legend and myth, I’m certainly not going to embarrass myself by attempting to actually write anything in Classical Chinese. But glancing at the shelf above me, I see a few bilingual – Classical and Modern Chinese – editions of a few of the Chinese classics. Surely the obvious method would be to find one or two passages of about microbloggable length and compare the original Classical text with the Modern translation for length. A glance in the Hanfeizi reveals a lot of rather long passages, not really microbloggable. Ah, but the Shanhai Jing – surely there’s a book that should have been published on Weibo! So here it is:

石者山

又北二百八十里,曰石者之山,其上无草木,多摇碧。泚水出焉,西流注于河。有兽焉,其状如豹,而文题白身,名曰孟极,是善伏,其鸣自呼。

And putting that into Weibo, including the title and a colon to distinguish it from the text, leaves me 72 characters spare, so I only used 68.

Now, the modern Chinese translation by, er, somebody not me. Can’t find the translator’s name in the book:

再向北二百八十里是石者山,山上不生草木,多产摇碧一类的玉石。泚水发源于这座山,向西流注入黄河。山中有一种野兽,它的形状像豹子,长着有花纹的额头,白色的身子,它的名字叫孟极。这种野兽善于隐藏,它的叫声就像呼叫它自己的名字。

And that, with the same 3 character title and colon, leaves me with only 26 characters, so that’s 114 characters all up. So the Classical Chinese uses only 60% of the characters of the Modern Chinese version.

So how does it compare with English? I’m not the only one to have gotten the impression that one can squeeze a lot more information into 140 Chinese characters than 140 English characters – although it must be said that’s not necessarily true. I was sure I had a trilingual (Classical and Modern Chinese and English) copy of the Daode Jing lying around, but I guess it must be helping clutter up my parents’ house in New Zealand. And in any case, like the Hanfeizi it’s not really a microbloggable book. I do have a similarly trilingual copy of the Zhuangzi with me, but again, not really microbloggable. But I do have a bilingual Classical Chinese and English copy of the Analects. So let’s try some randomly chosen passage.

Book 2, 1:

子曰:“为政以德,譬如北辰,据其所而众星共知。”

A mere 24 characters, punctuation included.

Arthur Waley’s translation:

The Master said, He who rules by moral force is like the pole-star, which remains in its place while all the lesser stars do homage to it.

75 69 (I misread my own handwriting, would you believe. Thanks, Jean, for catching that error) characters, and that’s with the little translators note (te) removed. The original needs only 32 35% of the number of characters of the translation.

So there you go, through what is obviously two super rigorous experiments of great scientific virtue I have proved that in fact, one could, by using Classical Chinese, squeeze into one’s microblog of choice almost twice as much information than by using Modern Chinese and over three times as much information than by using English. Therefore, because verbosity is a virtue, we must all rebel against the character limits imposed on us by the likes of Weibo and Twitter and do all our microblogging in Classical Chinese.

bilingual babies

November 23rd, 2011

There are other things I should be doing right now, as always, but this post at Ethnic ChinaLit grabbed my attention for two reasons. First, it’s depressing that so many Chinese parents seem to be abandoning local and minority languages and dialects in favour of Putonghua. The argument that Putonghua is important for their kids’ future economic success is spurious at best. It seems to me that the majority of the world’s people grow up at least bilingual and that learning local or minority or otherwise non-prestige languages has no effect on their future economic well-being. I also don’t buy the argument that learning more languages increases the educational burden on students. It’s common for European students to be taught more than one language, yet every European I’ve ever met has survived the experience intact.

And then there’s this comment:

With the increasing popularity of mixed marriages where only one parent speaks Mongolian, Chinese is the language of choice at home;

And y’know, one of the most frustrating things I’ve found about raising a mixed baby in a mixed marriage is the sheer number of ignorant and sometimes just straight out stupid comments we hear about language. We’ve split the language labour: I speak to our daughter in English, my wife speaks to her in Mandarin – and here I use the word Mandarin because such conversations in this family switch between Putonghua and Yanqinghua depending on the social context. But I’m not concerned about Yanqinghua somehow “polluting” her Putonghua, because as she grows and learns about the world, my daughter will learn quickly and easily the different contexts in which different languages or dialects are appropriate. English with Daddy and her Kiwi grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Mandarin with the Chinese side, varying between Putonghua in Beijing and Yanqinghua in Yanqing. But some people are terrified this approach will somehow confuse the child. I have never yet seen anything to justify such fears. A colleague and his wife take the same approach with their daughter, who is now two and, so my colleague reports, switches easily and comfortably between English with Daddy and Mandarin with Mummy. The other day at work my wife found herself in yet another of those conversations about mixed babies and mixed languages, and heard a story of a family in Guangdong where one parent speaks Cantonese, the other Putonghua, and a grandparent some other language, and baby switches easily and comfortably between those three languages depending on which big person she’s talking to. And I haven’t done a huge amount of detailed research into this (i.e. none), but everything I’ve read on the topic suggests that that is the case: Given a clear context for each language, baby copes just fine.

Then Mr Humes raises three points, and while the first touches on the structure of the education system, he sums them up quite nicely with this:

These factors contribute to what reporter Bai Yansong labeled the “Mongolian is useless” school of thought (蒙语无用论) that is widespread in society.

Now my wife and I are lucky in that we are native speakers of dialects of two of the world’s more important languages. Nobody questions our choice of languages to teach our daughter; they question whether or not it’s possible to raise a child bilingually without terribly confusing the poor wee thing. But it seems to me that an awful lot of people are running around with an extremely narrow and petty definition of the word “useful” that can be summed up in answering this question: “Can I, without any thought and just at first glance, see an immediate beneficial application of this knowledge/field of study/language to a real-world situation?” There are an awful lot of things in this world – art, literature, music, blue skies scientific research – whose immediate utility is not terribly obvious but which are immensely useful and beneficial. I have, of late and elsewhere, been in the mood to launch into a collossal tirade about how the application of this narrow, petty, and very harmful definition of “useful” is partly responsible for the world’s current economic woes, but for now let’s stick with language. I have been known to, just for fun, tell my boss and his secretary that I’m going to teach my daughter Maori. Of course, that would require me learning Te Reo first – widespread Maori-language education in primary schools was very new when I was a kid, and not very effective. But their response is scorn. Why teach her that useless nonsense? Well, I can think of many reasons, most of which are connected with it being one of the languages of her Daddy’s country, and one with official status, to boot. For starters, if she goes to school in New Zealand she will have to learn some Maori anyway, and I’d expect that to be a lot more than I got, as the curriculum and standard of teacher training should have improved dramatically since then. I also do what I can to ensure the English she learns has a bit more of a New Zealand flavour than the bland, internationalised English I have to use at work, and my impression is that more and more Maori words are being used in everyday New Zealand English. There certainly seem to be more and more Maori words gracing the pages of the New Zealand Herald without the brief, bracketed, weak English translation that used to be the rule for situations in which sensitive mononlingual Pakeha eyes had to cope with a Maori word. But to try and pull myself back on topic: Language is very hefty part of culture, and culture is a very hefty part of identity, and identity is a very necessary aspect of healthy human life. Abandoning a language because it doesn’t enjoy the same economic and political prestige as English or Putonghua is likely to lead to a lot of people growing up with strong and difficult questions about their culture and identity, and it’s not difficult to think of examples of how disaffected, alienated youth contribute to some very unfortunate social phenomena.

Of course, languages are just as mortal as people, and although some, like Latin, leave behind healthy descendants, other languages die childless. But languages, like people, need a bit of TLC, and part of that tender, loving, language care is a healthy pride in one’s language, and part of that pride lies in teaching it to the younger generations, and teaching them the value of that language. And a language’s value does not lie in its immediate economic and political utility, but in its expression of culture, values and identity. And no, learning a minority language does not need to disadvantage any child. The human brain is both flexible and powerful, and polyglotty should be seen as the norm and not as the exclusive and miraculous preserve of a few talented individuals, because so far as I can tell it is the norm and monolingual societies the exception.

And now that I see just how far this post has diverged from the title I gave it, I suppose I should get some lunch then get back to that lesson planning and test marking I was supposed to be doing.

我爱小人书

November 20th, 2011

I was a big fan of Asterix and Tintin when I was a kid, and I live very near Panjiayuan, which has a large space dedicated to old books. Well, mostly old books. There are a few stalls in that space selling very new books, too. And so I was very happy when I discovered that among all these old books are many old comics, and among these many old comics are Chinese versions of Tintin books. And so I started buying Tintin books again, and so discovered a particular type of comic – the 小人书/xiǎorénshū that is actually pocket-size, in that each one could easily fit into a child’s pocket (how many “pocket-size” books would only ever be considered small enough to fit in a pocket if one were on a whole other planet inhabited by people 15 metres tall?). And I love these books.

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