Thursday, November 10, 2005

‘On Language’ 11/9/05: A crisis in China isn’t an ‘opportunity’

Debunking misconceptions about Chinese characters
On Language
Chicago Tribune
November 9, 2005
By Nathan Bierma
temp.link/perm.preview

Chinese characters themselves are often misunderstood… The meaning of the characters depends on the language and culture where they are used.

This confusion is partly to blame for the common claim of self-help books that the Chinese character for the word “crisis” means both “danger” and “opportunity.”

“A whole industry of pundits and therapists has grown up around this one grossly inaccurate formulation,” Victor Mair writes at Pinyin.info. “The explication of the Chinese word for `crisis’ as made up of two components signifying `danger’ and `opportunity’ is due partly to wishful thinking, but mainly to a fundamental misunderstanding about how terms are formed in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages.”

According to the myth, to write the Chinese character for “crisis,” you combine the character for “danger” and the character for “opportunity.”

That’s based on a partial truth: the word pronounced “weiji” is made up of two characters, pronounced “wei” and “ji.” But while “wei” means danger, “ji” doesn’t mean “opportunity.”

“The `ji’ of `weiji,’ in fact, means something like `incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes),’” Mair writes. “Thus, a `weiji’ is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment. . . . A `weiji’ in Chinese is every bit as fearsome as a crisis in English.”

The word “ji” only means “opportunity” in some cases, such as when it combines with the word “hui” (“occasion”) to make the word “jihui,” for “opportunity.” Its meaning changes depending on what other word it’s blending with. The crisis-means-opportunity myth, Mair says, is founded on a faulty understanding of the way languages work. ...

More from Swofford and Mair by e-mail:

Below please find an exchange between a Peking University professor (top
—his reply) and me (bottom—my original letter to him).  This is a
small sample of the proof that might be adduced in favor of the
proposition that PINYIN is already a functioning orthography in China
and, indeed, in the world.  I send and receive such letters nearly every
day of the year, just as easily as I send and receive letters in English.

Best,

Victor

========================

Mei Weiheng jiaoshou:
    11yue10ri de dianziyoujian shoudao.
    Nin de   lunwen

>

yijing fabiao zai Beijing Youyibinguan juxing de huiyi de
lunwenji limian.  Shuming shi

Fangan>

, Beijing Yuwen chubanshe 2004nian2yue chuban.  Zhang Liqing
  nvshi de wenzhang


ye   fabiao zai   tong yiben shunei.  Shifen duibuqi ,meiyou
jishi he nin lianxi, songshang yangshu .Qing gaozhi ruhe ba shu
  songshang.  Duibuqi!                    Su Peicheng


======================

> Dajia,
>
> San-si nian yiqian, wo weile zai Beijing zhaokai de Pinyin Fang’an Guoji
> Yantao Hui xiele yi pian jiaozuo “Poqie xuyao gezhonggeyang de pinyin
> duwu.”  Shijishang, zhei pian lunwen you liang ge hen buyiyang de gaozi,
> yi ge shi wo ziji yuanlai xie de, lingwai yi ge shi Liqing jiayi daliang
> de xiugai.
>
> Liang ge gaozi dou jigei Beida Zhongwen Xi de Geng Zhensheng xiansheng.
>  Bu zhidao weishenme, lian yi ge dou meiyou deng zai huiyi de lunwenji ue
> shang.  Houlai, Su Peicheng xiansheng shuo guonei yuanyi zai shenme bie
> de shu li chuban.
>
> You guole liang nian er meiyou renhe xiaoxi.  Xianzai de qingkuang
> zenmeyang?
>
> Zhu
>
> Jiankang kuaile!
>
> Mei Weiheng
>

———————————————————

[Question written in Chinese (Pinyin)]

Not really, David.
When native speakers and foreigners who are advanced in Mandarin (beyond
about the 4th-year level) read such texts aloud, they automatically add
the appropriate tones.  During the past twenty-five years, I’ve done a
lot of experimentation with romanized texts using various types of tonal
indication (GR, simplified GR, numbers, diacriticals) and no tones at
all.  Shin Tarng / Xin Tang went through all of those stages, and we
found that the tone marks simply were not necessary (and even got in the
way) for people having native fluency.  It’s similar to the marking of
stress for children in Russian textbooks, but it’s very seldom done for
adults.  Ditto for accent marks in English.  Of course, the marking of
tones—by whatever means—is very important during the early stages
of studying Mandarin and other tonal languages.  GR is an elegant,
easily typable means of indicating tones.  Unfortunately, **for whatever
reason(s)**, pedagogues—even at Princeton!—have largely abandoned it.

Victor

————————————

A student of mine who follows developments in Chinese language computing
very closely just told me that Guobiao (GB; the official PRC coding
system for Chinese characters) is being expanded to include tens of
thousands of more characters and special symbols, including the various
scripts of the “minorities” in China.  I found that a rather alarming
prospect, especially in light of the fact that we already have Unicode,
which is supposed to do all those things, and who needs *another*
megacode to compete with Unicode?  When my student told me that this
expanded GB is a 4-byte code, I almost collapsed with apoplexy.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how clumsy, clunky, and
redundant all of this is.  Since I was first exposed to Unicode at the
conference I held at Penn back in 1990 (see Victor H. Mair and Yongquan
Liu, eds., __Characters and Computers__ [Amsterdam, Oxford, Washington,
Tokyo:  IOS, 1991], pp. 180-191), I have always felt that the most
efficient way to cope with the many tens of thousands of sinographs and
other massive scripts is to use alphanumeric ASCII codes.  Otherwise,
there’s no end to how many codespace allocations that will have to be made.

Victor

————————————

Victor Mair wrote:
> Not really, David.
> When native speakers and foreigners who are advanced in Mandarin (beyond
> about the 4th-year level) read such texts aloud, they automatically add
> the appropriate tones.  During the past twenty-five years, I’ve done a
> lot of experimentation with romanized texts using various types of tonal
> indication (GR, simplified GR, numbers, diacriticals) and no tones at
> all.  Shin Tarng / Xin Tang went through all of those stages, and we
> found that the tone marks simply were not necessary (and even got in the
> way) for people having native fluency.

Here are some pages from a 1930s text on Sin Wenz (Xin Wenzi), a system
that took the approach of not indicating most tones:
http://www.pinyin.info/romanization/sinwenz/pp22to24.html
http://www.pinyin.info/romanization/sinwenz/pp24to26.html
(This particular booklet is one of my prize finds: just US$5!)


> Of course, the marking of
> tones—by whatever means—is very important during the early stages
> of studying Mandarin and other tonal languages.  GR is an elegant,
> easily typable means of indicating tones.  Unfortunately, **for whatever
> reason(s)**, pedagogues—even at Princeton!—have largely abandoned it.

Here’s the abstract of a 1997 study of GR vs. Hanyu Pinyin in terms of
the teaching of Mandarin Chinese pronunciation:

“This study presents results from a 2-year investigation of the
comparative efficacy of tonal spelling and diacritics in the teaching of
Mandarin Chinese pronunciation. The research site was the elementary
level Chinese language course at the University of Oregon. During the
1991-92 academic year, the course was taught using a romanization system
with diacritics, hanyu pinyin (PY); during the 1992-93 academic year,
the course was taught using a tonal spelling system, gwoyeu romatzyh
(GR). The analytical mechanism of this study calculates student tonal
error rates in identical (save for the romanization system used) reading
tasks at identical points in each year’s course. Native speakers of
Chinese served as assessors. ***The results clearly indicated that GR
did not lead to significantly greater accuracy in tonal production.
Indeed, the use of GR reflected slightly lower rates of tonal production
accuracy for native speakers of both American English and Japanese.***”

(My emphasis.)

The complete article is here:
http://www.jstor.org/view/00267902/ap020563/02a00070/0

—Mark

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 11/10 at 05:53 PM
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