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The Chinese Language(s

f = prop up; prisoner; fall; not; thus;bat;happiness; float; fluorine; bushy

, as noted above, is spoken in some parts of Gungdng and Fjin provinces. Hakka people are regarded as a distinctive ethnicity, and occasionally even describe themselves as not Chinese. Indeed Hakka, or Kji

(which by itself would mean horse) combine to make m

, sometimes translated phonetic symbols are the most common type. The term refers to compounds of a phonetic and radical. For example, the radical n

She should also include something containing green onion, since the word for green onion, cng, sounds just like the first syllable of the word for smart (cngmng).

How do we interpret all this? Such customs are condemned as superstitious by modernizers who think other people believe them literally. They in fact are better seen as minor acts of courtesy and gracious living available even to very humble people. Such customs are found all over the world. (In the English-speaking world one does not give knives as wedding presents lest one imply the newly united couple should be separated again, for example.)

Just as there are some acts of hope suggested by homonyms, there are some taboos implied by them. For example:

Overseas Chinese normally speak dialects of Hokkien (Mnnn) or Cantonese. Taken together, the groups of dialects constituting spoken Chinese are spoken by about 94% of the population of political China. The remaining 6% speak Tibetan, Mongol, Yao-Miao, Thai, Uigur, and other non-Hn languages. In the far south, Hn dialects seem (to me) to grade into northern Vietnamese dialects.

First, the writing system is largely independent of the sounds, and can be used by speakers of all the dialect groups of China (and other countries), even though (or because) it exactly mirrors the spoken usage of no-one.

In south Chinese banquets one should pull the meat from the underside of a fish (always served whole) without turning over the fish (fn y

river basin, and therefore also the name of the dialect group in Tiwn that hailed from this region and was often in conflict with people from the Qunzhu dialect group.

Note: This essay should tell you more than you need or want to know about the Chinese language in general. For the pronunciation of Romanized Mandarin, see the Pronunciation Guide on this web site. (Link)

(The reason this is an appropriate inscription for a painting indeed why the painting shows a bat in the first place is homonymy again: The spoken syllable f can mean bat, but it can also mean happiness, and as a result of this ambiguity a bat has from antiquity potentially been a symbol of happiness! You will find bats painted on teacups, embroidered on clothing, and featured in greeting cards, as well as lurking in old paintings. Bats are by no means the only puns that appear as decorative motifs. Art motifs based in linguistic puns are called auspicious designs jxing tn in Chinese. A number of them are discussed in a separate page of this web site.Link.)

, sometimes also referred to as the Yu

This difference between spoken and written Chinese has important consequences:

Mandarin.The expression Chinese language designates a number of mutually unintelligible but historically related languages (groups of dialects) spoken by the Hnpeople of China and by Hn in overseas Chinese communities. Because Chinese governments are rather sensitive about the possibility of local autonomy, it is politically incorrect to describe any of these Hn languages as independent languages (although they are that by any non-politicized definition), and accordingly they are conventionally called dialects. Each contains very considerable internal dialectical variation. Most are named after the present or past names of the places where they are spoken.

of northern Fjin province, sometimes referred to in Chinese as Fzhuhu

In some cases two synonyms can be used together to make a single word with a meaning that each of them has individually (the combination being referred to as a synonym compound). For example:

The most widespread Chinese language, known as Mandarin or Gunhu, is spoken in north, central, and west China. The Mandarin dialect of Bijng has for centuries been the language of government. Important non-Mandarin dialect groups (languages) are:

Linguists never tire of pointing out that the majority of words in Chinese are polysyllabic (and hence are written with two or more characters). However, it remains the case that every syllable has a semantic field, even if the sum of two syllables may have a semantic field unrelated to the component parts. For example:

, or mother (in some regions grandmother).

(formerly spelt Changchou, Changchow, &c.). A city on the Fjin coast and also the name of a dialect area generally including the towns of the lower Lngx

Zhsh, sometimes translated picture of action, represent abstract ideas by trying to picture them: snthree, zhngmiddle,large (personwith arms spread out), and so on.

A fifth implicationof such a writing system is that it is difficult to learn, and that doubtless contributed to literacy being confined to a small proportion of the population until the XXth century. Unfortunately, we do not really knowhowdifficult it is to learn because there are not good cross-linguistic measures of such things. My impression is that for a native speaker learning to read and write in Chinese takes about as much school time as learning to read and write in English (another complex writing system that is difficult to learn). We do not really know how widespread literacy was in China in various periods (although both the conventional view of the illiterate millions and the conventional view of China as a literate nation are probably misleading). And we do not know whether the difficulty of attaining literacy in Chinese may be compensated by, for example, the possibility that speed reading may be much more efficient in Chinese than in alphabetical languages. (Clickherefor more about literacy in dynastic China.)

) and keep it all year long. (Thats what all those fish are doing all over Chinese New Year decorations, by the way.)

In spoken Chinese, only binf is colloquial, not bin or f alone.

Thousands of opportunities for such taboos are not exploited, and many that are normal in one region are unimportant in others. (Northern Chinese turn over fish all the time.)

of southern Fjin and Tiwn provinces. The English dialect name Hokkien is derived from the local pronunciation of the province name. Other names used for this group of dialects are Fukienese, Taiwanese, and Amoy (from the former Romanized spelling of Ximn [locally pronounced

-mnĝ], the coastal city near the center of this dialect region).

Guide to Pronouncing Mandarin in Romanized Transcription (link)

(formerly spelt Henghua and Hsingwa in English) is the name of a bay on the Fjin coast between Fzhu and Ximn, but the expression is sometimes used in English to designate the speech of people living between these two cities, or even the people themselves. I

. The people call themselves water people or shishng rn

Now that garlic has entered the common diet in Taiwan, the truly modern mother sometimes also includes something seasoned with garlic (sun) to express her wish to improve her childs mastery of arithmetic (sunsh).

Jijirefers to characters borrowed from others of similar pronunciation. Thus wnoriginally referred to the scorpion, but was borrowed by the homonymous word meaning ten thousand which is often simplified to, apparently originally a surname.

A mother wants her child to be smart and industrious in school. On the festival of Wnchng Djn, one of the gods of literature, a good Taiwanese mother makes sure that her childs lunch box includes celery because the word for celery is qn, which sounds exactly like the first syllable of industrious (qnlo).

or native, and enters the English literature as Punti. In Fjin the contrast is with Flo

More Than You Want To Know About Chinese Tone (Link)

In other words, the effect of the colloquial revolution in writing has been, for a large minority of the population, not a switch from literary to colloquial, but from one literary standard to another, the only difference being that the new one corresponds with somebody elses speech. (It is possible to overdraw the foreignness of the new written standard, of course. The same school system that teaches young Cantonese, say, to write in Pekinese is also teaching them to speak Pekinese, and indeed the writing system is presented as havingonlynational language pronunciations.)

Ordinarily each separate sense of the same spoken syllable has a different character. For this reason, the written forms of the syllable bin (to continue our earlier example) are not ambiguous, since there are separate characters for edgewhip, compile, &c. In writing, it is therefore not necessary to add a second syllable to show which sense of bin is intended, since that is already clear from the character selected. For this reason written Chinese is capable of being different from and more concise than spoken Chinese.

The English name Mandarin comes from the Portuguese. The speech of Bijng, having been as close as the Imperial rgime came to an official language, was therefore referred to as Gunhu, or officials speech. (Gun means an official.) But the word gun never got borrowed into English. Instead, English borrowed the Portuguese translation (mandarim). (The Portuguese word in turn came apparently from the Malaymantrormenteri, meaning minister of state. And Malay had borrowed it from Sanskritmantrincounselor, ultimately derived from the Sanskrit root man, meaning to think. Now you know.)

bin = edge; whip; compile;bat;to pierce with a stone probe

The usual unit of phonological analysis in Chinese is the syllable, which is also the unit recognized by the writing system. Contemporary Chinese languages each have a closed set of syllables. In Mandarin, each syllable consists of one (or none) of 21 initial consonants, plus one of 39 finals (each composed of a vowel or vowel diphthong with or without a final -n or -ng), plus one of four tones (configurations of pitch height). In theory therefore there could be 3,276 different Mandarin syllables, although in fact many do not occur.

, means guest people.) In Gungdng the contrasting term that refers to the Hakkas Cantonese neighbors is Bndrn

Footnote: The end of martial law in Tiwn has also seen the beginnings of a movement there to develop a Southern Min written colloquial, but little standardization has been accomplished so far. Although the population of Tiwn is generally bilingual in both Mandarin and Hokkien and switches between them with ease, few people see much advantage in undercutting the priority of written Mandarin, which is an entre into the world of Greater China, while written Hokkien would be useful only locally, and only marginally useful at that.

Xingxng, or pictographs are a small group of characters that actually resemble the objects they name, such as field tin, mountain shn, or sun r.

Although we can say thatin speechbinf is the only word that colloquially means bat, that is in fact a bit misleading: Bin or f alone can suffice if it happens to enter into another bisyllabic compound. For example, we can combine either element with wing, y, to make binyor fy, each of which means bat wings.

, a coastal town near the home temple to the goddess Mz

As most dictionaries have analyzed the language in the last couple of centuries, there have been 214 radicals and 888 phonetics, making a theoretical possibility of 190,032 compound characters, although not all combinations are in fact possible. The largest Chinese dictionary lists 49,905 characters, leaving the remaining hundred and forty thousand or so yet to be invented. The Unicode Consortium, keeper of the new international standard for computer representation of scripts in all languages, defined 20,901 characters in version 2.1, and promptly enlarged the total character set for CJK (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) to 27,482 in version 3, published in 2000. It is sometimes claimed that the average person today probably needs knowledge of about 3000 characters to be reasonably literate, but I have noticed that computer fonts of fewer than 12,000 or so characters turn out to cramp ones style.

Second, there is no particularly good reason why written Chinese, with the clarity of its characters, need have the same syntax as spoken Chinese, in which polysyllabic compounds (and other devices) are critical to disambiguating homonyms. This tendency for written and spoken language to vary from each other culminates in the production of Literary Chinese. (Classical Chinese sometimes refers especially to the writings of the Zhu dynasty [period 4]. The language from Hn times [period 6] on is usually called Literary Chinese.) Almost certainly, nobody was ever a native speaker of Literary Chinese. Indeed, the chances are that nobody even spoke Literary Chinese, or anyway not with a northern phonology like that of Mandarin (although educated people saturated their speech with Literary expressions). Nevertheless, Literary Chinese served as the written lingua franca of the Chinese and of adjacent peoples for two thousand years, and died abruptly in about 1920 in a vernacular language reform. Well get back to that, but first some more implications of Chinese being written in characters.

The fact that homonyms are so many, especially for expressions of a single syllable, gives birth to a wide range of polite customs and minor taboos based on them. For example:

[Cantonese: Dan6-ga1] refers to the boat-dwelling families of coastal Gungdng. The word has become standard in English ethnography, but the people in question have very low prestige in China the element

A thirdimplication is that learning to read and write requires mastery of a separate morphology and grammar, quite aside from the problem of memorizing several thousand characters, and literacy is therefore a painstaking and expensive business. The task of memorizing characters is simplified somewhat by the fact that the vast majority of them, as we noted, are composites, made up of a radical or meaning element (which may also function as a separate syllable on its own) and a phonetic element that usually suggests the sound. Even as l, manage,is made up of a phonetic land a meaning-linked radical, king, so in our painting f meaning batand f meaning happinessboth include the same right hand element (), which is also shared with f, meaning wealthy, fmeaning crawl, f, meaning assistant, and various other fu-words (although there are fu-words with other fu-phonetics). The bat f has as its left-hand element the radical chngwhich refers to vermin, bugs, and small amphibians (until recently usually writtenwhen it is a separate word). The radical chng therefore shows that the f in question is the one that relates to some kind of buggish beast, while the right-half shows the pronunciation to befuor something like it.

Chinese word order: They not with you speak Mandarin.

As you know, Chinese is written by means of hieroglyphics, called characters in English, zin Chinese. A small proportion of such characters actually derive from fairly literal pictures of things, such as the words for sunor tree. Others extend these primitives in a variety of ways. thus eastis the sunbehind a tree. In some cases puns are used. For example, to manage or principle lis built on the homonymous term for hamlet, residence lto which a ruler or kinghas been added. This last principle, by which a character is borrowed for its approximate sound and then modified slightly to show the change of meaning, producesmostof the characters used in Chinese.

In isolation, the syllable bin is ambiguous because of this homonymy. The same thing is true of the syllable f. But the combination binf can mean only bat. (Similarly yf can mean only clothing, &c.)

) in order to avoid simultaneously overturning prosperity (fn y

, which gives birth to the English spellings Chaochou, Tiuchiu, and Teochow, the last two of which are also used as the name of the language spoken in Shntu as well as for the people who speak it.

It would in principle be possible to develop a vernacular literature in Cantonese or W just as it has been developed in Mandarin. The reason this has not occurred is that it has been very strongly discouraged by the government because it is seen is subverting the national standardization and as potentially treasonous. (The exception has been Hong Kong, where Chinese was not an official language until recently, and government policy ignored it.[Footnote]) Furthermore, the development of colloquial writing cannot flower without colloquial literacy in these non-Mandarin languages, and this is scarcely possible without cooperation from the centrally controlled school system. The above examples in fact include several characters unknown to most Chinese even in the regions whose speech the examples reflect.

Hiy, sometimes translated ideographs, are compound characters in which both elements have a semantic connection, for example: sun r+ moon yu= bright mng; woman n+ son z= good ho.

For more about the sounds of Mandarin Chinese, please seeGuide to Pronouncing Mandarin in Romanized Transcription. For the truly masochistic, you may wish to examine the page calledMore Than You Want To Know About Chinese Tone.

The combination of (1) a restricted inventory of phonological syllable types and (2) and syllable-level semanticity, logically tends to generate homonyms. The tendency of spoken language to favor bisyllabic compounds, even synonym compounds, has the effect of disambiguating those homonyms. For example, here are some other semantic fields associated with the spoken syllables bin and f:

[Cantonese: Hok7-lou5, Hokkien: Hok-l., Hok-liu or, in Tiwn, H-l.] or Old Fjin Fellow, which enters the English literature as Hoklo. The term Hoklo is also used to refer to Fujianese in contrast to Punti in Gungdng. Some English writers use other spellings of these terms based on their Cantonese or Hokkien pronunciations.

In the XXth century the dialect of Bijng was chosen as the official national language, and succeeding Chinese governments promoted it (in very slightly different variants) under the names National Language Guyand Common Speech Ptnghu. In Singapore it is called Chinese Speech Huy. This language is official throughout China and is what is usually taught under the name of Chinese in schools outside China, including schools serving Cantonese- or Hokkien-speaking people. (It is ironic that elderly Cantonese in Fiji, say, seek to keep their Chinese heritage alive by forcing the kids to study Mandarin, a language which the elderly people themselves do not speak, but never mind that. Nationalism is a remarkable thing.)

[Cantonese: Hak8-ga1], literally means guest families. (The Hokkien equivalent, Kh-lng

In 1956 the new Communist government began an even more intense campaign to promote the national language (under the name Common Speech) on the mainland. The NPA was replaced for most purposes with a new Romanization system, called Pnyn in English, Hny Pnyn(Hn Language Phonetic Alphabet) in Chinese, eliminating the distinction between an alphabet for internal use and a separate, Roman, one for international use. By the 1980s Mainland publishers used Hanyu Pinyin as the official Romanized spellings in all foreign language text intended for countries using the Latin alphabet. In the absence

English: They didnt speak Mandarin with you.

is a coastal city just on the Gungdng side of the Gungdng/Fjin border. Is was formerly called Swatow in English. The name is also used to refer to the distinctive speech of this region, which is a very deviant dialect of Hokkien. Until the mid-Qng period (period 21) the city was called Chozhu [Hokkien: tiô-chiu]

Footnote: These examples are derived in part from an article by Edward Gunn (1993 Rewriting Chinese: Style and Innovation in Twentieth-Century Chinese Prose.Arts & Sciences Newsletter14(2): 4-5). For the sake of simplicity, these examples are entirely in traditional (non-simplified) characters. The use of simplified characters would create minor variants of what you see here. These writings accentuate the differences by making use of characters that are locally used, but in some cases are not part of standard Chinese. Sometimes they are not found in printing and computer type fonts. For example, the symbolsin the Southern Mn line are a stand-in here for a character which has no Unicode representation. The character is relatively common in Tiwn to represent the sound of Hokkienin(Mandarin yn), which locally means they. It is usually written with a person radicalfollowed by a same-sound phonetic.

), since one wants to begin the new year with a surplus (y

More Than You Want To Know About Simplified Characters (link)

, variously spelled Taishan, Toisan, Toishan, Hoisan, &c. It is the dialect of the coastal district of Tnshn, to the southwest of Gungzhu, and was once the most common kind of Chinese spoken in the Chinatowns of North America.

A fourthimplication of such a writing system is that a written text in a compact, literary style that takes advantage of the features of the writing system that make it concise cannot necessarily be understood if read out loud. It must be translated into spoken language. (However, some dialect groups, such as Cantonese, have more elaborate inventories of syllabic types, and therefore more possible syllables and less homonymy. Thus reading out a Classical text in Cantonese does not render it as unintelligible as it does in Mandarin.)

As we saw when we discussed the writing system, it is possible for literary Chinese to be quite different in syntax from spoken Chinese, and a result of this was the growth of a literate tradition that required considerable education to manipulate it. The early XXth century brought winds of democratic sentiment to China, as elsewhere, and saw a host of changes in the form of written Chinese. These related to written style, to attempts to standardize pronunciation of a standard national speech, and changes and standardization in the written characters.

Zhanzh, sometimes translated figurative extension [of meaning] refers to characters formed by modifying the shape of a character to produce another one of a related meaning. Thus it is said that corpse shis derived from person rn.

that there are actually two very divergent dialects of Hokkien (or perhaps one of Hokkien and one of Northern Mn) spoken in here, one of which is locally named after Ptin

A large proportion of Chinese vocabulary is monosyllabic, and individual words, whether monosyllabic or polysyllabic, are uninflected, making use of word order to show syntactic relationships:

Alphabets.At the same time, a system of Roman spelling was created (the National Romanization, Guy Lumz, or Gwoyeu Romatzyh, as it spelled itself), and a non-Latin phonemic alphabet, the National Phonetic Alphabet (NPA) (Chinese: Zhyn Fho), to promote standard pronunciation. (The reason for a non-Latin alphabet was that it could fit the language better, have shorter spellings, produce a more rational alphabetical ordering, and be written either horizontally or vertically. Furthermore, it would be a Chinese rather than a foreign invention. As a sample of how it looks, here is how it begins:) Although a few people tried to substitute these alphabetic systems for characters, the Romanization system was never widely accepted, and the National Phonetic Alphabet became popular only to indicate sounds in dictionaries and textbooks, never as a writing system in its own right. The NPA is still used in Tiwn today in dictionaries and textbooks, and beside the characters in books intended for children. On the mainland it sometimes continues to be used for head entries in many dictionaries, beside the Pnyn spellings.

The change in written standard to reflect northern speech patterns rather than the old, non-colloquial style of literary Chinese is referred to as colloquial or clear writing (bihu). It is, of course, almost as foreign to speakers of Non-Mandarin variants of Chinese as the old literary standard was, for the languages of China vary not only in pronunciation, but in vocabulary and word order (a fact rarely appreciated by northern Chinese or by Chinese who have been the victims of school system propaganda). If one used characters honestly to reflect the colloquial vocabulary and sometimes word order of different regions, one would end up, not with a unified Common Speech, but with several quite different written colloquial standards. Here are three non-Mandarin colloquial writings compared with colloquial written Mandarin.[Footnote]

At New Year one should never eat all of the fish (y

Official language policy in Tiwn has adamantly opposed developing non-Mandarin writing systems until quite recently, so Taiwanese Hokkien has no standard character set. Mainland policy even more strongly opposes the recognition of non-Mandarin Chinese. And Tiwn has poor representation in international standards bodies, because of its marginal diplomatic status. Thus it is not surprising that the Unicode Consortium has left out Hokkien characters. As the world moves towards completing its computer standardization, Hokkien is being quietly left off the passenger list. Fascinating, what? For more on this, see my 2002 article Languages Left Behind: Keeping Taiwanese Off the World Wide Web. inLanguage Problems & Language Planning26(2): 111-128. (The article is available on this web site.Link.)

Written Style.The Vernacular Revolution in the early years of the XXth century rebelled against the evolved literary style in favor of using the characters to represent the language more as it was spoken (particularly in northern China). With the founding of the Republic in 1912 came the foundation of public schools and of formal language policy. By 1930 Pekinese (Bijnghu) had been selected as the language of the Chinese republic, to operate beside or in place of all other kinds of Chinese. Since Bijng is itself home to a good deal of speech variation, a standardized variety was selected, standardized writings were officialized for characters that had variant writings, and efforts were made to minimize the number of characters casually used as miswritings of other characters. (For example, the character dnghad been so often miswritten for tngas to become customary.) Some of these policy changes were more widely followed than others, but they influenced school usage, which had an important long-term effect.

is used in names of vermin and it is not uncommon to write the name with dn

Traditional Chinese thought has classified Chinese characters into six types (called the lish). Although the discussion so far has suggested the most important processes, here is how the picture looks when the traditional categories are used:

The picture above was painted about 1770 by a Japanese artist named Shuseki. It shows a beggar carrying a huge gourd and watching a bat. In the upper right hand corner, above the artists signature and seal, is the following inscription in Literary Chinese (enlarged at left):

Post-imperial Chinese governments (Nationalist and Communist), having officialized the speech of Bijng as the national language, then sought to claim it was the speech of all China by naming it the National Language (Guy) (Nationalists) or Common Speech (Ptnghu) (Communists). In English the name Mandarin is standard. The modern written language is intended to reflect this spoken standard, andonlythis standard.

dialects, spoken in Gungdng province. The English name Cantonese derives from the city of Canton, (Gungzhu

Since Chinese tend to name languages after places, and since English tends to use the same names for languages and the people who speak them, it is useful at this point to include a few additional terms you will find in the anthropological literature referring to regional variants of Chinese language or culture. The following are NOT major Chinese languages (except for Hakka), but DO cast a long shadow over the ethnographic record.

, the provincial capital; hence the English name Foochow (or occasionally Hokchiu).

(formerly spelt Chuanchou, Chuanchow, &c. in English). A city on the Fjin coast and also the name of a dialect area generally including the towns of the lower Jnjing

, the provincial capital.) One of the most often mentioned of the Cantonese dialects is Tishn

of lower Yngzi valley, including Shnghi, sometimes referred to in English as the W dialects. (Because of the overwhelming importance of Shanghai as the center of Chinas publishing industry, Shanghainese speech has traditionally dictated the way foreign names are represented in Chinese characters, which explains why many of them seem so improbable to foreign students of Mandarin.)

river basin (formerly spelt Tsinkiang or Chinchiang in English), and therefore also the name of the dialect group in Tiwn that hailed from this region and was often in conflict with people from the Zhngzhu dialect group.

What is of interest in the present context is the custom of exploiting a linguistic feature of Chinese itself, namely the high number of homonyms, to produce these small acts of human hope, showing how self-conscious speakers tend to be about homonyms.


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