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Transliteration of Chinese Names
Posted: 28 December 2012 06:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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dtx1759 - 27 December 2012 09:47 PM


Japanese is somewhat similar, i.e., although Japanese has 2 phonetic alphabets that are used in writing, Chinese characters are still used to ensure clarity and are considered essential.  (In contrast to Chinese, Japanese has many words with >2 syllables).

The two Japanese syllabaries are katakana and hiragana.  Katakana is primarily used for transcribing foreign loan words, e.g., ベイスボール, beisubōru, baseball.  Hiragana is mostly used for grammatical particles not present in Chinese.  One of these is also used in early education when use of kanji would be too overwhelming for the beginning reader to handle.

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Posted: 29 December 2012 06:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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I agree that theoretically pinyin could be used in writing (and at one point, I believe Mao pushed for this), but the writing would likely need to be verbose to avoid misunderstanding.  When a language is spoken, there are many opportunities for clarification, whereas the writing needs to be understood the 1st time.

I’m sorry, but that’s nonsense.  How many times do you think Chinese people ask one another to clarify a sentence they just heard because a syllable was ambiguous?  I’ll tell you right now: very, very few.  Speech in any language is readily understandable, because it has to be—that’s what it’s for, to communicate.  And I hate to repeat myself, but pinyin is just speech written down.  If a person says “Tade qian bi wode duodeduo” and is understood to mean “He has much more money than I do” (to take an example at random), there is no reason on earth why the sentence written down would be any harder to understand.

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Posted: 29 December 2012 08:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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I am hardly an expert, but it is my understanding that Pinyin is, in fact, commonly used by native Chinese speakers when communicatimg in writing to other native Chinese speakers, particular when using smart phones or an Internet based form of communication.  In fact, the use of Pinyin is so widespread that some Chinese speakers (writers) have developed “character amnesia” and have forgotten how to render traditional Chinese characters that they once knew how to render.  There have been several language log posts on this topic; here is one of them:

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2473

It seems unlikely that significant numbers of native Chinese speakers would become dependent on Pinyin to the extent that they began loosing literacy in traditional Chinese character writing if Pinyin was so ineffective as a form of written communication that it was only helpful for road signs for foreigners and simple greetings like hello and good bye.

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Posted: 02 January 2013 08:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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It looks like I triggered lots of skepticism…..let’s see if I can address some of it:

Languagehat:  People think they speak like they write, but they don’t.  When they speak, they repeat, rephrase, correct themselves, and adjust their speech for others.  The Linguist John McWhorter uses recorded conversations to show this.  If you want a specific reference, I can provide it.  In contrast, when we write, we rewrite/edit before others see it (and sometimes we still make mistakes). 

Op Tipping:  Pinyin can be written with tones, but this is primarily done for teaching purposes, (particularly for foreigners) and not in documents and signs.  For example, if you look at a map of China in pinyin, you’ll see 2 side-by-side provinces, Shanxi and Shaanxi. 

Their pinyin is actually the same:  Shanxi, but they have different tones.  Shanxi is Shānxī (山西) and Shaanxi is Shǎnxī (陕西).  Why don’t they use tones to differentiate them?  Because they don’t.  I’m guessing it’s because someone realized that foreigners were more likely to recognize a difference in spelling than tone marks. 

Adding tones to pinyin narrows things down, but not enough.  The number of words associated with each pinyin is still large.  Using the analysis mentioned above (from Kane, 2006), each pinyin is associated on average with ~3 tones.  If this ratio is true for ni hao and the 95 words associated with ni are given tones, ni would still have 31 words/tone and hao would have 21/tone (note: these are different words, not just different meanings). 

Here’s a Chinese perspective on reading pinyin:  “you need to read through the whole sentence or sentences, and analyze the meanings based on the context and guess….”

Svinyard118 – The articles you mentioned are really interesting, but they don’t say that pinyin is used to write IMs/e-mails.  The character amnesia they discuss is in regards to handwriting characters – people are forgetting how to handwrite characters because they use PCs/iphones so much to write characters. 

As the article you referenced states (and more recently at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4367 ), people use pinyin input methods into PCs & smart phones to write characters in e-mails and IM (which is what I described in an earlier post - you type the pinyin and the PC gives you a list of characters to choose from).  Pinyin makes it easy to type characters with modern computers.  My friends use a mix of Chinese characters & English in IMs & e-mails, not pinyin.  My sense is that PCs have made typing characters so easy that there is even less impetus to eliminate their use.

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Posted: 02 January 2013 09:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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In general, for practical purposes, the “95” syllables/characters “ni” are nothing like 95 ‘words’ in general use. The typical or average ‘word’ in Chinese has about two syllables. Even ignoring tones, most words can be identified/guessed from just the pinyin. That’s why it’s so easy to input Chinese in pinyin: even the machine can usually make a good guess!

One can do an experiment, for example, using the ‘word dictionary’ at the MDBG site (http://www.mdbg.net): pick a 2-syllable Chinese word and enter it in pinyin, even without tones: what comes up? For “nihao”, exactly 1 item appears. Many words end in “zi”, so let’s try some things with that syllable: “hanzi” = “[Chinese-type] character”: 4 results, meaning “character”, “man”, “blood clam”, “functor”. Let’s try another: “baozi”: 6 results: “stuffed bun”, “spore”, “leopard”, “plane”, “bearer of good news”, “hail[stone]”: would one have trouble deciding which of these someone said he had eaten today? And that’s without tone. “Shanxi”? Two provinces, distinguishable by tone, and that’s about it.

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Posted: 03 January 2013 05:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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People think they speak like they write, but they don’t.

What does this have to do with what I said?  How about you address my actual point: why is reading “Tade qian bi wode duodeduo” any harder than hearing it said aloud?

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Posted: 03 January 2013 07:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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"How many times do you think Chinese people ask one another to clarify a sentence they just heard because a syllable was ambiguous?” For languages like Chinese that have many many homophones, it is much more common than in English. 

As an example, when Mainland Chinese meet, it’s quite common for them to spend a moment clarifying their actual names (i.e., they can say the person’s name, but they don’t know what the name is because they only know the pronunciation, this doesn’t tell them the name).  Chinese names are words and have meaning, so they want to know. 

Here’s fun quantitative example of this:  In a letter to the journal Science, Lixin Wang notes that his pinyin name is a transliteration of at least 1600 possible Chinese names (Science 320: 745, 2008).  Because Chinese names are words, this is reflective of the issue in general.  (and yes, if they used tones with the pinyin, it would only be hundreds of different names). 

“pinyin is just speech written down” Written language (whether pinyin, characters or English) is not just speech written down – that’s the point of Dr. McWhorter’s that I tried to make.  In Chinese & English, when we speak, we regularly repeat & rephrase what we say to make it clear to others.  The site Svinyard posted has a good example of an English conversation like this – the difference with Chinese is that every word in the sentence could be like “Isle” “Aisle” multiplied many fold.  See “Jacob said” at: 
http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4377#comment-315126

Svinyard – thank you for making me aware of the UPENN site.  It’s excellent.

And to all:  Although I may not have changed opinions, the discussion helped me better prepare for future conversations on this topic.  There is some symmetry in me ending with the Lixin letter since he entitled it in “lost in transliteration” and focused on names, i.e., the post that Happy dog began this with. 

If any of you are wondering about the use of pinyin, the next best step would be to ask a native of the PRC about using pinyin for text & e-mail.  Some of the examples above might help you discuss it.

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Posted: 04 January 2013 05:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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dtx1759 - 03 January 2013 07:24 PM


As an example, when Mainland Chinese meet, it’s quite common for them to spend a moment clarifying their actual names (i.e., they can say the person’s name, but they don’t know what the name is because they only know the pronunciation, this doesn’t tell them the name).  Chinese names are words and have meaning, so they want to know. 

They need to know if they are going to write the name in hanzi.  Yes, the names are words and have meaning, but with names there is no context to help in determining that meaning.  In western languages names have historically had meanings, too, but we didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about what that meaning was because the meaning wasn’t needed in determining how to write those names down.  That is going away to some extent because variant spellings of names are increasing, e.g., the number of possible ways of spelling /’keɪt lɪn/. But if your name is John Smith you don’t spend a lot of time pointing out how it is spelled.  If your name is Jon Smith you might put a little effort into spelling the Jon part but that’s pretty much an exception.

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Posted: 04 January 2013 07:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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As an example, when Mainland Chinese meet, it’s quite common for them to spend a moment clarifying their actual names (i.e., they can say the person’s name, but they don’t know what the name is because they only know the pronunciation, this doesn’t tell them the name).  Chinese names are words and have meaning, so they want to know.

Once again, you’ve changed the subject.  That’s not an “example,” it’s an entirely different issue.  English-speaking people also frequently have to clarify the spelling or pronunciation of their names.  I must reluctantly come to the conclusion that you have your mind made up and have no interest in actually discussing this interesting topic.

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Posted: 04 January 2013 12:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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Written language (whether pinyin, characters or English) is not just speech written down – that’s the point of Dr. McWhorter’s that I tried to make.  In Chinese & English, when we speak, we regularly repeat & rephrase what we say to make it clear to others.

Languages are verbal. It’s impossible for written language to be anything other than “speech written down” since all languages are, by definition, speech. The fact that spoken conversations play out differently than written discourse, is irrelevant to the fact that written languages are representations of spoken words.

I’m not commenting on the issue at large, I’m just commenting on what I believe to be false reasoning on this particular point.

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Posted: 04 January 2013 06:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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Languages are verbal. It’s impossible for written language to be anything other than “speech written down” since all languages are, by definition, speech. The fact that spoken conversations play out differently than written discourse, is irrelevant to the fact that written languages are representations of spoken words.

I’d say this misrepresents the situation. Speech is the primary mode of most languages, but writing is not simply “speech written down.” Just find an accurate transcript of speech (the Watergate tape transcripts are a good, accessible source of such transcripts), and you’ll see that speech is very different than standard writing. Writing and speech are two distinct modes of language use.

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Posted: 04 January 2013 11:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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Of course they are distinct modes, but both of those modes use the same exact building blocks: words. And words are either sounds or some form of written representation of those sounds, there’s no way to get around it.

How you use language for any particular purpose is independent of language itself. Whether it’s Mein Kampf, or Happydog and his crew telling lies at the bar, it’s all words and words are sounds, or some kind of mark representing those sounds.

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Posted: 05 January 2013 12:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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Surely there are languages that are not spoken, languages for which we have no real clue as to how they sounded when (or if indeed) they were spoken. There is Medieval Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit, for instance.  And what of sign-language? A case has been made for a ‘gestural origin of language’. The Gestural Origin of Language, by David F. Armstrong and Sherman E. Wilcox: ”...the fundamental ability that allows us to use language is our ability to use pictures of icons, rather than linguistic symbols....

I feel that the relationship between speech and writing is rather more complex.

[ Edited: 05 January 2013 12:20 AM by sobiest ]
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Posted: 05 January 2013 07:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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There is Medieval Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit, for instance.

We know perfectly well how all three of those sounded, and Sanskrit is the only one about which there is doubt as to whether it was spoken as a native language (it has, of course, been spoken by millions as a second language, just as Latin was spoken in medieval and Renaissance Europe).

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Posted: 05 January 2013 08:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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I’d quibble with “perfectly well,” at least for medieval Latin (I really can’t speak to the other two). We know with reasonable confidence how it was spoken, at least in the more common dialects. (Like any other widespread language, medieval Latin varied from region to region.)

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