Archive for the 'East Asian Languages' Category


Zhuzhing up Beijing

About a month ago I wrote about what seems to be the more prevalent pronunciation of Beijing, namely that involving the postalveolar voiced fricative [ʒ]. Recently an AP article was written that aims to clear everything up and explain that, in fact the “hard j” sound in English is a closer approximation to the Mandarin pronunciation than the “soft j” sound that I (and others) find so frustrating. The main source of the article is not native Mandarin speakers, but S. Robert Ramsey (whose book on Chinese I mentioned about three years ago). Bill Poser discusses the article on LL.

So, this is all to the good, no? I suppose…but then again, I find I usually pronounce the name of the city Shanghai so that the first vowel is that of hang or fang, not that of father. This despite knowing full well the Mandarin pronunciation (which, as the official language, I would take to be the expected way for a foreigner to say the word, rather than in Shanghainese). In this case, the low mid-vowel is both the more proper and more foreign sounding option, and yet I do not frequently use it (at least, I don’t think I do, unless speaking with, say, a Chinese-speaker). Is Shanghai really that different from Beijing? And this is to say nothing of Seoul (which I render with a single syllable). Maybe I’m just a super-Anglicizer, and in the case of Beijing it happens to work out.

And for some sane arguments in favor of Beizhing, I recommend this entry in Beijing Sounds.

Fun in the san-san-san

On a lark I decided to switch my Facebook interface to use Japanese. I noticed today that on a particular day when I befriended several people

Russellさんが Aさん、 Bさんさん、 Cさん、 Dさん、 Eさんさんさんと他1人さんと友達になりました。

That’s “Russell-san became friends with A-san, B-san-san, C-san, D-san, E-san-san-san, and one other person-san.”

Aside from the strangeness (to me) of adding the honorific -san to the phrase 他1人 ‘one other person’, there is the extreme strangeness of the multiple -_san_s appended to some of the names. I looked at some other people’s front pages, and found the same pattern exhibited two other times, as well as a slightly different pattern: A-san, B-san, C-san-san, D-san, E-san-san, and F-san (no ‘others’ mentioned).

At first I thought it might be that some of the -_san_s got omitted for some names and then stacked up somewhere else, but in no case was someone’s name missing the honorific suffix.

Living with a soft j

I suppose I shouldn’t really care that nearly every time someone one the news utters the name of the capital city of China, they use a “soft j” (aka [ʒ]), rather than the standard Mandarin “hard j” ([ʤ] would be the closest sound in English). I mean, it’s not that big a deal, and hyperforeignization is, after all, a fact of linguistic life. Probably serves me right for trying to be bilingual.

[Update: Ben Zimmer's pointer to Bill Poser's similar comments reminded me of another set of cases: pronunciation of Chavez with initial "sh" (as in, say, Cesar Chavez Street (formerly Army St) in San Francisco). The same probably goes for several other cases of "ch" in Spanish (machete anyone?)]

Reberu appu!

This is the result of a train of thought that went like this. The other day I was in the linguistics department and looked at a sign that’s been at the base of a set of stairs for a few years now. It said something like, “Step up your fitness level: take the stairs.” I wondered, for some unknown reason, how this would be expressed in Japanese. Of course I really have no idea (though I’m sure that such a sign is possible, or even probable in Japan…though on the other hand, there are many places where Japanese people use staircases where Americans would use or at least expect an escalator or elevator; well, at least in places where “accessability” is important).

Not really knowing a word for fitness other than kenkoo ‘health,’ I just figured that probably, on signage like this, English was more the way to go: fittonesu reberu. Then there’s the question of raise. There are a few words like ageru which correspond to raise in some contexts. But again, why do that when you can go English: appu!

And then yes, we had reberu appu, or level up. That got me to wondering: how many uses of level up (including the pseudo-exclamative “level up” as well as the verb “(to) level up” in both transitive and intransitive senses) are original to the American gaming community, and how many (if any) are the result of Japanese influence – or are all Japanese uses taken from elsewhere?

S for status

At the risk of exposing myself as a video game geek as well as a linguistics geek: I am a fan of the Final Fantasy series of video games, which are console-style role playing games developed by the Japanese company Square Enix (formerly SquareSoft, and at some point involved with Electronic Arts). The series began on the Family Computer System (Famicom) in Japan in 1987, and released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in America in 1990. The basic premise in these games is that you are (or control) some hero (who may be reluctant) who ends up having to save the world from some magical, political, or politico-magical force. The hero is also accompanied by a group of companions who tag along for various reasons, including possibly being heroes themselves.

Without getting into the gruesome details of how the gameplay works, one important aspect is called status effects, or simply status. A status effect is some temporary or curable altering of a character’s normal condition. That is, normally a character is able to take any of the normal commands (attack with equipped weapon, cast spell, execute class-specific action [e.g., steal from opponent]), etc.), and execute them in a timely fashion with the desired effect. Characters also never randomly tire, drop dead, or get second winds, etc. on their own. However, any number of things can change this. A character may be “poisoned,” meaning that they will “die” (go out of commission) as their body is gradually weakened; or they may be “blinded,” and be unable to connect with physical attacks; or they may be “confused” and execute random commands on random targets; and so on. For each status, there is usually a particular way to cure it without waiting for it to stop on its own. To cure poisoning, one can use an antidote; for blindness, eye drops; for confusion, whack them with something.

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What’s in that name

A recent PC post on envelope-pushing names in China reminded me of the situation on names in Japan, where there is a government-sanctioned list of Chinese characters (kanji) that can be used in personal names. This doesn’t limit the possible sounds that can go into a name (beyond the phonology of the language), as you can just use hiragana (or katakana?) to indicate the appropriate pronunciation.

The approved list of kanji, the Jinmeiyoo Kanji (‘Chinese characters for use in personal names’), consists of 983 kanji that do not appear in the standard 2000-odd standard kanji used in everyday writing, giving parents about 3000 characters to chose from. Excluded from the list are many characters that indicate culturally taboo or offensive concepts, like prostitution, cancer, and various emotional states (resentment, e.g.). Once, there were parents who attempt to give their child a name like ‘demon’ or something similar, and this name was rejected as a form of abuse of parental powers, due to the expected social difficulties that the child would be expected to experience (but, I haven’t heard anything about Japanese parents tying to put symbols in names, like in the Chinese story).

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Vote for Overcome-forest-pause

Recently I was handed an article on the difficulties in Boston of recording various presidential candidates’ names on Chinese ballots. The problem is laid out fairly enough in the article. Basically, all (or nearly all) characters used in Chinese have an attached meaning or set of meanings. This means that when rendering a non-Sinitic name in Chinese, one necessarily presents a string of meanings along with a string of sounds. The result is the sort of thing described in the article: “Barack Obama could be read as ‘Oh Bus Horse.’” No actual Chinese is given, but I expect that the possibility being referred to is 哦巴马 o ba ma.

This would actually not be my first choice in transcribing (I won’t mention the annoying confusion with “translation” exhibited by the article in question) Obama’s name. The first character is pronounced as a short open [o], rather than the [ou] that is actually in his name. And it seems that, although 哦巴马 has some very limited use, “Obama” is commonly written 欧巴马 (ou ba ma; Mainland, Taiwan) or 奧巴馬 (ao ba ma; Hong Kong). The Mainland version seems closest to me; the Hong Kong initial ao is mysterious: maybe it’s just convention to use that character, or maybe in Cantonese it has a different enough pronunciation that it makes sense. So why refer to the minority choice in the article? It seems that the meanings of the other variants are just as amusing: the Mainland character ou has basically been bleached of its native meaning, and mostly just stands for ‘Europe’. The HK variant means ‘mysterious’ or ‘back corner (of a house)’.*

And how about the rest of the name? The article says that The ma part does mean ‘horse’, and that’s spot on. Use of ‘horse’ to stand for ma-type sounds is standard. I’ve never seen ‘mother’, ‘hemp’, ’scold’, ‘[question particle]‘ or any others used. (FYI, the name for Malaysia is 马来西亚 ‘horse-come-west-asia/inferior’). But I’m dubious about translating ba as ‘bus’. It certainly is in the word for bus, namely 巴士 (ba shi) but whether the ba part alone can mean ‘bus’ I’m not sure about.

A curious omission is Sen. Clinton, whose family name is 克林顿 (ke lin dun), overcome-forest-pause. Of course, the ke part is almost always used for foreign names, except perhaps in 克服 ‘overcome’. At least, that’s my impression from reading what Chinese news publications I can understand. I’d be curious to know how native speakers react to seeing the character, e.g., if they expect a foreign name in its vicinity if they see it.

One of the most ridiculous transliterations described is that of current Boston mayor Thomas Menino, whose name could apparently mean “Sun-Moon-Rainbow-Farmer”, “Imbecile” or “Barbarian-Mud-No-Mind-of-His-Own”. Whoa. I don’t even see how the first two versions could exist, since his full name should need at least six characters, and (1) no characters that I’m aware of with meanings “sun” and “moon” have anything like the right pronunciation, and (2) “imbecile” is an unlikely interpretation for an (essentially) random string of six characters. The last option seems more likely for Menino: it probably starts 蒙泥 meng ni, with meng somehow meaning ‘barbarian’ instead of being an abbreviation for ‘Mongolia(n)’. But, again, this would buck the general trend: the mayor is usually referred to as 马尼诺 ma ni nuo ‘horse-nun-promise’ or 梅尼诺 mei ni nuo ‘plum-nun-promise’.

One has to wonder how much of an issue it is. When someone is reading about a candidate, how much do the characters used to represent the name affect judgment? I suppose when you’re a presidential candidate, or a Secretary of State, you probably don’t want to take any risks. The most realistic suggestion reported in the article is for the candidates themselves to suggest how their names should be written down, perhaps taking their cue from what popular Chinese publications are doing. And, I would add, having their names down in Roman letters as well.

*Sometimes I wonder of decisions about which characters to use are motivated by how their pronunciation would end up in pinyin. Using 哦巴马 (the nonstandard variant) gets you _o ba ma_ in pinyin. I’ve seen some other examples like this, where the closest similarity to English (or whatever other language) is not in pronunciation but in pinyin/Roman spelling. But at the moment I can’t recall any of the particular cases.

There are meters and then there are meetorus

Someone asked me the other day which was the normal way to talk about meters in Japanese, as in “the plant is over two meters tall.” He wondered if it was meetaa or meetoru. I knew I’d heard (and possibly used) both before, but I wasn’t sure which was more common, so I guessed meetaa. Should have checked the dictionary first.

Consulting with the Daijirin, a large American Heritage-style dictionary (as opposed to the Koujien, which is sort of OED-ish), I found an interesting difference between the two. Both meetoru and meetaa have two senses. Meetoru’s first sense is the unit of measurement, and all related things: meetoru-hoo is the metric system ‘meter law/rule’. Meetaa’s first sense is “measurement device,” as in gasu meetaa ‘gas meter’ and paakingu meetaa ‘parking meter’. Did this bring me back to an earlier post? Yes it did. But this is rather minor, parallel to the pair sutoraiki ‘labor strike’ and sutoraiku ’strike (baseball/bowling)’.

(In fact, the “strike” pair is rather interesting because the final vowel is devoiced; if the two words had meanings similar enough that appeared in the same contexts, people might have some serious issues telling them apart.)

But remember that each of these words had two senses? Well, the second senses of each meetaa and meetoru says, basically, “see [the other word], sense 1.” Great, I thought. But it’s actually not that, uh, “simple,” because while meetaa indeed has both meanings, meetoru is always the unit of length: there is no gasu meetoru, at least according to one person I spoke with.

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