The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Tag: Chinese

The Seventh Day

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(This is post is backdated, written on 23rd July, 2016)

It’s been seven days since you left us. You were always asking about Chinese customs, and we believe that on the seventh day, the spirit returns to the home for a visit and a meal.

I went and got you fresh flowers because you like them, even though you don’t put much effort in watering them. I had to replace the water for the bouquet I got for you for Valentine’s Day all the time. Those flowers were yellow, as are these. I know you know I don’t care for fresh flowers, as I think they represent imminent death. Fresh flowers wilt and die, and then we replace them — why should we perpetuate death any more than they should occur naturally? You know I would get them for you anyway simply because you like them. Hopefully these flowers will stay alive until I can bring them to you in Kentucky.

I took the 5 train back home and when I got to our building, I realised I had forgotten my keys and left them at work. I chose to walk towards the Q train because 1) I don’t like retracing my steps and 2) the Q is probably faster to get to my workplace at this time. As I walked towards the Q, I walked past Popeyes. The Popeyes you had always gotten chicken tenders from because they didn’t have any bones and you were picky and ate like a kid. The Popeyes that, back then, when I decided to buy a five-piece-for-$5 chicken (with bones) deal, you were so lazy you always asked my to buy your chicken tenders on your behalf. Maybe it was coincidence, maybe it was divine inspiration, maybe it was subconscious guidance. Maybe your ghost wanted chicken tenders and you made me walk past the Popeyes to buy you chicken tenders for your seventh day ghostly visit meal. I bought chicken tenders when I came back with my keys.

We never got a cat but hopefully Conrad the bear and Peanut the bear suffice to greet you when you return.

I was half hoping I’d open the door and see you with hands on hips, saying “Hiii! What’s up?” as you make that goofy smile. I wouldn’t even have been that spooked, I think. Traditionally, in our culture, we would lay out a tray filled with talcum powder to capture the footprints if the deceased visited on the seventh day. Knowing you, you’d probably have kicked it over and made a big mess. I don’t want to have to clean that up. So no talcum powder.

I set down the chicken tenders, set up the flowers, set Peanut and Conrad around and took a picture. This is the 21st century, I can’t communicate with you via a medium, but I can do so via another medium — I posted on your Facebook.

For some reason, as I ate the chicken tenders, I couldn’t finish them all in one sitting, as you never did. You always ate the tenders and had leftovers and put them in the fridge, as I did that night. It sucks not being able to finish my food, and I blame your ghost for possessing my stomach.

I don’t know why it takes seven days for spirits to return to their home visit — neither more days nor less. But you’ve always had a terrible sense of direction so maybe it would take you that long because you were probably lost trying to find your way back. You got lost whenever we had moved to a new apartment, be it the one in Chinatown or in Brooklyn. I won’t be taking seven days to see you. Just three more days. I heard your body had arrived in the funeral home in Kentucky already.

I’ll see you soon in Kentucky. Until then.

 

<– DAY 6

<– DAY 5

<– DAY 4

<– DAY 3

<– DAY 2

<– DAY 1

<– DAY 0

So is Zuckerberg fluent in Chinese or not?

Image: Tsinghua University

Image: Tsinghua University

Mark Zuckerberg recently made news because of a dialogue he gave at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, where he spoke (Mandarin) Chinese. Here’s the link to the full video, 30 minutes long.

There have been news coverage about Zuckerberg’s Chinese language skills, from laudatory “Of course he speaks fluent Mandarin” headlines to less-than-favourable comparisons to that of a seven-year old. It turns out that there is a problem with the mixed coverage of Zuckerberg’s student dialogue — the news and the public often get confused what language “fluency” is.

Zuckerberg’s spoken Chinese, while mostly coherent, and with some interruptions, mangled most of the tones that the Chinese language is widely known for. BBC’s coverage pointed out that Zuckerberg’s failure to properly produce tones led him to claim that Facebook had just “11 mobile users” instead of “one billion.”

To understand how “fluent” one is when talking about mastery of a foreign language, one needs to understand the difference between “competence,” “performance,” “fluency,” and “proficiency” — four terms often used in such discussions. I’ll attempt to explain the differences between these four concepts.

Language competence and performance are the two biggest things that people are actually talking about when discussing a person’s L2 (foreign-language) “fluency.” Simply put, competence is a person’s grasp on the language’s grammar, phonological/phonetic rules, etc. Thus a person can be completely competent in a language but unable to perform as well. An example would be a person completely able to understand and speak Spanish, but unable to roll one’s R’s.

The distinction between competence and performance was notoriously made by Noam Chomsky in 1965. However, Chomsky’s notion of grammatical and phonological (linguistic) competence was expanded by Dell Hymes in 1966.  It included the knowing of appropriateness of topics and politeness (sociolinguistic), understanding how to combine language structures into different oral and written types (discourse), and knowing how to repair communication breakdown in the presence of interference (strategic). These concepts came to be known as “communicative competence” in literature.

Zuckerberg’s Chinese performance with his tones was bad, but he understood most of the questions asked. He was also able to answer simple to moderately complex questions in grammatically-sound Chinese. His use of humour and appropriate politeness further signals competence. It can be said that he’s mostly competent in Chinese.

Fluency is the measure of the ease of production of the language. It can be measured by speed, sustainment, and/or lack of breaks. Fluency includes not only speech fluency, but reading, writing, and even listening. Thus a person could be illiterate and have a limited vocabulary, but can be considered fluent if the speech occurs at a smooth pace. Zuckerberg’s speech does contain many pauses in parts of his speech, to the point that it might be hard for the listener to understand what he’s trying to say. He may not be very fluent, but through context of his speech, listeners (especially native speakers) are able to repair the content of his speech mostly.

Lastly, proficiency is the mastery of how well one uses the language, and can usually be tested by means such as the TOEFL or JLPT. One thing that was pointed out to me is that in language testing, proficiency is usually norm-referenced; that means that test takers are tested on how well they did in comparison to other test takers. This is different from criterion-referenced tests, such as the GCEs and GCSEs, where test takers are measured if they meet a set of pre-defined criteria. Once again, a speaker can be fluent in the language, but not necessarily proficient.

The persistence of comprehension

chinesefup

Some time ago, Instagram user jumppingjack posted the above image of a note she left to her mum. She said that her brother secretly added extra strokes to the characters in the note. The result is interesting though: even though extra strokes were added, the note is still readable to most competent Chinese speakers. This phenomenon is very similar to one not too long ago in English, coined “Typoglycemia,” a portmanteau of “typo” and “glycemia” and a pun on “hypoglycaemia,” where as long as the first and the last letter of the word is preserved, the middle can be scrambled and the words are still understandable.

This is an interesting case in what I call persistence of comprehension, where comprehension of words persists despite efforts to thwart it.

The Preamble

Unlike English, which uses the alphabetic system where each letter is a phoneme, or Japanese, a syllabary system where each character is a mora, Chinese uses a logographic system, using “pictures,” or logographs to represent words. So unlike the other two systems where there are things to scramble, it is hard to “scramble” a picture, and scrambling a picture is no different from adding or subtracting strokes from a character, which is what jumppingjack‘s brother did.

Before I go further, let me type out what the note intends to say:

妈妈,明天的午餐因为
人数不够,他们把这个
活动换到下一个星期
(可是下个星期六中午我的
公司有个午餐)

谢谢 🙂  (我明天应该有吃午餐)

Mum, for tomorrow’s lunch because
there aren’t enough people, they have
changed this activity to next Monday.
(But next Saturday afternoon my
company has a lunch event)
Thanks 🙂  (I should be eating lunch tomorrow)

So how does persistence of comprehension occur in Chinese? I shall illustrate some of the characters that are easily understood despite the scrambling and the ones that threw me off (and my friends) the most. (Also, note that the person mis-wrote the character for 期 where he switched the 月 and 其 around, not of her brother’s doing. But the brother added an extra radical as well)

chinesemessy

The image above sorts some of the words in the note in order of persistence of comprehensibility from top to bottom, with top being easiest to understand despite scrambling and the bottom being the hardest. The scrambled word is on the left and the proper word is on the right. Note that the bottom four scrambled words are all actual Chinese words, which I will talk about shortly.

The scrambling of the 的 character is one of the easiest to understand, because despite the additional stroke, it still mostly resembles its original character, and does not resemble any other words in the language. The added stroke is a not a radical, a graphical component of a word that is often semantic, unlike the scrambling of the character 明 (tomorrow). Similarly for 因, the added stroke turns the 大 in the 因 into a 太, but on the overall the word is not a real word and mostly resembles its original.

Now we look at the addition of a stroke in 明, turning the 日 (sun) radical, usually used for weather-related words, into a 目 (eye) radical, usually used for vision-related words. The resultant scrambled word is still not a word, but the morphing of a semantically-relevant radical into another makes one pause when reading the sentence. Also, the addition of a stroke to the 月 (moon) component turns it into a 用 (use) character, making comprehension even more difficult.

One step after the 明 character is the 们 character, where not a stroke but an entire 中 (middle) word has been inserted in the middle (haha) of 们. Some of my friends disagree that it is harder than the scrambling of 明, and I’m inclined to agree, and I’d put it as a toss-up between the two. However, I feel that the insertion of an entire word as opposed to a stroke or radical morphs the word enough to the point that it becomes alien enough not to even resemble its original, but does not resemble any other word in Chinese.

Lastly, the last four words, 公,午,伞,and 下, have strokes and/or word components added to them, that they actually resemble other words in the language, 翁 (old man), 牛 (cow), 伞 (umbrella), and 卡 (card). With such resemblance to real words, little wonder people have difficult understanding the words as they read them.

The Analyis

How is it that we are able to understand the note with little difficulty?

In the English “Typoglycemia,” it has been suggested that we identify words not solely by letter position in a word, but by context, shape of the word, and position of word in the sentence. I’m going as far to suggest that in English seeing the individual letters of a scrambled word draws upon our stored memory of the word, further aiding comprehension of a scrambled word. Compare:

  1. Adcnirocg to rrasceeh at a ptaruilacr ureitnvisy
  2. Aoincdrg to rcseerh at a plaaicutr uesvtniiy
  3. Aroindg to rearech at a pluiraacr utrisveiy

Example 1 is classic “typoglycemia” where persistence of comprehension is strong, example 2 removes one non-essential letter from each word, and persistence of comprehension is still relative strong. Example 3 removes what I consider an essential component to the memory of the word, which are usually consonants and not vowels. Take this example:

  • I cnt blve u dd tt!

In English, vowels can be removed quite easily and the comprehension of the word is still possible. This suggests that consonants play a slightly more important part in the reading of words. In that aspect, comprehension of written English has some similarity to comprehension of written Arabic or Hebrew, where typically vowels are not included in the writing (in the way English does anyway). Thus, it is harder to understand “aroindg” as “according” because

  1. An essential component has been removed (3 syllables, essential components in bold: a-cc-r-dng). This might be so because consonant representations are tied up with its phonetic properties. This is why “cc” or has to be removed as opposed to just “c” from “according” for comprehension to fail, because “cc” in the word correlates to the /k/ sound in /əˈkɔː(ɹ)dɪŋ/; even with just one “c” or it is sufficient to clue us in that there might be a /k/ or sound in the scrambled word.
  2. It is the first in the sequence of essential components, suggesting that perhaps we process essential components sequentially in our head. It could be that when we see the word “according,” we could be drawing upon the idea that “according” has the components “a-cc-d-ng” in that order. Hence removing the first component “cc” impedes comprehension as it cannot give the subsequent components context of what the word might be (compare understanding: “aroindg” (“cc” removed) with “aocrcdg” (“in” removed)).

How does this relate to Chinese? If we can say that we draw upon essential sequences of components in the comprehension of written English, perhaps there is an equivalent of that in the comprehension of Chinese. I believe that in reading Chinese, there is a stored visual memory of what the character looks like in general, and also an idea of what strokes the character should contain (“legal strokes”), and what it should not (“illegal strokes”).

First, we address whether modifying a Chinese character sets off alarm bells to the reader. Adding legal strokes to scrambled characters should stand out less to the reader, causing him to accept the character as a real word visually. We look at the following example where this is demonstrated:

chinesemessy2

In the note, a floating shuzhe (vertical-bend) stroke is added to the 够 character, and in the Chinese language there is no such occurrence of a floating shuzhe; they are always attached to other strokes, such as in 喝 (with some exceptions, like 断, which may or may not be attached). Being visually alerted that there is something wrong with the character, we immediately visually discount the scrambled 够, and are able to extract the original word. In the example of 他, the pie (leftward-slant) stroke is added on top of the 亻radical, creating a 彳(step) radical, which exists. Thus when reading the scrambled word of 他, it does not jump out at the reader visually as the shuzhe stroke in 够 does, and we are likely to gloss over it and accept it as it appears to us and are less likely to question whether the character is out of place contextually or not.

Next, adding a legal stroke to scrambled words causes more confusion when the stroke turns the original word into a semantically different word. There is extra confusion when the meaning of the new word does not fit in the context of the sentence, especially when the word has been accepted as it is, as explained in the previous paragraph. These can be seen in the following examples:

chinesemessy3

If my premises are right, in example 1, readers should be able to identify the error most easily and yet still read the sentence in its original context. In example 2, they should gloss over the wrong character, and since it still resembles very much like the original, is not a new or any word at all, persistence of comprehension should still be strong. In example 3, this is where comprehension begins to be thwarted, where 他能够卡去吃午餐 (He is able to card go eat lunch) and 他能够下去吃牛餐 (He is able to go down and eat cow meal) don’t make any sense as the scrambled words have both legal strokes and are real words, and the meaning of the scrambled words are contextually out of place in the sentence.

The Conclusion

What I have coined “the persistence of comprehension” is a seemingly little-researched area in English, much less Chinese. I offered the following reasons explaining the persistence of comprehension in English “typoglycemia,” where through the combination of context, length of word, letter position, shape of word, word position in a sentence, and (what I have demonstrated with examples) identifying the letters, which draw upon phonetic representations of the word in our head, we are able to read English.

In the more interesting case of Chinese, which is logographic, I posited that there are legal and illegal strokes which can be added to a character. Legal strokes are less likely to be noticed than illegal ones. If the scrambled word is a real actual word, the effect of having legal strokes masks the fact that the word has been scrambled, and when we read it, the sentence doesn’t make sense because we do not suspect a character has been tampered with.

All in all, more extensive research must be done, than what this blog can provide. I don’t know if I will be able to do so, but if anyone wants to hear my notes on this topic, feel free to reach out to me at ws672[at]nyu[dot]edu.

Note: In the original version of this post, I wrote that jumppingjack was male, when she is female. Corrections have been made.

An order of Chinese puns, stuffed with conspiracies

It’s an interesting day when the president of China eating lunch sparks off a wave of conspiracy theories.

Chinese President Xi Jinping got in the queue with the lunch crowd and bought six steamed buns filled with pork and spring onions, a bowl of stir-fried liver, and a plate of vegetables, for a cost of 21 yuan.

On Weibo, some were marvelling at how the President himself was getting in the line, paid for the food himself, carried the trays himself, and obtained the food himself. Others wondered if his public obtaining of food had any symbolic meaning.

The New York Times reports:

While photos of the presidential lunch fill pages of Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media site, users are trying to “crack the code” of the three simple food items for signals regarding the president’s anti-corruption campaign.

According to one theory, the name of the steamed bun shop, “Qingfeng,” which means “celebrating the harvest” but sounds like the Chinese words for “clear wind” and evokes an honest government official who never takes bribes, suggests the qualities Mr. Xi wants all government officials to uphold as a standard.

Another says the stir-fried pig liver means that any government officials who demonstrate pig-like greed will be “fried,” which can mean to be fired in Chinese.

The green vegetables Mr. Xi ordered, called “jiecai,” sound like the Chinese phrase “beware of wealth” — a possible warning to all officials to resist the temptation of financial gain.

The translucent filling of fatty pork and spring onion signifies transparency. And it is no coincidence, says one theory, that the meal cost 21 renminbi, the sum of three times seven. This is because the Chinese saying “It doesn’t matter if three times seven is 21” means that whatever is going to happen is going to happen.

“President Xi is saying government officials must stay clean and transparent, otherwise they will all get fired!” concludes this theory.

“If you are a corrupt official, the president will finish you like he did his lunch!” said another Weibo user.

So basically, the essence of Chinese conspiracy theories lie in… puns? Wow.

Which is not that surprising, given that the language is full of homophones.

What’s in a name? Government regulation, that’s what

I was researching names that have fallen into disuse, and suddenly the regulation of names came up in the search. I decided to look up how China and Japan regulates what names are permitted for newborns, trying to find out what is or isn’t permitted.

China

Apparently there’s no restriction to what names can be used, as long as a computer is able to reproduce the character. Thus, according to Wikipedia, “(it) is not illegal to name a child after a famous celebrity, company, or product, as copyright and trademark laws do not apply to personal names.”

However, while there are over 70,000 Chinese characters available to choose from, only 32,232 are supported for computer input. Thus people with characters that fall outside of this 32,232 have names that run into problems when these people try to register for ID.

Japan

Japan takes a more stringent approach to naming one’s newborn, and restricts character usage based on readability and taste. “Only kanji which appear on the official list may be used in given names. This is intended to ensure that names can be readily written and read by those literate in Japanese. Rules also govern names considered to be inappropriate; for example, in 1993 two parents who tried to name their child Akuma (悪魔, which literally means “devil”) were prohibited from doing so after a massive public outcry.”

 

Speaking fake English, or any other fake language

What qualifies the English language to sound “English” enough? Very often, people in the English-speaking world have impressions of what foreign languages sound like. Chinese (excluding stereotypical “ching-chong” variants) sounds like “Xie shi hao ni jing ling ping dao” to many English speakers, replete with its tonality, French has its velar R’s and lots of Z’s and nasalities, “Le beton est un plus morraise il a son telle fusontique des mon,” Italian has its inflections on certain syllables, and so forth.

What about fake English? Were a foreigner to make fun of what English sounds like to them, how would they reconstruct it?

Turns out faking a language at least requires the basic knowledge of morphemic and phonetic structure of that language. Why do people in the least go “ching-chong” when talking about Chinese and rattle their throats and noses trying to speak fake French? It’s because that they know these languages feature these consonant and vowel relationships.

Knowing the phonetic map is only one part of speaking a fake language, the other, to make the fake language sound convincing, is knowing how they fit together to form words.

The video above speaks fake Chinese, and as a Chinese speaker, I find it very far off, simply because he does not understand the tonal system of Chinese, nor can he reproduce certain syllables.

The video below shows a somewhat convincing fake English, as it imagines what English would sound like to foreign person who does not speak the language.

Any English speaker would realise that in that clip, it actually uses a lot of real English words, but for the most part is unintelligible, yet it still sounds distinctively English. I feel that the writers of the script relied too much on real words and simply garbling the rest, when they could have pushed the boundaries further of words they can change up using English phonomorphemic rules to create a convincing and clear fake English conversation.

I wrote previously that we can extract semantic meaning from nonsense words, through parallel sounds and morphemes attached to them. Likewise, for fake English, to sound most convincing, we need to preserve morphemes, because for some reason, English morphemes are very English to any English speaker. So much so that we attach them to foreign words when we attempt to Anglicise them. For example, we can say a person “kamikaze’d” or that perhaps something could be “taco-licious”. What that means exactly, I’m not sure, but we often use English affixes to bring foreign words to make them fit into our language.

Likewise, if we were to create nonsensical, fake English conversation, we must preserve these affixes, for they give words their purposes. For example, we use “-tion” to turn something into a process, such as “crown” to “coronation,” “investigate” to “investigation.” If I used a word like “hakilimation,” chance are, a competent English speaker can probably draw inferences that the root word would be “hakilimate.” If I said a person is “taffing,” the root verb is probably “to taff.”

Here’s my attempt at speaking fake English, using the rules I have highlighted. I think if someone weren’t paying close attention and heard this in the background, it could pass for real English. Also included are fake Chinese and Japanese, that, in my opinion, sound a lot more legit than those without knowledge of how the language is structured.

Here’s an example of a Microsoft ad that uses fake Chinese convincingly. Granted, a lot of the words are slurred, given its more conversational nature, but to those who know the language, some actual Chinese can be teased out from that blur of words.

BOJIO

bojioAnother in Singapore would be familiar with the vernacular “Bojio,” derived from the Hokkien dialect word 没招. It’s used to signify when one does something and fails to invite his or her friend along, whereby the friend goes, “Eh! Bojio!”

The above character is completely fictional, of course. Chinese orthography cannot represent two words with a single character, but it quite funny. Taken from somewhere on Twitter.