The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Tag: linguistics


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.


Evolution of nicknames

Very fascinating, but were you to look at the comments on the video, the comment most seen is “But why is ‘Dick’ short for ‘Richard’?”

Second most popular comment is: “Who the hell actually says ‘A whole nother'”?

Linguistic superiority is bunk

Someone once said to me, “哎呀,你的中文那么不标准!”

That basically meant: Aiya, your Chinese is really substandard!

And that was in response to me telling them my Chinese name. That someone was from Beijing, China, and I am from Singapore. We both speak Chinese, but upon hearing my pronunciation of certain words different from the way they do it, they denounced it as being substandard, for not being the “Beijing standard.”

Thus, they claim linguistic superiority of Chinese over any other regional differences.

It’s not even the way Cockney differs from RP in England, or African American Vernacular differs from General American English — in Wikipedia, the Chinese spoken in Singapore and China are both called “Standard Chinese,” but inevitably there are bound to be phonological differences, that even Wikipedia cannot capture.

A very basic example is the way my name is pronounced.

A character in my name, 俊, is transcribed in pinyin as “jùn”. As many of my friends from China would pronounce it, and the way Wikipedia transcribes it, they say:


with a /voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate + high front rounded vowel + alveolar nasal/. There is a very audible “tch” sound at the onset of the word.

In Singapore, that character in my name would be pronounced:


with a /voiced palato-alveolar affricate + high front rounded vowel + alveolar nasal/. That means that the initial “j” sound in Singaporean Chinese is similar to the way “judge,” “gee,” and “job” is pronounced in English. There is no “ch” sound audible at the onset of the word.

Another difference would be the character 需, xū, as in “to need.” In China, it would be pronounced:


with a /voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant + high front rounded vowel/. There is a very audible, thin “sss” sound at the onset of the word.

In Singapore, that character would be pronounced:


with a /voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant + high front rounded vowel/. It is almost indistinguishable from the way “she” is pronounced in English.

Here is an example of how Standard Chinese sounds are generally pronounced by people from Mainland China:

Note the “j” “q” “x” sounds at the 41 second mark.

Compare with this Singaporean Chinese news clip:

Note at the 23 second mark, the news broadcaster even says a name that has my 俊 “jun” character in it, and the initial “j” is a lot softer than the Chinese from Mainland China. Also, the Chinese spoken by the interviewee immediately is closer to how most Singaporeans speak Chinese — with consonants closer to Taiwanese Chinese than Mainland China Chinese.

Another video clip of Singaporean Chinese, as spoken by kids, with a lot of usage of the “xue” word. Note that they all say /ʃyœ/ (sh-ü-eh).

A very simple reason why there is that difference is in the way we learn Chinese. Those in China learn Chinese via the “bopomofo” method (see video embedded above), where there is an emphasis on preserving the initial sounds (“ji-yu=ju” “xi-yu=xu”). In Singapore, Chinese is taught via the hanyu pinyin system, where its English letters are used as a springboard to understanding the sounds of Chinese. That makes sense in Singapore, given that its bilingual education system begins even in kindergarten, whereas English is only introduced in the Chinese education at a much later age in elementary school.

As such, there are some overlap between the consonants of English and Chinese in Singapore, where “xu” is pronounced “she” and “you” is pronounced “you/yew” (as in English), rather than “yo-uu” (as Mainland Chinese people would).

Furthermore, given that the influence of Chinese dialects such as Hokkien (Southern Min/Min-nan), Teochew, Cantonese, and Hakka, all of which are southern Chinese dialects, you get pronunciations of certain consonants that mimic Taiwanese or Hong Kong Chinese, such as interchanging “chi” “shi” “zhi” with “ci” “si” zi” in casual speech sometimes (that is, people who are not broadcasters or taking exams). An example would be the first video of Singapore Chinese I embedded (about the iPhone 4), where the guy said “zè” instead of “zhè” (这).

Does this make any of the Chinese spoken in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and other parts of the world less “standard” than the Beijing standard?

Were that so, then wouldn’t all variants of English but British English, not even American, be the gold standard of English in the world? Languages change and adapt to the locale, and to insist that only one type of the language is proper and the rest substandard is arrogance in its linguistic superiority.

Lord of the polyglots

What does it take for a language to become a language? Quite simply: grammar. Any constructed language in fiction has the potential to become functional languages, all it takes is a sound structure that is productive and consistent. It’s not the size of the lexicon but the ability to distill fundamental rules about how things such as plurals, tenses, cases, progressives, etc. can be consistently realised in the language.

Thus being able to speak Quenya or Sindarin, some of the most comprehensive constructed languages out there, shouldn’t be something of a shame. J.R.R. Tolkien has in fact said before, “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.”

There are criticisms that constructed languages cannot be compared at the same level of languages that exist in real life, and that the ‘evolution’ that languages such as Quenya experiences in the literature isn’t the same as when real-life languages develop regional dialects and accents from contact with other people and isolation from geographical boundaries. Why should that be the case? Just simply because the change is the result of an author’s machinations doesn’t discredit any change ascribed to the constructed language from being any less real, if said constructed languages mimic real-life examples of language evolution.

There are several constructed languages in the world that experience little to no regional change, such as Esperanto or Lojban, but why should they be seen as more legit than Klingon, simply because people have had the opportunity to use them in real life?

So go forth and proudly claim your multilingualism!

Extracting meaning in nonsense

Image credit to Wikipedia

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

— Lewis Caroll, “Jabberwocky”, 1871

This is one of the most well-known nonsense poems in the English language, and yet, as Alice in Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass says

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate’

Even though the words are nonsensical, we still get a distinct sense of their meaning. How is that achieved? What components of the words in this poem contribute to their meaning? From Wikipedia, it says “The poem relies on a distortion of sense rather than “non-sense”, allowing the reader to infer meaning and therefore engage with narrative while lexical allusions swim under the surface of the poem.” What that means is that when we see the words and hear the sounds of the words, the components draw upon our existing knowledge to draw parallels to words and meaning we already know, and extrapolate the meaning onto the poem.

Thus, the frications, the hisses and lullings of the tongue bring about certain images and parallels to words we already know. A modern example would be the word:

Professor Severus Snape

from the Harry Potter books. It’s a very simply usage of the visual and audio clues as to the kind of person a character with that name might be. From “Severus,” we can break it down phonologically — the repeated sibilant ‘s’ draws upon hissing sounds, starting and ending with an ‘s’ makes the word sound harsher, and the the labio-dental ‘v’ sound draws the speaker’s mouth into an involuntary snarl in order to pronounce the ‘v’. Orthographically, “Severus” looks like the word “severe,” and the “-us” suffix lends it the gravitas of faux-Latin, adding a touch of snobbery and sombreness. Similarly, for “Snape,” phonologically, it leads with an “s” sibilant, and the “SN” consonant cluster makes the reader involuntarily sneer. Ending the word with the plosive “p,” and a released, aspirated one at that, adds to the ideas of a curt, no-nonsense character. One can plausibly imagine Severus Snape (with Alan Rickman as him, of course) saying the words “Get. Up.” with an extra hard release of the final “p” sound. Orthographically, “Snape” looks like “snake,” contains the word “snap” in it, and words that begin with “sn” have usually a slight negative connotation to it. (Snide, sneer, snap, snore, sneak, snoot, snarl, sniffle, snark)

So we’re incredibly able to draw so many allusions just from a person’s name via its sounds and its sights, now imagine extending it to the entire Jabberwocky poem. Let’s just examine the first stanza of the poem:

  1. ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  2. Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
  3. All mimsy were the borogoves,
  4. And the mome raths outgrabe.

And see if we can annotate it with relevant information that we know.

  1. It was brillig [N? Time of the day? ADJ? Brilliant?], and the slithy [Definitely ADJ. Slithering and lithe] toves [Definitely N, because of following line]
  2. Did gyre [V. Plural object-verb agreement (“toves gyre”). Gyroscope] and gimble [V. Gyrate and tumble? Rotating movement] in the wabe [N. Wet, plus extra wet connotations from “slithy”]
  3. All mimsy [Adj. Whimsy? Whimper? Miserable?] were the borogoves [N. Borrow-dove? A bird? Mangrove?]
  4. And the mome raths [ADJ-N, because of the following V. Home? Mope? Moan? Wrath? Rats? Moths?] outgrabe [out-grab+PAST? Gripe+PAST?]

Wikipedia compiles a possible interpretation of the words, which mine seem pretty close to.

The human mind is incredibly capable, almost desirous, of pulling meaning out of words, such that people arguing about semantics when they disagree with words used by other people seem almost silly. Previously, I have written about how the grammaticality we’re obsessed with contributes little to the understanding of meaning, and people who advocate and insist on a gold standard of grammar are quite misguided. Similarly, we see here even semantic-correctness seems secondary, if the words used have no semantic distinguishing from another, because they are not words in the lexicon in the first place, yet they contain content and semantic meaning.

Does it matter if I say, “The amalgamation of hydrogen and oxygen atoms yields water,” and “The combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms yield water,”? There will be semantic purists who insist that the act of amalgamation is subtly different from a mere combination; that perhaps amalgamation is more nuanced.

Of course, I don’t deny that there are certainly words that are more nuanced than others. There is certainly a different between the words “happy,” “delighted,” “glad,” and “ecstatic” — they align differently on the superlative scale where one might construe “glad” to be the most slight and “delighted” and “ecstatic” to be on the other end. But even between these words, how is one to distinguish the semantic difference between “delighted” and “ecstatic,” where one is full of delight and the other full of ecstasy, that one is more superlative than the other other? Does ecstasy trump delight?

As such, insisting on absolutism for certain terms is imposition of one’s views on another. Splitting hairs semantically, like grammar-nazism, contributes nothing to the discussion if the intent of the speech is clear.

To end off, I’ll try my hand at “nonsense prose,” to see if I could, without using lexical words, tell a story.

“You seem morried,” Alex said, as he kriched up a klatch, and lit his smube. He took a long wheg. “Is everything milly-willy? Surely nothing fellish happened?”

“I’m afraid I’m a little tatchet,” I said, my shoulders smished, my haiths swanged.

Alex poff-poffed, for he whegged one too big. “Sorry about that. Come on, tich your bin up, kellyvale everything.”

I hished my feet, “You know what my pairrows are; they have viddied not an inch. Every burrise I wake, the same ol’ nubs, the same ol’ tracherns. I am still without work, and my time here is plivered. If I don’t get a job immish, I’m fanade I’m going to go wallyfaloo.”

“Surely it’s not that sapper,” Alex kippered, “You have your tumms around you, being snorm and glideful. Surely that clappas your situation?”

“I’m grateful for my tumms, yes,” I said, “But they can only clappas por piti. It’s been four yardas already, Alex, and the best I’ve bainaged was this mopstep.”

“I can’t movome back, Alex. That finta is unbelfortasible to me; I didn’t swarvvy thousands of loons and cross ninan lashes to come here, only to have to gallivog home. There is no syfe for me there, Alex. Although I have tumms and revelas back home, to have to be washorled by all that sikthorn and snurling pekvork will beshoy me. I’ll sooner slax myself than movome.”

“What are you going to do then?” Alex said.

“I can only prish it will be wingwag, Alex. I can only pope.”

Grammaticality is gangsterism

What better way to understand what is the purpose of grammar than by having to explain it to someone else?

A couple days ago, I met up with a friend to engage in workshopping each other’s writings. She was naturally stronger in Chinese, and I English, and so we both wrote a piece in each other’s weaker language.

I started by editing her poem for grammar. There was a line she used, “My feelings to him,” which I pointed out is ungrammatical. I said, “You could use ‘My feelings ‘for’ him’ or my feelings ‘towards’ him instead.” She asked why can’t she use “to” when “to” and “towards” have the same meaning; a directional preposition?

She asked me, “What is the purpose of grammar? It seems to be getting in the way of communication; people dismiss my speech because they think my grammar is not perfect, but isn’t communication about getting your point across?”

I was stumped; how often does one think about what grammar is for?

A quick search on Google about “Why is grammar important” yielded these common answers: To be able to talk about the language, and for concise, clear communication.

I asked a linguist friend, and he could only conclude why we have grammar, not why is it important. A Chomsky-esque approach would be that language and grammar are innate, then humans naturally create grammar when dealing with language; psychologist Steven Pinker notes that even deaf babies and children exposed to pidgin produce language in a grammatically-consistent manner.

What this means is that grammar is the basis in which we are able to formulate our thoughts in a particular language — a skeleton structure, if you will. Without grammar, we can still strongly feel about a topic with mere words — you only need symbols to hold meaning — but one cannot actively vocalise these thoughts without knowing that structure. From mere feelings, we graft these feelings into actuality and words around the structure that’s innate to us.

But that still does not explain why grammar is important in the way we deem it today. We say that without proper grammar, communication breaks down as meanings are lost. How true is that? Compare these:

“I am baboon.” “I are baboon.” “I am a baboon.”

They all mean the same thing, but the meaning is evidently clear when one hears any of them. The only difference between the first two grammatically-incorrect examples and the latter grammatically-correct one is that people would stop to note that the first two are grammatically-unsound, but the meaning of the sentence otherwise is gleaned regardless. Of course, egregiously grammatically-unsound sentences do impede understanding of meaning, where if one said something like, “Apples red is food favourite me,” and even then most people can still understand that sentence, with some time.

Really, it seems that for the most part, the grammaticality that we’re obsessed with contributes little to the understanding of meaning, but more so to judge people when they deviate from the correct form. We peer pressure each other to conform to a communally-agreed standard and belittle those who don’t, almost akin to gangsterism. Thus you have your pedants who would sneer at the usage of “comprises of” whereas most people don’t even know that it is technically ungrammatical. But ask these pedants why “comprises of” is ungrammatical, most would only be able to tell you that is because what was decided in the past.

But grammaticality is never dictated by what was said in the past — it is always decided by what is agreed upon in the present. It might have been inherited from what people in the past agreed on, but what they agreed on is always susceptible to change and still pending the approval of the current community using it. The pronoun-verb agreements we use today would have been ungrammatical in Middle English, where there were distinctions (“I speak,” “Thou speakest,” “He speaketh,”). Even between dialects in the same time period, what one community sees as grammatical might not be in another; an example today is between African-American Vernacular and General American English speakers. Many AmE speakers would think a speaker of AAVE as being ‘ungrammatical’ or plain wrong, when in fact AAVE has just as many rules governing it as AmE.

Linguists push for a descriptive linguistics stance; one where language is studied as it is used without value judgement, as opposed to a prescriptive one. Yet often it is the lay person that proclaims fire and brimstone should one not use the subjunctive properly, or were a person to mess up ‘who’ and ‘whom’. Funnily enough, that linguist friend tells me an anecdote that on a dating website that asks “Is proper grammar important to you?” he put the answer “No,” but only in the sense that he’s not a prescriptive linguist; you get a case where most everyone else would have indicated “Yes” on that question, linguists, who would be the ones to most academically make comments on grammar, don’t really care that much for “proper grammar.”

So to my friend who made the grammatical mistake, yes I understood what you wanted to say, but I suppose to not let other people judge you as intellectually incapable by mere virtue of your grammar, it is probably best to yield to public pressure and learn “proper grammar.”

The truth value of keeping promises

What does it mean when someone promises you something?

“I promise to give you $10.”

In our everyday usage of this sentence, the person who utters this statement obliges himself to give the listener $10, is it not? However, if I utter this sentence and didn’t give you $10, is that sentence considered to be a false statement?

Most people would say “yes,” but in the study of semantics it is not that clear-cut.

What is the meaning of the sentence “I promise,”? To pare down its meaning, that sentence means “I am making a statement about agreeing to do something.” The most important and vital part about promises is that it has to be uttered. A promise is useless if the promiser doesn’t say it to the promisee. While a person can promise himself about something regarding other people (“I promise to protect her from harm.”), the promise is not valid to other people unless they hear it from the promiser (“Why’re you trying to stop me from crossing the road!?” “Oh I made a promise to protect you from harm.” “Get away from me you creep!”).

In semantics, this is known as a performative speech act, whereby a statement is true by virtue of being uttered.

Therefore, when I say, “I promise to give you $10,” did I make a promise to give you $10? Yes I did. Am I going to give you $10? I can’t afford to, I’m poor. But there is no way to look at the sentence I uttered earlier (“I promise to give you $10”) and say that that sentence is not true, because I did promise. I just did not keep my promise.

Tense matters when it comes to performative speech acts. When you change that example sentence to the past tense, “I promised to give you $!0,” that sentence can be false, because if you made no such promise prior, it is false. The future tense is slightly trickier — “I will promise to give you $10.” Is that itself a promise to exact a promise in the future, since “will” seems to have similar ‘promising’ functions, although slightly weaker than “promise” itself? Or is it a lot simpler, where its truth value is determined by whether the described action is carried out in the future?

Other fun examples to think about include:

  • “I now pronounce you man and wife.” – Are the couple not man and wife prior to the speech act, as they go through the wedding?
  • “You are under arrest.” – Was the person prior to the sentence not under arrest, even though he might be cuffed?
  • “I sentence you to death.” – Was the convict not sentenced to death prior to the utterance of the verdict, even though the jury had already decided?

The inevitability of translating poems

There will always come a point where poetry written in one language cannot be accurately translated into another, because of the very nature of the language itself. It is often cited that certain words in certain languages have such precise meanings that they usually cannot be translated into English. Common examples are ‘schadenfreude’ in German and ‘wabi-sabi’ in Japanese.

But a much simpler reason some poetry cannot be easily translated is simply for its puns, stress, rhyme or rhythm. A Czech person once told me in English, “I was smashed on concrete too much last night,” and that actually turned out to be a pun. In Czech, concrete is ‘beton,’ but it is also the name of a mixed drink ‘beton,’ which is short for ‘becherovka’ and tonic water. So simply saying you were smashed on concrete in English slightly takes away the meaning of the pun.

Such shortcomings become a lot more apparent in Chinese and Japanese, when many words share the same sound, and are only truly differentiated by context and the characters used.

Listen with your heart, walk with your heart/Listen carefully, walk carefully

Listen, and only hear the sound of the heart beating
beating for past regrets
beating for present doubts
beating for everything in the future
but when all’s said and done
there are goods and bads
and this chapter
will end
I can only ignore the sound of the heart beating
headed for an uncertain journey
headed forward

This was something I wrote that I found hard to translate, especially when the words were rife with double meanings. The title 用心听,用心走 means two things at once, depending on how you bind the words. “用心” as a compound means to be careful, but as a verb-noun construction means to use your heart.

Regrets, doubts and everything (遗憾,疑问,一切) are three different words, but they all share a fundamental sound of ‘yi’ at the beginning, creating a repeating rhythm and linking all three concepts to a basic fundamental. That is untranslatable in English.

The cadence of the past, present and future is also untranslatable. The structure used was “For the past’s regrets, it jumps/ For the present’s doubts, it jumps/ For the future’s everything, it jumps” where the heart “beating” and “jumping” use the same characters.

The line of ‘There are goods and bads’ is actually a proverb which literally means “A foot is as long as it is, an inch is as short as it is,” and a part of that section of the poem was written in four syllables per line, which cannot be adhered to in English.