User:Vuara/A word is a word is a word

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Wed, 11 Dec. 2002 -- Media Matters No. 20: A word is a word is a word -- or is it?

Today's Media Matters begins a look at the words we use to talk about our research when we work to disseminate it beyond our own research colleagues.

Scientists, researchers and professionals all have sets of words they use routinely. The words seem clear enough, we think. Some terms are specific to one's particular profession. Others are terms that are common to the scientific community. Scientists and researchers use words in very precise ways, to mean one thing only -- and not another.

The problem with these words is that, while they communicate specific concepts clearly to colleagues, they often are thought of as jargon by outsiders.

When our goal is to reach the public with information about our research findings, the use of such words often erects an unnecessary barrier.

Journalism professor Carl Sessions Stepp of the University of Maryland gives a simple explanation by talking about what he calls "banana words."

Think of words such as "prison," "sidewalk," or "shark," he says. These are sometimes called "banana words" because, like the word "banana," they conjure up specific, shared images for most of us.

By contrast, consider words such as "proposal," "facility" and "problem." These are sometimes called "fuzz words," "blob words," or "second-degree words," he says, because they convey only abstractions. Although certain scientific terms are meaningful and clear to researchers, they fall into this category when they are used in press releases meant for editors and reporters in general-interest media.

Readers can understand banana words standing alone, but fuzz words require other words before making sense.

Although to a researcher a "banana word" may seem to denote fuzzy thinking, in fact it communicates more clearly to people who need only a general understanding of your research, whereas a word that may seem to you more specific in fact seems to be only a "blob word" to reporters and editors.

Especially in the first few sentences of a press release, says Stepp, one should strive for the highest possible percentage of banana words and images.


The University of Georgia Language Laboratories' VOICEPRINT ONLINE

A Word is a Word is a Word unless It's from Another Language

What do the following have in common?

The skunk someone hit on the GA 316... The video you wanted to rent... The Grand Canyon you visited last summer... The junk you keep putting in your closet... The soybeans doctors say are good for you... The alarm clock that didn't go off this morning... The English paper you haven't written... The tomato, potato and apricot, some of us eat regularly... The salt and pepper that add spice to many dishes... The gadgets you can't live without... The pumpkin pie of the traditional Thanksgiving feast...

Are you stumped? Here's a clue: look at the list again, but this time, look only and very carefully at the first noun(s).

The skunk someone hit on the GA 316... The video you wanted to rent... The Grand Canyon you visited last summer... The junk you keep putting in your closet... The soybeans doctors say are good for you... The alarm clock that didn't go off this morning The English paper you haven't written... The tomato, potato,and apricot some of us eat regularly... The salt and pepper that add spice to many dishes... The gadgets you can't live without... The pumpkin pie of the traditional Thanksgiving feast... Fourteen words...all perfectly understandable to speakers of American English, and yet, they have something very un-American in common. If you guessed that these words derive from other languages, you're right. These fourteen words come from over a dozen foreign languages; they, and thousands of other words, have been seamlessly incorporated into American English.

But, American English doesn't just "take " from other languages; it also "gives" many words and expressions to other languages. The difference between a "living" and a "dead" language is like the difference between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee: everything flows into the Dead Sea; nothing flows out.

skunk..."he who squirts" If you've hit one on the road or met one face to face, nobody needs to tell you this little, striped mammal can squirt his foul, yellow spray up to a dozen feet. Perhaps, the Algonquian Indians, finding themselves once too often at the other end of the yellow spray, invented the word from which the word "skunk" is derived; in the Algonquian dialect, it simply means "he who squirts."

video..."I see" Video, from the Latin "I see," has been applied to television since the 1950's.

Canyon..."a large tube or funnel" If you've been to the Grand Canyon--perhaps, the most famous canyon in the world--canyon as a large tube or funnel hardly seems adequate to contain the meaning of what you experience standing on its North Rim and looking across the magnificent expanse before you. Derived from the Spanish, canyon in the U.S. is used to mean a very deep valley or gorge with steep sides, often with water flowing at the bottom. Even this definition falls short. Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, you know--among other things--what it means to run out of words before you run out of thoughts.

Junk..."untidy, small sailing boat" In the 18th century, pronunciation of foreign words was as much of a problem as it is today. Then, British sailors pronounced the Portuguese-via-Japanese word for small, sailing vessel, djong, as junk. Because the "junks" looked messy and untidy, "junk"--it is conjectured--has come to mean messy stuff.

Soybean...."salted food + oil" The ancient Chinese originally made a sauce from this bean, and it is believed, named the bean after the sauce. It is conjectured--things and words in the ancient world tended to travel without leaving a paper trail--that when the bean, perhaps in sauce or without, arrived in Japan, they called it shoy. From the Japanese word came the English soy, to which was added bean, and hence soybean. It is said that the Japanese valued soy sauce so highly, it was used as part of the salary of imperial court officers in fifth century Japan.

alarm..."a warning" There have probably always been various words used as containers for transmitting the meaning of danger or warning or enemy coming. It is curious why a certain word from a specific language becomes the word from which American English derives a word to contain, in this case, the meaning of warning. In the case of alarm, it is the Italian word all' arme! from which we derive alarm. In many instances, when words are derived from "foreign" words, letters drop and vanish, perhaps, in the interests of simplification.

English...10 million words As a designation for a language, English is first recorded in about A.D. 1000. At that time, there were about 30,000 words in the English language. Today's dictionaries contain about 650,000 words, but if all scientific and technical terms were included, the number of words in the English language swells to more than 10 million words. The average English speaker has a vocabulary of about 3,000 words, whereas an educated or well-read person might have a vocabulary of 60,000 words. Shakespeare used over 20,000 different words to write his plays. Linguistically speaking, where are you on the 3,000 - 60,000+ English vocabulary scale?

tomato..."love apple" Your friends, the ones who pronounce it "toe-mah-toe", are historically correct. The tomato plant came from the New World-- Mayans were first to cultivate it--to Spain and was called tomate. Americans didn't eat tomatoes until about 1830. Why? They thought they were poisonous. It's partially true. The vine of the plant is poisonous. As for their designation as "love apples"...there is much conjecture and numerous tales as to how this came about. The most reasonable tale tells how courtly Sir Walter Raleigh presented a tomato to Queen Elizabeth and with courtly suggestiveness advised her it was "an apple of love." Given the various tales, it is not surprising that tomatoes soon became a "wicked aphrodisiac." To this day, the tomato's common name in German is still Liebesapfel, and the expression hot tomato for a seductive and sexy woman is common to many languages.

potato... a tuber by the wrong name Although it is one of the world's most important vegetables, it has been incorrectly named. Potato derives from the Haitian word batata, for "sweet potato," which the Spaniards found in the West Indies in 1526 and introduced to Europe. Batata was corrupted to patata in Spanish and further corrupted by the English to potato. Then, the Spaniards discovered the Peruvian white potato, an unrelated plant, and ignoring the native name for it--papas--gave it the same name as the earlier tuber, and it, too, became known as potato in England. The English made a distinction between the two unrelated vegetables, and the one came to be called the sweet potato and the other white potato. And where, oh where, does spud come from? You guessed it--from the spade-like tool used to dig potatoes.

apricot..."early ripe" The Romans gave this relatively early ripening but small fruit a big name, calling it praecoquum. By the time the word entered Arabic, it lost a couple of letters and became alburquq; by the time Portuguese was through with it, it had regained a couple of letters and became albricoque. In England, it morphed into apricock. It wasn't until the 18th century that the Roman praecoquum became what we now call it, namely apricot.

salt... highly valued seasoning In ancient times, salt was highly valued, so much so that spilling it was an unlucky omen for the Romans. Roman soldiers were paid in salt (sal), so valuable a seasoning and preservative it was thought to be. pepper..."dried berries of climbing shrub" The word for this spicy condiment can be traced all the way back to the Sanskrit pippali. Garden peppers are not related to this shrub but were named the same when Columbus discovered hot varieties of garden peppers in the West Indies. He mistakenly believed they were simply a new variety of the old climbing shrub peppers.

gadget..."little mechanical thing" A relatively new word as words go, gadget dates back to only 1886 and likely derives from the French gachette.

pumpkin..."a fruit cooked by the sun" This member of the squash family originated in the Americas. Originally, the word for pumpkin probably came from the Greek pepon, a kind of melon. Pumpkins were so plentiful and everywhere among the Pilgrims that someone wrote: "we have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon, if it were not for pumpkins we would soon be undoon."

VoicePrint recommends Robert Hendrickson's QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origin (the source for the information on word origins in this feature) to you if you enjoy fun with words. Words, after all, are the "currency of thought," and as such are a medium of exchange for something everyone wants: meaning.

Hendrickson's revised and expanded edition covers 15,000 word and phrase origins. "I have tried," says Hendrickson, "to make all the selections as accurate and entertaining as possible and tried to use words illustrating all the many ways words and phrases are born (words deriving from numerous languages and dialects that have enriched English...."

QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins was especially created in 1998 for Quality Paperback Book Club by arrangement with Facts on File Inc. For information contact: or


Douglas R. Howland. Translating the West: Language and Political Reason in Nineteenth-Century Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002. Xiv + 292 pp. Notes, glossary, illustrations, bibliography, index. $56.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8248-2462-8. Reviewed by Kirsten Refsing, Department of Japanese Studies, The University of Hong Kong. Published by H-US-Japan (August, 2002)

Are we certain that we know what our words mean? The title of this review is drawn from the conclusion (p.184) to Howland's book about how western political concepts were introduced into the Japanese language during the Meiji period, and it neatly encapsulates the central focus of his work. Howland claims that many historians writing about political ideas in Japan have assumed that "a word is a word is a word", and if the Japanese used e.g. the word jiyuu at a particular moment in time, they meant "liberty"--no more, no less. His books show abundantly that such an assumption is a gross simplification.

Translating the West starts out with a long introduction setting out the parameters for the study. Howland outlines his project, which is to analyze the intellectual dynamics in the debate among Japanese scholars and intellectuals who conceptualized the process of modernization and civilization. The new vocabulary needed in this process in the early years after the Meiji Restoration came mainly from English, and its introduction into a Japanese context was not a one-time event, but rather the result of trial and error and several contesting viewpoints. To analyze how this process played out, Howland employs terminology and concepts from semiotics (transcoding material from one linguistic context to another), pragmatics (meaning is constituted through usage), Begriffsgeschichte (concept history), and, of course, from history, which is his main scholarly background. The introduction gives a brief overview of the introduction of Western learning, presents the Meirokusha intellectual elite, and describes how historians have traditionally treated the bunmeikaika ("civilization and enlightenment") process. He also discusses the problem of semantic transparency of foreign concepts, and finally the connections between concept, word, and meaning.

Chapter 2 is devoted to "civilization and enlightenment," and the debates on of how this should be brought about--from above or from below. Japanese intellectuals were well aware that the written language posed a formidable barrier to universal education and popular enlightenment by its archaic forms and complicated characters. Several solutions were proposed, of which the most successful was the movement to shift to writing colloquial rather than classical Japanese. Learning Chinese came under attack as backwards and outdated, but was defended by scholars of Chinese and eventually remained alive and well. Howland points to the important role played by the Chinese characters in mediating between Japan and the West in terms of translation. Rather than borrowing foreign words and incorporating them as loanwords, in most cases the Japanese preferred to avail themselves of the infinite possibilities for semantic extensions or neologisms present in the Chinese characters. Apart from this practical consideration, learning Chinese helped fill the moral and ethical vacuum perceived as resulting from the excessive new materialism.

Chapter 3 concentrates on translation techniques and how the transcoding of Western terms transformed the Japanese language (like Chinese had done from the fifth century onwards). The majority of the new words were coined with the help of Chinese characters. Often different choices were made by different translators or even by the same translator over time. Only later were katakana brought in to help, and the first attempts at formal standardization of common terms began in the 1880s. Actual standardization took place through the repeated usage of specific terms, which gradually brought some consensus, and a more widespread understanding of their meanings. Of course, the fact that the meanings of many terms were contested in their language of origin did not make the task easier. Howland operates with two analytical constructs, authenticity and accessibility, with regard to the translators' task: the former gives priority to the original text and attempts a close and exact translation as far as possible, while the latter prioritizes the Japanese target audience and changes the original text as necessary to ensure understanding. Several developments further helped to provide accessibility of the translated texts, such as the introduction of punctuation and development of printing techniques that made it possible to mark loanwords in the text for easy recognition.

With these preliminaries behind him, Howland proceeds to analyze in detail the history of the concept and translation of three key terms between the 1860s and the 1890s, namely "liberty", "rights" (ken as used to represent rights, privilege, power, authority, and sovereignty), and "society". He traces their interpretations in the West, as well as the many different uses they were put to by different people and in different contexts. The three chapters devoted to these terms are impressive in terms of the meticulousness with which each term is traced in the writings of the time, and in terms of providing the historical context necessary to understand the different usages. In the conclusion, Howland refers to the difficulty inherent in grasping particular meanings of terms at a particular time in the face of the general fluidity of language, and he briefly discusses another key term of the period, namely "nation".

One third of Howland's book (100 pages) is taken up by endnotes, glossary, bibliography and index, of which the endnotes constitute more than half. This is a testimony to the enormous amount of research behind the study and the diverse interdisciplinary background of the author. To linguists and anthropologists the interconnectedness of language and culture is hardly a new discovery, and they are generally well aware of the "double bind" inherent in translation: every culture has concepts, which do not have easily available equivalents in another language. If you translate them anyway, you are stuck with a less than optimal equivalent. If, as many prefer to do, you leave them in the original language and attach a longish explanation the first time it occurs, you may be criticized for needless mystification of a foreign concept. Howland may at times seem overly impressed with his own discovery of the cultural boundness of abstract concepts, but this in no way detracts from the significance and usefulness of his work.

To this reviewer who has a background in Japanese Studies and an interest in translation, the main contributions of Translating the West lie in two attributes: Firstly, it is written from a historian's point of view with the fruitful addition of a good grounding in semiotics and the history of ideas, and, secondly, in its thorough empirical specificity, namely the translation problems encountered by the Japanese intellectual elite, who translated and introduced Western liberal concepts to Japan between 1860 and 1890.

However, while reading, however I found myself wondering how other target groups might perceive this book. The cover text claims that the book will interest scholars of East Asian Studies, translation studies, and historians of political thought. Knowledge of the Japanese language is therefore not a prerequisite for readers. Indeed, non-Japanese speakers can enjoy a detailed explanation of what a syllabic alphabet is (p. 47). It seems, nevertheless, difficult to imagine what scholars, who do not know Japanese, can gain from this book if they are not already familiar with Japan at least to the extent of knowing what syllabic writing is.

For those who know Japanese well, there is a curious contradiction inherent in the fact that by choosing to write the book such that it is readable to people with no knowledge of Japanese, Howland gets into the same quandary as the Japanese intellectuals of whom he writes. Namely, he has to represent Japanese translation words for English concepts, in English. This kind of "back-translation" is quite frustrating for the reader who knows Japanese and would dearly like to know what the Japanese word in question was. Thus, when Howland quotes Nishi Amane's ponderings over the difficulties of translating Joseph Haven's Mental Philosophy and writes that Amane created neologisms for words "such as "reason", "sensibility", "sense", and "understanding"", this reader cannot help wondering what words Amane actually created in Japanese for these terms (pp. 82-83). The "Glossary of Translation Words" beginning on p. 249 is not much help in this context, since it contains only Japanese words in Roman letters and characters.

Howland maintains a sometimes uneven balance between writing for historians, with no specific knowledge of Japan (or Japanese), and writing for specialists in East Asia or in translation studies. Each of these groups will definitely gain something from the book, but in its totality, it may only genuinely appeal to other scholars specializing in the Meiji period.

Citation: Kirsten Refsing. "Review of Douglas R. Howland, Translating the West: Language and Political Reason in Nineteenth-Century Japan," H-US-Japan, H-Net Reviews, August, 2002. URL:


If English was written like Chinese

The English spelling system is such a pain, we'd might as well switch to hanzi-- Chinese characters. How should we go about it?

Japanese style

One way would be to use hanzi directly, asthe Japanese do. For instance, we'd write "work" as , and "ruler" as . Chinese and Japanese borrowings could be written using the original hanzi, e.g. "gung-ho" would be , and "tycoon" as .

You can already see that this is going to be tricky. We've just given two readings, for instance-- /wrk/ and /gûng/-- and two as well-- /rulr/ and /kun/.

Proper names will be a problem as well. Again, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean names already have hanzi forms-- e.g. for the name of the bodaciously cute singer Faye Wong-- but for English names we'd have no better recourse than to spell things out using the nearest Chinese syllables. For instance, Winston Churchill would be represented by hanzi that would be transliterated Wensuteng Chuerqilu.

Chinese style

Maybe there's a better approach. Instead of using hanzi directly, let's invent a new system-- we'll call it yingzi, "English characters"-- that would work for English exactly as hanzi works for Chinese.

The basic principle will be, one yingzi for a syllable with a particular meaning. So two, to, and too will each have their own yingzi. (If we were creating a syllabary, by contrast, we'd write all three with the same symbol, the one for /tu/.)

Does that mean we need a completely separate symbol for each of the thousands of possible English syllables? Not at all. We can simplify the task enormously with one more principle: syllables that rhyme can have yingzi that are variations on a theme.

Little pictures

You've been reading for half a page and are probably wondering why I haven't yet talked about pictograms. When do we get to draw little pictures?

Well, now's the time. Let's draw pictures. For instance:

horse mount king man child bug sun moon tree

When the pictures are abstract we can call them "ideograms", but they still represent particular English morphemes:

one un- per

Some of our pictures will be kind of clever. For instance, woods repeats the yingzi for tree, while east is a little picture of the sun rising through the trees. guilt is a picture of a man inside an enclosure.

Let's not go crazy, however. We only need a thousand or so, and we'll restrict ourselves to fairly simple, one-syllable words. We'll derive the vast majority of our yingzi from this basic stock of pictures.

Phonetic classes

Basically each simple yingzi will be the basis for an open-ended set of yingzi, used for a set of rhyming syllables. For instance, the king character will generate the family king, thing, sing, sling, sting, shing(le).

It would be awfully confusing to use for all of these. Instead we'll use it only for king, which will be the phonetic for this set, and add little signs called radicals to distinguish the rest. Examples:

sing will be , formed by adding the mouth radical sting will be , formed by adding the bug radical (since insects sting) shing (the first syllable in shingle) will be , formed using the roof radical sling will be formed using the spear radical. When we add a radical, we scrunch up the yingzi so the whole thing still fits into a square. All characters, however complex, fit into the same size box. "Rhyming" isn't quite accurate. We don't want each family of words to get too large; so we'll restrict a single family to either voiced or unvoiced initial consonants.

So, bring, ring, Bing, wing, zing will form a separate family of yingzi, based on the character wing.

Overlaps and secondary derivations The yingzi formed from a single phonetic will all rhyme; but not all syllables that rhyme will necessarily have the same yingzi. This is largely because we started with a set of pictograms chosen for their pictorial rather than phonetic qualities; but it also adds visual distinctions to the script, and thus aids the reader. (It rather burdens the writer; but heck, everyone does a lot more reading than writing.)

For instance, the phonetic un- will be used for fun, ton, pun, thun(der), Hun, etc. But sun will have its own yingzi, , and this will be used for son, shun, stun, spun. For instance, sun plus the man radical makes son, and sun with the fight radical is used for shun.

Moreover, a compound yingzi may itself be used as a phonetic with its own set of yingzi. The shun character , for instance, will be used with the work radical to form -tion, used to spell this common suffix, as in section.

Radicals Where do the radicals come from? For the most part they are either simple characters (e.g king, work), or abbreviations of characters; for instance the character net is abbreviated to when used as a radical.

The set of radicals is not unlimited; there is in fact a fixed set of 214 of them. The total number of yingzi that belong to one phonetic set is thus absolutely limited to 214. No set will actually have this number of yingzi, though some will have a few dozen.

(However, the potential number of yingzi is still unlimited, because we can always choose a compound yingzi as a new phonetic, and generate a new set of rhyming yingzi from it.)

Because the set of radicals is limited, a really good radical will not always be available to distinguish the yingzi in a rhyming set. We'll just choose the best one we can. In addition, when choosing radicals we will rely on the etymological meaning of a word, which may not always match its current meaning. For instance, the word villain originally meant peasant, and so the sign for vill- uses the field radical (added to the phonetic bill).

The yingzi that use a particular radical will form a class of their own-- a sort of meaning class. We can consider the entire English language to be divided into 214 meaning categories. For instance, every yingzi that uses the bug radical will have something to do (at least etymologically) with insects or reptiles. However, since the number of radicals is so limited, and because the choice of radical is sometimes quirky, the resulting sets will be rather vague and eccentric.

Guessing at an unknown character

There will be tens of thousands of yingzi; but we must not let this frighten us. There are tens of thousands of conventional spellings, too, but despite what the wiseacres say, it would be absurd to say that there's no logic to English orthography at all. Likewise, the yingzi themselves are not the basic graphical units or graphemes of the writing system; the phonetics and radicals are.

Readers can make use of this fact to guess the pronunciation of an unknown character. For instance, is a straightforward combination of the speech radical with the phonetic purse. A type of speaking that rhymes with purse-- curse, of course.

Or, , a combination of the plant radical with the guilt phonetic . Something about plants that rhymes with guilt? This one is a bit harder-- wilt.

-- a plant (radical plant) that rhymes with  speech-- is easy: peach. But note that speech, which we used as a radical above, is used as a phonetic here. 

Since there are many more phonetics than radicals, the information content of the radical is much less than that of the phonetic. If you knew only the radical for an unknown character, you can only narrow down the meaning to 1/214 of the lexicon; if you knew only the phonetic, you could narrow it down much further, since there are more than a thousand phonetics.

Polysyllabic words

Where possible we will divide a word into morphemes. For instance outsider breaks into out + side + -er; reshipment is re- + ship + -ment.

How do we handle morphemes of more than one syllable? We simply create a yingzi for each syllable. For instance, person would be expressed as . The first character is based on per, with the addition of the man radical; the second is sun with the addition of the same radical.

A polysyllabic morpheme, in fact, can generally be recognized because all the syllables have the same radical. For instance, insect consists of in and sect, each with the addition of the bug radical. (Note that sect is itself a compound character, formed from the rite radical with the specked phonetic.)

Inflections How about inflections that don't form a full syllable, such as plural -s? It would be pretty tiresome, even with the add-a-radical trick, to create thousands of yingzi for syllables that just happen to have a final -s.

Note, however, that the plural morpheme sometimes takes up its own syllable, as in grasses, rashes. So why not use the yingzi for is, which is ? Of course, is and -s are both pretty common, so we should add a little dot to the character to represent final -s: So peach is , peaches is ; sun is , suns is . We can use a similar strategy for other inflections.

Foreign words Very old borrowings (e.g. the mass of words borrowed in medieval and Renaissance times from French and Latin) will be treated like native words. We've already seen examples like peach, villain, insect, and person.

Words borrowed more recently, however, won't get their own radical+phonetic compounds. Instead we'll represent them, syllable by syllable, using the nearest existing characters. For instance, Peking will be represented as . The first character is the first syllable of pecan (that is, pe-; phonetic see, radical gourd), and the second is the word king. The name Fellini will be written , composed of the yinzi fell, lean, knee. (You may amuse yourself working out what the phonetics and radicals are for these three characters.)

Dictionaries English dictionaries would no longer be arranged alphabetically, of course, since we're no longer using an alphabet. They'll be organized by radical.

The 214 radicals are ordered according to the number of strokes needed to draw them. Radicals of one stroke (e.g. one or per ) come first, followed by radicals of two strokes (e.g. un-), and so on, up to monstrosities like toad, which has 20 strokes.

The section for each radical is also organized by stroke number. Under the plant radical, for instance, the first entry is plant itself, followed by characters with one extra stroke (like dron, the last character in rhododendron), then characters with two strokes, and so on (up to, the first character in toadstool).

Note that there are no main entries for what we're used to calling words at all. There wouldn't be a main entry at all for a word like person, for instance. There would be an entry for the man radical; under it a sub-entry for the character per, and person would be listed as a sub-sub-entry under that.

Thinking in yingzi The nature of the writing system would encourage lexicographers (and English speakers) to think of everything in the language as built out of yingzi. There wouldn't seem to be a great difference between "words" like storehouse, storage, restore and "expressions" like shoe store, store up, store detective, store manager; or between blackboard and black eye, or between alphabet and alpha male.

Many morphemes that now live out a shadowy existence, forever bound to other morphemes, would take on an independent existence; for instance the volve in revolve, evolve, involve, devolve, which would have its own yingzi, and would seem as much a "word" or component of the language as the match in rematch, mismatch, unmatch. There would be a tendency to describe the meanings, vague or miscellaneous as they might be, for such characters.

This might seem sensible and even wise for a morpheme like volve, which after all derives from a real Latin root meaning roll; but there would be other, more dubious applications. For instance, the son in person was represented by, which happens to be the yingzi for son. It will be almost impossible not to assume that person derives from son; but historically it's just a coincidence; person derives from Latin and has nothing to do with son.

Worse yet, the -cuit of biscuit and circuit might be written with the same character (a derivative of kit), and a meaning sought for it-- perhaps 'round', since biscuits are round and circuits involve going round. Again, etymologically this is nonsense.

Words, perceived as compounds, might lend themselves to abbreviation. After all, why write two yingzi when one will do, especially if it unmistakably implies its partner? For instance, language would be a two-character word, each character defined only as part of this compound and used nowhere else in the language. If you've written lang, you must write gwidge next. You might as well just write lang and leave it at that. Ultimately of course will acquire a meaning of its own-- namely language. And for consistency's sake lexicographers might well give gwidge a meaning of its own as well--namely, language.

The complexities of the writing system, the inherent interest of the pictorial elements, the cleverness inherent in graphic compounds like woods and the radical-phonetic system, and even sociological facts such as the time it takes to learn the system, and the fact that English speakers of all nations can use it whatever their native dialect, would also combine to give the writing system an overwhelming character of its own. It would be seen as more important than speech; there would even be a tendency to think of words as derived from characters rather than the other way around.

If someone asks where a word comes from, we (now) think of its original phonetic form; we say for instance that language comes from French langage, itself derived from Latin lingua 'tongue', which in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European dnghu. With the yingzi system, people would be tempted instead to give what we might call the graphic etymology. They'd say that lang derives from the speech radical and the gang phonetic, and that the latter is actually a picture of a gang-- a reduplication of the man character. That is indeed where comes from, but not lang, which did not derive from it! (But it wouldn't even be easy to make this point in yingzi-- how do you distinguish lang from if you can't even write "lang" without writing the character?)

A word is a word is a word

Does all this mean that words are cultural constructs or that the concept of a word would no longer apply to English written in yingzi? Not at all. A word is still a useful linguistic concept-- or rather a series of overlapping concepts. By word linguists may mean one or all of the following:

a phonological unit-- e.g. something with one stress accent or one pitch contour; or a unit within which intervocalic stops get voiced. the abstraction underlying a set of morphological forms (e.g. write underlying write, writes, writing, written, wrote). an element which can stand alone (e.g. in response to a suitably chosen question), as suffixes or bound morphemes cannot. a morphological unit you can't insert other morphemes into (e.g. black dog is not a word since you can change it to black, tired dog; but you can't turn blackbird into blacktiredbird) an expression with a conventional meaning-- something that has to be defined in the mental lexicon (this sense is also called a lexeme). A moment's thought should show that these definitions may or may not coincide even in English; and that even where they do they may not coincide with the typographical or lexicographical notion of a word. The latter idea-- roughly 'something with spaces around it'-- is of little interest to linguists since it depends on the writing system. That makes it useless for describing most of the languages of the world; and even for written languages it's pretty arbitrary, as this page should show. (Everything you know about writing English would change if we adopted yingzi instead.)

It's safe to say, however, that such definitions would seem fairly abstract in a yingzi system. Word might become a technical term, like morpheme or lexeme. Or it might be identified with a yingzi (a written character); or be abstracted into a more vaguely defined linguistic element, applicable to anything from a character to a compound to a whole phrase.

Hey, did I just learn something about Chinese?

I've attempted in this sketch to lay out, by analogy, the nature and structure of the Chinese writing system. All of the concepts apply:

the limited role of pictograms the clever compound pictures (indeed all three examples are from Chinese) the phonetic-and-radical system (97% of Chinese characters work this way) the inclusion of radicals as part of the character (rather than as separate symbols, as in cuneiform or hieroglyphic writing) the relative information content of radicals and phonetics compounds used as secondary phonetics the handling of multisyllabic and foreign words the handling of subsyllabic morphemes (the model here is Mandarin -r, represented by ér) the organization of dictionaries (in fact, the graphic at the top of the page shows part of the radical index for a Chinese dictionary, organized by stroke count) the psychological effects. The radicals named are all also Chinese radicals. The phonetics are not, of course, since the phonetics in hanzi refer to the sounds of Chinese words, not English ones. But I tried to pick phonetics which would also be phonetics in Chinese (e.g. sun, king, wing, tree, one, east, field, bill).

There are differences, too. For instance, I haven't made any attempt to make my yingzi look like hanzi.

The phonetic sets of Chinese are not exactly based on rhymes. Karlgren explains that the hanzi belonging to one set had homorganic initial consonants (e.g. k, g), the same main vowel, and the same final consonant.

I've also underreported the complexity (and arguably the inefficiency) of the Chinese script in several important ways:

The phonetic sets in Chinese, though still useful, are two thousand years out of date. It's as if my yingzi phonetics had to rhyme in Proto-Germanic, not in modern English. The scribes who devised hanzi often went wild adding radicals, creating multiple characters for what are etymologically the same root. Four milennia have reduced the pictorial content of the hanzi primitives almost to nil. What the "pictograms" are pictures of is often evident only to the scholar. Clear and precise handwriting is by no means a virtue in Chinese; the most admired style, câoshu, is highly simplified, suggesting rather than delineating the characters intended. The People's Republic has simplified many of the traditional hanzi; and this reform has been accepted in Singapore but not in Taiwan or Hong Kong. It's as if the US had its own versions of a large fraction of English yingzi. I also haven't gotten into the many additional complications engendered when hanzi were adopted by Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese; for more on that see John DeFrancis's The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy.

In some respects, however, yingzi are harder than hanzi. For instance, English has many more multisyllabic morphemes than Chinese. Only about 10% of Chinese morphemes are more than one syllable long. Also, English has borrowed so much that it often has five or six morphemes where Chinese would have just one-- compare wáng vs. king, regal, royal, regicide, Rex, or zì vs. word, verb, logograph, bon mot.

--Mark Rosenfelder


The connections of language, thought and social structure

By studying language, even the pre-historic, linguists discover a wealth of societal information By Susan Williams

Auger Languages are tools that allow speakers to communicate and exchange information. So, they must contain words and expressions that refer to the various elements present in their environments.

A word is a word is a word—not! 

To turn a phrase, there is much more to the utterance of a single word than meets the tongue.

Ask Julie Auger, assistant professor of linguistics and French at IU Bloomington. Auger is a sociolinguist whose specialization is variation studies. Her research deals with spoken French and a little known language spoken in France called Picard. She also teaches about language and gender.

Not every linguist agrees upon how sociolinguistics fits into the study of the human language faculty. Some see it standing along side of other sub-disciplines, such as morphology, syntax, phonology, psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics and anthropolotical linguistics. Others, however, believe that sociolinguistics is a redundant term, that all linguistics must be social. In any case, everyone agrees that we can learn something about a society by studying its language.

“Languages are tools that allow speakers to communicate and exchange information,” said Auger, “So, they must contain words and expressions that refer to the various elements present in their environments.

“The existence of a word reflects the existence of a thing that is recognized as an entity different from some other thing. For example, the existence of the words “water,” “ice,” “snow” and “steam” in English means that English speakers recognize four different things, even though all these things consist of H2O. The reverse is not necessarily true, however. Even if a single word is used for two things, it doesn’t mean that the difference between them is not recognized, so one must be very careful,” said Auger, who points out that while the word “leg” can be used in a general sense, we clearly recognize that the leg of a table and a dog’s leg are not the same.

Sometimes, said Auger, to determine the values of a society, it’s worth looking at how language evolves, how words change in meaning.

“In French, the word ‘crétin,’ which is a regional form of the word meaning ‘Christian,’ has come to mean ‘stupid,’ probably because the Christian habit of not hitting back was seen as a sign of weakness and stupidity,” she said.

Studying the language of a lost culture may not hold its every key, but it still can be revealing. According to Auger, words that a linguist can reconstruct indicate the animals, plants, tools and other objects that were present in the lives of the people who spoke that language. That information can help geographically locate where the language used to be spoken.

“For example, we have been trying to learn more about the people who spoke the language that is the common ancestor of Hindi, Greek, Parsi, Russian, English, French, Albanian and so many other languages spoken in Asia and in Europe,” said Auger. “Based on the names of animals and plants that we believe existed in that pre-historic language, we have a vague idea that these people lived in the temperate forest of northern or eastern Europe.”

Linguistics can also provide important information concerning who was in contact with whom at a certain time. And also which cultures were more powerful and/or prestigious than others.

“French borrowed many words from Italian during the 15th and 16th centuries because Italian culture was so advanced at that time,” said Auger. “Because this took place not such a long time ago, we have many different ways of knowing about this. But, when contact took place 2,000 or more years ago, sometimes the only way we know that group A knew and talked to group B is if we find a word from one language in the other.”

Relatively new as a field of linguistics, but at least as old as Adam and Eve themselves as a concept, is the study of how men and women use language differently. Along with other areas of gender studies, this specialty promises a new wealth of societal information, including whether or not the social changes that are taking place in the roles of women and men are reflected in language. But here, and in all other areas of linguistic study, research will proceed with caution.

“Any analysis we come up with is only a theory,” said Auger, “We must always be ready to admit the existence of alternative theories and be ready to revise our theory. We also must seek confirmation from other disciplines whenever possible—archaeology, sociology, anthropology and genetics, for instance.

“There is a connection between language, thought and social structure, but this connection is incomplete and imperfect.”