Noodling around with Chinese characters

Here’s a fun image: the most complex Chinese character in common use.

You have to arrange 57 little lines just so to make that character. What it means (besides “Chinese is hard”) is a kind of noodle, the biang biang noodle. Now let’s imagine you work at a noodle shop in China’s Shaanxi province where these noodles are popular. It’s busy and hot, and you’re taking orders on your little pad with a stubby golf pencil.

CUSTOMER ONE: I’ll have the biang biang noodles please.

YOU: [scribbling furiously] One… order… of… biang biang… noodles…

CUSTOMER TWO: And I’ll have a double biang biang please.

YOU: Hold on, I’m still writing…

CUSTOMER TWO: Could you just write biang biang twice? That would signify my double order.

YOU: [mumbling]One order biang biang biang biang… aghh… hand cramping… can’t write.

CUSTOMER ONE: Christ, my lunch break is almost over. Let’s go get a pig.

As is my wont, I am reminded of the Monty Python skit about the great composer Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfernschplendenschlittercrasscrenbonfrieddiggerdangledungleburstein von knackerthrasherapplebangerhorowitzticolensicgranderknottyspelltinklegrandlichgrumblemeyer spelterwasserkürstlichhimbleeisenbahnwagengutenabend-bitteeinenürnburgerbratwustlegerspurtenmitzweimacheluberhundsfutgumberaber-shönendankerkalbsfleischmittlerraucher von Hautkopft of Ulm.

I suspect this biang biang character is more gimmick than anything else, much like the Llanfairpwll railway station in Wales (so many letters! so few vowels!), but it does raise a question that I’ve always pondered. In terms of semantic content per ink-inch, is Chinese more efficient than English? Chinese is more compact, but you have to cram a lot more pen strokes into that space. I recently learned at work that when we localize our software for Japanese, you simply can’t shrink a Japanese font below ten points. It goes all gray and mushy. Here, for example, is the biang biang character writ small:

By my count, 57 strokes of ink gets you almost entirely through the writing of ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM. But ultimately, is ink-inch efficiency (IIE) a metric worth optimizing? It’s very tempting to consider which language is “best” in this or that sense. But to young human brains learning languages, none of this seems to matter. Languages all have the same shape. You pick them up here and you do this with them. See what I mean?

[First seen on the Cynical-C Blog]

8 thoughts on “Noodling around with Chinese characters”

  1. I asked my wife’s parents a while back, and they hemmed and hawed and said that probably a book in Chinese would take up a little less space than the same book in English, all else being equal (e.g. the font being small but comfortable.)

  2. That makes perfect sense to me. Chinese is certainly compact. The thing I’m still looking for is an analysis of “pen effort” or “stroke count” applied to both languages.

  3. I will say that spoken Chinese is slightly easier than English, even with the pesky tones. There’s no conjugation, and the grammar just makes sense.

    Written though, I’ll have to say that having an alphabet makes English a bit easier, as you aren’t fully literate in Chinese until you know approximately 4,000 characters. And most people don’t know said Characters until high school.

  4. As a language teacher and a student of Linguistics I am often asked “what is the hardest language to learn?” or, more often “X is the toughest langauge to learn, right?” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Korean students say, with some pride, “Korean is the hardest language to learn!”. This is somewhat akin to the French person claim that “French is a logical language” (presumably unlike all others). I think, perhaps, people growing up in those countries are taught these maxims. The truth is, you cannot talk about which languages are “harder” or “easier” to learn without first asking:
    1. What is the native language of the person
    imagined to be doing the learning?
    2. Which aspect of language learning is being addressed?
    (phonology, lexicon, syntax, idioms, register/pragmatics)
    Polish is famous for having many complex declensions, whcih are hard to learn for me (my native language is English) – but for a Russian person, Polish is much easier to learn than English.
    For a Korean speaker, Chinese will be a lot easier than it is for me. Russian has no articles, English has 3 (“a”,”an”,”the”), Spanish
    has 6, German has, I believe, 14. So is German “hardest” and Russian “easiest”?
    No, because that’s just articles!
    You get my drift…

  5. “I think Esperanto is the hardest to learn because of all the taunting.”

    [I spit out my drink laughing at that, and will continue laughing at it when I re-tell it to others. Bravo, Mike.]

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