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]