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]

Tattoos Sacred and Profane

You may have heard about Engrish.com, the site that tracks amusing abuses of the English language in Japan (“Let’s happy and feel the lucky!”). But what about the view from the other side? Are Americans abusing Asian languages by any chance? Yes they are, and whereas Japanese have a knack for zany T-shirts and signs, Americans prefer to make their mistakes in the form of permanent tattoos. Tian Tang, an engineering student who lives in Arizona now but was born in China, has a site called Hanzi Smatter that is dedicated to airing the kinds of mistranslations, mistransliterations, and textual nonsense that pass for Chinese in American pop culture. Recently he’s been getting some high-profile press:

Cool Tat, Too Bad It’s Gibberish – New York Times
Indelibly lost in translation – Los Angeles Times

The whole concept of what people look for in a tattoo, and what constitutes magical writing, has fascinated me for some time, so I collected my thoughts in the somewhat longer ramble below.
Continue reading “Tattoos Sacred and Profane”

Pictographs, water-ness, and ness-ness

This is known: writing is magic. I scratch marks on paper, and you know my mind. Magic. The next question is, is some writing more magical than others? Can some written languages enter your brain more naturally than others? Of living languages, Japanese and Chinese seem to sway our Western imagination as links to a pictographic past. For example, here is “mizu”,



the Japanese (and Chinese) character for water. You can imagine that it suggests a plunging cataract splashing left and right. Thus you might even argue it has a pictographic “soul” (as distinct from our abstracted chickenscratch alphabet). It also appears in many water-related words in Japanese like flood, sewage, and brine. It fairly drips with water-ness. Is this a more “legitimate” or natural way to represent water than the arbitrary letterforms W-A-T-E-R? Does it represent water-ness more truly than other non-pictographic written forms are capable of doing?

To get a feel for the power of pictographs, think of some examples from our own culture. Emoticons like :-) come to mind, but my personal favorite is $, the dollar sign. Strictly speaking, this is an ideograph (idea captured by a sign) rather than a pictograph (idea captured by a picture). Even so, it forcefully sums up the concept of money-ness in the same compact way that 水 sums up water-ness. Put dollar signs in the eyes of a cartooon character, and we know exactly what’s afoot, whereas writing the word “money” in the same place would simply be odd. Pictographs and ideographs are laden with the ness-ness of meaning. Their ness-ness-ness is palpable. Is, therefore, Chinese a “truer” writing system than the Roman alphabet of English? Are languages based on pictographs better, more direct, more apprehensible, more magical?

The short answer is this: we want to believe that they are, but they aren’t. Chinese is just another way to put words on paper. There is no such thing as a true pictographic written language, and there never has been. This is true for the same reason that it’s hard to play Pictionary when your word is “irony”. I recently came across an excellent discussion of this topic in a book about Chinese called The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy by John DeFrancis. In one of his chapters, entitled The Ideographic Myth, he debunks the idea that non-alphabetic writing systems somehow short-circuit the normal approach to language. Here’s an extended quote.

The error of exaggerating the pictographic and hence semantic aspect of Chinese characters and minimizing if not totally neglecting the phonetic aspect tends to fix itself very early in the minds of many people, both students of Chinese and the public at large, because their first impression of the characters is likely to be gained by being introduced to the Chinese writing system via some of the simplest and most interesting pictographs.

If you like this kind of thing (and if you made it this far, you probably do), it’s worth a read.