Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Spelling in Chinese

After posting on Zhuang I went back and carefully reread the 9 methods of composing characters in Zhuang and non-standard Cantonese in this article.

A Comparison of the Graphical Conventions in the Written Representation of Zhuang and Cantonese by Prof. Robert S. Bauer

I left off with this last sentence,

For various reasons neither the old Zhuang script nor the written form of Cantonese has undergone the formal process of standardization; the lack of standardization has created the phenomenon of allography in both writing systems.

I don't want to go into all 9 conventions here but this is the last one cited.

9) Graphs whose pronunciations are "spelled" by their two component characters; that is, two (typically standard Chinese) characters are combined to form the target character, and the Zhuang or Cantonese reading of one of the characters represents the initial consonant of the target character, while the rime of the second character corresponds to the rime of the target character (this method resembles the 反切 principle that was employed in the ancient Chinese rime books).

I get the impression that rather than using two distinct characters as in fanqie, two components are combined in one character. This is described by the author as "spelling" out the pronunciation in a character.

I returned to Dylan Sung's website on the history of the Chinese language and script for a description of fanqie. (View his sitemap here.)

Splicing sounds

In order to fix the sounds of a character, we needed a method in which to do it. Very early on in the late Han period (25-220), splicing two characters for the intial and rhyme was the method to pin down the sounds. This is known as the FanQie (反切) method. Prior to the Sui (581 - 618) and early Tang (618 - 907) dynasties, the character "fan" 反 was used to symbolise this splicing. After the establishment of the Tang Dynasty, the character "qie" 切 was used.

Here is an example of how Fan and Qie splicing work.

[This character has the] old pronunciation "tung", and both methods use two extra characters, the first of which is the initial, and the second an exact rhyme to our example. The splicing works exactly the same way in both examples.

For a further discussion of fanqie I went here.

The fanqie spelling is a word-based analogical spelling system in which words are spelled in terms of other [familiar] words. Fanqie was never intended to, nor is it capable of, making distinctions beyond those of the words of any given speaker or reader. Neither the rhymes nor the fanqie spellings of the words of any given dialect or literary tradition can be arbitrarily extended (or "refined") so as to include the rhymes or words of another dialect which may have distinguished them differently or which did not distinguish them at all, as the Qieyun compilers indicate.

Or read the book.

I have recently made the delightful but necessarily time-consuming discovery that if a book is listed at Pinyin info it is likely available at the university library near me. I have a stack of these books on my desk, and some of them I have actually read.

Two thoughts from reading all this. First, different kinds of phonography were used to generate new characters or 字 zi. Second, allography is a great term for a phenomenon which fascinates us all - non-standard writing. (Well, most of us.) In the midst of the all-encompassing standardization that is happening as graphs and systems enter Unicode, many of us will be mourning 'allography' or trying to find ways to keep it alive in spite of itself.


Blogger gary said...


Thanks for another intriguing post. I hadn't heard of the 9th way of constructing characters. Fascinating. I will check out Bauer's books.

Since you mentioned Fanqie, I thought I'd add that there has been some interesting OT analyses of Fanqie as a language game. Some early papers are done by my friend Jen Smith: http://www.unc.edu/~jlsmith/home/pubs.html. More on the OTA (http://roa.rutgers.edu/).

I don't think Stanley Goertzen's assessment of QieYun is completely correct. While the purpose of Fanqie (and similar "spelling" methods) was never to replace the primary writing system, it is capable to "spell" combinations of onset and rimes that do not exist in a dialect (e.g., those accidental empty slot in the Mandarin onset-rime chart).

Furthermore, I suspect that some mechanisms related to Fanqie had played a critical role in the writing of early Chinese. Around 500 BC, during the Warring States period, there were many so called Lian Mian Zi (联绵字, http://yzkc.ncu.edu.cn/NCUCourseWare/SpecialCourse/xiandai/Templates/c3.htm, Chinese only, and I don't know how to translate the term) in writings, which are mono-morphemic, bi-syllablic, two-character combinations that are meaningless if separated. Often times the two syllables share a common onset or a common rime (though there are exceptions). Many survived today. It's clear that these LMZ were used for their phonological values, as there often exists various written forms using different homophonic characters. The interesting question is: were they simply transcriptions of phonologically peculiar bi-syllabic words in the language(s), or were they imperfect but ingenious ways to transcribe complex syllables in the dialect using simple building blocks?

From here on it's all speculation. And I don't even count myself as an amature in historic Chinese phonology. But, let's suppose some early Chinese dialects had complex onset and/or coda structures and that someone had to write them down using a limited set of simple syllable characters. A reasonable solution would be to simplify the input syllable structure via epenthesis and reduplications, not unlike what happens in Japanese loan words or in the Chinese translations of foreign people/place names.

So in theory something like Fanqie could transcribe -- not without distortions -- (m)any languages. Can it go the other way? That is, can you reconstruct the original word/syllable from the writing? Possible. The reverse engineering requires systematically dropping the onset, rime, or other segments. For example: /kuh/ + /ae/ + /tuh/ = /kaet/, which we ask kids to do all the time. This is also how Linear B works, more or less.

So putting this together, something like Fanqie has the potential to write complex syllables, and possibly any languages given appropriate extensions of its phonemic inventory. How effective it is, compared to other methods, is a different question.

For one reason or another, though, Fanqie never saw the light of the day in standard Chinese. Maybe a little bit in Cantonese?

9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this chinese boy from my skool. He made me and my friend a paper frog that you can make it jump and carefully wrote frog in chinese on the bag. He wrote spellings of his name and things and gave them us. It was amazing and he taught us how to say things.
The best part was he showed us how to spell merry christmas. Spelling is alot different in china. They literually drawing their words and they make it look so easy yet it is very hard. But Zhou (Pronounced Joe) Is a very lovely guy and very amazing :D

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