It is hard to understate the importance of the Chinese characters to the Chinese language.
It is claimed by Chinese speakers that the Pinyin system (the official system for using the Roman alphabet to write the sounds of Mandarin Chinese) is not enough to convey meaning because so many words sounds the same. They need the visual elements in the characters to distinguish words.
This may seem like nonsense. People don’t use characters when they talk on the phone in Chinese. Context is enough to distinguish the meanings of homophones. And yet, Chinese speakers imagine the characters when they’re listening.
Kids who don’t know the characters yet could, theoretically, just learn to read Pinyin and associate the meanings to the sounds and to the Pinyin representations of the sounds, which is similar to what every kid with an alphabetic language does.
Adult Chinese speakers read faster with characters than with Pinyin because they already know the meanings of the characters, whereas if they try to read Pinyin, they have to translate the Pinyin into sounds before they can understand the words. They would need to practice reading Pinyin a lot to be able to read as fast without characters.
Furthermore, the characters provide intelligibility between types of speech that the Chinese tend to call dialects but that are sometimes considered separate languages.
Chinese pride in Chinese characters may seem like sheer masochism. Non-phonetic writing systems are an undeniably heavy cognitive burden. But if China abandons characters, it’s also abandoning centuries of its own history, poetry, and art. How could anyone really be in favor of that?
In Singapore, the answer to a question will often be “I also don’t know.” The implication is that the asker doesn’t know and that the answerer is thus the second person who doesn’t know.
We Americans don’t say ‘also’ in English when we don’t know unless at least one person has already failed to answer the question.
“Where can I get some good Italian food?” asked Amelia.
“I also don’t know,” said Bob.
In the US:
“Where can I get some good Italian food?” asked Amelia.
“I don’t know,” said Bob.
“I also don’t know,” said Cindy.
Cindy is the second person to say the phrase “I don’t know.” The word ‘also’ is just there to emphasize the echo. But probably Cindy wouldn’t even use ‘also’. She’d probably say “me neither” or “I don’t know either.”
Today at Parkway Parade I saw a sign on a cosmetics store that said “powerful-strength line-reducing concentrate”.
I read it as an advertisement for a reducer of ‘strength lines’ and momentarily wondered what a ‘strength line’ was and why it was bad. Then I realized there was a hyphen. The advertisement was for something that reduces lines (i.e., wrinkles). If you write ‘powerful’, though, you don’t need the word ‘strength’.
This strikes me as a very Singlish bit of syntax, though the company that makes this bizarrely named product is American.
In Singapore I keep hearing people here say things like “I like the red-color one.” They should just say “I like the red one,” because ‘red’ is already a color, same way ‘powerful’ is already a strength.
I also hear ‘large size’. The phrase ‘medium size’ makes sense, because all kinds of things can be medium in ways that have nothing to do with size. Things can be medium temperature, or medium cooked, etc. But ‘large’ is always a size, so we don’t say “I would like a large-size coffee, please.” Sometimes we say “I need a size large,” though probably not “I need a size large t-shirt.”
Of course, it’s not just Singlish that is subject to redundancy: don’t we all say ‘ATM machine’ and ‘PIN number’?
And Kiehls wasn’t using Singlish. I just thought they were.
I enjoyed The Rational Optimist. Pessimism is more attention-getting than optimism, but sometimes we need calm, happy stuff.
No charity ever raised money for its cause by saying things are getting better. No journalist ever got the front page by telling his editor that he wanted to write a story about how disaster was now less likely. Good news is no news. (295)
Ridley is a welcome candle in the dark. Hear more about what he has to say below.
Continue reading The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
I am a fan of Tom Cruise, but I thought The Last Samurai was boring and overly sentimentalized.
The patronizing characterization of the Japanese as savages transformed into blind idealization of the Japanese as being actually quite lovely and graceful and heroic, which is just as patronizing.
Technology is depicted as inherently, thoroughly bad because it can magnify the consequences of unjust wars.
The emperor of Japan was portrayed as spineless, right up until the end, where suddenly he cared about the protagonist and his Samurai rebel leader friend.
I like fight scenes that are clever and funny, but all these were either loud, chaotic, and bloody, or slo-mo and serious. Nothing in the movie was funny. I was bored by the entire thing and had to go and get something to do while watching it. Not a winner.
Roger Ebert disagrees with me.
This is Guan Yu. I saw this Guan Yu statue at Just Anthony (a Chinese furniture and antique shop) a few months after arriving in Singapore, though I didn’t know who he was.
I took the photo because I though it was exceedingly strange for a warrior to be shown in a pose reading a book. Warriors, I thought, were shown on prancing horses, holding swords or spears, or surveying the landscape. They’re not shown reading.
Ah, but you see, he’s a legendary Chinese general, and he’s reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War. That makes sense!
Figurines and statues of Guan Yu are common, since Guan Yu is commonly worshipped as a deity, or at least displayed as a kind of lucky charm. Most of the time, Guan Yu is shown riding his horse like a boss, wielding his special weapon like a boss, or just scowling and holding his very dignified beard, but some of the time, he’s shown seated, reading a book like a boss.
Hats off to you, Guan Yu, for choosing to fight with your brains and not just your brawn.
Singapore has a reputation for strict laws that stipulate fines for mildly annoying misdeeds. It’s also known as a place where people enjoy durians, which are a particularly stinky kind of fruit with spiky skin.
What cracks me up every time I see a sign like this one (on the wall of the Chinatown MRT station) is that when you look at it, you naturally expect the punishment for the offense on the bottom right to be the worst, and… there’s nothing there!
Not listing any penalty on the sign leaves the imagination free to invent something maximally terrible. Like… execution.
What exactly do they do to you if you bring a durian on the MRT?
Better never find out.