May 13, 2004

Exams, exams, exams

I think I blew my Chinese luisterexam last night by writing "?" when I meant "?" consistently. It's not like there's any actual phonetic difference between the two. They're homophones not only in Mandarin but I think in every other form of Chinese.

Most Chinese characters seem to be used in primarily phonetic ways - they don't seem to reduce ambiguity in any meaningful way. There are circa 1200 unique syllables in Chinese, probably less than a thousand for the 70 percent of Mandarin speakers for whom "?" sounds the same as "?". Really, would it be so frigging impossible to just pick one character for each distinctive syllable? It would make my life only a thousand times easier.

And Russian... don't get me started on Russian. What is with this "???? ???", "??? ????", "???? ?????" stuff? I get the concept of case as an indicator of verbal argument structure. I get case as a these marker. But how in hell does case get to be an indicator of number? "Two and three take the genetive singular." WTF?

I'm just having that "my brain is full" feeling. Language classes - like drugs, only less fun.

[Warning: You need to set your Text Encoding to Unicode to read this entry.]

Posted 2004/05/13 21:52 (Thu) | TrackBack

You also need Chinese fonts installed. All I see is I think I blew my Chinese luisterexam last night by writing "?" when I meant "?" consistently. :)

Posted by: David at May 13, 2004 22:48

So at least you can see the stuff in Russian?

Posted by: Scott Martens at May 13, 2004 23:12

I can see both Russian and Chinese fine in the post (well, I think I can - I don't know either language well enough to say for sure, but it doesn't look corrupted, and those look like Russian numerals IIRC) but the Chinese isn't showing up right in the RSS feed. This hardly matters, as it's only a partial feed anyway, but I thought you might like to know. (My aggregator should be able to handle Unicode, so it's probably not a problem at my end.)

Posted by: Tim May at May 14, 2004 1:18

Scott, when I set my browser's text encoding to Unicode, I can see the Chinese and Cyrillic characters, but can't you set up your server to specify that your content encoding is UTF-8, so my browser doesn't have to guess? At least that's the way it's supposed to work.

Posted by: Jeremy Leader at May 14, 2004 8:10

Also, I've often wondered whether the plural-vs-singular distinction that seems common in European languages was universal. Why not have different forms for 1, 2, 3, and many (aside from the fact that it'd be a pain in the neck)? Or maybe no distinction based on number, but on size instead? So 1000 books and one car would both use the bigger-than-a-breadbox-smaller-than-a-house case.

Posted by: Jeremy Leader at May 14, 2004 8:15

"AddDefaultCharset UTF-8" in your .htaccess file might get the blog serving as UTF-8. (Which is just good practice anyway, by-the-by--how 鈡, (the second Chinese character you used) gets delivered from comment posting forms to your blog becomes pretty much random otherwise.)

If that doesn't work, you'd have to muck around with MT's settings. seems to give a good summary of what's to be done.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at May 14, 2004 9:36

I tried setting charset in my HTML header to UTF-8, but then all the ISO-8859 stuff in all the other entries got messed up. I'm looking for a soluion that fixes the problem.

Posted by: Scott Martens at May 14, 2004 9:58

If it's any consolation, some Slavic languages have an additional "dual" form that is used only for quantities ending in 2 (except 12, of course). Not to mention the vocative case. It actually does survive in Russian, but only for diminutive first names (e.g. "Саша" becomes "Саш!").

The encoding worked fine for me, anyway. Let's see if comments can handle Unicode:

你是美國人 嗎 ?

(apparently they can!)

Posted by: vaara at May 14, 2004 13:47


I'm surprised to find a linguist of all people asking that fatal question, 'Why the %?$& does Bollawollastani do X, which is so odd compared with the Y we do in my mother-tongue?' There may well be a good historical answer, but the only practical answer for the learner is, 'Because. Now shut up and comply!'

I have often wondered whether true native bilinguals (or whatever the technical term might be) are more adept at acquiring additional languages because they're inured from early childhood to the required mental jump-shifts. I've particularly wondered this about the residents of Ireland's Gaeltacht. Nobody there is *just* a gaeilgeoir; everybody speaks English with mother-tongue proficiency as well. For all that they're both IE 'centum' languages, Irish and English are about as far apart as they can be. Irish has stolen a lot of words from English, it's true, but its grammatical constructs are highly Martian (to an anglophone). Would the average denizen of Gortahork, say, outstrip the average monoglot at picking up Bulgarian, Japanese, Basque? I'm sure there's a disseration in this for somebody. (I'll stick with idle speculation myself.)

As for Russian, it's not that bad. Except, of course, for the verbs...

Posted by: Mrs Tilton at May 14, 2004 18:13

Mrs T, the linguist in me does, in fact, know better and can rattle off a half dozen more screwed up things right off the top of his head. The linguist in me, however, does not have to study for his frigging Russian final on Monday, it's the overworked idiot who thought he could do both Russian and Chinese at the same time stuck with the job.

Posted by: Scott Martens at May 14, 2004 22:20

Vaara - I knew Slovenian had a vestigial dual and I think my Bulgarian prof told me that Old Slavonic had a vocative, but that was a long time ago. We've covered five of the six Russian cases, all but the instrumental. I'm used to cases, but Russian uses them differently than Latin or German.

Chinese, at this particular moment, actually seems easier.

BTW, I got a character wrong in the initial post: for "?" read "?". Chinese characters aren't as hard to read than they seem, but they're actually harder to write.

Posted by: Scott Martens at May 14, 2004 22:41

Singular vs. plural is not universal.

I don't believe many languages have more than three number forms, but lots of languages have singular, dual and plural, often with inclusive vs exclusive 1st person dual/plural.

(Inclusive dual: me, you. Exclusive dual: me, someone else. Inclusive plural: me, you, other people. Exclusive plural: me, other people.)

On the "no distinction", though I don't know of any language that never ever distinguishes singular and plural, many of the Austronesian languages only do it in one pronoun form (2nd) or one rare determiner, etc., so pretty much all the sentences are disambiguated by context. (You can say something like "three books", but "a/the book(s)" is ambiguous.)

Posted by: wolfangel at May 16, 2004 0:16

Mrs. Tilton -- A lot of Hungarians and Finns seem to end up studying obscure languages. In part this is because of nationalist sentimentality about the Finno-Ugric languages, but I've thought that someone native-speaker-bilingual in Finnish/Hungarian and Swedish/Russian/German (as many educated Finns/Hungarians are) would find it easy to learn any language whatever, since they've already learned two languages with almost nothing in common.

Posted by: Zizka at May 16, 2004 7:32

PS Scott -- which are the two characters?

Posted by: Zizka at May 16, 2004 7:34

Zizka, I used zhongguo de zhong1 when I needed shi er dian zhong de zhong1.

Posted by: Scott Martens at May 16, 2004 10:39

wolfangel - Chinese rarely makes any morphological distinction between singlual and plural. Making no particular distinction isn't terribly rare. Making more than three number distinctions, however, is something I've never heard of. But I suppose it's possible. I don't see why, for example. you couldn't have a singular/dual/small numbers/big numbers four-way distinction.

Posted by: Scott Martens at May 16, 2004 12:19

I thought that of Chinese, but I wasn't quite sure about how their classifier system worked. I was responding to some earlier comment about European two-way systems, which don't seem to be all that common elsewhere (and were, I think, once a three-way).

A quick look suggests that some languages have a trial, and there are possible arguments for a quadral in others (Marshallese and Sursurunga).

Yimas (New Guinea) seems to have a 4-way system: singular, dual, paucal, plural.

Posted by: wolfangel at May 17, 2004 16:13
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