31 December 2010

Guan Yin

What do you see in this picture?Well, all right, so it's the photo of a mountain (taken from the doorway of a Buddhist temple in Danshui, a bit north of Taipei).

But do you see the head of a reclining goddess, with the forehead on the right, and the main peaks in the middle constituting the nose and mouth? This hill is named after Guan Yin, a prominent deity in Taiwan.

I've heard before about this hill before, but I had never seen its outline so clearly.

I guess how you interpret this outline is up to you. Maybe some people just see a hill.

New Characters

In a recent post (here), I commented on new words that have been created in Taiwan, by means of combining existing characters. A less common way of coining new words is to invent new characters. The character 夯 fits into this category, though it may have been around for ten years or so. Here it is as the fourth characters in an advertisement for the Floral Exhibition currently on in Taipei.It seems to be pronounced hāng and it means 'brilliant' or 'hot'.

Here it is again, on the sign for a bar. In both cases, its highly expressive quality is highlighted by it being shown in red.

One question I have in cases like this is how new characters would be shown in Unicode, which aims to include every character one might need in all languages. What would they do about newly-invented characters? In this case, 夯 has been around long enough that it is included in the Unicode set of characters (which is why I am able to show it in my text). But let us now look at another character creation, this one on the sign for a Taiwanese bookshop. The four large characters at the bottom say 'Taiwan's bookshop', but the third of these, pronounced 'e' and equivalent in meaning to the possessive 的 in Mandarin, is a non-standard character. As far as I can see, it does not exist in Unicode. So how would it be added? Is there a space for extra characters? And even if there is, it would be out of sequence. Here's where it should belong, immediately before the character shown in blue (location: hex 5168), but there isn't space for it. So how are newly created characters dealt with in Unicode?

28 December 2010

The History of Researches

In a previous posting (here), I discussed the relative frequency of 'my research' and 'my researches' in a large corpus of contemporary American English.

Just recently, Google Books have made available a search facility based on 5.2 million digitized books, in a facility they call 'Books Ngram Viewer' (here). (For a detailed discussion of it, see David Crystal's DCblog.) And this allows us to compare the occurrence of research with that of researches since the year 1800.

In the following plot, the blue line shows the relative frequency of 'my research' while the red line shows that for 'my researches' from 1800 till 2000.
This suggests that my assumption that researches is a modern development (which may be influenced by usage in places such as Brunei and Singapore) is not quite correct. In fact, it seems that researches was overwhelimingly more common until about 1940 when the use of the word as a non-count noun became more usual.

I love the development of on-line utilities like this that allow one to investigate things oneself at the touch of a button.

25 December 2010


There is a new word that is now being used widely in Taiwan: 霸凌 bàlíng, which is a borrowing from the English word bullying. You can hear it every day many times on the news, as they discuss the case of a school principle who failed to handle the cases of bullying in her school and was forced to step down.

Although there is already a Chinese word for 'to bully', 欺負 qīfù, this new word 霸凌 has a narrower meaning, referring specifically to bullying in school.

What is interesting about this word is that it is not just a new borrowing from English but it also carries meaning from the two characters. It is more usual for borrowings just to carry the phonetic value of the characters but not their meaning, so for example 巴士 bāshì ('bus') carries no meaning from the individual characters. However, for 霸凌, the two characters mean 'tyrant' and 'maltreat', so you might say that the word is both a borrowing and an indigenous coinage.

23 December 2010


I am just reading an interesting book by Xu Zhichang, Chinese English (Open University Press, HK, 2010), in which he describes the lexis, syntax, and discourse of Chinese English.

One of the sources of data in the book is a set of interviews with undergraduates in Beijing in which they were asked about their hometown; and the wording of one of the responses caught my attention. The interviewee said that he came from a small city in Hebei province, and:
Maybe it is isn't very busy. But I think it's very beautiful. (p. 128)
Now, I would use and rather than but, as to me, being not very busy is beautiful. I always find crowds problematic, which is one reason why living in Brunei suits me well. In contrast, in Chinese culture, crowds are often something to be appreciated.

There is a Chinese phrase 看熱鬧 kàn rènào which is literally 'watch the noisy bustle', and it means to go out and enjoy the noisy crowds on the street. It is rather difficult to translate into English, as noisy crowds are less often regarded as something you can enjoy in western culture.

20 December 2010

Taiwan's Aborigines

Languages always undergo change, and one of the reasons for change is the adoption of more suitable terms to refer to people in order to respect their sensitivities and avoid insulting them. For example, when I was young, people used to refer to Red Indians, but nowadays that is not regarded as appropriate, and we talk about Native Americans instead.

In Taiwan, it is exactly the same. When I was here thirty years ago, the aboriginal tribes were referred to as 山地人 shān dì rén ('mountain people'). But the problem with this is that these people never used to live in the mountains until the arrival of the Han Chinese who chased them out of the plains, so calling them 'mountain people' is rather insulting. As a result, they are now referred to as 原住民 yuán zhù mín ('original folk'), and this is far better.

Of interest to people in Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia is that the language they speak is related to Malay. In fact, it is generally believed that Taiwan is the origin of the Austronesian languages. You might say that Malay comes from Taiwan.

One of the ways to demonstrate this is to consider diversity. If you look at English, you will find that there are lots of different varieties in England, and often one town (such as Newcastle) has a completely different accent from the neighbouring town (Sunderland). In contrast, in Australia there is much less regional diversity, so there is not much difference in the speech of those from Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. In just the same way, there is considerable diversity between the Aboriginal languages in Taiwan, though they are still all Austronesian. In contrst, there is less diversity between the different varieties of Malay.

17 December 2010

Taiwan Currency

One of the interesting things I have done here in Taiwan is to talk at length to a blind chap, about how he deals with things here, and some of the frustrations he faces. I asked him about money, and how he knows how much a note is worth. And he told me it is easy. Here is an image of a $1000 note (worth about $50 n Brunei or Singapore):Do you see the metalic strip on the right? It has the number 1000 in raised characters, especially to allow blind people to know how much it is worth.

I wonder how many countries do this. It seems so simple, but I'm not sure that many countries do it. They really do seem to do some things quite well in Taiwan.

15 December 2010

Language in Taiwan

I am now in Taipei for the next two weeks. One of the things I love is being surrounded by Chinese. There are about 100 TV channels, pretty much all of them in Chinese (Mandarin), with no mixing in English. Ever. You can sometimes hear a bit of Taiwanese (Hokkien) mixed in, and I've heard some Hakka, but never English, which suits me just fine.

In Brunei, I mostly watch Astro Awani, and even its Malay-medium news broadcasts have quite a lot of English, particularly when they interview Malaysian politicians, bankers, or doctors. Similarly for the Malaysian TV1 channel. (I can't receive RTB, so I can't comment on the Brunei channels.) Now, I know that mixing is normal, and maybe the regular inclusion of English segments is constructive for developing the language ability of people, but I personally find it really irritating. I can already speak English, so I don't want to hear it on the TV. Furthermore, I detest the way that Astro Awani keep on repeating the same tedious English-language advertisements for their own programmes every single hour. They seem to be doing their best to annoy viewers.

I just love being surrounded with Chinese for these two weeks. I wish I could get the same for Malay when I am in Brunei, but I guess that is not going to happen.

13 December 2010

Lack of Rhoticity

A UBD colleague, someone who like me comes from the south of England, asked me about Macau, and I replied that it is basically one big casino with a few outlets to support the gambling, such as pawn shops.

We talked a bit more and then he said, "Oh, I see, that sort of pawn." He had heard it as porn! Even though pawn makes much more sense in the context.

Of course, if I spoke with a rhotic accent (like an American), that kind of confusion would be unlikely to occur, as pawn and porn would be quite distinct.

It does strike me that my accent is not the clearest way of speaking. And I would recommend that anyone who has rhoticity in their pronunciation should keep it. Maybe I should learn to speak with a rhotic accent in order to enhance the intelligibility of my speech.

10 December 2010

Falling Demand for English

One of the interesting papers at the ESEA conference in Macau was by David Graddol. It included a graph for projected falling demand for English language classes in the near future (from page 99 of his 2006 book English Next):In recent years, the demand for English language classes has been mushrooming, but this is projected to decline as an increasing proportion of young children learn English in school and do not need to attend classes later in life.

David Graddol had some stunning animated graphics in his presentation. I asked him how he managed to get them, and he told them he coded them himself in Javascript. I wish I could write code like that!

09 December 2010

Falling Standards (?)

I am currently at the English in South East Asia (ESEA) conference in Macau, and there are plenty of good papers and lots of interesting people to talk to.

One paper I attended yesterday was by Isabel Martin from the Philippines, and she mentioned the widespread perception of falling standards of English in her country. But are standards really falling? What evidence is there?

The belief that standards of English are deteriorating seems to occur throughout the world, but there seems little evidence for it. For existence, there is a common belief in Singapore that English is getting worse, but is it really? Fifty years ago, English was only learned by a small elite, and maybe they achieved high standards. Nowadays, English is learned by everybody in Singapore, and it makes no sense to compare the standards of the whole population with those of a small elite many years ago.

And what about the Philippines? While it is certaily true that lots of people use Taglish (the mixture of Tagalog and English) and this presumably has a substantial effect on the English that is found there, at the same time there is lots of pressure to learn excellent English, partly because of the opportunities for those with good English of getting well-paid jobs in the call-centre industry. It is hard for me to believe that standards there really are falling.

07 December 2010

More on Researches

A few weeks ago, I wrote (here) about the use of the plural researches, specifically about whether this use that is common in places such as Brunei might be extending into standard English in places such as the USA; and I quoted data from the COCA corpus showing that there are 13 instances of 'my researches' and 20 of 'his researches'.

But what does this mean? Is 13 tokens in a corpus of 410 million words a lot or not? Does it indicate a pattern or just a few isolated instances?

To put it into perspective, we can compare it with 'my research' and 'his research'. The search for "my|your|his|our|their researches" finds a total of 47 instances. In comparison, a search for "my|your|his|our|their research" finds a total of 4787 instances. So it seems that the plural use of researches is about 100 times less common than the singular research in contemporary American English. In other words, singular research predominates.

We can ask several more questions:
  • Is plural researches increasing in frequency?
  • Does plural researches maybe represent some specialist use of the term?
  • What kind of texts does researches tend to occur in?
Clearly, there is lots and lots that can be done with a fantastic on-line resource like COCA.

One final issue: furnitures only finds four tokens (compared with 12,943 for furniture). So clearly the plural use of furnitures, something that is also common in this part of the world, has not become established in American English.

02 December 2010

Speaking like a Native

My UBD colleague, Ann Elgar, is from England, and she tells a story about when she was 19 and could speak German really well. She was travelling around Germany at the time, and she bought a train ticket to go to Cologne. Despite reading the instructions really carefully, she managed to buy the wrong kind of ticket. When the ticket inspector came along, he insisted that she would have to pay the price of a full ticket, and if she refused to do this, he would have her arrested by the transport police when they reached their destination. She argued back that she should not have to pay the full price of a new ticket as the instructions were not clear. After a long, protracted argument, eventually another passenger intervened and asked her how old she was and where she was from. When she replied that she was 19 and from England, the other passenger berated the ticket inspector for giving so much trouble to such a young visitor to Germany. At this point, the ticket inspector apologised, saying he had no idea that she was not German. And she was allowed to proceed with her journey with no further problems.

The moral of this story is that it sometimes does not pay to speak a foreign language too well.

01 December 2010

Jangan Tolak Rezeki

Food is really important in Brunei culture, and it is rude to reject food if it is offered to you. My UBD colleague, Malai Ayla Surya Malai Hj Abdullah, tells me that there is a common saying in Malay, "Jangan tolak rezeki", which might be translated as 'Don't reject good fortune'. In other words, if you are offered something such as food, it could bring bad luck on you if you do not eat it.

She also tells a folk tale about a grain of rice and a mountain of gold. One day, when a fisherman finished his lunch, there was one uneaten grain of rice which he tossed into the river. Feeling dejected, this grain of rice started weeping. Then, as it was floating along in the water, it met a mountain of gold which asked it, "Why are you crying?" When the grain of rice explained that a Bruneian person had declined to eat it and had thrown it away, the mountain of gold said, "I was just going to Brunei. But now I won't, as the people there may not value me. I'd better go somewhere else instead." And this story illustrates why you should never spurn good fortune that comes your way, including food.