A Chinese stuffed nose
September 4, 2004 9:26 PM   Subscribe

The Chinese character meaning 'to have a stuffy nose'. A remark by a Chinese language student on the complexity of the aforementioned symbol turns into an interesting discussion, trawling through a very thick etymology, that almost makes me want to learn Chinese! Fascinating if you're into languages, Chinese or not.
posted by wackybrit (23 comments total)

From the comments: Seriously, though...that's good stuff...

HAH! Good "stuff," get it?

Um, but, did I miss the part where the character on the left is explained? Is it just "nose," or what?

Anyway, this is interesting "stuff."
posted by soyjoy at 9:44 PM on September 4, 2004

Maybe it's just my lame-ass browser (you can guess which). Am I the only one for whom the characters they're discussing in the comments just show up as rectangular blocks?
posted by soyjoy at 9:46 PM on September 4, 2004

soyjoy: I did wonder if other people might be seeing that. On Safari on the Mac I see the Chinese symbols fine, although I get the feeling if I were on my PC the situation would be quite different. Hopefully it doesn't ruin it too much, as I didn't really look much at the symbols myself (through not understanding them) as the various posts gave enough context for me to follow the train of thought.
posted by wackybrit at 10:05 PM on September 4, 2004

firefox on XP displays it all fine for me.
posted by Flat Feet Pete at 10:30 PM on September 4, 2004

I get the blocks as well, but most of them have pronunciation guides in parentheses next to them or some other sort of context. This was very interesting! Great post.
posted by somethingotherthan at 10:48 PM on September 4, 2004

If you don't see the characters in Windows you can install the East Asian language pack from "Regional and Language Options" in the control panel. I didn't, though, since it's 230mb, and it would only be useful for making the pages look nicer for me, since I don't know the languages.
posted by taz at 11:48 PM on September 4, 2004

This is very cool. Thanks.
posted by greasepig at 1:18 AM on September 5, 2004

I have Firefox on XP as well, but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to see...
posted by johnnydark at 5:33 AM on September 5, 2004

I must get that character tattooed on my arm immediately, and tell people it means "serenity". Cool post.
posted by psmealey at 5:59 AM on September 5, 2004

Most excellent blog! I have never studied Chinese, but I have read a little bit about learning to read it in my linguistics classes. I also have major character-envy when I read things like this page.

Many people who are raised using alphabets don't really depend on sounding out words letter by letter, but rather by keeping a mental picture of the word. If you learn to spell a few hundred words in elementary school, you tend to think of syllables like Chinese strokes. This is not true of excellent spellers, but it is true for many literate people who read well, but are inaccurate spellers and absolutely hopeless proof-readers.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:40 AM on September 5, 2004

Excellent post, thanks!

soyjoy: From K. Zhuxi's first comment: "The whole left side of the character is nothing more than ? (bi4; nose), which is a character you should know already..." If you're asking how the character for 'nose' is formed, it's radical + phonetic, like most characters; you can go here to find that information for any character -- just type (in this case) "nose" into the English box under "Search Dictionary" and you'll get an alphabetical list of words on the left; click on "nose" and you'll see its entry on the right, starting with "Nose [radical character] with [phonetic character] phonetic."
posted by languagehat at 7:51 AM on September 5, 2004

Good post. Thanks!
posted by dazed_one at 8:21 AM on September 5, 2004

How did anything ever get written down in Chinese? I guess that's why their civilization started a couple thousand years before western ones, because they needed a head start on documentation. *rimshot*

On an interesting side note, a "picture language" as opposed to a "letter language" would be a terrible disadvantage until a high level of technology was attained that could automate and accelerate the picture creation.

Enter the computer.

Would a "picture language" have a competitive advantage in the digital age? It would almost be like shorthand if typed.

What I'm getting at is, handwritten, the chinese characters are incredibly cumbersome and complicated, needing dozens of strokes to convey a relatively simple idea.

But once those characters are digitized and can be recalled instantly, suddenly, these chinese expression of two "symbols" is much shorter than the english representation of the same idea. Two symbols versus 10 symbols.

Unless, of course, you consider each english word to be a unique symbol.

posted by Ynoxas at 8:31 AM on September 5, 2004

[zhe shi hao le]
posted by delmoi at 9:45 AM on September 5, 2004

Thanks, LH.
posted by soyjoy at 9:50 AM on September 5, 2004

The nice thing about pictograph writing is it transends the language of the writer. A Chinese newspaper can be read by a Japanese person because the symbols used are the same even though the spoken words are different. The Japanese borrowed the Chinese writing so the symbol for "the Moon" is the same in both languages even though the word for moon is different.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 10:06 AM on September 5, 2004

Ynoxas: I don't think that the number of strokes is all that much greater in Chinese than in, say, English or other Latin-based orthographies. After all, "to have a stuffed nose" in handwritten English takes 29 strokes, as opposed to the 36 strokes for the character in question. Also, there are other words such as "mouth", which in handwritten English takes 10 strokes, but in Chinese (口) takes only four.

The true difficulty of Chinese orthography lies in learning it. Instead of representing each sound in the language, it represents each word as a character in itself (often, but not always, with a phonetic component), so a student must learn how to write one word at a time. Contrast this with Spanish or Korean, where (in most cases) one does not need to have learned how to read a specific word in order to read it correctly, and vice versa. English suffers from an analogous problem: it draws on vocabularies from languages with multiple orthographical systems, some of which have been modified in the borrowing, so one ends up having to memorize either the spelling of each particular word, or its etymology, or both, in order to write it correctly. But even in English, an ill-tutored or beginning student can often guess at how to write a word with enough accuracy to write something intelligible, however imperfect. In Chinese (I believe) this is impossible.

Someone please correct me if I'm wrong; I have never systematically studied Chinese, so it's quite possible that I am.

On preview: SLoG, that's sort of true, except that there are also phonetics involved in Chinese orthography which don't translate into Japanese, and kanji has modified many of the Chinese characters it's borrowed, which I would expect to lead to all sorts of delightful confusion. Not to mention hiragana, katakana, and romaji. Once again though, I'm purely speculating, and you may (or may not) be speaking from experience. If someone who's actually fluent in Chinese and/or Japanese, and has attempted to read something written in the other language, could comment, that would be great.
posted by skoosh at 10:54 AM on September 5, 2004

I was married to someone from Japan and that was his claim anyway. I personally learned hiragana, katakana, romaji and about 200 kanji. Since you need to learn 2000 plus kanji in order to read Japanese (and 5000 to read fluently) I never got very far. But still my basic point is whether you pronounce it tsuki or getsu it is still written as a a rectangle with legs.

Also it is my understanding that after WWII General McArthur ordered some simplification in the Japanese writing.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 11:37 AM on September 5, 2004

According to the Wikipedia entries on kanji and hanzi, some characters are mutually legible, but some aren't.

I also misread your comment as hypothesizing a Japanese newspaper and a Chinese reader. I think it would be harder for a Chinese reader to understand a Japanese newspaper (owing to the Japanese-only kanji, as well as kana and romaji) than the other way around. And yes, the occupation government ordered orthographic reform, including a reduction and simplification of the kanji characters. So now there's kyu-jitai (old characters) and shin-jitai (new characters), in addition to the two kana scripts and the Latin alphabet. Meanwhile, China under the Communists also instituted orthographic reform, resulting in Simplified Chinese on the mainland; however, Taiwan, being ruled by the Nationalists, did not go along, so Traditional Chinese is still used there. There's also zhuyin fuhao (bopomofo), as well as several dozen special characters for Cantonese, and a whole lot of romanization systems for practically every variety of Chinese under the sun. I especially like the orthographic history of Dungan - first Arabic script, then Latin (for 12 years), and finally Cyrillic. Sometimes it's a wonder to me how anyone in East Asia can read anything at all.
posted by skoosh at 2:12 PM on September 5, 2004

If someone who's actually fluent in Chinese and/or Japanese, and has attempted to read something written in the other language, could comment, that would be great.

I'm not yet fluent in Japanese, so someone who is probably knows way more than I do. That said, I can often understand simple stuff in Chinese (restaurant and DVD menus, store names, book titles, food packaging, etc.), but I can't fathom how the grammar of a Chinese sentence is worked out. Longer chunks of Chinese text look like a big mess to me.

For example, I can read Article #3 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights in Japanese, and I can kind of work it out in Chinese: I can read "Article #3" directly, I can understand a good amount of the words ("people", "life", "safety", "liberty"), and I can kind of work out the meaning from the other characters, even though they're used in a way that's not what I'm used to. The longer Articles start to look like a total mystery, though, because I don't know the sentence structure. There are a lot of characters in there that aren't in Japanese, too.

Anyway, I'm going to say that a fluent speaker of Japanese could probably get a lot of the meaning from written Chinese. It's in the same way that an English speaker can often read Spanish, though. Many of the characters are different, but many are the same, and context goes a long way. Plus, a lot of the characters that aren't the same are still similar enough to read in context. The Traditional Chinese character for "country" is different from the kanji for "country", but I still immediately understood "middle country" - "China" - the first time I saw it written in Chinese.
posted by vorfeed at 4:19 PM on September 5, 2004

Thanks for the link to that amazing site, languagehat.
Wenlin is a fantastic software dictionary for those of you studying chinese. It also provides explanations of or guesses at the origin of a character.
posted by Treeline at 9:58 PM on September 5, 2004

Great comments skoosh thank you.
posted by Ynoxas at 5:39 AM on September 6, 2004

Treeline, thanks for the link to Wenlin. It looks fantastic.
posted by mosch at 1:44 PM on September 6, 2004

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