The Chinese all look the same

I doubt it. The Chinese have no difficulty in recognising other Chinese. But perhaps it is true that they all sound the same. For Agent Gombrich reminds us that Chinese speakers are often bedevilled by homophony. Chinese is so full of homophones that you will often see a Chinese tracing a character on the palm to dispel a (homophonic) ambiguity.

Phone calls must be a nightmare. Indeed, could this be why the videophone industry has absolutely taken off in China? What Agent Gombrich does not know is whether this crippling problem applies equally to all forms of Chinese. Can anyone enlighten us?

The phenomenon should certainly remind us that our blithe dismissal of homophony as a potential source of damaging inefficiency in a code was perhaps a trifle parochial.

But the fact remains that the Native English Speaker is not so bedevilled. We almost always hear the right (i.e. intended) homophone. Indeed, we so rarely even notice that a word we understood perfectly well was a homophone. For my own part, I can only recall being seriously fooled once in a lifetime.

When I was 6, my sister and I were devoted listeners to Children’s Hour, Sundays at 2pm on the BBC Home Service. Why? Because there was a magical, surreal moment to savour, week in, week out. When the introductory music stopped, Eileen Fowler would begin:

“Are you sitting comfortably, children? I have a tale to unfold.”

Of course, it doesn’t work once written down. No ambiguity. You have to say it aloud to appreciate the potential effect on an impressionable child. We were absolutely entranced.

One last thought. Did you by any chance notice, in the very first paragraph of this post, a use of English modal ‘will’ which has nothing to do with futurity? Let me lay down a rule. Every time someone posts a blog with a modal ‘will’ which cannot be about the future, they are to append the tag Achtung! in bold italics. Thus:

Nowadays, Her Majesty will Achtung! often pop in to Balliol for coffee.

The message thus encoded tells us of the present habits, propensities, what you will, of our Revered Majesty. It is not a prediction about Her future behaviour. And it is parallel to

Back in those days, Her Majesty would often pop in to Balliol for coffee.

Which sentence encodes a parallel message concerning Her past habits. Even as our Theory dictates: ‘will’, being the aboriginal form, encodes for presentness; ‘would’ being the transported form, encodes for pastness.

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One Response to The Chinese all look the same

  1. Paul Gerstmayr says:

    As a linguist, I would recommend reading Henry Rogers, Writing Systems, 3.3.2: As far as I know, the “problem” does apply to all forms of Chinese, though not equally – both between different dialects and within standard Cantonese, Mandarin etc. The average homophony for modern Chinese (Mandarin, I think) was something like 11 characters for one syllable shape. Two examples: /bai/ (rising tone) just means “white”, and just that, while /yi/ (falling) has probably more than 100 different morphemes. Note that one can compose whole stories or sentences with the same syllable shape: “A poet named Shii lived in a stone house and liked to eat lion flesh.” (sounds like shii shii shii shii…….)

    In terms of common sense, there should be (I hope) some (inverse?) relation between the number of possible syllables and the frequency of homophones, i. e. more possibilities (e. g. more tones) – less homophony.

    Hope that helps.

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