Sibagu update

This blog has been pretty inactive of late, and the main reason is that I have been overwhelmingly busy with the Sibagu website (Sibagu : Bird Names in Oriental Languages).

I’m pleased to announce that sections for Birds of Thailand and Birds of West Malaysia & Singapore have recently been uploaded. Both still need a lot of work, but the tables themselves are in reasonably good shape, and quite a few introductions are up. These two sections will be continually updated over the next few months.

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What is a ‘sheep station’?

I’ve always found it more than a little annoying that most of the world thinks the standard English-language word for a large property that runs sheep or cattle is a ‘ranch’. Of course, I know better. Such a property is known as a ‘station’!

The success of the Millennium novels is finally setting the balance right. At Chapter 26 of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson has the following passage (from the English translation; I haven’t got the Swedish):

The man introduced himself as Jeff and said that he was the “studs manager” at the station. Blomkvist asked him to explain what he meant. Jeff gave him a sidelong look and concluded that Blomkvist was not from these parts. He explained that a studs manager was rather the equivalent of a financial manager in a bank, although he administered sheep, and that a “station” was the Australian word for ranch.

(From “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, published 2009 by Vintage Books, NY)

Now, the whole thing about Cochran Farms running 9,000 sheep north of Alice Springs has been rubbished elsewhere, but linguistically it’s a start.

For my part, I was curious how this passage might be translated into other languages. The Japanese version, translated direct from the Swedish by Miho Hellen-Halme and Masatoshi Iwasawa (ヘレンハルメ美穂 and 岩澤雅利), faithfully renders the passage as follows. (The word ‘station’ is highlighted in red, ‘stud manager’ in bold.)


(From ドラゴン・タトゥーの女, published 2011 by 早川書房, Tokyo)

Otoko wa Jefu to nanori, sutēshon no sutazzu manējā o site iru to katatta. Mikaeru wa dō yū imi ka to tazuneta. Jefu wa kare o chirari to miyari, Ōsutoraria-jin de nai koto o rikai shita. Soko de, hitsuji to shihei no chigai wa aru ga, “sutazzu manējā” wa ginkō no genkin suitō-gakari mitai na mono de, “sutēshon” wa kono kuni de wa “hōbokujō” o imi suru no da to setsumei shita.

‘The man introduced himself as Jeff and said he was the sutazzu manager of the station. Mikael asked him what it meant. Jeff glanced at him and realised he wasn’t Australian. He explained that, while there was a difference of sheep and banknotes [i.e., one involved sheep, the other involved banknotes], a “sutazzu manager” was something like the cashier in a bank, and in this country “station” means “ranch”.

Japanese has it easy. Not only does it have katakana to render foreign words and mark them out from the surrounding text, the word ステーション sutēshon is a familiar one to the Japanese. Looking up a largish dictionary, I find that sutēshon has the following meanings: (1) railway station, (2) a facility for carrying out operations or tasks (service station, space station), and (3) TV station. This certainly doesn’t present a complete picture. Not only does it fail to list familiar words like バスステーション basu sutēshon (bus station), it was also compiled before ‘Play Station’ (プレーステーション purē sutēshon) hit the market. For the average Japanese, stretching the range of familiar meanings to cover a large pastoral operation would not require too great an effort of understanding.

The final explanation in the paragraph is that a sutēshon is a 放牧場 hōboku-jō (‘livestock herding place’).

Chinese doesn’t have it so easy. The Mainland Chinese translator, Yán Xiāngrú (颜湘如), working from the English, translates the passage as follows (the word for ‘station’ again highlighted in red, ‘stud manager’ in bold):


(From 龙文身的女孩, published 2010 by 人民文学出版社, Beijing)

Niánqīng-rén zìwǒ-jièshào jiào Jiéfū, shì “chēzhàn” de “nóngchǎng jīnglǐ“. Bùlóngwéisītè wèn tā zhè shì shénme yìsī. Jiéfū xiéyǎn kàn-kàn tā, duàndìng láizhě bú shì dāngdì-rén, biàn jiěshì shuō “nóngchǎng jīnglǐ” chàbúduō xiāngdāng yú yínháng de cáiwù jīnglǐ, zhǐ búguò tā guǎn de shì yángqún, ér “chēzhàn” zài Àodàlìyà-huà-lǐ zhǐ de shì nóngchǎng.

The young man introduced himself as Jeff, the “farm manager” of the “bus/train station”. Bromkvist asked him what this meant. Jeff looked at him sideways and concluded that the visitor wasn’t a local person, and explained that a “farm manager” roughly corresponded to the financial manager of a bank, except that he was in charge of flocks of sheep. “Bus/train station” in Australian speech referred to a farm.

Since Chinese has (a) not borrowed a large amount of vocabulary direct from English (the only examples in the above passage are the proper nouns 杰夫 Jiéfū, 布隆维斯特 Bùlóngwéisītè, and 澳大利亚 Àodàlìyà), (b) does not have a separate alphabet or syllabary for transliterating foreign words — Taiwan does, but that system has fallen out of use on the Mainland — and (c) has a syllabic structure that does not lend itself to the easy transliteration of foreign words (see Blomkvist above), the Chinese translator is not in a position to reproduce the effect of the Japanese. Unfortunately, this handicap is not mitigated by her rendition of specific words from the English.

“Station” has been translated as 车站 chēzhàn, literally ‘vehicle station’, referring to a railway station or bus station. This makes the Australian usage sound outlandish in a way that it isn’t in English. Had the translator simply used 站 zhàn ‘station’ the result would have been less mystifying. The morpheme 站 zhàn is found in Chinese in words like 加油站 jiāyóu-zhàn ‘filling station’, 服务站 fúwù-zhàn ‘service station’, 急救站 jíjiù-zhàn ‘first-aid station’, 试验站 shìyǎn-zhàn ‘experimental station’, 文化站 wénhuà-zhàn ‘cultural centre’, 保健站 bǎojiàn-zhàn ‘health clinic’, and 粮站 liáng-zhàn ‘grain supply centre’. All of these stand some chance of being notionally related to a ‘station’ for herding sheep rather than a bus or railway station. The failure to realise that ‘station’ does not necessarily mean ‘bus station’ or ‘train station’ suggests that the translator has a pretty rough-and-ready grasp of the nuances of English words.

The felony is compounded by the translation of ‘stud manager’ as 农场管理 nóngchǎng guǎnlǐ ‘farm manager’ and ‘ranch’ as 农场 nóngchǎng ‘farm’. 农场 nóngchǎng literally means ‘agricultural place’; the normal Chinese translation of the word ‘ranch’ is 大牧场 dàmùchǎng, literally ‘large livestock place’. ‘Stud’ in English has the meaning of ‘a group of animals kept primarily for breeding’, and it could have been translated that way. Translating both of these terms as ‘farm’ is pretty slipshod, especially given that Cochran Farm is described as a 放牧场 fàngmù-chǎng ‘livestock herding place’ earlier in the chapter. These kinds of mistake suggest that the translator doesn’t have much notion at all of the difference between an agricultural and pastoral establishment.

The upshot is that the final sentence in the Chinese means: “In Australian speech, a ‘bus/train station’ refers to a farm”. The only redeeming feature is that it truly is so mystifying that Blomkvist’s question seems totally justified.

(Even Google Translate almost does a better job: “站”是澳大利亚牧场字。“Zhàn” shì Aòdàlìyà mùchǎng zì, literally, ‘Station is Australian ranch word’.)

Our final version is the Mongolian (yes, I’ve got that one, too!), translated from the English by B. Batchimeg (Б. Батчимэг). My English rendition is only approximate:

Тэр залуу өөрийгөө Жэфф гэж танилцуулав, энэ фермийн адууны аж ахуйг хариуцдаг гэнэ. Адууны аж ахуйн менежер юу хийдэг юм бэ гэж асуухад Жефф түүн рүү хэдэн хором гайхан харснаа түүнийг энэ талын ажлыг гадарладаггүй хүн гэдгийг нь ойлгосон бололтой “Адууны аж ахуйн менежер гэдэг банкаар зүйрлэбэл санхүүгийн менежер гэсэн үг” гэв.

(From Луун шивээст охин, published 2012 by Монсудар, Ulaanbaatar)

Ter zaluu ööriigöö Jeff gej taniltsuulav, ene fermiin aduuni aj akhuig hariutsdag gene. Aduuni aj akhui menejer yu khiideg yum be gej asuukhad Jeff tüün rüü kheden khorom gaikhan kharsnaa tüüniig en malin ajlig gadarladaggüi hün gedgiig n’ oilogson bololtoi “Aduuni aj akhuin menejer gedeg bankaar züirlebel sankhüügiin menejer gesen üg” gev.

The young man introduced himself as Jeff, said he was in charge of livestock farming on the farm. When he asked what a livestock farming manager did, Jeff gaped at him for several moments and, appearing to realise that he was not a person familiar with this livestock work, said “Livestock farming manager is a word that if likened to a bank is a financial manager”.

Don’t look for the word ‘station’ in the passage; it isn’t there. Where Jeff says that he is the ‘studs manager’ at the station, the Mongolian says he is ‘in charge of livestock farming at the farm’ (фермийн адууны аж ахуйг хариуцдаг). ‘Station’ is translated as ферм ferm ‘farm’ (borrowed from the Russian), possibly because of the name Кохран ферм Kokhran ferm (Cochran Farm) earlier on. Then again, no two dictionaries give the same Mongolian translation for the word ‘ranch’. The following are the main ones (and please forgive some of the tortured glosses): хувийн эдлэн газар khuviin edlen gazar ‘private large-farm place’, ферм ferm ‘farm’; том ферм tom ferm ‘big farm’; ранчо rancho ‘ranch’, малчны суурь malchni suur’ ‘livestock base’, мал аж ахуйн ферм mal aj akhuin ferm ‘livestock farming farm’, фермерийн аж ахуй fermin aj akhui ‘farm farming’.

‘Studs manager’ is translated so clearly that the reader might wonder why Blomkvist had to ask what an Адууны аж ахуйн менежер aduuni aj akhuin menejer does, and why Jeff feels a need to compare it to a financial manager in a bank.

Since the translator uses ферм ferm and not ‘station’, the final explanation that ‘station’ means ‘ranch’ in Australia is omitted.

One interesting difference among the translations is the rendition of ‘Blomkvist was not from these parts’. The Japanese, possibly reflecting the original Swedish, literally says: “[He] realised that [he] was not Australian”. Given the pains that the author goes to elsewhere to emphasise Salander’s virtuosity in speaking flawless Oxford English and Norwegian-accented German at will, it is curious that Jeff had not picked up that Blomkvist, a newly arrived Swede, was not Australian!

The Chinese says that Jeff ‘concluded that the visitor wasn’t a local’, which makes more sense since ‘local’ doesn’t necessarily mean Australian.

The Mongolian, possibly trying to cover up for the silliness of Blomkvist’s question, says that Jeff realised that Blomkvist was a person ‘who wasn’t familiar with livestock work’.

It’s understandable that translators struggle with words that are differentiated in English but not in their own language. The Japanese translators were lucky that it was so easy to accommodate this in Japanese. The Mongolian translator was wise in ignoring the largely irrelevant issue of English names. But the Chinese translator was simply sloppy (possibly through ignorance) for distorting the meaning of the original. Sometimes translation is not just a matter of having a mellifluous, natural style; it’s a matter of getting it right.

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Dutch and Flemish, Mongolian and Inner Mongolian

Recently I was looking at the Wikipedia post on Flemish. Flemish is, of course, the Dutch language as spoken in Belgium. The Wikipedia article explains the various dialect areas involved, and the role of both Hollandic and (to a lesser extent) Brabantic as the basis for standard Dutch.

The relationship between the Dutch of the Netherlands and the Dutch of Belgium is somewhat reminiscent of the situation in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, in that a single language is split between two countries. In one it has an unshakeable status as the official language of that country for public and private life. In foreign countries, any reference to  ’Dutch’ or ‘Mongolian’ invariably refers to the language as used in the independent country of the Netherlands and Mongolia, not the language spoken in ‘the other place’. In the case of both Dutch and Mongolian, the language is not master in its own house in the other country, having a much weaker status and having to contend with encroachments from other languages. Dutch was not an official language in Belgium for several centuries, up until the 20th century. Dutch has been almost completely ousted by French in Brussels. Mongolian is an official language of the Autonomous Region, but it is under severe pressure from Chinese and is hardly ever heard in the cities.

Of course, there are also many important differences between the case of Dutch and Flemish, and Mongolian and Inner Mongolian. The political and demographic situations could not be more different. Belgium is not a huge empire that claims the Flemings, their territory, and all of Flemish (indeed all of Dutch history) as intrinsically and irrevocably belonging to itself, including the use of ideology, demographic inundation, and economic marginalisation to ensure its dominance over their territory.

Another difference is that Standard Dutch is recognised as the official language of the Flemish-speaking area; there is no separate Flemish standard. Although informally there is a widespread form of spoken ‘Belgian Dutch’ called tussentaal, this is not claimed as the ‘standard language’ of the Flemings. In Inner Mongolia, on the other hand, the government has established a separate Inner Mongolian standard in deliberate opposition to that in Mongolia.

Dutch and Belgian Dutch use the same alphabet and written language (including the same spelling), unlike Mongolian, where the two linguistic areas are separated through the use of separate alphabets: the traditional alphabet in Inner Mongolia and Cyrillic in Mongolia itself. The Inner Mongolians do not make wide use of Cyrillic (although it is not unknown), and the Mongolians make little use of the traditional script, despite efforts to revive it, including teaching it in schools.

Despite these (and many other) great differences between the situations of the two languages, there is one striking similarity: speakers in the independent state feel free to disregard the language as it is spoken in the other state. Speakers of Mongolian in Mongolia and speakers of Dutch in the Netherlands appear to share the idea that the language spoken in their country is all that they need to know, and the language of the other area can be dismissed as largely irrelevant.

The Wikipedia article points this out through example:

In November 2012 the Belgian radio channel Radio 1 wrote a text with many Flemish words and asked several Dutch speaking people to “translate” it into general Dutch. Almost no inhabitant of The Netherlands was able to make a correct translation, whereas almost all Flemings succeeded.

In Mongolia, the situation is far worse. There is not merely a lack of interest in Inner Mongolian; there is at times (indeed virtually all of the time) a palpable hostility towards the language of the Inner Mongolians. A respected linguist, the late Dandii Yadam Tserenpil, once told me that it was quite natural that the Mongolians should dislike the language of the Inner Mongolians (which he said was full of strange usages) in the same way that the British and Americans dislike each other’s language. A Mongolian friend of mine once expostulated quite vehemently at a simple observation, “I’m not interested in what they say in Inner Mongolia!”

Mongolian dictionaries almost completely exclude Inner Mongolian words and usages. Words typical of Inner Mongolian but seldom used in Mongolia are, of course, listed if they are recognised as part of the general Mongolian vocabulary. This includes words that are old-fashioned or have fallen out of use but are still considered to have some part in the Mongolian language as spoken in Mongolia. For instance, the word хөөрөг höörög ‘bridge’ is listed, even though it has been supplanted in Mongolia itself by the form гүүр güür, since it is still considered a valid Mongolian word. But words and usages that are specifically Inner Mongolian are completely ignored. The sense of нисгэл nisgel as meaning ‘aeroplane’ is ignored, and that of гариг garig (or гараг garag) as meaning ‘week’ is similarly ignored.

That is why this paragraph in the Wikipedia article was particularly striking:

In 2009 a Dutch dictionary was published that for the first time distinguished between the two natiolectic varieties “Nederlands Nederlands” (or “Netherlandish Dutch”) and “Belgisch Nederlands” (“Belgian Dutch”) and treated both variations as equally correct… Professor Willy Martin, one of the Flemish editors, claimed that the latter expressions are “just as correct” as the former. This formed a break with the previous lexicologists’ custom to comment on a Flemish word that it is mainly used in Flanders, while the specific use in Holland of its Dutch-Dutch equivalent had remained unmentioned. Thus it had appeared as if the Flemish word was somehow aberrant Dutch.

One wonders if the day will ever come when a dictionary of Mongolian will be compiled in which Mongolian and Inner Mongolian are both actually listed — although it would probably be too much to hope for both varieties to be treated as equally correct.

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Learning Inner Mongolian (4): Language-learning site

The now completed second term at my Mongolian classes was devoted to building up reading skills. This was done by reading from a children’s textbook. As we went along, we were told the meaning of vocabulary, given an idea of grammatical structures encountered (verb tenses, etc.), and told the meanings of the passages. For the curious, I’ve started creating HTML versions of a few lessons (giving them in traditional script and Cyrillic) for my own personal use, which I’ve uploaded here on the off-chance that they might prove of interest.

Towards the end of term, colloquial readings were introduced. This involved (1) racing through a battery of phonological rules for deducing colloquial pronunciations from the written form and (2) rereading the material already studied using colloquial pronunciations. Many students are finding it hard to keep up, with complaints that no one is learning any Mongolian.

The point of this post, however, is to introduce a new site for learning Inner Mongolian online as it should be learnt: Study Mongolian, by a gentleman named Jonathan who is (it appears) learning Mongolian at a school in Inner Mongolia. Since the site is new, as yet it has only got as far as telling the date, but it shows considerable promise. It is attractively and professionally laid out, lessons are given in the form of simple conversations, pronunciation is given in IPA (not the traditional script, although that is also introduced), there are audio files for listening to pronunciation, and there are exercises to help make use of what has been learnt. I’ll certainly be dropping by regularly for a dose of simple spoken Mongolian. I recommend Jonathan’s site to anyone who is interested in Mongolian (of any variety) and look forward to watching it develop!

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Searching for Gladys

In May 2006, inspired by the book A Small Woman by Alan Burgess, I embarked on a trip to Yangcheng (陽城 / 阳城) in Shanxi province. This was my own personal adventure for the May holiday break that year. Rather than visit a famous tourist spot crowded with visitors who are there only because it’s a famous tourist spot (and often have very little idea what it is about anyway), I decided to visit somewhere that had a personal meaning for me. My goal was a simple one: to see for myself this truly out-of-the way place in the wilds of northern China where an anything-but-ordinary London woman, Gladys Aylward, had led an amazingly energetic and eventful life. I’ve given a brief account of my trip at this web page on Yangcheng and the Inn of Eight Happinesses.

I made my way to Jincheng and then to Yangcheng on 2 May, not knowing what I might find. The first impression was a letdown. Yangcheng was just another dirty north Chinese town with nothing much to recommend it. It certainly didn’t live up to the romantic picture that Burgess had painted. But I had a mission: I wanted to find the Inn of Eight Happinesses.

This is what turned a visit to an ordinary town into an adventure. I met local people, attempted to figure out where some of the town’s landmarks were, visited the town’s Confucian temple, and wandered around streets that to local people were so ordinary and yet to me were a repository of events of other times. As I pursued my simple agenda, I realised anew what I had always known: travelling to conventionally famous sites may have its rewards, but it is nothing compared with travelling to see sites that you have a deep personal interest in.

During my visit to Yangcheng I forgot this lesson once and took the advice of local people to go and see a place ‘worth seeing’. That turned out to be Huangcheng Xiangfu (皇城相府 huángchéng xiāngfǔ), the well preserved official residence of the Qing-era scholar Chen Tingjing (陳廷敬 chén tǐngjìng). In more normal circumstances I might have been impressed — Chen Tingjing was chief editor of the Kangxi Dictionary – but since I went there knowing only that it was a ‘famous site’ (nobody could explain exactly why it was famous), and since it was absolutely crowded with holiday visitors, it was ultimately a tiring and disappointing experience.

The visit to the unremarkable county seat of Yangcheng, on the other hand, proved to be one of the most interesting and rewarding trips I have ever taken in China.

The pity was that, having found this hidden treasure, it took me seven years to post my story and pictures on the Internet. When I first took my photos, there was nowhere else on the Internet where the real ‘Inn of Eight Happinesses’ (better known to some as the ‘Inn of the Sixth Happiness’ after the movie) could be seen. Seven years later, there are at least two Chinese sites where photos have been uploaded, and there is a great deal of detailed material on Gladys Aylward and the Inn of the Eight Happinesses in both English and Chinese. My ‘first mover’ advantage was lost.

For all that, the page has an interest missing from other accounts. Apart from the discovery of the inn, it is the only site that attempts to figure out the outlines of the town as it was seventy years ago when Gladys Aylward lived there, and does not focus just on the inn itself or simply retell the events of her life.

Visiting places that are of personal interest is a two-edged experience. There is the thrill of visiting a locality that is known only to yourself or to a small group with inside knowledge. And there is the completely conflicting desire to share this wonderful place with other people (or the more ignoble emotion of wanting to boast about one’s superior experience). And therein lies the contradiction. Once the secret is out, the special place is no longer special; it will, in fact, come to be frequented by thousands of people who come merely because it has become a ‘famous site’. It now appears that the government of Yangcheng is getting ready to promote the Inn of the Eighth Happiness as the town’s new tourist attraction. When that happens, there is nothing to stop this special place from becoming just another boring and crowded tourist trap.

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Learning Inner Mongolian (3): Learning the script

I’ve now done a page on making sense of the Mongolian script, based on my learning experience with the Mongolian Language and Culture Classes. As mentioned previously, I started learning this script by myself in 2008 but dismally failed to progress beyond recognition of the most basic forms. Reading it was a nightmare. Every single word presented a perplexity of alternatives, a challenge to figure out whether it should be pronounced this way or that, an occasion to hazard desperate, unfounded guesses and engage in wild goose chases through dictionaries that seemed to be organised totally at random. And that was before any attempt to figure out how words came together in a sentence!

As I put the page together I found myself painfully nutting out exactly how the language and culture classes had managed to reduce the consternation and puzzlement that had accompanied my previous attacks on the script. What was the crucial difference from previous experience? In fact there were several.

The first was the rigid structured approach that put everything together in a coherent comprehensive pattern. This made the location of gaps in the script crystal clear. Instead of floundering around in a welter of possibilities, I was able to pinpoint exactly where guesses were needed and where they were not. This was most apparent in the x and g (х and г) columns, which had completely confounded previous attempts at mastery. By arranging the syllables into two neat columns, the classes finally brought into focus what I could never quite figure out before:  is pronounced x and occurs before masculine/yang vowels,  is pronounced g (strictly speaking ɣ) and occurs before masculine/yang vowels, and  stands for either x or g and occurs before feminine/yin vowels or neutral vowels. Not a shattering insight but one that had escaped me in previous, less rigorously structured treatments.

The second was the unrelenting drive to analyse words in terms of syllables. In fact, all approaches I’ve seen to learning the Mongolian alphabet treat it as a syllabary, based on letters for consonants and vowels combined into open syllables. But my classes went further. Reading every word involved grasping its correct syllabic structure, including closed syllables and syllables with extended vowels or diphthongs. Within this framework, haphazard guesses about pronunciation suddenly became a lot more certain. Once the syllabic structure was clear, everything else usually fell into place. And if things didn’t fall into place, there was usually a reason, e.g., mistakes in identifying letters.

Thirdly, I was suddenly able to look up Inner Mongolian dictionaries because I had learnt the letters in a standardised order. This standard order is not used in Mongolia, where different alphabetic orders seem possible. With the realisation that letters actually had an order, I now had a better understanding of how to look up words, and where different places needed to be checked (since Inner Mongolian dictionaries can place the same letter in more than one location if it has multiple pronunciations).

Finally, I gained a renewed appreciation of the reason for thoroughly teaching the alphabet prior to learning the spoken language. The traditional script needs to be apprehended in its own terms, with its own readings and its own syllabic structures, not as a hit-and-miss representation of the modern pronunciation. Only when the correct classical pronunciation (or an approximation of it substituting modern sounds) has been arrived at can the further jump be made to the modern pronunciation. Trying to telescope the process into one step runs the risk of making vague and erratic guesses.

While I was setting out my understanding of this approach, I also decided to do a quick comparison with other approaches to teaching the alphabet: one designed for Mongolians using Cyrillic letters, and one with foreigners in mind. This exercise brought into focus the fact that, while all methods of teaching the Mongolian script rely on using open syllables (consonant plus vowel), it is only the Inner Mongolian approach that tries to analyse words into syllables in order to read them. This brought home again the importance of a structured approach in learning the traditional script.

Surprisingly, there is very little on the Internet about the traditional Mongolian script, and what little there is, is not much use for learning the alphabet. Simon Ager’s broad-ranging and detailed Omniglot, Lawrence Lo’s more focused Ancient Scripts, and of course Wikipedia all feature Mongolian (here, here, and here), and all introduce the Mongolian alphabet in similar terms, as a collection of discrete letters — although Omniglot also lists letters formed with ligatures. But while this is an economical and objectively correct way of setting out the alphabet, it is far from the way that people actually learn and use it. For this reason, I hope that my page on making sense of the Mongolian traditional script manages to fill a need that is not met elsewhere.

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Use of numbers in Chinese slogans

The use of numbers in Chinese slogans is well known and has been covered very wittily by Ted Anthony at his article on Chinese Use Numbers as Slogans. The best-known example is probably the Four Modernisations (四个现代化 / 四個現代化 sìge xiàndàihuà) — modernisation in the fields of 1. agriculture, 2. industry, 3. defence, and 4. science and technology, a core component in the policy of reform and opening up.

A more recent example is Jiang Zemin‘s Three Represents (三个代表 / 三個代表 sānge dàibiǎo), an obscurely worded attempt to broaden the party beyond its old class-struggle ideological background. The essence of the Three Represents was that the party should represent 1. the requirements of the development of China’s advanced productive forces, 2. the orientation of the development of China’s advanced culture, and 3. the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people in China. The upshot of this word salad was that party membership became open to businessmen and managers.

But the predilection for this kind of terminology goes well beyond such well-known political examples. The Chinese seem remarkably susceptible to encapsulations of policy using numbers. Recently I came across several interesting examples of this phenomenon in the field of work safety.

One is ‘three-tier safety education’ (三级安全教育 / 三級安全教育 sānjí ānquán jiàoyù). This is the basic concept for conducting worker safety training in factories and mines. It refers to the requirement that new staff must undergo safety training 1) when they join the factory, 2) at the workshop level, and 3) at the job level.

Another is the ‘four news’ (四新 sìxīn). This refers to the adoption of ‘new materials, new equipment, new manufacturing processes, and new technologies’ (新材料、新设备、新工艺、新技术 / 新材料、新設備、新工藝、新技術 xīn-cáiliào, xīn-shèbèi, xīn-gōngyì, xīn-jìshù), all of which are occasions for the compulsory training and education of workers.

My favourite is the ‘four not let passes’ (四不放过 / 四不放過 sì búfànguò), which is a principle for dealing with industrial accidents. Government policy is that no industrial accident should be allowed to pass until four conditions have been fulfilled: 1) the causes of the accident have been determined, 2) those responsible have been dealt with, 3) those responsible and the people around the accident have been educated, and 4) practical corrective measures have been implemented. This is an obvious attempt to combat lackadaisical attitudes to industrial accidents.

Finally, there is the ‘”three simultaneous” management system’ (“三同时”管理制度 / ”三同時“管理制度 ‘sān-tóngshí’ guǎnlǐ zhìdù). This is a national-level policy on pollution prevention systems which mandates that such systems should be ‘designed, constructed and commissioned’ at the same time as the main project itself (hence the ‘three simultaneouses’). The requirement is designed to ensure that pollution prevention measures are integrated into projects rather than tacked on later.

This kind of expression is not unique to Chinese. Buddhism, for one, likes to speak of the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the five skandhas, the Twelve Nidānas, the Twelve Sense Bases, and other numbered classifications. What makes this kind of expression so daunting is that it verges on the totally opaque unless you have memorised all its definitions. Of course, English bureaucratic jargon is also filled with expressions that greatly strain the understanding and require a good idea of where it is coming from (what would a visitor from another culture make of ‘affirmative action’?), but a vague approximation of the meaning can generally be arrived at from the sense or etymology of the words themselves. Chinese number expressions of this kind require complete familiarity with policy to be understood at all. For example, the ‘four news’ make virtually no sense even in context unless the reader knows in specific detail what the ‘four news’ are.

In the past it would have been quite a job finding the sense of such terms without access to official documents or people in the know. Fortunately we now have the Internet, making it possible to check the meaning with a quick search of Google or Baidu. But it is hard to imagine the Internet and all its electronic information being maintained intact for hundreds of years into the future, and one can only wonder how people will fare if they ever have to try and make sense of documents from our era.

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Learning Inner Mongolian (2): Spelling pronunciations as a method of teaching

I initially taught myself the traditional Mongolian script in 2008. It was always a struggle to keep the script fixed in mind and even more difficult to hazard a reasonable guess at the pronunciation of written texts. Learning the script in a formal setting is finally helping me to make sense of the system and become more comfortable tackling texts written in it.

Since nobody appears to have publicly described what is involved in learning this script, especially the way it is normally taught, I’ll set down my observations for those who are interested. (Unfortunately I missed a month of classes in September, but that doesn’t detract significantly from the overall description.)

Note concerning romanisation: There are many transliterations of Mongolian. Here I will use the school’s romanisation, in preference to the romanisation I have used in the past. This is again different from that in textbooks that the class is using.

The Mongolian traditional script has two very striking characteristics:

  1. There is a very large gap between the way words are spelt and the way words are spoken. For example, dʒirukhe ‘heart’ is pronounced dʒurkh (dzurkh in Mongolia, Cyrillic зүрх), neguresu ‘coal’ is pronounced nuurs (Cyrillic нүүрс), delbigur ‘hand-held fan’ is pronounced delvuur (Cyrillic дэлвүүр), etc.
  2. The phoneme inventory is underspecified in the script. That is, there are a number of letters that are ambiguous as to pronunciation, especially in isolation. While the correct pronunciation is often clear from rules of interaction within the word (often related to vowel harmony), there are still a number of sounds written with the same letter (e.g., t and d, g and x, ɔ and ʊ, o and u). In such cases, it may be possible to rule out one alternative if it is a non-existent word. In others, two different words may be written the same way (e.g. gereltuxu, Cyrillic гэрэлтэх gereltex, ‘twinkle’ and xerelduxu, Cyrillic хэрэлдэх xereldex, ‘fight, argue’), making context very important.

dʒirukhe = dʒurkh = Mongolian dzurkh (Cyrillic зүрх)


neguresu = nuurs = Cyrillic нүүрс


delbigur = delvuur = Cyrillic дэлвүүр

xerelduxu gereltuxu

xerelduxu OR gereltuxu = Cyrillic хэрэлдэх or гэрэлтэх

Written form first, colloquial form later

The most striking feature of the way the script is taught in the classes I am attending is that students are being taught spelling pronunciation, totally excluding the spoken language. For instance, the word for ‘coal’ is memorised as neguresu (not as nuurs); ‘goat’ is memorised as imaga (not jamaa); ‘potato’ is memorised as tomusu (not toms); ‘eye’ is memorised as nidu (not nud); ‘glove’ is memorised as begelei (not beelii); ‘trumpet’ is memorised as buriye (not buree); ‘coral’ is memorised as ʃiru (not ʃur); ‘bowl’ is memorised as ajaga (not ajaG); ‘fish’ is memorised as dʒigasʊ (not dʒagas, Mongolian zagas); ‘vulture’ is memorised as jɔlʊ (not jɔl) etc. The differences are so extensive that reading out a text in spelling pronunciation sounds totally different from normal spoken Mongolian.


imaga = jamaa = Cyrillic ямаа


tomusu = toms = Cyrillic төмс


nidu = nud = Cyrillic нүд


begelei = beelii = Cyrillic бээлий


buriye = buree = Cyrillic бүрээ


ʃiru = ʃur = Cyrillic шүр


ajaga = ajaG = Cyrillic аяга


dʒigasʊ = dʒagas = dzagas (Cyrillic загас)


jɔlʊ = jɔl = Cyrillic ёл

So thorough-going is the insistence on spelling pronunciations that students in the class who are not from a Mongolian-speaking background did not initially realise that they were not learning the actual Mongolian pronunciation. People only became aware when the teacher, at times, let slip that the ‘spoken’ or ‘colloquial’ pronunciation (Chinese: 口语 kǒuyǔ) of a word was different from what she was teaching. While some (non-literate) native speakers of Mongolian occasionally volunteer the ordinary spoken form, the use of these pronunciations is discouraged in class. I understand that adherence to the written pronunciation continues in higher classes until a certain point, when a switch is made to the spoken form. (At this stage in the course only individual vocabulary items are being taught. The question of pronouncing grammatical endings and particles, which are strikingly different from the spoken pronunciation, has not yet arisen.)

The intended effect of this policy is to inculcate written forms before tackling the spoken language. In fact, the school originally began teaching from the spoken language, but when it was discovered that students were developing very loose spelling habits it was decided to start with the written language instead, including strict adherence to written pronunciations, and switch over to spoken forms when the correct spelling practices were firmly established in students’ minds.

This approach contrasts quite strongly with that normally followed in the teaching of English, which is to teach spelling concurrently with pronunciation. When learning English students are taught that (for example) the word spelt ‘fight’ is pronounced /fait/, the word spelt ‘give’ is pronounced /giv/, the word spelt ‘oven’ is pronounced /ʌvǝn/, etc. It is not normal to teach students to read out words and texts exactly as they are spelt first, and learn the actual pronunciation later on.

Reflection of local teaching practice

After discussions with Inner Mongolians I know, I’ve discovered that this approach to teaching mirrors the normal method for teaching to children to read in Inner Mongolia. Mongolian-speaking children start out learning to read words exactly as they are spelt. This means that, even though they speak Mongolian at home and already have a basic proficiency in the language, children are initially taught to read texts using spelling pronunciations, not the normal everyday pronunciations. It is only in the third year that pupils are quite explicitly told to switch over to the spoken pronunciation. The objective of this method of teaching is clear. In a language like Mongolian, where the spelling of the traditional script is in many ways far removed from the spoken language, this is a way of ensuring that correct spelling habits are put firmly in place.

The implications of this approach for the perceptions of language are interesting to contemplate. While speakers of Mongolian in Inner Mongolia and Mongolia can communicate with each other quite freely (allowing for differences in pronunciation and vocabulary), perceptions of writing and spelling appear to differ markedly between the two. Despite the primacy that linguists give to speech, it stands to reason that the habits acquired when learning the script as a child last a lifetime and cannot help but mould the way that words and their ‘canonical forms’ (including acceptable variation) are perceived. My impression from admittedly limited experience with native speakers is that the different writing systems have a subtle impact on the way that language is perceived and handled. This is a topic that appears to have received virtually no study.

For non-native speakers learning the language, the consequences are less subtle. With ordinary spoken language banished from the classroom, an important aspect of language acquisition is blocked out until a much later stage in the learning process. This effectively postpones acquisition of the spoken language for several years and makes it difficult for teachers to develop even simple verbal strategies at an early stage to help students acquire the language, for instance by using spoken Mongolian for certain aspects of communication in the classroom.

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China decides that second-best is best

It’s now over a week since China wrapped up the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (中国共产党第十八次全国代表大会 Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng Dì-shíbā-cì Quánguó Dàibiǎo Dàhuì or 十八大 Shíbādà) in Beijing. Predictably, in the leadup to that momentous event, the Chinese Internet censors worked overtime to make a nuisance of themselves and ensure that people couldn’t access information that they wanted. Since Google has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese leadership for some time now, Google has been especially badly hit.

  • Google search has been disrupted not by blocking Google (it sometimes fails to load but generally returns results) but by blocking access to the results themselves. Clicking on a link usually results in a hung page. However, there are brief and unpredictable times when results are accessible. The strategy appears to be to make Google so unusable that people give up.
  • Gmail has been disrupted by blocking it much of the time while allowing access at certain intervals. Again the result is to make it very frustrating to use gmail — mail is unopenable or emails fail to be sent for up to ten minutes at a time.
  • Google Translate has become almost completely unusable.

Many people expected that this harassment would cease after the illustrious delegates finished their partying and went home to their provinces and autonomous regions, but this has not happened. The same level of interference is being maintained a week after the conference finished. The reason for this can only be guessed at as the Chinese authorities are not in the habit of letting on what they are thinking.

My own (quite probably jaundiced and ill-informed) guess is that the Party, having tasted unexpected sweet success in its vendetta against Google, has decided that it can leave the tap turned off indefinitely. After all, people assumed that it would be a temporary phenomenon and put up with the disruption without protest. Life went on as people found ways (often time consuming and frustrating ways) to get the job done without Google. There are many other search engines, email services, and translation services out there and people obviously turned to them in the absence of Google.

For search, there are at least three major search engines that are comparable to Google (Baidu/百度, Bing/必应, Yahoo/雅虎), not to mention Chinese-language search engines like Sogou/搜狗, portals like Sohu/搜狐, Netease/网易, Sina/新浪, and many more.

For translation, there are Youdao/有道 and Baidu Translate/百度翻译, the former featuring not only two-way translation for English-Chinese, but also Japanese-Chinese, Korean-Chinese, French-Chinese, Russian-Chinese, and Spanish-Chinese.

With such an array of options available, the wise men running the Party’s censorship organs may have decided that turning off Google wouldn’t really make a difference as people can get by fine without it.

The problem is that this is a totally false conclusion. The alternatives are passable but in the end can’t totally replace Google. For translation, I’ve used Google Translate as well as Youdao and Baidu Translate for translating English into Chinese. While Google Translate has its problems, it takes appreciably less time to clean up a Google Chinese translation than it does to clean up a Youdao or Baidu translation. This is not to deny that the Chinese online translation engines are not impressive (their quality is surprisingly good), but for me, the bottom line is not just how good the translation looks at first pass, but how long it takes to clean up the mess into an acceptable Chinese version. For this purpose, Google Translate is still a better translation service, although the gap is definitely closing. Perhaps the censorship machine is trying to foster national champions by blocking out the competition, but this is a senseless exercise. When the local services come up to or surpass Google, they will naturally win out without the censors’ help.

For the all-important search function, there is still also a gap between Google and the others, partly because the other search engines submit willingly to Chinese censorship, partly because the built-in bias of returning Chinese websites tends to yield a lot of poor or irrelevant links. For most users, however, Baidu, Bing or Yahoo Search are probably serviceable alternatives to Google.

But not for all users. If you are searching for information in Mongolian (Cyrillic), the blocking of Google is an absolute disaster.

  • Baidu does not return results in Mongolian at all. Look for a Mongolian word in Baidu, and the result is a mishmash of results, many of them Russian, that happen to contain the same letters (although not necessarily in the same order).
  • Bing returns a very short sanitised list of mostly domestic Chinese websites using Mongolian words.
  • Yahoo is better. It actually returns a good selection of related web pages, although nowhere near as many as Google.

For instance, if you search for ууртай uurtai (‘angry’, as in Ууртай шувуу urtai shuvuu ‘angry birds’), the difference in results is a stark one.

  • Google: 710,000 results containing the word ууртай uurtai.
  • Baidu: 7,700,000 results, none of which contain the word ууртай uurtai (perhaps there are a few accidental hits if you look long enough). The first result is – Залуусыгдэмжигчсайт — a Mongolian site, to be sure, but the word ууртай is not mentioned at all. Nor is it mentioned in the ensuing results. Baidu is, in a word, totally useless for finding sites using the word ууртай.
  • Bing: 29 results, many of them either Baidu pages containing the word ууртай (strange, that!) or Chinese websites (.cn). There are a few results from Mongolia itself on the second and third pages.
  • Yahoo: 14,000 results, including results from Mongolia. Out of all the competition, Yahoo is definitely the best — but still only second best.

Another problem is that Google has by far the best system for delivering news to subscribers relating to particular topics. The others measure up quite poorly. If you are trying to keep abreast of issues relating to (say) Mongolia on a daily basis, you can forget it — the web censors have basically removed the best tool available for the job.

Of course, this is of no concern to the censors. Cutting off access to the outside world appears to be perfectly acceptable (perhaps even preferable) in their mindset. The number of people with an interest in Mongolia or Mongolian is vanishingly small, so there is no danger of reprimands from the powerful or protests from the masses. As long as people can look up Chinese and English-language websites carrying officially-approved news, officially-approved blogs, or other ‘healthy’ content, then presumably the censors feel that’s good enough for the vast majority of Chinese. Since that is the level that they are catering for, that is the kind of Internet we get under their control.

The Internet that the leadership and censors want to force on us is, ultimately, a recipe for frustration, forcing people to resort to alternatives that are second-rate or worse. I can only hope that one day they realise what settling for second-best tells us about their country.

Postscriptum: The block on Google was lifted about a week before Christmas, putting to rest my dark suspicions on the vengeful motives of the Chinese leadership. But the underlying issue remains. China learnt its heavy-handed tactics of suppressing and distorting information from the Russians — although the Manchus were pretty good at it, too. It was initially a method of upholding the so-called ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and protecting it from counter-revolutionaries. Now it has simply become an invasive tool protecting vested interests with huge wealth and power from scrutiny by the people. While China presents a face of modernisation and growing wealth to the world, the huge apparatus that it has developed to suppress information and dissent (and, not coincidentally, to force the non-Han borderlands to become thoroughly ‘Chinese’) is still in place.

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Learning Inner Mongolian (1)

One reason this blog has become sporadic of late is that I’ve started attending beginner-level Mongolian classes once a week at Minzu University. The classes started in September, but thanks to three weeks in Tokyo and the Chinese national day holiday (十一 shí-yī), I only really started attending in mid-October. Here I’d like to cover some of my impressions.


Earlier attempts at learning Mongolian (conversation and grammar) from several different private teachers during my two or so years in Ulaanbaatar left me frustratingly unable to speak the language, partly because of laziness, partly because of my linguistic environment (surrounded by Chinese speakers, subject to unpredictable work commitments, etc.). I hope to rectify this with classes in Beijing.

My specific goals in attending these classes are to (1) learn the traditional script and (2) improve my conversation skills. I rather optimistically thought I could just consolidate my rather shaky grasp of the traditional Uighur script and then move on to some kind of conversation and reading classes. But it appears that is not to be. The approach here is quite different from what I had experienced previously, and I’m now basically a starting-level student starting out all over again.

In this first post, I’d like to look at some pronunciation glitches that get in the way more than I thought they would. Since I already have established pronunciation habits, starting out on a new pronunciation standard, even when the differences are quite small, was always going to be tricky. A couple of the problems I’ve found:

a. The pronunciation of ᠡ (э): Among the vowels, the most striking difference from what I learnt in UB is the pronunciation of the vowel ᠡ (traditional script) or э (Cyrillic). In Mongolia this is a very close /e/, in some cases quite close to /i/. In the Inner Mongolian standard (although not in all dialects of Inner Mongolia) it is /ə/. Since I already use the Mongolian /e/, it is quite an effort to preserve this pronunciation when the teacher and the entire class are using /ə/! The alternative, that of wholeheartedly embracing the Inner Mongolian sound, is not very palatable to me, first because I don’t really want to swap accents in midstream, secondly because I don’t want to sound like an Inner Mongolian in Ulaanbaatar! This pronunciation difference is not an insurmountable obstacle, but it is proving harder to deal with than I thought.

In the music class, however, this handicap turns into an advantage. While the teacher is blithely teaching the class the standardised Inner Mongolian pronunciation of /ə/ in the lyrics, it becomes apparent when listening to the song itself that the vocalist is actually using /e/. It is quite striking how the teacher gradually and imperceptibly switches from /ə/ to /e/ as we repeatedly practise the song, without actually telling the students that this is what she is doing (although perhaps it was mentioned in earlier classes that I missed). Such is the power of language standardisation!

b. /ʊ/ ᠥ and /o/ ᠦ (Cyrillic у and ө): My great bugbear is distinguishing the pronunciation of vowels 5 and 6, /ʊ/ ᠥ and /o/ ᠦ (у and ө in Cyrillic). These sound almost completely identical in the speech of all the teachers, despite assertions that they are distinguishing them as clearly as possible. When pressed for an explanation, some teachers told me that ‘6 (ө) ends in a slight glide, thus: /ʊə/’ – although the glide seems to disappear in actual use! This is quite different from the relatively clear-cut difference I learnt in Mongolia (although admittedly I often find the vowel ө hard to distinguish in live speech).

In fact, I am starting to wonder whether the teachers at the school really have this difference in their own speech, or whether they are simply teaching it since it is supposed to be there under the Inner Mongolian standard. Apparently there are Inner Mongolian dialects where the distinction has been lost. I am still working on this one.

In my next post, I would like to look at how the writing system is handled.

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