Saturday, January 14, 2017

Ni Hao!

I was perhaps eight years old, when I visited Trivandrum for the first time.  Or at least, that is my earliest memory of that city.  The buses had a red/yellow color scheme, and the lettering on them about the places seemed like art work.  I wondered how people read and wrote such stuff.

If the Malayalam script stumped me that much, you can imagine how much at a loss I was about the strange designs that were the script in the Far East.  I could not even begin to imagine how kids learnt those difficult languages.

I am now supposedly older and wiser.  But, only you blog readers know well that that the only thing that is true is that I am older.  To the rest, I pretend that I know shit.

Languages stump me all the time.  In graduate school, a new faculty member joined the same year that got there as a student.  He was a red-haired, balding, bearded white guy.  And he spoke Chinese with the students from China.  It was surreal to me.

In the life after graduate school, I interacted for a few years with another white guy, who was a few years older than me, who taught himself a few languages.  Including Swedish!  He would chat with the visiting Swedes in their language.  On every occasion, I always asked the visitors if his Swedish was ok.  They always said he was fluent, though his accent came across to them.

This Swedish-speaking white American was married to an immigrant from Hong Kong.  No, not an British immigrant, but a Chinese.  I asked the friend whether he learnt Chinese from his wife.  He said he tried, but it was too damn difficult for him.  Difficult for a guy who had taught himself a few languages!

Thus, when the NY Times reports about the passing away of the man who "made writing Chinese as simple as ABC," it more than intrigued me--despite that other news--to read that report.
Zhou Youguang, known as the father of Pinyin for creating the system of Romanized Chinese writing that has become the international standard since its introduction some 60 years ago, died on Saturday in Beijing, Chinese state media reported. He was 111.
I have no idea what Pinyin means, or what Romanized Chinese writing means either.  Ignorant I am, and shall always be.
Adopted by China in 1958, Pinyin was designed not to replace the tens of thousands of traditional characters with which Chinese is written, but as an orthographic pry bar to afford passage into the labyrinthine world of those characters.
Since then, Pinyin (the name can be translated as “spelled sounds”) has vastly increased literacy throughout the country; eased the classroom agonies of foreigners studying Chinese; afforded the blind a way to read the language in Braille; and, in a development Mr. Zhou could scarcely have foreseen, facilitated the rapid entry of Chinese on computer keyboards and cellphones.
I see Chinese students typing a gazillion words a second on their smartphones.  Would not have been possible without Zhou Youguang's contributions.
It took Mr. Zhou and his colleagues three years to develop Pinyin, but the most striking thing about his involvement was that he was neither a linguist nor a lexicographer but an economist, recently returned to China from Wall Street.
But because of a fortuitous meeting at midcentury, and a lifetime love of language, he was conscripted by the Chinese government to develop an accessible alphabetic writing system.
How interesting!  The crazy, twisted, path that life is, eh!
Knowing that linguistics was a hobby of Mr. Zhou’s, Zhou Enlai drafted him to come to Beijing and lead the committee. Mr. Zhou’s protests that he was a mere amateur were to no avail.
“Everyone is an amateur,” he was told.
That was Chou Enlai, when I was growing up, in the pre-Pinyin era.
“Pinyin is not to replace Chinese characters; it is a help to Chinese characters,” Mr. Zhou explained in the interview with The Guardian. “Without an alphabet you had to learn mouth to mouth, ear to ear.”
As a result, illiteracy remained rampant throughout China well into the 20th century — affecting, by some estimates, as much as 85 percent of the population.
What a wonderful contribution to humanity!  And to think that I never knew about Zhou Youguang until today; as the demagogue would tweet, "sad!"

Oh, and Trivandrum is now Thiruvananthapuram.


Ramesh said...

Oh yes, the development of pinyin was one of the most significant developments in the Chinese language. It was actually Mao who instigated this, rather than Zhou. Mao felt that the Chinese characters which are so numerous and fiendishly complex was the main barrier to Chinese being educated. He considered making it alphabetical, like the western languages. They almost banned Chinese characters to make pinyin official. But they balked and instead simply converted "Traditional Chinese" characters to "Simplified Chinese" characters and pushed that inside China. They didn't go so far as to adopt pinyin. That's why mainland China has Simplified Chinese while say Taiwan has Traditional Chinese. One of the few good acts that Mao did.

Pinyin simply lingered on in the fringes and no Chinese really used it. Until the advent of computers and mobiles. IT required an alphabetical script rather than the pictorial one that Chinese has. Pinyin got resurrected and is now the only way of using computers and mobiles.

The input method is interesting. You type in Pinyin and the software throws up all the characters that correspond to the pinyin input (Remember there are many characters with the same pronounciation - there are tens of Haos.). The user then chooses the character he wants and that's how Chinese is typed on to screens. The speed at which the Chinese do this is fascinating to watch.

Learning a new language is fiendishly difficult for me. Some take to it easily (the number of Indian aunties in China, who with no formal language classes are fluent in Chinese simply by talking to the maids is amazing). I went to classes for a year and still couldn't put together more than a sentence or two.

Sriram Khé said...

it is amazing how some people take to languages. Phenomenal.

In a world where we value only how much a skill can be monetized, and in a world in which we value people only based on how much money they earn and the wealth they have, we are very, very rapidly killing such innate abilities--especially in kids.

I remember that California friend's wife giving me a demonstration of those words with pronunciations that all seemed the same to my ears ... it is a beautifully diverse world out there ... a diversity that apparently threatens the likes of the demagogue and his toadies! :(

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