Friday, January 20, 2006

Cursive (Now Heavily Digressing Into Chinese Typewriters and Other Topics)

Like I've said before, when I write about anything, you guys will make it more interesting. Thank goodness.

First off, when I said that you were considered an expert if you could type ten words a minute in Chinese, I was incorrect. If you can type twenty characters a minute you're considered an expert. The typewriter itself consists of several trays of thousands of characters each. If you're curious, you can find a kind of blurry photo of one here:

Just scroll down to "A Chinese Typewriter."

Then I received an excellent e-mail from DQ reader Albert Tao, excerpted below:
The different Chinese dialects (mandarin, cantonese, shanghainese, taiwanese, and countless more) have the same written language. Well, sort of. The written language consists of ideograms, or glyph-like characters. There are traditional characters, which are used in Taiwan and in the USA, and simplified characters, which are used in mainland China. A character's complexity is measured by how many strokes it takes to write the character. Simplified characters generally use fewer strokes than their traditional equivalent. While there are some similarities between the two formats, they are significantly different looking and learning one will hardly help with the other. It is commonly said that someone who knows traditional can understand or easily learn simplified, but I have studied both and believe this to be an overstatement. In either case, a person's vocabulary is measured by how many THOUSAND characters they have memorized. The only way to really learn the words is by brute force: repetition, repetition, and more repetition. Remember when you learned how to write the English alphabet and wrote lines and lines of the 26 letters back in first grade? Learning Chinese characters is like that, but several hundred fold, and up through high school and college.

While there is no alphabet in the Chinese language, they have phonetic tools to represent the pronunciation of characters. The old way is called "zhu yin fu hao", which consists of 35 "lesser" ideograms. The new way is called "pin yin", which was adopted by China in '79. It uses the Roman alphabet to represent the 35 ideograms. They follow their own phonetic rules though; so don't try to pronounce them using English rules. "Pin yin" is a pin yin representation of two Chinese characters, and they probably don't sound like how you read it. A more common example might be "Xie xie" [thank you].

In addition to the pronunciation, each character also has a tone, or pitch to it. It can be neutral, rising, falling then rising, falling, or short. The tone is usually the hardest part for English speakers to distinguish. I can literally say four different words that have the same pronunciation, but different tones, and a Chinese speaker could easily make out what I said. You would probably have heard me say the same thing four times.

There are multiple methods to input Chinese characters on the computer. The most straightforward method is using a tablet to draw the character and using handwriting recognition to pick out which character it is.

...Another method of computer input is using the pronunciation. The old way, "zhu yin fu hao", uses a special keyboard layout with the 35 ideograms instead of English letters and some of the punctuation marks. "Pin yin" uses a normal 104-key English layout. "Pin yin" is the input method of choice. Input the pronunciation, optionally input the tone, and then select the character you want from a list. There are plenty of homonyms, but the software puts the more commonly used characters at the front of the list. Chinese just isn't ideal for computer input, but this method can get pretty quick with training. I'm not sure on speeds, but it's certainly faster than the 10 characters a minute you were quoted from 25 years ago.

There is also the "cang jie" method, but unless you're familiar with the Chinese written language I'm not going to bother explaining it. Just know more methods exist. I read that professional typists can reach speeds of 150 characters per minute and higher with this method.

So that's Chinese.

The Japanese written language is similar to English in that it has something that resembles an alphabet. But they have more than one. There's romanji, katakana, hiragana, and kanji.

Romanji is using the Roman alphabet to write the words, like what I've been doing when writing "romanji, katakana, hiragana" etc. There are fewer sounds in the Japanese language, so representing them in English works fairly easily. This can be done for any of the other alphabets.

Katakana is a set of ideograms that Japanese use to phonetically represent foreign words. The Japanese language lacks the "th", "l", and "v" sound, amongst other things, so katakana usually butchers what the word used to sound like. An example off the top of my head is the character of a popular manga, or Japanese comic book, that is named after the Norse god Verthandi. In katakana/romanji it's represented as "Be ru da n di". When translated back into to English, the editors decided to make her "Belldandy". Whatever.

Hiragana is different set of ideograms that make up Japanese words. Any Japanese word can be represented in hiragana. What makes things complicated is that certain words or phrases can also be represented by a single kanji character.

Kanji characters look the same as traditional Chinese characters and have the same meaning, though sometimes a stroke or two is missing. The joke is that the strokes fell into the ocean when the Japanese imported the Chinese characters. I'm going to reemphasize that any Japanese word or phrase can be represented in hiragana. For reasons unknown to me, they decided to represent some things in kanji as well. They also represent their family names with kanji characters. Whenever a kanji equivalent exists it should be used in lieu of the hiragana, except in cases when the kanji is obscure. The hiragana is almost always understood, the kanji isn't. In books for young readers they oftentimes put the hiragana next to any kanji character they use to make the reading easier.

Inputting Japanese with the keyboard is easy, since it is alphabet based. The keyboard layout they use is slightly different than the US standard layout, but the fundamentals are the same. You can do an Internet search on "Japanese keyboard layout" if you want to see what it looks like. Software wise, they have to toggle between romanji, katakana, and hiragana depending on what they want to write. When typing in hiragana, the computer will automatically replace words and phrases with the kanji equivalent, if any exists. This is how Japanese generally input kanji, and specifically, I mean they don't: the computer does it automatically for them. This is what your other reader was concerned about, that they rely on technology to do the kanji for them.

This is why I enjoy writing about things I know almost nothing about [insert your joke HERE]. It's a real pleasure to learn from you guys.

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