Annals of Wu

a sinotibetoburman linguistics blog

Name Changes And Challenging Orthographies discussion - orthography

A recent Article in the New York Times, Tribes See Name on Oregon Maps as Being Out of Bounds which addressed efforts by local native groups to replace certain toponyms in the area. Specifically the term "squaw" was targeted as being offensive. As a solution, the groups provided a number of alternatives that would better reflect their culture as the indigenous peoples. From the article:

“I really didn’t think it would be this hard,” said Teara Farrow Ferman, manager of cultural resource programs for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. “I didn’t think that we would still be disputing this after so much time.”

The county agreed to change most of the names, but it would not accept the Indian names proposed by the tribes.

The reason given being that they are seen as too difficult to pronounce. "United States Board on Geographic Names… will not accept new ones without a consensus among interested local groups and state and local officials" the article goes on to say.

Officials protested that some of the name changes proposed by Native Americans — like Sáykiptatpa and Nikéemex — were too hard to pronounce, prompting the tribes to create an interactive pronunciation guide.
“Seriously, can you pronounce them?” asked Mr. Britton, the county commissioner. “It’s a safety issue. Someone making a 911 call has to say the location, and the dispatcher has to understand and repeat it to the sheriff.”

Setting aside the fact that people will probably still say "Squaw Lake" when making a panicked 911 call (just like people tended to dial the more familiar 411 instead), I think there's a different issue here and one which is much easier to address. The issue, I believe, is ultimately with orthography. Or maybe racism, but then racism and orthography. I'll stick to orthography for now.

An example I brought up earlier is the proposed name Weelikéecet Creek. In recordings provided by the supporters of the name changes, this sounds to me like /wɛlikætsɪt/. Without trying to dictate orthographies since this is an incredibly sensitive topic, I would like to argue that there must be some middle ground since /wɛlikætsɪt/ is actually not particularly difficult for the average resident. I think instead people are getting thrown off by the unfamiliar orthography.

I don't know if this is a standard orthography for the language, but if this were happening in the not-too-distant past, I have no doubt that would have been rendered as and no one living there today would think twice about the name of their town, having grown up with it being as familiar a word as Chicago or Topeka or Biloxi.

It seems to me, understanding full well my position as an uninformed outsider, that the issue may not be the names themselves as much as it is about how people are seeing them for the first time.

    Confusing Etymologies In Hakka discussion - orthography

    There are some intereting things going on with characters as used by a large number of Taiwanese Hakka speakers. There's a phrase, dá sóng (here rendered in Hoiliuk dialect). It basically means to waste. The usual way this gets written by a lot of speakers these days is 打爽. Note the second character 爽 would normally mean "refreshing" or "pleasurable". What sense, then, does "hit/do refreshing" make as a phrase meaning "to waste"?

    The obvious answer is that 爽 is not the original character for this phrase. In fact, it should be 喪. However in Hakka 喪 is pronounced sòng, while the second syllable in 打喪 is sóng. The tone is wrong. Meanwhile since 爽 in the same dialect is sóng, people have taken to writing the phrase as 打爽.

    I was speaking with a friend of mine, a native speaker, about how there's no real reason not to use 喪 to write the phrase, since a lot of characters have multiple readings, and many varying on tone alone. After some discussion she conceded that her own teacher, a highly respected Hakka scholar in the area, would also agree that 喪 is the way it should be written, and that he laments people's use of 爽.

    Historically, etymologically, semantically, the "correct" character for this phrase is 喪. So what do you do with 本字 when general usage has otherwise abandoned it? My answer is that you should resist, and that the value in having cognates preserved in the orthography is sufficient enough that it's worth pushing for the use of the "correct" character.

    Interestingly enough is the use in the same dialect of the character 冇, rendered mao in Mandarin and borrowed from a Cantonese simplification of 無. This is sort of the opposide side of the same sort of problem discussed above. In Hakka, the word represented by 冇 isn't pronounced anything like 無, and doesn't share any etymological connection. Instead it's pronoucned pǎng and means "hollow". It should be apparent that the borrowing is the result of the graphical comparison between 有 and 冇, which in following the same logic is what many people argue is the origin of the glyph in the first place (though that's not actually true; it really is just a simplification of 無).

    An example of the use of pǎng is the phrase 打冇嘴 dá pǎng zhǒi which means to speak about something about which you don't actually know or haven't considered.

    This actually illustrates for me the problem with sòng. That is, the origin of pǎng isn't clear in the written form since the character doesn't reflect its origins. It's not a simple task to track down how it originated or what the cognate might be, assuming there is on. It might also be the restult of some substratum. At this point I don't know.

    I feel pretty strongly that there is real value in having this stuff encoded in the orthography. "But that's prescriptivism" you might say. You're right. But prescriptivism isn't really the problem with prescriptivists, now is it?

      Fluffy Benches discussion - orthography

      "Sofa" as 沙發 is one of the widely cited examples of words in Mandarin which came from a foreign language by way of Shanghainese, still pronounced /so.fa/. I'd made a comment on this just in passing while speaking to a Hakka friend of mine, only to quickly be reminded that Hakka does not use the word 沙發, despite being widespread elsewhere.

      In Níngbō a hundred years ago, you might have been likely to hear 春凳 instead. But in Hakka, a sofa is referred to as 肨凳. If you're unsure of that first character, it's a variant of 胖. Except that in Hakka it's not. Every non-Hakka character dictionary I've checked has 肨 listed as a variant of 胖, and thus meaning "fat" and pronounced the same. Hakka meanwhile has split these. 肨 is pronounced pong55 – with a meaning of fluffy (or swollen) – while 胖 is pang55 – meaning fat. You can't call a sofa 胖凳, and you won't refer to a fat kid as being 肨. There's an additional meaning to 肨, pang24, which has the meaning "scent".

      As far as I can gather without spending a few hours in the library, the two words 肨 and 胖 may originally have just been character variants, and then through Mandarin influence, they became split with 胖, the more commonly used word up north, took on the more focused meaning of "fat" compared to "fluffy" or "swollen", and carried a more Mandarin-like pronunciation with it. 肨 meanwhile was left to its original pronunciation with the meaning of "fat but not like that guy over there is fat".

      There's an alternative possibility, which is that 肨凳 could be a fossil and the orthography is just meant to represent the different pronunciation. If that's the case, 肨凳 isn't the only case. There are other words listed that use 肨 as pong55xien55sam24 in Siyan dialect and pong11sa53sam53 in Hoiliuk dialect mean "sweater", a.k.a. "fluffy thread shirt".


        A semi-academic linguistics blog about Sinotibetan, previously focused primarily on Wú, a Sinitic language spoken in the Yangtze Delta region. Topics now include historical linguistics, documentation, language rights, sociolinguistics and learning materials, as well as acting as the dev blog for Phonemica from time to time.

        I'm a linguist based in Asia, working on documentation and historical development of Sinotibetan. In addition to academic research, I'm heavily involved in Phonemica, an organisation that promotes crowd-sourced preservation of local languages.

        I'm currently in the field, so getting in touch isn't easy. However you can try to email me at the following address and I'll respond as soon as I'm able:

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