Design Parameters for Romanization

As some of you may know, I am one of those übergeeks who actually likes to create languages for fun.  I even produce and host a podcast about the art of creating languages.  During that podcast, one particular topic has come up tangentially more than once.  That topic is romanization.  Many of the constructed languages I have seen have quite odd romanizations, though most have been understandable.  Of course, an odd romanization scheme is not necessarily a deal breaker:  Indeed, quite a few natural languages have quite annoying problems with romanization -- particularly those language for which the Latin alphabet simply isn't well suited (and there are a great many of those.

It has struck me that there are four competing design goals that a language creator (or indeed, a field linguist) needs to consider when creating a romanization scheme.  I will do my best to explain them: 

  • Elegance:  One of my priorities is to have as elegant a romanization scheme as possible.  This means trying my best to keep to a ratio of one grapheme per phoneme, minimize the number digraphs of diacritics, and over all make the romanization as simple as possible while expressing all the necessary information.  Certain aspects of your language's phonology can affect just how elegant your romanization can be.  For instance, if you have a large vowel inventory, you will have to resort to digraphs or diacritics.  If you have a three-way voiced-voiceless-aspirated distinction, you are probably going to have to use digraphs for one part of that, and if you make any significant use of tone you are almost certain to use diacritics.  This is also the pressure that militates against unnecessary apostrophes that have no phonetic use.  Ultimately and elegant romanization will have as few graphemes as possible while still leaving the phonemes of any given word explicit and unambiguous.
  • Accessibility:  If you want your conlang to be appreciated by people who are not linguistically savvy (an uphill battle at the start) or use it in a context where non-linguists will need to read the words, such as in fiction, then your romanization needs to be accessible.  This means that the graphemes you use should be easily understood by the target audience's language.  For instance, and English speaking audience should fairly understand that <kh> represents /x/ or something like it, and will be less likely to make a mistake than if you use <ch> or <x>.  However, for a Spanish-speaking audience, <j> is an even better choice, as it is used in Spanish exclusively for /x/.  Accessible romanizations, like elegant romanizations, will try to reduce ambiguity, but for accessibility one needs to consider not only the ambiguity among the language's own phonemes, but with the target audience's language as well.  Thus, languages that would use <c> for /k/ in all positions lose some accessibility with an English-speaking audience (though Welsh speakers would have no problem).  I should note that accessibility need not militate toward giving readers the correct native pronunciation, which is often not possible purely through orthography (how do you tell an English speaker there is an ejective in a word without some explanation?).  They merely need to be able to produce a passable approximation, or an appropriate Anglicization/Hispanicization/etc, particularly where proper names are concerned.  How often do you hear a news announcer pronounce a foreign name in a non-Anglicized manner?  How about when those names are not Spanish or French in origin?
  • Aesthetics:  Many language creators will use certain artistic preferences when designing an orthography.  For instance, someone may not like the letter <y> and prefer to use <j> or <i> for all instances of /j/ for no other reason.  In my experience, aesthetic considerations are among the most frequent reasons for language creators to make odd choices in romanization.  Why else would Teonaht use <ht> for /θ/ if not for an odd aesthetic preference on the part of the author.  And since artistic preferences are all over the map, a priority placed on aesthetics can lead to some pretty strange orthographies.
  • History:  This is not actual history, but world-internal history.  Some conlangers derive their languages from real world languages written in the Latin alphabet, and thus understandably derive their spellings from those real world spellings.  Others develop complex histories for their languages, and thus may decide to make certain choices based on spellings that would have made sense in earlier forms o the language, particularly when such choices jive with the native script.  This seems much less common in constructed languages than in the real world, though part of that may come from the fact that many real-world romanization schemes were actually created at an earlier stage of the language (think of the Postal Map romanization of Chinese, which uses <k> for both /k/ and /tç/ because the sound change that produced /tç/ was still in progress when the romanization was devised).

 The above design goals are by no means the only factors involved in creating a romanization.  Obviously the phonology of a language is a key factor.  As I mentioned above, many phonological choices can severely limit how elegant you can make your romanization, and it also can put a limit on how accessible it can be made.  Certain phonological features might be treated differently depending on priorities, however.  For instance, a conflict between elegance and accessibility to English speaker seems to be the reason some romanizations of Japanese represent /si/ as <si> and others write it as <shi> (though differing opinions on how to analize Japanese [ʃi] may also come into play -- romanizing natlangs is soo much more complicated).

 Think of a language with heavy lenition.  A conlanger who prioritized elegant romanizations would likely represent the lenited consonants the same as the underlying phonemes in all cases.  Someone concerned with accessibility would probably represent the various lenited forms differently from the underlying phonemes.  Someone interested in aesthetics would choose whatever they felt looked better, perhaps even creating a deliberately obtuse system for denoting lenited forms because they felt like it.  And the historical conlanger might decide to represent them according to the older forms, perhaps before the sound changes leading to lenition occurred, thus producing something similar to the schema used by the elegant conlanger.

 Some language creators may apply different design priorities in different areas.  For instance, Tolkien bowed to aesthetics over accessibility when he chose to use <c> for /k/ in nearly all positions in his Elven languages, a fact known painfully by any fan who mistakenly pronounced Celeborn as /sɛlɛbɔ˞n/ and was corrected for it, but he admittedly introduced the dieresis for reasons of accessibility, saying it was to disambiguate vowels that could be interpreted by English speakers as part of a digraph, part of a diphthong rather than a sequential vowel, or silenced -- such as <e> at the end of a word after a consonant. (How successful he was is hard to say, given that English speakers often ignore diacritics.).  I doubt that anyone could really be described as relying purely on one design parameter.  Even someone who cares only about aesthetics might need some way to break a tie between two graphemes they like equally for a given sound.

My own preferences hew toward prioritizing elegance and accessibility, with English speakers as my target audience.  Thus, I try to represent as many phonemes as possible with a single letter, never use <c> for /k/, only use <'> for the glottal stop, etc.  As for the lenition example above, I would represent them as their underlying form except where the lenited forms also exist as phonemes in the language, in which case I would represent those phones as the phoneme associated with the lenited form.  Thus, I strike a balance between elegance and accessibility.  I don't necessarily advocate that position, as I cared much more about aesthetics and very little for elegance when I started conlanging, and I don't find a particular problem with it, despite my tendency to have negative feelings toward <c> for /k/.  I hope that people who read this might simply use it to better understand people's romanization choices, or even as a way to think about their own choices, since, in my opinion, mindful art is often better art.  And romanization really is an art, particularly in the world of conlanging.

EDIT:  I made an error in the previous version of this post, claiming that Wade-Giles uses <k> for /tç/.  In fact it actually uses <ch>, making it more-or-less up-to-date. If anything, Wade-Giles is simply less elegant than modern pinyin (with some attempt to be accessible, though it's difficult to make a Chinese romanization truly accessible).

WOTD Defense: Don't be a statistic

Today's WOTD was the usage of statistic in various stock phrases along the lines of "I don't want to be a statistic," or "Don't be a statistic."  The rationale for hating on this was that, according to the email read on the show, that you cannot avoid being a statistic, that no matter what you do, you are part of one statistical group or another.

This brings in one of the most common fallacies by usage mavens and regular folks everywhere -- trying to apply mathematical logic to language.  It's the same logic that is used to argue against "double negatives" (which I prefer to call negative concord or negative agreement, but I won't get into that here) by claiming that "two negatives equal a positive".  In this case, the peevologist is applying a strict definition of statistic something along the lines of "a member of a statistical group".  I would argue that there are two more useful ways of approaching this problem:

  1. You could propose that statistic has a secondary, figurative meaning of "someone who, through action or inaction on known risk factors, has put themselves in a negative statistical groups (ex. smokers with lung cancer).  This allows us to explain these various phrases all at once, though it does require the qualifier that this usage is fairly restricted.
  2. Alternately, you could consider the phrase be a statistic is an idiom.  In linguistics, an idiom is a phrase that has a meaning that cannot be arrived at by analyzing the components.  For example, nothing in the idiom kick the bucket tells us that death is involved, native speakers simply memorize the definition "to die" for the whole phrase.
I think that the second is the more elegant explanation.  But whichever way you slice it, be a statistic seems to, in fact, be a great way to express an idea that would otherwise take much longer: "to be negatively affected by something due to known risk factors that I failed to mitigate through personal behavior".  Just tell me, which of those would you rather type?

WOTD Defense: Unpack and Netiquette

So, today the Word of the Day on the Morning Stream was unpack in the sense of "to analyze (a news announcement, event, speech, etc.)".  Scott Johnson specifically stated that unpack should only be used for luggage.  That seems to me to be an unnecessary limiting to me.  Words take on figurative meanings all the time, it's part of how language extends itself.  What's more, it has a less formal feel than the synonym analyze (which is derived from Greek, whereas unpack uses a native Germanic root).  I suppose that another synonym break down might have worked just as well, but I don't see how using unpack in this sense causes any confusion.

I also want to talk a little about yesterday's discussion on netiquette, which, since I didn't watch live, and so didn't write a defense for.  Netiquette itself is one of those wonderful neologisms of the Internet age, a portmanteau of net + etiquette.  A lot of people hate these words simply because 1) they are new (or perceived as new) and 2) they represent the Internet culture that is "rotting our children's minds".

What I found more interesting was the discussion during that segment on the role of dictionaries.  Many people seem to have some sort of odd mysticism about dictionaries, as if inclusion in a dictionary somehow makes a word "real".  This also leads some people to object to "unworthy" words being included.  It might make sense for a usage dictionary or a technical dictionary to be selective in that way, but dictionaries are ultimately about documentation.  The Oxford English Dictionary in particular draws particular negative attention for inclusion of certain word, despite the fact that the mission of the OED is quite the opposite of a language authority:  It is a historical record of the English language.  Thus, inclusion OED means nothing other than the fact that a word is common enough in their corpus to be included.  (They have some criteria, but it's mainly that.)  Criticizing the Oxford English Dictionary for recording a word is a bit like criticizing Scott for making podcasts, it's exactly what they set out to do.

 

WOTD Defense: Anticlima(c)tic

I really, really enjoy The Morning Stream.  If you haven't heard of it, it's a morning show at 8 am Mountain Time (10 am ET), done by Scott Johnson and Brian Ibbot of the Frogpants Studios Network.  In addition to the livestream, it is also put out as a podcast for those who can't listen in the morning.  It's the perfect background stuff to put in the background as I do other, usually undemanding, things, like check on my podcast site, fill in dictionary entries on Aeruyo, or even do important but tediously boring paperwork.  Do be prepared for long episodes, though -- especially on Thursdays.

That said, I would like to say I hate, hate, HATE the Word of the Day segment at the beginning of the show, where they choose a word, usage of a word, or a variant of a word and decide to ban it.  You see, I am a bit of a linguistics geek, and as such I almost always take the descriptive approach to language -- I do not see alternate variations as "wrong".  In fact, they are often interesting in their own right.

Don't get me wrong, everything Scott and Brian do is all in good fun, they are taking a common trope in the media of making highly personal and emotionally charged usage advice and having fun with it.  I have no doubt that they don't actually expect the words they "ban" to disappear from the lexicon.  However, there words they discuss often come from interesting processes.  So I thought maybe taking a moment to discuss where a word comes from might be more interesting than this simple "Oh, man, I hate that word soo muuuch!"

So let's get to it

The Word of the Day today is a phonological variant of anticlimactic, /ˌæn.ti.klajˈmæ.tɪk/, that is, anticlimactic pronounced without a /k/ before the second <t>.  I think the argument against it involves it being confused with *anticlimatic, which I am not certain exists as a common word, though it could conceivably be created with the same rules that created anticlimactic.  I would argue, however, that given what I would guess of meanings for *anticlimatic, context will very easily clear up the distinction in almost all cases.

What is happening in anticlima(c)tic is just a simplification of consonant clusters.  /kt/ is a somewhat difficult cluster, consisting of two consecutive stops pronounced in two very different points of articulation (places in the mouth).  It only makes sense that some speakers would simplify this difficult cluster by deleting one of the sounds.  This is fairly common in English, given its very large number of allowable clusters -- its the reason you might delete the second /f/ in fifth or not pronounce the plural marker -s in a complex word like ghosts or strengths, especially in running speech.

In summary, given the fact that English speakers regularly simplify difficult clusters with no problem, and the fact that the alternate pronunciation of anticlimactic with a simplified cluster is not likely to cause confusion, I would say that this word does not need to be banned.  In fact, in the future I predict one of two things -- either the simplified variant of anticlimactic will be the norm, or, if the more complex form persists far in the future, the /k/ will perhaps be dropped and replaced by another distinction -- perhaps the /t/ will geminate, or lengthen, or perhaps English will develop a tone system like Chinese languages have, with the historical /k/ affecting the tone of the previous syllable.

In short -- don't ban this word pronunciation!

Update

I have neglected this site for such a long time, and yet people seem to be coming here every day, so I figure I will put together a little life update.

 

  • I still do not have a job, but I have applied for a substitute teaching position in Randolph county, West Virginia.  I am hoping to substitute for a while as a way to explore education as a career option.  If I get to substitute and find I like it, I'll go for a Masters in education.  If not, well, I'll go for something else.
  • The Conlangery Podcast is gaining more and more listeners, if my download statistics are reliable at all.  The last episode got 209 listens on the very first day.  I never expected it to be as successful as it has been, and I hope that it continues to grow.That's a lot of downloads
  • I'm starting another nativity scene for my brother and 嫂嫂/saosao (that means "older brother's wife" to you yahoos out there, I love Chinese kinship terms.
  • Speaking of saosao, she just recently gave birth to a beautiful baby girl named Rose (or Xiao Rose as we like to call her).  The mother is now in the traditional one-month rest period Chinese women often take, supervised by her mother, but at least I've gotten to go visit and see the baby a couple times.Xiao Rose "smiling"

I suppose that's about all that's notable.  I'm hoping soon to restart 千字作文 and Mil Palabras.  I haven't been at those for so long I'm afraid I'm going to get a bit rusty.  Anyway, see you all.

 

Podcasting ...

So, some may know that I have started my own podcast about constructed languages.  It's a limited audience granted, but it was a niche that I felt needed to be served.  So far the response has been much greater than I expected: as of now 130 listens since I posted the podcast yesterday, and it isn't even available on the iTunes Store, yet.  That's not huge compared to Frogpants or TWiT or NPR, but it was better than I expected.  Plus, responses on the ZBB and CBB (popular conlanging forums) are very positive.  I'm looking forward to keeping this thing going.

What tense for a video game manual?

A while back friend of mine asked me for some writing advice.  She was writing documentation for a video game and, English being her second language, she was unsure of what tense to use when writing a narrative.  I mentioned that, depending on how the story is presented, either past tense or present tense could be appropriate.  Past tense, of course, is typical for written fiction, and is what is used by almost all Anglophone authors, but present tense seemed more appropriate for what she was going for, since she planned to describe the player's expected actions within the description, something that wouldn't sound right as a past-tense narrative.

Then she asked me "Yes, that is what the player going to do, so why not future tense?"

That got me thinking.  Future tense narrative is very rare, but I'm not entirely sure why.  The only reason I can think of is that English actually does not have a dedicated future tense.

Confused?  If you've had an introductory linguistics class you might have learned that while traditional grammarians refer to past, present, and future tenses, English in reality only has two tenses: past and non-past.  What is traditionally referred to as the "future tense of the verb" is a construction of "will + V".  But "will" doesn't really mark simply for future tense.  It is a modal verb with a whole list of usages (you can find a good list on Wikipedia.)

But that doesn't quite explain it.  Spanish does have a ture future tense, albeit not commonly used, but as far as I know, future tense narratives aren't too common there either.  This makes me curious about other languages with tense systems.  Maybe future tense narrative isn't common anywhere.  After all, most stories are told about events in the past -- we can't really know the future in that kind of detail.

Anyway, what my friend and I settled on was actually a hybrid present-future narrative.  The general background of the game was given in present-tense, while the expected actions of the player used a future narrative.  This seemed like a fairly natural narrative to me for this specific purpose: the actions of the player are future events, because the player (who may be reading the synopsis) hasn't actually started playing yet.  I would be curious as to how others would approach the problem, though.

Reflection on graduating

So, officially, I have graduated from university?  I knew this was coming of course, and I had already started searching for jobs (later than I should have, but I have submitted some applications and had one interview so far).  I didn't attend the big commencement.  I have no love of ceremonies nor crowds, so WVU commencement, to me, seemed like something that could drive me insane.  My mother supported this, saying that it would be useless for me to go just to be in a huge faceless crowd.

Instead, we went to a little brunch held by the International Studies program.  I would have preferred something with the Foreign Language department, but they weren't able to arrange a get-together this year.  In any case, I still had a good time at the brunch, and was able to talk to several professors.  I also was surprised to see on the program that I was marked as graduating Magna Cum Laude.  I was never one to obsess over grades, and rarely checked my GPA or class grades until I needed to list them for something.

In any case, I have spent five years as an undergrad, and already I feel good about being out.  My current plan is to find some kind of job I can work for a year or two before going back for graduate school.  Maybe I'll spend a little time and get a TESOL certification and go overseas to teach.  Or maybe I'll find something closer to home.  An upside, while I'm looking for work, I hope to be posting here more often.  I have a reminder on my calendar for every day which just says "write something".  That could be a post here, or a little bit in my novel, or any number of things, but I hope you can expect more frequent updates to the main blog as part of it.

Thank you to anyone who reads my ramblings.

Get some water with your Tron

Saw this in the Kroger on Patterson Drive in Morgantown (near Towers):

Get some free water with your Tron

Thought of getting it, as I have yet to see Tron: Legacy (not sure I ever saw the orginal, either).  But then I realized -- I have no car, and though I am within walking distance, I'd rather not haul a giant pallet of water up the hill to my apartment.  I'll see it eventually.

Red Dawn: China is now North Korea?

A while back, I made a post detailing why I had decided I would not go to see the Red Dawn remake still in production, which was planned to use China as the villans, replacing the Soviets.  In summary, though there were many reasons not to see the film, my main beef was that I would find it impossible to suspend disbelief, as the entire premise and the plot details that came from script leaks indicated that the plot required essentially giving the foreign policy makers of both the US and China a giant, flaming Idiot Ball.

Now, more recently, it seems that this premise that was terminally stupid to begin with just got that much more ridiculous (LA Times):

[T]he filmmakers now are digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols from "Red Dawn," substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake.

Yes, that is what is being reported.  Apparently, distributors were worried about the effect of the film on the China market.  Understandable from a business standpoint, if galling.  Pleasing the censors in China is key to getting films into the China market, and if you support a film where not just some Chinese people but the People's Republic of China itself as the main villian, you might cause trouble for yourself.  Not that the film has a chance to be approved even with North Korea as the villan, but the distributors were probably worried that it could cause fewer of their films from being approved, or -- worst case -- China reducing its quota of 20 foreign films a year in protest.

Why would North Korea invade?  I have no idea.  I'm not sure the filmmakers do either -- the fact that the film is simply being digitally altered and no mention is made of reshooting, I don't think they are giving much thought to the reasons for starting a war, much less have thought at all about how the North Korean military might behave differently from the Chinese military.  They are faceless villians, pure and simple, there to invade, show themselved to be evil, and be heroically defeated.  Not that faceless villans are always a bad thing, but when they come from the real world -- the modern world particularly -- I would wish for just a little more nuance.

Two Tsunami Posts

Usually, I prefer to do separate topics for Mil Palabras and 千字作文, maybe with a connecting theme, maybe not.  But this week I decided that I would do something different.  I decided to do both pieces on the Sendai earthquake and subsequent tsunami.  I did this not because of laziness, but because I was personally affected by the news, despite the fact that I was no where near any of the affected areas, and as far as I know none of my friends has been harmed (though I do worry about at least one Japanese friend).

Of the two posts, what I wrote for 千字作文仙台地震:全太平洋的灾难) is a little more "newsy", while what I wrote in Mil Palabras (El tsunami y yo) gets more into my personal feelings.  But one thing I suggested in both is: do whatever you can to help, if you can.  And there are tools to help if you can't find someone.  That is all.

So let's ... um ... have a revolution?

Yesterday, the call went out on Twitter for China to have it's own "Jasmine Revolution" -- named for the movement that toppled the government of Tunisia and ignited the Middle East.  The problem?  Well, no one showed up to protest.

Well, a activists showed up.  And someone threw flowers in front of a McDonalds in Beijing.  But from the reports I have seen, the protestors were far outnumbered by police and journalists, as well as a few other onlookers.  And since all of the coordination (or lack thereof), apparantly there were very few Chinese who even knew what was going on.

Now, if I may give my opinion on this, it seems that this revolution was executed by someone who is really naïve about how these things work.  Yes, online social networking figured prominently in the revolution in Egypt (Tunisia I haven't read as much about) -- at least until the Internet was shut down.  But there were a lot of other economic and political forces at play.  High food prices and unemployment, as well as good organization among the protesters, led to the protests and their successes.

China has economic problems, but for the most part it is doing well.  And as for the organizing, the fact that the "revolution" was started on services that are typically blocked in China didn't help.  Granted, domestic sites are heavily censored, but they are also where the people are.  Ultimately, I think text-massages, combined with some face-to-face organizing, would be more effective.

In any case, it takes a lot to start a revolution.  In my opinion, the conditions in China are not quite right.

Some good articles on the subject:

Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703498804576156203874160350.html

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/21/world/asia/21china.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1298232033-KI/D+pHHs+QI0lsfyWl5lQ

China Geeks: http://chinageeks.org/2011/02/the-revolution-that-wasnt/

Al Jazeera Blogs: http://blogs.aljazeera.net/asia/2011/02/20/call-me-if-theres-revolution

Financial Times: http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2011/02/21/china%E2%80%99s-jasmine-revolution/

Thet foreign talk is up

Today I have posted my first entries for Mil Palabras and 千字作文.  Well, actually, I had already posted a 千字作文 for last week, so now I have two.  My 千字作文 for last week covered a recent story where a few mummies and other artifacts from Xinjiang were pulled from an exhibit in Philadelphia at the request of the Chinese government.  This weeks posts are less "newsy", with both going for personal accounts about language learning.  In this week's Mil Palabras (the first!) I talked about how my experience learning Spanish helped me along when I decided to learn Chinese.  In 千字作文 for this week, I talked about some other advantages I had in learning Chinese.  Feel free to read, enjoy, correct and complain.

I'm feeling pretty good about these projects as ways to build and maintain my language skills.  Time will tell whether I will be able to keep up with two essays a week into the future.  For now, I think I already have a good topic for next week's Mil Palabras, thanks to a friend in Mexico -- so long as nothing else strikes me.  If anyone else has suggestions for topics, don't hesitate to send them to me.

Signs in Chinese

So, Egypt is in everyone's news today, but I came accross a particularly curious story today that tickles a couple of my fancies.  Victor Mair posted on Language Log today a couple photos of protestors holding signs that feature Chinese.  Here are the signs:

I won't bore people with translations and analysis of errors when Mr. Mair has already done that job, but I do find the use of Chinese interesting here.  The theme seems to be "Hosni Mubarak doesn't seem to understand Arabic", as a proxy for the sentiment that he doesn't understand the Egyptian people.  I've heard of similar uses of English in the protests, so I'm guessing these protesters decided to add the second most widely spoken language to cover more bases.  What's next?  Spanish? Hindi?  Or maybe something more obscure.  In any case, the Egyptian people are making it very clear that they want President Mubarak to leave.

Two new personal projects

As I look ahead toward graduation, I realize that I must very soon start finding more opportunities to practice my language skills so that I don't lose them.  One of the hardest things to find practice for outside of formal classes is writing, so I have decided to start two new blogs specifically to practice writing in my two secondary languages.  Each week, I will write one thousand characters in Chinese and one thousand words in Spanish.  Both will be posted here on the site for everyone to read, comment on, and correct errors.  So, for Chinese-speaking readers, please check out 千字作文, and Spanish-speaking readers please look at Mil Palabras. My first proper essays will be coming either this week or next, as time permits.

XKCD: The World According to (some fairly savvy) Americans

XKCD's latest comic caught my interest.  They decided to round up some random "Americans" and draw a map of the world as they saw it.  The map, it turns out, is not so bad:

World According to Americans

As a result, I decided I would test my own knowledge by looking for some obvious errors (looking beyond some of the gross simplifications, of course), without looking at Wikipedia or any other source outside my brain.  Here goes, feel free to join in;

1) China is the wrong shape, there should be another bit extending up beside the western border of Mongolia.

2) On a related issue, Tibet is actually much further south.  the area depicted looks to be a portion of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (aka Xinjiang), the other part being the missing bit I mentioned above.

3) OK, yes this is a simplification, but they pointed out Ireland without highlighting the region of Northern Ireland (which is actually part of the UK).

4) Hawai'i (and pretty much the entire Pacific Ocean) is omitted, probably because the artist failed to provide space on the paper for it.

5) I think Algeria has a coast, meaning that it would be wrong on this map.  Unfortunately, Africa is about as much a black hole for me as it is for these guys, so I can't be sure on that one.

6) Russia seems a bit too large, maybe some of those borders reflect former Soviet territory that is not part of the Russian Federation.  Not entirely sure on this one, though.

... going further would get into nitpicking about regions I know fairly well and redrawing some of the vaguely hashed-out regions, and quibbling about some scale issues (I think Japan's island chain is longer than that), and a couple nomenclature issues (Taiwan and the Republic of China "complications", many scholars would have the "Middle East" include more of northern Africa).  On my own, I could probably fill in the South American map with a good degree of importance (and maybe a *little* finer detail on language by naming some major American Indian languages), and I would probably be able to hash in several more countries in the other regions, and probably work in several provinces, autonomous regions, and major cities of China.  If I blew up the map big I could roughly fill in the autonomous communities of Spain as well, but that's just going too far for this excercise.

I think the big thing to take away from this would be: Unless you make world maps for a living, you probably can't possibly draw a perfect map of the world with every country in place.  Most of the places I could improve here are regions or countries I have studied fairly in-depth and/or travelled to.   All told it seems that at least this group of Americans, as XKCD mentioned, is pretty good at world geography, coming right off the top of their heads.  That said, feel free to geek out explaining how they totally screwed up your favorite country/region :P

A Dream of a 婚姻

Every so often you have one of those dreams that you wish to share with people immediately.  Last night I had a dream that I was going to see an old friend from China.  Oddly, though within the dream this friend, a woman in her fifties or sixties who had endured several divorces and moves around China, was very familiar to me, when I woke up I realized that she and her family were entirely fictional.  Not that uncommon in a dream, I guess, but it was surprising.

Getting on with the story, when I arrived to meet her I found her standing outside a room where a wedding was going on.  Apparently her daughter was getting married and with her father unavailable, I was asked to escort her.  Everything proceeded as normal, with an appropriate nervousness on my part, until the question "Who gives away this bride?" (or however it was phrased) was asked (in English).  For some reason, I had three responses in mind, in Chinese: "她妈妈" ("Her mother." Would've worked I guess), "她妈妈和我" ("Her mother and I." Translation of a familiar usage, but awkward in context.), and finally “我” ("I/me."  Extremely awkward under the circumstances.)  Only after I woke up did I realize that it would probably be best not to say anything in that situation, letting the mother take that particular formality.

Luckily, that was apparently not the actual wedding, just a rehersal, so I wasn't entirely put on the spot.  I guess my subconscious was trying to save itself some embarrassment.  In any case, I had a conversation with a few people that I was feeling uncomfortable with the responsibility and wanted to bow out, but my own mother (my whole family was suddenly there) convinced me to go ahead with it, citing that one relative had already addressed the groom as "princess" and there's no possibility that I could cause any more embarrassment than that.  I have no idea where such a "princess" comment would come from, by the way.  If it happened in real life, I'm sure Alzheimer's would be involved.

I never saw the conclusion to the story, as I woke up before the actual wedding started.  Maybe it's better that way, as although the pastor was one from my past church, I am sure that there would be some parts of the ceremony in Chinese, and since I'm not familiar with Chinese weddings, any lines my subconscious would generate would almost certainly be flawed or even entirely wrong.  I'm sure the story would have turned out alright, though.  In any case, that was my dream, and if you read all the way through, thank you for your indulgence... and your boredom.

A visit to the local Chinese church

When you're not able to practice a foreign language, it gets rusty. The best way to practice, of course, is to surround yourself with native speakers. I have always spent a good amount of time doing this, and it always takes some effort. Even when I was studying in China, it took a little push to get out of the foreign student bubble at the university, and now that I've been back in the States a while, I've had to put in even more effort.

Those efforts led me to discover the Morgantown Chinese C&MA Church (摩根城華人宣道會). Let me preface by saying that although I was raised in a traditional Methodist church, I am not a religious person. A friend of mine needed a ride to church, and I was curious about the place and how it might differ from other churches I have attended.  What I walked into was a very traditional service that could have occurred in the church I attended as a child, save for the fact that it was bilingual.

Most of the hymns I readily recognized, though I was not confident enough reading the Chinese lyrics (projected on a screen up front in traditional characters) to attempt to sing with the congregation.  The sermon itself wasn't necessarily my kind, it was heavily reliant on an analysis of a fairly long scripture passage, meaning that the Chinese was somewhat difficult and the English translations felt a little boring.  Other than the formality of the affair, the only particularly "Chinese" thing I heard in it involved a part at the beginning where a Chinese emperor was quoted -- unfortunately I have forgotten the quote.

Of course, there was also the inevitable reaction of the Chinese congregation to the only white person in the crowd.  I was immediately singled out to introduce myself as a new attendee, and did my best to introduce myself explain my reasons for being there in Mandarin.  Afterward quite a few of the congregation came to me specifically to compliment me on my Mandarin ("你的中文很好 / Your Chinese is very good" was heard a lot) and didn't seem to mind that I was more interested in language practice than religion.  Of course, I couldn't help showing off by trying to read the bulletin (mostly in Chinese), just as much as I couldn't resist talking to the little kids in the congregation.

Will I be going back to that church?  I may.  Perhaps not every Sunday, but once in a while it may be fun.  The bottom line is that often you can find cultural experiences where you would never expect in -- in little pockets near where you live.  Get out and try it.

An Android for just $100,000

EDIT: Video (I forgot that wordpress.com doesn't like YouTube embeds.)

I was waiting a while to see if English-language press would pick this up.  Unfortunately, the only news I am finding on my searches from English langauge sources involves another robot in Mexico.

The robot in the video, however, was developed by Cinestav (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Avanzados / Center for Advanced Research and Study) in Guadalajara Mexico, and here's the kicker (via Once TV):
La ligereza de su estructura y el bajo costo de su construcción lo hacen uno de los desarrollos más competitivos en el mundo. En él se han invertido apenas 100 mil dólares comparado con el millón y medio de dólares que han costado otros androides similares.

It's light structure and low cost of construction makes it one of the most competitive developments in the world.  Only 100,000 dollars have been invested in it, compared to the one and a half million dollars that similar androids have cost.

And if you're wondering why it's just a tourso, don't worry, they're building the legs in Boston.

Another interesting thing is that the robot has an advanced learning capability, and it seem that it can even dream (via La Cronica de Hoy):
Su cerebro son dos computadoras conectadas a un servidor inalámbrico que serán las procesadoras de información del robot incluso cuando “duerma”. Al desconectar el robot, este cerebro artificial podrá refinar el equivalente a miles de redes neuronales, optimizar parámetros usando algoritmos geométricos y encontrar reglas de inferencia que almacenen la información útil que acumuló durante su actividad, crearle memoria.

Its brain is two computers connected to a wireless server that will process information even when the robot "sleeps".  When the robot is disconnected, this artificial brain wil refine the equivalent of thousands of neural nets, optimize parameters using geometric algorithms and find rules of inference that store the useful information that it accumulated during it's activity, creating memories.

Ok, this android may not be seeing images of electric sheep, but this is something like what our brains do when we sleep, and that makes us just a bit closer to building intelligent robots.  The plan, according to reports, is to improve the robot through several successive versions to develop robots ever more intelligent.  The engineers are already thinking of applications such as household servants and education.

Do People Really "Convenience"?

I listen to the Popup Chinese podcast feeds (for free, no I don't have the money to pay for lessons) in order to get a little listening practice while I have no Chinese classes and don't always have the time or persuasive power to get my Chinese friends to talk to me in Chinese.  The last elementary session brought up a vocabulary term that I have been wondering about for some time: 方便

方便 (fang4bian4) is a Chinese euphemism for using the toilet.  It's literal meaning is "convenience", and it is believed to be derived from translations of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures, and that the use as a euphemism for our unpleasant excretions started among Buddhist monks.  What has confused me about this term is the way Chinese friends have reacted to it.  Here are the reactions I've gotten:

  1. pleasant surprise (the usual response when you use something Chinese don't expect you to know about)

  2. saying it's unnecessary (some prefer me to use the slightly cruder 上厕所)

  3. not nice enough (a few female friends have told me this, saying I shouldn't even imply what I am doing)


As  I stated, #1 is pretty much expected.  Saying even a single word of Chinese will get praise from strangers, partly out of flattery and partly from surprise at seeing a white guy who speaks Chinese.  But #2 and #3 have always interested me.  It seems that in some cases, I'm being "too polite", like someone who uses very bookish and sophisticated language while hanging at a friend's house, while in other cases I end up feeling my friends seem a bit like uppity Victorians.  It seems a lot more complex than, say, when I decide to show off my vocabulary of curses (which almost invariably ends with people labeling certain terms as too vulgar or dangerous for a foreigner to use ... EVER).  I wonder, if any Chinese are reading, how do you deal with 方便?  When is it appropriate, and when isn't it?  When it's not appropriate, what do you say instead?