October 09, 2004

His refusal to disgrace herself

Chinese has no case distinctions or gender distinctions in the inflectional paradigm of its third person singular pronoun. In fact there is pretty much no inflection at all (you can make an argument that a small number of phenomena might be treated that way, but it would be fairly iconoclastic to say that Chinese was even modestly inflectional). The word ta1 (the 1 is a tone indication) does duty for "him", "her", and "it" (interestingly, they're different in writing, but identical in speech; see the note at the end of this post). My student Matthew Thomas Davis points out to me a paragraph in which this problem really comes through. It's from this page put up by the Xinhua news agency, and the opening paragraph says:

New York Times reporter faces up to 18 months in jail in CIA leak case

www.chinaview.cn 2004-10-09 02:33:45

WASHINGTON, Oct. 8 (Xinhuanet) -- A New York Times reporter is facing up to 18 months in prison after a federal judge held him in contempt of court on Thursday for refusing to name her source to prosecutors investigating the disclosure of the identity of a covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent, media reports said Friday.

A difficult error to spot if you're a Chinese copy editor, accustomed to mentally translating him and her to ta1. After all, ta1 translates back into English as "either him or his or her or it or its", so where's the mistake?

John Cowan writes to me to point out that the story of how ta1 came to have three different characters in the writing system ("hanzi", he calls them) is really quite strange, and involves foreign influence on Chinese:

In the beginning Mandarin had the the spoken pronoun ta1, which referred to persons and was written by a single hanzi. Then the Chinese caught on that "progressive" (i.e. European) languages distinguished between "he" and "she", and introduced this distinction into writing by modifying the hanzi for ta1 when it referred to females. This happened somewhere around 1911. Much later, probably in the 1960s, ta1 was extended to mean "it" as well, primarily as a product of translation from Russian and other languages (the normal colloquial Mandarin for "it" is zero, although ta1 can be used if there's a syntactic demand for it). As a result, another novel hanzi was introduced.

Linguistics is always even stranger than you would think.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 9, 2004 06:43 PM