July 11, 2006

The inscrutable Chinese language

In the middle of an article on architecture in China ("The China Syndrome", New York Times Magazine, May 21, 2006), in the context of describing a complex bureaucracy that gives a lot of interpretive power to individual officials, Arthur Lubow drops in a single sentence of linguistic essentialism:

The very idea of doing something architecturally new in China is itself so new that ambitious architects must surmount novel challenges. The popular mentality, however open-minded, is enmeshed by a web of shifting and inconsistent rules. ''It's not that we don't have systems,'' says Yung Ho Chang of M.I.T. ''We have incomplete systems. We have this superprogressive energy code, but a decades-old structure code. It is pretty easy for the bureaucrats to make exceptions, which they love to do. They think every case is unique, so they will break the code. Not you.It's this kind of incomplete changeable system.'' The Chinese language is itself poetically vague compared with English and more open to interpretation. Winning approval of a design often involves finding a receptive official. ''You go to one person who says yes and then another person says no,'' complains Li Hu, who, with Steven Holl, is building a mixed-use complex in Beijing. ''We were almost there, and the person died of a heart attack, and we had to start all over with a new person. No one wants to be responsible.'' [emphasis added]

I've heard similar comments before about Mandarin. It might even be true, in some sense, given features like no obligatory marking of noun number and definiteness, lack of pronoun gender, and so on. On the other hand, I can supply endless examples where the English language did not in any way impede bureacratic blur; and it's surely possible to write precise and specific regulations in Mandarin. The relevant question, I guess, is whether the fact that Chinese construction-industry regulations and building-permit applications are written in Mandarin is relevant in any material way to the complex, erratic (and presumably corrupt) way in which the Chinese regulatory bureaucracy deals with such things. I'll bet that the answer is "no".

After all, we commented earlier on an article in which the Guardian told us that "The German language provides fully functional clarity. English humour thrives on confusion" ("Thriving on confusion in the Guardian", 5/24/2006). On the other hand, we've also cited a piece in the Courrier International asserting that "current English is characterized first by an extreme concern for coherence and for explicitness approaching redundancy" ("Paradoxes of the imagination", 9/29/2005). That's the nice thing about linguistic (and social and sexual) stereotypes; they're like astrologers, so that if you don't like what one of them says, you can turn to another one, and sooner or later you get the answer you want.

I'm still working on my New Year's Resolution to take a positive attitude towards treatments of linguistic matters in the popular press. So I'll suggest that what we need here is a sort of Encyclopedia of Linguistic Stereotypes, providing a long list of authoritative, general statements like

The Chinese language is poetically vague compared with English and more open to interpretation.
The German language provides fully functional clarity. English humour thrives on confusion.
English is characterized by an extreme concern for coherence and for explicitness approaching redundancy.

Each statement should of course be accompanied by a link or at least a citation. Then intellectually needy writers could pick the stereotype that fits their needs.

The closest thing I know of is John Cowan's Essentialist explanations, which provides 794 phrases like these:

English is essentially Norse as spoken by a gang of French thugs.
Swedish is essentially Norwegian spoken by Finns.
Spanish is essentially Italian spoken by Arabs.
Francophones are essentially Germans speaking the bad Latin they were taught by Gauls.
Modern Greek is essentially Classical Greek as spoken by Venetians.
Mandarin is essentially Chinese as spoken by Mongols.

But these are the wrong sorts of generalizations.

[Update -- Margaret Marks, who "did an A Level in Chinese and later some classical poetry and a lot of stuff about lackeys and running dogs", writes:

What rubbish about vagueness! I think it is true that Chinese classical poetry (not the language, the form) is vague, since it's pared down, a bit like the frog jumping into the pond in a haiku.

But everything else is pinned down by context.

Yes, or specified to the necessary level of explicitness by the writer. But please, Margaret, you have to help me stick to my New Year's resolution. Maintaining a positive attitude about this stuff can be hard, but that's what New Year's resolutions are for, after all.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 11, 2006 10:37 PM