September 01, 2006

Another grammar hallucination

Mark Swofford at Pinyin News has an interesting post on Peking University's decision to change its English name to the University of Beijing ("English tips from the school formerly known as Peking University"). The interesting part is why PKU will be University of Beijing (UBJ?) rather than Beijing University (BJU): "that is, according to the school, because in formal English names the place name has to come after 'college' or 'university'".

Mark links to Joel Martinsen's translation of Fang Zhouzi's blog entry making fun of this "rule of English grammar" ("评北大将规范英文校名为University of Beijing"):

However PKU wishes to standardize its English name is its own right, but to manufacture a "rule of English grammar" like "place names used as adjectives in school names are frequently found only in abbreviated names in speech; in formal written language, the place name should be placed after 'college' or 'university' as a noun." This can't but bring ridicule - or jokes that there's no one in PKU's English department - from anyone in the world who knows English. When former PKU English professor Shen Hong came to New Threads in early February preaching this "rule of English grammar," he was sent packing in embarrassment. Who would have thought that the PKU administration would still take it as a golden rule?

Alas, it's not only native speakers of Chinese who make up arbitrary "rules of English grammar" that are trivially refuted by a few minutes of research into the norms of educated usage. It's true that PKU's new "rule" is a problem for Princeton University, New York University, Boston University, and many others. But compare the proliferation of which hunting, which is refuted on line 15 of Lord Jim, line 56 of Wuthering Heights, line 8 of Dracula, line 103 of Moby Dick, line 143 of Alice in Wonderland, and so on.

(FYI, more on Beijing vs. Peking vs. etc. is here.)

[In fairness to Prof. Shen Hong, whose views on this matter I've encountered only via Fang Zhouzi's indirect characterization, we have to admit that "University of <PLACE>" seems to be more frequent in standard names than "<PLACE> University". Thus Prof. Hong might have made a sensible argument on statistical grounds for "University of Beijing", which was perhaps then mischaracterized by a reporter or editor at China Times. Attributional abduction arises again.]

[Update -- Merle T. wrote:

I got a kick out of your comments about Peking University becoming the University of Beijing.  All to the point.  As a private institution, they can do that, but in their zeal to replace all vestiges of Wade-Giles transliterations with Pinyin versions, I hope they keep their grubby reformist paws off of “Peking Duck”.  I believe a “Beijing Duck”—oops, I mean a “Duck of Beijing”—would not taste nearly as sweet.

But I don't think that PKU, by whatever name, is a private institution. The English-language "about" page says "Peking University is a comprehensive and National key university", and its "history" page says that

After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the government carried out, in 1952, a nationwide readjustment of colleges and universities with the aim to promote higher education and quicken the training of personnel with specialized knowledge and skill by pooling the country's manpower and material resourses. After the readjustment, Peking University became a university comprising departments of both liberal Arts and Sciences and emphasizing the teaching and research of basic sciences.

(Of course, a public-sector university is just as entitled to re-name itself as a private one is.)

Also, Bill Poser explained that <Peking> is actually not Wade-Giles, but rather "the old postal system romanization, which was based either on the pronounciation in a Southern dialect or an archaic pronounciation in Mandarin of the current official name".

And as for name of the duck dish, I'm afraid that it's too late. Google has 71,600 hits for {"Beijing duck"} (though {"Peking Duck"} is still ahead with 1,510,000). The guide site calls the dish "Beijing Duck or Beijing Roast Duck", though "Peking Duck" and "Peking Roasted Duck" also appear on the same page. Even the English wikipeida entry for Peking Duck says that "[i]t is also known as Beijing Duck or Beijing Roast Duck".

If it's any comfort, Merle, {"duck of Beijing"} has only got 536 hits, most of which seem to be variants of "...distinctive regional cuisine , from delicate dim sum in Hong Kong to the succulent roast duck of Beijing and experience the highlights..." ]

[Update #2 -- Fang Zhouzi writes:

I understand you couldn't believe a professor of English department at a prestigious university could be so ignorant, but Prof. Shen Hong did explicitly state that it's a "simple rule of English grammar which all universities must obey when naming their universities". He even presented it in a paper to a linguistic conference held at Beijing University. In fact, what the reporter cited ("place names used as adjectives in school names are frequently found only in abbreviated names in speech; in formal written language, the place name should be placed after 'college' or 'university' as a noun.") was what Prof. Shen Hong exactly stated in his paper.


[Much more on the linguistics of university names can be found in a series of posts by Arnold Zwicky, initially stimulated by the PKU name-change affair:

"What's the name of your university?" (9/2/2005)
"University name bulletins" (9/4/2006)
"Manchester mouse born from mountain" (9/5/2006)
"The the in The Ohio State University" (9/5/2006)

And quite a bit of additional discussion of Australian in a post by Claire Bowern at Anggarrgoon, "Names of universities" (9/4/2006).


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 1, 2006 07:09 AM