Why are so many silent letters added to foreign words when translated to english?

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by ken thompson, Jul 24, 2002.

  1. ken thompson

    ken thompson Second Unit

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    Especially the words from foreign languages that dont even use our alphabet. A recent post about how to pronounce Hsu prompted this. Why would a chinese word pronounced "she" be spelled Hsu when tranlated into english this makes no sense. However they spell it in chinese has no resemblance of Hsu so why would it in english. There is no literal letter for letter tranlation between the languages. So why all the silent letters and weird pronounciations of our vowels?
     
  2. Shayne Lebrun

    Shayne Lebrun Screenwriter

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    At that point, you're missing the accents. Chinese transliterated into English is usually just COVERED in accents.

    Forget foreign languages, though, and look at english. Anything with 'pneu' 'kni' 'ph' and so on....
     
  3. Bill Catherall

    Bill Catherall Screenwriter

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  4. Thik Nongyow

    Thik Nongyow Stunt Coordinator

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    The old romanization system, the Wades-Giles, is based on Portuguese.
     
  5. Yee-Ming

    Yee-Ming Producer

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    if memory serves, one needs to know about 3,000 basic Chinese characters in order to be understood or understand anything. (no wonder everyone always moans about studying it...)

    some of the "confusion" arises over which form of transliteration was used. "Hsu" is the Wade-Giles version, as are any "Chinese" names where combinations such as "ts" or "t's" show up. in contrast, the version "preferred" and in use today in China is Hanyu Pinyin, where "Hsu" becomes "Xu".

    as another example, the surname "Hsieh" is pronounced "say" in English. in Hanyu Pinyin it would be "Xie"

    for an interesting discussion of Wade-Giles, have a look at any of David Wingrove's Chungkuo books, he discusses it in one of the appendices. his reason for using the older Wade-Giles was that it looks for elegant than Hanyu Pinyin. I must say that he makes a good point, don't "Hsu" and "Hsieh" just look better than "Xu" and "Xie"?

    (BTW, "Chungkuo" literally means Middle Kingdom (or Country in the modern context), and means China -- yes, they had a very self-centered view, but didn't everybody back then? and Chungkuo would be transliterated to Zhongguo in Hanyu Pinyin)
     
  6. ken thompson

    ken thompson Second Unit

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    Very interesting. So I guess what you are saying is that the chinese written words aren't being translated into the english alphabet but rather some other language or even some kind of text created to bridge the written languages and we are just simply incorporating that still foreign language into some quasi-useful english language.
     
  7. Dave Gorman

    Dave Gorman Supporting Actor

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  8. Bill Catherall

    Bill Catherall Screenwriter

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    When I began studying Mandarin I had to first learn the conventions used in the romanization so I could pronounce things correctly. I studied using Yale romanization (typical for teaching English speaking students, and I think it's the easiest of all romanizations to learn). For example: In Yale 'r' doesn't sound like "arrrr" or "rrrrrr," it sounds almost like "dzzzz" (but with your tounge pushed further back on the roof of your mouth...like the 's' in "pleasure"). "Chungkuo" (or "Zhongguo") is spelled "Junggwo" ("Jung" being one character meaning "middle or center," "gwo" meaning "country or land"; translation...China).
    The whole romanization thing is just to take some kind of familiar character base and assign certain sounds to it. There are sounds in the Chinese language that aren't typically found or represented in English. The example I gave above of Yale using 'r' to represent the 's' sound in "pleasure," in Wade-Giles it's spelled 'jih'. In Hanyu PinYin it's spelled 'ri'. All three are correct because, once you understand the conventions everyone will pronounce them the same.
    The reason I like the Yale romanization is because any American can look at it and almost get the pronunciation correct...or at least won't butcher it as bad. [​IMG] HanYu PinYin would be second best (in my opinion) because it's pretty close to being similar to English pronunciation. On the other hand, all transliterated signs in China and Taiwan use either Wade-Giles or PinYin, so Yale becomes useless when trying to read them...but transliteration is usually only applied to names and places so it really isn't that big of a deal.
    Here's a link to more information about the differences between Yale, PinYin, and Wade-Giles. Here's another link about the history of Chinese romanization.
     
  9. Max Leung

    Max Leung Producer

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    Wow cool explanations there...would one be able to pronounce the words correctly from thoese links without causing a Mandarin speaker to cringe in horror?
     
  10. Bill Catherall

    Bill Catherall Screenwriter

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  11. Max Leung

    Max Leung Producer

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    Eeek, I wonder if any tone-deaf people actually exist in China. [​IMG]
     
  12. Yee-Ming

    Yee-Ming Producer

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    Bill, damn fine explanation! [​IMG]
    funny you should use the example of "ma", I was thinking of using it myself to illustrate the importance of the tone in Mandarin.
     
  13. ling_w

    ling_w Second Unit

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  14. Bill Catherall

    Bill Catherall Screenwriter

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  15. andrew markworthy

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    Flashback to my doctoral thesis time - I thought I'd suppressed it for good, but no such luck. One day, when you least expect it, someone will mention logographic scripts. I promise you if you read through this essay on Phonemic Awareness 101, there is an answer to the question posed.

    Basically, writing systems come in a few basic flavours;

    pictograms - every word and concept is represented by a picture. These are reckoned to be the most 'primitive' scripts (though we occasionally use them today in things like certain road signs). Over time they evolved into:

    logograms - each symbol represents a word or a concept. The roots of logograms in pictograms can be seen in some logographic symbols (e.g. the Chinese for 'fast' is something which looks like a running man). Logograms carry the huge advantage that you don't need to know anything about the sounds of words to learn what they mean. This may sound like rather an abstruse point, but keep reading, you'll see why it's important. Certainly, there is a very low level of dyslexia as we would understand the term in Chinese readers. The downside is that you have to learn a different symbol for each word. The result is that even a very literate logographic reader has a limited reading vocabulary compared with a English reader. With phonetic scripts such as English, we don't have this problem (see below).

    syllabic scripts - such as part of the Japanese script (which uses a mixture of syllabic script and logograms for commoner words). This uses a different symbol to represent each syllable. Since most languages only have about 50 syllables or so, once you've learnt what each syllable looks like, you should in theory be able to read any word in the langauge when you see it written down.

    phonetic scripts - where each letter represents one or more different word sounds or phonemes. European languages are phonetic. [Incidentally, the term is derived from the Phoenicians, who first thought it up]. The beauty of the phonetic script is that once you've learnt the letters of the alphabet, you should be able to work out what any written word says, even if you've never seen it before (obviously you can't do this with logographs - since most of them are essentially arbitrary, either you know or you've got to ask). For example, if you'd never seen the word 'cat' before, you'd know how to spell it because you know the sounds that 'c' 'a' and 't' represent and you could work out the sound of the word from first principles.

    At least, that's the idea in theory - the problem is that words have irregular and regular spellings. Regular spelt words like 'cat' obey the rules, whilst words like 'yacht' clearly don't. Okay, why?

    The simple reason is that phonetic languages could be regularly spelt, and indeed some largely are - Russian and Italian are two cases in point. However, other languages, like English, have had a habit of taking words from other languages and appropriating them into written English whilst retaining a spelling which is regular in the original language, but horribly irregular in English. Thus, the word 'demesne' is fine in Latin, where it's obviously pronounced as 'demeen'. Similarly, 'yacht' is fine as a Dutch spelling but in English is wrong. Why we retain the original spellings is twofold:

    (a) the scholars who introduced the words also knew the languages they borrowed from and retained the original spellings because they were well-versed in the said original language and saw nothing wrong in it; the spallings then stuck in place because dictionaries and intellectual opinion said it was right;

    (b) early printers in England were Dutch and happily used Dutch spellings ('yacht' is a case in point - the original English spelling was 'yott'). They became accepted for the same reasons as (a).

    So, this brings us to the original question - the reason why we have odd spellings of foreign words is largely because of reason (a). In the case of Chinese, an additional level of explanation is required. Scholars attempted to use a phonetic representation of Chinese which was logical in itself, but did not necessarily map directly on to spoken English (e.g. 'h' as used in English' might not sound the same in the 'represented Chinese' alphabet).

    Which system is 'better' is open to debate - phonetic scripts raise problems because unless a person is aware of what the phonemes sound like ('phonemic awareness') or can readily manipulate phonetic information, then they will have problems reading phonetic script. This in one form or another has been cited as the principal cause of dyslexia for a numebr of years. However, once you master the phonetic sounds and can recognise the myriad exception spelling rules in English, then it's a relatively easy language to read and write in. Logographic script has the advantage of not requiring phonetic knowledge, but on the other hand, learning what each symbol represents is a chore, and each new one has to be worked out afresh. Also, it poses *major* problems if you want to type anything (ever seen a Chinese typewriter?). Because of the latter consideration and the needs of IT, phonetic script is likely to win out in the end.
     
  16. Thik Nongyow

    Thik Nongyow Stunt Coordinator

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    In Japanese, most logograms have many readings, because the Japanese used Japanese and Chinese-derived pronunciations (called readings) in their language. This is a problem where if you want to read a Japanese name written in kanji (Chinese characters), you need to ask the person how his name should be pronounced.

    Interesting enough, Japanese and Chinese are not languages known for things like rhetoric and the art of speech-making like in the West.
     
  17. Rex Bachmann

    Rex Bachmann Screenwriter

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    andrew markworthy wrote:


    Quote:



    phonetic scripts - where each letter represents one or more different word sounds or phonemes. European languages are phonetic.





    It would be more accurate to say that most European languages use a phonetic orthography based on Roman alphabet (or Greek/Cyrillic in the east). English is not one of them. The sound represented by so-called long (actually "tense") e in modern English orthography is phonetically represented by [i] and the a of English orthography (as in gate) by [e] or [ey] (depending on the amount of off-glide) in the standard International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). (There are phonetic spelling archaisms, though: e.g. they, grey, etc.) Try Italian orthography for a more "phonetic" representation of the vowel sounds.


    Quote:



    [Incidentally, the term ["phonetic"] is derived from the Phoenicians, who first thought it up].






    Actually, the words have nothing etymologically (historically) to do with one another. phonetic is from a Greek adjective which goes to Greek pho:ne: 'sound, voice' (":" indicates a preceding long vowel) as in modern English telephone. Phoenician comes from Greek phoini:ks (stem phoini:k-), which by folk etymology at least, was connected with phoini:ks 'purple-red (color)' "because the discovery of this color was ascribed to the Phoenicians".

    Note, that despite English pronunciation, the [oy]-diphthong and [o:]-vowel phonemically contrasted with each other in ancient Greek. According to the (still older) origins of these sounds, the two words almost surely are not genetically related. (And that far outside chance has nothing to do with your claim, which involves "historic" times.)

    It is true, however, that the word alphabet has a Semitic source, and that the Greek alphabet may well have been based on the writing system of the Phoenicians, which itself was akin to that of the ancient Hebrews (aleph, bet, etc.).
     
  18. Rex Bachmann

    Rex Bachmann Screenwriter

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    More generally, the Chinese pictographic/logographic system is good for letting large numbers of speakers communicate within a society (or between societies) with each other who don't really speak the same language (Mandarin, Cantonese, et al.). The individual signs represent different phonetic words from these different languages or else signal a grammatical usage in the separate languages that is not represented phonetically (or maybe even syntactically?) the same across those languages, like car stickers that "read" [EYE] [HEART] my [choose here your favorite breed of dog and place its image in this slot in your mind]. Germans or Swedes would obviously have different phonetic strings to fill in the slots than do English-speakers.
     
  19. Joseph DeMartino

    Joseph DeMartino Lead Actor

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