Sunday, April 24, 2011


Working an acrostic puzzle, like the one in today’s New York Times Magazine, requires a kind of mental acrobatics similar to that required for dealing with Chinese. At least for me.

When I listen to Chinese, my brain often has to jump from one possibility to the next: does that syllable shi mean ten, stone, true, or food? Or maybe something else? Chinese has homonyms galore; there are so many options but only one of them is right! 

What if I make a mistake? By that point, a conversation has moved on and I’m lost. At least an acrostic is forgiving; all you need to do is get out the eraser (unless you’re so bold as to use a pen).

When reading Chinese, does that character go with the one in front of it or behind it? Since spacing around each Chinese character is even, you can’t even tell if you’re looking at one two-character word, or two one-character words;  context can be opaque and the clues can be misleading. (The title of this post gives you an idea of the challenge.) 

Even computerized translation systems have to sort through this initial challenge in processing Chinese documents, something unnecessary in English or French, or even Arabic or Turkish, where the boundaries of words are clear.

But wait, there’s more! Today’s readers of Chinese have it easy; in the olden days, there was no punctuation, so you didn’t even know where a sentence began or ended.  Even today, however, you can’t be dead sure of which direction characters should be read; on the sides of some buses, for example, the characters are always presented from the front of the bus to the back, or left-to-right on the left side of the bus and right-to-left on the right side. 

Searching in the dictionary for the meaning of a character you don’t know is a real puzzle; characters are ordered according to the radical element (which carries meaning, rather than sound) of the character. But if you don’t know which element is the radical, you may have to try a few. And that is just step one.
Lest you be discouraged, Chinese is not all work and no play. The Chinese love puns, which are ripe for creation because of the many homonyms.  Although these double entendres can be a source of danger for newbie speakers. And how about scrabble? nothatwontwork


  1. What I like about the contrast between the title of this item (plus the very last word in the post), versus the long final word in the NYT puzzle you mention, is how difficult, or easy, it can for English speakers to tell at a glance what a run-together sequence of letters "really" means.

    The example in the puzzle is *relatively* easy to decipher, apparently because it has so many consonant groups that usually appear only at the beginning or the end of words. So they provide natural visual breaks. The nice thing about arewenotabletoreadorareweableto is that to native speakers there is no "obvious" place where it breaks. Is 'notable' the real meaning? 'Adore'? My guess about Chinese is that it's more like arewenotable... in that characters could naturally go at beginnings or ends. But that is only a semi-informed guess.

  2. Actually your post brought to my mind some of the difficulties I have trying to understand languages other than Chinese! (I'm a native English speaker.) The homonym issue you mention is one I have when trying to understand spoken in, was that 'et', 'ai', 'aix', 'er', or 'é' I just heard, and did it belong with the preceding or next syllable? And the word order issue is one I have when trying to understand written Dutch, as in, does that 'op' go with the 'er' three words before, or is it part of the verb? I don't have a good feeling for whether these issues are more severe in Chinese than for French/Dutch, but it seems like parsing is an issue with learning any new language.

    But I agree the dictionary difficulties are unique to non-alphabetic writing systems like the Chinese one....

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