Saturday, March 29, 2003

Chinese palindromes

Back in the 1980's some people thought Japan was going to take over the world economically. Not so. No matter what they did, we'd always have them beat with palindromes. Can you even have a Japanese/Mandarin/Cantonese/Korean palindrome?

Enter Google. A googlewhack, perhaps? No, I found 3 sites, and this one says that there are Chinese palindromes. So now we know.

That same site contained this:
Arnold Toynbee once predicted that by around 2050 Chinese characters would become the international standard for visual code used in communications, just as Arabic numerals have become the international standard for written numbers.
I'm thinking he's gonna miss with that one.

I'm dinking around with Chinese at the moment, in part because I'm working with a few native Mandarin speakers nowadays. The differences between it and English are so profound it's amazing. For one, from my sorely limited current vantage point, it appears that everything is monosyllabic and there are no strange genders, declensions and conjugations. But part of the price you pay is the tones - in Mandarin each syllable can be inflected 4 ways, and in Cantonese (less widely spoken, mainly in southern China) there are 7, and each inflection can convey an entirely unrelated concept. What with the script, palindromes might not be so easy, but it's not hard to see that the spoken language would permit some diabolical puns that are at least as difficult to translate.

Another thing I didn't expect was that Mandarin and Cantonese speakers have the same written language. So they can read the same newspapers, but can't talk about them, but they can still communicate by passing notes.

And the text! If you have a Palm or similar device you know that most Latin characters can be rendered intelligibly with one continuous stroke. I don't know what the most complex Chinese characters are, but some that I've seen must take a calligrapher about 20 strokes to do right. It's little wonder that "Chinese" is often used as a modifier indicating complexity or confusion, such as in "Chinese algebra" or "Chinese fire drill".

Given these fundamental differences between English and Chinese, I have to wonder if they don't actually influence the way we use our brains. I suppose the usual suspects would consider it "racist" even to investigate, but I wonder if an EEG or other device could pick up differences in brain usage between a native English speaker using English and a native Mandarin speaker using Mandarin.

Alright, I've exposed enough ignorance for one day. But what else is a blog for?

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