At the back of the hill

Warning: If you stay here long enough you will gain weight! Grazing here strongly suggests that you are either omnivorous, or a glutton. And you might like cheese-doodles.
BTW: I'm presently searching for another person who likes cheese-doodles.
Please form a caseophilic line to the right. Thank you.

Monday, April 01, 2013


The Chinese spoken languages do not possess a third person pronoun equivalent to 'her'. Classical third person singular (qí​ 其) always was non-sexual, to be interpreted contextually as masculine, feminine, neuter, this, that, or other.
In modern Mandarin, that third person is 'tā​'.

Which was eventually found to be far too imprecise.
Nowadays one can be more specific.
Sometimes one must.

[Him, those, and the others.]

The standard masculine third person singular 他 (tā​) is composed of a human (rén 人 shown in the left side position 亻) with the phonetic element 也 (yě​: also, too) on the right. Originally this fairly modern grapheme meant the third person singular in all iterations and both genders, the context being relied on to make clear what precisely was meant.
Different forms have since been invented.

她 is the feminine form (nǚ 女 woman, female, next to 也).
牠 is the animalian form (niú 牛 ox; animal category character component, next to 也).
它 is plain 'it'; written with a roof (mián 宀) over a ladle (bǐ 匕).
祂 represents the divine form, used in religious contexts when referring to a deity. It is a spirit or ancestor (shì 示), which nowadays by itself means to be revealed or manifested, next to the 也 glyph.
They are all pronounced the same.

All of these are pluralized with 們 (a gate 門 mén​ next to the human 亻).
Thus 他們、她們、牠們、它們、and 祂們。Tā​men​.

The exception is the formal, or third person singular respectful, character, 怹 (tān​), which is used like its ancestor with no regard to gender.
It is formed according to the same pattern as the respectful version of you 您 (nín), which is you​ (你 nǐ​) over xīn 心 (heart, mind, feelings).

In Cantonese, which is the descendant of the Tang-Sung koine, different characters are used for the pronouns: 佢 ('keui': he, him), 姖 ('keui': she, her), and 渠 ('keui': it). The last character (渠) also stands in for all third person singulars, but more so in pre-war writing. There does not appear to be a third person divine yet, possibly because the Cantonese are the most cynical of all the Chinese.
Nor is there a formal version in Cantonese for either the second or third person; probably for the same reason as there is no supernatural third.

Plurals of the Cantonese pronouns are formed by appending the phonetic 哋, which is 'earth' (地 'tei') with a mouth (口 'hau') on the first side to indicate that it is a sound rather than a significant.
Thus: 佢哋、姖哋、渠哋。 All of which are 'keui tei'.
The Cantonese pronunciation 'keui' (洰 rivulet, irrigation ditch) developed from 'kei' (其) over the centuries since the Tang (618 – 907 CE) and Sung (960 - 1279 CE) periods.

The locution 其他 (Mandarin: qí ​tā​; Cantonese: 'kei ta') is the equivalent of undsoweiter, enzovoorts, i taka natatŭk, etcetera, et autres, and so forth.
It is not quite as useful in Chinese as in the European languages.

[In Mandarin: 我 (wǒ​)、我們 (wǒ​ men);你 (nǐ​)、你們 (nǐ​ men);他 (tā)、他們 (tā ​men​);她們 (tā ​men​)、牠們 (tā ​men​)、它們 (tā ​men​);祂們 (tā ​men​)。
In Cantonese: 我 ('ngoh')、我哋 ('ngoh tei');你 ('nei')、你哋 ('nei tei');佢 ('keui')、佢哋 ('keui tei');姖哋 ('keui tei')、渠哋 ('keui tei')。]

Note: Both Cantonese and Mandarin will understand the character 妳 as being singular second person feminine, but speakers may wonder at the usefulness of such a coinage.

[Liu Ban-nong's innovation.]

In the period after the 1911 revolution, during the New Culture Movement (新文化運動), numerous scholars educated in the traditional fashion which emphasized classical forms of literature and traditional learning, began experimenting with new writing styles, composing their essays, plays, and poetry in the common language. This was considered both modern, and more popularly approachable. Colloquial speech had not resembled the ancient model for several centuries if not millennia at that time, and developing a corpus of literature that expressed ideas in ways that the common man could grasp was considered an important step towards pulling China out of the depths to which it had sunk during the age of Western Imperialism. The difficulty of acquiring literacy in the classical language was, it was felt, a handicap that could only stunt mass development.

The irony of their approach was of course that they themselves were products of that same classical educational norm, and frequently framed their thoughts in a style that their literati ancestors would have well understood, whereas the speech of daily society had till then seldom ever been transcribed.

Many of them realized this, and sought ways to write what had theretofore not been written, and strove to create a common written language.

New characters had to be invented, new words coined.

Written Chinese has always been fairly flexible. As I showed above, in the construction of characters, parts can be combined to create new graphemes, using a signific element and a phonetic element. And though one may think of Chinese as monosyllabic, in actual practise the vocabulary mainly consists of bi-syllabic constructs. It is that second facet which permits new words to enter the language, either by complete phonetic borrowing, such as is common in Cantonese-speaking areas, or combining two or more single-syllable words to express a new datum, such as Mandarin-speakers have done.

Poetry, which had long been constrained by specific forms, also headed into the bright new world. One of the more important writers of the late teens and early twenties of the last century was 劉半農 (Liu Ban-nong, aka 劉復 Liu Fu, pen-name of 劉壽彰 Liu Shou-Zhang), a native of central China who contributed to the literary periodical 新青年 (Xīn ​Qīng N​ián​, La Jeunesse, New Youth; founded in Shanghai by 陳獨秀 Chen Duxia in 1915, published in Peking from 1920 to 1926 ).

In 1920, Liu wrote a poem entitled 教我如何不想她 (jiāo​ wǒ​ rú ​hé​ bù ​xiǎng​ tā​: "tell me how to not remember her"), which is the first time that the character 'her' showed up in print. He is credited as the inventor, though he may have found it when researching 宋元以來俗字譜 (Sòng​ Yuán​ yǐ-​lái​ sú-​zì​ pǔ: "Sung Yuan after vernacular chart", the vernacular characters used since the Song and Yuan dynasties).
It is a rather beautiful poem, which absolutely requires the feminine third person singular for it's impact.






Up in the sky faint clouds float,
There is a slight breeze along the ground,
That breeze ruffling my hair,
Tells me how to forget her.

The moonlight is passionately in love with the ocean,
The ocean yearns for the moonlight,
Ah ...
This sweet and silvery night,
Tells me how to forget her.

Petals float upon the face of the water,
Underneath, fish lazily drift along,
Ah ...
Oh swallow, what do you say,
Tell me how to forget her.

Barren trees shaking in the cold winds,
And wildfires burning in the darkest nights,
Ah ...
Crimson clouds in the western sky,
Tell me how to forget her.

You will note a subtle change from factual statement ending the first two verses (something 'tells me how to forget her') to an entreaty, almost pleading - oh please tell me how to forget her. The entire poem in effect states that no matter what he has experienced since, he cannot forget her, that memory is always alive.

In another sense, the verses say that it would be unreasonable to even ask him to forget her; everything reminds him of that other person.

It is immaterial who he remembers, it is the fact of remembering that stars in this poem. And, crucially, she would be even more anonymous without this pronomial distinction.

That said, here's miss 韋秀嫻 (Wéi​ Xiù​-xián​) singing it from the other side of the linguistic mechitza:

韋秀嫻 ~ 〈教我如何不想他〉


In this rendition, the third person is not ' her' (她) but very specifically 'him' (他). The sense is still very much the same, and the audience will automatically think of the correct pronoun.

Lovely, eh? Truly a voice like molten sugar. Who could possibly forget that?

Set to music with a melody by fellow linguistics scholar 趙元任 (Zhào​ Yuán​rèn​, Tianjin 1892 – Cambridge MA 1982), this was one of the all-time hits during the twenties and thirties in China, and is still very well known among aficionados of modern Chinese music.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

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