Languages Thursdays: Punctuation HellWritten by Julen Madariaga on April 23rd, 2010
Today I just wanted to comment on the mysterious world of Chinese punctuation. It is a fascinating field in these times when everyone accuses Chinese of discriminating against our foreign symbols. In fact, there is a kind of foreign symbols that are used in practically every sentence of modern Chinese: the points, the commas, and all the rest of punctuation signs.
As is natural in any language, when the Chinese decided to adopt these signs to clarify their script, they set their own rules for using them. There are many examples of punctuation marks that are apparently identical in Chinese and in Western languages but in fact have different meanings and uses. This is not the main point of the post, but I will stop slightly on one of the example that I think is fun.
The sighing mark
For some reason the (!) that is known in the West as exclamation mark got translated in to Chinese as 叹号, that is, the 叹 mark. This 叹 character is most commonly used today in expressions like 叹气, and its meaning is closer to sigh or acclaim than to exclaim. My theory is this is the reason behind that quirk of the Chinese netizens who write “!” marks on every second sentence.
I have seen from experience that many Westerners find this habit annoying, or even consider it immature. I can see where they are coming from, but they should bear in mind that “!” does not mean the same thing in Chinese as in English. I you don’t believe me, check a professional format letter in Chinese. Both the introductory and the final formulas are normally followed by “!”. Believe it or not, when you write to a client in Chinese you start the letter with “Respected Mr. Client !” and end it with “Regards !”
Similarly to the Chinese readers I would advise to moderate the use of “!” when they write in English, as it is usually not well understood. Sometimes I receive emails! Written just like this! you know it’s crazy! But please don’t do that anymore! because in English that sign is not like just sighing! It is exclaiming! which means shouting!! at your friend’s face!!!
Back to the main point: The HELL of punctuation
After this little anecdote with “!”, I am back to the main subject. As we said, the fact that a language adapts foreign loans to its own needs is perfectly natural. The problem comes when the speakers of that language are not consistent with their own rules, or they just ignore them or even sabotage them on purpose.
I am completely serious when I say that the Chinese people have a secret plan to annihilate all the punctuation marks. Any foreigner who reads regularly in Chinese realizes that the use of punctuation is lax, leading to ambiguous phrases, and requiring extreme mental processing power to parse the endless strings of characters.
But let me give you three particular examples of this Chinese conspiracy:
The Commas (,) – These symbols are so important to help us understand long phrases, especially in contextual languages like Chinese. It is not easy to use them perfectly, I do mistakes in English as well. But what I have seen in Chinese is beyond belief. From those who write a whole paragraph without a comma, to others who use periods compulsively instead of commas, to foreign educated colleagues who just place the commas following English rules. Are they no rules in Chinese, or is this aspect not emphasized in school education? I have my own theory about this, but more in conclusions below.
The Dialogs – I noticed this problem recently as I am writing my first piece of fiction in Chinese (I will be publishing it very soon). When I was doing the dialogs, I checked the internet to see what is the standard in Chinese novels . To my dismay, after opening a handful of different novels on online literature sites, I realized there is no common standard, every writer represents dialog differently. Worse still, a good number of writers don’t even punctuate at all, just marking every dialog line with a “he/she said:” to show it is dialog.
The Spaces - But of all the problems with Chinese punctuation, I think the worst by far is the one single punctuation mark that does not exist. It is an essential mark, the most important of all and by far the most used in the West. We usually ignore it as it is taken for granted, but we would have a hard time to read anything without it. I am speaking of the Space separating words. As absurd as it might sound, this device was not in the package of punctuation signs that the Chinese imported into their language, and this is probably the single most difficult hurdle of Chinese punctuation. Welcome to the Wall of Characters.
I have been thinking a lot about these problems with the Chinese punctuation, and I have come to the following explanations:
1- Following in the age-old tradition of Chinese scholars, the modern day Chinese draw a secret pleasure from making their written language as cryptic and unfathomable as is humanly possible.
2- The Chinese education system does not emphasize the importance of punctuation, either because it follows in the tradition of point 1, or because it despises those pesky symbols that are so foreign.
3- More interestingly, I have a budding theory that might explain this and some other peculiarities of the Chinese written language. It has to do with the different way that native Chinese read and parse their written language, which might explain that they actually don’t need the punctuation signs as much as we do.
This point is also tied to the similar problems observed in Chinese document formatting and typesetting. Unfortunately, I will not be able to continue today, because the time is running out and because I am not still 100% sure of where I am getting or where I can get.
We will leave this mystery for next Thursday Language. In the meantime any suggestions/corrections are sincerely appreciated.
- to English speakers, note that the American and British standards for dialogues using “” and , are far from international standard. Check a typical Spanish novel to see what I mean [↩]