Friday, November 25, 2005

A Little Symbol Crash

A Little Symbol Crash

Over on Love2Learn Blog there was an interesting photograph of some nice wooden cabinets. One of them had some Chinese pictographs, and I wondered what they meant, so I wrote a comment there.

I was particularly interested because Love2Learn Mom responded that it was her son's name (Matthew) in Chinese - for I was curious about how names are handled. I went on to ask for more details. (Note: I have revised this next part from both my initial comment on Love2Learn and also from my original posting here.)

That is:

(1) Do those symbols "stand for" the name "Matthew" - do those two symbols in themselves represent the name, and one must know directly from them symbol that it is pronounced "math-you"?


(2) Do those symbols "spell" the name "Matthew" - as these letters do when I here write in English? (they really have no meaning individually, or no more meaning than the M or the a or the t or the h... The symbols perhaps jammed together just in order to adapt Chinese to this foreign (Hebrew/Aramaic) word?


(3) Do they "spell" the sound "Matthew"? That is, those symbols are a form of "rebus" - that is, a pictorial pun, in which the words "spelled" by those symbols happened to "sound like" or "suggest" the name, or the sound of the name. (The two separate words meaning something merely coincidental but providing the requisite sounds.) For example, I might draw two pictures: a welcome mat and a man attacking a log with an axe - that is, hewing the wood: hence "mat-hew". Or, I could write a verbal pun in English as "math" - "you" - two words which are NOT the name, but together sound like the name.

(And there may be other ways... This is why I had to revise my posting!)

This brings up a whole very interesting topic - not just names, but symbols and forms of symbol. It is very important to computer scientists, to philosophers and theologians, and to many other fields of study - though even amng these I have named, very few care to consider this, because it gets very hard to talk about.

Let me show you an interesting joke I saw somewhere (I have long ago forgotten where!) and I just drew it over for the sake of this posting.

What does this say?

You would probably "read" it as "THE CAT" - but that is very strange.

For I have made the two letters which ARE the same (the T) to LOOK different.

And I have made the two letters which ARE different (the H and the A) to LOOK the same.

As a computer person, I have long known that what "everyone" calls the letter "A" is not really an A at all, but the number 65 - or, to be even more accurate, the pattern 01000001. That is because many current computers, printers, screens, keyboards, and other devices use a more-or-less standard code (not a SECRET code, rats!) which is called ASCII - the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Just as this A is an A, and this A is an A, and this A is an A, and this A is an A, and so on - these pictures are all different, but all "stand for" the singular concept of the first letter of the alphabet (or the sixty-fifth entity in ASCII!) Of course, because of heritage, that symbol also stands for the first letter of the Greek alphabet, where it is called "alpha" not "ei" as in "weigh".

The long years we spent long ago, when we learned to read - for which we ought to always thank our parents and our teachers! - that time and energy, and perhaps agony, was spent building the habits into our brains, and perhaps even into our very eyes! to identify certain shapes as logical entities. That wondrous skill is called "the ability to read" - and there is even a more-or-less accurate tool called "optical character recognition software" (or OCR) by which a computer can accomplish the same thing.

Now when one examines Egyptian hierogylphics, as I did back in high school, one finds out that some of them form a kind of alphabet, which permitted the ancient Egyptians to "spell" even foreign names. (That was one of the clues which helped Champollion to "crack" the code on the Rosetta Stone!) But some names were (as far as we know) the elements which made up the symbols, so we could imagine them using the "welcome-mat" plus "man with axe and log" to write "Matthew" - as they did in their own language. And perhaps either "Love2Learn Mom" will get back to me with more about the symbols on the cabinet - or else I will find a book to explore more about how Chinese handles proper names.

But even if I do not learn the details for Chinese, the question - or rather the topic - remains for us to consider, and to explore. I do have off today (hurray!) but I do have several dozen things to do, besides my chores, and eating, and praying. But I want to get into this a little more, at least until lunchtime.

First, we have to discriminate another issue in our discussion. That is, the distinction between the visual aspect of a word, and the audible aspect - which is where the usual delight of the pun resides. (Man, am I glad there are parentheses! I use them all the time. There are other puns, like that "THE CAT" picture.) But linguists divide spoken words into elements called "phonemes" which have their own printed representations (so that they can write textbooks about their field!) and so in some sense these sounds are still a "spelling" of the spoken word, just as the letters "spell" the printed word. (I leave out all kinds of interesting discussions and digressions about how GKC's friend and enemy, George Bernard Shaw, managed to spell the word woman with the letters G-H-O-T-I, and so forth!)

But there again, we spent another veyr long period of time learning - a time so far back that most of us have forgotten - unless we are parents (or older brothers or sisters) and have seen how long it takes for the baby to begin to learn what we are saying! And that skill - the skill which identifies the phonemes and links them together into words - the skill of comprehension of a spoken language - can also be made into a computer program, but there the accuracy can be rather less good than that given by OCR. It's a strange lesson in humility.

To resume: the point I wish to get to, before my time runs out, is that there are mental abstractions which we use in an absolute sense, even when we acknowledge their paradoxical relativity. I would guess that I (and you too!) could identify among at least a hundred people, just by the pronouncing of the same short word - perhaps even just one letter, or one phoneme - which means that they and we both know a singular idea (the word) but also can discriminate the hundred or more varieties of its pronunciation - in fact, so well that the pronunciation in itself serves as a unique identifier to the person pronouncing it!

My time is just about gone, so I will conclude by hinting that this vast puzzle and interesting topic serves to motivate many avenues of human endeavor, from computing to the nature of prayer, from the diversity of human language to the instruction of the young - and, yes, even to humour!

More another day.


At 26 November, 2005 15:32, Blogger love2learnmom said...

This is what my husband left on Love2learn Blog yesterday in case you did not see it...

OK. I have talked to my friend in Taiwan and learned that: traditional chinese Bible translation for Matthew is 馬太. The characters of which are pronounced Ma-Tai. But it does not mean anything in Chinese I am told.

The translation I was given (which you see poorly transcribed onto the cabinet) is 馬修.
This sounds closer to Matthew.

Not fully satified I went to babelfish for some computer translation. It correcty identified the newer as Matthew. But when I asked it to translate each character individually it came out Horse Repairs.

Translating the traditional one comes to Horse Too.
So there you have your opportunity for puns.

Apparently authentic chinese names (3 characters in legth) are very carefully chosen from their lexicon for all sorts of reasons including puns, family asperations, combination of characters yeilds another character which means

Now I am going out on a limb. But if I remember right it goes like this: it used to be the privelege of every 6th generation patriarch to determine the "middle name" for his family. The "last name" (which is first) is simply the family. For the middle name he chooses 5 words - one for each generation after him. He would be able to write a short sentance, or WHATEVER. I think

they would try to be very clever and express desires for wealth and long life.

Then came the communists!! :<

The "cultural revolution" in the 60s sought to make a clean break from the past - and succeeded in so many horrible ways. The records of family names

going back a thousand or more years were burned. The alphabet was "simplified" so the people would find it nearly impossible to read traditional history books etc.!!! Can you believe it?


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