A Brief Primer on CJK Languages

This is a brief primer explaining the CJK(Chinese/Japanese/Korean) languages, their roots, how they are alike, and how they are different. I had originally written it several years ago to explain this to an American friend, and recently came across it again while digging up some old emails.

I thought it might be of some use to someone, someday, so decided to post it up here.


The Chinese have been around as a civilized culture for thousands of years. In fact, they are known to have had dynasties with complex heirarchical structures and political intrigue as early as 2,000 BC. As for their written language, we have archeological proof found dating back beyond 1,000 BC.

The Chinese written language doesn’t have an “alphabet” system that Latin-based language speakers will recognize, and are instead an evolved form of hieroglyphs. In fact, it is the only hieroglyph-based language that is still being used today, after others like Egyptian and Mayan died away. If you were to take each Chinese character as an “alphabet”, then there are over 40,000 of them with at least 2,000 used in daily life! While this may sound shocking and totally unfeasible to use as a language, learning it isn’t as difficult as it sounds.

The unique thing about the Chinese written language is that each character actually means something. For example, one character may mean “me” while another means “go”, and another means “house/home”. These three characters will form a sentence meaning “I’m going home” (Chinese:我回家, though I’m not sure if your browser can see this). Having so many different characters to represent different objects and ideas give the language a kind of clarity, as you’ll seldom find ambiguous words. More than one Westerner learning Chinese have been known to half-jokingly exclaim that “there’s a different word for every single thing under the sky!”

Most (around 96%) Chinese characters are made up of a semantic and phonetic elements, which serve as a sort of “meta-alphabet”. So once you learn a few hundred “words”, you’ll become familiar with these elements and be able to recognize and guess at the meaning and pronunciation of words that you don’t even know.

Many words are actually a combination of several characters. For example, the “electricity” and “brain” combines to form “electronic brain”, which is the Chinese word for computer. Or “fire” and “car” combines to form “train”, a reference to steam locomotives where you had to burn coal. Proper nouns such as “Obama”, “Napoleon”, and “Hitler” becomes more of a problem, as you cannot equate any semantic components to them. This gets the job done, but feels inelegant. That’s why some foreign companies seeking to appeal to the Chinese public spends a lot of effort in creating a Chinese brand name. One classic example is Coca Cola, which is know as “Ke Kou Ke Le”. In addition to sounding similar to the original English pronunciation, it contains the meaning of “the more you drink, the happier you get”!

As for the spoken language, there are 7 different major dialects. The reason these are called “major” is actually because people from one major dialect group can’t even understand (or only understand with extreme difficulty) what someone from another dialect group is saying! It’s almost like there are 7 distinct languages, with dozens of dialects within each. But the Chinese had the good sense to unify the written part of their language into a single script, so people from different dialect groups can still communicate on paper.

Now let’s move on to Korean and Japanese.

Most of Asia knows China by the name of “Zhong Guo”(Chinese: 中国), or “Central Empire” (though a more direct translation would be “Middle Kingdom”), due to the fact that they had been the center of civilization for as long as anyone can remember. This being the case, many Asian languages (including Korean and Japanese) have been heavily influenced by theirs.

Korea and Japan have their own spoken as well as written languages. But similar to how French was “the classy language of the ruling class and intellectuals” for a long time in most parts of Europe, ancient Koreans and Japanese tended to look down on people who couldn’t speak Chinese. This legacy continues even now, as a good part of modern Korean and Japanese vocabulary are actually Chinese words pronounced in their own language.

Think of all those English words with non-Anglo-Saxon origins, coming from French, Latin influences instead. Now imagine that all these foreign-origin words come from a single language, and that they consist of more than 70% of the vocabulary. That would be a pretty accurate picture of what the Korean and Japanese language are like.

The Korean and Japanese written languages are based on alphabetic systems, and thus are purely phonetic. The Korean alphabet consists of 14 consonants and 6 basic vowels, although these can combine to form “stressed consonants” and “complex vowels”. The Japanese alphabet consists of 5 singular vowels, 39 distinct consonant-vowel unions, and one singular consonant.

Since each Chinese character traditionally had a distinct meaning, they didn’t seem to have felt the need to differentiate the pronunciations much, and many different characters with different meanings have similar pronunciations. I say “similar”, because the spoken language has 4 distinct “tones” or inflections to each sound, and this minimizes ambiguity.

However, this becomes a problem when the same Chinese words are “borrowed” into a purely phonetic alphabetical system like Korean and Japanese, as a single written Korean/Japanese word can often stand for multiple different Chinese characters, and therefore different meanings. This is why the habit of writing a mixture of Chinese and Korean/Japanese characters remains even today, although it has been falling out of practice in Korea over the last two dozen years.

The fact remains that while Chinese, Japanese and Korean speakers cannot understand each other in conversation, they can easily make out more than half of what the other is saying if they write down their words, and replace all “borrowed” words with their Chinese characters.

Customized Ruby Blue Theme for Notepad++

I’ve been a big fan of Notepad++ for quite a while, but it wasn’t until I discovered the Ruby Blue theme that I totally fell in love.

Ruby Blue was originally designed for TextMate, the leading text editor for the Mac OS, and was modeled after the code sections of http://ruby-lang.org.


I’ve always had a thing for the color blue, and Ruby Blue’s combination of muted blue-tone colors and eye-catching highlights for reserved words and operators looked simply perfect to my eyes.

The latest versions of Notepad++ comes with a bunch of themes, and Ruby Blue is one of them. But the problem with the default theme is that the syntax highlighting is strangely missing for most of the popular languages (i.e. C/C++, Java, Perl, etc).

So I tweaked it around a bit to include these missing languages… and it’s looking good so far!

If you’d like to give it a try, you can download it here: Ruby New

Home-made Black Russian!

Black Russian has always been my favorite cocktail.
There’s something about that perfect blend between the fragrantly sweet Kahlúa and the aggressively strong Vodka that I find irresistible.

Most of my friends and colleagues think of me as a non-drinker, but that’s only because I hate tasteless alcohol (like Soju, the national alcoholic drink in Korea) with a passion. On the other hand, I like to enjoy a glass of good wine, cocktail, or beers like Guinness Stout every once in a while.

The only downside about cocktails is that they tend to be rather expensive if you order them at a bar. A typical glass at a none-too-fancy bar will set you back at least 10,000 Korean Won (approximately $9).

This got me to thinking, “Why can’t I mix my own cocktail in the comfort of my home?”

Black Russian also happens to be one of the easiest cocktails to mix, so I went ahead with my plan.

I bought a 1-liter bottle of Smirnoff Red Label and a 400ml bottle of Kahlúa at Home Plus (a local discount store) on my way home, costing me 39,000 KRW (around $35).

And now to mix myself some Black Russian:

  1. Put some ice cubes in an old-fashioned glass
  2. Pour 50ml of Vodka onto the ice
  3. Pour 20ml of Kahlúa on top
  4. Give 2~3 brisk stirs

And that’s all there is to it! No wonder it’s called one of the simplest cocktails to mix!

Now let’s see how much I’ve saved…

I should be able to mix something like 20 glasses of Black Russian with these bottles of Vodka and Kahlúa. So the cost of each glass would come down to a mere 1,950 KRW, or a little less than $2!

Quite the deal, if I can say so myself :)


To Hex, or not to Hex

Even though I’ve already invested some time and effort in making hex tiles, I’m still kind of “on the fence” as to whether I want to fully commit myself to them.

So they’re more of an experiment for the time being, with my other alternatives being:

  1. A single large (4 x 6 feet) terrain board
  2. A large (4 x 6 feet) terrain board made up of smaller (1 x 1, 2 x 2, or 1 x 2 feet) square/rectangular terrain tiles
  3. A single large (4 x 6 feet) foldable/rollable terrain mat

Option #1 is definitely unfeasible for me, given my space constraints. My wife will probably kill me if I attempt something like that in our small house :P

So I’ve got myself 30 pieces of laser-cut hex-shaped MDF boards from Warbases, and I’m planning to see how I like the overall effect of 30 hexes before investing in more.

I feel that the pros hex-based terrain tiles over square/rectangular ones are:

1. Small hexes somehow look better and more natural than small squares.
I highly suspect that this is just the wargamer in me. (I’ve been playing hex-based war games for almost as long as I can remember)
In my opinion, Square/Rectangular tiles need to be rather big (at least half a meter long per side) before they start looking good. A board made up of small square tiles remind me too much of a bathroom :P

2. Small tiles are much easier to make.
I’ve actually bought a few large MDF boards a long time ago, with a plan to cut them down to the required sizes and make rectangular tiles out of them. But each time I look at them, the task ahead of me felt just too daunting…
On the other hand, these small hexes don’t look so imposing and I can work on them whenever I have a bit of free time.

3. Hexes offer more versatility than squares when creating terrain
Or at least, they’re supposed to. I know that there are a number of arguments against that school of thought, but I’m with the school which believes that hex-based tiles can be used to re-create almost any type of terrain convincingly enough for wargaming purposes.

4. There are some hex-based rules I want to try out
I’ve been reading a number of fast-play rules that work on hex boards; something of a cross between board games and miniature games. They look very promising (especially for introducing wargames to non-playing friends), and will very probably allow for fun games that can be completed within an hour.
No fiddling with rulers or squinting your eyes to determine line-of-sight “from the eyes of the model”.
No “You’re only supposed to move 50cm, but you’ve just moved 51cm!!!” nonsense.

So there, these are the reasons behind my experiment with hex tiles. What do you think?

6mm Napoleonic British Line Infantry

I know, it’s been a long time since I’ve got myself these tiny little tin soldiers from Baccus… But what can I say? Life happened :P

Things have settled down a bit now, and I’ve finally managed to complete 3 bases of Napoleonic British Line Infantry. I’ve also finished a few hex terrain tiles that I’m planning to use instead of a terrain mat. Here are pictures of these little Brits posing on top of the hex tiles.
(Note: You can click on the pictures to see a larger version)

Since I’m a relatively new miniature painter, and especially since this is my first foray into Napoleonics… do be gentle with your comments!

I do know that the backpacks, equipment belt and canteen are of the wrong color, and I just couldn’t manage to paint in the facings (sleeves and collars) on such little miniatures… but I have a better idea now, so my next batch should probably look better!

P.S Oops! Only after taking these photos did I notice that I forgot to paint the edge of the bases







Another Look at Google Analytics

It’s been almost a year since I started this website and I was bored today, so I decided to take a look at the site statistics that Google Analytics has been collecting for me.

I don’t know why, but there’s something intrinsically fun about going through the analytics of your own website. Or maybe it’s just the geek in me :P

Anyway, here are some of the statistics on MaxAhn.com, provided by Google.

  • I’ve had 2,233 visits from 1,849 unique visitors, generating 3,858 pageviews
  • Each visitor views an average of 1.73 pages per visit, and remains on the site for an average of 57 seconds (huh? that’s pretty short…)
  • 57.55% of visitors come to my site through referral (clicking through links I’ve posted on TMP and such), while 26.11% have found my site through search engines
  • My visitors hail from 73 (wow!) different countries, with the top 5 being United States (723 visits), United Kingdom (549 visits), South Korea (158 visits), Canada (142 visits) and Austrailia (101 visits)

Interesting stuff, no? :)