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.

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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.

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? :)

Korea Hit By Heaviest Snowfall in Observation History

4th January 2010 was the first working day of the new year, and also marked the day when South Korea (a.k.a Republic of Korea) was hit by the heaviest snowfall since KMA (Korea Meteorological Administration) started observations in 1937.

It doesn’t usually snow much over here, with 10cm of snowfall typically considered “heavy”. Despite KMA’s (characteristically inaccurate) prediction of 3cm ~ 7cm of snow, Seoul (the capital city) was hit with a whopping 25cm!

Here are some fun pics I’ve taken, which I think wonderfully illustrate just how thick the snow was.

Enjoy! :)


  

Kindle for BlackBerry Coming Soon!

Ever since the Kindle for iPhone app was released in March earlier this year (2009), there were much speculation and hope that a similar application will be released for the BlackBerry soon. Amazon then revealed that such an application was indeed in the works, boosting up hopes for BlackBerry users like me.

After nine long months, it seems that the Kindle for BlackBerry application is almost around the corner, as Amazon has recently put up a “coming soon” page where you can sign up for an email notification as soon as it becomes available.

Hurray!

I’ve been carrying my iPod Touch in my pocket in addition to my BlackBerry, just for the purpose of reading Kindle books. Looks like I won’t need to continue this awkward practice for much longer!

What’s so great about a “Kindle for iPhone” or “Kindle for BlackBerry” application, you ask?

Amazon has been selling electronic books for a couple of years now, but they could only be read on their proprietary e-book device called the Kindle.

The thing that makes the Kindle so great is the fact that Amazon is arguably the biggest internet bookstore in the whole world, and that makes many publishers grant exclusive rights to Amazon for selling electronic versions of their books. Many of these publishers are normally adverse to the whole idea of e-books, and wouldn’t event think of granting such rights to the dozens of other e-book vendors out there, even the more well-known ones such as eReader, Fictionwise or MobiPocket.

While I’ve been a long-time customer of eReader and Fictionwise (for more than 5 years), I had no choice but to switch to Amazon because I couldn’t buy many of the books I want to read from anywhere else. Naturally, this means that I need a Kindle to be able to read these books I buy from Amazon.

But with the release of the “Kindle for iPhone” app, I am able to read these “Kindle e-books” on my iPod Touch, even though I do not own a Kindle. Once the “Kindle for BlackBerry” is released, I will be able to read these books on my BlackBerry Bold too!