Monday, December 30, 2013

The Mysterious Orient/Occident (a politics-free post)

On Christmas Day, I followed the traditions of my people by eating in a Chinese restaurant. This particular one was a very good, and seemingly authentic, new one called the Sichuan Gourmet House. In between my bites of jellyfish (no tentacles; good but rather bland) and bitter melon (bitter), I pondered the age-old question: Why is the standard American spelling "Szechuan"? Where does the "z" come from?

Short answer: I don't know. I couldn't find a satisfactory answer on the Internet.

Slightly longer answer: I only know of one language where sz is pronounced as we pronounce the letter s (and s is not pronounced as we do): Hungarian. If you want to show an s sound in Hungarian, you have to write it sz. So I speculate that the distinctive cuisine of Sichuan was introduced into the US by some native of famously foodie Hungary.

Much longer answer: Blame the Romans.

When the Roman Catholic countries of Europe (some later Protestant) sat down to invent written languages for themselves, they used the Roman alphabet. This was natural, because the literate class read Latin, which was the language of the Church. (Similarly, the Persians, being Muslims, adopted Arabic script. The Eastern Orthodox Russians, Ukrainians, and Serbs used Cyrillic; not so the Catholic Poles, Czechs and Croats.) But there's a problem with using language A's alphabet to write language B: there are generally some sounds in language B that language A (in this case Latin) lacks, and for which it therefore has no letters.

People tried various ways of representing the missing sounds, usually by modifying existing letters. English relied heavily on adding h.  Thus we have ship and chip, whose initial sh and ch sounds do not exist in Latin. For the same sounds Polish made use of the z, baffling future generations of English-speakers by writing sz and cz where we would use sh and ch.

Hungarian, for some reason, used an approach opposite to Polish. It used the letter s for the sound the Poles write sz. But then it used sz for the sound that most languages use s for. Thus we have the financier George Soros, whose name is pronounced Shorosh in his native Hungarian. And thus, perhaps, we have Szechuan.

A couple more points. First, German doesn't have a sound like the ch of chip. So it used ch for the sound at the end of Bach. When English-speakers needed to romanize the Cyrillic alphabet of  Russian, they faced the problem that Russian has both a Bach sound and a chip sound  So English romanizations use kh for the Bach sound. Hence, Chekhov.

Finally, many people are puzzled by the way Qs and Xs have suddenly started popping up in Chinese words. What's the deal with tai qi for t'ai chi? Pretty simple. Romanization of Chinese has always been technically complex. As a result, there are many competing systems floating around, which is confusing. The Chinese government has tried to solve this problem by decreeing the correct system. That system ended up enlisting some otherwise unnecessary letters to represent some of the familiar problem sounds. Thus, q is (roughly) the ch sound in chip, and x the sh sound in ship.

Next time maybe I'll answer the question, "Tomato: Vegetable or Fruit?" Probably not, though.

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