17 January 2004

Asian Acronyms: Did you teach at GWYX or at Guangwai?

Discriminating linguists sometimes distinguish between acronyms pronounced as if they were a word, like NATO and UNICEF; and initialisms pronounced as a series of letters, like IBM or the UN. This distinction breaks down in orthographies that write whole syllables at a time, like Chinese.

In Chinese, for instance, acronyms are composed of the initial syllabic characters of (usually) two-syllable words. So, Peking (= Beijing) University, or Beijing Daxue [lit. 'NorthCapital BigSchool'] becomes Beida [lit. 'NorthBig']. In Korean, Korea University, or Koryo Taehak [lit. 'HighBeautiful BigSchool'] becomes Kodae [lit. 'HighBig']. In Japanese, it's a bit more complicated. Chinese characters can be pronounced not just in their Chinese loan forms, but as native Japanese words that mean (more or less) the same thing. This is what makes Japanese far and away the most complex, least efficient writing system on earth. In either case, each character is usually pronounced as two syllables, since Japanese had to add final vowels to one-syllable Chinese roots in order to pronounce any final consonants, most of which have been lost in modern Mandarin Chinese. (The same thing happens to current Japanese borrowings from English: ranchi < lunch, setto < set, beisubouru < baseball, and so on.) So the acronym for Hiroshima University, or Hiroshima Daigaku [lit. 'WideIsland BigSchool'] becomes HiroDai [lit. 'WideBig']. The name Hiroshima is native Japanese (the Sino-Japanese pronunciation would be Koutou = Ch. Guangdao), but Daigaku is Sino-Japanese [= Ch. Daxue].

After China adopted the supplementary Latin-based alphabetic pinyin writing system, which is increasingly used in computer input, you could begin to see alphabetic abbreviations, some of them rather alarming and most of them quite unpronounceable. Very few Chinese syllables start with vowels: a- is not uncommon, but e- and o- are rare, and i- and u- are nonexistent. Even worse, initial q-, x-, y-, and z- are way too common.

So, if you were to take the first pinyin letter of each syllable, Guangzhou Foreign Language Institute would be abbreviated GZWGYYXY < GuangZhou WaiGuo YuYan XueYuan [lit. 'WideState OutCountry SpeechTalk LearnYard']. You would do better to take the first letter of each two-syllable word rather than the first letter of every single syllable, in which case the same school would end up as GWYX < Guangzhou Waiguo Yuyan Xueyuan [lit. 'Guangzhou Foreign Language Institute']. However, most Chinese acronyms are more economical than that. The common name for this particular school was equivalent to "GuangFor" (Guangzhou Foreign), namely, GuangWai [lit. 'WideOut']. (It has now merged into GDUFS, the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, which would still qualify for the acronym GuangWai in Chinese. The unfortunate English acronym must certainly be guh-doofs.)

These syllabic acronyms aren't unique to Chinese. Indonesian (or Malay) uses a Latin-based alphabetic writing system, but is chock full of syllabic as well as alphabetic acronyms (and initialisms). Acronyms seem to proliferate under big bureaucracies--especially if the military has a free hand. Examples of syllabic acronyms in Indonesian include the names of provinces like Sulsel < Sulawesi Selatan ['south'], Sulut < Sulawesi Utara ['north'], and Sulteng < Sulawesi Tengah ['central'] on the island of Sulawesi (Celebes); schools like UnHas < Universitas Hasanuddin in Sulawesi and UnPatti < Universitas Pattimura in Maluku (Molucca); and terms like tapol < tahanan politik ['political prisoner'].

UPDATE: Like Japanese and Korean, Vietnamese used to be written in Chinese characters and has lots of Chinese loanwords. Judging from the website of Vietnam National University - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnamese seem to abbreviate by taking the first letter of each separately written syllable. Thus, (ignoring diacritics) Dai hoc Quoc gia Thanh pho Ho Chi Minh [lit. 'University National City Ho Chi Minh'] is abbreviated DHQG-HCM. Ho Chi Minh City is also abbreviated TP.HCM, which I'm pretty sure is often pronounced Saigon. Otherwise, I don't have a clue how these abbreviations are pronounced.

FURTHER UPDATE: Korean usage of taehak seems to be diverging from that of its cognates in Japanese (daigaku) and Chinese (daxue). While each term applies to a variety of institutions of tertiary education, Korean now distinguishes between taehak 'college' and taehakkyo 'university' very much along the lines of American usage. Taehakkyo indicates a larger institution that offers graduate education. So Kodae now stands for Koryo Taehakkyo, as the Chinese characters and Korean title on their homepage shows. I don't think the cognate forms, Jp. daigakkou and Ch. daxuexiao, even exist, much less serve a similar function.

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