Numbo Zhongo

What’s the Chinese obsession with numbers all about?

August 22, 2013admin 6 Comments »
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6 Responses to this entry

  • Handle Says:

    I wish I could get a clean copy of that memo – too bad NYT is reporting on it, but not with it.

    I would guess that the Chinese government numbers things for the same reasons all gigantic, highly-organized bureaucracies, militaries, etc. obsessively number documents and everything. For the sake of reference, organization, recall, data collection and analysis. Aviation and Air Forces are notable for preferring their numeric designation to verbal nicknames (not true in the Navy and only sometimes in the Army, where there is a weakness for non-nonsensical acronyms). High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle becomes HMMWV becomes ‘Hum Vee’.

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    admin Reply:

    There are lots of plausible suggestions in the comments thread over there, and I suspect the ‘true’ answer amalgamates several. Certainly, the fact that Chinese lacks plurals has to be one important factor.

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    Posted on August 22nd, 2013 at 10:46 am Reply | Quote
  • spandrell Says:

    Japanese lacks plural too, but it doesn’t have quite as many numerical idioms as Chinese.

    There’s the funny fact that interrogatives and undeterminates are identical.

    Several: 几个
    How many?: 几个

    Chinese has hands down the best numerical system of all human languages. No wonder they like to use it.

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    admin Reply:

    Best, yes probably, beautifully logical, but marred by the whole si / shi near-homophony (a special killer with a Shanghainese accent).

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    spandrell Reply:

    That’s recent, and an artifact of the half-assed imposition of Mandarin to the South.

    4 and 10 are easily distinguishable in actual Shanghainese, as in most dialects.

    I wonder people for whom Lazy Mandarin is their native language do mental calculation. Saying 44 must be a drag. I guess they really stress the tones. I know people from Taipei do so.

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    C. Y. Chen Reply:

    Anecdotally, my Mandarin was (is) always quite awkward and had a strong southern accent, since I never had contact with any Chinese speakers other than my parents, who hail from Fuzhou.

    Their accent generally made it very difficult for me to guess whether a syllable’s initial was supposed to be alveolar or retroflex (e.g. s/sh, z/zh, c/ch) or if a final was /ŋ/ or /n/, which is a complete pain in the ass when trying to using pinyin.

    I’ve definitely heard emphasis on the different tones when southerners speak. Maybe the fact that the Fuzhou dialect has seven tones facilitated that for my family.

    Posted on August 22nd, 2013 at 11:56 am Reply | Quote

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