Yuen Ren Chao


Yuen Ren Chao

Infobox Writer
name = Yuen Ren Chao
birthdate = birth date|1892|11|3
birthplace = Tianjin, China
deathdate = death date and age|1982|2|25|1892|11|3
deathplace = Cambridge, Massachusetts
spouse = Buwei Yang Chao (1921-1981)
occupation = linguist, composer

Yuen Ren Chao (1892 – 1982) was a Chinese American linguist and amateur composer. He made important contributions to the modern study of Chinese phonology and grammar.

Besides helping to shape the Gwoyeu Romatzyh, a Chinese romanization scheme, Chao is also credited with inventing a notation for transcribing tonal pitch variation in spoken languages.

Biography

Born in Tianjin with ancestry in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, Chao went to the United States with a Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Scholarship in 1910 to study mathematics at Cornell University, switching to philosophy later. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from Harvard University.

Already in college, his interests had turned to music and languages. He spoke German and French fluently and some Japanese, and he had a reading knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin. He served as Bertrand Russell's interpreter when the renowned British philosopher visited China in 1920. In his "My Linguistic Autobiography", he wrote of his ability to pick up a Chinese dialect quickly, without much effort.

He returned to China in 1920, teaching at the Tsinghua University. One year later he returned to the United States to teach at Harvard. He again returned to China in 1925, teaching at Tsinghua. He began to conduct linguistic fieldwork throughout China for the Institute of History and Philology of Academia Sinica from 1928 onwards. During this period of time, he collaborated with Luo Changpei and Li Fanggui, the other two leading Chinese linguists of his generation, to edit and render into Chinese Bernhard Karlgren's monumental "Etudes sur la Phonologie Chinoise" (published in 1940).

He left for the US in 1938, and resided there afterwards. In 1945, he served as president of the Linguistic Society of America, and a special issue of the society's journal "Language" was dedicated to him in 1966. He became an American citizen in 1954. From 1947 to 1960, he taught at the University of California at Berkeley, where in 1952, he became Agassiz Professor Oriental Languages.

He was married to the physician Buwei Yang Chao, perhaps best known as author of "How to Cook and Eat in Chinese", a treatise on Chinese cuisine. Yuen Ren Chao offers his insights liberally throughout the book, offering glimpses into the kind of relationship they had together. Both were known for their good senses of humor, he particularly for his love of subtle jokes and language puns: they published a family history entitled, "Life with Chaos : the autobiography of a Chinese family".

Late in his life, he was invited by Deng Xiaoping to return to China. Chao and his wife returned to China in 1973 for the first time since the 1940s. He visited China again between May and June in 1981 after his wife passed away in March the same year. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His daughter Rulan Chao Pian (赵如兰/趙如蘭), born in 1922, is Professor Emerita of East Asian Studies and Music at Harvard.

Work

When in the US in 1921, Chao recorded the standard Mandarin pronunciation gramophone records distributed nationally, as proposed by Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation.

He is the author of one of the most important standard modern works on Chinese grammar, "A Grammar of Spoken Chinese" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), which was translated into Chinese separately by Lü Shuxiang (吕叔湘) in 1979 and by Ting Pang-hsin (丁邦新) in 1980. It was an expansion of the grammar chapters in his earlier textbooks, "Mandarin Primer" and "Cantonese Primer". He was co-author of the "Concise Dictionary of Spoken Chinese", which was the first dictionary to mark Chinese characters for being "bound" (only used in polysyllables) or "free" (permissible as a monosyllabic word).

His translation of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", where he tried his best to preserve all the word plays of the original, is still considered a classic.

He also wrote "The "Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den". This Chinese text consists of 92 characters, all with the sounds "shī", "shí", "shǐ" and "shì" (the diacritics indicate the four tones of Mandarin). When written out using Chinese characters the text can be understood, but it is incomprehensible when read out aloud, and therefore also incomprehensible on paper when written in romanized form. This example is often used as an argument against the romanization of Chinese. In fact, the text was an argument against the romanization of Classical Chinese and Chao was actually pro-romanization for writing modern vernacular Chinese (he was one of the designers of Gwoyeu Romatzyh).

His composition "How could I help thinking of her" (教我如何不想她 jiāo wǒ rúhé bù xiǎng tā) was a "pop hit" in the 1930s in China. The lyrics are by Liu Bannong, another linguist, who is famous for coining the Chinese feminine pronoun "ta" (她).

Chao translated "Jabberwocky" into Chinese by inventing characters to imitate what Rob Gifford describes as the "slithy toves that gyred and gimbled in the wabe of Carroll's original." [Gifford, Rob. "The Great Wall of the Mind." "China Road". 237.]

References

Further reading

* Yuen Ren Chao, "My Linguistic Autobiography", in "Aspects of Chinese Sociolinguistics: Essays by Yuen Ren Chao", pp.1-20, selected and introduced by Anwar S. Dil, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976.
* William S-Y. Wang, "Yuen Ren Chao", "Language", Vol. 59, No. 3 (Sep., 1983), pp. 605-607, [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0097-8507(198309)59%3A3%3C605%3AYRC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-U available] through JSTOR

External links

* [http://www.explore.cornell.edu/scene.cfm?scene=Wason%20Collection&stop=WC%20-%20Bio%20YR%20Chao&view=allViews Biography] at Cornell's site
* [http://content.cdlib.org/xtf/view?docId=hb8779p27v&brand=calisphere&doc.view=entire_text Chinese linguist, phonologist, composer and author, Yuen Ren Chao] , interview conducted by Rosemany Levenson, Bancroft Library
*zh icon [http://news.tsinghua.edu.cn/new/news.php?id=511 Chao's gallery] , with related essays, at Tsinghua's site
*zh icon [http://www.guoxue.com/master/zhaoyuanren/zhaoyuanren.htm Biography] at Guoxue
* [http://www.geocities.com/yuenrensociety/index.html Yuen Ren Society] for Chinese dialectology


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