Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hundreds of ways

New York Times, May 14, 2010

Search Engine of the Song Dynasty

BAIDU.COM, the popular search engine often called the Chinese Google,
got its name from a poem written during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
The poem is about a man searching for a woman at a busy festival,
about the search for clarity amid chaos. Together, the Chinese
characters băi and dù mean "hundreds of ways," and come out of the
last lines of the poem: "Restlessly I searched for her thousands,
hundreds of ways./ Suddenly I turned, and there she was in the
receding light."

Baidu, rendered in Chinese, is rich with linguistic, aesthetic and
historical meaning. But written phonetically in Latin letters (as I
must do here because of the constraints of the newspaper medium and so
that more American readers can understand), it is barely anchored to
the two original characters; along the way, it has lost its precision
and its poetry.

As Web addresses increasingly transition to non-Latin characters as a
result of the changing rules for domain names, that series of Latin
letters Chinese people usually see at the top of the screen when they
search for something on Baidu may finally turn into intelligible
words: "a hundred ways."

Of course, this expansion of languages for domain names could lead to
confusion: users seeking to visit Web sites with names in a script
they don't read could have difficulty putting in the addresses, and
Web browsers may need to be reconfigured to support non-Latin
characters. The previous system, with domain names composed of
numbers, punctuation marks and Latin letters without accents, promoted
standardization, wrangling into consistency and simplicity one small
part of the Internet. But something else, something important, has
been lost.

Part of the beauty of the Chinese language comes from a kind of
divisibility not possible in a Latin-based language. Chinese is
composed of approximately 20,000 single-syllable characters, 10,000 of
which are in common use. These characters each mean something on their
own; they are also combined with other characters to form hundreds of
thousands of multisyllabic words. Níhăo, for example, Chinese for
"Hello," is composed of ní — "you," and hăo — "good." Isn't "You good"
— both as a statement and a question — a marvelous and strangely
precise breakdown of what we're really saying when we greet someone?

The Romanization of Chinese into a phonetic system called Pinyin,
using the Latin alphabet and diacritics (to indicate the four
distinguishing tones in Mandarin), was developed by the Chinese
government in the 1950s. Pinyin makes the language easier to learn and
pronounce, and it has the added benefit of making Chinese characters
easy to input into a computer. Yet Pinyin, invented for ease and
standards, only represents sound. In Chinese, there are multiple
characters with the exact same sound. The sound "băi," for example,
means 100, but it can also mean cypress, or arrange. And "Baidu,"
without diacritics, can mean "a failed attempt to poison" or "making a
religion of gambling." In the case of, the word, in Latin
letters, has slipped away from its original context and meaning, and
been turned into a brand.

Language is such a basic part of our lives, it seems ordinary and
transparent. But language is strange and magical, too: it dredges up
history and memory; it simultaneously bestows and destabilizes
meaning. Each of the thousands of languages spoken around the world
has its own system and rules, its own subversions, its own quixotic
beauty. Whenever you try to standardize those languages, whether on
the Internet, in schools or in literature, you lose something. What we
gain in consistency costs us in precision and beauty.

When Chinese speakers Baidu (like Google, it too is a verb), we look
for information on the Internet using a branded search engine. But
when we see the characters for băi dù, we might, for one moment,
engage with the poetry of our language, remember that what we are
really trying to do is find what we were seeking in the receding
light. Those sets of meanings, layered like a palimpsest, might appear
suddenly, where we least expect them, in the address bar at the top of
our browsers. And in some small way, those words, in our own
languages, might help us see with clarity, and help us to make sense
of the world.

Ruiyan Xu is the author of the forthcoming novel "The Lost and
Forgotten Languages of Shanghai."