The world outside the restaurant’s windows, beyond words in a red plastic Cantonese neither of them could read, was the color of a silver coin, misplaced for decades in a drawer. One guess whose new book I’m reading.

[The commenters are correct.]

[Update:] Isn’t this dubious, linguistically? Perhaps someone Chinese-literate could offer an opinion. I thought that written Chinese was independent of Cantonese and Mandarin and so on. Or could one imagine a commercial sign that was obviously, at a glance, Cantonese?


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From: Martin (Aug 11 2007, at 01:48)

William Gibson?


From: abo (Aug 11 2007, at 01:54)

Sounds like the beginning of Neuromancer. But in Neuromancer the sky was the color of a broken TV set. Since Gibson's latest is set nowadays, this must be his new book?


From: Ola Bini (Aug 11 2007, at 01:59)

That sounds extremely much like William Gibson. Please do tell me if it's good... I'm generally scared of books with the word "spook" in the title.


From: lgmars (Aug 11 2007, at 02:17)

err... "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."



From: Giulio Piancastelli (Aug 11 2007, at 02:38)

William Gibson?


From: Andreas Schödl (Aug 11 2007, at 02:55)

Mh, "Spook Country" by William Gibson?


From: Dan (Aug 11 2007, at 04:16)

I'm no expert, but it sounds like it could be Murakami to me?


From: Sophie (Aug 11 2007, at 04:52)

Spook country ?


From: Richard (Aug 11 2007, at 04:54)

Spook Country by William Gibson?

I bought it this afternoon - haven't cracked it open yet...


From: Phil (Aug 11 2007, at 07:59)

William Gibson? (and no I didn't use Google if that is the case, it just kinda sounds like his style as I remember it)


From: Dan Steingart (Aug 11 2007, at 10:28)

Perhaps he's using Cantonese interchangeably with Chinese, and simply describing the fact that many characters, as they don't have direct phonetics, lose their meaning from lack of use and thusly become "unpronounceable" by successive generations.

I know this is true in Japan (there are game shows where people have to figure how to pronounce "lost" kanji), and I've been told the same of Taiwan and mainland China.


From: Sophie (Aug 11 2007, at 11:15)

According to Wikipedia, some written forms have been developed for Cantonese... But I don't know if Gibson researched that or just used the word Cantonese to set the mood.


From: Tom Welsh (Aug 11 2007, at 11:32)

You're quite right about the Cantonese point. Gibson nods. But then hasn't he always written about things he didn't necessarily know much about? I remember reading that when he wrote Neuromancer, he had never even seen a real modem.


From: Randy Hudson (Aug 11 2007, at 11:49)

I had thought the same thing about written Chinese, but the Wikipedia page on 'Written Cantonese' points out a number of differences. It's unclear from the description whether these differences would show up on a restaurant sign.


From: John Cowan (Aug 11 2007, at 12:08)

"Or could one imagine a commercial sign that was obviously, at a glance, Cantonese?"

Possible but not probable, is the short answer. Here's a medium-length version of the answer, with a few pointers:

Classical Chinese is indeed completely independent of the various Sinitic languages; indeed, if you read a passage of Classical Chinese out loud, the result is completely unintelligible. There is a famous poem -- see -- composed as a joke, which is perfectly clear in written form but when spoken in Mandarin involves 92 syllables all pronounced identically (though in different tones). In other Sinitic languages, there is somewhat more variation between the syllables, but the poem is still gibberish when spoken.

However, in a gradual process beginning in the mid-19th century and ending in the late 1920s, the Chinese gave up Classical Chinese as their written medium of expression and began to write in Mandarin, in the same sense that Americans write in American English -- there are differences between the spoken and written varieties, but they are not large. See for details. That left the other languages out in the cold; it was possible to read Mandarin texts using a different language, but it would be rather painful and often produce more or less ungrammatical results, about like reading a French text out loud word by word -- in Spanish.

The reverse problem, writing the non-Mandarin languages using machinery designed for Classical Chinese and then adapted to write Mandarin only, was even worse. There are plenty of words in Cantonese which have no exact Mandarin equivalents. When it was necessary to write down Cantonese directly (for example, in song lyrics), a variety of expedients were employed, including using a standard character of similar meaning or similar sound, and in extremis making up new characters.

Many of the characters invented for Cantonese were eventually standardized by the Hong Kong government, and now appear in Unicode. If one of them appears in a text, it is ipso facto Cantonese. What is more, although the syntax of the Sinitic languages are all very similar, there are some characteristic differences, notably the tendency to place adjectives after nouns in Cantonese, and the tendency to place direct objects before indirect objects in Shanghainese. So the appearance of a strange character or a weird word order may subtly signal that a text is in fact not Mandarin.

However, this disregards the fact that the Chinese government has been trying for more than 50 years to get everyone to learn Mandarin, since that is more or less a prerequisite for literacy. Mandarin is not taught explicitly as a second language; it's more a matter of using the local language in early grades of school, then gradually switching to instruction in Mandarin. Students are expected to pick up the standard language by osmosis. Consequently, it strikes me as unlikely that anyone would actually write a commercial sign in Cantonese: the equation "writing = Mandarin" is pretty firmly entrenched.

The first half of Robert Ramsey's book _The Languages of China_ tells, in an accessible style, all you need to know about all these matters and many more.


From: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward (Aug 11 2007, at 15:57)

While many can quote: "The sky above the port....." fewer can remember this one: "He never saw Molly again."



From: SusanJ (Aug 11 2007, at 18:56)

Highly recommended:

As is the blog:


From: Didier (Aug 11 2007, at 19:36)

Last Friday, in Canton/Guangzhou/Gwongjau's East train station, I saw an official sign written in Cantonese -- probably unconsciously, since the ChiComs frown on the use of dialects, even when, like in this city, it's the lingua franca. Not that there would have been a lot of difference in that case in Mandarin, since the sign was short. But the final "thank you for your cooperation" read 多謝合作, a dead give-away.

However, I doubt that a restaurant sign would stand out as Cantonese, unless it was, for some odd reason, vernacular spoken Cantonese written down.


From: lgmars (Aug 12 2007, at 02:01)

written Cantonese and written Mandarin vary very little in semantics but quite a bit in forms (of individual characters).

Traditional Chinese characters are used in written Cantonese while written Mandarin uses Simplified Chinese characters.

eg. 網頁 (Traditional Chinese) = 网页(Simplified Chinese) = Webpage.


From: Danny (Aug 12 2007, at 04:06)

They are presumably looking out through the window, and usually the words on restaurant windows are there to be read from the outside. So here's another interpretation : they couldn't read *mirror-image* Cantonese. Occam and all that. (Somewhat less likey - they suffered red-grey colourblindness ;-)


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