Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Terminology Troubles

Reach Mahjong Columns' Garthe was writing about the Japanese mahjong hand pinfu (平和 Mandarin pínghé, usually pronounced pínghú, at least here in Singapore) when the use of the term Peace was questioned by Tina Christensen of Mahjong Denmark. The Chinese term 平和 means "peace" but few people would think of it as peace literally. Tina's comment basically released an avalanche of opinions regarding the creation and use of new (but non-standard) terms in English. It also prompted this blog entry about terminology.

Mahjong terminology has always been a thorny issue for mahjong players, new or veteran. Most casual players really just want to play mahjong and not care about whether the terms they use are accurate, or what they really mean.

For experienced players teaching new players mahjong, which terminology should they use? If the new player does not have any background in Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese or other major dialects) or Japanese, does it make sense to use terminology of Chinese/Japanese origin?

The good folks at Reach Mahjong Columns have taken the approach of using new English terms as substitutes for the original Sino-Japanese and Japanese terminology. An example would be bump instead of pung (碰 Mandarin pèng, Japanese pon).

Now, pung (like chow and kong) are considered standard mahjong terms in English. Standard in the sense that many mahjong books published have used these spellings (for example, Millington's The Complete Book of Mah-Jongg, 1977), and these terms should be quite familiar to most mahjong players all over the world. Also, these 'standard' terms still bear resemblance to their Asian counterparts, and when playing with Asian mahjong players, there would be little confusion over the use of these terms during actual play.

However, are new terms like bump a good idea? It is hard to say. On one hand, new players may find it easier to learn the game without having to learn new terms in a different language. On the other hand, once these new terms are learnt, players may be resistant to unlearn them and learn the 'correct' original terms. This poses the problem of communicability in a globalised environment. It is no longer so difficult to find websites about obscure topics. Websites about different variants of mahjong are now available. If all sorts of different terms are invented for common concepts in mahjong, will there be confusion where none should exist in the first place?


Benjamin said...

I think you cover the subject very well. In this discussion, I like to side with precedent. I don't like using English terms myself, but I think if we're going to use them we ought to use ones that are already in wide use. The unfortunate thing about 's translations is that some people don't know that there aren't the first ones; other translations that have been around for quite awhile.

Of course, getting more people to play is much more important that quibbling about terminology and is doing a great job of getting people to play.

It'll be interesting to see where the discussion goes.

Anonymous said...

Firstly, regarding using "peace" to identify the pinfu hand. I cannot say for certain in Japanese, but I have always interpreted the Chinese version of 平和 differently.In Chinese, 和平 will mean peace. But changing the sequence of the words to 平和in my opinion means something like "sequential hu", 平 in this case refers to making sequences (chow sets), and because you can only take tiles from your left hand player, probably also indicates one directional playing sequence, so 平, since nothing happens out of sequence during the making of this hand. I can't identify any context in Chinese for the use of 平和 to mean "peace". But I am not sure about Japanese though.

Secondly, I have nothing against new English translations as long as the players who coin these are aware of the background and context of the original terms and the new terms reflect this. I think one would find it extremely hard to come up with new terms/translations in the first place if that was taken into consideration.


EP said...

The usual term for peace is indeed 和平 in (Mandarin?) Chinese. I believe Japanese does use both 和平 and 平和 to mean 'peace' with slight differences in nuance.

But what I actually meant was the Sino-Japanese term (as used by Garthe), rather than the original Chinese term. However, I believe most Chinese reading 'Peace Hand' are likely to guess that Garthe was referring to 平和, even if it is not literally the same as 和平, partly because both characters carry the same meanings ('harmony' and 'peace') and inversion does not give a separate meaning.

It is difficult to say for sure why an All Chows hand is named 平和, but your explanation does seem quite plausible. Archon Wing also did suggest in the comments to Garthe's post on Reach Mahjong Columns that a 平和 hand is a 'flat' hand, a hand without any points (this is a feature in Chinese Classical scoring), which is equally plausible.

I really should write another post about 平和!

Benjamin said...

平和 is the most common word for peace in Japanese. Although 和平 can also be used, I've never heard is colloquially.

平和 is always pronounced "pinfu" in the context of Japanese mahjong as it is a transliteration, never "heiwa," as the Japanese word is. I think most people accept that the meaning of "pinfu" is independent of the meaning of "heiwa," although if you can read Japanese it is easy to recognize they are written the same.

Archon Wing's explanation of "flat hand" might refer to the old site set up by Ryan Morris where he used that term to refer to pinfu. This is probably the most accurate explanation of why pinfu uses those characters. "和" definitely means "win" and "平" is probably equivalent to "flat/even" or basically no points, here referring to "fu" or minipoints. While this explanation isn't 100% definite, it seems to make the most sense out of any other I've heard. While "平" might be referring to sequences, a separate character is used for sequences (shuntsu) in all other Japanese Mahjong terms (look up
"jun" in sanshoku dou "jun") so I don't think that's the case.

On an interesting note, Ryan is also the person who created the official terms for MCR. The "pinfu" term for those rules is "all chows," a basic but easy to understand term. (Yes, it's not the same hand, but its very similar and the term could just as easily be used as the 'all chows' hand in MCR needs more than just all chows)

I agree with JT that development of new terms should be justified and reflect an understanding of what's already out there. I'm not certain took this into consideration; from looking at their contributers' posts it seems that they believe their terms are the only English ones out there.

Anonymous said...

Hi, EP,

I just wanted to point out that part in your original post that caused me some confusion.

You mentioned that the Chinese term "平和" means peace. It doesn't. Its "和平" that means peace. Hence, the reason why I have given my interpretation of the Chinese "平和" term, but I think Archon Wing's might be more accurate. However, the Japanese term "平和" (heiwa) does mean peace in the normal context. I asked my sister regarding the use of "和平" to mean peace in Japanese, and she said its never used.

So yup, I was a bit confused when I read your original post.

I've often lamented to my sister jokingly regarding the adoption of Chinese words into the Japanese language. Why did they have to change everything around? Probably to confuse all the Chinese. Even my sister has problems with her Kanji sometimes.

ReachMahjong's concern is getting the game out to new players who have never played the game in their whole lives. Hence, the new English translations may help. But what about players like us, who have been playing other variants for some time and want to try something new? These players make up no small numbers, especially in the Asian regions. It's already a chore to remember the new rules. Having new terms to remember would definitely put some off. It definitely took me some time to get used to the use of "chows", dragons" etc after the years of using Chinese/Mandarin terms more or less exclusively in the Singapore variant.


EP said...

There is always this confusion between "Chinese terms" and "Japanese terms". Japanese majan uses many Chinese terms (hence, Sino-Japanese), based on kanji which may or may not be altered, as in the case of 和平 and 平和. In other cases, there are specifically Japanese terms (usually rendered in katakana) such as furiten and dora, which do not seem to have equivalent terms in Chinese, i.e. in kanji.

In the cases where there are kanji as the bases of the Japanese terms, I tend to think of these as Chinese (whether accurate or not), hence resulting in the slight confusion over 平和 in the post I wrote.

Anyway, this post on terminology has to be taken in context as well, with reference to Garthe's usage of 'Peace Hand'. It is perhaps most appropriate for Japanese majan since 平和 does mean 'peace' in Japanese while it has no general meaning in Mandarin Chinese (I cannot say for other Chinese languages).

Yet, a Chinese player would probably guess that the 'Peace Hand' as used by Garthe refers to 平和 (pínghé), although some players who learned by ear may not (after all, 平和 is generally pronounced as pínghú). Non-Chinese/Japanese players may not readily recognise the connection, since they would not know the languages involved.

That said, even if we did learn Chinese terms in the Singapore variant (rather patchily, in fact), the terms we do know may not translate well. For example, the Dragon tiles are usually learnt as 红中白板发财 (though I prefer 青发 to 发财, for consistency) in Singapore, but most people do not actually know the 'standard' general/group term(s) 三元牌 or 箭牌. Of course, the literal translations would be rather different from "Dragons".

Anonymous said...

Hi, EP,

I was just reading past threads in the news-group. Found this one started by Jesse, regarding the issue of terminology in Cofa's IMJ. IMO, his argument, to a certain extent, also applies to this situation of coining new terminology at ReachMahjong. It's what I have been thinking all along, just never really managed to put it as nicely as Jesse did.

Can't figure out the tags to link the above, so you have to copy and paste the address into the browser.

EP said...

I have converted your link to IMJ, the loss of culture from MJ, which is easier for others to access directly.

Indeed, this is a relevant example about problematic new English terminology. So, Reach Mahjong Columns' new terminology is but the most recent occurence of new terminology in English.