“對簿公堂” vs. “對薄公堂”

I promised my friend Silver to write a post in reply to hers, my apologies to Silver in delaying this post for almost three months. Good or bad, here it is.

“對簿公堂” vs. “對薄公堂”

“Absolute” World

In an “absolute” world, things are set in stone and they never change with the times. And when a student is graded in an exam by her/his teacher, well, whatever way the teacher taught according to published materials (books, dictionaries, etc) will be the “right” and “correct” way to answer.

But in the world outside of classrooms, “living” languages like English, Chinese, French (as opposed to “dead” languages like Mayan) that are actively used by people, will and do evolve with time.

“Relative” World

If we accept that languages belong to the “relative” category like our physical world (thanks to Einstein), then allow me to draw some insights from some examples in our real world.

In a pseudo-random sample of news items returned by Google News when searching “對簿公堂” vs. “對薄公堂”, I found 133 news items returned for “對簿公堂”, and 34 news items returned for “對薄公堂”.

Chinese-Phrase-1

Chinese-Phrase-2

In a pseudo-random total sample space of 167 news items (133 + 34), there are 80% of news articles using the supposedly “right” expression of “對簿公堂”, when 20% are using the supposedly “wrong” expression of “對薄公堂”. I don’t know about others, but to me, 34 articles are not a small number.

Concluding thoughts

It is easy to claim the moral high ground and simply relying on the “authorities” and published books to say “this is right and that is wrong”.

But, in my humble view, if we look further ahead, than one may want to prepare for the day when the news search counts change. What if the news count rise from the current “80% vs 20%” to “50% vs 50%” or even “40% vs 60%”?

Some Chinese scholars may never want to change. But I can’t ignore the changes in spelling between British English spellings and American English spellings. Shall we declare the British English correct and American English wrong? Or is it more sensible to include both spellings of a word in a dictionary?

At the end of the day, the purpose of languages are to communicate. The spelling of English words evolve with time. Applying the same logic, I think the writing of some Chinese words should evolve with time too.

What do you think?

5 Responses to “對簿公堂” vs. “對薄公堂”

  1. Here are my thoughts:

    I would agree with you that languages evolve and that if the majority of the users are using the “wrong” spelling for a long period of time, then the “wrong” will eventually becomes the “right”. For example: I still write「每週一聚」and not 「每周一聚」because in my opinion the former is “more” correct. However, I would not say the latter is incorrect.

    I apply the same idea to French. Here in Canada, we say “la fin de semaine” while I was told in France, they use the anglicized form “le weekend”. I personally do not use the latter in any formal or informal communications with friends and colleagues. I have no objection if people use “le weekend” in casual conversations, as long as they don’t use it in any official publications.

    Language is part of a society or country’s culture and users will always have strong opinions as to how much it should be preserved and to what extent it should be allowed to evolve. In the absence of state interference (such as language police), only time can tell.

    • kempton says:

      Lots of the language stuff are personal preferences which are the driving force behind a living language.

      I like your example of 「每週一聚」vs 「每周一聚」. While you prefer the first but you won’t say the latter is wrong.

      At some point, if I suspect people who edit Chinese dictionaries will have to put (or at least seriously consider) putting different variations of the Chinese words into the dictionaries or they may run the risk of rendering their treasured tools obsolete.

      Thanks for sharing your thought.

  2. […] I thought it will be interesting to blog about English after writing about Chinese here and […]

  3. Shelly says:

    i agree with you that languages evolve over time, but your example of using American and British english spellings as a metaphor to right and wrong usage of words just doesn’t make much sense to me.

  4. kempton says:

    Hi Shelly,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Sorry my British English/American English metaphor didn’t work for you.

    I still think when two words, which are so close in their pen strokes, get misused for a long time, I would let the language evolve and rather see we adapting to its new ‘meaning”.

    The main goal of languages (spoken and written) are ultimately for communications and sharing of ideas. I am “flexible” when I see good reasons for being flexible.

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