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An Application of the Menzerath-Altmann Law to Contemporary Spoken Chinese

An Application of the Menzerath-Altmann Law to Contemporary Spoken Chinese

Martin Lavicka24 Jun 2015Leave a comment

Written by Tereza Motalová

ŠČIGULINSKÁ, Jana; SCHUSTEROVÁ, Denisa. An Application of the Menzerath-Altmann Law to Contemporary Spoken Chinese. Palacký University in Olomouc, First Published 2014, 129 p. ISBN 978-80-244-4192-4

The book published in 2014 under the title of The Application of the Menzerath-Altmann Law to Contemporary Spoken Chinese is written by two authors – Jana Ščigulinská (Kovaľová) and Denisa Schusterová, currently studying for a PhD degree at the Department of General Linguistics, Palacký University in Olomouc.  The book is written in English and it introduces quantitative linguistic research of the Chinese language by means of the Menzerath-Altmann law (hereafter referred to as MAL).

The MAL represents a famous language law which is based on the assumption that between two language units, i.e. a construct on a higher language level and its constituent on the immediately nearest lower level, exists a mutual relationship of inverse proportionality which can be expressed as follows (Altmann, 1980, p. 124): The longer a language construct is, the shorter its constituents are.

Until now, the linguists have put emphasis mostly on surveying Indo-European languages, hence, as regards works dealing with analyses of languages of other language families, especially the Chinese language, their present amount is insufficient. Apart from the reviewed book which was preceded by the academic paper of the same title (Schusterová et al, 2013), there are only a few works focusing on the application of the MAL to Chinese, i.e. Quantitative Untersuchungen der modernen chinesischen Sprache und Schrift written by Hartmut Bohn in 1995, Untersuchungen zur chinesischen Sprache und Schrift written by the same author in 2002, An Application of the Menzerath-Altmann Law to Contemporary Written Chinese written by Tereza Motalová et al in 2013 (academic paper) and 2014 (book). Moreover, the book written by J. Ščigulinská (Kovaľová) and D. Schusterová can also be considered as a unique publication in the field of quantitative linguistics because, unlike the research published in the above mentioned works, it investigated the spoken form of the Chinese language.

As for the content, aside from the Introduction and Conclusion, the book is divided into six chapters. The first Chapter titled Mathematical Linguistics is devoted to the brief introduction of this discipline and one of its main streams, i.e. quantitative linguistics, to which the MAL belongs. Hence, the authors put emphasis on the historical and theoretical background of the quantitative linguistics here.

In the following chapter titled The Menzerath-Altmann Law readers can firstly learn about the history of the law from its emergence in 1928 to its development after the 1980s when linguists started to again be interested in it. Secondly, the chapter provides readers with information about mathematical expressions of the law as well as with information about its basic features. The authors also examine in detail the concepts of the construct and the constituent as well as their mutual relationship, main tasks of the research and methodological problems related to definitions of language units.

Because the conducted research was aimed at the analysis of the spoken form of the Chinese language, the third chapter – Segmentation of a Spoken Text – is concerned with theoretical properties of spoken texts as objects of quantitative linguistic research. First of all, the basic characteristics and differences between the types of spoken texts are described. Next, the authors precisely delineate general definitions and characterizations of the language units for the verbal speech, namely phoneme, syllable, stress unit, statement and utterance. Due to the focus on the survey of the Chinese language, the authors appropriately mention not only the language units based on the European linguistic tradition, but also language units which correspond to special features of Chinese and which were created by the prominent sinologist Oldřich Švarný. These language units, such as colon (kólon), segment and syllable, are firstly described and secondly compared with the preceding European concepts. The theoretical background of the spoken texts is also supplemented by the subchapter about the rhythm of Chinese speech. At the end of the chapter the authors clarify which definitions of the language units were used in the research.

In the case where research focuses on spoken language, an appropriate way to transform samples into their written forms has to be chosen. This aspect represents the topic of the following fourth chapter under the title Variety in Transcriptions. The authors firstly describe options which are available for transcription of Chinese speech into the Roman alphabet. Next, the usage of two options (namely the transcription created by O. Švarný, hereafter referred to as the Czech transcription, and the official standard Chinese transcription pinyin) are discussed and compared in the following subchapters from the point of view of individual aspects and features (e.g. consonants, triphthongs, etc.).

The demonstration of the outcomes obtained by the research and their following interpretation form the core of the book under the title Demonstration of Results and the Following Discussion. The authors provide readers with basic information about the research and its methodology, which is followed by a section that presents the results from the highest language level to the lowest language level. The outcomes are discussed and interpreted in the individual subchapters. For easier reference, they are also demonstrated by tables, which contain data gained from quantification of the samples and statistical processing, and by graphs, which visualize the relationship of inverse proportionality between language units on respective levels.

In addition, the authors performed an experiment by means of which they wanted to show how the results could change in connection with different methodologies. The experiment is based not only on statistical treatment such as omitting observations with the lowest frequency, but also on excluding one language level. As in the case of the previous chapter, the outcomes gained by the experiment are demonstrated by tables and graphs, and they are subsequently discussed and interpreted.

It should be noted that apart from the above described parts, the book also contains an author’s note, bibliographical references, an index and five appendices. The first appendix shows three different types of transcription of all Chinese syllables (i.e. pinyin, Czech transcription and the Wale-Giles transcription). All the three analysed samples transcribed into the Czech transcription are given in the following appendices (2–4). The last appendix demonstrates segmentation of the samples according to the selected language units on all levels.

From the point of view of the content, the division of the book An Application of the Menzerath-Atlmann Law to Contemporary Spoken Chinese into the chapters can be regarded as reasonable and the sequence of the chapters as logical. It is desirable firstly to introduce the research using the MAL in the context of the respective linguistic discipline, i.e. quantitative linguistics, as well as to introduce the law itself. The law is primarily used to verify the validity of the mutual relationships between respective language units, hence, their definition should be precisely determined and described as in this case. The authors provide readers not only with the general concepts of language units, but also with particular definitions considering the special features of the Chinese language. Therefore, the book is very complete from this perspective as well as in the case of introduction and comparison of transcriptions by means of which samples can be transcribed for the purpose of the research. The core chapter – Demonstration of Results and following Discussion – is also logically divided into subchapters according to the individual language level on which validity of mutual relationships was testified. In addition, the chosen methodology was verified through an alternative approach within the last chapter. The fact that the authors took into consideration factors which might have influenced the results and subsequently performed other experiments is also highly valuable. A great idea was to enclose the appendices in order to demonstrate differences between the transcriptions as well as to show the transcribing of all the samples and their segmentation.

The book introduces the research which is probably the first of its kind in the field of quantitative linguistics, hence it can be considered as a pilot study. It can be concluded that the book has made a valuable contribution towards quantitative linguistics because firstly it has increased the amount of Chinese samples to which the MAL has been applied, and secondly it has laid the foundations of the research focusing on the application of the MAL to spoken Chinese.

Bibliographical references:

ALTMANN, Gabriel. Prolegomena to Menzerath’s Law. Glottometrics 2, 1980, pp. 124–129.

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