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Chinese Typewriters



The most agonizingly complex language that I've ever tried to learn is OT Hebrew, which (among other challenges) expresses vowel intonations through a vast variety of tick marks, jots, and tittles surrounding the consonants. These are not constant; rather, the meaning of the different markings varies depending upon the order of the letter within the word, order within the syllable, the nature of the preceding consonant and the following consonant, and all possible combinations thereof. But I gather that Hebrew is comparatively simple to Mandarin. As a necessary result of that complexity, Mandarin typewriters are sophisticated machines:

As you can see, the typewriter is extremely complicated and cumbersome. The main tray — which is like a typesetter's font of lead type — has about two thousand of the most frequent characters. Two thousand characters are not nearly enough for literary and scholarly purposes, so there are also a number of supplementary trays from which less frequent characters may be retrieved when necessary. What is even more intimidating about a Chinese typewriter is that the characters as seen by the typist are backwards and upside down! Add to this challenging orientation the fact that the pieces of type are tiny and all of a single metallic shade, it becomes a maddening task to find the right character. But that is not all, since there is also the problem of the principle (or lack thereof) upon which the characters are ordered in the tray. By radical? By total stroke count? Both of these methods would result in numerous characters under the same heading. By rough frequency? By telegraph code? Unfortunately, nobody seems to have thought to use the easiest and most user-friendly method of arranging the characters according to their pronunciation.


Link via Geekosystem | Photo: Victor Mair

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For those in the Bay Area, I would like to invite you to my upcoming talk on the Chinese typewriter. More information here: http://thechinesetypewriter.wordpress.com/2011/04/30/technologies-of-anticipation-how-chinese-typists-invented-predictive-text-during-the-height-of-maoism/
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Couple of issues:

There is no 'Mandarin typewriters'. Mandarin is a dialect. You can have Traditional Chinese typewriters, Simplified Chinese typewriters, or even more generally, 'Chinese typewriters' but you can't have a Mandarin typewriter.

Moreover, in terms of Chinese dialects, Mandarin is one of the relatively easier one to learn. It generally only has 4 tones while other dialects, such as the also popular Cantonese have up to 9 tones.

Also arranging my pronunciation would not make any sense. The same written Chinese is shared between many different dialects, all with different pronunciation of the same characters. Moreover, even within the same dialect, a single character might have multiple different pronunciation, based on its context and might also have alternate pronunciations for the same context.
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When I look at that photo, I see Jerry Lewis playing one of his goofy professor types with huge buck teeth and coke bottle glasses, making weird noises and spazzing out as he types one character a minute.
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