Does Mandarin orthography ignore the difference between referential and metalinguistic uses of expressions?

In English and other European languages, words are written differently depending on whether they are used to name their referents or just to refer to themselves. The pronunciation is the same, but, in the latter case, they must be written in quotation marks. For example, in (1) the word “Luis” refers to me, whereas in (2) it refers to itself:

(1) Luis is a linguist.

(2) My name is “Luis”.

This distinction is very old and well motivated, since things and their names have different properties. Note that sentences (1) and (2) express sensible (and true) propositions, but sentences (3) and (4) do not: a word cannot be a linguist, and a name cannot be a person.

(3) *“Luis” is a linguist.

(4) *My name is Luis.

I have noticed, though, that my elementary Chinese textbooks do NOT distinguish between referential and self-referential uses of words. Unless they are simplifying things for the benefit of beginners, in Chinese, ‘Gong Yi Si is a linguist’ and ‘My name is “Gong Yi Si”’ would be, respectively, (5) and (6) with NO quotation marks around my name in the latter:

(5) 巩懿思是 语言学家焉

(6) 我 叫 巩懿思 (or, perhaps, 我 姓巩, 叫懿思)

I assume that “wo3 ming2zi shi4 gong3 yi2 si1”, where the subject is explicitly characterized as a name, not a person or thing, is also written WITHOUT quotation marks around 巩懿思, as in (7).

(7) 我名字是巩懿思

As a Western scholar, however, I would have expected (8), as I would write (2) rather than the non-sensical (4).

(8) 我名字是 “巩懿思”

Now, if educated Mandarin speakers write (5), (6), or (7) but NOT (8), I have a QUESTION:

Does Mandarin orthography simply IGNORE the difference between referential and self-referential (= 'metalinguistic') uses of words, or does it use SOME OTHER WAY to express it?

Thank you in advance.

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actually i've never seen quotation mark is used as 'My name is “Luis”' in english.

 (4) might be non-sensical in your language, but (6)& (7) are both right in Chinese.

As to the term "self-referential", could you please give me some more context? Thank you.

Thanks for your reply, zhangmei.

Let me first define "self-referential" (and apologise for my unconscious use of jargon!): An expression is self-referential when it is used to refer to itself.

For example, if you are writing about English grammar and you write that "book" is a count noun, you are using "book" to refer to the word, not to the object the word USUALLY denotes (= any member of the set of books): a book is NOT a count noun, :-).

Of course a word like "book" is also an object with its own properties. These include the pronunciation /buk/, the spelling "book", being a noun, being countable,.... meaning [BOOK], etc. Hence, sentences like ""book" is pronounced /buk/", "/buk/ is spelt "book"", "I have written "book" several times here", ""book" is a countable noun", or ""book" refers to the set of entities we call "books"" all express sensible and true propositions.

On the contrary, it is NOT a property of the WORD "book" to have six hundred pages, to cost fifty dollars, to weigh three pounds, to be a paperback, to have a blue jacket, to be printed in China, etc. Those are possible properties of the non-linguistic objects that "book" helps us refer to when we use the word to refer to book-objects rather than to itself.

When a word or expression is used self-referentially (= 'metalinguistically') that fact must be indicated SOMEHOW, and the way it is traditionally indicated by careful writers is the use of quotation marks, inverted commas, or, alternatively, cursive font (or simply a different font, now we all have sophisticated word processors).

The difference between referential (= normal) and self-referential (= metalinguistic) use is known in the West as well as to Indian grammarians since early mediaeval times, it has been exhaustively studied by modern philosophers of language like Tarski or Quine, and is strictly observed in carefully edited writings in all Western languages. This is as should be, because not making that distinction leads to preposterous logical conclusions.

You are right, though, that many speakers do NOT use quotation marks where they should (and the converse), but that is because native speakers are more incompetent than they think (even in their own language!) and this difference is a bit too subtle for most. (I know that to say this is politically incorrect, but we ARE terribly incompetent even in our native languages, :-). This is just a trivial case in point!)

Anyway, if I write "Luis is a linguist", without quotation marks around the subject, I am attributing to Luis (= a human individual) a property he may have, whereas if I write "Luis is a proper noun" (again, without quotation marks around the subject), I am writing nonsense, because no human individual may be a proper noun. Conversely, ""Luis" is a proper noun", with the subject in quotation marks, is logically perfect (and true), whereas ""Luis" is a linguist", with the subject also in quotation marks, is, again, nonsense, because no word may truly be a linguist. (Note that "is" expresses IDENTITY in this case!)

This rule applies to expressions generally, not only words or the subset of words we call "proper nouns": ""This sentence" consists of two words" - with the subject in quotation marks - is a coherent and true sentence, but "This sentence consists of two words" - without quotation marks surrounding the subject - is neither coherent nor true! :-)

Now I have explained my terminology (again: Sorry!), perhaps we may return to my question and your answer: From the fact that my examples (6) and (7) are correct, as you say, should I understand that Mandarin orthography does NOT distinguish between referentially and SELF-referentially (= metalinguistically) used expressions? Does Mandarin distinguish those two uses of written words by some other means (e.g., specific particles, predicates predicable only of words, not their referents, etc.)?

Thank you!

thank you very much for your so patient explaination, Luis(guess it's your name), you do it much better than me. I don't mind jargons, it's a good learning for me.

in this "book" situation, mandarine works the same way as your western's, like

 "这是本好书。我喜欢这本书。"  and

 “'书'是一个可数名词。 ”and       “‘书’,‘书籍’的‘书’。”

In my understanding, as Chinese sentences, (5),(6),(7),(8) are correct all.

(5) is a question sentence, even it has not question mark. But 焉 is almost not use in modern Chinese as a word of question mark. modern Chinese use 吗 replace 焉 at the end of the question sentence.

(6),(7),(8) have same meaning. just “巩懿思” in (8), it has been emphasized by quotation mark.


You are right about (5): I unwittingly changed my example; I did not intend to write 焉 'ma' at all. 

What matters is that you seem to find (8) acceptable.... Should I understand that quotation marks ARE right in such cases? Do you find them OPTIONAL (again in such cases)? Do you know whether other educated speakers use them?

Thank you.

You are welcome.

I think that Mandarin distinguish referentially and self-referentially of written words by subject or object in sentence or context.


(7) 我名字是巩懿思.

"巩懿思" in this sentence is refer to the word, be a proper noun consists of three characters to defines the name. And the proper noun "巩懿思" incldes the pronunciation /gong3 yi2 si1/ and the spelling.

(8) 我名字是 “巩懿思”.

This sentence in mine understanding, as same used expression as (7), just emphasize the pronunciation and the spelling by quotation marks.

(9)他的名字是巩懿思起的. He is named by 巩懿思.

"巩懿思" in (9) is refer to the person who is a linguist.

(10) 巩的繁体写法是"鞏".

"鞏" in (10) just refer to itself.

By the other hand, I think Chinese characters function much like the English words. And Chinese characters radical more like English character.

About quotation mark in Mandarin, it has seven purposes.

1. represents a reference section.

2. represents a specific appellation.

3. represents a special meaning, needs to be emphasized.

4. focuses on the representation of objects.

5. special interrogative negation.

6. represents a reference idioms or proverbs.

7. represents a character's language.

Thank you for your detailed answer.

If Mandarin uses quotation marks to indicate what you say in your points 1., 2., 3., 6. and 7., then it is pretty clear that Mandarin orthography DOES distinguish between metalinguistic and referential uses of expressions. The reason why my elementary textbook fails to put self-referring expressions between quotation marks, then, must be an innocent one: the authors attempt to represent sentences as they sound. Since quotation marks are not pronounced, they leave the " " out, but, properly, the written representation of a spoken sentence should be enclosed in quotation marks, and any self-referential expression within the sentence should also be enclosed in its own pair of quotation marks. Novelists reproducing conversations do put their characters' interventions between inverted commas or quotation marks, but they do NOT usually extend this practice to self-referential expressions appearing within the conversations themselves. [Recall, that their purpose is to represent what was actually SAID and quotation marks are not pronounced]. This hybrid treatment of self-referential expressions is possibly one of the reasons why even highly educated people tend not to use quotation marks when an expression refers to itself. That's what zhangmei referred to, I think, when she said above that she had never seen "Luis" between quotation marks in "My name is "Luis"". However, failing to represent the distinction between a referential Luis and a self-referential "Luis" in examples offered in isolation, either in the body of the text or as numbered items, is a logical mistake that should be avoided.

Thank you! Everything is clear now.



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