PLEASE NOTE: None of the dictionaries described below have yet been published nor are they otherwise available for purchase. Work on them has been suspended until funding is secured to complete them.
The first book I ever read as a young child was the dictionary, before I started preschool. The opposite end of my formal education saw me with a Bachelor of Science in Chinese Languages from Georgetown University, specializing in the etymology of the written form. But my activities in lexicography are not because of my desire to delve into linguistics, but because of art.
The Stonecarver's Dictionary
I first became enthralled with the beauty of ancient Chinese characters while living in the People's Republic of China in 1985 (my eighth grade year in junior high), when I began carving chops. After I bought my first chop-carving dictionary, I continued to seek out more styles, bigger dictionaries, more obscure references. Frustrated by the fact that I had to go through several dictionaries in order to research one character, I vowed to compile all of my dictionaries into one complete, colossal work. The original concept of what is now known as the Stonecarver's Dictionary
has been streamlined somewhat, and new ideas have been added. What has not changed is that it shall be a colossal tome, and it shall keep me busily compiling for years to come.
Learn more about the Stonecarver's Dictionary
The Impossible Lexicon
The Impossible Lexicon
, or 叵字彙, began as an appendix of the Stonecarver's Dictionary
. It's a topical dictionary, which means--as you might surmise--that rather than being an alphabetical list of words, the entries are organized by topic. The idea behind the dictionary is that it magnifies a fundamental and unique quality of the Chinese language, which is that while individual characters are monosyllabic, they often contain meanings that could not possibly be expressed in one syllable in English. We find this in everyday words such as "哥" (older brother) and "弟" (younger brother) as there is no single Chinese character that means "brother" without indicating an age relationship, as well as more obscure characters like "馘" which means "to count the number of enemy troops killed by counting the number of left ears cut from the bodies."
The fascination with tiny words that mean big things is not mine alone. The late British humorist Douglas Adams, in his famous book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
, describes in a footnote that the character Ford Prefect was nicknamed Ix, "which in the language of Betelguese Five translates as 'boy who is not able satisfactorily to explain what a Hrung is, nor why it should choose to collapse on Betelgeuse Seven'" (Douglas Adams, The More Than Complete Hitchhiker's Guide
, page 34). Fanciful, perhaps, on the part of Adams, but words like this abound in Chinese. They may not be common or useful, but a collection of them can certainly make learning fun for any student of the language whether beginner or life-long speaker.
A brief note about the Chinese title of the book: in modern Chinese, "impossible" is translated as "不可能," or literally "not possible." When I found the arcane classical word "叵," which does means "impossible" by itself, I quickly chose it for the title of the dictionary and began researching calligraphic forms for use on the front cover (not that I put the cart before the horse or anything like that). When I found the Qin dynasty form of the word, I ran through the halls of my dormitory at the Chinese University of Hong Kong whooping and hollering at my discovery: in ancient forms of writing, the characters "可" (possible) and "叵" (impossible) are exact mirror images
of each other. The conceptual opposite
of a word is represented in this case by its physical opposite
! Only in a language like Chinese would you ever have such a wonderful example of etymology!
English-Chinese Dictionary of Classical Chinese
The most controversial of my lexicographical projects, this dictionary also began as an appendix of the Stonecarver's Dictionary
. The first part of the controversy stems from the fact that classical Chinese (the Chinese equivalent of Old English) is most commonly understood to be different from modern Chinese based on grammar and syntax. For example, in modern Chinese the phrase "I'm going to get you drunk" (I promise this was actually taken from a lesson I had at Peking University in 1992) would be "我把你弄醉," or literally "I take you make drunk." However, in classical Chinese the phrase would simply be "我醉你," or literally "I drunk you." The modern adjective was used as a verb in classical Chinese, and thus we see that the difference is syntactic and not lexical. The dictionary I'm compiling focuses on lexicon, hence the controversy.
So how do I justify a dictionary that flies in the face of accepted knowledge, especially when there are a large number of (Chinese-English) classical Chinese dictionaries in existance already? Simply by stating that there are lexical differences between modern and classical Chinese in addition to syntactical ones, and that without extensive experience in classical Chinese study, one would never know what these words are. For example, the modern Chinese word for "me" or "I" (as used in the above example) is "我." Another word for "me" that is used commonly in classical literature is "吾," which can be found and defined in any modern Chinese to English dictionary. Which means that my sample phrase above could more accurately be written "吾醉你." However, no matter how many English to Chinese dictionaries one might consult, one would only ever find "我" as the Chinese equivalent of "me." And that's where my dictionary comes in.
This leads us to the next part of the controversy. Why would anyone possibly want to translate something into
classical Chinese? All the literature has already been written! My answer is that one might want to write something in the classical style. The counter argument runs something like "but why would you want to do that?" to which I patiently point out that people still write sonnets in English, even though that form is archaic and outmoded. And if one needs further justification, well, take a look around this Web site. I'm an artist. It's what I do.