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"Chinese writer Mo Yan wins Nobel literature prize" (USA Today)
"Chinese author Mo Yan wins Nobel Prize for Literature" (BBC)

Q. Are we to understand

  1. that Mo Yan wrote in Chinese,
  2. that he was a Chinese national,
  3. necessarily both, or
  4. possibly both?

Q. How would we rephrase to avoid ambiguity, if so required?

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It's a prize for literature, not "literature in Chinese" or "literature in English" etc. Mo Yan's nationality is Chinese (PRC) & he writes in Chinese. Were I to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, I'd be called an "American writer", not an "English writer", & when Baby Doc wins it, he'll be called a "Haitian writer", not a "French writer". There are no Haitian and American languages, only a couple of dialects: one of French and one of English. Mencken's The American Language "to the contrary notwithstanding" link par 13, line 8. –  user21497 Oct 11 '12 at 13:59
    
Chinese ethnicity is another possibility. –  Henry Oct 11 '12 at 18:08
    
This can sometimes get awkward. For example, when a link to a hotel says "Japanese only" but the authors meant that a web site is written in Japanese, not that non-Japanese people aren't allowed at the hotel! (In Japanese, there are different words for a nationality versus a language - nihonjin versus nihongo) –  Andrew Grimm Oct 12 '12 at 0:04
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To resolve the ambiguity in many headlines, you have to read the article. –  Fuhrmanator Oct 12 '12 at 0:06
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5 Answers 5

up vote 6 down vote accepted

To your first question, the answer is 4: probably both. You're right, the modifier Chinese is ambiguous, but only in terms of what language the author uses. (Note that ambiguity in headlines is not necessarily something to reject. Eradication of ambiguity often requires the sacrifice of attention, and attention-grabbing is paramount in a headline.) In my opinion, Chinese author is not ambiguous about the nationality of the author. As slight confirmation of this, Mo Yan sounds Chinese, so I'd be comfortable inferring that he is a native. As to the language he writes in, it's very likely to be Chinese as well, but not absolutely necessarily.

To the second question, the obvious way is to say what you mean in as many words: Mo Yan, Chinese native and author of Chinese literature, wins Nobel prize. You can see why that wouldn't "take". You could drop the "native" part, since the name and the fact that he writes in Chinese could be enough to go on: Mo Yan, author of Chinese literature, wins Nobel prize or simply Author of Chinese-language novels wins Nobel Literature Prize, if you're willing to drop the name in favor of conciseness.

But here it becomes obvious that a newspaper headline sometimes needs that trivial ambiguity to stay more interesting. If you need to dispel ambiguity, read the article.

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+1 Hm... If I could infer nationality from his pen name, the modifier would not have been necessary in the first place, maybe? I didn't, by the way. He could in that case, have been one of many American nationals of Chinese origin or even one with just a Chinese sounding name. –  Kris Oct 11 '12 at 13:52
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I don't think you can assume that readers would know his nationality from his name. Maybe it's obvious to you that that's a Chinese name. I certainly wouldn't guess that it was Irish or Russian. But could it be Korean? Cambodian? Perhaps to some it's obviously not, but as an American I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that I wouldn't know. –  Jay Oct 11 '12 at 13:59
    
@Jay: You're right - I've edited the answer to not make a pivotal point out of that. –  Daniel Oct 11 '12 at 14:00
    
What about the Farsi poet, Varand, or the Catalan singer, Carreras? Langauge? Nationality? Ethnic background? Cultural tradition? Political commitment? –  bib Oct 11 '12 at 14:33
    
Farsi and Catalan are the names of a languages, and are never used to indicate nationality. So it's not entirely the same situation. A Farsi poet has to be a poet writing in Farsi. But when the name can be a nationality, as with the majority of such names (such as English, Chinese, etc.) then in my opinion it is used to show the artist's nationality, not the language used in the artist's art. –  Daniel Oct 11 '12 at 14:39
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I'm going to disagree slightly with the other answers: I believe "Chinese writer" refers exclusively to the nationality of the writer (your option 2). The rest we assume from context, i.e. from what we know about the world.

Think about it: do you know whether Mo Yan writes in Cantonese or Mandarin? Or what about if the headline mentioned "Swiss writer Juste Olivier"? Would you have any idea what language he wrote in? In both cases, the answer is "no", because the language wasn't specified.

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+1 Now that sets me thinking. Was it presumed one would naturally expect to know the winners nationality, not as much as the language? –  Kris Oct 11 '12 at 14:15
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@Kris: the Nobel prize is awarded to a person, not to a work. A person can (and often does) use more than one language; and unless the writer is Swedish or something, the people who decide on the award probably didn't read his writing in its original language. So in that sense, yes, we're interested in the writer's nationality, not in his preferred language. –  Marthaª Oct 11 '12 at 14:19
    
+1 This is pretty much part of what I was trying to say: Chinese author means an author who is Chinese. The slight ambiguity lies in the realm of the language he writes in. But now: how is this in disagreement with my answer? –  Daniel Oct 11 '12 at 14:22
    
@Danielδ: I'm saying the headline said nothing about what language he writes in. In other words, there is no ambiguity or clarity on the subject of language, just as there is no ambiguity or clarity about the subject of when he was born, or whether he's married, or any other topic that the headline failed to mention. –  Marthaª Oct 11 '12 at 16:27
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@Danielδ It's just that Martha is categorical in and confident about her answer; we are looking for the answers. The basic contention is the same. –  Kris Oct 12 '12 at 6:38
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I would say "3 1/2 -- probably but not necessarily both" :)

"Chinese writer/author" pretty strongly implies "Chinese national" to me. It seems natural that one would specify the nationality of the winner of an international award. Especially since at least one of the articles stresses the committee's trend of picking Europeans.

It stands to reason that a Chinese-nationality author would write primarily (if not exclusively) in Chinese. But that's not necessarily true.

I don't think the potential ambiguity matters in this context. Newspaper style is often ambiguous in favor of being pithy. Unless he was notable for being a Chinese national who won the prize for a book written in English, the language of his work is almost certainly irrelevant to the story.

If you had to be very specific for some reason, you could do something like: "Chinese national Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his Chinese-language tale (whatever title)." But I wouldn't.

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+1 Agreed: 'Newspaper style is often ambiguous in favor of being pithy.' –  Kris Oct 11 '12 at 13:47
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I'd assume it's a Chinese national author writing in Chinese.

Otherwise, I'd expect to see writing language identified separately. Possibly together with any clarifications on combination of nationality and ethnicity, such as:

  • Gok Wan, a BBC (British-born Chinese), received a prize for his English-language fashion wittering.
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+1 That answers the second part of the question, I suppose. –  Kris Oct 11 '12 at 13:54
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I would assume that "Chinese" identifies his nationality. From there I'd guess that, in the absence of further information, he probably writes in his native language, but not necessarily.

If I wanted to write a headline stating the language that the person writes in where a word can refer to both a language and a nationality, I'd say something like "Chinese-language writer Mo Yan wins Nobel literature prize".

Of course if the word applies only to a language or only to a nationality the ambiguity disappears. "Canadian writer Mo Yan ..." or "Esperanto writer Mo Yan ..." don't need any further clarification. Well, I guess there could be cases where the reader doesn't necessarily know a word is only one or the other.

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