Thursday 26 May 2011

Spelling Tai chi, Tai ji or Tai qi?

Today I discovered the wonderful Google Labs Ngram. This new tool allows you to graph the number of counts of particular keywords in all the books Google has scanned, grouped by the date they were published. What this means is that you can effectively track how much people were writing about particular topics over time, or how phrases come and go from the English language (and others) for example.

So I had a go at using it to back up some of my assumptions about tai chi in a quantitative manner.

First of all, spelling: Tai chi, Tai ji or Tai qi? [No one seems to disagree about the Tai bit].

The graph above shows the incidence of the three main spellings (Tai chi, Tai ji and Tai qi), along with various contractions and extensions, in the published books going back to the 1950s. What this shows is that prior to the 1960s it was spelt almost exclusively without space with both Taichi and Taiji being roughly equally prevalent. Around the 1970s Tai chi (with a space) started to enter lexicon and this continued up until the late 1980s with roughly half of the  publications using Taiji, and the other half used Taichi or Tai chi.

For some reason in the early 1990s there was an explosion of interest (see below) and Taichi and Tai chi became the dominant form of expression. The incidence of Taiji spelling therefore fell (as a percentage of total usage). The most recent 2008 data indicate that Tai chi (with or without a space) is now the most normal spelling in about 85% of the cases. As the English language (and spelling) is a fluid concept that continually evolves as usage patterns change, we must therefore say that Tai chi is the "correct" form of spelling. I predict therefore that over the next 50 years time the Taiji usages will drop away, to be consigned to history.

Second: Public awareness

This graph clearly backs up my experiences of explaining tai chi to people. It's easiest to say "it's a bit like yoga" to get them into the right frame of reference, and then "it's a martial art" which also helps them narrow it down. What's interesting from this graph however is that yoga has been written about for a much longer time in western books than I imagined. Most likely this is because of the colonisation of India by the British exposed Westerners to it. There has clearly been a surge in popularity of Chinese martial arts and Tai chi in the last couple of decades however, which again backs up my own experiences.

Third: Which style?

Pretty much a no-brainer this one. Yang style dominates with the other styles not making so much as a blip. What fantastic marketing by the Yang style guys. Most likely however this is due to the fact that some of the Yang style teachers were the first to takes the brave step of trying to teach their art in the West, for which no amount of credit and gratitude can be too much. Given this graph however, it is little wonder that most Westerners don't realise there are multiple styles and just believe that Tai chi is Yang style. Those of us practising other styles need to work that little bit harder!

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