Sunday, October 11, 2009

the Chinese writing system

What is the Chinese alphabet? Can it rightly be viewed as an extremely uneconomical phonetic alphabet, or as a pictorial one?

Some linguists have claimed that the Chinese alphabet is in fact not a pictorial writing system in which every character represents a concept, as it is often assumed, but rather a phonetic one, in which every character represents a sound. In this case, it would certainly have to be the most extraordinarily uneconomical phonetic alphabet in the world, since it contains thousands of characters, while most phonetic alphabets get away with 20-30 letters! It is estimated that the average educated Chinese person knows about 6000-7000 characters, and at least 3000 or 4000 are used in ordinary life.

Now that I have been learning Chinese for a while, and got a grasp of the basic structure of the language, I would say that it is basically a mixture of the two.

On the one hand every character does indeed represent a certain syllabic sound. For instance every Chinese person knows that the character 巴 is always pronounced "ba" with the first tone, or that 马 is pronounced "ma" with the third tone, regardless of the meaning. This is how foreign names are transliterated into Chinese. For instance, the Chinese name for Barak Obama is 巴拉克 奥巴马, pronounced ba-la-ke ao-ba-ma. The fact that the last character in Obama's name actually means horse is completely irrelevant. There are a few characters which can be pronounced in two different ways according to the meaning, for instance 得 is pronounced "de" with the second tone in some cases or "dei" with the third tone in some others, depending on the meaning. However such cases are quite rare. Most characters always maintain the same pronunciation. From this point of view, the writing system could be regarded as a phonetic syllabical system, with each character representing a syllable.

At this point, the question would be why thousands and thousands of characters are necessary. After all, only a few hundred syllables exist in Mandarin Chinese. Of course, every syllable can be pronounced with any one of four different tones, multiplying the number of possible sounds by four, but this still wouldn't explain the huge number of characters. The answer lies in the fact that there are large numbers of characters which are all pronounced in exactly the same way. For example the four characters 往, 网, 辋, and 罔 are all pronounced precisely the same, in other words "wang" with the third tone. However, the first one means "towards", the second one means "net", the third one means "a circle that is connected to the spokes on a wheel", and the last one means "to deceive".

It is hard to maintain that the Chinese alphabet is purely phonetic when confronted with this. Which other alphabet has numerous different letters which are pronounced in exactly the same way? At the same time, it would be wrong to view the Chinese writing system as it is popularly viewed in the West, in other words as a system akin to the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt, in which every character is a picture representing a word in its own right. The fact is that most Chinese words are actually made up of a combination of two characters. Many of the characters only have a vague or general meaning when on their own, and only acquire precise meanings when they are combined with another character. It is also misleading to think of the Chinese characters as "pictures". When Chinese writing first developed a few millenia ago most of the characters really may have been highly stylized pictures of what they were supposed to represent, but by now there is usually no obvious relationship between the shape of a character and its meaning. However there are some characters which have maintained and obvious pictorial resemblance to the concept they represent, for instance 伞, which means umbrella, or 门 which means door. It must also be said that many Chinese characters were simplified after the revolution in 1949, so as to make the alphabet easier to learn for the people. However, the traditional forms of the characters, although more complicated, often had a more obvious resemblance to the concept they represented.

An interesting question is why a great civilization such as the Chinese one has never adopted a straightforward phonetic alphabet with a few dozen letters, just like virtually all other advanced societies have done centuries ago.

Part of the answer may lie in the large number of homonyms in the Chinese language. Like I mentioned, there are large numbers of characters in Chinese which are pronounced in exactly the same way, but have different meanings. The Chinese do not think of them as being the same word, since the characters are different. If Chinese were written with a normal phonetic system, all of these words would be written in exactly the same way, introducing an element of ambiguity. On the other hand, perhaps that wouldn't be such a great problem. After all, when the Chinese speak, they seem to be able to distinguish between the different homonyms on the basis of the context. Another factor is the tonal system. When Chinese is transliterated to the European alphabet with the Pinyin system, a special accent needs to be put on every word so as to distinguish the tone. However, one would think that historically the Chinese could have developed special letters to represent the four tones without any trouble. Perhaps the real reason for the failure to develop a phonetic writing system is the relative phonetic poverty of Chinese, which actually has a rather limited number of combinations of sounds in comparison to most languages. If the language were written phonetically, it would look rather boring and repetitive, as it does when it is written in Pinyin. The characters instead make it extremely varied and interesting.

Whatever the reason, the Chinese characters have survived for thousands of years, and they are obviously too engrained in the culture to make it possible to do away with them. The system is certainly inefficient and difficult to learn in comparison to other writing systems, however it is obviously possible to use it for the purposes of a modern society, as the Chinese have been doing cheerfully for decades. It may take Chinese children years and years to learn to read and write, but in the end they do. After all, learning a few thousand symbols is not beyond the abilities of the human brain. Even I can now recognize hundreds and hundreds of characters after being in China one year, without even studying Chinese full time. True, learning to write the characters by heart is much harder than learning to recognize them, but nowadays computers allow you to write Chinese by writing the words in Pinyin and only having to recognize the characters on the screen. It is true that apparently even well educated Chinese people sometimes have trouble remembering how to write some of the less common characters by hand, but it could be answered that English spelling is so illogical that even well educated native speakers of English make spelling mistakes. And the fact that the Chinese have not crossed over to using the pinyin system for most purposes, despite its availability, testifies to the resilience and practicality of their traditional writing system.

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