Jump to content
Chinese-forums.com
Learn Chinese in China

  • Why you should look around

    Since 2003, Chinese-forums.com has been helping people learn Chinese faster and get to China sooner. Our members can recommend beginner textbooks, help you out with obscure classical vocabulary, and tell you where to get the best street food in Xi'an. And we're friendly about it too. 

    Have a look at what's going on, or search for something specific. We hope you'll join us. 
Sign in to follow this  
wix

Characters vs phonetic writing systems

Recommended Posts

wix

ChouDoufu wrote this another thread but I am quoting it here to start a new topic, because it is an interesting and important issue. Let the debate begin...

Yes' date=' learning Chinese characters are difficult. That's the only thing I agree with though. There are a lot of people who have a belief that writing systems should be phonetic (I find it incredibly ironic that a native English speaker is praising the English phonetic system. English phonetics don't make a lot of sense either--under pronunciation rules in english "ghoti" can sound like "fish). Well, obviously if a language had a phonetic alphabet, it makes it easier to write and read. But to say that All languages need to be phonetic is just ridiculous. What makes Chinese appealing to so many people are the characters. Without the characters, Chinese would be destroying thousands of years of history.

I don't think they should do that in order to appease people who want to learn the language. I've always found characters to be rewarding and intruiging.

Yes it's difficult, but it's the difficulties that make things interesting. [/size']

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Site Sponsors:
Pleco for iPhone / Android iPhone & Android Chinese dictionary: camera & hand- writing input, flashcards, audio.
Study Chinese in Kunming 1-1 classes, qualified teachers and unique teaching methods in the Spring City.
Learn Chinese Characters Learn 2289 Chinese Characters in 90 Days with a Unique Flash Card System.
Hacking Chinese Tips and strategies for how to learn Chinese more efficiently
Popup Chinese Translator Understand Chinese inside any Windows application, website or PDF.
Chinese Grammar Wiki All Chinese grammar, organised by level, all in one place.

Guest Anonymous

I pretty much agree with Chou Doufu. Also I'd like to add that one advantage characters have over a phonetic writing system is that with characters, readers immediately get the meaning in his or her head. It's almost like looking at a painting rather than just text. Good examples can be found in Japanese where the writing system is a mixture of characters (Kanji) and phoentic letters (kanas).

However, a phoentic system is also extremely important and also has its advantages. This is why the Zhuyin Fuhao was first invented in the early 1900's and then later Hanyu Pinyin.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
roddy

Thanks for starting the thread wix, I hadn't had time to do it myself last night.

readers immediately get the meaning in his or her head

Sorry, but they don't. Nobody who hadn't studied Chinese (or any other simliar language could look at 鱼 and think fish - it's only through repeated association of the symbol and the idea that the meaning comes into your head.

If readers immediately got the meaning in their head, we wouldn't need to learn Chinese - we would already know it.

Roddy

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
jwarriner

Kind of an interesting paradox here. Sure written language came after spoken language but the pictographic or ideographic nature of Chinese characters says to me that the effort to develop the written language wasn't based entirely on the spoken word but also attempted to pictorially represent the thing, concept, idea, etc. So once you know what a character means it seems to me possible that at least some of its meaning is taken in visually rather than aurally. Even with my limited knowledge of Chinese, there are times when I remember what a character means but not how to say it.

And the use in China of certain characters in art of various forms suggests that much of its meaning is indeed transferred visually. There's a big difference between having a painting on the wall with

DAO

and one with

cheers,

john

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Guest Anonymous
Thanks for starting the thread wix' date=' I hadn't had time to do it myself last night.
readers immediately get the meaning in his or her head

Sorry, but they don't. Nobody who hadn't studied Chinese (or any other simliar language could look at ? and think fish - it's only through repeated association of the symbol and the idea that the meaning comes into your head.

If readers immediately got the meaning in their head, we wouldn't need to learn Chinese - we would already know it.

Roddy

Uhm, you're kidding right? Although I didn't specify but I assumed people would know that I was talking about people who know the characters. Of course the modern Hanzi won't look like anything but scribbles to those who don't know Chinese...

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
sudasana

You can't say that characters have a natural association with the idea they represent: even the ideographic class of characters is opaque to anyone who hasn't learned their meaning. In both character and phonetic writing you have a sign which corresponds to an idea. With characters, you have a vast number of signs, the pronounciation of which is bascially arbitrary, and varies by dialaect and time period. With phonetic writing, you have a small set of signs that indicate sounds.

The Chinese writing system is ineffecient in that it requires a lot of investment in order to master written communication; in the past this helped keep the literati in power, by maintaining a monopoly on the creation and spread of texts. Regardless of its artistic or historical value, the character system has no benefits over a phonetic system. It's only the massive inertia of the character system that keeps it alive; Vietnam and Korea were successful in developing phonetic systems to write their languages, whereas in the past they used Chinese characters.

I was pretty excited about Chinese characters too until I read Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. If you strip away the exoticism that comes with a 'strange' method of writing, you may realize that, at best, hanzi solve many of the problems that they themselves cause.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
roddy
one advantage characters have over a phonetic writing system is that with characters, readers immediately get the meaning in his or her head

This means readers of phonetic scripts don't immediately get the meaning in their head, which is simply not true - I can't believe reading 鱼 is any more immediate than reading fish.

I'd also like to agree with what sudsana wrote - and thanks for saving me the bother of typing it all.

Roddy

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
confucius

Using the Chinese character for fish is a horrible example to make a point for phonetics. The key to learning new words in Chinese is understanding the importance of compound meanings. This allows you to guess at the meaning of new words by immediately analyzing the two characters it's comprised of.

For example, if I just write "nankan" in pinyin phonetics then a Chinese guy won't have any clue what it means. Yet when he sees the characters for "nan" and "kan" then at least he knows the new word means "something that is difficult to look at" and concludes that those two characters together mean "ugly"

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
roddy

Yeah, I agree that once you've learnt the characters Chinese isn't so difficult - and like the ugly example, Chinese vocabulary can be beautifully logical.

It's learning the characters in the first place that's the problem - not just for us, but for generations of Chinese people.

Roddy

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
roddy

And . . .(forgot this)

I've been told that it's impossible to create an adequate phonetic system for Chinese, as there are so few phonemes you have too many homonyns.

Sounds like rubbish to me. A phonetic script is simply one that includes all the information given by the spoken language - if you have a spoken language that works, then you can have a phonetic system. You just need a consistent orthagraphy - whether you do this with tone marks above vowels, numbers after syllables, or whatever, it'll work.

Sure, you might have problems with words in isolation - context won't help you - but how often do you have words in isolation?

Roddy

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
wix
I was pretty excited about Chinese characters too until I read Asia's Orthographic Dilemma[/i']. If you strip away the exoticism that comes with a 'strange' method of writing, you may realize that, at best, hanzi solve many of the problems that they themselves cause.

There is a sample chapter of Asia's Orthographic Dilemma available online for those who are interested. I strongly suggest that everyone reads it in order to be better informed about this debate. It also dispels many common myths about Chinese characters and Chinese languages.

Appropriateness to East Asian Languages -- sample chapter

=========================

The first writing systems that evolved were ideographic or pictographic. These kind of writing systems probably were invented independently in two or three places, China being one of them. Subsequently the Sumerians invented the alphabet in about 3,000 BC(???). The idea of the alphabet then spread around the world. It was so successful that it was adopted almost everywhere. Only in East Asia did a character based writing system persist.

Even in East Asia there has been a trend towards alphabetic writing systems. Vietnam used to use Chinese characters, but abandoned them in favour of romanisation (although the French can probably take some of the credit for that). The Koreans invented their own alphabet (Hangul) and Chinese characters only have a very small place in modern Korea. The Japanese also invented their own alphabetic systems (Katakana and Hiragana) and also use Roman script (Romaji). They maintain the use of Chinese characters in a kind of half and half system. Only in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have Chinese characters persisted in a pure form.

There are probably a few reasons why characters survived in China. Namely, the conservatism of the society, the low levels of literacy in the general population until recently, and the myth about the unification of Chinese "dialects". i.e. that although people throughout China spoke many languages they were united by a single written language.

It is also important to note that the vast majority of Chinese characters are phonemics (although phonetic shifts and variations in pronunciation mean they are not always reliable). They contain a radical indicating the sound and often a meaning radical. Very few characters express the meaning and even when they do it is usually quite abstract.

There is no reason why pinyin or some other alphabetical system should be more difficult to read than Chinese characters. In fact it should be easier. Even Chinese people sometimes forget how to write a character. With an alphabetical system the worst you can do is make a spelling mistake.

Basically I can see no good reason for the Chinese not to adopt some form of alphabetical writing system. This doesn't mean abolishing Chinese characters, but simply relegating them to a secondary role.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
confucius

Know what a "blenny" is?

Betcha don't.

Looking it up in your alphabetic phonetic dictionary, eh?

Yet if you saw the Chinese word for "blenny" you would at least know from the left radical that it's likely a type of fish!

Confucius says: "If you see how it's writ, then you must acquit"

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
roddy
Sure, you might have problems with words in isolation - context won't help you - but how often do you have words in isolation?

Like I said, you might occassionally have problems with words in isolation - like when a madman comes up to you on the street and says 'hey, d'you know what a blenny is?'

Roddy

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Guest Anonymous
The key to learning new words in Chinese is understanding the importance of compound meanings. This allows you to guess at the meaning of new words by immediately analyzing the two characters it's comprised of.

For example' date=' if I just write "nankan" in pinyin phonetics then a Chinese guy won't have any clue what it means. Yet when he sees the characters for "nan" and "kan" then at least he knows the new word means "something that is difficult to look at" and concludes that those two characters together mean "ugly"[/quote']

Actually this was the point I was trying to express. I had a long day, couldn't really concentrate well earlier.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
jwarriner

Sure' date=' you might have problems with words in isolation - context won't help you - but how often do you have words in isolation?

Roddy[/quote']

I think we would also have to consider the effects of phonetization on the Chinese written word, literature. Passing down from the style of 文言文 (wen yan wen), modern literature still retains a bit of the flavor of 文 言. The written word is not entirely a reproduction of the spoken word and the use of single characters is not uncommon. In addition, Chinese is full of wonderful word play which depends at least in part on the hanzi representation of the words involved.

john

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
ChouDoufu

Some people on this thread have mentioned giving Chinese characters a secondary role in the writing system. This would kill them, making them available only to Chinese Scholars.

I'd be very sad to see the day when Chinese students studied a romanization system to the neglect of Characters. A newspaper in pinyin? Chinese ancestors would roll in their graves.

I won't argue the fact that Chinese characters are inefficient to learn compared to a phonetic system. That's true. But what I strongly believe is that the most efficient way, the fastest way is not necessarily the best way to do something. I take up this argument for purely cultural reasons. Removing the cultural legacy (in this case Chinese characters which have grown and changed over millenia) of something essentially turns it into something completely different.

Let me take a different tack to explain that last point. I'm a first generation American citizen (ie. my parents were born in a foreign country and came to the US, where I was born). Like many parents, mine had to decide how much of my cultural heritage they would teach their children (in my case, there wasn't a second language as my parents came from an english speaking country). Some parents make the decision not to teach their children about their heritage and language at all. So then you have a child who is XXXX-American (chinese/japanese/ghanian/polish/whatever) by name only. What does it mean to be a young a Polish-American if you don't know anything about Poland, don't speak Polish, and don't know any Polish History? All it means is that your parents came from Poland. But for all intents and purposes, you're just American. Contrasting that, someone who has learned about their heritage is much richer in that they have generations of history to look back upon as well as their knowledge of American Culture. I see the Chinese language in much the same way, by taking out characters, you're removing the history and the cultural legacy that took so long to create.

Language is about so much more than efficiency. It's culture; it's history; it's communication. If efficiency and simplicity was truly what was important in a language, then everyone in the world would be speaking Esperanto--the easiset language in the world to learn. I think the governments that use Chinese characters should protect that use at all cost...

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
sudasana
Some people on this thread have mentioned giving Chinese characters a secondary role in the writing system. This would kill them' date=' making them available only to Chinese Scholars.

I'd be very sad to see the day when Chinese students studied a romanization system to the neglect of Characters. A newspaper in pinyin? Chinese ancestors would roll in their graves.

[/quote']

By that logic we should all be using Latin instead of English on this board, because of its long history and cultural significance. I don't think any Chinese ancestor would fault a modern person for trying to make things better for themselves or other Chinese-speaking/writing peoples.

I think the only arguments in favour of the character system are emotional in nature. That said, these emotions are powerful enough that characters aren't going anywhere for a while. I don't hate characters, I just hate the effect they seem to have on the people who are forced to use them. You've got to wonder if a more widely availbile written system of Chinese wouldn't bring with it social change.

But isn't that one reason why even the CCP didn't banish characters? There are hundreds of dialects in China, different enough to be considered separate languages, but they can all be written using the same set of characters. If you start writing phonectically, you've just removed a unifying factor. Not something which the CCP would relish.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Guest Anonymous
By that logic we should all be using Latin instead of English on this board, because of its long history and cultural significance. I don't think any Chinese ancestor would fault a modern person for trying to make things better for themselves or other Chinese-speaking/writing peoples.

It makes no sense to compare Latin and English with Hanzi and Pinyin (or some other kind of phoentic writing system). Latin and English are two different languages, though many English words derived from Latin. Also Hanzi and the whole Chinese writing system has received a great deal of "improvements" over the years. The three most significant "updates" were, in chronological order, the switch from Wenyen Wen to Baihua Wen, the invention of Zhuyin Fuhao (and later Hanyu Pinyin), and finally the simplication of Hanzi (Simplified Chinese). Note that Zhuyin Fuhao and Hanyu Pinyin were invented to work as aids to Hanzi and not to replace them. So in fact the modern Chinese has made things better for themselves. They have made improvements and updates to the Chinese writing system but not completely change it.

But isn't that one reason why even the CCP didn't banish characters? There are hundreds of dialects in China, different enough to be considered separate languages, but they can all be written using the same set of characters. If you start writing phonectically, you've just removed a unifying factor. Not something which the CCP would relish.

I don't believe *ANY* Chinese person (in their right mind) would like to see China disunified, whether they're from the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the oversea Chinese community.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
wix
There are hundreds of dialects in China, different enough to be considered separate languages, but they can all be written using the same set of characters. If you start writing phonectically, you've just removed a unifying factor. Not something which the CCP would relish.

sudasana, this is not correct. Written Chinese is based on the way Mandarin is spoken. To say a Cantonese person can read standard Chinese and it is the same as their language is wrong. The Cantonese person has had to learn to read standard Chinese. This is discussed in the chapter of Asia's Orthographic Dilemma that I linked to in an earlier post. If you are still in doubt just pick up a newspaper in Hong Kong that is written in Cantonese. The differences go far beyond simplified/traditional characters. Indeed there are many characters that are not even used in standard Chinese.

ChouDoufu, great post, but I still disagree with you. The Vietnamese made the switch from characters to romanisation and do you ever hear them complaining about their culture being lost. The Koreans invented their own alphabet which is a source of cultural pride. If you are really worried about Chinese culture being lost then you should be concerned by the increasing dominance of Mandarin/putonghua at the expense of regional languages and dialects.

While language is an important part of culture it is also something that, like culture, is continually evolving. Nobody is complaining that typewriters have been superseded by word processors or oil burning lamps replaced by electric lights. Also Chinese do not need to totally abandon characters. If some sort of alphabetic writing system was adopted I am sure that people would still continue to learn some characters and those who wished to go on to higher education would no doubt still become fully literate in characters.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Guest Anonymous
The differences go far beyond simplified/traditional characters. Indeed there are many characters that are not even used in standard Chinese.

There are actually about 100+ characters that were "invented" just to "write" Cantonese. However, the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese (in writing) is still *MUCH* closer than the difference between Mandarin and other languages that use/used characters, Japanese for example. I've actually been to Shenzhen and saw a Hong Kong magazine that's "written" in Cantonese and I understood it much better than a Japanese magazine I read on a plane.

ChouDoufu, great post, but I still disagree with you. The Vietnamese made the switch from characters to romanisation and do you ever hear them complaining about their culture being lost.

Actually I have. I live in Houston, TX. We have one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the U.S. (second only to L.A. I believe). I have many Vietnamese friends, some of them even took Chinese at the University of Houston. Many of them took pride in that their culture is so close to the Chinese culture and that they once used Hanzi as well. Almost all of them either learned how to write their names in Hanzi or wish they could. However, I've never seen any of them as ethusiastic about their own language as they are with Chinese, not saying that they aren't proud of their culture in general (which they are). Also there's an Vietnamese organization based in New York who is trying to preserve and hopefully revive the Ngu Nam (sp?) writing system. The Ngu Nam writing system is pretty much Hanzi modified to fit the Vietnamese language.

The Koreans invented their own alphabet which is a source of cultural pride.

The Korean culture has become pretty much what you described the Chinese culture should become. While Hangul is used in everyday life, most scholars still learn Hanzi. Also, I heard from a couple Korean students I met in Beijing that they teach Hanzi, or what they call Hanja, in school as well. However, this is only happening because Hanzi is still in full use in Chinese-speaking nations (China, Taiwan, Singapore, oversea Chinese communities... etc.). If China dropped the usage of Hanzi, I seriously doubt that Korea would even bother with it. In the end, Hanzi would just be lost completely.

If you are really worried about Chinese culture being lost then you should be concerned by the increasing dominance of Mandarin/putonghua at the expense of regional languages and dialects.

Are you suggesting that the spread of Mandarin and having a unified standard language is a bad thing for China? I don't believe a large nation can be and remain powerful without a standard language. Usually foreigners in the U.S. are frowned upon when speaking their native language in public because Americans feel threatened. Don't get me wrong though, I am totally for preserving Chinese dialects but I believe everyone should be able to speak Mandarin (even as a second language).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Guest
This topic is now closed to further replies.
Sign in to follow this  

×
×
  • Create New...