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. 
yersi

Will China ever switch to pinyin as its writing system?

Recommended Posts

Lu

A marxist advocating abolishing Chinese characters for pinyin. What year is this, 1920?

  • Like 1

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.

DrZero

Try reading this sentence (in both pinyin and characters):

1956Nián Zhōnggòng Zhōngyāng, Guówùyuàn fābù de《guānyú sǎochú wénmáng de juédìng》duì gōngrén de shízì biāozhǔn réng yāoqiú wèi 2000zì zuǒyòu;duì nóngmín de sǎománg biāozhǔn guīdìng wèi dàyuē shí1500zì,néng dàtǐshang kàndǒng qiǎnjìn tōngsú de bàokān,néng jì jiǎndān de zhàng,xiě jiǎndān de biàntiáo,bìngqiě huì jiǎndān de zhūsuàn.

1956年中共中央、国务院发布的《关于扫除文盲的决定》对工人的识字标准仍要求为 2000字左右;对农民的扫盲标准规定为大约识1500字,能大体上看懂浅近通俗的报刊,能记简单的帐,写简单的便条,并且会简单的珠算。

This is a very straight-forward sentence, with few classical Chinese elements (such as idioms), yet it's not easy to read in pinyin. I don't think it's just a matter of practice. There's something about Chinese (at least Mandarin) that doesn't fit into Romanization. It probably has to do with the homophones, but that's probably the only reason. If someone can articulate the difference between Chinese and Korean and Vietnamese, we might be able to understand why Chinese (Mandarin) is more difficult to romanize.

So when you hear Chinese spoken, do you need someone to hold up cue cards with the characters in order to understand? (Maybe that's why Chinese TV programs are subtitled!)

That's totally subjective. It seems easier to read the characters because you're used to them. But if Chinese can be understood when it is spoken, then it can be understood when it is romanized.

You can read about the Dungan for an example of a Mandarin variety that is written in an alphabetic system (in this case, cyrillic).

There is absolutely nothing intrinsic about Mandarin that prevents it from being written and understood (and understood well) in an alphabetic system.

How it should be written is another matter entirely. But Mandarin is truly just another language, regardless of the wishes of Chinese people and students of Chinese to mystify/glorify/exoticize it.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
gato
Really? I thought it was quite easy to read and at first thought you were going to use it as an example of how easy it is to read pinyin in modern Chinese.

It's much slower to read the pinyin, though, but probably can never catch up to hanzi reading even with practice. It's like reading "Eye em are oh en" instead "imron". :wink:

(as a side note, I think the wei in "wèi 2000zì" and "wèi dàyuē shí1500zì" should be wéi)

Right you are. I wasn't thinking.

Edited by gato

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
gato
So when you hear Chinese spoken, do you need someone to hold up cue cards with the characters in order to understand? (Maybe that's why Chinese TV programs are subtitled!)

When you see words in pinyin. You need to convert them to sound and usually have to figure out from a set of several possible homophone which word it is. Sometimes, you don't know until you analyze the rest of the sentence. This all takes time.

When you hear something spoken, you usually figure out its meaning one sentence at a time instead of one word at a time. It's a similar process to reading a sentence written in pinyin. It's the difference between intellectualizing the sound versus hearing the sound. For some reason, the brain can transfer sound into meaning much faster than it can transform pinyin into sound and then into meaning.

You might ask why isn't reading words in pinyin the same process as reading spelling of words in European languages. I'm not sure, but reading pinyin is definitely much slower. It probably has to do with the greater number of homophones in the Chinese language and the added complication of tones.

Imagine "two", "too", and "to" all having the same spelling, and you have to guess the meaning of the word depending on the context. I think that is what it's like reading Chinese written in pinyin.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
imron
I'm not sure, but reading pinyin is definitely much slower. It probably has to do with the greater number of homophones in the Chinese language and the added complication of tones.

The other reason is practice. Compare the amount of time you've spent reading Chinese characters with the amount of time you've spent reading pinyin. I'm sure you would find that pinyin would read a lot faster if you'd invested as much time reading it as you had in reading characters.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
msittig
It's much slower to read the pinyin, though, but probably can never catch up to hanzi reading even with practice.

You can think of it as a trade-off, like typing Chinese using Wubi vs Pinyin. Popular legend seems to have it that typists who master Wubi can type in Chinese at incredible speeds that Pinyin typists will never match. That's because you can uniquely type almost any character in 3-4 keystrokes with Wubi, but typing in pinyin you deal with the homophone issue mentioned above.

On the other hand, I say "master Wubi" because while Pinyin has one letter on each key of the keyboard, Wubi has several radical on each key, so this means that Wubi typists have to put in more practice to master their chosen input method than Pinyin typists do. (In the meantime, Pinyin typists are inventing shortcuts like 'py' for 朋友, ‘z' for 'zh', etc.)

So the question is, in the trade-off of easy-of-mastery vs succinctness, where should the bar be set so that an acceptable number of people will be literate while the language remains succinct enough to keep us from having to hack our way through a homophone jungle? Are Chinese characters easy enough to learn that we can afford to sacrifice accessibility for easy of reading? Or is the difficulty of learning characters high enough that we should sacrifice the succinctness of the current writing system in order to make literacy more accessible to a greater number of people? (If we did switch to pinyin, would people develop "shortcuts" to bring the pinyin system up to the level of succinctness of characters?)

I think it's an interesting analogy/pattern.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
DrZero

When you see words in pinyin. You need to convert them to sound and usually have to figure out from a set of several possible homophone which word it is. Sometimes, you don't know until you analyze the rest of the sentence. This all takes time.

When you hear something spoken, you usually figure out its meaning one sentence at a time instead of one word at a time. It's a similar process to reading a sentence written in pinyin. It's the difference between intellectualizing the sound versus hearing the sound. For some reason, the brain can transfer sound into meaning much faster than it can transform pinyin into sound and then into meaning.

You might ask why isn't reading words in pinyin the same process as reading spelling of words in European languages. I'm not sure, but reading pinyin is definitely much slower. It probably has to do with the greater number of homophones in the Chinese language and the added complication of tones.

Imagine "two", "too", and "to" all having the same spelling, and you have to guess the meaning of the word depending on the context. I think that is what it's like reading Chinese written in pinyin.

It's all nice speculation, but to my knowledge, has no evidence to support it. What linguistic theory holds that we read a language word-by-word but hear it sentence-by-sentence? Or that there is some way of "intellectualizing" a sound rather than hearing it?

As I said, A Chinese variety can be and is written in an alphabetic system, that being Dungan.

I believe characters are simply easier to read (for you) because you don't have as much practice reading long strings of pinyin.

The homophone "problem" is there, regardless of whether the language is written or spoken. The tones and context are enough to clear it up to the extent that we can understand Mandarin when spoken. And they are enough to do so when it is written in pinyin, too.

(The homophone problem of Mandarin is exaggerated, anyway; the fact that words tend to have two syllables mitigates the homophone issue considerable. For example, "gong" has lots of meanings and "zuo" has lots of meanings, but when I say "gongzuo" (even without tone marks), don't you have a pretty good idea what I mean? Where's the supposed ambiguity?)

Incidentally, if the words breaks are written appropriately in pinyin, you actually are getting a level of information that is not given in characters. In pinyin you can tell which two syllables are supposed to go together to form one word.

One final note: Don't discount pinyin entirely even among Chinese people. I had a girlfriend a few years back and for some reason either her cell phone or her father's couldn't type characters, so she and her father very regularly had whole text conversations in pinyin, without tone markings.

One second "final note": The Japanese also despise romaji, and their language is not nearly as prone to homophones as Mandarin. That supports my belief that users of East Asian languages resist the romanized systems and find them difficult to read mainly because they are not used to using them regularly, not because of any intrinsic quality of their languages.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
jiangl

The Marxist in the original post reminds me of this quote I just stumbled upon. Some Teutonic missionary, no doubt struggling with yet another batch of characters, quipped that Chines characters were "through God's fate introduced by the devil in order that he may keep those miserable people ever more entangled in the darkness of idolatry".

Only difference is the Marxist blames the characters for the suppression of the proletariat, whereas the missionary blames them for corrupting Chinese souls. Perhaps there is room for legitimate debate among scholars, but it makes me sad to think of a beginning student like myself who would rather call the characters capitalist lapdogs instead of actually facing what he finds difficult and studying the hell out of them!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
imcgraw

I'm not going to touch the question of whether Chinese should switch to pinyin as a writing system, but I do think that an ideographic script without question raises the bar for foreigners learning the language. The problem for foreigners is one of comprehensible input. If it takes you 3 years to learn to read, that's three years that you're missing one of the essential tools of learning a language (sans immersion at least). Of course people can learn the language without learning to read... but this brings me to my second point:

An ideographic script decreases the likelihood that Chinese will become the world's lingua franca. Without characters I would place my money on Chinese replacing English as the world language in the next 500 years... with characters, it's still possible, but it certainly raises the bar. In fact, the rise of a Chinese super-power, in concert with globalization, may actually be a catalyst for a switch to pinyin. After all, a lingua-franca needs a writing system... if that language is Chinese... would it really be characters?

Food for thought.

Edited by imcgraw

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Hofmann

Well, I don't know, but it would be sad.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
jiangl
In fact, the rise of a Chinese super-power, in concert with globalization, may actually be a catalyst for a switch to pinyin. After all, a lingua-franca needs a writing system... if that language is Chinese... would it really be characters?

My question would be, do you think the Latin alphabet would be nearly as prominent as it is today had it not been for Western global dominance? I would say that the Lingua Franca of the day determines the dominant writing system, not the other way around:). After all, despite what some posters in this thread seem to think, I'd say that the Roman alphabet is not some perfect system that can be used in any language with complete accuracy.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Hofmann

IPA, which is based on the Latin alphabet, can kind of notate all sounds of speech. If Chinese ever switches to a totally phonetic writing system, they wouldn't choose Latin. They'd at least do the Sejong thing.

I'd guess that, if the Latin-writing world didn't globalize first, the Americas would either speak Chinese and write Chinese, or speak whatever they speak and write in something like kana.

Man, that would be totally lame, if China, the dominant civilization for most of history, didn't write Chinese.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
imcgraw
If Chinese ever switches to a totally phonetic writing system, they wouldn't choose Latin.

I agree that the conversation becomes much more interesting if you disregard pinyin in particular, and ask: "Will China ever switch to a phonetic writing system?" I disagree, however, with the notion that such a situation would necessarily come about by choice. I have the same response to the previous poster who states:

I would say that the Lingua Franca of the day determines the dominant writing system, not the other way around

I don't think that it's quite that simple. Language, like everything, evolves. Two factors that speed a language's evolution might be globalization and technology. None of this precludes the possibility that characters will remain crucial to the Chinese language over the coming centuries. It does, however, bring up a reformulation of the question: "Is the Chinese writing system evolving towards a more phonetic script?"

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
gato
Two factors that speed a language's evolution might be globalization and technology. None of this precludes the possibility that characters will remain crucial to the Chinese language over the coming centuries. It does, however, bring up a reformulation of the question: "Is the Chinese writing system evolving towards a more phonetic script?"

An argument can be made that the position of Chinese characters has been strengthened. Electronic entry has made writing characters easier. Even without a great memory for characters, you can now write anything you know how to say, without a dictionary. Even first and second graders can write meaningful essays now, whereas before they had to struggle with a dictionary to write down every sentence.

Technology has brought democratization to writing to other countries, too, but it has done so to a much greater degree in China. People are forgetting how to write characters by hand. But they are writing more than ever before. Most of them enter their characters using the phonetic pinyin system (save for the minority of Wubi wizards), but the output is in characters. It's a hybrid new world in a way. Pinyin input. Character output, display, and reading.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
student

Will China ever switch to pinyin as its writing system?

I am skeptical. There is information encoded in Chinese characters not present in pinyin. This is essentially the point made by a number of previous posts. Any switch to pinyin thus necessarily involves the loss of information provided by having distinct characters for homophones. It is thus hard to believe that China will ever switch - or indeed, should switch.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
imcgraw
There is information encoded in Chinese characters not present in pinyin. This is essentially the point made by a number of previous posts. Any switch to pinyin thus necessarily involves the loss of information provided by having distinct characters for homophones.

This is why the Chinese have so much trouble talking on phones or listening to audio books. Too many homophones. Speaking more seriously for a second, I think that most of what would be lost in a switch from characters to pinyin is cultural. Obviously the same thoughts could be expressed without characters. It's the preservation of culture which makes me doubt that a switch to a more phonetic system would be made by choice. I could imagine, however, scenarios in which the language slowly evolves towards a more phonetic script. Pinyin input systems are already reducing the need to know how to write by hand! Although gato seems to see this as strengthening the position of characters, it could just as easily be argued that it creates an inroad for a phonetic script to evolve.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
skylee
Pinyin input systems are already reducing the need to know how to write by hand!

I like the exclamation mark. :)

I told a co-worker yesterday that I typed Chinese using Pinyin and she was surprised, as everyone I know in HK hardly uses the pinyin input system. They just love Cangjie (or its simplified version) or the writing pad, both involve knowlodge on how to write by hand. These people don't use Pinyin mainly because they don't speak in Putonghua. They are not even interested in any Cantonese input systems, it seems.

And when we input on the phone, we use the stroke order input method.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
rebor

Wouldn't a phonetic script make written communication between people of different dialects impossible(if they're not mutually intelligible in spoken language)? I thought that was one of the may benefits with using characters. Regarding other east asian languages, I remember reading that Korean now has a lot of homonyms and a phonetic script, and Korean is not a tonal language from what I gather?

(Not very knowledgeable about the chinese language(and certainly not about Korean!), so take my questions for what they are)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Don_Horhe

Switching over to Pinyin would be possible only after the government gets everybody to speak the same language, which at present is certainly not the case.

As for the indespensability of characters because of homophones, allow me to quote part of the abstract of "Two Steps Towards Digraphia in China" by Xieyan Hincha, Sino-Platonic Papers, 134 (May, 2004):

b) The allegedly overwhelming homophony of monosyllabic morphemes and the resulting ambiguity (rendering the application of a Latin-based writing system impossible) do not exist. Whatever a blind Chinese is able to understand, can be encoded and reproduced, using a phonographic system of writing.

c) Homophonous morphemes are distinguished by the fact that they belong to different word-classes or other functional categories, or they are bound morphemes. Within a given word-class, they are not true homophones, but near-homophones, differentiated by tone change, rhotacization, the neutral tone, and other supra-segmental features. Homophony in modern Chinese is as peripheral as in other languages.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
yialanliu

The numbers don't matter about the usage of putonghua when it comes to this decision.

The root is actualyl whether or not fangyan should be encouraged or discouraged. Previously, there was the “请讲普通话” campaign within schools where teachers are required to take the putonghua efficiency test to teach, (二甲 minimum) and classes should be taught in putonghua. While that campaign is still in place, there is now a push to have students know their native dialects as well. As long as the second push is in place, phonetic just doesn't work well at all and I don't see this change occuring.

The reason why I say the number of people using doesn't matter is because there is the overall trend of more and more people knowing putonghua. The generation in their 20s are much more proficient than the generation in their 40s, and the generation in their 60s+ from the coutnryside even with good education probably don't know putonghua. Thus this trend is encouraging more usage and the breakdown of hukous does this even more as people are given more mobility rather than stay within their 村。

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Guest
Click here to reply. Select text to quote.

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


×
×
  • Create New...