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Will China ever switch to pinyin as its writing system?


yersi
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Whatever a blind Chinese is able to understand, can be encoded and reproduced, using a phonographic system of writing.

But for me that's not a good enough argument: just because you can write words on doughnuts does that mean that you should?

There are two questions: is it possible and is it optimal? Some people prefer answering the first one, others the second.

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Okay, on reflection I realise I'm the first one to mention doughnuts in this thread...

Still, I think the quote about blind readers of Chinese was suggesting that a phonetic script could be just as good as a written one wasn't it? EDIT: I mean, ... could be just as good as characters.

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Yes, that's precisely what the quote suggests - visually impaired Chinese have no trouble using the language of their community in its spoken form (whether it is Putonghua or another Sinitic language is a whole different issue), and the nature of the graphic representation of linguistic symbols, i.e. writing, doesn't affect their ability to do so.

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Whether it is Pinyin or not doesn't really matter, writing is equally arbitrary regardless of its specific nature. The concept of 鸡蛋 remains unchanged, even if written 雞蛋, jīdàn, дзидан, or, as is the case with visually impaired Chinese, the linguistic symbol is the sounds /tɕi˥tan˥˩/ or the Pinyin-based Braille alphabet currently in use.

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Is that really true? Your example 鸡蛋: would you translate this into English as "egg" or "chicken's egg"? Probably it would depend on the context.

But more broadly: I'm not sure how arbitrariness is relevant here. The issue is how efficient is a writing system in communicating what its users want to communicate. It's plausible that reading pinyin instead of characters would be just as good as characters. And plausible that pinyin would be slower to read than characters. But I don't see how you can extrapolate from successful use of a pinyin-based Braille system anything about the relative efficiency of -- for sighted readers -- a character-based writing versus a pinyin-based one.

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鸡蛋 was simply the first word that came to mind, my point was simply to illustrate that the written sign is arbitrary and that any other one will do, as long as there is tacit agreement between language users that X is the graphic representation of Y. I never meant to say that Pinyin or a Pinyin-based orthography would be more efficient because blind readers are using a Pinyin-based Braille alphabet. You have misinterpreted my original meaning, perhaps because I didn't express myself well enough.

As for whether an alphabet would be just as good, better, or worse than characters in terms of reading speed - we can't really tell without conducting experiments. What I do argue, however, is that comprehension would remain pretty much the same regardless of which orthography is used, provided, of course, that the reader has a good command of Putonghua. Context takes care of everything else. In order to try and prove my point, I'll provide another link to Sino-Platonic Papers, a document called "Essays on Writing and Language in Honor of John DeFrancis on his Eightieth Birthday", in which the first paper is written entirely in Pinyin with tone marks. I'm quite convinced that anyone who is proficient in Putonghua and has an inkling of what linguistics is about (it is, after all, a journal dealing largely with linguistic issues) will have no trouble understanding the text.

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My understanding was that pinyin can substitute for spoken Chinese but not written because by looking at a character, you can glean the meaning but for spoken and pinyin, you need the context. Well, perhaps what I'm saying applies to more 文言文 than 白话文. But still, if I see 鸡 on a sign, I know it's chicken and not some other "ji" sounding character.

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Don_Horhe, yes sorry I wasn't really taking issue with you so much as with that quote -- which is a cornerstone of someone's argument that pinyin is better than characters. Often the anti-characters arguments stress that people understand each other fine when talking and so on, so there should be no problem with writing if that speech is reproduced on the page by a phonetic alphabet. My point was simply that reading/writing is more than just written-down-speech, and you've got to look at what those differences are to decide if we're willing to sacrifice them or if it's worth holding on to them.

I agree completely when you say that we can't work this out without experiments, and I wonder whether a suitable experiment is even possible (short of isolating a few districts in China and forcing them to use only pinyin from school-age). The in-pinyin article is interesting: I've always wondered if it was written for this purpose, or was it a good quality essay written in Chinese (characters) which then just happened to be pinyinized? But as you suggest, it's impossible to really compare because there can't be many (if any) native speakers who are fluent in and as accustomed to reading both pinyin and characters at advanced levels.

What would surely be wrong would be to say pinyin is as good as characters, but then find yourself expressing yourself in a different way when writing in pinyin. If you found you wrote better, you could say pinyin was better, I suppose. If you wrote worse, that would imply the opposite. If different, then different. There was an English poet in the mid/late last century who made out that he was writing in English without using any words of French origin, which seems a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Arbitrariness -- I remember from my university days that Saussure's ideas are not uncritically accepted by everyone including, I'm fairly sure, me! (ie everyone adds different shades of meaning; words like "white" pick up other connations which might be unrepressable even when you just want to talk about a white wall; etc etc.) Certainly Derrida got grumpy about people like Saussure privileging speech over writing. And it's that which I don't like about lots of the pro-pinyin arguments (and I'm fairly agnostic on characters vs pinyin) which focus on the function of representing speech on the page. Writing is an artificial unnatural super-rare very modern (relative to speech) aspect of language. And there's a lot more to it than just representation of speech.

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From a political angle, abandoning the 汉字 would be nuts. Considering how much the CCP seems to value stability, messing with the writing system and drawing a potentially endless amount of criticism about destroying the chinese cultural heritage is probably the last thing they are looking to do. And I think the cultural aspect is very important in itself. A language is a very important part of a people's identity. Every language has features which could be seen as "inefficient", but that doesn't mean that the best move always is to "simplify". A nice thing with being a global heavyweight is the power to maintain indigenous quirks in language, culture, etc.

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Considering how much the CCP seems to value stability, messing with the writing system and drawing a potentially endless amount of criticism about destroying the chinese cultural heritage is probably the last thing they are looking to do

Well, it's not like they haven't done it before.

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My point was simply that reading/writing is more than just written-down-speech, and you've got to look at what those differences are to decide if we're willing to sacrifice them or if it's worth holding on to them.

This is, IMHO, the single most coherent and well-grounded argument for retaining the current character script, although, broadly speaking, it's valid for any language. If, as you say, writing was indeed a one to one representation of speech, then a phonetic script would undoubtedly be the better option. In reality, however, writing with characters allows for a succinctness of expression that would not be immediately comprehensible if spoken or written with a phonetic script. It is namely this brevity and perhaps even elegance that would be sacrificed if China were to ever switch to Pinyin or some other form of phonetic-based orthography.

While I do have my own views on whether the switch should be made or not, I will not state them here and I hope I've been as objective as possible in presenting some of the facts. As for arbitrariness - I'm coming at this from the standpoint of mainstream linguistics, and although I am not a certified linguist per se (mostly self-taught), I'm even less so a semiotician or philosopher and cannot, unfortunately, discuss this within a wider scope.

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I read the article from the link in #50 and while yes it is readable I also find it rather bothersome to read so much pinyin. The tone marks are much too small to read and very similar to my gripe with reading Traditional characters on smaller displays. I am just used to character shapes you could say.

The raise children pinyin-only idea mentioned is a very interesting one that will never fly since they would essentially be raising their children to be illiterate in today's China. A large number of people don't like the simplification that occured in '49 or when was it. I can't imagine the uproar over changing such a legacy of Chinese civilization as are the characters.

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Whenever I think about this question I am reminded of the poem Shī Shì shí shī shǐ (施氏食狮史) Which is not only a tongue twister but also a great argument against pinyinization!

« Shī Shì shí shī shǐ » Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī. Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī. Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì. Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì. Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì. Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì. Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì. Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī. Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī. Shì shì shì shì. 《施氏食狮史》 石室诗士施氏,嗜狮,誓食十狮。 氏时时适市视狮。 十时,适十狮适市。 是时,适施氏适市。 氏视是十狮,恃矢势,使是十狮逝世。 氏拾是十狮尸,适石室。 石室湿,氏使侍拭石室。 石室拭,氏始试食是十狮。 食时,始识是十狮尸,实十石狮尸。 试释是事。 From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion-Eating_Poet_in_the_Stone_Den

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Zhao Yuanren's (or Yuen Ren Chao, if you prefer) intent wasn't to oppose romanization; after all, he was one of the people who created Gwoyeu Romatzyh - a romanization system he later used in his publications, including the seminal A Grammar of Spoken Chinese. What the poem meant to show was that the classical language cannot be written with anything else but characters; cf. "The Three 'NOTs' of Hanyu Pinyin".

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Or conversely a great argument against classical Chinese

Where's the *like* button? Oh, right there :P

What the poem meant to show was that the classical language cannot be written with anything else but characters; cf.

Yes, an important distinction!

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