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Will China ever switch to pinyin as its writing system?


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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

Yes I think so. I guess at the end of the day we're talking prose styles: languages which have an established written tradition are likely to have evolved writing techniques which make writing "better" for the reader than if he was just reading written-down-speech.

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

Interesting. Also makes you think that Chinese poetry couldn't have been written if a phonetic script had existed. Or rather, a completely different style would have emerged.

Or would it? Are we talking homonyms and the ambiguity they create (which leads to either outright confusion or at least slow non-fluent reading)? Well, if a language has lots of homonyms isn't it normal that some of them (perhaps the most common) are spelled differently, to make reading easier? It certainly seems to be the case in English, ie to/too/two, its/it's etc etc.

So, what if a phonetic-based script had emerged in China, like how it did in England? Although broadly phonetic, spelling differences, perhaps completely irregular and unpredictable like in English, could easily have emerged. The Gwoyeu Romatzyh shows that you can use letters to incorporate tones into the actual spelling. And if, as we're told, Chinese people don't think of their language as being sound+tone, but as the two combined, then tones aren't going to be a problem here. So all you need to do is distinguish between common same-toned sounds. Simply do that by adding an extra unpronounced letter here or there. Sound reasonable?

Of course some big standardisation project would have been necessary after a while to codify the accepted standards, but that happened with character anyway. And because we're talking about way back in the past, with far lower literacy levels, it wouldn't have been too big a deal.

But as for pinyin: I'd say some languages work fine with a super-regular phonetic script (Spanish, arguably Vietnamese, probably loads more, I have no idea) and some would not work well (English, Korean, etc). And pinyin, being a 99% regular phonetic script, doesn't seem to suit Chinese. But a phonetic-based script which includes irregular spellings seems to sidestep lots of the anti-pinyin arguments.

(This of course doesn't tackle the question of whether a character itself, plonked on the page as a block, has some information-bearing nature that abc-style words do not.)

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If pinyin romanization ever is to become a viable competitor for replacing characters, it will have to be reformed.

Vietnamese could be romanized. It works rather well. There's no exceptions to the system. One author commented that after only a few months learning the Romanized alphabet he could read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms to his grandfather, whereas after studying the Three Character Classic and the Thousand Character Classic, etc he couldn't even read a newspaper in Chinese (there isn't an exact correlation btw the two examples - true).

That "Shi" poem in Mandarin was rather intimidating when romanized. However, that's only with Mandarin. Not all those characters are pronounced with the same "Shi" with different tones in other Chinese languages, and definitely not in Sino-Vietnamese - this is aside from the point, I realize. It also seems rather exaggerated if someone intends to use it as an argument against romanization.

Also if there were to be a national romanization there would have to be adjustments to reflect regional dialects, etc - at least for a few decades. Before the Communist victory in Viet Nam, the Romanized alphabet still reflected regional dialects, and only recently has it become pretty much totally standardized nation-wide.

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Vietnamese could be romanized. It works rather well. There's no exceptions to the system.

Well, there are exceptions aren't there? I mean, people in the south pronounce two of the tones the same, but write them differently. They pronounce ch and tr differently, but people in the North pronounce them the same even though they write them differently. I think c/k produce the same sound but are written differently? Maybe this is all only because of the north/south differences, I don't know, but is any of it unnecessary from a purely phonetic point of view?

It seem a bit less phonetic than pinyin, but much much more than English!

Also I get the feeling that Vietnamese has a greater variety of sounds than Mandarin Chinese does, which means fewer homonyms, therefore generating less confusion when sticking to the more phonetic writing.

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You are correct - what I meant to say is that the romanization of Vietnamese, once learned properly, can be read without fear of exceptions in pronunciation like those which abound in English - with the Vietnamese romanization, what you see is what you read. I'm not sure that Pinyin works this way - like how sometimes the final "i" is pronounced differently, yet there is no marking for this, just have to memorize which letters coming before change the "i" pronunciation.

I guess that it is true that Vietnamese has a greater variety of sounds than Mandarin. I only bring up Vietnamese romanization to show that a tonal language can successfully be romanized.

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While I welcome the idea of a writing system that's easier to learn, the problem is that written Chinese seems very different from spoken Chinese, the former being more compact. A lot of two-character words become single-character in written Chinese. e.g. 应该 becomes 该, and so on. However, this is just a matter of habit and, although transitioning to a phonemic writing system would mean big changes (written Chinese would have to closely resemble the spoken language), people would eventually get used to it just like they got used to the simplified character set.

Another problem I foresee is the fact that Chinese language is too diverse and has idiosyncrasies such as third tone sandhi and soft tones which vary from speaker to speaker. Again, this would be a matter of habit too. There would be a standard way to write a word, and then people would be free to pronounce it according to their habits, which is exactly the way it is now. So the writing system would be based around the phonetics of Standard Chinese.

Shockingly there are many characters with multiple pronunciations, which makes me wonder why, if you already have tens of thousands of characters at your disposal, didn't you just create one more to avoid any potential ambiguities? As a result, it some time may be necessary to disambiguate even in written Chinese, which kind of defeats the point of the Chinese writing system, i.e. compactness.

Assuming that the Chinese decided to start using a phonetic writing system, Pinyin is obviously not the best system to use. In fact, it is a pile of crap. First of tonal information as a tone mark is almost an afterthought, very hard to remember. The tonal information should be encoded into the word rather than appended to it as a tone mark or a number afterwards. This both makes it easer to memorize vocabulary for non-native speakers and also typing faster for everybody, without the need for any software to convert abc's to funny symbols.

Although I think it's quite fun studying Chinese characters and love it when I can read a character I couldn't read a month ago, it is clear to me that a phonetic writing system is vastly superior, and anyone who thinks rationally should be able to see that. No need for for silly input methods, no need for [Gratuitous links to poster's own product removed. R.]

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Manuel, the characters are the language. They're the only real language that unites the country.

You're best chance of communication with a random stranger when travelling the country is via hanzi. I know that on paper that Mandarin is the national language and that everybody in school will have had their lessons in Mandarin, but I still come across people regularly down in Guangdong who can't speak Mandarin. Or at least who fail to understand even the basic sentences that people everywhere else have understood. And I know from friends that many schools use the local language for education even though their supposed to be using Mandarin. And the accents can vary significantly to the point of being hard to comprehend, even within Mandarin.

I used to think that they should reform the system and go with Pinyin, but, honestly, they would have to more or less completely rewrite the entire spoken language through out the country and probably kill off most of the less commonly used languages. Plus, if you've ever watched a film with hanzi at the bottom of the screen, it's an astonishingly efficient method of reading once you've mastered enough characters to do so.

But, then again, I also regard hanzi as being a great cultural artifact and one worth of continued preservation.

I have to admit that until I started to work on learning my radicals and the hanzi that it seemed like a waste of time, but honestly, I may not be able to look them up reliably, but I can often guess what both the meaning and the sound is even on words that I don't know.

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Shockingly there are many characters with multiple pronunciations, which makes me wonder why, if you already have tens of thousands of characters at your disposal, didn't you just create one more to avoid any potential ambiguities?

This is called not understanding how the writing system evolved, or how it works. It's not like they assigned multiple pronunciations to a single character, but they borrowed a character for its phonetic value to represent multiple morphemes that sounded the same or very similar, and then later those morphemes developed in different directions. To give an example, 花 can mean a flower (玫瑰花), or it can mean to spend (花錢). Those are two different words, written with the same character. If two hundred years from now they say hāqián and méiguíhuā, then 花 will have "developed" two different pronunciations. Sure, they could make a new character for every different morpheme in the language if they wanted, but could you imagine how many characters you'd have to learn if that were the case? If every character with multiple meanings and readings were split into a few new characters?

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OneEye, indeed, it's probably the most obvious with things like 咖啡 where you have an obvious determinant and phonetic component. I don't personally know too many characters, but I'm getting better and better at guessing the correct meaning and at least toneless pinyin. I'm still trying to figure out how to guess the tone, but even without the tone, it's a lot easier to look up the character than without any pinyin at all.

I think realizing that there are groups of characters from different time periods and for different purposes has helped me out a lot.

More than that, Chinese characters actually give a surprising amount of help in guessing their meaning once you start to get the mindset of the ancient, and sometimes not so ancient, people that developed the system. And eventually one gets to the point where one can start to infer meaning without knowing. I think you hit that point with Chinese characters a lot more quickly than you can with English or any other language I've ever studies.

Just my 2 cents on the matter.

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