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querido

A disadvantage of phonetic languages

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querido

Consider this poem. I hope you can read it.

(New Concept Chinese for Children volume 3, lesson 3)

天上云彩真奇妙, 一天要变好几变.

云彩变成小白船, 飞得远远看不见.

云彩变成大狮子, 大风大雨马上来.

云彩变成胖娃娃, 追着太阳一起玩.

I was struck by its vividness. But when I shared a simple English translation with someone, I thought: "There's no way they can see what I just saw. But, that can't be true: English must be able to describe pictures just as well. I can see them as I read." Then I said "Ah, here is a good example showing that Chinese can be one step closer to being like a string of pictures." That is actually true to some extent that scholars debate, but this little poem is proof enough for me.

I want to offer this: Just as the Romanization of a Chinese word can be seen as an extra layer between you and its actual *sound*, maybe the price paid for English being phonetic is this: the alphabetization of an English word is an extra layer between you and its actual *meaning*. I think this analogy works.

I'm guessing that a Chinese person learning English sees an agonizingly tedious string of code. An English speaker learning Chinese sees a string of code- but it isn't tedious: it is a string of pictures representing meaning directly, vividly. That is what I see.

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renzhe

Perhaps it was your translation that wasn't very vivid.

After having read DeFrancis' "The Chinese Language", I am convinced, without a doubt, that not only is Chinese (the script) a phonetic language, but that a non-phonetic written language cannot possibly exist.

He makes a really strong case.

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Hofmann

You mean "phonetic writing system," right? All natural languages are phonetic.

The presence of a semantic element, I would say, is an advantage of the Chinese writing system. Also, Chinese, being relatively vague on pronunciation, can be pronounced differently. For example, "rain" only means "rain" in English, as far as I know, but 雨 means "rain" in at least 15 languages.

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renzhe

"Schola" means school in about 200 :wink:

And "anti" means "against" in even more languages.

Chinese, like Greek and Latin has lent its vocabulary to other languages.

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querido

Before continuing into this discussion, let me stress that I stand on the reality of the experience I described, even if I can't quite formulate an explanation.

Continuing...

Perhaps it was your translation that wasn't very vivid.
Admitted. But no matter what words I choose, they will lack the immediacy of a picture: 天.
I am convinced, without a doubt,
This is very strong language...
that not only is Chinese (the script) a phonetic language,
I read an excerpt of his book about the degree of its phoneticity, and this is exactly what I meant by "scholars debate", an important and interesting one. I agree that there is a big phonetic contribution, if you know it's there. But, *if you don't know it's there, the meaning of the character is unaffected.* Thus, it is helpful, but inessential.
but that a non-phonetic written language cannot possibly exist.
It is interesting that you can be certain of something that appears to be untrue to me. Your claim would imply that a deaf-mute cannot acquire or create language. Haven't you heard "a picture is worth a thousand words"?

If a single symbol can cause a vision of the sky to spring into a mind, then obviously it might be possible to stimulate a string of pictures, as though it were moving video. To some arguable extent, this is what I experience, admittedly via first-grade vocabulary. It is true that we can see moving pictures as we read English, but here is another try at an argument that it is harder, or less immediate: Consider a native Chinese speaker reading a page of pinyin. Through this additional layer he sees the vividness of what hanzi would have depicted in living color.

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renzhe
This is very strong language...

I know. So strong is his argument.

But, *if you don't know it's there, the meaning of the character is unaffected.* Thus, it is helpful, but inessential.

Same can be said for semantic components in characters, with the exception that they are even less helpful than the phonetic components for understanding.

Haven't you heard "a picture is worth a thousand words"?

Sure, you can evoke ideas through pictographic descriptions. But only some words. It is impossible to express all spoken language using pictographic symbols.

AFAIK (and apparently as far as DeFrancis knows), there has never been a language written purely in terms of symbols. All known pictographic writing systems used pictographs phonetically to expand their usefulness from representing a small number of concepts to representing all existing speech.

It is interesting that you can be certain of something that appears to be untrue to me. Your claim would imply that a deaf-mute cannot acquire or create language.

No, I claim that such a person would find it impossible to fully express themselves by painting pictures.

There's nothing stopping such a person from obtaining knowledge of a written language and using this written language to express themselves.

Yet all written systems in history have been phonetic.

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chalimac

querido,

I agree with you. There is something distinctively appealing in the act of reading or writing characters that would be lost with romanization.

I once read an interview with Mishima in the NYT were he explained how sometimes he delayed, for aesthetic purposes, the apparition of a kanji in his pages. He used only hiragana words for a long paragraph creating a tension, a sort of syllabary suspense, and then he unleashed at the right moment the kanji for rose: 薔. This sort of effect can't be reproduced alphabetically.

I also like about Chinese that etymology is much more visible in the very configuration of the character. In western languages etymology has turned transparent. We might know that companion is from the latin "cum panis" (the one you share your bread with), but mostly we read "companion" phonetically and oblivious to that semantic fact. It is different than reading the hanzi for prison 獄 and seeing two dogs yelling at you.

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YuehanHao

Because I am so used to English, pictures have long been associated with most words I see in that language and Chinese does not seem to fare better in comparison. However, I prefer characters to pinyin for some similar reason that is hard to define but may be because they are more similar to pictures (even though some of the pictures have a spurious or obsolete meaning). I think that because others think that way too is one reason that they are not in danger of becoming obsolete today.

I enjoy very much studying the etymology of Chinese characters, but sometime I should devote more time to studying English etymologies too -- I really liked that of companion, something so obvious after it is explained. But to my wife, Chinese etymologies are at least as transparent as those in English are to me, and though I could never be as proficient in Chinese language as she, I can quite often instruct her on even basic etymologies I have learned.

I won't make any generalizations about linguistic theory, but, personally, I sometimes find it impossibly to fully express myself with words as well as pictures. Ah well, aphasia strikes again.

约翰好

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atitarev

The writing system affects the language development. Chinese is better expressed in Hanzi but when listening you usually need a strong context, especially for a learner. For the same reason it's harder to read Chinese in pinyin only, the meaning is not immediate and the word selection should be more careful, so that there is no ambiguity.

The Japanese books for children in Hiragana only are sometimes harder to read than books for adults, especially if they don't put spaces between words (hard to find word boundaries), however the other extreme is now less popular.

A Japanese book written in a good good style avoids too many Kanji, allowing for a mixed texts, so that many words that can be written in Kanji, are written in Hiragana, so, instead of 又来て下さい, they write また来てください (please come again) or instead of 其の事について話しましょう write そのことについて話しましょう (let's talk about that matter). The effect is that the important words stand out, making the natural word boundaries.

One comment I heard from a Japanese about their language comparing it with Chinese is that very significant words stand out in Japanese not overwhelming you with a lot of pictures, like 天 or 薔 are fine but not all words have the same immediate effect.

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anonymoose
I was struck by its vividness. But when I shared a simple English translation with someone, I thought: "There's no way they can see what I just saw. But, that can't be true: English must be able to describe pictures just as well. I can see them as I read." Then I said "Ah, here is a good example showing that Chinese can be one step closer to being like a string of pictures." That is actually true to some extent that scholars debate, but this little poem is proof enough for me.

I want to offer this: Just as the Romanization of a Chinese word can be seen as an extra layer between you and its actual *sound*, maybe the price paid for English being phonetic is this: the alphabetization of an English word is an extra layer between you and its actual *meaning*. I think this analogy works.

I'm guessing that a Chinese person learning English sees an agonizingly tedious string of code. An English speaker learning Chinese sees a string of code- but it isn't tedious: it is a string of pictures representing meaning directly, vividly. That is what I see.

I think this argument is a little flawed because, firstly, languages are not usually defined by their writing system. A language is primarily borne out of its oral evolution, and a writing system is an appendix used for recording the language. In the case of chinese, it is usually characters, but if pinyin is used instead, it doesn't mean it is not chinese any more. Therefore, to say chinese is a 'phonetic language', whilst implying other languages are not, is somewhat misleading. Furthermore, if it's the 'shape' of the characters that convey a meaning, as suggested by the OP, then would someone reading the poem in traditional characters have a different, perhaps deeper, experience than someone reading it in simplified?

But besides the points mentioned above, I find the argument strange in another respect. Suppose someone read the chinese poem aloud to you. If you aren't actually looking at the characters, would you not get the same impression? What about if someone read it to you in English (or whatever your native language is)? Would your experience still be different in the two cases?

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realmayo
It is different than reading the hanzi for prison 獄 and seeing two dogs yelling at you.

I'm a bit puzzled by this. Do people really "see" those dogs, and think for a split second about two dogs arguing, every time they read this character? Isn't that a very cumbersome way to read? Now I guess they don't "see" those dogs when they say the word, so this would suggest for Chinese people speaking and reading the same character have very significant differences of meaning.

Also, when they see the characters 上课 are they thinking about a tongue licking a piece of fruit? Cos if they were, I think they'd be wrong to -- i.e. the 果 in 课 is phonetic, it brings no meaning (right?).

I read something on Sinosplice recently about translating, saying how important it was to translate common 成语 chengyu into everyday English, rather than translating the content of the idiom -- because these idioms are used all the time in Chinese without much thought to their original meaning or "story".

I could say "the same thought strikes me about characters." Now, I wouldn't expect you to conjure up the idea of me actually being physically STUCK by something. But then again, using the word "strike" does give more emphasis that if we said "realise" (probably because we have somehow internalised the metaphor of "strike" and now use it to mean a stronger form of "realise".

This is by way of saying that I think that when using regular language in a conventional way, the reader or the listener does not really bother with etymology or so on.

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gato
Consider this poem. I hope you can read it.

(New Concept Chinese for Children volume 3, lesson 3)

天上云彩真奇妙, 一天要变好几变.

云彩变成小白船, 飞得远远看不见.

云彩变成大狮子, 大风大雨马上来.

云彩变成胖娃娃, 追着太阳一起玩.

I was struck by its vividness.

I don't find this poem to be that vivid, but the English is probably even less so because it's difficult to keep the rhyme and rhythm in the translation. If you translate it by literal meaning, then it's going to sound very childish (which it is, at a certain level). The visual does add a little bit to the poem, but it's not that much in print. If it were written in beautiful calligraphy, you would be even more impressed, but it wouldn't be the poem itself that would be impressive, but the calligraphy.

Another factor is that depending on your level of Chinese, you might be more impressed by it than if you were at a higher level.

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creamyhorror
I'm guessing that a Chinese person learning English sees an agonizingly tedious string of code. An English speaker learning Chinese sees a string of code- but it isn't tedious: it is a string of pictures representing meaning directly, vividly. That is what I see.

If you're dealing with Chinese characters all the time (as a native speaker would be), you wouldn't see any literal pictures in that poem, so to speak. You'd see a bunch of words/symbols that might evoke ideas or images for you, but not in a way different from an English speaker skimming a similar poem in English.

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chalimac

I've found the Mishima quote:

"Romaji is awful," Mr. Mishima said flatly. "The visual effect of a Chinese character is very important." He slashed out the rounded, multi-stemmed character for "rose," and looked at it admiringly. "See how the rose appears physically in the shape of the Kanji," he said. "A writer loves to give such an effect to his readers."

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roddy
If you're dealing with Chinese characters all the time (as a native speaker would be), you wouldn't see any literal pictures in that poem, so to speak.

Thankfully. If I'm doing a translation about someone surnamed 林 I don't want to be closing my eyes and breathing in the scent of pine needles all the time.

I do think (and this has come up before) that when you're reading something in a foreign language it's very easy for the words to sneak past your general filters of cynicism and skepticism and actually hit you with what they mean. A new way of expressing an old sentiment in your native language might make an impact, and at first in your L2, everything is a new way of expressing an old sentiment. But I don't think it's anything specific to Chinese, or any other 'string of pictures'.

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creamyhorror
I do think (and this has come up before) that when you're reading something in a foreign language it's very easy for the words to sneak past your general filters of cynicism and skepticism and actually hit you with what they mean. A new way of expressing an old sentiment in your native language might make an impact, and at first in your L2, everything is a new way of expressing an old sentiment. But I don't think it's anything specific to Chinese, or any other 'string of pictures'.

Agreed, I experience this when I learn expressions in Japanese or the individual meanings of characters in a Chinese compound for the first time. Or even certain English expressions whose structures aren't immediately obvious and require explanation. But once you get used to the word or phrase and see it every day, you don't perceive anything about its inner structure anymore - you just use it as a set phrase, a single unit.

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renzhe
I do think (and this has come up before) that when you're reading something in a foreign language it's very easy for the words to sneak past your general filters of cynicism and skepticism and actually hit you with what they mean. A new way of expressing an old sentiment in your native language might make an impact, and at first in your L2, everything is a new way of expressing an old sentiment. But I don't think it's anything specific to Chinese, or any other 'string of pictures'.

I think that you're spot on with this.

Often, I will enjoy something in Chinese (or another language) that I would dismiss as trash or kitsch in my native language.

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imron
Often, I will enjoy something in Chinese (or another language) that I would dismiss as trash or kitsch in my native language.

Magic Mobile Phone FTW :mrgreen:

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rob07

I think it is fair to say that Chinese has a partially non-phonetic script and this can sometimes allow it to convey meaning in a way that a purely phonetic script would not be able to. It's a bit crude, but I particularly remember 陈清扬's description of a crowd of men perving at her (from 王小波's 黄金时代):

她看到在场的男人裤裆里都凸起来。她知道是因为她,但为什么这样,她一点不理解。

I found that quite shocking in a way that I don't think could be translated into a phonetic script.

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