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

querido

A disadvantage of phonetic languages

Recommended Posts

querido

Thanks for all of your thoughtful comments. I can't engage all of you. I'll try to remember to restrict the scope of my posts, and entitle them more carefully.

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.
Yes. And I hope this newness persists.

Trying again...

"天" is like a picture. This is true to some arguable extent which is not my point. Any phonetic re-representation of "天" is not itself like a picture. Thus, it can be argued that "天" can be one step more immediate in the visual sphere, as though it were a photo inserted into the poem.

Looking for a corresponding advantage held by a phonetic writing system, the onomatopoeia (words such as "chirp", "boom", etc) suggests itself. But this is not equivalent. The written word "chirp" does not resemble a sound. Once decoded, it prompts the sound, but it is not itself like a sound present on the page.

An example of representing sound in writing might be musical notation. The symbols used *still* don't resemble sound, yet they hold a big advantage over the words that would otherwise be necessary to communicate the same information. Any musician who uses musical notation would tell you that it is more immediate than some equivalent string of words. This is why it was invented.

Thus, the Chinese writing system offers an advantage in the visual sphere, to some arguable degree, that a phonetic writing system cannot match *even in the auditory sphere*.

I'll give you a to-the-point counterargument as follows:

Many hanzi do not look like or point to their meanings as "天" does. Thus, the *essential* fact is not that 天 looks like a picture; the essential liberating fact is that it is free of the phoneticizing layer. That it looks like or points to its meaning is a convenience, but is inessential. So, suppose you were not told how to pronounce this next symbol, upon seeing an alphabet for the first time: "sky". You were told that these marks refer to the big space up above. At a glance you know what it means, as though it were a logogram (or whatever). Where is the disadvantage then?

And I'll answer it:

There wouldn't be one.

But if you are really able to ignore your knowledge of the sounds and use this "whole word logogram" method, I would opine that hanzi are better suited symbols.

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.

creamyhorror
At a glance you know what it means, as though it were a logogram (or whatever). Where is the disadvantage then?

And I'll answer it:

There wouldn't be one.

But if you are really able to ignore your knowledge of the sounds and use this "whole word logogram" method, I would opine that hanzi are better suited symbols.

1) How do you know this isn't true for English readers already?

2) Even if hanzi don't have a phonetic layer, it doesn't mean you could move any more directly from them to a visual image. It doesn't mean they're any "better suited" to the role. Ask equally bilingual speakers who were brought up in both languages. Do they think Chinese, in a standard printed form, is any more evocative than English? I'd wager not.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
renzhe
At a glance you know what it means, as though it were a logogram (or whatever). Where is the disadvantage then?

And I'll answer it:

There wouldn't be one.

There would be one as soon as you moved beyond sky and flower and towards 得 and 了.

That's why I said that a purely phonetic script cannot exist. You can design pictographic symbols for some concepts, but much of the spoken language defies such representation, so such a written system can never be complete, and thus can never record the whole language.

Which is why people started using pictograms phonetically in the first place.

I also have to admit that I don't see how, for example, "鐘" evokes a vivid picture that "clock" doesn't, or why it would be easier to understand or learn for a new learner.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
chalimac
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.

Thanks for that quote. It reminded me I needed to buy some Wang Xiaobo book.

Edited by chalimac

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
anonymoose
You were told that these marks refer to the big space up above. At a glance you know what it means, as though it were a logogram (or whatever).

I don't think having a logographic writing system is a prerequisite to this phenomenon. I think you'll find most experienced readers of alphabetic languages such as English, treat words as logograms, in that the meaning of the word is recognised directly through its shape rather than analysing it letter by letter.

Interestingly, I noticed that when I was teaching English to young Chinese children (about 4 years old), many of them would also be able to recognise simple words like 'bird', 'rabbit' and so on, just from the physical appearance of the printed words, even though they were unable to analyse the sounds letter by letter.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
realmayo

It would be interesting to know if any native speaker of Chinese finds that, when reading English or French or Vietnamese or other "abc" languages, they are missing out on a pictorial element present in Chinese.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
querido

To creamyhorror:

1) I said I was offering a counterargument...

It *is* largely true for skilled readers of English. I know this because I can speed-scan English without forming the sounds.

2) You disagree with that final statement. O.K. What about the rest of it? (Between "Trying again..." and "even in the auditory sphere".) I didn't say "more evocative". I have focused on a subjective impression offered by the hanzi in a visual poem such as this one. Roddy provided the bulk of the explanation, while I think more is there.

Is it really likely that there is *no* difference?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
querido

To realmayo:

It would be interesting to know if any native speaker of Chinese finds that, when reading English or French or Vietnamese or other "abc" languages, they are missing out on a pictorial element present in Chinese.

The *exact* question I would be interested in is this, and I think it is fair: Ask a native Chinese speaker who is fully fluent in both hanzi and pinyin, whether or not he experiences pinyin as an unnecessary layer. This is what the reader of English faces: meaning, plus a tedious encoding of pronunciation that is (as has been argued) largely superfluous to a skilled reader who already knows it.

While the Chinese speaker has this option, the English speaker is stuck with the additional mass.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
anonymoose
The *exact* question I would be interested in is this, and I think it is fair: Ask a native Chinese speaker who is fully fluent in both hanzi and pinyin, whether or not he experiences pinyin as an unnecessary layer.

Why is this a better or fair question? The system that one is most used to will seem the most convenient, so of course native Chinese speakers will be more comfortable with characters. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in China who has had equal exposure to pinyin and characters.

How about turning it around and asking native speakers of Korean or Vietnamese who are also proficient in hanzi whether writing in hanzi adds anything of value to their own language.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
creamyhorror
2) You disagree with that final statement. O.K. What about the rest of it?

I thought that was the summary of your opinion, so I focused on it. You also said:

Thus, the Chinese writing system offers an advantage in the visual sphere, to some arguable degree, that a phonetic writing system cannot match *even in the auditory sphere*.

We were just talking about how symbols/logograms rapidly lose their visual significance and become pure meaning as you become more familiar with them. This is how any "advantage in the visual sphere" becomes meaningless, in my view. Renzhe and anonymoose make good points too about how English can be logographically read and how hanzi can be too complex to offer any "visual advantage". But really, the proof lies in the (subjective) experience of bilingual folks, who can compare English and Chinese in this respect.

I have focused on a subjective impression offered by the hanzi in a visual poem such as this one. Roddy provided the bulk of the explanation, while I think more is there.

Right, so you agree with him that it's primarily a sensation experienced by learners (and not for experienced or native speakers).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
zhwj

Somewhat relevant was a recent discussion on the Songshuhui forums (summarized here) over a question someone asked about why characters sometimes seem strange, to the point that after writing a character correctly, they'll think it's actually wrong.

One comment brought up a "gotcha" joke: If "three-dot water" 氵 and the character "come" 来 (lái) is pronounced lái (涞), then what is the pronunciation of "three-dot water" and the character "go" 去 (qù)? People often can't answer immediately, and occasionally someone will ask "Is that really a character?"

On the same site is a discussion of the visual-neurological process involved in reading a Chinese character. Evidently meaning is derived from a character through its phonetic association.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
realmayo
who is fully fluent in both hanzi and pinyin, whether or not he experiences pinyin as an unnecessary layer

Disagree. Pinyin is not designed as a substitute for Hanzi -- reading anything not super-simple in pinyin is surely going to be cumbersome. So this would not be a suitable question.

Also 天。 I mean, this looks like a sky to you? seriously?!! I don't know about you, but when I look up at the sky I see nothing remotely like 天. Come on!

If I see the word "sky" in isolation I'm just as likely to have an image of a sky come to mind as I am if I see 天。 I'm also just as likely to have the sound "sky" or "tian" come to mind when seeing "sky" or 天 on the page.

a tedious encoding of pronunciation

Again: what about 课? The component 果 in this character is indicating pronunciation.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
chalimac
Also 天。 I mean, this looks like a sky to you? seriously?!! I don't know about you, but when I look up at the sky I see nothing remotely like 天. Come on!

Some posters in this thread are so keen on stressing the phonetic element that they seem to overlook that this does not invalidate the fact that there are indeed a lot of pictographic hanzi.

If 飞 doesn't suggest flying or 雨 rain then I do not know what.

A visual enjoyment of the shapes and their allusions in the act of reading Chinese is perfectly justified and a different, not superior, sensation to that of reading alphabetic languages.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
querido

To renzhe:

I resisted with all of my heart, but gradually over many years I accepted how elusive "certainty" really is.

If his argument is certain, then it is a triviality: a tautology. Probably, he included an auditory or phonetic component as a necessary feature of his definition of "language", and then went on to prove that the language can't be expressed completely without auditory or phonetic aspects encoded into the writing system- proving what he has assumed.

Here, you do it yourself:

a non-phonetic written language cannot possibly exist.
Really? The statement as it stands is false: Algebra is one of an unlimited number of non-phonetic written languages; binary algebra is the language computers speak, and computer scientists have demonstrated pretty convincingly a full range of phenomena that can be decomposed into binary-algebraic expressibility. Your statement is true as you intend it because you've already included an auditory or phonetic aspect as necessary to your definition of "language", a human, oral aspect. Then at the end of it all, you succeed in proving what you've already assumed.

Consider a super-intelligent species of alien beings who have various sensory organs, but no speech or hearing. Do you exclude as impossible, that they could have developed a fully satisfactory language, as you have excluded the possibility that the deaf-mute could do the same, without borrowing from us:

There's nothing stopping such a person from obtaining knowledge of a written language
From whom? From those of us who can speak and hear?

If your claim is merely that the aliens would find it hard or impossible to communicate to us ideas expressed in terms of their unique sense organs, and vice-versa, much like the difficulty of explaining color to a blind person, then this is an interesting philosophical problem. But really, I intended my original post to be a great deal simpler than all of this.

To creamyhorror:

Thank you for zeroing-in on my post.

Right, so you agree with him that it's primarily a sensation experienced by learners (and not for experienced or native speakers).
Primarily? Yes, I concede this- and I'm very happy about it!

As I said, I think there is a more, but I can't really argue it.

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.
See the reasonable qualifications?

Thanks again.

To realmayo:

Disagree. Pinyin is not designed as a substitute for Hanzi
That's not what I meant. I think I'm claiming that English is like a system of meanings, with the phonetic transcription permanently affixed in place of what could have been logographs (or whatever), with no option. This would be equivalent to what the Chinese reader faces, reading pinyin, assuming he is fluent in it.
Also 天。 I mean, this looks like a sky to you?
I said throughout: "like" a picture, "resembling or pointing to" an object. I repeat: it is a pointer to a meaning, without the dead-weight of a phoneticization attached and repeated ad-nauseum, as I've argued English is stuck with. I argued that in a poem like this one, that would be a disadvantage, unnecessary, superfluous, as though having to read it in pinyin. I only regret the over-general thread title.

To chalimac:

Right on brother! It's just that childishly obvious to me!

Edited by querido

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
roddy

Merged four posts - there's an edit button if you think of more to say . . .

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
renzhe
I resisted with all of my heart, but gradually over many years I accepted how elusive "certainty" really is.

You don't need an alien analogy. Deaf and mute people communicate via sign language, which is not phonetic and is essentially purely symbolic.

Alas, sign language also uses phonetic spelling of words for which there is no gesture available, or when the user doesn't know it. Just like the Japanese use kana, and Koreans use hangul to expand on the characters.

Chinese is the exception, because Classical Chinese is not a spoken language, but there is an increasing trend of using characters phonetically all over the place as the written language approaches spoken language. And that's why the Chinese write "wheat" to mean "come", instead of using an evocative picture. "來" might look like a picture, but it is actually no different than an "o" or a "b". A symbol that lost its original meaning used as a phonetic marker.

That's why I claim that every writing system of a spoken language has to be phonetic. That's why I said "written language" and "express all spoken language". Perhaps I worded it too casually.

Really? The statement as it stands is false: Algebra is one of an unlimited number of non-phonetic written languages; binary algebra is the language computers speak, and computer scientists have demonstrated pretty convincingly a full range of phenomena that can be decomposed into binary-algebraic expressibility.

I will be convinced when someone translates Ba Jin or Percy Bysshe Shelley into algebra.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
rob07
A visual enjoyment of the shapes and their allusions in the act of reading Chinese is perfectly justified

Completely agree with this. Just remembered that I presciently posted the following ditty in the "Word of the Day" thread a few days ago:

衙门八字开, 有理无钱莫进来

I think 八字开 is a great word!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and select your username and password 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...