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Guest Garzevro

Is CHINESE writing an IDEOGRAPHIC system?

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Guest Garzevro

Hello. Michael D. Coe *, professor of Anthropology at Yale University, says that Chinese writing is NOT ideographic. Is it a general scientific agreement? Do you agree on it?

"Sylvanus Morley [...] proposed three evolutionary stages for suppsed development of writing. Stage !: writing is pictographic. Stage 2: Ideographic writing appears in which the idea or object is given by a sign having no resemblance or only a distant similarity to it; Chinese script is the example given by Morley -the WORST possible one that he could have piced. Stage 3: phonetic writing [syllabic and later alphabetic]...There are so many things wrong with this scheme, it is hard to know where to begin. In the first place [...] there is no such thing as a pureley pictographic writing system, nor has ever been, even though pictures if reak objects, and parts of them, are used in some scripts. Point two, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN IDEOGRAPHIC SCRIPT, either. And finally, ALL KNOWN WRITING SYSTEMS ARE PARTLY OR WHOLLY PHONETIC, and express the sounds of a particular language." (see page 25).

Coe proposes this classification: "Logographic, syllabic, alphabetic: these are the three great classes of writing systems." (see page 30).

"Sumerian [...] is LOGOGRAPHIC, as are CHINESE and Egyptian [hieroglyphs]. This term indicates that its semantic element is expressed by logograms, a written sign which stands for a single morpheme, or (rareley) a complete word. If written sentences consisted only of logograms, which they never do, this would be pure semasiography, but the would-be reader would never gtet the message right." (see page 27).

"...Chinese, like all other logographic scripts know to scholarship, is actually higly phonet; at the same time it has a strongly semantic component." (see page 31).

*Bibliography:

COE, Michael D. "Breaking the Maya Code." Thames and Hudson Inc. , new York, 1995.

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Guest Anonymous

Those who call Hanzi ideographs tend to be quick to label things without doing much, if any, research. I don't completely blame them though. From a quick glance and the false impression given by traditional teaching in the Western world, Chinese writing seems to be ideographs because they're certainly not phonetic alphabets like what Europeans use.

However, I personally agree with Professor Coe. There are a great deal of phonetic elements in Hanzi. Many "basic" characters like 山,川,日,月,人 and even 一,二,三 were evolved from ideographs but how would someone explain a character like 的,了... etc. There are already many websites out there who can do a much better job at explaining the Chinese writing system. My personal favorite is Omniglot

http://www.omniglot.com/writing/chinese.htm

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Tsunku

Why is it that the phonetic aspects of Chinese get so little attention? I found learning the phonetics of Chinese one of the single most helpful things I did in regards to learning Chinese,, however, I was never taught these phonetics formally, it was something I picked up entirely on my own. I think if the phonetic component of Chinese was more widely taught, the written language would seem a lot more accesible. But most teachers, as far as I can tell, really gloss over this part, which is a pity.

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Guest Anonymous
Why is it that the phonetic aspects of Chinese get so little attention? I found learning the phonetics of Chinese one of the single most helpful things I did in regards to learning Chinese,, however, I was never taught these phonetics formally, it was something I picked up entirely on my own. I think if the phonetic component of Chinese was more widely taught, the written language would seem a lot more accesible. But most teachers, as far as I can tell, really gloss over this part, which is a pity.

A Chinese professor at my university mentioned something about the phonetic part of the Chinese writing system. I believe the main problem is that the Chinese writing system is difficult to define in Western terms and since it isn't written in Roman letters, it's been dismissively labelled as ideographs.

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pazu

I think it's indeed quite an urban myth that Chinese is ideographic, this myth even extends to some Chinese mind. I remember hearing a Chinese proclaimed how ideographic Chinese is and whenever he saw the character "笑" he wanted to laugh, "哭" then he wanted to cry, "美麗" is just beautiful to see, and "怒" made him furious.

Of course I can feel something just to read the text of Chinese, but isn't it the same as in English and other language? haha.

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smithsgj

(1) I too have heard it said that the look of a Chinese character is supposed to capture the sense of a word in some special (unique, "5000 years of history") way. But like Pazu I think this probably applies to all languages. If I see certain English adjectives (fierce, furious, tender spring to mind -- don't know why these, but for me they stand out) written down, they really convey the emotions to me in a visual way. Nothing to do with the sound.

Is "furious" really a furious-looking word, or is it just the power of association?

(2) OP:

"If written sentences consisted only of logograms, which they never do, this would be pure semasiography, but the would-be reader would never gtet the message right."

I don't understand this at all. What else, other than logograms, could a sentence in a logographic writing system consist of? Chinese isn't like Japanese, where logographic and syllabaric writing systems are combined!

OK, "logographic" is the term accepted by most linguists for classifying the Chinese writing system. They don't like "pictographic" because that calls to mind the little symbols with a crossed-out cigarette or whatever.

It's obvious that Chinese writing is not alphabetic (like English) or syllabary-based (like Hiragana). So it's "the other sort". But whether we call that ideographic or logographic or partially-symbol-driven or polka-dot-bikini is purely a matter of terminological convention. In what other contexts has anyone ever heard the terms "ideographic" and "logographic" anyway? If we were to break down the Greek terms, "writing an idea" (ideographic) would be preferable to the fatuous "writing a word" (logographic), in my opinion.

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Guest jekor
Why is it that the phonetic aspects of Chinese get so little attention? I found learning the phonetics of Chinese one of the single most helpful things I did in regards to learning Chinese,, however, I was never taught these phonetics formally, it was something I picked up entirely on my own. I think if the phonetic component of Chinese was more widely taught, the written language would seem a lot more accesible. But most teachers, as far as I can tell, really gloss over this part, which is a pity.

I completely agree. Even though mistakes and carelessness by scribes and writers have eroded much of the reliability of the phonetic components, the phonetic aspects of the writing system can still be helpful to learners.

Perhaps the problem is that the pronunciations can usually not be guessed for new characters. Teachers may not consider it worth the time to try and learn a system of pronunciation which will only be correct 10% of the time. However, while the pronunciations will hardly ever match exactly, they tend to be very close, which makes them an excellent memory aid.

The phonetic components of Chinese characters become perhaps even more useful while learning the Japanese writing system. Due to a more restricted syllabary, the Japanese on-yomi have even more homonyms which can be grouped by phonetics.

Logographic is perhaps the best single identifier for the Chinese writing system, but I wouldn't hesitate to classify it as at least logographic, syllabic, and phonetic. Of course, I could also classify English as logographic, syllabic, and phonetic (just not with the same ratios). So perhaps it's best to say that the Chinese writing system is predominantly logographic (even though I tend to lean towards predominantly syllabic myself).

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smithsgj

I don't know about this phonetic stuff. Only yesterday I saw 吻 and assumed it was pronounced wu -- there's a hell of a lot of red herrings out there. Once you get a feel for the language you can start to build your own system of mnemonics, but I can't quite see, Tsunku, what there is that could actually be taught.

Jekor, it's the "single identifier" we're interested in if the classification is to be anything other than vacuous, I'm sure you agree. But:

Doesn't "phonetic" subsume "syllabic"? And why is Chinese at all "syllabic"? It's clearly not syllabic in the sense that one symbol maps uniquely on to one syllable (like one symbol one mora in kana or bopomofo). Do you mean that one character represents one syllable? In that case, let's call it a "morphemic" language too!

I think there are two classes of writing system. Phonetically motivated and Not very phonetically motivated. The first you can subdivide into syllab(ar)ic, alphabetic and moraic if you want. Logographic is a bs term often used to describe the second class for no better reason than that people dislike the term "ideographic".

Actually, doesn't the use of "logographic" imply that each graph(eme)/character represents one word? Doesn't sound quite right to me.

How about morphosyllabographic?

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Guest Anonymous
I don't know about this phonetic stuff. Only yesterday I saw 吻 and assumed it was pronounced wu

That's because the Chinese spoken language has changed over the past 5,000 years while the writing remained pretty much the same. Maybe at one point, wen and wu are the same sound. There are still many other examples which still applies to modern spoken Chinese such as:

with tonal changes

ma -> 媽,嗎

same tones

ma2 -> 痲,嘛

li3 -> 裡,理,浬,俚,娌,哩,鋰,鯉

I'm sure there are many more but I'm too lazy to find more than I already have at the moment :-)

Doesn't "phonetic" subsume "syllabic"? And why is Chinese at all "syllabic"? It's clearly not syllabic in the sense that one symbol maps uniquely on to one syllable (like one symbol one mora in kana or bopomofo). Do you mean that one character represents one syllable? In that case, let's call it a "morphemic" language too!

That's arguable. For example, 里 can be said to represent the syllable of li since so many characters with 里 as a compnent is pronounced that way. Also, the Japanese Kana all derived from Chinese characters. The two that I know off the top of my head are あ which came from 安 and い which came from 以. Before the invention of Kana, Japanese had to pick Chinese characters with same sound as Japanese syllables to write words that don't have a Chinese equivlent. Koreans did the same thing before the invention of Hangul.

To slap the Chinese writing system with just a single label would be an act of close-mindedness. Besides, all these labels for different writing systems derived from the West, namely Europe, so it's no wonder it doesn't perfectly fit the Chinese language, which is in no way related to European languages.

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smithsgj

"To slap the Chinese writing system with just a single labe would be a mind of a close-minded person"

Fair point I suppose. But classifying languages is something that linguists do: typology. And if you have a system of classification that says everything belongs to all the possible classes then it's a bit daft surely.

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Guest Anonymous
"To slap the Chinese writing system with just a single labe would be a mind of a close-minded person"

Fair point I suppose. But classifying languages is something that linguists do: typology. And if you have a system of classification that says everything belongs to all the possible classes then it's a bit daft surely.

I understand that it's a linguist's job to slap a single label on a language. However there are two problems with that. First, not all the languages in the world would fit under Euro-centric standards. Second, because not all languages fit under Euro-centric standards, to slap only a single label would be misleading. Spreading misleading (and possibly false) information doesn't sound like a good scientific practice to me.

Just because something is "just the way it is" does that make it right? If we all thought that way then we would still be living in caves and darkness.

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smithsgj

I don't think the standard is particularly Euro-centric. A Chinese linguist (a proper one, not one who just waxed lyrical about how wonderful Chinese is) would say the same (I work with some of them). And there are no so-called logographic languages in Europe: the taxonomy is set up precisely to cater for all languages, not just European ones.

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niubi

though it was mentioned only in the way acknowledging the source of the quote. we do need to pay attention to professor coe's particular field of expertise, which is the maya, and though its outside the context of this forum; we should acknowledge his significant contributions to the field. i have to admit that i went to the yucatan in 1980 or so (before it was overrun by tourists) when i was 10 and have had in the past a keen interest in things maya. in fact during my first year of university i took a course in the maya with norman hammond; also took a course in eqyptian archaeology at that time as well. actually that first year of university was quite odd...i took a few courses for upperclassmen.

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Guest jekor
How about morphosyllabographic?

I believe DeFrancis classified Chinese as morphosyllabic. But morphosyllabographic would be fine with me.

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Guest Anonymous
I don't think the standard is particularly Euro-centric.

Who do you think started formal studies in languages?

A Chinese linguist (a proper one, not one who just waxed lyrical about how wonderful Chinese is) would say the same (I work with some of them).

That's because Chinese, and all other non-European people, just accepts whatever studies was conducted by one or two hundreds years ago. Non-Europeans have only in recent years started to contribute more to the study of languages. However, the very foundation of linguist standards are still very deeply Euro-centric. Not that it's bad, it's just too one-sided and biased.

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smithsgj
Who do you think started formal studies in languages?

It could have been the Greeks or Egyptians; but Chinese writers were certainly reflecting on language in the 3rd century BC.

The problem with most linguistic analysis until the end of the 19th century was that it was based on the grammar of Latin: this is as true for English as for Chinese. The first grammar of Chinese written by a Chinese, the 1898 Mashi Wentong, was clearly based on the structure of Latin. The same may be said of earlier grammars, written by missionaries.

Thus, until well into the last century, all linguistics, including European and Chinese, was strongly Latin-centric.

The inspiration for the study of modern descriptive linguistics came from the West, it is true. But the same is true of the scientific method, and the laws of physics!

Nowadays, many of the main contributors to both Chinese and Western linguistics, both theoretical and computational, are Chinese people. International journals are published and conferences held on Chinese languages.

You wrote: "That's because Chinese, and all other non-European people, just accepts whatever studies was conducted by one or two hundreds years ago."

It's not a case of the Chinese blindly accepting what early European scholars said. Are you suggesting that Chinese people et al are not capable of independent thought and academic rigour?

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Guest Anonymous
The problem with most linguistic analysis until the end of the 19th century was that it was based on the grammar of Latin: this is as true for English as for Chinese. The first grammar of Chinese written by a Chinese' date=' the 1898 Mashi Wentong, was clearly based on the structure of Latin. The same may be said of earlier grammars, written by missionaries.

Thus, until well into the last century, all linguistics, including European and Chinese, was strongly Latin-centric. [/quote']

I don't have knowledge regarding this issue but having the Chinese language based on Latin sounds incredible to me.

The inspiration for the study of modern descriptive linguistics came from the West, it is true. But the same is true of the scientific method, and the laws of physics!

Who denied that scientific method and the laws of physics weren't from the West? However, the study of liguistics is extremely subjective while sceintific method and the laws of physics are purely objective because it's "true" science. It either is or isn't. Language isn't so.

Nowadays, many of the main contributors to both Chinese and Western linguistics, both theoretical and computational, are Chinese people. International journals are published and conferences held on Chinese languages.

I believe I already acknowledged that. However, I was arguing that the very foundation of modern study of linguistics is Euro-centric still.

You wrote: "That's because Chinese, and all other non-European people, just accepts whatever studies was conducted by one or two hundreds years ago."

It's not a case of the Chinese blindly accepting what early European scholars said. Are you suggesting that Chinese people et al are not capable of independent thought and academic rigour?

No, that is not what I'm suggesting at all. In fact, I believe the Chinese people are perfectly capable of independent thought and academic rigour. However, because the modern knowledge of languages came from the Europeans, it's extremely difficult for the Chinese, or anyone else, to change the Euro-centric views. I wish the Chinese could've started their own research from scratch instead of accepting the European version but during that time, it was simply impossible with the Qing Dynasty being corrupted and China trying to defend herself from foreign invasions and all. It wasn't until recent decades did the Chinese society, be it China or Taiwan, become stable enough to start conducting scientific researches.

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ax

the knowledge of Chinese phonetical part only comes up subconsciously after you've learned a certain amount of Chinese characters and your brains classfies character's pattern and then you conclude the phonetic parts of those characters in the process.

I really wish someone will write a book about this or classifiy the phonetical part of Chinese character for reference sake. It's hard however to teach beginners about semantic and phonetic parts of Chinese character. They just couldn't take that at early stage and eat the 20 more strokes of characters one by one. When too much memory were occupied for these and character learning progress were hindered, they will change their learning habit, and at that same time they should be able to differ the parts of Chinese characters.

I sometimes feel that chinese character is just a propagation of stroke. Look at sample below: :-)

|, 冂, 囗, 日, 白, 百, 佰

一, 二, 三, 王, 任

丿, 人, 大, 夫, 失

ax

squabblemaker

www.chinesesquabble.com

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