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virgiliopoeta

Character reduction

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virgiliopoeta

Does anyone know if any of the character-simplification schemes ever contemplated a reduction in the number of the characters so that each of the 1100 or so syllables in Mandarin would correspond to one character only (instead of the 3 or 4 currently)?

It occurs to me that this might be a viable way of making literacy much more attainable, without disturbing the strong attachment of Chinese people to the characters. There would be no problems with homophony, because by definition each of the four tones of a given syllable would have its own character (provided the tone-syllable were in actual use). Of course, this would not permit the use of much semi-classical language, because quite different concepts would share the same character, but it would very accurately reproduce the spoken language, and would avoid the trauma of the literati in abandoning the commonest 1100 characters. I suspect that such a system would not be much more difficult than learning English spelling, for example, whereas learning 3000 or 4000 characters may forever preclude achieving even Japanese standards of literacy, much less the German or Scandinavian levels..

This is just a pet theory of mine, and I'm interested if anyone else has thought of it recently. I presume the Chinese reformers of the last century thought of this possibility, but perhaps the forces of conservatism were too strong to permit this? The number of characters WERE reduced, but only from 6000 to 3500 or so, which still leaves Chinese with an ideographic system much more complicated than ancient Sumerian, Akkadian or Egyptian. In those societies, like China, literacy was monopolized by a closed caste of priests or scholars or bureaucrats.

Those archaic societies were finally conquered by the first people to have a true alphabet (both consonants and vowels), viz the Greeks. The Greeks became the first people most of whose men could read. We in the West are still basically Greeks, culturally, whereas the Far East remains fascinated by China, of course.

English and French are in need of their own orthographic reforms, you know. Many of their spellings are so aphonetic as to resemble ideographs, and the percentage of Frenchmen or Americans that habitually read is noticeably lower than in Germany, where the writing system is highly phonetic. I noticed that in Germany, even day laborers read a newspaper during their breaks, which rarely occurs in America or France.

This may be another topic, but how much do Chinese workers read, and on what level? In Japan certain experts have observed a very limited literacy among the masses, where the kanji are concerned. And while Japan is now a very advanced nation technologically, the variety and range of their technology remains distinctly inferior to the Germans.

How expensive are books in China? In Japan they are much more expensive than in Germany, and also fewer in number, which suggests again that Japan has fewer habitual readers, due probably to their difficult writing system..

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芳芳

Bigre!:shock:

This is a world wide rehandling of all writing systems that you want...

Your intentions seem good but i'm not sure that homonyms are really a problem for chinese people. Maybe it will be easier for learners, but this shouldn't be a reason to change a language. As for english and french orthographic reforms, please, get rid of the idea. I'm too frightened to see one day everybody writing like teens write their SMS...

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wushijiao

There’s simply no way that China will change away from characters. Reforms in spelling seem to only occur at times of national crisis or during passionate revolutionary times.

Of educated Han Chinese people over, say, 14 years old or so, almost all (say 90-95%) can read a newspaper, I’d estimate. Moreover, illiterate people are completely powerless, politically speaking. So their opinions really don’t matter, nor do the opinion of us learners of Chinese! :wink:

Most words are bisyllabic, with characters serving as prefixes and suffixes to give you a general idea of what the word means. So, once you get to an intermediate level, I think the character system makes learning words a bit easier to remember compared to some European languages.

Anyway, I still find talk about proposed reforms to be interesting. Here’s a thread you might be interested in. This thread was started by David Moser, a fairly famous person in the learning Chinese community:

http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/1526-characters-are-objectively-harder-even-for-chinese&highlight=spelling+chinese+characters

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anonymoose

If the aim is only to simplify the written language, then surely reducing the number of characters from the 4000 or so in common use to 1100, as you say, is a fairly arbitrary step. I mean, it's still going to be complicated for learners, so I don't think the benefit would make the change worthwhile. 'If' characters were to be reformed, then why not just move to pinyin? I mean, then it really would be easy for most learners, since virtually everyone worldwide recognises latin characters even if they are not used in their native language. In spite of some people arguing that written chinese would be too ambiguous, given the number of homophones, my personal opinion is that it would be feasible. And if latin script is too alien to the Chinese, then how about a system like Korean? Those characters look similar enough to Chinese characters, yet are constructed from an 'alphabet' of just 24 elements. Each chinese syllable could easily be represented in such a way by combining elements for 'initials', 'finals' and tones into a single character.

Having said that, I've just been playing the devil's advocate here. I'm in no favour of abolishing or reducing the number of characters. In fact, it was this interesting writing system that attracted me to Chinese in the first place.

Now, with regard to your point about the number of habitual readers in China, Japan and Europe, I don't agree. Books may be expensive in Japan, but guess what, everything in Japan is expensive. On the other hand, books are ridiculously cheap in China, at least by European standards. I don't think the price of books and the number of readers is related to the complexity of the language. (The number of readers may be related to the price of books, but that is a separate issue.) Assuming your supposition that Japan has less habitual readers than Germany is true, I'd say a more likely explanation would be that Japanese people simply don't have as much spare time to devote to activites such as reading as do Europeans.

I think the number of habitual readers of a particular language are much more influenced by factors such as culture and education than the inherent complexity of the language.

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virgiliopoeta

Actually, I strongly agree that pinyin is a much better vehicle for a Chinese writing system than mere character reduction. It is true that there is a certain limited problem with homophones if the tones are not indicated, but on the other hand, if polysyllabic words are written as one word and not as a succession of isolated syllables, this provides MUCH MORE contextual sense clues than the spoken language. So, what is lost through not indicating the tones is gained by combining syllables into words. Also, as many have pointed out here before, the Chinese already use pinyin constantly in typing.

I think it is a great irony that so many traditionalists - people who literally worship the characters - end up using English, a foreign language to communicate, when Chinese would really serve their needs better, and would doubtless be learnt by many more people throughout the world, if it only used an alphabet. It is pointless to lament that an alphabet would cut Chinese off from their cultural roots - which are indeed very precious to all humanity - for they are ALREADY cut off, by abandoning the classical literary language. But this abandonment was as inevitable as that Europe would abandon Latin.

I strongly disagree that 90% or more of Chinese can read a newspaper or novel with no problem. Among the Chinese I know this is not true. Even those that do, continually guess at the exact meaning in a way that would be unimaginable in the West.

I agree that it is most unlikely that any serious reform of the Chinese writing system will likely be attempted by the authorities in the near future. In China the educated minority exerts a tremendous pressure to keep things the way they are, or to INCREASE the complexity, because this gives them a great socio-economic advantage that alphabet-using elites do not have. This is an old theory, but no one has ever seriously challenged it. Communism struggled against this regrettable tendency, but appears to be losing the battle.

I would like to make it clear that I am not on a crusade to tell others how to write any language. It is however very interesting to think about such questions.

My interest in this subject has been intensified because of my translation of the Aeneid into English verse, where I have had to devise a phonetic alphabet to indicate the correct pronunciation of the proper nouns such as Anchemolus or Euander.

There is a fascinating story about the role that the Japanese kanji played in their defeat in the last world war. I don't know if it's true. Supposedly, the American and British code-breakers broke the Japanese code because Tokyo didn't change them very often - it was simply too inconvenient to change thousands of signs every few days, and the authorities assumed that Westerners could not understand them. Indeed, one would think that the code of a complicated writing system would be more, not less difficult to break, but apparently that is not how it turned out. Everyone knows of course, that the Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk at Midway because the Americans knew exactly where they were, from reading the Japanese codes.

In retrospect it is amazing that the Japanese could have made such progress by the 40s, with whole villages full of illiterates - illiterate because of the kanji. But even as they were invading China, they were still blinded by their respect for the Chinese characters.

Finally, I would observe that there is no NECESSARY connection between the use of a highly phonetic alphabet and national power. Latin America uses two languages with highly phonetic writing systems, but remains weak and disorganized, because in most of these countries a few rich landowners monopolize all power. The whole area is a revolution waiting to happen, and has been for two centuries.

On the other hand, the use of a clumsy, archaic writing system definitely does place very real limits on what a people can achieve, or so history would seem to teach us. Even today neither Japan nor China have anything like the military power that America and Russia have. Japan has indeed achieved great technological prowess, but largely by copying European science, and their system seems now to have ossified, with most of their companies bankrupt. Japan is now further behind Germany in the sciences (and in export markets) than she was 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, outside of Latin America, the countries in the West with the most phonetic writing systems are also the most dynamic economically: Germany, Scandinavia, Holland, Italy and Spain. France, with a less phonetic orthography, is less dynamic, and least dynamic of all are Britain and America, where the writng system is so unphonetic as to be of almost Chinese complexity, at least so far as the vowels are concerned.

Having said all this, I personally find the Chinese characters very interesting to learn, partly because I like most Chinese people I have met, and can well understand how many Chinese would value their writing system so much. Alas, they will pay dearly one day for giving so much time to the mere mechanics of writing.

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liuzhou

One question virgiliopoeta, if you don't mind.

Do you actually know Chinese?

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ange9s

The Germans lost the second world war without Kanji, and I'm with Liuzhou, i've heard plenty of beginning Chinese students wondering why they had to learn hanzi instead of just pinyin. If your ideas were more specific, you might differentiate yourself from them.. Try reading a Tang poem in pinyin (or hanzi for that matter, as a foreigner) and deciphering any meaning out of it.

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ange9s

I'd also be interested in finding out where these statistics come from (such as how many day laborers are reading and what), as I suspect it's just conjecture on your part. Does having a higher population of habitual readers make a country stronger? I'd suggest that if those habitual readers are habitually reading The DaVinci Code, a country would be better off with a bunch of TV watchers. If you think Germany's destined to return as a world power based on its propensity for reading, I'd have to disagree (I have been impressed by their showing at the World Cup, though).

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ange9s

Sorry to post again, but I'd also point out that, despite what the one book you read that caused you to garner this whole opinion has told you, Latin America is a continent, not just a single country. And they speak other languages, not just Spanish and Portuguese.

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Shadowdh

It never ceases to amaze me when an incredibly ethno centric view point is offered at how the x can do better if only they followed y...

I have heard that there are about 1600 syllables in 汉语... is this not correct...??

Each language has their foibles... deal with it...

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Lu
On the other hand, the use of a clumsy, archaic writing system definitely does place very real limits on what a people can achieve, or so history would seem to teach us. Even today neither Japan nor China have anything like the military power that America and Russia have.
For most of its history, China was way ahead of Europe, despite only a very small minority of the people being able to read and write, and even they wrote in an 'archaic writing system'. Even today (Western) generals and managers read Sunzi, who wrote his Art of War, you guessed it, in classical Chinese.

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Taibei
Does anyone know if any of the character-simplification schemes ever contemplated a reduction in the number of the characters so that each of the 1100 or so syllables in Mandarin would correspond to one character only (instead of the 3 or 4 currently)?

Sure. Frustrations with the difficulty of Chinese characters have promped literally thousands of proposals for writing reform. Here is an example of one possibility (not proposed seriously, BTW) for using a character set limited to the number of Mandarin's syllables. Tone marks would be added, where necessary. For more on this, see Chinese, from Visible Speech.

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xichg

I think most Chinese people like me will not take your proposal seriously. And if you really knew Chinese language you wouldn't have made this proposal to reduce number of Hanzi. And the proposal to switch to pinyin is as bad an idea as reduce the number of Hanzi. I can't imagine a world without Hanzi for Chinese people. There would be great confusion and havoc. And for most Chinese reading pinyin is pain as hell. My hanzi reading speed is like 100 times of that of reading pinyin. Maybe pinyin suits some foreign learners, but it's not for proper reading for Chinese people. And hanzi never hindered people's ability of reading. I read the whole novel 铁道游击队 and a Russian novel 钢铁是怎么炼成的 when I was in grade 2 and grade 3 (about 10 years old). To tell you the truth, i really enjoyed reading novels like this at a young age and I think I understood them very well. Sure, I may turn to my dad for a difficult Hanzi I didn't know in a while, but that didn't hurt the reading. I am not sure if you can say the same thing about a 10 year old American boy reading 'Gone with the wind' or novels like this. And i was not exceptional. All my classmates read serious books at a young age. We exchanged a lot of books to read.

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virgiliopoeta

Thanks a lot, Taibei, I will look at the references you gave me.

Lu, China was indeed much more civilized than Europe during the Tang period, but this was because Europe was in the middle of the Dark Ages. No one questions that a culture can, under very favorable circumstances, achieve great things despite mass illiteracy. This is especially true of artisanal knowledge, such as the Chinese have always excelled in. Most of our food crops were domesticated by the Sumerians, who like the Chinese, used an ideographic script.

Nevertheless, the modern scientific world traces its origins not to China, but to Greece and Europe. Not that China has failed to contribute to mankind's scientific advance, but that obviously it has played a secondary role during most of its history, despite its great population.

On the other hand, the literary and general civilization of China is of extraordinary value. The sexual mores of pre-20th century China, for example, were much more tolerant and civilized than those of the Christian West - more rational and less superstitious. Like the Sumerians and Egyptians, China developped a rich literature. But this literature has always been a closed book to the masses, and still is.

However, the point is that this civilization, despite its great virtues, is either dead or dying. Certainly the modern Chinese would hardly be recognized by their ancestors, especially in the cities where western influence is strongest. On the whole, I find this something to lament.

You may be interested to look at the experience of the other great civilizations that used an ideographic script. The Sumerians/Akkadians and the Egyptians were conquered by the Greeks, and their upper classes adopted Greek as their literary language for a millenium. After centuries of foreign domination, the Egyptians finally adopted an alphabet, but were then conquered by the Arabs, who had adopted a form of the Aramaic alphabet. Egyptian civilization perished. The Akkadians adopted the Aramaic alphabet in very late times, but because this alphabet lacked vowels it could not compete with the Greek alphabet, or with Greek, or with the later Arabic. This civilization also perished. The Aztecs were easily conquered by a few thousand Spaniards.

China escaped outright conquest only because the Western powers could not agree on how to carve her up. China is still very weak militarily compared to either Russia or the U.S., and gets much of her most effective weaponry from Russia.

I would say there is an amazingly strong, clear relation between mass literacy, potential national power and the use of a simple, phonetic alphabet.

As to Germany, she was indeed defeated in both world wars, but is took virtually the whole world fighting against her to do it. Her allies were weak and backward, although Japan in the Second World War did draw off perhaps a third of the American forces.It is likely no accident that Germany has the most phonetic alphabet of the major powers. There are more than a million books in print in German (second only to English with around 2 million) and these books have a higher average circulation and are written using a wider vocabulary, and at a higher general level than in English. In some years more new books are printed in Germany (85 million people) than in the U.S. (250 million anglophones). To this day it is impossible to learn Chemistry without a good knowledge of German - over 98% of the compounds have been described only in German - not in English. Actually French is the second most important language in Chemistry, not English, because the French have translated about a quarter of the Chemische Berichte. Should Germany ever rearm, she would automatically dominate Europe, and is now in a stronger position than in 1939, economically and financially.

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kudra

You may be interested to look at the experience of the other great civilizations that used an ideographic script. The Sumerians/Akkadians and the Egyptians were conquered by the Greeks, and their upper classes adopted Greek as their literary language for a millenium.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Egyptian Hieroglyphs are primarily phonetic, else they would not have been deciphered and my kids couldn't get their names written using them by a teenage docent at the museum.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heiroglyphics

And as for the notion of the Chinese using an "ideographic script" you must first answer to

DeFrancis

http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/ideographic_myth.html

found in

http://www.pinyin.info/readings/chinese_language.html

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kudra

To this day it is impossible to learn Chemistry without a good knowledge of German...

Any Chemistry PhDs out there care to comment?

For those of us with only 1st year university level chemistry or less, check

http://www.chemistry.org/portal/a/c/s/1/home.html

for the suggested German curriculum. Let me know if you find it.

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mrtoga

I think this must be a wind up.

Looked at from another angle, many young Chinese are now able to read in pinyin (phonetic) and Chinese characters. This gives them the ability to directly understand meanings conceptually as well as indirectly through phonetic "explanations"

For instance 喘息 - "gasp breath" Chinese for asthma. Which of these "words" is more accessible to learners?

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xichg

喘息 means breathe or catch a breath. The world you want here is 哮喘 instead.

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Lugubert
Correct me if I'm wrong, but Egyptian Hieroglyphs are primarily phonetic, else they would not have been deciphered and my kids couldn't get their names written using them by a teenage docent at the museum.

From a page to which you yourself link

Hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of glyphs: phonetic glyphs, including single-consonant characters that functioned like an alphabet; logographs, representing morphemes; and determinatives, or ideograms, which narrowed down the meaning of a logographic or phonetic word.

Among the 800 hieroglyphs that have been found, only 24 are like "single letters". The wiki page shows several 2- and 3-letter examples.

Any Chemistry PhDs out there care to comment?

I'm a M.Chem.Eng., oder in diesem Zusammenhang Dipl.Ing. 1) I perhaps wouldn't have been, if I in high school hadn't found a thorough and interesting German book on inorganic chemistry in the city library, 2) at the Uni we had to use German for an assignment which included searching publications like the Chemische Berichte mentioned.

During university (Technische Hochschule :wink: ), few books were in German. But for example, 35 years later, my Biochemie is less than 2 meters away from my computer. It still is great for basics, despite all things that have been found out since is printing in 1972. So I'd say that at the very least, German is a great help during less advanced stages, and probably indispensable for doctoral studies.

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virgiliopoeta

It is of course possible to study Chemistry without knowing a word of German, but not beyond the intermediate level. No one is a real chemist without at least being able to read the German of the Chemische Berichte and similar publications. This is a matter of common knowledge in the chemical world, and needs no proof.

Some of the Egyptian hieroglyphs did indeed have a phonetic signification, but the system as a whole was, of course, roughly analogous to the Chinese characters. There has always been a theory that the first quasi-alphabet of the North Syrians or Phoenicians borrowed certain of its consonants from some of these hieroglyphs. I am no expert on this, however.

Personally I find the Chinese characters interesting and not impossibly difficult to learn or remember for a very bookish sort of person, but they are obviously a very poor substitute for an alphabet. At any rate all the Chinese I know (none of them fully literate in the characters however) treat them as a kind of curse.

I believe someone made the point that (for native speakers) compound words are easier to learn in Chinese than in English. This would certainly be true if Chinese were written in an alphabet, because Chinese, like German, constructs most of its compound words from native roots. English on the other hand, somewhat like Japanese, uses mainly foreign roots in its compounds. But English is one of those rare languages like Romanian or Japanese or Farsi that has been thoroughly infiltrated by another language. In the case of English the infiltration (by French) long ago proceeded so far that the language is really a close merger of two quite different linguistic elements, so that it is now inconceivable that they could ever be separated. Further, the prestige of Latin and Greek is even today, very great, so that any educated person in the West knows hundreds of Latin and Greek roots as a matter of course. The case could be made that this is analogous to the Chinese learning their characters, in the sense that rote memorization is required. But I don't think that memorizing some hundreds of foreign roots in an alphabet is as difficult as memorizing 4000 characters, especially since many of these roots are heard every day in the living speech, and so are not really foreign..

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