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virgiliopoeta

Character reduction

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

...It is likely no accident that Germany has the most phonetic alphabet of the major powers.....

I think you've gone too far...

wonder what Germany was doing in the 500 years preceding its ascendence in the 20th century.... when Spain, France, Britain roamed the earth...

Fortune, more than anything else caused great powers to rise and fall..... one could of course put a little start and end tag on a particular country's timeline and then declare hey this is the greatest country ever...

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kudra

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.

By which I take it that you mean that Egyptian and Chinese are not primarily phonetic, but instead primarily ideographic, or symbolic. Which is completely at odds with DeFrancis.

My Dilettante Disclaimer: All I know about Egyptian is what I've read from the DeFrancis link, and some forgotten details of the decipherment from Simon Singh's "The Code Book."

Paraphrasing shamelessly from DeFrancis "The Ideographic Myth", in the link above:

Decipherment of this script had long been impeded by the notion that it was symbolic of ideas.... As Gordon stresses: "The decipherment of Hieroglyphic Egyptian required the replacement of the deep-seated notion of symbolism by the correct view that the main (though not the only) feature of the script is phonetic."

Champollion's success in deciphering the Egyptian script was due to his recognition of its phonetic aspect. ... These insights won by Champollion are supported by the succinct description of the Egyptian system of writing made by a recent authority: "The system of hieroglyphic writing has two basic features: first, representable objects are portrayed as pictures (ideograms), and second, the picture signs are given the phonetic value of the word for the represented objects (phonograms). At the same time, these signs are also written to designate homonyms, similar-sounding words" (Brunner 1974:854). The same authority also stresses that "hieroglyphs were from the very beginning phonetic symbols. ... Egyptian writing was a complete script; that is, it could unequivocally fix any word, including all derivatives and all grammatical forms" (Brunner 1974:853-855).

Champollion, however, overemphasized the use of "phonetic hieroglyphs" in transcribing foreign names .... Moreover, referring to the use of the symbols to write words foreign to the language, he added (1822:4): "The Chinese, who also use an ideographic script, have exactly the same provision, created for the same reason." It is ironic that the scholar who demonstrated the falsity of the old belief in Egyptian as symbolic and nonphonetic should have helped to popularize terms that powerfully reinforced the popular misconception of both the Egyptian and Chinese systems of writing.

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Lugubert

I think one problem in the dicussion is that there seems to be different understandings of "phonetic". In one way, all scripts are "phonetic", in that what is written can be read aloud. The hieroglyph meaning 'whisk' (and looking like one) was probably pronounced msj plus some vowels that at least so far can't be elucidated. The sign in itself gives no clue at all to the pronunciation.

If you are lucky, you might make a fairly correct guess on the pronunciation of a Chinese character that you never have seen before. For example, let's say you know that is lán, is làn, is lán. If you encounter and haven't seen it before, you'd probably guess the correct lán. No such thing in Egyptian. It is "phonetic" only in the same way that I could look at a picture of a Volvo and "read" volvo.

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virgiliopoeta

The alphabet of the North Syrians lacked vowels, so their 'alphabet' could not reliably transcribe speech in a non-ambiguous manner. Instead, writers had to use stereotyped phrases - somewhat as in Akkadian or in classical Chinese - or readers could not decode the writer's meaning. True, Aramaic is more consonant-centered than indo-european languages, but it remains true that no literate public of any appreciable size ever developped in any country until Greece of the 7th centure BCE.

Once the Greeks developped a true alphabet by adding seven vowels, quite suddenly the world's first mass literate public appeared. Within five centuries afterwards, half the civilized world was under the sway of Greek princes. Rome and later the Arabs and Europeans derived most of their science and higher culture from the Greeks. Surely this is no mere play of fortune. Greece is a mere flyspeck on the map compared to China or India or the Middle East, but it is no exaggeration to say that today even China and India are as much Greek - or Western - in culture as Chinese or Indian. Did not the alphabet play an obvious role in permitting the so-called 'Greek miracle"?

Every people that has dominated the planet since the Greeks - the Romans, the Arabs, the Spanish, the French, the English, the Americans, the Russians - have used an alphabet. China never attempted to expand, because her tiny literate class was satisfied to dominate the vast illiterate masses of China itself.

I have no particular emotional bond with the Germans, I merely pointed out that they are a very important force in the world. Does anyone imagine that if they used an ideographic script with thousands of characters, and had a very low rate of full literacy, that they would be so formidable?

Until the 8th century CE, and perhaps as late as the sack of Constantinople in 1204 CE, there were more Greek books on earth than in all other languages combined. Modern civilization is largely the creation of peoples who are the cultural inheritors of the Greeks.

China indeed is certainly not a quantite negligeable in civilization, but the fact remains that with all its vastness and very real contributions to civilization, it has not dominated the world - which is what one would have expected, given its size. Instead, its traditional culture has been supplanted by a kind of pseudo-Western culture of dubious value. I think that Chinese people who want to preserve their own culture may well find that an alphabet would be a very important tool to use. For it is not the form that a culture takes - the characters - but what meaning they have to convey, that is most important. Would it not be better if all Chinese could easily read translations of their classical literature in an alphabet, than to read only at an elementary or intermediate level, using the characters?

I understand however that highly literate people are naturally proud of their accomplishment in learning thousands of characters. The same sort of misguided conservatism is present in the anglophone countries. English spelling has gradually become so unphonetic that the majority never fully master it, and are discouraged from reading. The level of difficulty is comparable to learning hundreds of characters, because many of the most common words are in fact glyphs, not really spellings at all.

An yet, it wood bee veree eezee tu ruform inglish speling, am make it apsuluetlee foenedik..

English, like Chinese, is quite monosyllabic (especially spoken English), with hundreds of homonyms, as in the preceding sentence, where one finds 'wood' and 'bee', but the context makes it perfectly clear that no wood or bees are involved. In spoken English, by the way, much as in Chinese, homonyms are often distinuished by tones: 'would be' and 'wood-bee' are not pronounced in the same tone. Again, 'am' and 'and' are pronounced alike in certain positions (though in different tones), and also 'an' and 'and', but the context makes it instantly clear to a native speaker which meaning is intended.

The most reasonable rule to follow is that the writing system of a language should correspond closely enough to the spoken language so that there is never ambiguity, but not so closely that the system becomes needlessly complex. To indicate the dozen or more tones of English is quite unnecessary for a native speaker, because everyone automatically reads a given text aloud in whatever intonation he considers will make the sense clear. It is often said that Chinese is a tonal language. This is somewhat misleading, because all languages (all the half-dozen ones I know anyway) use tonality to distinguish meanings. For example, in English 'Sikh' is pronounced with a high tone, where as 'seek' is pronounced with a middle tone, followed by a falling tone. Again, 'wood' is pronounced in a high tone, but 'would' in a middle-falling tone. Non-native speakers of English are never taught such fine distinctions, and rarely pick them up, even after years among anglophones, but they are still understood. Again, in French, 'fois' is never accented, whereas 'foie' is unaccented only in 'pate-de-foie-gras'. I cannot speak with authority about Chinese, for I am not a native speaker, but I strongly suspect that in Chinese also tones play only a secondary role in sense recognition, compared to the phonemes and their combinations into polysyllabic words. Given that is so, there is no reason why pinyin should not be a perfectly alphabet for Chinese, provided polysyllabic words are spelt as one word, and not as a succession of isolated syllables.

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kudra

Non-native speakers of English are never taught such fine distinctions, and rarely pick them up, even after years among anglophones, but they are still understood. .... I strongly suspect that in Chinese also tones play only a secondary role in sense recognition, compared to the phonemes and their combinations into polysyllabic words.

Although Lugubert notes we may be quibbling over definitions, and that in this case it depends how you define "also ... only a secondary role", I just don't see any useful correspondence between tones in English and tones in Mandarin.

See

http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/106-websites-for-shanghainese06

for an example of a conversation between long time associates grinding to a halt, and having to flip back into English simply because the non-native Chinese speaker (I think I heard he has been living in China at least 10 years) gets some tones wrong. He then gets corrected by the native Chinese speaker.

Can you imagine such a thing happening with tones in English in some hypothetical EnglishPod.com podcast? I can't.

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wushijiao
Given that is so, there is no reason why pinyin should not be a perfectly alphabet for Chinese, provided polysyllabic words are spelt as one word, and not as a succession of isolated syllables.

Virgiliopoeta, you do make some good points. However, characters are here to say. Let me reiterate why.

As you pointed out before, if polysyllabic words (words of three and four characters) were written together in pinyin, it is quite probable that a printed book based on pinyin could be understood by the masses. However, in order to do this, the vast majority of Chinese people would need to speak standard Mandarin. Although Mandarin and pinyin have made rapid advances, the fact remains that for probably half of Chinese people (speakers of southern dialects, the relatively uneducated, the elderly…etc) pinyin would be too confusing. It would be like if speakers of Catalan had to read books in the phonetic script of Romanian, roughly. Yet, in another generation or two, the conditions might exist for the popularization of a pinyin only based texts.

In any case, as De Francis pointed out in his article, the government is openly hostile to any approach to popularize pinyin in books. Why? Well, it’s hard to say. I’d guess that CCP officials see their role in history as one of uniting the country. Before the communists came to power, regionalism and provincialism was fairly strong. Part of the CCP legacy rests on the fact that they were able to unify the country and promote patriotism. Standardizing the spoken language, using Mandarin, and getting literacy rates in characters up to about 80% of the population is a key ingredient in that unifying process, they believe.

Likewise, the government also suppresses attempts to alphabetize and popularize dialects. If a popularized version of pinyin books and newspapers popped up, dialect speakers would naturally say, “why the hell can’t we do the same?” “why can’t we unify our dialects?” I think the government is upset by the fact that a Taiwanese identity is becoming more powerful partly based on a resurgence of Taiwanese local languages. If there is even a whiff of “separatist” or federalist tendencies in any language or dialect promotion campaign, it will be destroyed at once.

Secondly, Chinese people will continue to use characters because of “social conservatism” or what some call “institutional inertia”. Like I said before, the illiterate people have China have no political power whatsoever. Even if one were to convincingly show the need for a phonetic alphabet (which I am not personally convinced of), the change still wouldn’t happen. Societies only make drastic changes and borrow institutions from foreign countries that are perceived to be more “advanced” when they are in a revolutionary mood and fairly unsure of themselves. In contrast, societies that have been fairly successful are less likely to make drastic institutional changes. So, the time for reform of the language was from 1911-1950’s, when China was a big bloody mess. That historic window has forever closed! China has a space program, has phenomenal economic growth, and more global political clout than any time in history! In the most recent Pew poll, cited in China Economic Review, 81% of people in China are satisfied with the way things are going. So, it seems clear to me, that there is no broad based discontent at the grassroots level that would call for a dramatic change away from characters, whatever the merits.

My point is that any change way from characters would need the political support of the government and the general public. So this is very, very unlikely to happen.

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Josh-J

Actually I probably have more concern that characters will become displaced by the back door, so to say - through widespread computer use. After all, most young people know pinyin pretty well right?

I see pinyin on roadsigns, I've even seen a huge billboard advert on Wangfujing dajie with the main headline written in pinyin with accents, with characters taking a supplementary placement at the bottom-right of the pinyin.

Hardly a major thing I admit but its the sort of thing that I think might well grow more common. Or, it might be a phase - western-looking trendiness or something. Who knows what will happen...

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virgiliopoeta

Wushijiao, I think that you are quite correct that societies never abandon their established writing system, or almost never, without some crisis such as defeat in war. Tyrants are also able to command changes, even in the absence of defeat, as Hitler did when he decided that German should use the Latin letters and not the Gothic script, or as Mao did when he commanded the simplification and reduction of the characters. In defeat however, even the most radical changes suddenly become feasible, as in post-world-war-one Turkey.

China would seem to have a kind of creeping or invisible movement toward pinyin, which the Communists themselves created, after all, and initially not merely as an aid for teaching the characters, as is sometimes asserted by conservatives. But the Communists have themselves become more and more conservative in many ways, for better or worse.There is no other example in the world of a people trying to use a system as cumbrous as the characters for technical purposes, except Japan.

You are also correct that the Chinese are today much more confident in their society - at least urban Chinese who get enough to eat. But given the political climate in China, it is still not entirely safe to express too much pessimism about China's future. In fact however, almost all Chinese technology of consequence is borrowed, and it is very unlikely that China could prevail in war against Russia or America or Japan for that matter, were Japan fully rearmed. Also, much of the growth of the Chinese economy is based on easy credit and foreign investment, which have a habit of imploding. Much of China's foreign exchange is in fiat U.S. dollars of questionable value - of no value whatever should the Bush regime choose to attack or pressure your country.

Do not misunderstand me; I sincerely hope that China will not fall back into the disorder of the 20's and 30's, and will not have to confront war with the other big powers..But Chinese patriots should be aware that this is not unthinkable. Much of China's safety during the past sixty years or so is due to the rivalry between the two nuclear/scalar superpowers. If this balance is ever broken, or if the situation becomes unstable due to a rearmed Japan or Germany, then China's position could become much more dangerous.But as the wartime generations die off, it is likely that both Japan and Germany will become more assertive. This is already beginning to happen. If these powers ever try to escape from their bondage to the U.S., the balance of power will change in unpredictable and frightening ways.

The literacy figures that governments give out are generally not to be trusted outside of Scandinavia, Germany and a few other very rich countries/regions with a highly phonetic alphabet. In the United States for example, the majority of poor blacks and very many poor whites are in fact illiterate - at least a quarter of the population, although official illiteracy rates are far lower. They may be able to sign their name and read at a second or third grade level, but this is of little practical value. There is also a kind of creeping illteracy among even the middle class, which reads much less than previous generations, and is consequently more ignorant and influenced by whatever they see on television. Japan is an even more extreme case where official literacy rates are notoriously inflated for political reasons. I strongly suspect that China is similar, particularly rural China.

China was always protected by its vast population and highly seductive culture, until the 19th century, and also by its remoteness from the ruthless snake-pit of Europe. But with the modern development of military technology, it is no longer numbers or even natural resources that are the most critical. This is why two such local powers as Germany and Japan nearly conquered the world. As is now well-known, had Hitler attacked the Middle East - as he nearly did - instead of Russia, he would almost certainly have won the war. Also, It is often not understood that the U.S. would have been just as helpless before Hitler's panzers as were the French. The Americans were protected only by the Atlantic Ocean. Not until 1943 or 1944, by frantically copying the Germans, were the Americans and English able to wage modern war. This points the moral that it is very dangerous to ever be too confident about one's nation's safety. France appeared to be highly secure in 1940, with Europe's strongest army and the world's largest gold hoard. But within a few days she was utterly helpless.

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virgiliopoeta

In some ways China resembles Romance Europe rather than a natural nation-state, because barely more than half the population speaks the language of the capital. An even better analogy might be France, where the southern 40% or so of the population spoke little or no French until the latter half of the 19th century. The Chinese authorities probably hope that China can be united linguistically as France was, by propagating the favored language in the schools and suppressing any attempts to use the non-favored dialects or languages for literature .

There is however a big problem with China imitating France (or Italy) in this regard, first because the Chinese minority languages have such vast numbers of speakers, and second, because the characters have so far not permitted anything like mass literacy.They have helped to prevent the elites from developping a local linguistic identity, but on the other hand have surely made it more difficult for most speakers of the so-called dialects to learn spoken Mandarin. One possible destiny for China is for the minority-language areas to one day secede, or at least demand autonomy. Who would ever have thought that the Ukraine would ever really separate from Russia? but this has happened.

Even where language unity exists, most big countries have enduring regional tensions. The Bush regime in the U.S. for example, has little popular support (20% or so) outside the white Southerners, who no doubt would prefer their own nation-state.

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naeglerian

As someone of Chinese extraction, but born and bred in an English-speaking nation to parents who were themselves born in Thailand, I am pretty much illiterate when it comes to Chinese, having grown up speaking English and Thai.

While I concede that it may be inconvenient to, for example, type in Chinese (though, being illiterate, I've never found the opportunity or need to try), I've never found the characters to be a significant hindrance to learning the language, even with my limited 1.5 years of parent-enforced mandatory childhood Chinese school learning. It was the complete unfamiliarity with the language that has proved the biggest obstacle, with the opportunity to use it as the next biggest hurdle. As an example, while I spoke Thai at home, I never bothered to learn how to read or write until college, when one semester of a basic Thai course changed that. I am far from being able to write expository essays on Thai poetry, but I can readily read any Thai periodical off a newsstand in Thailand. I strongly believe that had I also grown up speaking Mandarin, I would have no trouble learning written Chinese at this time.

As a corollary, English instruction is mandatory in Thai grade school, but most of the Thai people I know (all college educated) have marginal skills in English. They know their consonants and vowels, and often a fair number of words, but their comprehension is poor.

The main topic being debated here is that the use of the characters impedes learning the language, but I would argue that many other factors contribute more, including dialect use, culture, and access to learning. A lack of one-to-one correspondence among the dialects naturally makes it more difficult to communicate, even with common written characters. A primarily agrarian culture (up until quite recently), while historically respectful of education, really had little need for every rural farmer to regurgitate the Confucian classics in the mode of Imperial examinees. Finally, as was the case with many cultures, the elites naturally looked after their own needs, to the detriment of the population at large. The cycle of illiteracy would be perpetuated by such elitism.

The next time I stop by Taiwan or Hong Kong, I promise to keep a sharp eye out for the rampant illiteracy that must plague the general populace, given the use of - horrors! - the traditional script. :mrgreen:

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