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Taibei

DeFrancis article on Chinese writing reform

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trien27

someone posted that in the dungan language, khan yan? or similar means smoke or to smoke, but it also says the character "khan" above supposedly means "dry" in the Dungan language, but that certain character is in no way a definition of the word dry in Chinese! So no Chinese would be able to understand Dungan.

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djwebb2004

I don't want to hog the forum. But can I draw people's attention to a fascinating image of a book written in Latinxua Sin Wenz - a sort of 1930s pinyin that at one stage was going to become China's romanization system - on p29 of DeFrancis June 2006 article. The book is a translation of a Russian work of fiction and published in northern China in 1937. The first two sentences read:

"Iou igo shaoje zai Kawkaz dang gynguan. Tadi mingz giao Rhilin. Iou ic cung giali gilailiao gei tadi ifung sin. Sh tadi mucin - laotaipo sie gei tadi: "Wo iging laoliao, panwang zai wo s ician, kandegian wodi cin'aidi rz imian..." There is much information on the Sin Wenz at http://www.pinyin.info/romanization/sinwenz/index.html

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djwebb2004

Trien, the character 旱 does mean "dry" in Chinese, and 旱烟 is a valid way of saying "tobacco" in Mandarin, so "khanyan" if pronounced with the right tones would be comprehensible to Chinese.

Thee Dungan language has 3 tones, not 4. It is supposedly a Gansu-type dialect, not a Beijing-type. It would be interesting to know how intelligible it is to Gansu people. Apparently 1 and 2 tones have become one and the same. But the Dungan language has many borrowings from Arabic, Persian, Uighur, Kirghiz and Russian, and so is not necessarily best viewed as a dialect of Chinese...

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gato

Without knowing anything about Latinxua Sin Wenz, I can just about read it. It's not hard because it doesn't have any classical Chinese 文言文, meaning it's close to the spoken language, not surprising since it was translated into Chinese from another language. Most translators, thankfully, don't add classical Chinese to foreign writings they translate.

"Iou igo shaoje zai Kawkaz dang gynguan. Tadi mingz giao Rhilin. Iou ic cung giali gilailiao gei tadi ifung sin. Sh tadi mucin - laotaipo sie gei tadi: "Wo iging laoliao, panwang zai wo s ician, kandegian wodi cin'aidi rz imian..."

有一个shaoje在Caucus当军官。他的名字叫Rhilin。有一次从家里寄来了("le" not liao)给他的一封信,是他的母亲,老太婆写给他:“我已经老了("le" not "liao"),盼望在我死以前,看得见我的亲爱的儿子一面。“

It's not a radical idea to gradually do away with 文言文 (i.e. words that are only written and not spoken) in writing. A hundred year ago, many educated people in England still like to add Latin phrases here and there to everything they wrote. Nowadays nobody does. Few people see that change as being tragic or radical.

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Jose
Language is not just a tool of communication - it is a fundamental part of culture

I wholeheartedly agree with this.

If characters were abolished, a fundamental part of Chinese culture would be lost. This is not about efficiency, but about preserving something that makes the Chinese language special, and that makes Chinese people feel a connection with their cultural heritage.

I also agree with djwebb2004 that the adoption of a phonetic script for Chinese would effectively trigger a profound change in the language itself. It would probably lead to the adoption of more two-syllable forms, the loss of many classical-style expressions, and a decrease in the awareness of etymology (only learned scholars would be able to point out that the "qi" in the word "qiche" has the same origin as the one in "qigong"). It would end up stabilising as a language with its own rules, probably developing new elegant styles in the process (this has probably happened in Korean and Vietnamese), but at the extremely high cost of disconnecting this new Chinese language from China's own cultural tradition. I wouldn't like to see that happen.

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atitarev
Thee Dungan language has 3 tones, not 4. It is supposedly a Gansu-type dialect, not a Beijing-type. It would be interesting to know how intelligible it is to Gansu people. Apparently 1 and 2 tones have become one and the same. But the Dungan language has many borrowings from Arabic, Persian, Uighur, Kirghiz and Russian, and so is not necessarily best viewed as a dialect of Chinese...

My colleague is a Chinese immigrant from Xi'an. He watched some videos with interviews with people from Dungan. They all tried to speak in their pure dialect (not mixing too many foreign words). He said he perfectly understood, it sounded like Xia'an dialect.

Dungan has borrowed phonetically a lot of international words via Russian, since they didn't have to coin new ones tractor, radio, cosmos, etc- Arabic words are mainly to do with Islam - Dungans are muslims. Dungan people acted a lot as interpreters between Russians and Chinese. Spoken Dungan is really very close to Northern dialects.

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djwebb2004

Whereas a speaker of Mandarin may understand Dungan quite well, a Dungan speaker might understand Gansu dialect welll, but struggle with putonghua. Various articles on pinyin.info discuss the Dungans, and state that there is not a high level of mutual intelligibility. Intelligibility may go one way and not the other. Take a look at the page I mentioned with some examples of Dungan.

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xichg

First I apologize for my nasty tone and the little outburst. I should be more polite, and also too much emotion prevented people from seeing the points i tried to make (yes, i did try to make some points there.)

But talking about language can be very emotional. As some have pointed out in their posts language is a big part of a culture and to a great extent defined one's identity and heritage. So it's natural for people to get emotional when some 'outsiders' tell you that your language (culture) is stupid and needs to be abolished.

To clarify let me repeat and elaborate on the pointes:

1, Chinese characters are an integal part of Chinese culture and identity. I don't want to see my identity destroyed.

2, Learning a foreign language is difficult. The wise thing to do is utilize the time you spend on complaining to study. And trying to change the language/writing system is unrealistic and will take you nowhere.

3, Reading pinyin is painful, slow and can literally hurt many people's brain. It's a 'dumbed down' version of Chinese. It's designed to aid the learning of 汉字, not to replace 汉字.

4, Learning pinyin is easier and faster than learning Hanzi. But the school years are not your whole life. Actually at the 2nd grade you begin to feel the enormous advantage 汉字 have over pinyin. The extra efforts you made to learn 汉字 will benifit you for your life. Learning pinyin is easy but for the rest of your life you have to read at a speed of a snail and be accompanied by the ghost of ambiguity and guessing. Learning 汉字 is an investment that pays off very well. pinyin is not as efficient and precise as 汉字. 汉字 suits Chinese language very well and that's why i say it's doing a great job serving Chinese people.

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roddy

I was curious about what actual standard China uses for literacy, so I had a bit of a Google. All I could find was

识字1500个,能阅读简单浅显的报刊,记简单的生活账目

which seems to go back decades without having been changed. 1500字 is roughly equivalent to the first two levels of the HSK exam - we are not talking about a high standard of literacy. I'd be very interested to know how many of those classed as literate are even able to understand the higher aspects of culture that people are worried about losing - are they 简单浅显? I doubt it.

I don't care about the issue from the foreign student of Chinese's perspective, that's a complete irrelevance as far as I'm concerned. But latest figures have the number of illiterates in China at 100 million - that's a massive number. Add on to that however many low-functioning literates you have who are only 能阅读简单浅显的报刊,记简单的生活账目, and you've got a major issue. What's the value of idioms and literary Chinese to these people? Could they read a list of new regulations posted on the village noticeboard?

I think full literacy in Chinese characters is a matter of time. But I also think it would be a very good thing indeed if between now and the day that is achieved the status of pinyin is raised from learning tool for kids to alternative script for the less-well educated, with official documents, perhaps some newspapers, educational materials, instruction manuals and so on produced in both. Minority areas do this with minority languages, and I see no reason why it is not feasible. And if someone produces dumbed down versions of the classics, very good. Better to read a dumbed down version of something than not read it at all.

I am, of course, not stupid enough to believe this will happen. You'd need to overcome inertia, you'd effectively be saying that China is failing to educate its people, and you'd leave yourself open to charges of being UnChinese.

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atitarev

What you're suggesting, Roddy, has been happening in Japan. Before people achieve full literacy in kanji, they use just hiragana. Hiragana books are very popular in Japan with kids, and there is also the next step - mixture fully-fledged Japanese text and a hiragana text next to it/above it. These educational materials, you're talking about, could be done in both pinyin and characters. There is a limited number of books that have both hanzi and pinyin, e.g. 注音故事乐园 Zhùyīn gùshi lèyuán. They are great. I've got a few now - saves a lot of time looking up characters and makes sure you pronounce the words correctly and with the right tones. I don't see why there can't be newspapers, billboards, web-sites and more written in such a way.

In the Arab world kids are taught in vocalised Arabic (they commonly don't write short vowels - thy cmmnl dn't wrt shrt vwls), and there is some material written in this simpler version of Arabic. Well, you have no problem finding religious books, written in such a way but not enough other kind of readings. Literacy is an enormous problem there, although Arabic writing is easier than Chinese.

Pinyin hasn't been promoted and used enough in China. If it were, it would not be perceived as such an UnChinese thing.

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roddy

Are there any situations in which both fully-fledged Japanese versions and hirigana versions are provided for adult users. I have no idea what the literacy rate is like in Japan, and have no idea about the language, sorry if that seems like a dumb question. I did listen to the first lesson of Pimsleur's Japanese course last night though, so I'm sure I'll be fluent in no time.

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atitarev
Are there any situations in which both fully-fledged Japanese versions and hiragana versions are provided for adult users.

Comics (manga) and anime are read/watched by adults or at least adolescents. They are usually supplied with furigana (hiragana written next to kanji) and subtitles in anime often have them. I'd say I seldom saw comics WITHOUT them! Even adults books have them occasionally to help with rare words. I wish translated versions into Chinese followed the same tradition providing hanyu pinyin or zhuyin fuhao (in Taiwan).

Hiragana Times publishes books, magazines for adults in fully-fledged Japanese (mixture of hiragana - kanji) and the phonetical guides in hiragana plus English. Very useful!

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hbuchtel

Having an easier to use writing system is one thing, but getting individuals to be interested in spending the time required to learn it is another thing.

A lot of education is self-motivated. Does written character's connection to traditional Chinese culture help to increase people's literacy? (I know it does for me! :) )

Henry

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Eulloba

I am always horrified when I think of DeFrancis advocating the abolition of Chinese characters. Some other time I will expound on the most perfect writing system ever divised by humans, namely Chinese.

Given the same language learning conditions to study the writing systems of Chinese and English, English is by far more difficult and without any of the advantages and the multifuntional "syllabary-word" which are Chinese characters.

It is very symptomatic that some English speaking Westeners should promote the unnecessary and preposterous reform of the Chinese script and NOT promote the really necessary reformation of English spelling: see and sea, time and thyme, and countless instances of erratic spelling... but they look beautiful, don't they? So who cares about logic (I really like English spelling because it's so Chinese!).

This indeed has the same colonization connotations as promoting democracy at home but not abroad. Or promoting democracy to enter the market, not for the benefit of the peple, which amounts to the same thing.

English speaker are very wise not wasting time in promoting writing reforms and so it is the more amazing that some Westeners, without any grounds should try and teach their mother to suck eggs: appalling.

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Quest
Comics (manga) and anime are read/watched by adults or at least adolescents. They are usually supplied with furigana (hiragana written next to kanji) and subtitles in anime often have them. I'd say I seldom saw comics WITHOUT them! Even adults books have them occasionally to help with rare words. I wish translated versions into Chinese followed the same tradition providing hanyu pinyin or zhuyin fuhao (in Taiwan).

I started reading comic books in 2nd/3rd grade, I understood them pretty well. Why the need?

As far as I know, the absolute majority of the Chinese people (adults and pupils alike) are comfortable reading and writing in Chinese characters. Kids complain about copying characters during their first 3 years of school because they really don't need to copy the characters the assigned # of times to learn them. They can learn characters outside of school just as well without copying them. I don't understand why Westerners keep making a big fuss about 汉字 being too hard to learn and too hard to memorize. They'd dig up "common" words to ask the "university educated" Chinese to write, and then say "gotcha, abandon the characters already." If the person needed to write that word often, he wouldn't have forgotten how to write it. If he didn't need to, then so what if he forgot? Most essays and compositions are comfortably written without a dictionary by most people, how are the characters handicapping the Chinese people? If the characters affected them so much, Mao's romanization would have been adopted without question.

Another pro character argument: reading speed. I was playing a Chinese rpg game a couple days ago. Texts were presented in a 4line box, I found it interesting that I could scan 4 lines of screenwide text in under 2 seconds on average and understood what they said. I seriously doubt that would have been possible with pinyin even with adequate training.

All that said, people who advocate abolishment will continue to hold their views; this whole debate is pointless. The Americans continue to ignore the metric system, the British continue to cheer for their royalty, the Christians continue to spend their weekends in churches, the Muslims continue to wage their jihad, the global youth continue to waste time and money on their celebs, I wonder how much a fraction of one or two years of a pupil's time spent on character learning affected his/her competitiveness vis a vis the Koreans and the Vietnamese, who supposedly should have more time in their lives to pursue more useful endeavors.

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roddy
I know lots of Chinese people who are greatly offended by this sort of thing - foreign professors who specialize in arguing that the Chinese should abandon their writing system! As Victor someone or other argues on the pinyin.info site, the Chinese could abandon characters, but would have to change their writing style.
Tell your Chinese friends that an American professor who is a great Sinologist has built his career on a campaign to abolish Chinese characters.
If characters were abolished, a fundamental part of Chinese culture would be lost.
So it's natural for people to get emotional when some 'outsiders' tell you that your language (culture) is stupid and needs to be abolished.
I am always horrified when I think of DeFrancis advocating the abolition of Chinese characters.
All that said, people who advocate abolishment will continue to hold their views;

Djwebb, Quest, et al, 2006.

I'm going to have to yet again reveal my vast ignorance here. Could someone please point me to the text in which DeFrancis, or indeed anyone with any academic credibility, actually advocates the abolishment of Chinese characters today. I can see discussions of the feasibility, I can see consideration of the shortcomings of Chinese characters, I can see contemplation of dual script systems with pinyin as a more prominent complement to characters, and review of the feasibility and advisability of local language reform efforts, but that's as far as it goes. I don't have a copy of Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy here, but I can see from the chapter listing on pinyin.info that the last chapter is named Writing Reform. Is it in there?

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gato
I don't have a copy of Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy here, but I can see from the chapter listing on pinyin.info that the last chapter is named Writing Reform. Is it in there?

Wushijiao has my copy of "Fact and Fantasy," so maybe he can chime in. De Francis obviously does not advocate the abolishment of Chinese characters. He's the author of Chinese textbooks and dictionaries after all. If nothing else, it would be in his personal financial interest to have Chinese characters around. He does many things in the book -- one of which is to show written Chinese is actually partially phonetic -- the section on language reform retraces the history of debate around language reform in China. What he does advocate is to find way to make written Chinese accessible and practical for the average Chinese. He quotes a survey by a Chinese researcher who noted that many rural Chinese who attend school for six years eventually forget how to write most the characters they learned because they do not write on a daily basis.

He also notes that written Chinese is more difficult to learn than most world languages. He quotes Bernhard Karlgren, the famous Sinologist whose Chinese etymology book is incorporated into the Wenlin dictionary, as saying that it's not a problem for a foreigner to learn 3000 Chinese characters in a year with some diligence and asks how many of us are on the same level as Karlgren. People with an IQ of 150 often underestimate how difficult things are for the average person (of course, sometimes they overestimate when it flatters them).

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roddy

I've read the book - it was some time ago though.

De Francis obviously does not advocate the abolishment of Chinese characters.

Well he must do somewhere, otherwise we would not have the likes of "I am always horrified when I think of DeFrancis advocating the abolition of Chinese characters." and "a campaign to abolish Chinese characters." being bandied around. I'd like to read this anti-character manifesto.

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atitarev
My Quote: Comics (manga) and anime are read/watched by adults or at least adolescents. They are usually supplied with furigana (hiragana written next to kanji) and subtitles in anime often have them. I'd say I seldom saw comics WITHOUT them! Even adults books have them occasionally to help with rare words. I wish translated versions into Chinese followed the same tradition providing hanyu pinyin or zhuyin fuhao (in Taiwan).

Quest:

I started reading comic books in 2nd/3rd grade, I understood them pretty well. Why the need?

Quest, I admit that being more disciplined in learning/using just characters you, Chinese achieve better and faster results at mastering them. However, I think it would be great if there were more materials in the mixture of Chinese and pinyin + English translation to get more adult learners to be involved in Chinese and enable more people to read and enjoy Chinese texts (be it not in native script). It helps to master Chinese characters too, seeing them used in context as part of a word without having to look up the characters.

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