The mysterious life of the Characters

Written by Julen Madariaga on February 17th, 2009

Over the weekend I read this post on zompist that creates a new writing system for English called  “Yingzi”: how would English look if it was written with characters. h/t FOARP

It is an enjoyable read and it is useful to explain to those back home that don’t study Chinese how characters work. In Europe, when you say you are studying Chinese, people always ask the same questions:  is it true that each character is a word, is it true that they are all “pictures”? And these questions are very difficult to answer accurately, as even expert linguists don’t seem to agree on whether characters should be considered words, or even on what is the proper definition of “word”.

The article is also great in that it draws conclusions that go beyond the purely linguistic, and might help understand to non Chinese-speakers the particular importance of the script in shaping the history and culture of China.

The complexities of the writing system, the inherent interest of the pictorial elements, the cleverness inherent in graphic compounds like woods and the radical-phonetic system, and even sociological facts such as the time it takes to learn the system, and the fact that English speakers of all nations can use it whatever their native dialect, would also combine to give the writing system an overwhelming character of its own. It would be seen as more important than speech; there would even be a tendency to think of words as derived from characters rather than the other way around.

And it is true that in China the writing system has an importance that trancends even today into all areas of life, from art forms to humour, marketing and, through the inherent ambiguity of  the characters’  “independent existence”, to the political speech. Expressions used by Chinese leaders can have hundreds of political analysts around the World scratching their heads and engaging in endless debate  about their real meaning, like was recently the case with Hu Jintao’s 不折腾 (buzheteng).

This only happens in China, a country with a population of 1.3 billion people and 20,000 odd characters living together in the same territory.

About the evolution of Chinese words from monosyllabic to polysyllabic (or viceversa), and the phenomenon of written Chinese taking a life of its own and influencing the spoken language, here is an interesting book by John the Francis: the Chinese language: Fact and Fantasy.

Finally, re zompist,  it looks like a very popular blog and I am sure many of you out there knew about it already. I hope I will have more time to read it, for the moment I just scanned it briefly and it looks intriguing, if a bit scary. I have found out that author Mark Rosenfelder is a conlanger, which means someone who invents new languages. He also sells kits to construct a new language, in case you are not satisfied with your own.

Whatever the practical use of all this, it is an intelligent blog,  and it is sure to make you waste many a precious office hour if you have any interest in languages. And who doesn’t nowadays.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Nov

    To complement your point on the structural importance of the language in Chinese thought:

    I find really impressive the fact that people across the coutry, speaking diverse languages/dialects to the point that they have a hard time understanding each other when speaking, yet share the same writing system.

    Does it have to do with written language living a separate life from oral speech, being reserved to an elite? Or perhaps it is only a recent phenomenon: I can hardly imagine how that can be sustained in the long run.

    Perhaps the fact itself is overstated, I am only an amateur on those questions. Maybe other readers can comment on it.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Nov

    Hi! Welcome here.

    Actually there is a lot written about this, in particular the book Chinese Language by John de Francis touches this point a bit. I am plannin to write a bit more about languages these days, because I am not very satisfied with what I wrote befroe, so stay tuned.

    Regarding the different dialects with one single writing system: it is not so surprising really. Most countries I know have (or had) exactly the same situation. The only difference is in developed countries the language has been uniformized already for many years, and China due to its population size and history has 1 century delay to catch up with.

    A clear comparison from my own background is the official Basque language and its dialects. There is no established writing system for most of the latter, so almost 100% of written communications are in the “unified language”, which is an arbitrarily “created” language exactly like mandarin Chinese. This is by no means a rare occurence in the world.

    [Reply to this comment]

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