The mysterious life of the CharactersWritten by Julen Madariaga on February 17th, 2009
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.