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Re: Chinese writing systems

From:H. S. Teoh <hsteoh@...>
Date:Saturday, November 2, 2002, 13:39
On Sat, Nov 02, 2002 at 10:55:46AM +0000, Mat McVeagh wrote:
> >There are too mainy homophones in chinese, you never know which characher > >you are talking about. my dictionary has an average 10 characher for each > >sillable. This is average, so many ones have much more. > > So how do they manage in speech?
Context. It is, in fact, quite common for Chinese people from different backgrounds, who would have slightly different cultural biases, to ask a person to clarify exactly which word he meant. Of course, this only happens for more arcane terminology; the basic vocabulary is essentially unambiguous. Nevertheless, there are sufficient regional differences that it is an advantage to know where someone is from, and therefore, what context to interpret his speech in. (Sorta like British "boot" vs. American "trunk", etc..) It is also common to find people who are very acquianted with each other say things in a way others would find extremely ambiguous. [snip]
> >If you write english in ponetics, you will have the same writing for to two > >and too. Ok, only three. But can you imagine the mess when not 3 but 40 > >words have the exact same spelling? > > Same point about speech. If there is no problem with comprehension of the > spoken form, there should be no problem with comprehension of the written > form if it accurately records the spoken form.
No. With the spoken form, you can ask the speaker for clarification, or someone else who understood what he meant. You can't do that with writing.
> The thing is, the ideographic system *doesn't* do that.
Doesn't do what?
> Yet people understand it anyway - after their difficult learning > process.
The ideographic system conveys the *meaning* of the written prose rather than the pronunciation. This way, there are no ambiguities like that which arises in speech from time to time. Furthermore, the writing is independent of regional and dialectal differences. You can actually understand the writing of someone whose speech might be completely unintelligible to you. [snip]
> >This is not difficult since writting only caries the meaning, and not > >pronounciation. Would you remove any possibility of writing to those > >languages, > > That wouldn't happen because every form of Chinese language could have a > Roman system. And they are not that different, so they could all be > variations on the same model of writing system.
They may, but it is a rather clumsy representation. Again, one should keep in mind that, even disregarding separate Chinese "dialects" (or as some may prefer, the different Sinitic languages), regional differences in the *same* dialect/Sinitic language are great enough that they are only 80% to 90% mutually intelligible. Actually, even disregarding regional differences, specialized terminology (eg. for science/music/etc) have become so specialized that unless you are in the same field, you will likely misunderstand what someone says due to homophones. It is the writing system that transcends phonetic ambiguities and allow people to communicate in a medium where you cannot clarify a word/phrase with the speaker or someone else who understands the speaker better.
> >or create hundreds (not less, knowing how many dialects ans languages) of > >different complex spelling systems? > > That is the point again, re the spoken language: if there is that much > variation in the spoken language, there is already that much common > unintelligibility. Why does no-one think of all these Chinese languages as > cultural forms in their own right, with the right to individual expression?
So you're saying unintelligibility is a good thing, that should be promoted and endorsed? So much for language as a means for communication. The whole *point* of Chinese writing is for people who otherwise cannot understand each other to be able to communicate effectively and accurately. [snip]
> Consider this: Chinese will continue to change. Of course these days it > could be argued that languages will not all divide and become many daughter > languages because of standardisation and mass communications. But otherwise > that is what would happen: as all 'Chinese' languages are in the Sinitic > group, they come from a common ancestor. They have reached the stage you > describe, where there are hundreds of local variant dialects. But this is > masked by a common writing system which pretends they are all one language.
Whether it "pretends they are all one language" or not, it doesn't matter. The point is that it allows mutually unintelligible languages to communicate with each other. A romanized system will utterly fail in this respect, even if it would convey the pronunciation better. (Also, have you ever considered that an orator, having in hand a written speech, can adapt it to the regional pronunciation so as to be more intelligible to his audience? Try doing that with a romanized Chinese writing system. Nothing like losing a political campaign because people think you talk funny.)
> Eventually they will split off and become so divergent the common writing > system will not be comprehensible to all any more.
Why would this be so? You are overlooking the fact that the writing system is, strictly speaking, grammatically different from speech. Not significantly, mind you, but different enough that people do feel the switch between "official" mode, where they write in "grammatically correct" (i.e., in the common grammar employed by the writing), and "casual" mode, where they liberally employ regional grammatical features.
> >I do not think an kind of writing is superior to the others. It is just > >more appropriate for a language or another, and linguistic is not the only > >criteria, socio-politic also have a strong impact. > > I agree that none is 'superior', and that there can be different things > appropriate in different situations. But I also see speech as primary, and > writing as secondary.
Well, I disagree. Speech is but a vehicle to convey meaning. If meaning is better conveyed by a common writing system, then the writing is to be commended. After all, the whole point is to *communicate*, is it not? Why value the vehicle over the the cargo?
> Speech is organic; language change is basically change of speech. > Writing is artificial, and based on speech.
And why is being artificial a bad thing?
> Except... in the example of Chinese, evidently it is not. That is not > wrong, and it certainly affords the world an interesting comparison, an > example of a much-used system where the writing is mainly based on > meaning.
Why *shouldn't* writing be based on meaning? Sure, a phonetic writing is easier to pronounce; but if you're looking for mutual comprehension, why reject a system that conveys meaning directly?
> But it seems to me the function of writing should be to accurately > represent speech, and as easily as possible.
That is, if you regard phonetics to be primary. But there are people who just want to communicate, regardless of means. :-)
> While the ideographic system enables comprehension amongst a wider group > than a phonetic system would, it is extremely difficult to learn, as we > have seen.
Well, I wouldn't say *extremely* difficult to learn. More difficult than a phonetic writing, for sure, but I think it pays off in the long run. If all the Sinitic languages had phonetic writing, imagine the huge amount of time you'd have to spend to learn each one in order to achieve mutual intelligibility. The time taken to learn *one* phonetic writing may be shorter and easier; but considering the number of different languages and regional dialects involved, you're multiplying this by quite a large number. In the long run, it is more efficient to learn the common writing system once. I believe the effort required is much less than the effort required to learn each language/dialect separately. In the final analysis, you get what you pay for. [snip]
> Again, I can see these things, but I don't think they are the point. They > would not be 'abandoning' anything, they would be moving to a new, better, > faster, easier, more accurate way of representing their language, one which > would bring the country closer to otehr countries and make it easier to > teach their language to foreigners and communicate with them.
[snip] "Other countries" = European countries? As for a phonetic writing being "better, faster, easier"... it may be faster and easier, but I have trouble believing it's "better". As for making it easier to teach the language to foreigners, this is only true if said foreigners are familiar with the Roman alphabetical system. Knowing how to pronounce a language doesn't necessarily imply you understand it, after all. T -- There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count, and those who can't.