Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why the Chinese will never drop their written language

As I scratch the surface of Chinese, I now understand why the language cannot be simply converted to the Roman alphabet. They have to keep the ideograms, and we will never see newspapers or books written in the Romanized version of Chinese. Too bad. That would make learning the language easier.

This biography is supposed
to be flattering. I don't know.
Chinese does not have that many sounds. Many words are just one or two syllables. The problem is that you can have a syllable like shi which means different things in the four different tones for that syllable. But beyond that, each of those four tones may represent many different words and meanings.

One sound for 11 words

When you look in a Chinese-English dictionary for definitions for just the fourth tone of the syllable shì (the accent means falling tone) you find 11 different words with 11 different ideograms. This one sound  represents city, market, vow, matter, power, family name, to be, to try and more. Neither the sound nor the Romanized written form gives you a clue to the difference. You have to see the ideogram. (Context helps, of course.) 

Contrast that with English where homonyms like too, two and to are spelled differently. Or hoard, horde and whored; or palate, pallet and palette. At least in the written form, you can see that they are all different.

The same is true in French: fois, foi and foie all have the same sound but the spelling tells you that the sound represents words with different meanings.

Draw a picture

In conversation, Chinese will sometimes clarify meaning by using a finger to trace on their palm the character that represents the word they are using, just as we will spell out a word. But for the Chinese it is not the letters but the ideograms that carry the meaning.

So it seems an impossible task to convert written Chinese to a Roman alphabet. It is why you don't see books or newspapers written in Pinyin (the Romanized version of Chinese, with accents indicating tones).  Someday maybe someone will figure out a way. 

In mainland China, they have simplified versions of the ideograms that still look fiendishly complicated. Many require seven or eight or 14 strokes of the pen. (Taiwan preserves the traditional written form, which is somewhat analogous to looking at Gothic type.) 

A typical Chinese newspaper uses about 6,000 or 7,000 different characters. I don't have any idea how people read it. Not counting the characters for the numbers one, two and three (strokes), I can recognize about four characters, but I haven't really tried to learn them. 

Here are simplified characters for 

sun moon star eye ear nose mouth 
日 月 星耳 鼻

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