Field of Science

Laying to rest an old myth about Chinese

I just got back from my second research trip to Taiwan in three years (with another planned soon!) and fourth trip overall. As always, I had a great time and ate as much beef noodle soup as I could manage.

As always, I spent a couple months beforehand brushing up my reading and writing. This isn't something I have to do before trips to Spain or Russia. A few hours spent learning Spanish or Russian orthography, and you are set for life. As soon as I blink, I forget how to read and write Chinese. This is because, as is well known, rather than a couple dozen phonetic symbols, Chinese employs thousands of easily-confusable characters which, if you don't use for a while, you end up confusing.

This isn't just a problem for foreigners. Students in Taiwan (and China or Japan, I assume) continue investing significant amounts of time into learning to read and write additional characters well through secondary school. This raises the question of why Chinese-speakers don't just adopt a phonetic writing system?

Problems with a Chinese phonetic writing system

The argument one often hears is that Chinese has so many homophones (words that sounds like), that if you wrote them all the same way, there would be so much ambiguity that it would be impossible to read. The character system solves this by having different characters for different words, even ones that sound alike.

In the last century, when switching to a phonetic system was proposed, a scholar illustrated this problem with the following poem, which reads something like this:
Shi shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi, shi shi shi shi. Shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi. Shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi shi. Shi shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi. Shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi shi. Shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi. Shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi. Shi shi shi shi.
As written, this is incomprehensible. Only if you write it in characters
the meaning becomes clear:
A poet named Shi lived in a stone house and liked to eat lion flesh and he vowed to eat ten of them. He used to go to the market in search of lions and one day chanced to see ten of them there. Shi killed the lions with arrows and picked up their bodies carrying them back to his stone house. His house was dripping with water so he requested that his servants proceed to dry it. Then he began to try to eat the bodies of the ten lions. It was only then he realized that these were in fact ten lions made of stone. Try to explain the riddle.
Problems with this argument

This argument sounds compelling until you realize that what is being claimed is that you can't understand a Chinese sentence based on its sound alone. This means that not only is it impossible to understand phonetically-written Chinese, it is impossible to understand spoken Chinese (which, like phonetically-written Chinese, doesn't have any characters to help disambiguate similar-sounding words). Since a billion people speak Mandarin Chinese every day, there must be a problem with this argument!

There are a few. First of all, I wrote the poem phonetically ignoring the five Chinese tones. Like many languages, Chinese uses intonation phonetically -- an 'i' with a rising tone is different from an 'i' with a falling tone. Writing a tonal language without tones is like writing English without vowels -- much harder to read. Similarly, the phonetic writing above does not have any breaks between words, making it much harder to read (imaginewritingEnglishwithoutspacesbetweenwords). True, written Chinese doesn't mark word boundaries, but then it has all the extra information encoded in the characters to help with any ambiguity.

Second, this poem uses very archaic Chinese (different vocabulary and different grammar than modern Mandarin). It's not clear how many people would understand the poem spoken aloud. Wikipedia gives a nice translation of the poem into modern Mandarin, which involves many different sounds, not just 'shi'.

The most important problem is that there actually is a perfectly good phonetic system for writing Chinese. Actually, there are several, but the most common is pinyin. People can and do write entire texts in pinyin.

Why care? 

Why go to the effort of debunking this myth? This often comes up in arguments over whether the Chinese should adopt a new writing system, but that's not really my concern. Very often, there is a tendency to believe that different cultures and languages are much more different from one another than they are. One hears about strange aspects of other languages without even pausing to think about the fact that your own language has many of those same features. The writing systems of English and Chinese are actually alike in many ways (both are partially phonetic and partially semantic -- a topic for a different post). I can only speak for myself, but the more I learn about a given language, usually the less foreign it seems. Which is a fact worth thinking about.

1 comment:

David Bowyer said...

It is amazing how written languages was developed. It seemed complicated but after you explained it, I just realized it is really similar to other languages like English. Thanks for collecting all this information and explaining it to us.