Thursday, 15 September 2005

Proposal for phonetic Chinese

The disadvantages of Chinese orthography have been discussed repeatedly elsewhere. The most amusing is an ironic proposal to design an English logography/syllabary based on the principles of the Chinese character system.

I'm not going into the details again, except to highlight one particular argument in favour of maintaining Chinese characters -- the argument I hear most frequently from what I'd have to call Chinese patriotic laymen.

First, however, the disclaimer: discussing someone else's culture and language borders dangerously on tremendous cultural chauvinism. In fact, it regularly makes little cross-border forays, blows things up and disrupts communications. I make no excuse for this: I am a cultural chauvinist of tremendous proportions. I honestly think Chinese characters are clumsy, arbitrary and above all way too round for my square brain. They are not congruent with the absolute laziness of my mind, and something needs to be done.

So, bring out the guns, Martha, we're going in.

My proposal for simplifying Chinese characters and thereby making the world a safer place for slackers everywhere.

"Too many words sound the same. We need the characters to tell them apart," they say.

Read this bit explaining how Chinese has only around 1280 discrete sound combinations, including those dreaded tones, and how English has around 4030. Just a comparison. No-one is boasting.

Then read about how Chinese seems to have a crazy proliferation of homophonic syllables (including tones) that are written with different characters and have different meanings.

Or... just take my word for it.

Let's move it along. Example time: "Li" in my tiny dictionary has a whole seven pages of entries. That's actually a little unfair, because that includes all four tones, plus the neutral non-tone, which Chinese people can readily tell apart, and therefore won't classify as the same "li".

So, I'll choose one tone (the 4th): There are in fact 37 different characters for 4th tone lì. You can be sure there are a handful more in bigger dictionaries, mostly names. Certainly looks like you're going to need a way to distinguish between them.

Here they are:

丽 例 俐 俪 利 力 励 历 厉 吏 呖 唳 戾 枥 栎 栗 沥 溧

疠 痢 砺 砾 立 笠 篥 粒 苈 荔 莅 莉 蛎 詈 跞 轹 郦 隶 雳

But let's loose the ones that would only ever be used as syllables inside longer, multisyllable words.

唳 栎 栗 痢 砺 笠 隶

Leaving eight. So in spoken Chinese all the other syllables are found inside words where the rest of the word would nail down the meaning pretty accurately. The problem seems less severe now.

And, as this learned sage argues, these lì's probably exist as different characters because the written language never had to reflect the differentiation needed when speaking out loud. This brings me to spoken language.


you need so many characters to distinguish the meanings of homophonic syllables


how on earth can people speak Chinese to each other?

What's different in the spoken language? Many things. Most notably there is pressure/responsibility on the speaker to clearly differentiate her vocabulary. We do that too in English. I'm sure everyone does it. It's not more or less difficult to do in Chinese. Chinese writers simply never had to do this, because of the huge overabundance of information carried in the rich complication of each character.

A speaker can't say, for example, shī (诗) for a poem. It's going to be mistaken for louse, lion or corpse. She'll have to say shī gē (诗歌), poem-song to be understood. Or she'll have to add an article and measure word: yī shǒu shī(一首诗): one unit of poem (?). Shǒu will be your measure word for today, and it functions as "one glass of water". In spoken Chinese the measure words have become indespensable in conveying meaning. If Chinese was written phonetically the word for poem might long ago have been changed to simply be shǒushī, with the separate meanings of the syllables rendered completely irrelevant.

Staying with measure words, one caught my attention recently in a children's book: 只 and支, both pronounced zhī. The first is for birds and some animals, and the second is for long, pointy things, like a single chopstick or a Buffy-like stake. At some point, before going to school and beginning the decade-long process that is Chinese literacy, kids must use these measure words without any inkling that they are, in fact, different characters. Then one day in the second grade (or whatever) their teachers mention to them that they are written differently. How, I want to know, would they possibly distinguish between them before they can read or write, and when they have only the sound to go on?

In fact, it gets more convoluted, in that you can apparently use the first one for chopstick-like objects too, but you can't use the second one for pigs. So why have the second one at all? The second one is clearly functionally superfluous. It looks nice, sure. Would make a great tattoo, but that's it.

So here's my culturally chauvinistic solution. The solution, according to me. (I hear the echoing of maniacal laughter.)

Phase Yi

Put spaces between words. Chinese characters are all written together, which makes looking up words in a dictionary utterly laborious if you don't know where one word starts and another word begins. (Remember, the are relatively few single character words. Most concepts are two or more characters long.) So the first thing to do is to lump concepts together in the way most Germanic languages link them up to form compound words.

Word breaks would also facilitate information management and keyword searches in Chinese, which at the moment needs quite convoluted algorithms.

Word-breaks would create the needed awareness to proceed to Phase Two.

Phase Er

Drop all the superfluous characters. Tall order. Which would you choose? Easy, actually. There's this list of the most common 3000 characters, in order of erm popularity. Use them. Chinese has this finite set of possible sounds -- around 1280, including (all together now) the tones.

From this list of 3000 we can choose 1280 characters that represent every single initial and final sound and every single tone. One sound, one symbol. End of story. With these characters we could write anything, phonetically, in Chinese.

But, of course, implementation would have to be slow, so here's an idea: when kids learn to read and write we give them reading material carefully written using these characters in their original meaning, so for a while they can then go on, later in their school careers, to learn the rest of the thousands of characters. The difference is that now, when they are stuck, they can go on writing phonetically and later look up the correct characters. These characters will be a well defined core that they can always fall back on. We'll leave it to a next generation to completely abandon the other characters, as this system hopefully becomes mature.

Phase San

All that remains then is to see how characters themselves can be simplified even more. Many of the core characters will contain strokes and elements relating to meaning, that can now gradually be stripped away. This should be a natural process and should reflect the new developmental pressures on the language arising from a phonetic syllabary. Writing style will surely change, but indications are it will become more congruent with spoken language since the pressures of phonetic intelligibility will be the same as in the spoken language. This is what happened to Korean after the introduction of the Hangul phonetic writing system.


No-one is ever going to do this. Fair enough, but it can work. Perhaps at least choosing a core character set could give foreigners a good place to start when they set about learning Chinese. It could be a good guide for elementary school teachers deciding which characters to teach and in which order. Using word breaks could certainly help in the electronic age, getting the information catalogued and searchable. Implementing this hare-brained scheme might completely change the way Chinese people think. That could be very dangerous. I do know for sure the children I teach could very well do with a little less pressure, from schools, parents and systems, and if they could dispense with the mindless repetition needed to cram 8000 characters into their heads just to read the newspaper, then I would love to help them.

PS. "Disappointingly, ping-pong doesn't come from Chinese; so Mandarin pīngpāng is a rare borrowing from English".

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