Thursday, March 26, 2009

Metaphor of the Month

I've been having a little set-to this week with my new gadfly, ThinkWeird. He took issue with my flippant complaint a couple of weeks back that China's failure to develop an alphabetic writing system was a rather strange and unfortunate omission, and responded with a furious post defending the character sytem of hanzi. My original remark had been a - deliberately provocative - jest, but I was drawn into a much more detailed and serious discussion in that comment-thread. My view is that characters are an evolutionary dead-end, that the structural shortcomings of the system are so great that it will inevitably wither and die out one day, perhaps sooner rather than later; indeed, it may be replaced with a Romanized system (as happened in Vietnam) by government edict, perhaps within a few decades, certainly within a century or so.

Unfortunately, the debate didn't really take off, because TW refused to accept my basic point that there are certain innate advantages in alphabetic scripts, that learning lots of individual characters does tend to be a more difficult and time-consuming process. He would keep insisting that learning characters was easy, easy, EASY (at least for native Chinese, who, he seemed to suggest, have some kind of genetic facility for doing this that us poor laowai may lack). This is rather at odds with stats I've seen on how many hours Chinese schoolchildren have to spend learning to write their own language (a lot - probably more than twice as much as any European country devotes to this), and with the experience of most of Chinese students I've worked with here (almost every single one of whom has complained to me at some point about how miserable they found their early years of schooling, about what a wretched slog it is to learn characters).

Then it occurred to me....

You know how some people - science teachers, chefs - burn themselves so frequently that they become used to it; their skin gets tougher, and they cease to notice the pain?

In fact, after a while, they forget that they ever felt any pain. They take pride in showing off the skill they have acquired: "Hey, that's not HOT. Look how easily I can pick it up! No pain at all. Easiest thing in the world."

I suggest maybe that's what TW and his Chinese friends are like when they think about learning to write Chinese characters. Easy, easy, easy - not difficult at all.


Anonymous said...

I'll weigh in at greater length later, I'm sure, but in brief:

* The Chinese writing system is a lot more phonetic than it's generally given credit for, even if (as is frequently the case) the phoneticity is based on an archaic pronunciation.

* The combination of semantic and phonetic determinatives allows for a certain degree of elegance in the graphic representation of otherwise homophonous words.

* One could argue, fairly strongly I think, that it would be possible to romanize Mandarin entirely - without tone diacritics, even, if small modifications were made to the Hanyu Pinyin romanization system for commonly occurring monographs (e.g. 'you,' 'de,' etc.)
But I think one might as easily argue that even laying aside the loss of connection with previous literature and culture, the trauma inherent in, effectively, making the majority of the most populous country on earth functionally illiterate outweighs the benefits, at least in the short term, and that the time for that kind of social engineering is long past.

* Arguably, China (or, well, Greater China, or whatever the term would be) has invented purely syllabic writing systems -- e.g. the Phags-pa writing system, which formed the basis for Hangeul, the Korean writing system.

* Actually, this is going to be a much longer rant, and I'll go into the whole history of script reform -- which is actually a much more interesting topic than it might seem -- the next time we're at the bar.

Pffefer said...


I am kinda bored so here I am. Anyway, I guess you are right to state that characters have their flaws, but so do alphabets, even Hangul you seem to like so much. (
What does 방수 mean? 防水 or 放水?)

Ultimately it doesn't down to this: If the Chinese themselves don't mind and like their characters, who are you, as a foreigner who probably has difficulty learning Chinese characters and the Chinese language to tell them, "hey, they are so hard to learn. Come on, let's switch to alphabets!" It's like the Chinese telling you people that you should fundamentally change how English is written.

Again, your inability to learn something, whatever it is, should ruin something that is for the most part perfectly fine (despite its flaws).

I guess you like this, don't you?
ni de zhong wen tai chou suo yi ni jiu zheng tian xian zhe mei shier gan shuo zhong wen zhe bu hao ah na bu hao de ya. ni chi bao le cheng de ba?

The Weeble said...

Pfeffer - There are rules for proper Pinyin orthography. Your sentence should have been "Ni de Zhongwen tai chou, suoyi ni jiu zhengtian xianzhe mei shir gan, shuo Zhongwen zhe buhao a, na buhao de ya" etc.

Froog said...

I'm not telling anyone what they should do, merely making a prediction of what I think is likely.

And I'm quite prepared to contemplate the possibility that the Roman alphabet and/or English might give way to something else in time. Over the next thousand years it's quite likely that all currently existing languages will have died altogether or changed beyond recognition. I'm just speculating on what the changes in the vaguely foreseeable future, within the next two or three generations might be. And I say - characters dead. Not because I hate them. Not because I hate the Chinese. Just because I think they're swimming against the tide of history. And keyboard input systems.

Froog said...

Weebs, I didn't quite follow your point there. I thought the most populous country on earth was functionally illiterate already (the majority, anyway). I can't see that changing the writing system is going to change the overall level of literacy one way or the other in the short term. In the long term, it's probably going to improve things to have a language and writing system that people can learn in less than some hundreds or thousands of hours.

Obviously, a change like this wouldn't be introduced overnight (or, we hope not), but would be phased in over a number of years, with appropriate inputs into education to facilitate the transition.

thinkweird said...

Are you river-crabbing my comments?

Is this what you do when other people disagree with you?

I never muzzled your comment on my site and I indeed welcome different opinions.

The first and the second commenters on this post pf yours, again, are more on my side.

Froog said...

No, TW, I didn't interfere with any comments. Did one disappear? Very odd, because I don't even use 'comment moderation'.

It is a mark of insecurity to be constantly trying to tally up how many people "agree" with you. If you're confident in your opinions, you're don't care whether anyone agrees with you or not.

It's also very difficult to say whether someone "agrees" with your fundamental position, based on a few comments.

Pffefer is an incorrigible fenqing who is just going to make knee-jerk responses of the "You're a foreigner, you don't understand the Chinese, you're not qualified to pass any comment on China" kind - which is very tedious.

The Weeble is a friend of mine, and extremely knowledgeable about these things (his Chinese is probably better than that of most Chinese people). He makes a number of different points, some of which are supportive of you, though others not (he was only repeating Pffefer's comment to make fun of him for not using pinyin correctly, not to make fun of me - you might have missed that). I think most of the comments he left on your post were critical of your points - but I wouldn't claim that he was "agreeing" with me.

I don't accept his point that a sudden change in script would render most of the population "illiterate" - since such a change would obviously not be introduced very suddenly, and since most of the Chinese population is largely illiterate in characters anyway.

I think he is largely on your side sentimentally, in that he would be sorry to see the characters replaced (having spent so many years of his life learning them, and planned a career as a translator and academic, it's not really surprising), but largely on mine technically (he does accept that there are many drawbacks in the character system, and that Romanization could be a feasible alternative).

Neither of you (nor Pffefer, nor John and Ryan on your blog) have actually commented at all yet on my central point - which is that the replacement of the character system is my prediction NOT my recommendation, that it is probably an inevitable evolutionary process. I'm not advocating that it should be done immediately, and I wouldn't be entirely happy to see it happen - I just think that it will.

The Weeble said...

The characters-vs-romanization debate is a fight in which I have got no dog. Either way has its drawbacks, and I think (in the predictions department) that what is most likely to happen is a system of unconscious functional digraphia in which people learn and are conversant with both systems. Studies have shown that children being taught Pinyin alongside characters for a period of several years will acquire written fluency more rapidly than their peers who learn Pinyin as an auxiliary system only, and this - combined with the reliance of most nonprofessional typists on pronunciation-based (Pinyin or Jyutping, e.g.) systems for character input rather than shape-based systems (e.g. Wubi or Cangjie), seems to me like the trend things are most likely to head in, at least in the medium term. Then again, if I were any good at predictions I probably would've studied finance or something instead of Chinese, so don't take my word on this.

Froog said...

Thanks, Weebs.

Do you mean "written fluency" in writing characters or in writing pinyin (or in both)?

I thought pinyin was fairly extensively used in teaching writing in Chinese schools these days. If not, I think it's bound to become more prominent in teaching because of its importance for keyboard input systems.

I have found amongst my students that most of the ones over about 30 prefer non-pinyin input systems; but the youngsters favour pinyin exclusively. Are pinyin systems now the norm? Can the shape-based systems even be made to work for cellphones and other mobile devices?

The Weeble said...

There are stroke-based systems (crucially not the same as shape-based systems, though related) available for mobile phones, but as they're much slower to use than Pinyin, they haven't seen much uptake as far as I know. Higher-end phones - including the iPhone - offer handwriting recognition, which is sometimes extremely good (e.g. the third-party iAcces method for the iPhone, which uses Hanwang's handwriting recognition engine) and sometimes not (e.g. Apple's handwriting recognition, which is homebrewed and doesn't deal well with cursive characters or stroke order differing from what it expects).

As for the role of Pinyin in teaching -- a long topic best suited to discussion over a beer. Also, I've been working all day and seem to have given myself carpal tunnel syndrome.

Froog said...

Well, thanks for the further insights. Haven't conferred over a beer for far too long.