The ideographic 'myth' ? Well...

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/07/22 10:45 -04:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2005/07/22/441793.aspx


I like Suzanne's blog, abecedaria. Even when I don't agree with what she posts, I do find myself thinking. :-)

Her very recent post, The Ideographic Myth (named after a chapter in a book), discusses the concept championed by the book's author John DeFrances that Chinese is not an ideographic script.

DISCLAIMER: Now I do not speak, read, or write Chinese with any degree of fluency. So all of the following may be taken with a grain of salt if you do not wish to buy the arguments I'll put forward. My expertise is in this case definitely more toward implementations of collation that look at the script across various languages. And comparing it against many languages that use other scripts such as Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic, etc.

Even if one is to claim that historically we are not looking at an ideographic script, let us put that aside for a moment and look at modern Chinese. Even people from neighboring villages will find their speech to be mutually unintelligible while their writing is not. And of the over 70,000 Han in Unicode, many have no known pronunciation -- they are historical characters from millenia ago. Some are even what you would call "mistakes" since the intent was a different Han but the artistic equivalent of a typo from millenia ago has survived in scholarly work. That would tend to underscore the symbolic nature of the script, at least to me.

But beyond all that, looking at differences between Cantonese and Mandarin, the different pronunications in Pinyin vs. Bopomofo, the differences in pronunciation between uses of the same Han when one is looking at them as [Chinese] Han vs. [Korean] Hanja vs. [Japanese] Kanji, and the multiple pronunciations in each of these languages and varieties within language for the same Han -- how can I possibly look at it as anything but an ideographic script?

Pinyin () itself is a relatively recent innovation (in the context of Han, which stretches back millenia, Pinyin is a simplification of pronunication that dates to the middle of last century). Even Bopomofo (注音符號) only dates back to the beginning of the last century. Prior to that, one had perhaps worse lack of intelligibility of spoken language without even the attempt to standardize pronunciation -- how can one look at that situation and not assume a symbolic, ideographic nature to the script that is used in several of the most important languages on the third rock from the sun?

So I will take a sign (标) and apply to it my will (志) to try to determine its meaning. And from that I seem to have found a symbol (标志). Well, more than one symbol, in this case....

 

This post brought to you by "ʨ" (U+02a8, a.k.a. LATIN SMALL LETTER TC DIGRAPH WITH CURL)


# Suz on 22 Jul 2005 1:25 PM:

Hi Mike,

I always enjoy a spirited rebuttal. In this case, DeFrancis has written two books on the subject and his chapter on it is available on the internet. My sister has lived many years in China, speaks and reads Chinese and she totally concurs with DeFrancis that Chinese is a different written lg depending on the spoken lg. That is Cantonese and Mandarin are quite different written lgs. not the same written lg for two different spoken lgs. .

However, as far as nearer neighbours being unintelligible but reading the same written lg - that too can be true. If you have lived in different parts of either Quebec or Germany for instance, you would not recognize a word from one town to the next - the variation in sound production is wide but they can read each others writing.

So writing always has more stability and intelligibility than speaking for any lg. but there are also different written lgs. in China.

Any way I mention DeFrancis as a significant author in this respect.

Cheers

# Michael S. Kaplan on 22 Jul 2005 2:11 PM:

I don't have the book myself, but I do wonder what he says about the many Han that have no known pronunciation, and how they fit into language?

# Mihai on 22 Jul 2005 4:12 PM:

"That is Cantonese and Mandarin are quite different written lgs."

I do not speak any kind of Chinese, but my understanding is the there are mostly vocabulary differences (like lift-elevator, Plaster-Band-Aid, etc.)

And I intend to check this with one of my Chinese friends (native speaker and professional translator). I will let you know.

# Suz on 22 Jul 2005 5:57 PM:

i can't add to this but Pinyin Info made these chapters available on the internet.

http://www.pinyin.info/readings/chinese_language.html

There are other relevant readings on this page as well.

http://www.pinyin.info/readings/index.html

I actually wasn't tryng to take anyone on with this post. I was using this quote as a way back into 17th century European thought on lg. What were they thnking between Thomas More and Vico.



# Michael S. Kaplan on 22 Jul 2005 6:05 PM:

I'll take a look this weekend, thanks for the links. :-)

I probably seemed to be taking on the idea a bit, it may be one of those cases like with Tamil where some native speakers and linguists have one opinion, and from a technical perspective that opinion can usually be ignored as there are better technical solutions to using the language if you do that....

# Suz on 22 Jul 2005 7:20 PM:

I never thought of this as having any technical application at all. I didn't mean to go there.

In general I want to champion visual input methods *in addition to* phonetic ones. However, I don't think it makes any difference what label is put on Chinese for this to happen. The visual input methods, like Q9, exist in any case, but I would like to see some go mainstream. I don't think the Tamil encoding matters either, just that more intuitive keyboarding, ie visual order or syllabic, is pursued for children.

Which brings me back to Optimus. My first reaction to that was to look for a date like April 1 or something. Thanks for filling in the detail. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 23 Jul 2005 12:19 PM:

Heh, whereas I mostly think about the technical application. :-)

That's ok, it means our interests complement each other....

# 55 on 23 Jul 2005 11:50 PM:

A few comments on this, though most of this DeFrancis covers in the online excerpts:
http://pinyin.info/readings/texts/ideographic_myth.html
http://pinyin.info/readings/texts/visible/index.html

+++

<i>And of the over 70,000 Han in Unicode, many have no known pronunciation -- they are historical characters from millenia ago. Some are even what you would call "mistakes" since the intent was a different Han but the artistic equivalent of a typo from millenia ago has survived in scholarly work. That would tend to underscore the symbolic nature of the script, at least to me.</i>

Variants indicate a script's "symbolic nature"? I'm afraid I don't follow you here. This points mainly to the difficulties of Chinese characters, not some extra-linguistic feature. And if people are no longer sure how things from ages ago were pronounced, this is not at all the same thing as saying that those characters had no pronunciation. Chinese characters are a script, not a language. Keeping that last point in mind will help remove a lot of confusion.

+++

<i>But beyond all that, looking at differences between Cantonese and Mandarin....</i>

There is nothing unique about Chinese characters in this regard other than the endurance of the beliefs in the myths people have constructed about them. Cantonese, Mandarin, and the other Sinitic languages differ not just in pronunciation but also grammar and syntax. One of the main sources for confusion is that people are taught to read and write <i>Mandarin</i>, even if that is not their native language. In the Middle Ages, educated Europeans wrote and read Latin, which was related to their languages but not the same thing. And they pronounced Latin differently. But people don't go around claiming that the roman alphabet transcends languages or the like.

+++

<i>the different pronunications in Pinyin vs. Bopomofo</i>

What different pronunciations? They're both used for Mandarin. There isn't a pinyin pronuncation of Mandarin and a separate bopomofo pronunciation. There's simply Mandarin.

+++

<i>the differences in pronunciation between uses of the same Han when one is looking at them as [Chinese] Han vs. [Korean] Hanja vs. [Japanese] Kanji, and the multiple pronunciations in each of these languages and varieties within language for the same Han -- how can I possibly look at it as anything but an ideographic script?</i>

Let's try that from a different perspective:
When I, as an English speaker, look at many French words, whose meanings are recognizable to me but whose pronunciations are different -- indeed, whose pronunciations are different not only between Parisians and Londoners but also among Jamaicans, Indians, Provencals, how can I possibly look at the roman alphabet as anything other than a symbolic script?

+++

<i>Pinyin is a simplification of pronunication that dates to the middle of last century.</i>

Pinyin is a script, not a pronunciation.

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