To counter the concern raised in this thread …
I don’t think anyone is proposing “eliminating” characters, perhaps “retiring them from everyday use” is a better way to say it. The Chinese writing system is a tremendous achievement of human learning, and testimony of the enduring greatness of Chinese civilization. But consider the fact that Chinese characters as we know them today haven’t changed much in 1000 years. This makes this writing system a historical relic, and it should be treated as such. Metaphorically speaking, it should be placed under glass and kept in a museum, or if you like it, it should be hung in a closet, and taken out to be worn only on special occasions.
Just as hand-copied illuminated scripts of the Middle Ages weren’t burned when the printing press was introduced, just as horse carriages continue to exist 100 years after the invention of the automobile, just as Mainland Chinese are free to study traditional characters in addition to the simplified ones, the priceless treasure that is the Chinese writing system should not be discarded. In fact it deserves to be treated as a world cultural heritage, like Stonehenge or the Egyptian hieroglyphics, with continuous academic research devoted to its study.
Culture and tradition enriches our lives, but it’s important that it is based on choice. I should have the choice to study classical music, to follow age-old religious practices, to learn Latin, if I want to. If culture restricts progress, it will damage its people.
Language is more than a facet of culture. It is a currency of every day life, the means by which we communicate, gain our education, learn about the world around us. Langage has an obligation to be up-to-date and practical, to be a vehicle for change rather than cultural baggage.
I think what most reasonable proponents of a phonetic Chinese alphabet are proposing is an ALTERNATIVE to ideographs, rather than a REPLACEMENT. Chinese students should be proud of the writing system of their forefathers, and should have the choice to study it, and use it when appropriate (for example in calligraphy).
Now for the harder question of what the practical alternative should be, I will just add some thoughts to the suggestions already voiced …
I of course use romanization as a learning tool, but I realize its limitations:
- Romanization by nature is specific to one target language, meaning that it has to employ phonetic conventions familiar to the native speakers of a specific language. Taking PINYIN as an example, the “zh” and “ch” conventions may be easier for English-speakers to identify and sound out, but may look strange and lead to the wrong association for a Pole or Frenchman. As a consequence, there are dozens if not 100’s of romanizations of Chinese in use today, typically at least 2 for each language (a popular and an academic). There’s no
- Most romanizations separate tones into diacritical marks, or ignore them completely.
- Romanizations are Euro-centric, so there will always be cultural resistance to it, and may even be seen as a threat.
For these reasons, I don’t think that a single romanization system can ever be adopted by the Chinese. Heck, even us foreigners cannot agree on one.
Chinese characters do in fact carry visual information, just not that much. Specifically, the radicals can be quite useful in categorizing a character (by shape, by function…) that we don’t immediately recognise.
The phonetic aspect of Chinese characters, on the other hand, is a horribly flawed technique:
- It’s not consistent … not all characters have a phoentic element.
- It’s not resilient to changes in the language over time. Therefore, some phonetic elements merely tell us how the word was pronounced 100’s of years ago.
- It doesn’t propagate between dialects. A phonetic element may be accurate in Mandarin but offer no help in Cantonese.
I do respect Korean script immensely, and furthermore I think that it could be a palatable model for a Chinese phonetic script ( if they can ever accept a contribution from an “inferior” culture ) because
- Korean script is phonetic
- It is NOT based on Latin script
- It is built up from phonetic symbols some of which are similar in structure to Bopomofo
- To an extend it preserves the aesthetic 3-dimensional quality of Chinese characters
So there you have it, my suggestion for a Chinese phonetic alphabet … horizontal left to right, based on the Korean model, but incorporating tonal information and - maybe - radicals to distinguish homonyms. :shock: :shock: