Characters vs. Alphabetic Writing

Simplified too :laughing: … ok just kidding.

[quote=“JoH”]I personally don’t think you can divorce this issue from the cultural, economic and political aspects. Like, a mainland government is ever going to adopt a system based on Taiwanese bopomofo? The problem of isolating different language groups (like Mandarin and cantonese speakers) has been touched on, but what about the impact of having a generation of Chinese kids growing up using a different written language to their parents? You might say that this is just a transitionary problem, but with 1.25 billion people to ‘convert’ that’s quite a transition.
You know JoH, I agree. I would never dedicate my life to trying to change the way a whole culture thinks about it’s language. I wouldn’t live to see the changes and I can’t garuntee that they would be good. I guess that boat was missed with the introduction of simplified characters (from what I gather from others posts). Let China decide what’s best for China, Taiwan for Taiwan, etc, etc.

Here’s something that I can see. A major change in the way Chinese language to taught to foreigners. This may have to wait to be my masters thesis, but I think there is a lot to be had from some form of rominazation used in the classroom (pinyin seems good). Here’s how I see things unfolding in my mind.

Students start with pronunciation in pinyin (or something)
They do the basic dialogs and stories all in pinyin, NO characters.
Then maybe even advanced level reading could be “translated” from Chinese into pinyin.
It’d be somewhere during this stage, a bit before or after that focus would be put on characters, but it would be after a person has a very strong foundation in the other facets of the language.

This is based off of my own experiences learning Chinese now. I really want to dive into the language and start swimming, but I’m constantly hung up on characters. It’d be so nice to just completely let go of characters and focus on vocabulary, grammar, my speaking and reading skills (even if I just used pinyin). I really think there is something to that. There’s no reason someone (a non-native at least) should have to learn 3-5 thousand symbols to read.

There MUST be a logical romanized, alphabetic, or ??? system that could take characters, put them in a romanized (or some other form) and I or anyone that knew the system could read it. If it’s not pinyin (I have not researched this enough to comment on whether it should be or not) then it must be something, yet undiscovered.

Was pinyin even created to replaced characters? I’ve always thought it was just a method used to romanize the pronunciation.

For me, the sound of the word is quite clear in my head if I either write or read. I don’t sound it out word by word, I’ll rip through text just like anyone else, but I can feel the hum of the speech center working in the background. If I focus on an individual word I feel that I cannot process the information in it without “hearing” the sound. Speech came well before writing and ordinary writing is a representation of speech. I feel that the brain processes the information in writing through the speech center, words are understood as we learned and remember them–by hearing them. Here’s an interesting link:

[quote=“Sir Donald Bradman”]Here’s how it works. Take a syllable at random, let’s say ‘wang’ from my name. Here’s the first load of 'wang’s that I get typing zhuyin:

Some people have already touched on this, but I’d like to say something that bears repeating: attempts to eliminate characters in favor of phonetic script would fail (and historically have failed) because of political and cultural reasons.

The PRC and KMT and other Chinese nationalists have a lot invested in the concept that China is a single entity. In order to maintain this idea, they need to latch onto whatever arguments they can find that all Chinese people truly are a single nation. One of the most popular arguments is that, regardless of where they are or what language (or “dialect”) they speak, Chinese people use characters to write. Ask any Chinese nationalist for proof that China and Taiwan are part of the same culture and they will use this argument eventually.

If characters are gotten rid of and some sort of phonetic script is used, it would only make sense to use phonetic transcription of the local language, not just Mandarin. Thus, Min speakers would have to use a Min phonetic script, Cantonese speakers a Cantonese phonetic script, etc. Characters provide a common thread of communication between the different Chinese languages; without this, linguistic unity will quickly fall apart.

This would very quickly give strength to the centrifugal forces in China. The government of Taiwan might possibly be willing to do this, especially under the DPP, but I can’t imagine the CCP doing this without some huge changes.

Many people in the May 4th movement wanted to eliminate characters in favor of phonetic script, and efforts continued into the 1940’s or so, but when the PRC won the mainland, they shrank from full-on alphabetic scripts. In other words, people have in fact tried before to get rid of characters but failed due to political resistance.

I’m paraphrasing Jerry Norman’s excellent /Chinese/. On page 263, he says it all much more succinctly:

I strongly recommend the book for anyone interested in Chinese linguistics; it has interesting observations on almost every topic.

Not to say that I think that purely alphabetic writing of Chinese languages would be a bad idea – actually, I think it would be a good thing. But the chances of it actually happening are remote.

Sorry if I misunderstood your post Miltownkid, but it was early in the morning here when I was reading the thread. I got the impression that some posters were suggesting something more radical than a system for learners. If that is what you are after, then what about bopomofo? I really like the system of printing the bopomofo down the side of the characters. That way you are being introduced to the characters, but you don’t have to learn them if you don’t want. And you can read texts and improve your grammar even when you can still only understand a few of the characters. There are loads of kids books and a children’s newspaper printed in Taiwan like this.

But to be honest, I don’t see how far you would want to go with learning chinese before you started on characters. If you are content to be able to speak, and don’t mind not being able to read, then fine. but I think most learners would want to (eventually) be able to read and write. If you are going to learn characters anyway, you might as well get started on them sooner rather than later. The important thing is that you don’t need to learn the characters in the same order that you learn to speak, but either bopomofo or pinyin can help you do this.

I don’t think you misunderstood me. When I started I was just thinking generally, but after I read your post I decided to get more specific.

I’ve learned bopomofo and I’ve gone through the newspapers and children

Miltownkid, I think TLI roughly follows your suggestion for speaking first (pinyin or zhuyin) and characters later. I remember that I actually asked to start learning characters earlier and they told me no. Also, when I started studying full time at Tunghai, I was also thrown into a class that was too difficult for me. I started writing down as best I could, in pinyin or zhuyin, some of the more common words I kept hearing but didn’t understand. When I got home I’d try to look them up in a dictionary or ask a native speaker, and I ended up learning a lot of useful vocab this way. I made the most progress in Chinese that semester and everyone noticed a big difference in my speaking.

daltongang, I’m still not convinced by your “reading is a phonetic process” argument. Pointing to some part of your brain that lights up when reading doesn’t really give us any more information. It just confirms your intuition that you’re in some sense hearing the words as you read (and yes, of course that can be distinguished from sounding out the words, ie vocalizing). But we still don’t know if that process of hearing the words as you read actually plays any part in your reading competence, or of it is merely corollary or maybe an effect rather than a cause. I don’t really know any of the relevant research, but I think there must be quite a bit that’s been done in cogntive psychology, psycholinguistics, etc. It’s possible that your argument could turn out to be right, but as it stands, I don’t think we have enough info to decide.

Daltongang, I understand what you’re getting at, after thinking about it, I think I’m similar. Maybe people are different depending on whether your a ‘visual’ or ‘aural’ thinker, and I think I’m the latter. Nevertheless the most I’ll concede is that there is a mix of ‘aural’ and ‘visual’ processe going on here, and that with a system that doesn’t have as much visual differentiation between words it gets mroe difficult to read.

Miltownkid, I agree that pinyin is a fine system for learnign Chinese. It performs it’s goal of being a ‘notation system’. That is a system that anyone who knows it can use to produce the sounds of the language accurately. In this sense pinyin, bopomofo and other systems are qually good. The problem is written languages perform other functions (eg ease of reading) than notation systems. Incidentally, I believe that in the 1950s in China, it was hoped/planned, that pinyin would replace even simplified characters eventually.

Ax, no that system is not my idea. Rick Harbourgh (sp?) introduces it at - I don’t know if it’s his idea or not. It’s a fairly simple idea. I expect someone’s thought of it before.

Mangalica, you wrote:

Well yes, but the redundancies and overcomplications are more than the rules.

Your’e right. In fact I would hope that you could have a dictionary of 1 to 1 correspondence between the old characters and the new ones. The simplification lies in the learning process. With such a logical system it would be much easier to write. When writing any character you already know how half of it is going to be written, and then the problem only lies in remembering the meaning element, which would often be easy enough to guess. Really you could say the samer about English. There’s only 26 letters to learn, but 17576 possible theoretical combinations for three letter words alone.

[quote]The reason Chinese currently uses more than 400 phonetic symbols is partialy historical redundancy, but also because sometimes the symbols actually do convey tonal information. For example,


I don’t understand what you’re saying here.
Sorry, my wording wasn’t clear. I meant to say “this flawed idea of using atomic symbols to represent syllables” … the phonetic symbols such as 靑,

I see.

So what you mean is you favour a phonetic alphabet over charcters for Chinese. So what do you thik of my arguments against a phonetic alphabet, and why do you think it is harder to read pinyin or zhuyin for characters?


Brian! I think there can be no reasonable argument against “phonetic alphabets” in general, just against some phonetic alphabets in specific. I have already mentioned some:

  • roman letters - Euro-centric
  • thai - beautiful but you need an art degree to do it justice
  • arabic - no clear separation between letters, which (i assume) makes it hard to input via word processor (also a real challenge for the creator of Arabic Scrabble)
  • korean - symbols are not linear, but stacked on one another, making it an even greater challenge on word processors (and Scrabble is pretty much out of the question)…

Ok, so not all alphabets are created equal. But as for phoentic alphabets in general, there’s too much going for them. Look, of ALL the major languages in the world, Chinese is the ONLY one that hasn’t adopted one … and I’m sorry, but Chinese is not THAT special. There is an ideal phonetic alphabet for Chinese, it just hasn’t been developed yet.

But instead of all this theoretical discussion, let’s put what we’ve been saying to the test. Give this passage a try, it’s from a recent local headline:

No fair! Any true phonetic writing system for Chinese will have to include tone marks of some kind.

I agree w/ daltongang, but this is meant to be an exercise, to see if there’s enough context to make tone marks non-essential. My Taiwanese wife had no problem w/ it, although she complained that one phrase in particular was impossible to sort out w/out tone marks.

For comparison here’s the same passage w/ tone marks for 2nd, 3rd and 4th (/, v and \ respectively) following the syllable. Pretty ugly actually:

I wonder how many of us would feel if a group of Taiwanese English “scholars” started suggesting how the English writing system is so archaic, because it uses a lot of Old English spellings which do not conform at all to modern pronunciation, or whatever argument they might theoretically come up with. At any rate, this idea has been tossed around many times, most noteably by the Communists back in the 50’s, and it didn’t even come close to getting off the ground. It’s not gonna happen, and I see no reason for it to happen. The Chinese writing system is not so complicated that it can’t be learned by the masses, reasonably painlessly, as evidenced in Taiwan (and they even use those pesky traditional characters ::tongue planted firmly in cheek::). I think this is a pretty pointless debate … sorry …

According to airforce school authorities, a training craft malfunctioned Wednesday afternoon while conducting routine exercises in Taiwanese airspace over Taidong, Taiwan. The whereabouts of the two pilots who were aboard the craft is presently unknown.

Even given your spelling and tone mistakes, it’s not all that difficult to make out what’s going on in the sentence. Much slower for me to read than characters, though. No doubt mostly owing to my unfamiliarity with BMPF: wasn’t able to skim shapes but had to sound out each word instead – contrary to Daltongang, a thoroughly unnatural way of reading, children and learners excepted. Nevertheless, do think a skilled read-writer-typer of characters likely to be faster than his or her BPMF equivalent.

For my two cents, stick with the characters and introduce a phonetic alphabet a la Japan for foreign loan words and Taiwanese. Something more pleasant to read and write than BPMF, and with a broader range of sounds.

I would welcome such an idea from such scholars, with or without quotation marks.

Although widespread spelling reform now seems unlikely, it is in many ways a good idea. Who was it who introduced the reforms to American English spelling, for example ‘color’ instead of ‘colour’? Was it Webster? Anyway, I feel that for the most part they’re an improvement, and I regret that he didn’t go further, or that his reforms weren’t more comprehensively adopted.

Have you read the work of John DeFrancis and other scholars in the field? Becoming literate in Chinese takes up to two years longer than it does in English.

I could be reading Spanish, French and German in the time it’s taking me to learn to read Chinese. It’s flawed. There should be an alternative to characters whether China and/or Taiwan want to change or not.

That bopomo example is weak compared to pinyin with tone marks. With pinyin the words would be grouped together and it would be easy to scan read once one became familiar with all the words.

Yes, I have, and a lot of other works … Chinese literature is my field of study afterall … and I find the arguments both for and against the phoneticization of the Chinese writing system from Chinese scholars to be much more compelling … John DeFrancis is a single source (at least the only one quoted here thusfar), but the amount of research and debating that has gone on by Chinese scholars in this field over the past century far surpasses what he has done. If I was going to consider changing the English writing system, I’d like to base my views on more than what one (or a few) non-native English scholars had to say about it. Yes, it’s a pain in the a** to learn to read/write Chinese for us, because we’re foreigners … but the Chinese/Taiwanese don’t have a problem with it. It’s their language afterall, and other than the romanization system used in Taiwan (which is to be used by foreigners afterall), I don’t really think it’s going to or should be decided by foreigners.

I’ve never read the scholarly stuff, but I have heard that literacy in English requires a vocabulary of something like 50,000 words, whereas Chinese only requires having a few thousand characters. On the grammar side, too, Chinese grammar is so much simpler. What is the reasoning behind why literacy in Chinese taking longer?

Actually ZhuYinFuHao with tone is equivalent to Pinyin with tone. The same grouping can be applied to both. Our bias towards one or the other just betrays which set of symbols we grew up with.

The Chinese themselves don’t think it’s a pointless debate, since the most significant efforts at developing phonetic alphabets (ZhuYinFuHao, Gwoyeu Romatzyh, Pinyin) have come from them and not from foreigners. We may not be scholars, but we are foreigners who have invested time & effort to learn characters, and so we have earned a right to debate their pros and cons.