Chinese characters: Barriers to Communication


Let’s talk about the communication of data in any language, in a general way. Suppose that we have three individuals: the communicator (sender of the message), communicatee (receiver of the message), and an intermediary.

We will assume that the communicator is fluent enough in the relevant language to compose his message. We will also assume that the person for whom the message is intended is fluent enough in the language in order to understand it when it is written down and handed to him. However, in actual daily dealings there is no requirement that the two individuals communicate directly, and in many cases this would not be the case. Either one or both sides may have an assistant or intermediary acting in his behalf. Let us assume one intermediary on the side of the communicatee for this example.

ENGLISH LANGUAGE: What skills does this intermediary need to work with the English language? Knowledge of the alphabet certainly, 26 letters, or 52 letters if both upper and lower case were considered. Does he need to be fluent in English? No, that is not a requirement for him to deal with information coming in over the telephone for example, as he strives to put it down in written form correctly, and he can as the communicator for “spelling assistance” as often as necessary. Indeed, it is possible for him to write down a message which he has received when he has very little idea of the meaning.

CHINESE LANGUAGE: Being non-alphabetic, Chinese cannot talk about its characters in terms of an alphabet, nor do the radicals have mutually exclusive names by which anyone can describe the structure of a particular character by reference to its components. Indeed many of the components are not radicals, and in fact have no commonly agreed upon nomenclature. Let us repeat this – neither the Chinese characters themselves or their structural components have mutually exclusive, definitive names which can be used to specify which one we are talking about in dealing with the transcribing of orally received data in our striving to put it into written form correctly. Therefore what the Chinese tend to do is to talk in terms of similies, metaphors, and other types of comparisons. Unfortunately, this can lead to circuituous discussions indeed.

EXAMPLES OF CHINESE COMMUNICATION STYLES RENDERED IN ENGLISH: We may offer similar examples of the Chinese communication styles by doing the following: Assuming that the word “John” was four Chinese characters, we might communicate this word as follows:
The “J” of Joshua, the Biblical figure who took over leadership of the tribes after Moses. The “O” of Othello, as in Shakespeare’s play. The “H” of Henry VIII, who ascended to the throne in 1485. The “N” of the Norman Conquest.

(Note: to make the comparison valid, the Joshua, Othello, Henry VIII, and Norman Conquest should be considered as “multiple character expressions”, with which we assume that the other party is familiar, and the “J”, “O”, “H”, “N” represent the initial character in each expression.)

Without any other way to communicate, one might say “Well, it is quite clear to you and me, right?” But consider for a moment what skills a student of the English language needs to understand this explanation? A thorough knowledge of history, literature, geography, and all the famous places and personages associated with these and many other fields would certainly seem desirable. We assume that he is familiar with all of Shakespeare, and will know which ideograph is in the first position of “Othello”. We assume that he is familiar with English history, and will know which ideograph is in the first position of "Norman Conquest, etc., etc. In a nutshell, with no other simple method at hand, in order to understand an explanation of this type, one has to be very fluent in the language.

Of course it is quite possible that someone else might transmit the same information in another way, to wit – The “J” of Johnson, Andrew, 17th President of the United States and Governor of Tennessee 1853-57. The “O” of Okeechobee, a lake in central Flordia. The “H” of Halloween, when everyone says Trick or Treat. The “N” of Neanderthal, a type of prehistoric man/ape.

The possibilities are quite numerous, and with 5,000 Chinese ideographs in common use, and another 10,000 less commonly used, the foreigner studying Chinese is continually frustrated because there is no standard precise way to communicate the characters, nor have these linguistic allusions been standardized for the populace in their use of Chinese in daily life.

In a nutshell, this is one of the great barriers to communication in Chinese: i.e. the inability to precisely communicate character data to someone who is out of your field of view. I would appreciate anyone’s ideas on possible solutions.


Try telegraphic code. No confusion there.

Seriously, I knew this guy in the States (who was a Westerner, by the way, not a Chinese) who used to do Chinese typesetting. He just sat there all day long and input characters using telegraphic code. He knew almost all of them. I don’t know if he had a very limited social life or was just something of a genius in this line…

Between 2 foreigners, it can be useful to reference a common dictionary. A few years back, practically everyone had a copy of Far East’s “Chinese-English dictionary” and we could just say “Character No. So-and-so.”

I usually urge people to send me an e-mail or a fax if there could potentially be any confusion. Of course I prefer e-mail to avoid any handwriting issues!



Maybe you should ask this on news:sci.lang which you can see at if necessary.

My English copy of Flora of Taiwan is much more harder to read due to
the specialized vocabulary than would be a Chinese edition where the
phases are more down to roots.

Richard also mentioned input difficulties. I find that the more
characters one gives%2


I think the unicode number is the new standard.



[Hmm, seems my nifto “batch job” posting system got cut off by some
packet error. Anyway, not to rob you of my golden keystrokes…]

Richard also mentioned input difficulties. I find that the more
characters one gives in a phrase, the more likely the software will
guess which one you wanted. I’m talking about Microsoft’s
xinzhuyinshurufa, pinyin mode, or the free equivalent, xcin on
GNU/Linux. Indeed, Microsoft’s doesn’t even need tone numbers … but
that seems bad non-enforcement for learners, however for tone deaf

With the Microsoft version, you can’t find out the individuals
involved or hang out with them though. And you can’t see or use their
word lists independently, for free too.

From “Libtabe, the latest work made
available by the Project, is a library which provides useful Chinese
functions/routines that deal with many fundemental elements such as
pronunciation, character frequency, word identification, word
frequency. It also comes with a free word database consists of 140,000

I’m not saying this is software for your Windows system, I’m just
mentioning it as a sample of our free world over here in Linux land.