Phonetic, but not phonemic Chinese script compromise

I haven’t thought this out all the way, so it may well be about as stupid as anything ever proposed, but here it goes anyway.

There’s been some discussion of how to make Chinese easier to learn to read and using an alphabetic script. I have an alternate and probably just as objectional and problematic of an idea:

Instead of getting rid characters, just reduce how many their are. How? 1 character for one syllable. 1 syllable for 1 character. You could reduce the number of characters from well over 7000 (in common modern use) to around 2000.

Here’s the challenge: develop the character set so that they cross dialectal boundaries. Some characters may need to break the rules, or perhaps have some “utility characters” that break the rule so that they represent sounds in multiple dialects.

Discuss, attack, do what you will.

What would you do for sounds that exist in one dialect but not another? Like the initial “ng” of Cantonese, for example.

That’s why it won’t be phonemic. It will be syllable based.
Example: Cantonese seung equals Mandarin xiang. You don’t represent ‘x’, or ‘ia’, or ‘ng’. You give one character. 想 perhaps for this sound (plus a few more characters to cover all the tones, but still far less than the 47 that pop up in NJStar for that sound).

The problem I see, but suspect that there’s a solution to, is that there is not a 1:1 correlation of sounds between languages. Some sounds have more than one corresponding sound in other dialects.

See … tonese.htm to see what I mean.

You might get to thinking you’ll need closer to 4000 characters to account for all the sound/tone combinations when you consider Cantonese has around 590 sounds and 7 effective tones.
(you need to count High falling here because it correlates to a Middle Chinese tone category differently than High Level but don’t need to include the aspirated endings as separate tones since they are already accounted for in the sounds)
But while there are that many potential combinations, most sounds will not actually have all the tones, so you can probably still just use around 2000.

WARNING - SEVERAL OF THE FOLLOWING POSTS (that don’t belong in this thread) HAVE BEEN (voluntarily) EDITED

EDITED: Big whinge by anti-ethno-centric bigoted westerner about interfering with Chinese culture, which was innapropriately placed in someone else’s meaningful thread.

Relocatd to another thread (TO be advised) under agreement of the OP and the offender.

:smiley: :smiley: :smiley:


Don’t change the Chinese writing system for a handful of ethno-centric westerners.[/quote]

Chinese characters are obviously a different type of system from alphabetic writing. Should one shy from discussing their relative merits and failings simply because they are a westerner?

i am all in favor.

certainly fun! however there is merit to the statement that they are difficult to learn. a good deal of effort does need to be expended to master them–for Chinese as well as foreigners.

i’ll note that if i can speak spanish i can write it with little additional effort. chinese will be on the extreme opposite end of this spectrum. it is a legitimate issue.

You don’t see many English speakers seriously talking about reform of the English writing system either, despite the fact it’s patently stupid in places. Just because the native speakers aren’t largely bitching and moaning doesn’t mean reform is a bad idea. And shit, even people like Lu Xun were big backers of linguistic and orthographic reform.

This suggestion that any suggestion of reform is motivated solely by a “oh it’s too hard! Why can’t they make it easier for me?” is outright patronizing and bullshit. I agree that the Chinese writing system could do with a reform - the last attempt ended up a complete balls-up (Simplified Chinese). Oh, and you’ll note that the simplification program wasn’t organized by foreigners pissing about how hard Chinese is too.

Even English has gone through more reform in recent history than Chinese. And I think they could both do with at least a serious look, if not reform. To immediately write off the suggestion based solely on the race of the suggester is retarded.

EDITED: Defending and furthering my argument. (Because I’m right!! :laughing: )

[quote=“GongChangZhang”] The fact is if you have never written an alphabet style before, the alphabet system still takes a long time to learn. …
My point is that Chinese characters do not hold up the Chinese education system anymore than an alphabet system holds up ours.[/quote]

i disagree, note that taiwanese children learn how to write in bopomo in first grade, then have to drop it and start all over with characters.

My Korean and Japanese friends find the same with Chinese characters. They are reading stuff after 6 months that I can’t after two years. Why? because they come from a linguistically similar background. [/quote]

chinese characters are used in both countries, they will already have put in a lot of legwork. they will find it easier. note they are also used to using phonetic systems. i don’t believe mastering another set of phonetics will be as difficult for them as it is for us to learn a set of characters. just my opinion.

Gongchang, you seem to be missing my points. One is that both English and Chinese could do with serious orthographic reform. Neither are nearly as good as they could be. And quite often it will take a non-native speaker to notice the deficiencies, because a native speaker just doesn’t see them. They’ve grown up with it, become adjusted to it, and may have become unduly attached to it. Just because the suggester is a non-native speaker does not automatically render the suggestion pointless, and to suggest such is stupid.

Another point - orthographic reform has been done with Chinese, and it wasn’t the end of the world; China now uses Simplified Characters, right? That’s not what they were using formally, across the board 100+ years ago, right? And what about the reforms that resulted in the distinctive brand of written Chinese used in Hong Kong? Many, many other dialects don’t use their own seperate character set, but those reforms that happened in Hong Kong haven’t ushered in social armageddon, have they? And the same has happened to English - look at Webster’s reforms that resulted in a great deal of the difference between American English and British English (where such differences don’t lie in vocabulary differences). Orthographic reform can be done, and I think openness to such reform is a sign of a healthy society and a healthy language.

This post has been edited to get rid of tangential discussion. That discussion has been taken to a separate thread. Originally this post was was in reply to certain objections to westerners discussing changing Chinese. Parts less relevant to the immediate thread have been deleted.

I don’t expect anything real to come of this discussion in this place at this time. But there are enough forces out there interested in aboloshing characters altogether in favor of a phonetic script that I think discussing more options may be of some good.

Deleted: Response to suggestion to reform English

Which is why my proposal is an attempt to keep that functionality.

Deleted: Response to suggestion that making a change would take too much effort

No it wouldn’t, you wouldn’t be using new symbols, just old ones. The Unicode standard would be just as valid.

EDITED: Something about bpmf and alphabets. Defining my argument to Tetsuo.

You’re right about the structure of Japanese, by the way, although kanji are by no means a fundamental part of the system; they can be omitted enitrely and the writer can still be understood. Hell, even kana can be ditched in favor of romaji (romanized Japanese), as is often done by Japanese travellers stuck in net cafes with no Japanese IME, and although it takes a little more work to understand, it’s doable entirely. And the system isn’t quite as inefficient as simple numbers like that may make it sound. The apparently double-up on kana is a non-issue, because they’re used for different purposes; it would be like complaining of inefficiency in English because of having uppercase AND lowercase letters. The kanji thing, well, it’s not as bad as Chinese because they’re used less and IIRC you need to know fewer of them to be functionally literate.

And yes, I think I may have been slightly misreading your posts before. My bad.

As for my stance, I really have no firm opinion one way or the other on the specific proposition here, but I do think that the idea of a reform of Chinese is worthy of discussion in and of itself. Especially since I have somewhat of a professional interest in whatever direction the language takes in future.

I haven’t really got the energy to go through your whole post above right now, so I’ll just address a couple of points that stand out:

When I say people are possibly “unduly attached” to language, I mean to the precise form in which it’s written. Some people take great offense to even the slightest suggestion of change in the language, and it is these people I’m talking about, along with those who write off change as an unnecessary hassle. Those who see language and orthographies as prescribed rather then descriptive. I think there’s a lot more of that attitude in Chinese-speaking communities, where the issue of the writing system has been used as part of a kind of cultural and political identity, and has become much more intrinsically tied into what it means to be Chinese. Most English-speaking nations haven’t had the same problem - and that’s what it is, a problem. It stymies development. There are a lot of Chinese-speakers who would balk at any suggestion of orthographic reform simply because it would be interpreted as a slight against the system as it stands, and by extension an attack on Chinese culture. And for this reason I think if any real reform is to happen, it may well have to be jumpstarted by a foreign perspective, although I would say not spearheaded by a foreign contingent. The idea itself would most likely be floated from outside the community, from someone who doesn’t have the same attachment. English differs in that most English-speaking nations aren’t as deeply tied to the idea of their orthographic system. Those that eventually lead any such reform movement would have to be native speakers who had, for want of a less insulting way of putting it, seen the light. Converts, of a sort.

I guess what I mean is there’s two kinds of attachment - there’s the normal, natural one that follows from your language being part of your culture and who you are, but there’s also what I meant by undue attachment, where that is taken to an extreme, coming with an unwillingness to even see problems or faults, and to take any suggestion of such as a personal affront.

Secondly, the “why is there no reform of English.” Partly I think it’s laziness. Sort of an “Eh, whatever. It may suck now but it works and changing it would be too much effort,” attitude. But there have been such moves in the past, and I there could be in future, although I think any future reform of English will be less an organized, forced, and immediate shift than a rapidly growing grassroots change, sort of an accelerated evolution. As much as I personally may hate it, I do think that the growth of AOLese and TXTspk with the younger generation could bring about some big shifts in the English language as she is written. The same will happen thanks to that same generation having grown up with the Internet and the mishmash of Englishes that they’ll come across through that. I think, although this is clearly not what the OP has in mind, a similar thing can, could, and should happen with Chinese; where the original ideas come from, be they native speaker or non-native speaker, is irrelevant. Merely raising the concept can start something, and if more people start to think about it, it could change how they write, which could snowball, especially if the ideas flow naturally the way the basic concepts of TXTspk did, concepts which are to my mind similar to what the OP is suggesting. Similar, but definitely not the same.

Also, I think to a point part of a reform of Chinese has already happened but awaits formalization. “Simplified” characters - not the mainland ones, but the ones those were based in part on - are a part of virtually every Taiwanese’s written vocab; certain shortcuts and “abbreviations” that speed up the writing process. They exist and are used commonly, but are not “official” partially for political reasons, and partially for the attachment reasons stated above.

I would like to express my appreciation to all of you laowais for your enthusiasm to improve the Chinese language by reforming its writing system, not only for the laowais but also us Chinese. However I teach English and I don

Deleted: response to suggestion that there would be outrage at Westerners attempting to reform the script
Deleted: response to suggestion that mostly foreigners are complaining about the difficulty of Chinese
Deleted: comment about off-topic posts to this thread
Deleted: comment about English spelling reform and comparison with Chinese learning time
Deleted: annoyed comments about suggestion that this idea be put up for a vote

EDITED: Big apology for “high-jacking thread” and clearing up general misunderstandings.

Thanks for the apology and clarification(s).

Edit: Thanks to GongChangZhang for agreeing to edit our earlier posts and take discussion about foreigners complaining about Chinese to another thread. We’ve edited some overly long posts here to make it easier to get to the main discussion.

And just as I believe I have the right to discuss a way to reform characters, I think you have the right to lambast the evils of ethno-centric Westerners cry-babying about how hard Chinese is and trying to “fix” everything that doesn’t look, smell, sound, and conjugate like English. Just, it should take place on a separate thread. :smiley:

It’s all good.

:smiley: :rainbow: :smiley: :rainbow:

:smiley: :rainbow: :smiley: :rainbow:

[quote]this forum’s moderator has agreed to split this thread when she has time to get around to it.

After the split I’ll continue to post about my suggestion for character reform. [/quote]

And then maybe I can have my very own rant and rave thread. :happybiker:

Ok, despite what I said earlier, I guess it won’t hurt to try and continue while I’m waiting. To get an idea, here’s a link to the learn pinyin section of my site. You’ll have to click on each initial separately to see the whole chart as I’ve divided it up to make it load faster. … h_f/zh.htm

For each sound/tone combination I gave a character that a native Mandarin speaker will associate with that sound. (The purpose was to help Mandarin speakers who don’t know pinyin to learn it from the characters so they can use it to teach Chinese.) I also went to some lengths to choose characters that have one and only one pronunciation.

Now, this list could easily be used to reduce the characters of Mandarin to well under 1600 characters. It would just need a little tweaking to optimize it. This list, however, would do very little good for Cantonese or other dialects. Look at a similar list for Cantonese. … art/ch.htm

Unfortunately, the Cantonese chart does not have all the tones for Cantonese, it is one character for one sound.

In order to reach an acceptable set of characters, we’d need a cross-section of dialects and find where one symbol could be used and it would work for all the dialects for all characters with that specific pronunciation. Then where there are cases that characters have multiple pronunciations, or the sound in one dialect had more than one equivalent in another, we would include additional characters to account for this.

Good luck getting anything with a comprehensive tone listing for Cantonese. I have yet to find anything consistent about Cantonese tones - I’ve heard numbers ranging from 5 through to 12 from various sources, native and non-native. Me being pretty much tone-deaf (in this respect) it all means nothing to me.

And the adding extra characters to make up for cross-dialectal splitting… Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? I mean, consider the sheer number of potential splits across the dialects, even at the most broad level of difference you’ve got Mandarin, Wu, Hakka, Cantonese, Min, Xiang, Gan, Danzhou, Xianghua, and Shaozhou Tuhua. So across those you’ve got a total of, I think, 90 different dialect pairs, each with the potential for splits. Even if each pair had only 5 net splits, that’s 450 right there. Unless of course I’m misinterpreting your idea.