Recommended reading on romanization

A couple of days ago I spotted two copies of Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma at the Fnac near the train station. (It was on the top shelf, near the Chinese-English dictionaries and the like.) I strongly recommend buying it, even at NT$765 for a paperback. This is a must-read book for those interested in the topic of romanization.

Seems very interesting… can you offer your opinion on the future of the Chinese character written system?

That would take a long time to write. I’m going to reply in brief for now.

I think that Chinese characters will eventually wither away as the primary method for written Mandarin, though, with the resistance to real language reform that has characterized the situation on both sides of the strait for the better part of the past 100 years, that may take most of this century to happen. Certainly characters will remain an art form and a medium for scholars.

Contrary to popular belief, computers aren’t helping characters gain new life but making things worse. People are getting less and less able to remember how to write characters unaided. When literacy starts fraying at the edges in this way, it’s a sign of more problems ahead for the belief that characters are the one true way.

I’ve filled out the table of contents for Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma.

I think Japan will be the last place to lose Chinese characters, if it ever does. It’ll have a population that actively reads and writes them with great zeal long after Taiwan and China have given them the old heave-ho.

This is ironic considering they’re pretty poorly suited to Japanese, which comes from a totally different language family than Chinese. But the poverty of sounds in the Japanese language has made a lot of homophones among Chinese-originated words, bringing in the need for Chinese characters in writing to clarify meaning.
It was only after I studied Mandarin that I came upon the debate over whether Chinese characters were more written sound or more written meaning. In Japanese, which I took before Chinese, the consensus was always that they were ideographs (written meaning devoid of written sound). Period.

This sounds like a lot of things in NE Asian history, but it seems to me that the Japanese took Chinese characters and molded them into a uniquely local form, in a way the Koreans never quite did. In my nerdier moments, I’ve pondered for hours why there isn’t one combined character dictionary that would serve learners of Chinese and Japanese equally well. The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it seemed. The two languages use the characters for two very different purposes, and the vocabulary of compounds often doesn’t overlap much. There are many faux amies between Chinese and Japanese. Hanzi and Kanji might as well be looked at as 2 different writing systems.

Language reformers in Japan have been trying to reduce and even eliminate the use of Chinese characters for more than a century. Their efforts, which had a fair chance of succeeding, especially just after the end of World War II, however, were sabotaged by rightists who did everything they could to bury evidence showing characters weren’t needed. For the story, see
Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan, by J. Marshall Unger, and Kanji Politics: Language Policy and Japanese Script, by Nanette Gottlieb.


No, not really.

You’re quite right to be suspicious of the orthodox line in Japan. This oft-repeated traditional consensus is completely wrong, as has been demonstrated time and again by scholars.

Even more than two different systems, actually, given that Japanese sometimes requires different readings for the same characters (in a different and more extreme way than Mandarin).

See my list of romanization-related readings.

See my list of romanization-related readings.[/quote]

Excellent list of references. I’m glad to see you have Hannas’s next book (Writing on the Wall) up there. Hannas does not seem to mind tackling difficult topics, fighting his way upstream against the sheer weight of fashionable myths and popular misconceptions.

In Writing on the Wall, he will be advancing a very bold thesis: that use of characters inhibit creativity and originality among East Asians (I’m sure he’ll use North Korea’s use of all-Hangul writing as a control, despite the fact that their society has been severely depressed and rivened by totalitarianism).

I’m very open to his proposition, though, in spite of the unfriendly reception the book is sure to find among both traditionalists (“characters are essential to our culture”) and guardians of political correctness (“it’s their culture that inhibits them; all people are equally creative”). Hannas is quite a good researcher, however, so I’m looking forward to seeing him back up his arguments with data and findings.

I’m also glad to see J. Marshal Unger comig out with a new book his year on the ideographic myth, and its consequences in the social sciences.

How did you find out about these 2 new books? You do have your ear to the ground.

Yes, Writing on the Wall looks likely to piss off a lot of people, which is good, because that should bring some more attention to the issues he raises.

I’m especially looking forward to that title. Have you seen Erbaugh’s “Ideograph as Other in Poststructuralist Literary Theory” in Difficult Characters? It deals with how mistaken metaphors based on the ideographic myth have worked their way into lit-crit.

Thanks for your kind words about the list. I’ve added another book just today: Packard’s Morphology of Chinese.

I’ll be posting sample chapters :smiley: from several of the books soon, once I hear back from a few more publishers. (It’s a small Web page, but it’s been keeping me quite busy lately.)

Taiwan can’t even work how to romanise Chinese properly. They are hardly going to abandon characters too quickly. Yes, it may happen some time in the future, but it will be quite a few years from now.

I haven’t seen this title, but it’s fascinating, because Unger has been giving a seminar on this very topic for past few years at Ohio State. He must have collected his notes from his talks and organized them into his latest book.

[quote=“cranky laowai”]
Thanks for your kind words about the list. I’ve added another book just today: Packard’s Morphology of Chinese. [/quote]

Oh, this is a great book for the budding linguist, providing a treatment of morphology and generative grammar. You’re right to include this book, since it clarifies the notion of a word in Chinese, which Hannas has expounded upon in AOD, indicating that characters obfuscate the concept of a word.

[quote=“cranky laowai”]
I’ll be posting sample chapters :smiley: from several of the books soon, once I hear back from a few more publishers. (It’s a small Web page, but it’s been keeping me quite busy lately.)[/quote]

You’ve certainly put a lot of work into that page. It’s turning into a great reference for tackling characters vs Romanization (alphabetization) issues. Again, very well done.

Why don’t you open a small library so that we can share the contents of those books too. Those books interest me so much, I just hope I’ll pop into one of them on my visit to local bookstore here. I don’t know if I might spend fortunes to get all your collection, cranky laowai, but I’m sure going to collect them too.


I like the idea in theory, but I’ve had some bad experiences in loaning out my books, so I’m not really comfortable with doing so anymore. :frowning:

As I mentioned before, though, I’ll be putting up some extensive selections of sample material from as many of the books as I can. Look for an entire chapter (some 15,000 words!) from one of the books to appear later this week.

Other ways to make these books more accessible here would be to pester bookstores to order them and to persuade a reprint house such as SMC (Nantian) to issue inexpensive Taiwan editions of them.

Crane Publishing put out what is at least labeled an authorized edition of The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. The publisher says the book is out of stock and out of print. But maybe if it got enough calls (tel. 2393-4497) it would reissue the volume, it being something every language student here should read.

I notice that the problem of incorporating Chinese characters into Japanese and Korean (modern Korean–the ancient form was just Chinese, period!) is quite parallel to the problem the Chinese language now has with incorporating foreign words in the Roman alphabet.

In both situations, the language absolutely has to recognize certain crucial foreign loan-words. In the Korean and Japanese cases, it was natural to render Chinese loan-words as Chinese characters–just as it is preferable for Chinese texts to include English spelling for certain key terms, along with the Chinese gloss. Both English and characters are a sign of education, which explains much of the sentiment toward their prominent display. Interestingly, characters are perceived as beautiful and artistic, while Roman letters are…well, at least not. (Aesthetic tastes around here are pretty numb, though, and in my darker moments I wonder if they even notice such things.)

I agree that the character-only writing system may well be doomed to cease being universal. (Hey, how’s that for a qualified statement!) Taiwan will soon confront the issue of simplified vs. complified, which will thoroughly mess up their already difficult educational process. Unfortunately, they don’t have a ready-to-go alternative. Does that mean they have to switch to another language altogether? English seems an unlikely solution, owing to its difficulty. And Romanized Taiwanese is just too hopelessly small-scale to get much cooperation elsewhere–for example, in the lists of languages offered on internet sites. (An integrated world favors big languages.) Hanyu pinyin might conceivably work, on the analogy of Vietnamese.

I read in the newspapers a few weeks ago that somebody in Taiwan’s Ministry of Education wanted to create new character-based systems for Taiwanese and (get this) aboriginal languages! Has this gotten anywhere? It doesn’t sound like it could, but who knows. I suppose this is related to the “official language” controversy, though I’ve never heard anyone say exactly what an “official language” was supposed to be or do.

Did you ever hear a Taiwanese person say something like “Jeez, I wish England had colonized us…”? I don’t think this would necessarily have left the place better off than it is today – the Japanese put a lot of TLC into the infrastructure here – but English wouldn’t be a weak point nowadays, that much is for sure. Maybe like Malaysia.

I don’t expect a whole lot of immigrants here anytime soon who don’t speak Mandarin – it’s hard as hell if you don’t have family already here – so I think Mandarin and Minnanhua are gonna be it for sometime. I think the biggest reason Taiwan isn’t welcoming a lot of immigrants is cos they’re bracing for the day their western shore gets hit with a few million boat people. If that country collapses I don’t want to be there that day, and nor will a few million others who live by the sea and can find something to float on.

While we’re on it, could you imagine the governments in Japan or Korea ever trying to get their peoples to give up their languages? That would get shot down fast.

In Japan, where many tend to think of Japanese as either the best language in the world or the very worst, several proposals have been floated to replace it with English or even Esperanto.

Amazon is already shipping copies of Writing on the Wall, by William Hannas – and at a considerable discount, too. :smiley:

Buy it, read it, use it to piss off lots of people. :sunglasses:

[Addition (April 17): Amazon no longer offering a 35 percent discount on this title. :frowning: ]

I believe Fukuzawa Yuukichi (the no-nonsense dude on the 10,000 yen bill) was the first to publicly voice the opinion that English ought to replace Japanese in Japan. This idea, unlike a lot of his ideas for his country’s future, got shot down.

Replacing a national language ain’t no easy thing. I think it tends to work one of 2 ways:

  1. The new language is a simplified trade language or pidgin, from the same roots as what the locals already speak. Promulgated mostly by native movements. Bahasa Indonesia and Mandarin are good examples. But even in Indonesia, China, and Taiwan, the older, more complex local languages that came before have not been stamped out. On the contrary, they now function as “insiders’ languages”, that quickly build bonds between generations from the same neighborhood, and just as quickly build walls to keep out hapless interlopers who happen to only know the greater trade language. I still maintain that no one fully gets in with the Taiwanese unless they can speak and understand Minnanhua. It would be even worse to live in Madura or Bali and only speak Bahasa Indo.

  2. If the new national language is totally alien, seems to me there needs to be a colonial power there to enforce it. This is done not so much by military or police power, but by shaming the people out of wanting to speak their local tongue. They thus learn to speak a new language because they feel it affords them some advantage or status over people who can’t speak it. Fukuzawa, bless his romantically nationalistic heart, didn’t understand this. He didn’t see that his well-founded observation that Japan can do anything the West can do actually DIMINISHED his countrymen’s willingness to learn another language. Because if Japan is the equal or the superior of the West, then its people have no need to feel ashamed for speaking only Japanese. As for practical need? All the country needs is a handful of diplomatic and business types who are bilingual, whose job it is to deal with outsiders. That’s exactly what the US has now. Most people don’t speak any language but English, and see no point in learning any. The few who do get to handle all those non-English speakers overseas for the rest of us. Why? Because 1) English is already simple and widespread enough, and 2) no outside power is brainwashing us to think that speaking something else is somehow better.

Russia was the same way when I visited. People there DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH. In fact, many balked that I had a lot of nerve coming to their country without speaking a word of Russian. Why? Because the Russians are a proud people. Although Westerners knock Russia a lot these days, Russians still carry in their hearts the pride of a people that is in every way capable of being powerful and influential. They were colonizers once, with their own sphere of influence and their own self-developed infrastructure that matched the West. I don’t think this will ever be the case again there, but that’s still how they view themselves for the time being.

By the way, one last note on Fukuzawa Yuukichi. He’s sometimes called the Ben Franklin of Japan. I’ve read his autobiography and many articles on him. I personally see him as nothing more than a product of, and prophet for, his time. If he hadn’t done what he did and written what he wrote, some other bright young Japanese at the same time would have. Moreover, his lessons apply really only to Japan. I fail to see any greater lessons for humanity in his example. The history teacher at the school where I teach was the one who told me this.

Cranky Laowai,

I would like to purchase Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma. Where is Fnac?
(Maybe everyone else knows what you are talking about, but I sure
do not.)

Excellent choice in reading material. :smiley:

There are two Fnac stores in Taipei: one at the northwest corner of Nanjing East Road and Dunhua North Road, and the other near the train station, not far south of the Nova computer mall. I saw the book in the latter store; I hope it still has copies.

I forgot to add that for those who prefer mail order, I’ve added links on each of the listed books’ pages to an on-line bookstore shopping 'bot. (No “sponsored link” kickbacks for me, though. I’m just trying to make it easier for people to buy these books and read them.)

I just checked. Used copies of Hannas’s first book are going for as little as US$12, or US$15 for the hardback edition.

I’ve done a lot of work on the readings section in the last week. So if you haven’t looked lately, look again.