You Don't Need a Character to Write a Chinese Syllable

Perhaps it’s important to keep in mind a fundamental fact: No natural language (one that people use to speak with each other) linguistically requires the use of Chinese characters. Not Mandarin, not Swahili, not Japanese, not English, not Cantonese, not German, not Tibetan, not whatever language Li Bai spoke, not whatever Sima Qian spoke, not what Confucius spoke – nothing.

When people write Mandarin they often make use of abbreviations and allusions to Literary Sinitic. When people wrote Literary Sinitic they tended to go whole hog for that sort of thing, making the Chinese characters serve as almost a code of shorthand references. There is nothing inherent in the language, though, that requires that; it’s a habit. And the fact that the habit has been around for a long time doesn’t necessarily make it a good one. See, for example, the astonishing waste of time and effort people spent on learning to write eight-legged essays (bāgǔwén).

[quote=“cranky laowai”]Perhaps it’s important to keep in mind a fundamental fact: No natural language (one that people use to speak with each other) linguistically requires the use of Chinese characters. Not Mandarin, not Swahili, not Japanese, not English, not Cantonese, not German, not Tibetan, not whatever language Li Bai spoke, not whatever Sima Qian spoke, not what Confucius spoke – nothing.

When people write Mandarin they often make use of abbreviations and allusions to Literary Sinitic. When people wrote Literary Sinitic they tended to go whole hog for that sort of thing, making the Chinese characters serve as almost a code of shorthand references. There is nothing inherent in the language, though, that requires that; it’s a habit. And the fact that the habit has been around for a long time doesn’t necessarily make it a good one. See, for example, the astonishing waste of time and effort people spent on learning to write eight-legged essays (bāgǔwén).[/quote]

Great comment. I want to add two things:
(1) bāgǔwén: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eight-legged_essay
(2) tian1xia4wei2gong1 – Is this ambiguous?

As a translator, I can attest that I have to deal, on a daily basis, with things like literary Chinese, abbreviations, puns, and other written forms which, because of homophony, would be rendered undecipherable in pure Pinyin. It might be a different story if the Chinese wrote like they spoke, but in general they don’t.[/quote]

Interesting perspective. Do you have any examples. [/quote]

I second Chris’s comment, and actually there are many examples even in contemporary multisyllabic Chinese and even setting aside the special elements Chris mentions, although those do occur extensively in written modern Chinese and complicate things further as he points out. Here are a few examples from everyday language relating to law (as it happens my field is legal translation):

權力 quan2li4 power
權利 quan2li4 rights

法制 fa3zhi4 legal system; legal regime
法治 fa3zhi4 rule of law

and a more subtle one:

依法治國 yi1fa3zhi4guo2 rule of law
以法治國 yi3fa3zhi4guo2 rule by law
(The former term denotes deference to law in government; the latter may on the other hand imply the use of law as a tool of control by a ruling regime)

Incidentally, Deborah Cao has an interesting discussion of the above terms in her book Chinese Law: A Language Perspective.

I think it is not so much about romanising the characters, it is about romanising the language - and a language is foremost spoken.

[quote]施氏食獅史

石室詩士施氏,嗜獅,誓食十獅。適施氏時時適市視獅。十時,適十獅適市。是時,適施氏適市。氏視是十獅,恃矢勢,使是十獅逝世。氏拾是十獅屍,適石室。石室濕,氏使侍拭石室。石室拭,氏始試食是十獅屍。食時,始識是十獅屍,實十石獅屍。試釋是事。[/quote]
Fortunately, nobody speaks that way. Or, as a funny way to show how useful Classical Chinese is in contemporary life, ask a native speaker to read this aloud to a second native speaker without showing the text, and let the second native speaker write it down. Please post the result.

Any romanisation system only serves to display the phonetic form of a language. So, if someone says that romanisation is impossible for a certain language, it naturally begs the question: How can people actually talk to each other in that language? How can they have a conversation without having a small display hanging around their neck showing every word they say?

Classical Chinese served about the same purpose as Latin or French in medieval Europe: To show your level of education was higher than that of the masses. And that purpose it still seems to serve today. It’s like someone throwing in a word or short phrase in Latin when actually speaking in another language, hoping the audience will freeze in awe. There may even be someone responding the same way, but I seriously doubt one can find two people conversing completely in Latin. Or in Classical Chinese. I have seen neither.

Classical Chinese is nice as a form of art, and to throw in a bit or two to show your education. But in practical communication, it is pretty useless. There may be words that have similar or even identical sounds, but different meanings, that may happen to many languages. But if you cannot grasp the meaning and therefore the correct word from the context it is used in, then that language has a serious problem, because it may not serve the purpose a language is supposed to serve: To provide an unambiguous and clear standard for communication that people can rely on.