Monday, April 27, 2009

On Orthography

The People's Republic of China is has announced they will make changes to Simplified Chinese characters to make them easier to understand. By making them more complicated.
Some characters will have more strokes added and thus be brought closer to their earlier, more complicated forms. But officials insist the move does not mark the start of a campaign to scrap simplified characters. China, they say, need not move back toward the traditional forms, nor further along the path of simplification. It simply needs to “standardise” things.
An expat, Jacob von Bisterfeld, argues in the Shanghai Daily News for Mao's linguistic goal, the alphabetization of Chinese. He raises a valid point: the switch to simplified characters has already relegated all pre-20th century texts solely to the purview of scholars and the elderly, so Chinese might as well become alphabetic.

Not so fast. Alphabets do offer considerable advantages. They're shockingly easy to learn and teach, comprehensible to foreigners, and compatible with technology. They also enforce linguistic homogeneity, which I'm sure had something to do with Mao's enthusiasm. I'll illustrate by comparison with "Arabic", which like "Chinese" is a political construct rather than a language. Politics aside, we'd talk about "the Chinese languages" and "the Arabic languages" the same way we talk about "the Romance languages" or "the Germanic languages", but historical, cultural, and political forces have shaped the idea of the unity of "Arabic" and "Chinese" as something distinct. Both cases exhibit diglossia, in which educated speakers function in both a standardized archaic form of the language (Modern Standard Arabic and Standard Mandarin) and their own native language. Modern Standard Arabic "works" precisely because it is fully artificial; it is nobody's native language. Spelling is standardized and predictable because "proper" pronunciation is universally recognized and strictly taught in school. Moreover, the fact that MSA is heavily modeled on Koranic Arabic gives it remarkable cultural authority. Arabs use their alphabet to write their dialects phonetically in comic books and text messages, but nobody's arguing this should expand beyond those uses. The usefulness of MSA is self-evident.

Chinese is a very different story simply because Mandarin is a first language for many Chinese. But while they might have a slight leg up on learning Standard Written Mandarin, speakers of other dialects aren't really disadvantaged. The logographic writing system works just as well for every different regional pronunciation as it does for the "standard" pronunciations. In a gross oversimplification, most of the world recognizes that 8 means 8, whether we call it eight, acht, ocho, huit, thamanya, or whatever. The logogram signifies a great diversity of spoken words, which you simply can't do with an alphabet. Switching to a phonological alphabet for Chinese would require designating a prestige dialect as the model, which would certainly be spoken Mandarin. Where would that leave the other languages? Do they come up with their own orthographies, precipitating the breakup of Chinese the way Medieval Latin broke into the Romance languages? Or do they continue to read the same Mandarin words and pronounce them in their own language, doing what they've always done just with the added confusion that the written language is expressly Mandarin?

If you haven't gathered already, I think that Chinese characters seem to work pretty well for writing Chinese. The technological difficulties quite evidently aren't insuperable. Even the education argument, that it's just too difficult to teach all those characters, doesn't seem well-supported. Literacy in Chinese doesn't seem to be any harder to achieve than anywhere else. Non-mainland Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Chinatowns worldwide certainly don't seem to have any particular trouble. I've also read good arguments that the logographic system has a much longer but far flatter and more forgiving learning curve than an alphabet, in which learning to read tends to involve a "Eureka!" moment that far too many people never reach. In every other case in history, logographic writing systems were replaced by alphabets within a few generations of exposure to the concept. The anomalous survival of Chinese suggests this is a writing system supremely well-suited to its language. As to the announced de-simplification: the characters have been simplified, standardized, de-simplificated, and recomplified for three millenia. I suspect they'll survive.

So, if all this talk about logograms and phonology has you thinking I might have some thoughts about the way we write and speak English, you'd be correct. But that's a topic for a whole 'nother post.

*This breaks down a bit when we're talking true logograms: the use of 8 in "have a gr8 day!" is only comprehensible to English speakers. Apparently Chinese does quite a lot of this sort of internal punning, so that dialect speakers do at least need familiarity with spoken Mandarin to fully parse the written language. An alphabet would still make the situation worse.

1 comment:

Shane said...

I liken the political push for simplified Chinese as similar to some sort of political push for Comic Sans as the font of choice in newspapers. Yes, it looks closer to handwritten language (think about the lowercase 'a' or 'g'), but we seem to work just fine without thinking about the differences. Besides, Times Roman works well for printed text for other reasons. And we will continue to hand write as we do.

I agree that Chinese printed text should be standardized. Unfortunately, the original standard, which is functionally adequate, is no longer recognized as the default by the majority of Chinese speakers. Nor will the people of Taiwan or Hong Kong look kindly upon being forced to switch over to something originating from Mao's government.

However, it's not necessarily the case that written Chinese works equally as well for the other dialects. The alphabetization of Chinese would disadvantage native speakers of less standard dialects of Chinese, but realistically speaking they would only intensify the inequality of opportunity within the Chinese-speaking world. It's really more of a historical accident that many non-Chinese speakers even realize that there are vastly different dialects of Chinese - Hong Kong residents seem to speak Mandarin slightly better than about how well Texans speak Spanish, but Hong Kong has enjoyed far greater influence and prestige abroad than the rest of China throughout the past 50 years. If it weren't for them, Beijing policymakers probably wouldn't have a problem pushing for policies that are totally blind to other regions' groups. Last time I was in China, I met the mayor of a 6 million person city who couldn't even speak the primary dialect of his city. Basically, non-Mandarin speakers get the shaft all the time.

As much as it pains me to say it, the way forward is to slowly consolidate the dialects so that Mandarin Chinese is the native language of at least the Han ethnicity living in China, and the minority ethnicities should be able to retain their native languages (and writing systems where applicable). Then we can talk about alphabetization, which would be a nice end-state for Chinese.