Asia's Orthographic Dilemma

Asia's Orthographic Dilemma

Wm. C. Hannas
With a Foreword by John DeFrancis
Copyright Date: 1997
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  • Book Info
    Asia's Orthographic Dilemma
    Book Description:

    With the advent of computers and the rise of East Asian economies, the complicated character-based writing systems of East Asia have reached a stage of crisis that may be described as truly millennial in scope and implications. In what is perhaps the most wide-ranging critique of the sinographic script ever written, William C. Hannas assesses the usefulness of Chinese character-based writing in East Asia today.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6153-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-x)
    John DeFrancis

    This study of the use of Chinese characters in the writing systems of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam is, amazingly, the product of a single scholar who may well be the only person to have ever achieved command over all four of the languages involved, not to mention a few others that have helped him gain access to additional material and to the thought of other scholars. Such a unique linguistic endowment has provided a solid basis for a comparative study that is both incisive and comprehensive.

    In relating the character-based writing systems to the languages they represent, the author...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Part 1 History and Structure of Writing in East Asia

    • 1. Chinese
      (pp. 3-25)

      Among East Asia’s cultural artifacts nothing stands out as so peculiarly Asian as the unique system of writing shared by China, Japan, Korea, and until recently Vietnam. To the Westerner coming to grips with this economically dynamic region of the world, Chinese characters are at once the area’s most salient unifying feature and the most impenetrable aspect of the culture. To East Asians, the characters are much more. As the dominant form of writing, the system forms the basis of their culture and their civilization, the Sinitic terms for which are, literally, “transformed by writing” and “enlightenment through writing.”¹ To...

    • 2. Japanese
      (pp. 26-47)

      Westerners untrained in East Asian languages have no difficulty distinguishing between materials printed in Chinese and in Japanese. Although both make use of Chinese characters, with the exception of an occasionalpinyinword, Chinese write only in characters. A page of printed Chinese, accordingly, is either an orderly collection of symmetrical, neatly spaced symbols or an unrelieved block of marginally differentiated rectangles, depending on one’s personal taste and vision. Although written Japanese uses the same or similar characters, they are islands (manyislands) in a sea of patently different symbols that do repeat and that have structures that are individually...

    • 3. Korean
      (pp. 48-72)

      On the continuum from full use of Chinese characters to no use, Korean occupies an intermediate position. It can optionally be expressed in a mixed character-phonetic script, as is done for some types of writing in the South. Or the language can be written in a phonetic alphabet entirely, which is the practice for most nontechnical works in South Korea and for all writing in the North. Unlike the Japanese, who also use a mixed character-phonetic script, Koreans, when they want to at all, use Chinese characters only to represent Sinitic vocabulary; indigenous words must be written in thehangul...

    • 4. Vietnamese
      (pp. 73-98)

      Of the four major languages that have used Chinese characters, Vietnamese is the only one to have abandoned them completely for all-phonetic writing. Nevertheless, Vietnamese has been largely ignored in this regard. One reason for this neglect is the language’s exotic flair, it being the least commonly taught of East Asia’s less commonly taught languages. Paradoxically, another reason may be because Vietnamese writing reform has already succeeded, which to many scholars puts the language and the country outside the Chinese character cultural sphere and beyond linguists’ related concerns. A more subtle factor behind the neglect may also be the most...

  6. Part 2 Critique of Chinese Character–Based Writing

    • 5. Representation
      (pp. 101-124)

      One of the thorniest of the many problems pertaining to Chinese characters is determining what these symbols represent. Although a consensus seems to be emerging among specialists that the characters map onto morphemes—normally defined as “minimal units of meaningful sound”—uncertainty about how this mapping relationship takes place has led them to widely divergent views. At one end of the scale, scholars cite an alleged direct connection between “meaning” and symbol as prima facie evidence that Chinese characters are “ideographic,” that is, they represent ideas. Although the characters are used with languages, their primary connection with meaning as such...

    • 6. Learning and Literacy
      (pp. 125-152)

      If opinions are mixed on what Chinese characters represent, they are also divided on their usefulness as a tool of learning. Westerners who have studied languages that use Chinese characters are typically put off by the need to learn thousands of symbols simply to read and write a language. In their view, mastering a separate sign for each basic concept wastes time that could be spent acquiring substantive knowledge. Instead of using language to learn, East Asians are wasting their youth and resources learning about language. Notwithstanding their efforts, the system’s inherent difficulties predispose those societies using Chinese characters to...

    • 7. Reading
      (pp. 153-173)

      Until recently, linguists believed that “meaning-based” Chinese characters and “sound-based” phonetic scripts were processed by readers in different ways. Readers of alphabetic and other types of phonetic writing were thought to recode written symbols into their corresponding sounds, and then go on to interpret these sounds with the same mechanisms used for processing speech. Although details varied from one model to the next, the common assumption was that readers make direct use of the phonological information available to them to build up a representation of a word’s sound prior to accessing its meaning in their mental lexicon. This hypothesis was...

    • 8. Appropriateness to East Asian Languages
      (pp. 174-204)

      The best arguments for Chinese characters revolve around what many see as their “appropriateness” to Chinese language and by extension to the Sinitic vocabularies of other East Asian languages. Chinese itself, with its alleged “monosyllabic” structure, is regarded as uniquely suited to a form of representation whose units are one syllable long. Since the serviceability of a writing system is measured by how well it fits the language, what more could be asked? Also, by focusing on meaningful units, the characters are said to eliminate a major deficit in the Sinitic parts of East Asian languages, namely, their poorly differentiated...

  7. Part 3 Forces for Change

    • 9. The Chimera of Reform
      (pp. 207-230)

      We have seen in the first several chapters of this book that users of Chinese characters everywhere have sought by one means or another to transform this cumbersome writing system into a serviceable artifact. In China, these efforts led to radical “simplification” of character shapes, elimination of some forms through phonetic borrowing, and creation of an alphabetic notation that is taking some heat off the characters by acting as a de facto orthography in places where the latter are completely unsuitable. Japan introduced its own simplified forms and attempted to limit the number of characters in daily use. In Korea,...

    • 10. Language, Speech, and Writing
      (pp. 231-257)

      The formal relationship between writing and speech has been debated by linguists for nearly a century. One school of thought treats writing as derivative of speech and maintains that writing’s true and only function is to represent speech sounds. In this view, speech represents (oris) language, and writing in turn represents (or should represent) speech. The contrary view asserts that writing and speech both represent language, that the one does not (even should not) necessarily derive from the other, and that neither form of language is “primary.” Not surprisingly, linguists disposed one way or the other to Chinese characters...

    • 11. Computing with Chinese Characters
      (pp. 258-276)

      Technology’s cutting edge is two-sided. While enhancing our ability to shape nature, technology also highlights defects in mechanisms whose limitations were not universally recognized. Progress is served in both cases.

      The present chapter explores the relationship between Chinese characters and computers—the most recent in a millennia-old series of technical innovations for recording language. I begin by examining how well computers have fulfilled their predicted role of eliminating gaps in the ease with which alphabetic and character texts are generated and processed. The practical consequences of a large character set whose units lack a well-motivated design will be assessed as...

    • 12. Chinese Characters and East Asian Culture
      (pp. 277-300)

      Discussing East Asia’s linguistic culture as a single entity is simply asking for trouble. For starters, different people beginning with the principals themselves define “East Asia” by different criteria. Some would include Mongolia and Tibet, others would question my including of Vietnam, while still others would wonder why the remaining Southeast Asian countries were left out. Even if agreement could be reached on the geography, a full accounting of the area’s linguistic culture would have to consider dozens of well-attested minority languages in China and Vietnam, besides the four “major” languages I have chosen to treat. More fundamentally, what sense...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 301-316)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 317-330)
  10. Index
    (pp. 331-338)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 339-339)