Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Chinese Made Simple(r)? - Part 2

[NOTE: A reader alerted me that part 1 of this series looked quite out of sorts, with misspaced commas, apostrophes, missing letters, etc. I use Mozilla at home and, as much as possible, at work; but today when I perused my blog on Explorer I was flummoxed by just how bad it looks in that browser! All I can say is, 1) I am sorry for the annoying glitches, 2) my condolences to those of you who still use Explorer, and 3) stop using Explorer and start using Firefox.]

In part 1 we looked at the linguistic ‘modes’ a Chinese learner faces (and, in fact, that any language speaker deals with). I concluded by saying the pervasive ‘homophonic redundancy’ in Chinese is a stumbling block to making Chinese an otherwise globally accessible language. I also alluded to the importance of radicals (bùshǒu) in navigating homophones.

Now, unless you’ve studied Chinese, you may ask yourself what is so important about these ‘radicals’ I keep mentioning. Without an alphabet, the Chinese must use any of three (or more?) methods to find words in a reference work. First, if they know how to pronounce it, readers can scan a phonetic index and then go to the word. For example, if a kid hears ‘fán’ but wants to study it more, he can look for fán and then try to pick the right homophone. This is a headache for non-native students until you have a serious grasp of which homophones can express what (as well as a good memory and communicative intuition of what the people might have been discussing when you heard the homophone!). Second, if they know the radical, people can scan a radical index, arranged according to radical stroke-count, go to that sub-list, and then find the character based on its remaining stroke count. For example, the radical for shèng (‘holy’), which has thirteen strokes, is ér (‘ear’), which has six strokes. You scan the six-stroke radical list, flip to page 1228 (in my Far East Chinese-English Dictionary), then tabulate the remaining strokes (seven) and find shèng in the left column (of three) on page 1231. Not a walk in the park. Third, if they have no idea how to say it, or if they forget its’ radical – and I assure you even native speakers forget the correct radicals none too infrequently – or if the dictionary at hand uses a different radical to classify the word – no small dispute over the past centuries! – if all else fails, Chinese readers can peruse the dense-as-a-telephone stroke-count index to find the elusive word. This method is also how the Chinese list family names, from simplest to most complex. Then again, what if you can’t visualize the right number of strokes...? Put the dictionary away and just go ask your Chinese friend for help!

Say what you will about English’s atrocious, idiosyncratic spelling, but after studying Chinese, I assure you an alphabet and a Webster’s never looked so sane. To give you one example, which, as a matter of fact, happened to me only two days after the shǔ shí example I mentioned above, in part I. I was telling a Taiwanese friend about some of the hilarious oddities and activities in my English class – deciphering Orphic, bilingual nicknames, developing new wonder drugs, singing and dancing to ‘Yakety Yak’, blowing my nose as signal to shout the missing word in a listening activity, and so forth. I mentioned how one of my senior high students, Milestone, and how I sometimes call him by a direct English translation of a direct Chinese translation of his name: Yīnglǐ Shítóu. Alternatively, I use the same hackneyed translation method for how he pronounces his name when asked (‘My’ol’ston’), thus calling him ‘Wǒde jiùde shítóu’, from ‘My Old Stone’. My friend happened to know ‘milestone’ in Chinese and told me: ‘lǐ chéng bēi’. ‘Good to know’, I thought, ‘Can you write that down for me?’

Then things got very interesting. My friend may have known how to say ‘milestone’ in Chinese, but she could only remember how to write lǐ and chéng. She could only give me the phonetic spelling for bēi, which I already knew from hearing it. Normally I would have just taken the note and looked up the word at home. But, since I was in the midst of writing this series, I was more keenly aware than usual of the difficulties of language-exchange. I wanted to know bēi. She couldn’t remember. ‘Well, what if there are a dozen bēi’s in my dictionary?’ I asked, truly distressed. ‘Let’s be scientific,’ I continued, and took out my electronic dictionary to type in bēi. Sure enough, there were twenty-two options for that phoneme! Worse, many of them had the same character elements in them. So much for the phonetic approach. I needed to at least know the radical so I could properly look up bēi. This my friend for do for me: 石bēi. Thus, with only five additional strokes, I had all I needed to research the character. (Better still, my friend had a small epiphany about the soundness of my method... but I’m getting ahead of myself.) Admittedly, this is only one example, and mild at that, considering I could have looked up ‘milestone’ in an English-Chinese dictionary or lǐ chéng bēi in a pīnyīn dictionary. Nonetheless, the ambiguities I faced in this case are instructive: At every turn, Chinese chants a deafening and defeating, ‘Beware all ye who enter here!’

But there is hope. Simplicity, clarity and accessibility are much the basis for Hànyǚ Pīnyīn (or the current Romanization system). If every sign had a pīnyīn transliteration, though, I could at least remember the street or building name as a ‘normal’ foreign word (like ‘Krankenhaus’ or ‘gelato’) and ask a local for help based on pronunciation alone. Let me say it plainly: I think pīnyīn is a wonderful thing! While Wade-Giles may be more correct from a technical phonetic standpoint – well, who cares? Pīnyīn is more compact than both Yale and W-G, as well as more immediately accessible to English-speakers (both native and second-language speakers). Ask any European student of English to read ‘Peking’ (W-G) and you will hear ‘puh king’ or ‘peh king’. Ask them to read ‘Beijing’, on the other hand, and you’ll probably hear ‘bei jing’, ‘beh zhing’ or maybe ‘bai jing’. Or, ask any native English speaker to read ‘Zāo gāo le, wǒ fēicháng è le’ and, while you won’t hear correct Mandarin, you at least won’t hear nervous pauses, choppy inflections and toneless mutterings of W-G’s ‘Tsao’kao le, wo fei’ch’ang o le.’ Even people who can read W-G don’t know the tones, since W-G just writes the phonemes!)

Further, a key feature of true pīnyīn, as opposed to tóngyīn, is the incorporation of the tones (as you see me trying to do in this post). ‘Folk pinyin’ would write Běijīng as Beijing. But, to be technical, is it Bēijíng, Bèijīng (‘quiet and secluded’), Běijǐng (‘background’), etc? Those of us who want to know the characters for learning purposes can’t make do with toneless pinyin, er, pīnyīn!

But, hey, there’s no need to be overly picky. Chinese phonetics is no perfect science. The far bigger to fry is the writing system. I am convinced that if Chinese could develop a simpler, more accessible, more flexible, more universilizable writing system, it would be perhaps the easiest language on earth.
As Barry Farber, autodidact hyperpolyglot, puts it, Chinese doesn’t have grammar so much as it has ‘interesting ways of speaking’. Far from English maze of conjugation – I am hungry, you are hungry, he is hungry – Chinese simply puts logical components in a basically rational order – I hungry, you hungry, he hungry. Rather than saying ‘I want to eat, but does he want to eat or not?’ (or, in German, ‘Ich möchte essen, aber möchte er auch essen, oder nicht?’) – which is, I admit, an intentionally formal way of speaking – a Mandarin speaker simply says, ‘I want eat, but is he want not want eat?’ When you first start learning Mandarin, it sounds absurdly crude, like baby talk – but, as far as conveying thoughts efficiently and simply, I think Chinese is amazing. (As did George Orwell, apparently. The language of his political apocalypse, _1984_, ‘Newspeak’, is none too loosely based on the binary nature of Chinese grammar.)
The proverb ‘Qǐ hǔ nán xià’ translates literally to ‘Ride tiger difficult down’, and dynamically as ‘It’s hard to get off [i.e., solve] the tiger [i.e., a complicated, perilous situation or relationship] once you start riding [i.e., having] it. Point being, if writing Chinese were as easy as speaking Mandarin, Chinese could be any language student’s dream come true!

But the unfortunate reality is that Chinese deserves its infamous reputation on the (de)merits of its writing system alone. As one of my coworkers puts it, none too diplomatically: ‘Chinese is retarded! Every other damned culture moved its language away from symbols and hieroglyphs ten thousand years ago. Why? Because alphabets are simple! Alphabets are good! But Chinese? It still uses characters! Come on, China, play Jeopardy: just buy some letters. Stop killing kids with rote memorization. Etc.’ Diplomatic or not, my coworker is right. Chinese is its own biggest problem.

As my coworker also likes to point out, and I myself have seen numerous times, once Chinese students get proficient enough in English, they’ll actually take notes in English during a Chinese lecture! The characters, when they can remember how to write them, are just too much of a hassle. Writing turtle, for example, in English requires at most eleven strokes of the pen, whereas in Chinese the word (wūguī) requires a staggering twenty-six strokes! ‘Cat’? Six strokes, at most. Māo? Sixteen strokes! And then, what if you *can’t* remember how to write the character? I wish I were joking, but I have asked various Taiwanese how to write sock (wàzi) and have gotten 50-50 results: half the tie I hear, ‘I can’t remember!’, while the other half I hear, ‘[pause] ... That’s a hard character, but....’. The word finally emerges from a tentative set of strokes.

A century ago when the Chinese wanted to ‘move ahead’ into the ‘typing age’, how did they do it? With massive, removable typing racks, which, hopefully, had most of the necessary characters for news and diplomacy. But if you needed that one character not on rack A? Roll out of rack A, lock into rack B, type what you need, and then go back to rack A. (See here and here, for instance.)

Of course, don’t be fooled; while computers have indeed things easier for the Chinese, it’s not safe to say PC typing has made things that much better. The Chinese still face two big problems. First, cell phone texting, of which the Chinese are the world’s leading users, still requires tedious sifting through frequency lists of homophones. I know plenty of Taiwanese friends who prefer typing in English, since Chinese texting is up to three times slower. Consider, just to type chī fàn (‘eat’) requires seven taps (two to open the phonetic options list, one to select chī, two more to select fàn [when it’s automatically suggested], and another to exit the suggested character list. Another English has is abbreviation. There’s just no abbreviating digitized characters. ‘Nǐ yào bù yào qù kàn diàn yǐng?’ can only be ‘你要不要去看電影?’, whereas in English ‘Do you want to go see a movie?’ could in a pinch (or as I text with friends!) be ‘wanna go c a movi?’. ‘Nǐ hěn bàng!’ is always and only ‘你很棒!’, whereas it’s easily texted as ‘ur rly awsom!’. In fct, I thnk txt Englsh is so handy n intellgbl, I cld use it 4 al my typng n u prbly wldnt mind 2 mch, rite?

Second, the longer Chinese people use PC character programs, the more rapidly they forget how to hand-write the characters. The new typing programs not only instantly provide a list of possible characters for the phonetic input, but many also prompt possible characters that go with what was just typed (sort of like auto-spelling in English cell phone texting). But this trains the Chinese at best to recognize the fitting word at a glance – when the PC is off, though, they are often not much better remembering correct stroke count/order than a very advanced foreign student, at which point they’ll just write the phonetic transliteration (which in Taiwan is known as zhùyīn fúhào, or ‘be pe me fe’). So much for the Chinese love of the finely written word! Sad but true.

The solution? For the past half-century, mainland ‘Red’ China (a.k.a. Běijīng) has insisted the solution lies with using ‘simplified’ characters, principally in an effort to open the language not only to the illiterate hordes but also to all those wealthy English-speakers. To put as simply as I can (and to stay within the limits of my meager knowledge), simplifying Chinese entails removing or collapsing gratuitous strokes as long as the key radicals and essential form of the word remains. For example, the infamous wūguī that we just saw (‘tortoise’) goes from 烏龜 to 乌龟 (i.e., from 26 to 11 strokes). Hopefully, you can see the morphological, and perhaps also radical, continuity. (And, ideally, you can see the bird’s-eye logic of the ideographs, especially guī: a head above a left claw-foot and a boxy shell, closed out with a bent little tail.)

I recognize languages change. I also believe Chinese can and will maintain its integrity. Am I saying nothing good can come of simplifying characters? No, I’m not. First, I agree many characters can and should be simplified. Second, I realize the divergence is greater between ancient Chinese and jiǎntǐzi than between jǎintǐzì and fántǐzì. My concern is based not simply on the ‘newfangledness’ of simplified characters, but rather on the inability of that move to meet two contemporary goals. The first goal is to even the learning field so poorer citizens can attain literacy more easily. The second goal is to open China up linguistically in order to open it financially. Pīnyīn ties into this effort, since it is simplest China can make its language for foreigners unwilling to learn even the jiǎntǐzì.

But can simplification and pinyinization really achieve these goals?

In the next installment, I will argue it cannot and that a simplification for the simplification is needed. Y’all come back now, ya hear!

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