Friday, December 30, 2005

Chinese Made Simple(r)? - Part 4

Last time, in part 3, I discussed the flaws in mainland China’s efforts to simplify and pīnyīnize China. Now it’s time for me to discuss my own modest ideas in the way of rectifying these flaws.

Although I do propose a ‘solution’ (or a proposal in the direction of a solution) to the ‘Chinese problem’, I must make it clear that I believe the problem is over-inflated if it adverts to two extraneous issues. First, my proposal pertains to nothing more than Chinese script. I, unlike some of my friends here, have no illusions Chinese ‘cannot survive in the modern world’, or that it just ‘can’t express complex, new ideas’. Nonsense. Chinese is a durable language and will have no problem absorbing, as well as producing, new concepts in step with world developments. However, what I *do* agree the Chinese language cannot survive is its own written format. I have no pretensions of converting Chinese into Sino-Esperanto (as in Philip K. Dick did, mutatis mutandis, in _Blade Runner_), nor into some Chinglish proto-global-language. I want Chinese to remain what it is semantically and syntactically, but I do believe it can and should develop past what it is

Second, I think such a ‘solution’ is necessary only as long as China says it should be. To think a thought, let’s assume my system (or anything like it) becomes de rigueur in China. Should students stop learning traditional Chinese? By no means! I intend my system to be a sort of advanced pidgin (i.e., a commerce or function-niche language). Business people, politicians, scholars, etc. could and would learn it, while they and everyone else would still know traditional Chinese. Two benefits of my proposal are 1) it would remove the need for the half-solution-no-solution that is jiǎntǐzì-fication and 2) it would simultaneously give foreigners a doorway into China’s ‘Great Wall’ and the Chinese a way out to the workaday world that has no time or interest in learning ‘all those funny symbols’. As far as Mandarin learners are concerned, my system (‘Buy now, pay later!’) solves two competing problems. One is the need to learn lots of Mandarin phonetically (e.g., just what can jīngzhì mean?). The other is the need to ‘crack’ characters based on their radicals. But, as I learned early on, studying radicals in isolation is not only boring, but also mostly useless for phonetic learning, since the radicals rarely influence a character’s pronunciation in a consistent fashion. On the other hand, focusing as heavily as I did on phonetic Mandarin kept me ignorant of the illuminating written patterns radicals can provide. In my system, however, by learning the radicals in tandem with whole characters’ pronunciation, foreigners and students can achieve both goals simultaneously. Being forced to know the radicals, without also having to slog through the characters, even in their simplified forms, both saves the beginning learner time and equips him to analyze characters with the radicals as he progresses to learning characters.

Enough preface. My idea stands on a combination of the three linguistic modes I discussed earlier (vocal, orthographical and communicative) and Hànǚ pīnyīn. The first step would be to reduce or ‘denature’ all Chinese script into a few key category-radicals (à la the key amino acids of protein-life). These could be things like ‘person’, ‘implement’, ‘food’, ‘fluid’, ‘structure’, ‘breath’, ‘feelings’, ‘action’, etc. These would become, or perhaps simply tidy up, the radicals as we now have them. The ‘caticals’, as I shall henceforth call them, would correspond to the fundamental layers, or domains of reality which we use and try to teach to children all the time (what do you think separate lesson topics are for?). Of course, I admit a perhaps simpler, less abstract method would be just to use any character’s already given radical. Hence, rather than debating whether ‘grieve’ (shǐbēishāng, 使悲傷) is an active action, a passive action or a feeling, we could just retain the radicals, hence, 亻shǐ 忄bēi 亻shāng.

The second step would be to convert all words into, yes, pīnyīn. Why? Because China, and the world with it, is already laying a huge foundation for pīnyīn. Why fight it? Let it flourish. As I said, pīnyīn is better for English-speakers breaching ‘the Great Wall’ and simultaneously better for the Chinese to learn as bridge into the English alphabet. In fact, in the off chance a computer program didn’t automatically add pīnyīn’s tone markers (which you’ve seen over the letter in this post), I’d even be so magnanimous as to incorporate the Yale (?) technique of writing the tones as numbers next to the transliterated Chinese. It’s ugly and nerdy-looking (‘Wǒ yào chī fàn.’), but extremely efficient.

Now, if you’ve paid attention, you’ll quickly see why step two leaves us in a hard spot. If all the words are pīnyīn, how do we get out of the nightmarish ‘homophone maze’ that is Chinese? Simple, step three: add the appropriate caticals to the pīnyīn and they would immediately fall into cognitive place. For example, hearing, or reading, shī by itself in pīnyīn could mean ‘moist, damp’, ‘poem’, ‘lose’, ‘execute, do’, ‘lion’, ‘corpse’, or ‘hiss’. But with the caticals snugly in place? Moist becomes ‘fluid-shī’, poem becomes ‘speech-shī’, lose becomes ‘[passive?] action-shī’, execute becomes ‘[active?] action-shī’, lion becomes ‘animal-shī’ and hiss ‘breath-shī’ (水shī, 言[讠simplified] shī, 宀shī, 扌shī, etc.). For the sake of aesthetics and space usage, you could even fit the pīnyīn into (sometimes slightly expanded) overhanging, underlying or enclosing radicals (e.g., 丶, 亠, 冂, 凵, 勹, 厂, 囗, 宀, 廴, etc.).

In English, I call it ‘Catical Pīnyīn’ (CP). In Chinese, I call it Bóyǔ (帛語 ‘Bó language’), based as it is on the thinking of a man whose Chinese surname is Bó.

CP is, if I’m not mistaken, similar to Japan’s Kangxi (Kanji) system, insofar as it uses both Chinese characters (and their rudiments) and phonetic ‘letters’. Well and good. I’m glad I may be in the step with the mind of Japan (...wait, no, on second thought–!). Notice this system, which I’ll henceforth call ‘CP’, does not compromise spoken Mandarin (or any other Chinese dialect, for that matter). It is still up to the student to learn to hear and speak Chinese. The benefit of CP, then, is to level the learning field so that learning written Chinese (a true endeavor) is only slightly harder than learning spoken Chinese (a relative snap).

Recall our detour into the world of Chinese dictionaries. How can CP help this, um, dynamic feature of Chinese? First, since the pīnyīn makes it obvious, there is no guessing at the pronunciation of a word, which you may have seen in passing or which may obstruct your progress in reading a text. Second, since CP expects them to learn each word’s radical, students are comfortable locating words in the radical index. Ideally, they learn the radical counts cold and then just jump them for any number of words that radical may find itself in. Third, remembering radicals’ stroke counts (which go no higher than seventeen, and that for only one radical) is far easier than tabulating every random character’s stroke count. Basically, CP recognizes and works according to a fundamental reality of Chinese: radicals are essential. (Perhaps you recall the bei1 example I discussed in part 2.) They are the seed of all Chinese and, to this day, even simplified characters aim to preserve them. CP simply lets radicals have the influence they should in any proper understanding of Chinese.

Let me also make it clear that CP is not intended to replace Hànyǔ pīnyīn. CP is not an all-purpose commerce language; as I say, Hànyǔ pīnyīn takes the cake in that field. My system is principally an academic, didactic language, an academic pidgin if you will. Chinese students learning CP simultaneously learn pīnyīn and the radicals needed to master their own language as they mature. In turn, CP allows non-natives 1) to communicate in a market setting, 2) to be most easily understand in all written cases of communication and 3) also gives them a leg up into ‘real Chinese’ if they will or must ultimately learn it. A final benefit of CP is that, by being clear enough for outsiders and ideographic enough (vis a vis radicals) for Chinese, the system allows the Chinese to continue using fántǐzì. As it stands, on the one hand, simplification is too much work for Chinese students, while on the other hand, pīnyīn is too little support for non-native students of Chinese.

Now, since I’m willing to admit fragments of ambiguity will almost certainly remain CP, we must finally advert to the third mode of language, communicative semantics, for a way out. Since, generally, the only people who deal with individual characters, in isolation from the clarity of communicative semantics, are students, and since they encounter these isolated words *in* reference books, there is only a miniscule risk real users of CP will be confused by ambiguity. As soon as any catical homophone is read in conjunction with its communicative ‘partners’, it will immediately be clear which catical is being used (recall the ‘bat/bat’ example).

While I have called this system ‘my’ proposal, I am happily aware numerous other people may have already proposed it and found it inadequate or may even now be pushing it to the highest levels of Red Chinadom. I’d love to learn more about linguists, scholars, etc. pursuing, perhaps even opposing, ideas similar to CP. As always, I welcome your questions, suggestions, corrections and charitable rejoinders.

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