Monday, May 3, 2010

Resistance is few tile…

A reader enjoyed my recentish, longish post on Chinese but challenged my claim that "writing what I want to say in Zhuyin would quickly be a dead end, since Mandarin has too many homophones." He writes:

Color me skeptical. In English we have the words "bow" (anything that bends over on itself) and "beau" (boyfriend) which are pronounced identically. In a few contexts they might be confused, so we use spelling to distinguish them, as Mandarin uses characters to distinguish homophones. But we also have synonyms. If we need to be precise about the meaning of "bow" we can specify "longbow", "crossbow", "rainbow", "hair-ribbon" or whatever. For "beau" we can substitute "boyfriend". How many Hanzi would be absolutely necessary for comprehension, if writers in Mandarin using mainly alphabetic systems would avail themselves of similar strategies?

I reply:

Glad you like the post! It sort of just "came out" of me in one or two sittings but I guess it had been germinating for a while… say, seven years haha.

I'll grant that "a dead end" is too strong an expression here, but I was being expressive. The reason it would, however, be a deadening end, if I may, is that we are talking about written language versus speech. It's not only more tiresome to have to parenthetically explain what you are writing (by which I mean NOT, not KNOT, and YOU, not EWE, and WRiteing, not RIGHTing, etc.), but writing is all too vulnerable to snowballing scribal errors. If I were trying to write things hastily in only zhuyin, how many times might my third tone (a small check mark) cramp into what looks like a second tone (´)? Or how often might my first tone slope up into a second tone? Or, if we were to use this omicron diacritic ^ for the third tone, how easily might it wither into a fourth tone diacritic (`)? The point is not exactly how often these things might happen, but that they would be sure to happen, and on a large scale. Honestly, I can't even imagine using a zhuyin-only grocery list to go shopping down the street.

But maybe I'm too much of a Luddite even in language. I know John De Francis was a major campaigner for pinyin-only Chinese and even published a few (?) books in pinyin-only. Indeed, the PRC publishes countless documents in only pinyinese––so it can work, right? Alas, no, since the authors and most readers of those documents are fully literate (we presume!) in the real Chinese represented by the pinyin. How many actual characters would you "need" to "understand" otherwise fully Chinese? Only a few thousand, but hell it would be an ugly language. Imagine shifting gears every few words from English to Pig Latin to Wingdings. Yeah.

Despite De Francis' magisterial acumen and missionary zeal, I'm still not sold on 'pinyinism' because I think all attempts to simplify Chinese suffer the same flaw, namely, they must rely on the very characters they want to exorcise in order to establish a new 'ideolexical' regime. For instance, students of simplified Chinese still have to learn the traditional characters so they know why the simplified characters are what they are (i.e., know their lexical derivation). So it is for pinyinism: you have to first learn "real Chinese" in order to establish enough competence in what the pinyin phonemes mean.

Lastly, consider that if in a generation or two all Chinese speakers did convert to pinyinism, they would, in three or four generations, be effectively illiterate in all literature––"ancient Chinese wisdom"––prior to the conversion. Even with a smidgen of training in Classical Chinese, I think I can safely say 文言文 wenyanwen would denature into almost completely incoherent scribbles under a pinyinist hand. Which is rather the point of Zhao Yuan Ren's poem about the lion-eating poet in the cave (施氏嗜食獅史). The objection is that even this poem could made intelligible with adding just a few characters to the otherwise fully pinyin text. But this only begs the question, which characters should be inserted? One man's obscure character might be another man's daily shibboleth. A language––like any living thing––is in very bad shape once it falls in the hands of a committee, such as the educational committee for deciding which characters the average student needs to be a literate pinyinist. Should he ask what those characters mean––how they came to be the essential survivors from the hoary and dizzying ideographic refulgence of yore––he would quickly find himself entangled in a thicket of "old Chinese" explanations replete with a cast of Real Characters. Resistance is few tile futile.

In any event, for the sake of full disclosure, I confess I have thinkered up my own "simplified" system, which I arrogantly and quixotically call "Boyu", and which seeks to combine Hanyu Pinyin the source word's radical… but it's very much on the back burner for now. Learning "real Chinese" is demanding enough.

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