Sunday, 31 October 2010

Implications of Language Reform

In the New Year, I will be visiting China, so in recent days I have been brushing up on my Chinese, which had been lying in a lumber room growing mouldy. I tell you this by way of lead-in to the following anecdote. The other day, I was chatting with one of my students during the break between periods. This particular student hails from Taiwan and I had some particular questions about some items of Chinese vocabulary, which I proceeded to write/draw for him (the distinction between writing and drawing fades somewhat in a pictographic language like Chinese). It was at this point that the conversation took a turn for the interesting. My student didn't understand what I had written. And, surprisingly enough, not because of my dodgy handwriting.
In the 1950s, ostensibly to encourage greater literacy and increase efficiency, the Chinese communists reformed the language by introducing simplified Chinese characters to replace many of the traditional ones and introducing the pinyin system for foreign learners of Chinese. Warren Carroll, one of my favourite historians, despises the pinyin system and refuses to use it in his works, opting instead for the older Wade-Giles system, but I've never felt any particular animosity towards pinyin. The romanised spelling of Chinese words which is used in that system is rather counter-intuitive, but once you get the hang of it it's more or less phonetic, and unlike the Wade-Giles system it is capable of depicting the all-important Chinese tones. Unlike Carroll, I don't see anything particularly Marxist in pinyin.

Simplified characters, on the other hand, are a different matter. I had been technically aware of the distinction between simplified and traditional characters before, but wasn't aware of any practical implications (apart from making them easier to remember and therefore read) before speaking to my Taiwanese student, whose name is Mars.

A spelling reform in a European language is a purely practical matter of standardising writing so everybody is spelling things the same way. It may accrue political overtones depending on who supports or opposes it, but it is not by nature a political thing. This is because European languages use an alphabet. The letters of the alphabet denote, more or less approximately, the pronunciation. They do not denote meaning. Spelling reform, therefore, can only ever be an attempt to conform writing with current pronunciation or new conventions regarding depicting particular sounds. Chinese, on the other hand, does not use an alphabet. The various components of characters may contain a hint of how to pronounce the word but mostly they denote meaning. Which means that when you change characters, you change meaning. As Mars explained to me with a few examples, by simplifying characters the nuances of meaning that words formerly had are lost. This naturally has repercussions on how people think.

Does this sound familiar? It should.

Interestingly, I discover that there was a second attempt at further simplification in the 1970s which did not go down well and was rescinded.

Quant a moi, I fully intend to continue brushing up on the simplified characters if for no other reason than that they are easier to learn and read. But, following this conversation, I can sympathise with Chinese outside the People's Republic who see them as a form of cultural rape. Yet another thing the Communists have to answer for.


Stella Oriens said...

As a student (and ludicrously, sometime teacher) of Japanese I must agree with your Taiwanese student. I had never before made the political connection (still haunted by Orwell as I am) but I believe it was best described by a pithy quip I saw on a Facebook group:

"Simplified takes the heart out of Chinese"

This was illustrated by a traditional character, which included the "heart" radical 心 in red, and the corresponding simplified character lacking that same radical.

The "simplification" of Chinese characters is actually counterproductive. While it reduces the number of strokes per character, it eliminates the etymological heritage by which people are able to identify its meaning and development. In traditional Chinese (and Japanese) when you encounter a character you don't know, its component radicals can help you discover the meaning - in simplified Chinese, you might as well be looking at scribble.

Matt said...

I'm fascinated by this. As a Hong Kong resident (where traditional characters are still, for the most part, used), I notice how much more complicated they all look as compared to the characters I learnt at school, but never thought much more about it.

The level of language standardisation achieved by the Communist Government (in particular, by making Putonghua the standard dialect) has always struck me as something of an achievement, worthy of praise (although obviously one positive in a sea of negative).

Glenn, can you share with me an example given by Mars? Is there any evidence of changing the meaning in a blatantly pro-communist way (e.g. by inserting a sub-character meaning evil into the word for religion, or something like that)?

On pinyin versus Wade-Giles, my main objection to pinyin (other than the foolish use of "x" to denote the sound "ch"/"sh" -- what were they thinking?) is when people use pinyin for names of things, where everyone in the West is more familiar with the old form. I was recently reading a history of WWII that went on about the Guo Mindang, the rape of Nanjing, and so forth -- I was most confused, until I realized what was going on. Interestingly, this author still used Chiang Kia-shek, footnoting that "Jiang Jieshi" was simply too unfamiliar.

GAB said...

I wish I could recall a specific example, but the increasingly sieve-like nature of my brain, particularly when it comes to Chinese words, precludes it. If the topic comes up with Mars again, though, I'll make a note to hang onto the resultant jottings this time.

Actually, re pinyin, there is precedent for the bizarre use of 'x' for 'sh' from none other than one of our great Romantic poets. You may recall Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Xanadu in Kubla Khan. The city referred to is actually Shangdu in Inner Mongolia(curiously not spelt with the 'x' in pinyin, however).

The fact that the West has been more accustomed to Wade-Giles is because much of Wade-Giles is based on southern pronunciation, which is where most of our colonies did their business. With the northern Putonghua becoming the standard dialect, pinyin reflects standard pronunciation better (if you don't take the 'x' into account).

GAB said...

I admit, though, that I too cannot get used to calling Chiang Kai-shek 'Jiang Jieshi', which even the Taiwanese call him now.