December 21, 2006

Doing what comes naturally

There've been several interesting posts recently at Pinyin News, including a note from Victor Mair about "Simplified Characters Inside and Outside of the People's Republic of China". A friend of Victor's from Taiwan, who "is vocally opposed to the simplification of characters, decrying the mainland communist bandits as destroyers of Chinese civilization", nevertheless in her own handwriting uses not only PRC-sanctioned simplifications, but also additional more-or-less nonce simplifications, "often seen ... in informal writing". According to Victor:

The same is true of Chinese writers the world over when they let their hair down and do what comes naturally. The simplification of Chinese characters has been going on for more than two thousand years (see, for example, the many simplified forms in the stele inscriptions of the Six Dynasties period and the profusion of simplified characters in the pinghua [“expository tales”] of the Song period).

I should not neglect to observe that there are also numerous unofficial simplified characters in widespread use on the mainland. For example 午 wǔ (“noon” – four strokes) is a common substitute for 舞 wǔ (“dance” – 14 strokes [!]), 江 jiāng (“[Yangtze] river” – six strokes) frequently replaces 疆 jiāng (“border” – nineteen strokes [!!]) in Xinjiang (the name of the Uyghur region in the far west), and so forth.

What does all of this boil down to? In a nutshell, people are not fools. They do not want to waste their lives writing a dozen or more strokes for a single syllable when they can convey the same amount of information in four or five strokes. I contend that the natural process of simplification – without artificial (e.g., heavy-handed government) intervention – inevitably results in the development of a syllabary or an alphabet. In fact, this is what happened with Japanese hiragana and katakana, as well as with the nüshu (“women’s script”) of southwestern Hunan. Absent strong government controls and/or elitist models, the same would happen with mainstream hanzi (“sinographs”) in China, and we even see a tendency toward greater emphasis on phoneticization and de-emphasis on semanticization in the official writing system of the PRC. For instance, 云 yún is used both for “cloud” and “say” (ironically, the graph for “cloud” on the oracle bones started out with the simple form, and the “rain” radical 雨 was only added about a thousand years later with the seal form of the graph), while (“emit, occur”) and (“hair”) share the same graph. This is not, of course, to mention the hundreds of so-called “letter words” (zimuci) that are creeping into Chinese dictionaries, nor the thousands of English words that are invading Chinese speech and writing.

This is an interesting reversal of (what I take to be) the standard story about the transition from logographic to alphabetic systems.

The standard view: systematic phonological awareness is hard to come by, so that development of phonologically-based orthography is a rare event.

Victor's view: logographic writing systems are so inconvenient, relative to phonologically-based systems, that only massive infusions of prestige and/or coercion can prevent a logographic system from turning over time into a phonological one.

I guess that both of these propositions might be true.

[More on the nature and history of Chinese-character simplification can be found here]

Some earlier LL posts on the forces that keep users of (even alphabetic) spelling systems from doing what comes naturally:

"Writing system reform" 6/4/2004
"More on spelling reform" 6/6/2004
"Delightful chaos" 6/18/2004
"State-ordered dyslexia" 8/7/2004
"More on spelling unreform" 8/7/2004
"Many new rules a little meaningfully" 8/7/2004
"Superfluity and uselessness" 8/8/2004
"Update on the Germanspellingreformoppositionmovement", 8/21/2004
"Unnecessarily unclear and ugly" 12/21/2005
"Spell simply and carry a big stick" 12/21/2005
"Pioneers of word rage" 3/5/2006
"Plain spelling" 11/3/2006
"Partial credit for 'pigeon English': not new in New Zealand" 11/10/2006
"Alarming decline in literacy among publicists and journalists" 11/12/2006
"Wanna: neither slang nor language murder" 11/14/2006

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 21, 2006 12:17 PM