Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 16

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues.


Some (often rather naive) Chinese-speakers argue that some features of the Chinese writing system should not be extended to alphabetically-written languages. For instance, one Wang (who wrote to me in 1990 seeking admission to the postgraduate program which I was then administering) believes that there are important relationships between the written forms of languages and their phonetic features, to the extent that those who attempt to think in one language while writing another (when the languages differ in respect of their usual writing systems) will always fail to do so. For example, he analyses symbols (Chinese characters, Japanese kana and Thai and Roman alphabetic letters) into dots and lines, and determines the percentages of dots and lines in versions of a short sample text in English, French, Thai, Chinese and Japanese. The three languages written alphabetically average 8% dots (92% lines); Chinese displays a 16%/84% breakdown and Japanese 25%/75%. Wang argues that these differences correlate with ‘supra-segmental’ features of the spoken languages, such as intonation and timing; he suggests that higher percentages of dots relate to higher auditory frequencies, etc. Some of his treatment of these matters involves measurable features (although he does not report any actual experimental data on frequency), but much of it is subjective, involving the impressions of listeners as to analogies for the sounds of the various languages.

Wang also proclaims unusual views regarding graphology as it applies to Chinese and to languages written alphabetically.

Because Chinese (of all kinds) has a very limited range of possible (monosyllabic) word-forms and thus limited resources for creating new simple words, it makes especially heavy use of transparent compounds. And, even where one member of a Chinese compound word is itself altogether arbitrary, the other is frequently transparent in context, typically referring to the kind of entity involved, as in Cantonese sa-yu, ‘shark’, literally ‘shark-fish’, and the Cantonese names for many other kinds of fish. (Although this pattern does of course occur in languages such as English, it is much less systematic and mainly involves entities less commonly referred to, as in catfish, swordfish, etc. as opposed to salmon, tench, etc.) Various non-mainstream Chinese writers, notably one named Su who wrote to me in the 1990s, have identified this feature of their language as particularly efficient, treating expressions literally meaning ‘pig meat’, ‘cow meat’ etc. as superior to wholly arbitrary single-morpheme forms with the same senses such as English pork, beef etc. But these authors generally overstate their case, ignoring other features in respect of which the morphological systems of European languages might appear preferable. For instance, forms such as pork and beef, which share no morpheme, are more recognisably different than their Chinese equivalents in situations where there is interference to communication, as on a poor telephone line.

Of course, a small percentage of the logographic, monomorphemic characters used to write Chinese are non-arbitrary (they are pictographic, at least in origin); but this is not (centrally) relevant here.

Su also proclaims unusual (associated) views regarding manifestations of dyslexia in Chinese and in languages written alphabetically.

Some authors perceive an established script as so highly valued that it is almost ‘sacred’ in character and must not be altered even to small degrees. Tienzen Gong goes so far as to identify Chinese (with its script) as ‘Pre-Babel: the true Universal Language’, claiming to be setting up a ‘new paradigm of linguistics’. He cites F.S.C. Northrop as stating that ‘the Easterner … uses bits of linguistic symbolism, largely denotative, and often purely ideographic in character, to point toward a component in the nature of things which only immediate experience and continued contemplation can convey. This shows itself especially in the symbols of the Chinese language, where each solitary, immediately experienced local particular tends to have its own symbol, this symbol also often having a directly observed form like that of the immediately seen item of direct experience which it denotes … As a consequence, there was no alphabet. This automatically eliminates the logical whole-part relation between one symbol and another that occurs in the linguistic symbolism of the West in which all words are produced by merely putting together in different permutations the small number of symbols constituting the alphabet’ (emphasis in original). These comments about alphabetic writing are essentially uncontroversial; however, the use of the terms denotative and especially ideographic suggest a mistaken, quasi-cross-linguistic interpretation of Chinese script, which is naturally language-specific and thus logographic rather than ideographic. Gong accepts Northrop’s general analysis but obviously rejects his rather negative verdict on the philosophical consequences of the use of Chinese script (arguably inconsistently).

More next time!


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4 Responses to Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 16

  1. MengChi Tsai says:

    Hi Mark,
    As a native Chinese speaker, I am really interested in this topic.
    Discussing Some recent claims of the superiority of Chinese language may go beyond the scope of linguistic issue, considering that there once had hundreds of well-known intellectuals who asked for abolishing Chinese characters (Romanization of Chinese). The skeptical review of those claims might debunk any similar claims of superiority (or even inferiority) of language. I think you did a good job here, and I would like to know if you have any further discussions on the claims you just mention above? And is there any reference like what you provided in some of your previous articles? (for example, Wang is a famous last name in Chinese, I can’t tell who Wang is from your article unlike “Tienzen Gong”)

  2. marknewbrook says:

    Hi & thanks for your kind comments! Yes, there is a lot more to say about claims regarding Chinese and its script. I will try to address more such claims later. I don’t at present have Wang’s letter to hand, so I can’t give any more details this minute. I don’t know if he ever published anything about his ideas. (Another claim he made was that it harms one’s English if one writes English words out one letter to a square on a grad, as is often done with Chinese characters. (‘Don’t square English!’)) More always welcome. Mark

  3. MengChi Tsai says:

    Yes, the transition of the self-reflection on Chinese script is an interesting topic, which relates to the history of China in 20th: from a half-colonized country to a great power, but such topic might belong to the history or sociology of knowledge.
    I thought you mentioned Wang’s claim because he represent some Chinese linguists’ view, but it seems that they are still the fringe part .
    By the way, how can I buy your book from you? Should I leave my personal contact and see how to buy it? Our library recently bought your book, but someone is holding it until September…

  4. marknewbrook says:

    Thanks again! Yes, Wang appeared pretty ‘fringe’! Please wait for my suggestions about obtaining my book. Mark

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