The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy

Category: Humanities
Author: John DeFrancis
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by tokenadult   2017-08-19
To answer your question, Chinese characters still represent SPEECH (not ideas or abstract concepts) and do so in a way that is specific to the particular Chinese (Sinitic) language that one speaks. The long story about this can be found in the books The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy[1] or Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems[2] by the late John DeFrancis or the book Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning[3] by J. Marshall Unger. The book Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention[4] by Stanislas Dehaene is a very good book about reading in general, and has a good cross-cultural perspective.

I'll give an example here of how Chinese characters reflect speech more than they reflect meaning-as-such. Many more examples are possible. How you might write the conversation

"Does he know how to speak Mandarin?

"No, he doesn't."



in Modern Standard Chinese characters contrasts with how you would write

"Does he know how to speak Cantonese?

"No, he doesn't."



in the Chinese characters used to write Cantonese. As will readily appear even to readers who don't know Chinese characters, many more words than "Mandarin" and "Cantonese" differ between those sentences in Chinese characters.





by tokenadult   2017-08-19
Characters are just symbol with meaning.

Again, I invite you to look at

to see why that is not quite true. A newer book,

is very good for explaining the neurological reasons why NO writing system could possibly operate that way.

To say that Chinese characters unify a nation of high illiteracy whose citizens in many cases cannot converse with one another in person or on the telephone

is much like saying that writing in Latin unifies the continent of Europe by providing a common means of communication among scholars from Basque Country to Finland. Each statement is about equally true, and each is about equally irrelevant to current language policy.

by tokenadult   2017-08-19
the written language is long unified. They can communicate by text.

I already mentioned above that I have seen counterexamples--written Chinese that was incomprehensible to many of the people who might reasonably be expected to read it--in several daily life situations in various parts of China.

Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese can read Chinese text in their own languages.

No, strictly speaking they were reading Chinese text in Chinese (possibly with mind's-ear pronunciation of the Chinese characters reflecting influence from their native languages), which they acquired as a second language while learning literacy. The full details to respond to the point of view you have put forth can be found in

(P.S. I can read some current Japanese too, and of course current Japanese writing shows plainly that Japanese is a very different language from Chinese, as you correctly note. I had occasion recently to read a brush painting of bamboo with some Chinese characters on it hanging in the office of a physician, who is a man of Korean-Japanese heritage. We could both sight-translate the Chinese characters into English. I didn't ask him on that occasion how he would pronounce them.)