RE: Pictures, words, info, glyphs, symbols, thoughts?

Subject: RE: Pictures, words, info, glyphs, symbols, thoughts?
From: "John Locke" <mail -at- freelock -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 15 Jul 2002 11:06:48 -0700 (PDT)

I'm writing to clarify a few mis-statements regarding Chinese & Japanese

Dick Margulis said:
>>I think it would be more accurate to say that the >Chinese and Japanese
>> languages are as different as >English and Finnish, if I recall
>> correctly from a >linguistics course I took mumble years ago.
> The implication is not only that they are very different languages but
> that they do not even belong to the same language family. I should have
> included that explication.

And Jane Carnall said:
> Geoff Hart wrote:
> <<* In doing some research for a trip to China this fall, I've
> repeatedly come
> across the warning that speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin can have
> difficulty understanding each other speak, but have a much easier time
> understanding each other's writing. More anecdotal evidence!>>
> According to the autobiography of the last Emperor of China, Chinese and
> Japanese can communicate with each other by writing. (Or could, in the
> 1930s. I understand that both Chinese and Japanese schoolchildren are
> more likely to learn the simplified characters than the classical
> characters these days. But I'm no expert in Chinese or Japanese
> education.) The spoken languages are as different as English and German,
> but the written languages are just similiar enough that a good reader of
> Chinese can "decode" a message written in Japanese characters. (The
> Emperor makes it clear that this was not considered as effective as
> having a good Chinese-Japanese translator, but was used when no
> sufficiently discreet translator could be found.)

I spent a month in China a couple years ago, studied Mandarin in college,
and Japanese in high school. While there's some truth here, it's a bit

First off, Dick is correct that Chinese and Japanese are from completely
different language families. But what's interesting is that some Chinese
dialects are further apart than English and German.

Traditional Chinese writing, compared to European languages is pretty much
a written equivalent to Latin. Until the last few decades, every educated
person in both China and Japan have learned traditional Chinese. But the
written language, as already stated, has little to do with the spoken
languages. Japanese is a completely different family. The family of
Chinese languages have grown to be completely unintelligible to speakers
of different dialects.

When we bicycled through some of the remote minority areas in Gui Zhou
Province, the first phrase most of the people would pick out of our Lonely
Planet Mandarin Phrase book was the phrase "I don't speak Chinese"...
meaning they didn't speak Mandarin. But the book was universally useful...

Whenever someone there couldn't communicate with us or others, they would
whip out a pad of paper and start writing in traditional Chinese.

Simplified Chinese, on the other hand, has started to morph into a
phonetic language. Not entirely--it's just the beginning stages--but there
are a series of modifiers that make sense to Mandarin speakers that
greatly reduce the total number of Chinese characters you need to learn to
have a comprehensive vocabulary. It's enough different, however, that
Cantonese, Shanghainese, Japanese, and other Traditional Chinese readers
generally can't make much sense of it, since the modifiers are essentially
symbols that give a "sounds like" hint to the character.

Japanese, on the other ... foot, has both phonetic and pictographic
characters. It actually has two complete phonetic alphabets: Hiragana,
used for Japanese words, and Katakana, used for words of foreign
derivation. And then, they mix in Kanji, which is kind of a styleized
Traditional Chinese script, mostly for nouns as a kind of shorthand.

So the Japanese can generally read Traditional Chinese, and usually write
enough to make their meaning understood when attempting to communicate
with Chinese readers. Most Chinese can't read Japanese, though they can
pick out the Kanji characters. And most Chinese can communicate with each
other using Traditional Chinese writing (not Simplified).

So imagine every educated European still learned how to read and write
Latin, instead of English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. Everyone
could communicate with each other with a pencil and paper, but not
necessarily be able to say anything to each other. That's essentially the
role of Traditional Chinese in China and Japan.


John Locke
Owner, Freelock, LLC

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RE: Pictures, words, info, glyphs, symbols, thoughts?: From: Dick Margulis

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