re: pictures, words, info, glyphs, symbols, thoughts

Subject: re: pictures, words, info, glyphs, symbols, thoughts
From: Sean Hower <hokumhome -at- freehomepage -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 16 Jul 2002 09:46:15 -0700 (PDT)

Jumping in on many different issues brought up in this thread....bare with me, It's long:

Someone referred to writing as language...
Writing isn't language. Language represents the thoughts, experiences and perceptions of the mind/brain. Language is an innate biological ability (our brains are hardwired for it). Most humans, barring defects, illnesses, or what not, have the ability to use language (spoken, signed, etc). Language also changes rapidly over time. Writing represents language. Writing is imposed on language. Writing is a cultural construct, used to communicate complex information through time. Writing is slower to change, giving rise to the differences between descriptive and prescriptive grammar. Writing's biggest advantage over language is that writing is, for all intents and purposes, permanent, while language is temporary.

On Chinese characters:
Chinese uses a logographic writing system, it's not pictures, it's not pictograms, it's not ideograms. That said, it is only a partial truth. There are several types of Chinese characters. A _SMALL_ minority have pictographic origins, representing concrete objects as pictures. Note that I said a _SMALL_ minority. Chinese writing has its origins in orcle bones, used for divination. Some characters are ideographic, representing ideas. The vast majority of characters represent morphemes (smallest units of meaning, this can be words or pieces of words that retain a meaning. A word like "rewrite" has two morphemes, "re" and "write". "Undeniable" has three: "un," "deny," "able").

A single character has two basic parts, a radical and a phonetic. The radical gives a hint as to its classification. And in some cases to its meaning. (For instance, the character for tree is contained in many characters that represent words for things that are made from trees, or contain trees, like forest, woods, table (I think), etc.) Radicals are used in dictionaries to look up words. The phonetic gives you a hint to its pronunciation. I said hint in both of these cases because the long history of the Chinese writing system has seen sevral attempts to standardize it, resulting in a big mess as far as consistency goes. Many characters are constructed out of other characters. In such a case, you can take a stab at the meaning and pronunciation of a character, but when it comes right down to it, you have to look it up to know what it is. That's life. :-) There are something like 20,000 Chinese characters.

Chinese use a couple of different writing systems. They use traditional (unsimplified) characters, simplified characters, a phonetic script (the name escapes me), and a latinate script called PinYin (There is an alternate latinate script call Wayde-Giles, but it is not the official "Western" script of the People's Republic of China. It is used in Taiwan, however.)

For more info, check out

Japanese can read Chinese:
A myth. Japanese have three major types of writing: Kanji, Kana and Romanji.

If I remember correctly, the vast majority of Japanese characters were borrowed during the Chinese Han Period. These characters are referred to as Kanji in Japanese, and have similiar structure and function to their Chinese counterparts. Kana has its origins in medeval Japanese court life. Kana is a simplified version of Kanji developed by noblewomen. (Women weren't allowed to read or write at the time.) It's a syllabic script, representing syllabic sounds with no connection to meaning. Over time, Kana spread to the men and finally to the general public. Today, there are two types of Kana: hiragana (used to represents words of Japanese origins), and katakan (use to represent foreign words). Romanji uses latinate letters to spell out Japanese or foreign words. In any single body of Japanese text, you will find all of these writing systems in use. The Japanese educational system has selected 1200 Kanji as core characters that are to be taught in school. Japanese can be completely written in Kana, and thank God for that, let me tell you!!!

It's true that a Japanese can look at a Chinese text and guess at its meaning based solely on the characters, but they cannot _read_ Chinese. This is due to: different historical changes in the two writing systems, such as simplifications; Japanese borrowed Chinese characters for their sound, not necessiarly for their meaning (more or less); political, social and cultural issues; articles, such as a, this, that, etc, have characters in Chinese, but are written using hiragana in Japanese. The situation would be most similar to Americans trying to read Latin. You'd get a basic idea based solely on your knowledge of latin roots in American English, but you couldn't be sure exactly what the Latin text says without having studied Latin.

If you're interested, I've uploaded a bmp file to the following URL, so you can see the same sentence written in Chinese and Japanese. I apologize for the sloppiness. I'm not used to using MSPaint to write.

Chinese and Japanese language:
Politically, the PRC says that Chinese is a single language with many dialects. Linguistically, these dialects are different languages. Mandarin is the official language of China. Cantonese is spoken throughout the south, including in Hong Kong. (There are other "dialects) The two are mutually unintelligible, a Mandarin speaker will not understand a Cantonese speaker, and vice versa. The writing system can be used as a communication tool because it's use is similar between the two languages. There are differences is character use, simplification, and word contruction that can make communication through the writing system alone difficult though.

Japanese and Chinese are different languages from different language families. Japanese is part of the Altaic family, that includes Korean. Chinese is part of the Sino-Tibetan family, that includes Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan, Burmese and others. A Japanese would have just as much trouble learning spoken Chinese as an American would have learning spoken Chinese. The Japanese would have a small advantage in learning the writing system. Chinese and Japanese are as similar as English and Japanese.

As an aside, German and English are related languages, coming from the Germanic family. Spanish, Italian and others are Romance Languages coming out of Latin. Finhish is part of the Uralic family (I just learned that today, I had thought it was Germanic....oops). Check out this list of language families if you're interested:

Someone wrote
<<You don't need to be able to read to know that a pictograph of a skull and bones, wedge between an arm and a hand, or a red triangle with an exclamation point in it mean DANGER.>>

This example is more appropriately called an ideographic, not a pictograph. To understand these signs, you would have to be taught what it means. The meaning of a pictograph is pretty obvious, such as a picture of an antelope to antelope! :-)

As another interesting aside, you use two different parts of your brain when you're decoding phonetic vs logographic script.

Okay, I've probably bored everyone quite enough with all of this talk. But darnit, I studied this stuff and it's really exciting to get a chance to talk about it again!!!! :-)

Sean Hower - tech writer

"Whatever you do, do NOT let your editorial decisions be made by the squiggly spell-checking lines in Word!" ~Keith Cronin, Techwr-l irritant ;-)

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