Thoughts on Simplification

A lot of people have strong opinions on the PRC’s simplification of Chinese characters. You typically hear the “traditional faction” decrying simplified characters as ugly and deformed, a brutal aesthetic assault on one of Asia’s most revered art forms. Meanwhile, the “simplified faction” is equally brutal in its pragmatism; why should I write when I can write , or when I can write , or when I can write ? They’re all commonly used characters.

I’m not posting this to get back into that debate, because quite frankly it’s a rather silly one that ignores some important points. From a linguistic perspective, the simplifications were rather well thought out in many ways (although perhaps less so in others). It’s rather refreshing, then, to read a linguist’s perspective on the issue that acknowledges valid points on both sides of the arguments and brings attention to some key points. On the excellent linguistic blog Language Log, check out: Notes on Chinese Character Simplification and Doing what comes naturally (which includes commentary by Victor Mair).

An interesting quote:

There are many characters that have 雨 “rain” as radical. These include: 雪 “snow”, 霏 “to fall (of snow)” 雹 “hail”, 露 “dew”, 電 “lightning, electricity”. This last, however, has been simplified to 电; it has lost its radical. Many people dislike simplifications of this type because they think that delinking characters from their radicals disrupts the system. I’ve chosen this example in part because this is a case in which one might argue that the principal current meaning is “electricity” and that this has so little relationship to “rain”, “snow”, and so forth that it is not a disadvantage and indeed is perhaps a virtue to dissociate it from the characters with the rain radical. In most cases, however, the semantic relationship persists and the semantic information provided by the radical is arguably useful to the reader.

Another factor is that many Simplifications violate structural principles governing the well-formedness of Chinese characters. Here is the traditional form of “to study” 學. Its Simplified counterpart is 学. The simplified form has been standard in Japan since the reform of the writing system after the Second World War. I’ve never met anybody who objected to the Simplified form. It looks just fine. In fact, the traditional form is difficult to write without making it look topheavy, though I think it looks rather dignified in such contexts as the bronze plaques at the entrances to universities.

Via John B (the latest blog iteration).

61 Comments to “Thoughts on Simplification

  1. John B says:

    More and more, I think about it like the differences between American and British spelling. Yes, it’s a more profound difference, but as long as everyone (or, at least, a majority of educated people) can write one and read both, who cares?

    A question that I’m sure someone here can answer: how well can the average Taiwanese read simplified? A lot of the characters are basically the same, and a good chunk of the more extreme changes can probably be deduced from context, but are there many problems going that way?

  2. ash says:

    Is there anywhere that documents the simplification proccess that the government had in mind, and just how far where they willing to go?

  3. John says:

    John B,

    In my experience, the Taiwanese can usually read the simplified characters which are formalizations of written forms, but they have trouble with a lot of the ones devised by the commies. They can often guess from context, though.

  4. John says:

    Ash,

    I’ve been meaning to get my hands on that kind of documentation. It’s really interesting, because the simplified characters in use now are actually the result of the second simplification. The third simplification actually went too far and failed (was rescinded).

    I think our friend zhwj knows a lot about this; hopefully he’ll weigh in soon.

  5. zhwj says:

    I always enjoy reading Bill Poser’s posts on Chinese. His use here of the 木 radical reminded me of this editorial which uses simplified characters as a starting point for talking about how to ask questions during the learning process.

    Aesthetically, I’ve always felt that the element 韋 didn’t quite make it to a final form – it seems unfinished and awkward to me. Anyone share my discomfort?

  6. zhwj says:

    The Wikipedia article on the failed Second Simplification Scheme is considerably better now than when I posted this a few years back (new URL for that). There are scans here of the scheme as it was promulgated.

    Why the confusion between Second and Third? The first scheme was actually implemented in two parts, one in the 50s and another in the 60s, so it’s easy to get the impression that the First Scheme simplified individual characters and the Second commonly-used radicals, when they were in fact two halves of the same plan.

  7. ash says:

    I didn’t realize there were 3 simplification processes!

    Where they viewed as class struggles against the upper class as they were obviously schooled in traditional hanzi but the peasents were probably mostly illiterate.

    Interesting – I wonder if the government looked at Korean script at all with the idea of making their own Chinese variant.

  8. John says:

    zhwj,

    Thanks for the links.

    Hmmm, I distinctly remember reading back in my college days that there were three “phases” to the character simplifications. Might have been that my sources were flawed, though. I was reading only secondary sources (in English) back then.

  9. Mark says:
    A question that I’m sure someone here can answer: how well can the average Taiwanese read simplified?

    Not well at all. I bought my cell phone when I was visiting you guys in Shanghai this summer, and it can only write simplified characters. As a result, my Taiwanese girlfriend has problems understanding about 3/4 of the text messages I send her. It’s getting a lot better now that she’s been seeing them for a while, but she’s been totally thrown off by the simplifications of 讓,傳,認識,個, and an assortment of others. I think it’s a pretty easy thing for a Taiwanese person to learn to adapt to simplified characters, but very few I’ve met have.

  10. heilong says:

    “I wonder if the government looked at Korean script at all with the idea of making their own Chinese variant.” From what I read, Mao had a plan to do away with characters altogether and adopt the western alphabete type system(which maybe tranformed into PinYin), but many in the goverment prefared the simplification of the characters instead of losing an important part of their history. Something similar happend when korea started to abandon their chinese characters, but they still use 男 and 女 on the toilet doors. As we also know most of the simple characters already existed in the traditional set, I know i have seen, for example ‘无’ in 400 year old scrolls.

  11. Edwin says:

    I am from the Traditional camp.

    From my experience, it was a bit tough to read Simplified from the start. Then after picking some commonly used characters, the stream started to flow. I could learn a lot of words by simply guessing from the contexts.

    My friends from the Simplified camp told me that they have not much of a problem reading Traditional. I am quite surprised and have a little bit of doubt about their claim.

  12. PS says:

    heilong: where did you that Mao wanted to do away with characters altogether? Mao was probably the best calligrapher in 草书 that lived in the last 100 years. 草书 has almost always been exclusively performed in traditional characters. It’s totally counter-intuitive to think that a great calligrapher like Mao would recommend the doing away with the characters.

    Edwin, most of the 20-30 year old mainland Chinese would have used dictionaries that listed both simplified and traditional characters when they were in primary school, so they would have grown up accustomed to both character sets as part of their vocabulary education. You can get an idea of this by having a look at the 1979 version of the 辞海. Additionally, during the 80s and early 90s, there were still a lot of books available in traditional characters, especially if if the book is 文言白话 fiction, take the the four classics for example.

  13. Mark in Dunan says:

    Long-time reader, first-time poster!

    I’m a language buff who is fascinated by China’s attempts at simplification.

    I live in Japan and have become familiar with the traditional characters, since they were in use here until the 1950s and are still seen often. Now I’m studying Chinese (haven’t been yet), and the China-only simplified ones are much harder to pick up — particularly since my Chinese teachers don’t force me to use them; they freely admit traditional characters when I write in Chinese. It’s the ones that eliminate radicals and phonetic elements that really bother me.

    Here’s a great blog entry I once read about the proposed additional simplification; full of examples:

    http://litserial.blogchina.com/blog/609696.html

    Some of these look pretty egregious!

  14. Sonagi says:
    I wonder if the government looked at Korean script at all with the idea of making their own Chinese variant.

    Korean has more phonemes than Chinese or Japanese, so homophones are less of a problem.

    Chinese characters could be a lingua franca of sorts among the three Asian neighbors if they all agreed on a common form, which is about as likely as English-speaking nations getting together and revising spelling.

  15. Matt says:

    I’ve noticed different countries adopting different English spellings. With the Internet, I wouldn’t be suprised if 20 years from now there was a standard international English adopted by scientists, universities, and journalists, with locals retaining unique spellings. There’s no ministry of culture to block English speakers from voluntarily doing whatever they want to the language.

  16. Laska says:

    Interesting discussion! Thanks zhwj for the links!

    Edwin said…

    My friends from the Simplified camp told me that they have not much of a problem reading Traditional. I am quite surprised and have a little bit of doubt about their claim.

    Well, obviously if you’re used to reading simplified, reading traditional takes getting used to. But I think anyone who has reached a certain level really shouldn’t have any trouble with most trad characters. That’s because tons of less commonly used characters were not simplified or only partially simplified. So if you know some less commonly used forms, you have to learn the trad forms anyway.

    Take for example 鬟. There are always some 丫鬟 in old novels. Of course, the bottom part (huan2) is simplified to 不 in most simplified characters, like 环 or 还 .

    The same with, say, characters with the 袁 phonetic–which crops up independently as a surname.

    There are literally countless other examples–for example 镶嵌 or 嚷. There, you’ve learned the phonetic in 让. Or 磷 and 鳞–there, you’ve learned the phonetic in 邻居. Or learn 阑, 谰 or 澜, and you’ve pretty much already learned the phonetic in 兰花 or 腐烂.

    I’m not saying reading trad isn’t challenging at first. I’m just saying that even when you learn simplified, you eventually learn to recognize a lot of trad forms. I think that’s one of the major reasonsmost Mainland Chinese claim to have no trouble reading trad.

    Interestingly, from the above examples you can see that a learner of simplified actually has to learn more forms than a learner of trad because eventually she learns both the simplified and trad versions of almost every phonetic. So, arguably, learning simplified is easier than learning trad at the beginning but harder later on.

    Frankly I think most serious learners of Chinese should consider learning both systems from the beginning.

    I learned characters with help from Rick Harbaugh’s 中文字谱, which is based on trad forms (online at zhongwen.com). Definitely a great learning aid because you get a feeling for the phonetic systematicity. Actually the system is about 70% phonetic.

  17. Frank says:
    Chinese characters could be a lingua franca of sorts among the three Asian neighbors if they all agreed on a common form, which is about as likely as English-speaking nations getting together and revising spelling.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe there exist international organizations among German and Spanish-speaking countries (probably French-speaking ones also) which decide on spellings and other linguistic aspects of their respective language.

    Despite this, I’m very skeptical if China and Japan would ever come to agree on such a sensitive issue.

  18. Mark says:
    Sonagi Says:
    I wonder if the government looked at Korean script at all with the idea of making their own Chinese variant.

    Korean has more phonemes than Chinese or Japanese, so homophones are less of a problem. Are you including tones in this calculation?

  19. Tim P. says:

    Maybe 电 could be used for “electricity” & the “rain” radical added when it is “lightning”?

    What do most people use to write messages: the characters or PinYin? Looking back at that joke about the kid’s name, I would think that simplification would not only make it easier to read but also easier to write. Do they have “fine print” in China like they do in the US? Our fine print is hard to read — & sometimes I think that it’s the reason that it’s used since it’s usually on legal documents/contracts.

    Would simplification have an impact on literacy? Would it be easier for a child to learn to read & to write if the characters were simplified?

    Of course, this is just a non-linguist’s inquiry.

  20. I remember one of my classmates in Australia in primary school who’s from china…I enjoyed her story books in simplified even though I didn’t understand all of it. You can tell alot from context.

    I don’t see a return to trad by the mainland or Taiwan going towards simplified, really. I think these big changes really take some sort of dictactorial mandate. Korea’s han-gul script was introduced by King Sejong. China’s simplification was mandated by Mao. For better or for worse, without that kind of concentration of power, the inertia of doing things the way they’ve always been done is too strong when it comes to language.

    For instance, I’m sure the English language could do with a few less tenses and irregularities. It’ll make it easier both for language learners and for native speakers, who do not always express themselves in a grammatically correct manner. But is that going to happen? I think not.

  21. Sonagi says:
    Are you including tones in this calculation?

    No. Seoul Korean has 21 consonant and 10 vowel phonemes compared to 22 consonant and 6 vowels in Beijing Mandarin. Some linguists take tones into account simply by quadrupling the total number of phonemes. I think a more accurate way to incorporate tonal differences is to quadruple the vowels, giving Beijing Mandarin 46 phonemes compared to 31 for Seoul Korean. However, this simple comparison of phonemes does not take into account that only one Chinese consonant phonemes can appear as either an initial or final sound whereas six Korean consonant phonemes, like most English consonant phonemes, can appear in either position. Even with tones, Beijing Chinese probably has fewer syllable combinations than Seoul Korean owing to its greater number of vowels and final consonants, but I cannot google clear numbers to verify if this is true.

    The Korean alphabet could be adapted if tonal marks were used, but it has no real advantage over pinyin, already firmly established and based on the world’s most widely adapted alphabetic system.

  22. Sonagi says:
    Would simplification have an impact on literacy? Would it be easier for a child to learn to read & to write if the characters were simplified?

    As a teacher, I would say that simplified characters would have little impact on reading but a much greater impact on writing. Recognition is far easier than production. Chinese users struggle to recall how to write characters just as English users try to remember if it’s “i before e” or the other way around.

  23. Ben says:

    @ PS: You’re mistaken in several ways; first of all, Mao was not a great calligrapher at all; and most certainly not the “greatest in 100 years”. I know this conception exists in some Chinese sources. The reason is that Chinese rulers always were believed to be great calligraphers as well (obviously most of them weren’t, but who would dare to say otherwise?). Thus traditionally-thinking Chinese who want to honor Mao invariably have to honor his calligraphy skills as well, which doesn’t have anything to do with the facts, of course. Second, caoshu is not “exclusively written in traditional characters”, in fact characters have own shapes in caoshu which are distincly different to what we call traditional. Actually, many simplified characters were derived from their caoshu shapes (学 and 为 being examples). Third, whether intuitive or not, Mao advocated a gradual switch to Pinyin after the Communist victory. Only in due course did he realize the immense difficulty of such an attempt. But in the early phase of the Communist rule, you can find many indications that a switch to Pinyin was intended: often, document titles, books, signs etc. were given in hanzi and pinyin both. The contemporary habit of “translating ” book titles etc. into Pinyin (which is helpful neither to the Chinese nor to the non-Chinese reading foreigner) stems from those days. Look at the RMB bills, or step into any train in China to see “Pinyin-signs”. Those are relics of the days when Mao planned a switch to Pinyin. I have a copy of the letter in which he advocated a switch, but I’m too lazy to scan it.

  24. schtickyrice says:

    A relative scarcity of phonemes in Mandarin should not prevent the replacement of hanzi by Pinyin or other alphabetic writing systems. The key is to exploit the polysyllabic nature of Mandarin and relfect this in the written form through the use of agglutinization and compound ‘words’. This cuts down substantially the number of homonyms and has been effectively put into practice in the Cyrillic based Dungan script used for Gansu Mandarin by Muslim Chinese in Soviet Central Asia.

    The polysyllabic nature of Mandarin is a legacy of heavy influnce by the Altaic languages of the invading Tuoba Turks, Khitans(Liao), Juchens(Jin)-Manchus, and Mongols. Korean would also be better represented by a phonetic system that could better relfect such polysyllabic characteristics compared to the monosyllabic hangul. I tend to believe that the continued use of hanzi in China, Korea, and Japan has more to do with cultural tradition than a purely utilitarian necessity to avoid homonyms.

  25. ps says:

    Ben: Are you a calligrapher? On what basis do you draw the conclusion that Mao is not a great calligrapher at all? Both my parents are calligraphy enthusiasts, my dad is a decent calligrapher himself as well. Both of them think Mao’s 草书 is one of the best in the last 100 years.

    As an art form, all variants of Chinese calligraphy are supposed to be performed in traditional characters — because calligraphy has existed for 2000 years as an art form, and simplified characters have only been around for about 50-100 years. Of course you can perform calligraphy in simplified characters, but they generally don’t look as nice. There is also some differences between 硬笔书法 — which is performed with pens/penciles, and 软笔书法 which is performed with different types of traditional brushes. 硬笔书法 is less than 100 years old and its focus is on the day-to-day handwriting. So, you may find some 硬笔草书字帖, but I doubt you’d find any 软笔草书字帖. 软笔书法 is now almost exclusively an art form. Most of Mao’s calligraphy work was performed in 软笔书法. 草书 is also a lot more free than other variants of Chinese calligraphy, the word “草” means “free”, “careless”, “scribble”. What this means is that different calligraphers of 草书 tend to have different preferences in terms how they simplify certain parts of each character. There is not much uniformity there, so any similarties between simplified characters and 草书 are probably totally incidental. Where is the evidence that 学 and 为 are derived from their 草书 shapes, from whose 草书字帖?

    Your third point is even less intuitive. The whole point of character simplification is to promote literacy. So, if China had totally thrown away the characters for Roma alphabats, it would have confused not only those about to be educated, but also those already educated, and the result would have been totally counter productive. The purpose of pin yin is to standardize the pronouciation of Chinese charaters, it’s never ever intended to replace the characters. Given the huge number of homophones in Chinese, replacing the characters with pin ying would have been incredibly confusing. You keep saying “during the early communists rule”, but you fail to realise that the early communists were extremly hostile towards anything western — the pin yin scheme is inherently western, there’s never been pin yin in China’s history. It’s just totally counter-intuitive to suggest that the early communists would have wanted to replace their own writing system with something from the “evil west”.

    Where’s the evidence that Mao advocated the switch to pin yin after the communist victory? When did this happen? If I remember correctly, immediately after the victory, Mao was concerned with wiping out the remnants of the warlords throughout China, getting Tibet under control, feeding his people and fighting the Korea war and other border wars. I find it hard to imagine he’d have had dedicated considerable amount of time to carry out the Chinese characters reform. According to wikipedia, ” Pinyin was approved in 1958 and adopted in 1979. I believe its main purpose was to standardise Mandarin pronouciation. I have no idea what this “contemporary habit of “translating ” book titles etc. into Pinyin” you are talking about. Are you talking about foreign books or Chinese books? Have you actually seen a book in China whose front cover contains only pin yin and no Chinese characters? Annotating the titles of Chinese books with pin yin is not intended to help the Chinese, they are intended to help foreigners who cannot read or pronouce Chinese characters. With pin yin, they might still have no clue about the contents of the book, but at least they have some idea about the pronouciation of the title. The pin yin on the RMB bills probably serve the same purpose.

    If you could show me that copy of Mao’s letter advocating for the switch to pin yin, I’d believe you.

  26. KenM says:

    There have been several pushes to change from characters to an alphabetic script in Chinese, but most of the ones I’ve read of were put forward in the earlier part of the 20th century, before the Communists. For instance, there were some newspapers in Chinese communities in Russia that were published in Gwoyeu Luomatzyh (I hope I spelled that right, it’s an odd system). But in my reading, I never came across serious efforts by the CCP to move to an alphabet, though it’s certainly possible I missed them. In fact, there was a second simplification which fell on its face, trying to replace characters like 餐 and 家 with forms I can’t type (the upper left part of can, and replacing the pig element of jia with a ren, if i remember right). But, speaking to Ben, most of the materials I’ve read suggest that Pinyin and other romanizations had, by 1949, been abandoned as a replacement for characters. Pinyin was intended to help Chinese people who had not learned to read characters, in addition to being a much better system for learning characters than the fanqie system (and avoiding the diacritics in WG and bizarre spellings of Gwoyeu romanization, or tonal spelling). Even if there was a switch intended (and I only just noticed that last sentence at the end of your post) there were other rationales as well.

    Man, this is a fun discussion, though. I didn’t think I’d have many chances to get into this after I finished my BA thesis.

  27. John says:

    PS,

    I’ve also read about Mao’s plans to do away with Chinese characters altogether in favor of pinyin. A quick search turns up multiple results supporting this, and on government sites, no less:

    早在一九四○年,毛主席就指示我们:“文字必须在一定条件下加以改革”(“毛泽东选集”第二卷七○一页)。近年来,毛主席更进一步指出了中国文字改革要走世界文字共同的拼音方向。这就是说必须把汉字逐渐改变成为拼音文字。

    Check your facts, man. I’m afraid you can’t “intuit” all of Mao’s plans. Also, while Mao might have been against blindly following the West, he was also against “the olds,” and saw Chinese characters as a harmful part of old Chinese culture that was holding the nation back from greatness.

  28. Mark said:

    Not well at all. I bought my cell phone when I was visiting you guys in Shanghai this summer, and it can only write simplified characters. As a result, my Taiwanese girlfriend has problems understanding about 3/4 of the text messages I send her.

    Dude, you’re starting to sound way too much like those foreigners here who’s whole Taiwan spiel is based on what their Taiwanese gf tells them.

    In this case, it’s true that not all Taiwanese can read simplified, but many can. I think you’re being a bit overbroad here is all.

  29. ps says:

    John,

    The direct Mao quote was “the characters must be reformed under certain conditions” — reform does not imply doing away with characters altogether. The part of “这就是说必须把汉字逐渐改变成为拼音文字” seems to be 吴玉章’s own interpretation of Mao’s other remarks. However, given the fact that 吴玉章 was the first head of one of the best unis in China, I guess what he said was totally credible.

    Given Mao’s background, I have to say this is really surprising to me. I’d never have thought he’d have gone that far with the characters. The culture revolution 破四旧 stuff I can understand, but doing away with the characters is just beyond ridiculous.

    After reading through that entire report, I gotta say 吴玉章’s views are just too radical and not very well thought out.

  30. Scott says:

    Hi,

    This is off-topic, I know, but I just had to react to what you wrote, “ps”:

    “..You keep saying “during the early communists rule”, but you fail to realise that the early communists were extremly hostile towards anything western..”

    Were they really? What do you mean by “early”? The Cultural Revolution? That wasn’t early.

    Unfortunately, I think far too many people are making the same mistake these days: trying to put modern Chinese history into terms and into a context that can be easily understood by westerners by over-simplifying it. History is very seldom simple (especially modern Chinese History), and looking at developments using simplified dualisms like good/evil, traditional/modern and even east/west do not help, and indeed can be misleading.

    Look at the who made up the core group of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s. It was students who had been sent abroad to be educated, most of them in France. It was in the West that they were first exposed to socialism. Communism was an inherently western phenomena, and was actually a concept quite foreign to traditional Chinese thinking. It was Comintern agents loyal to Stalin (a western ruler of a western power) that oversaw the founding to the CCP in Shanghai.

    As far as characters, I am busy learning traditional (in Taiwan). I am glad that I have begun by learning the correct form now, although at some point I know I will also want to also be able to read the corrupted version, as well. I just think that’s easier than the other way around (If that sounds uppity, it’s because I meant it only half-seriously!).

  31. John, it would be quite educational for you to go over some of the simplication methods. you wrote

    “the simplifications were rather well thought out in many ways (although perhaps less so in others).”

    I’ve been tyring to understand simplications for months and months… while I believe some of them are qutie good and thought out, the majority of them are not. For the most part, simplified characters are frustrating because many of the simplications are inconsistent and many are not well thought out. When I have time, open up the dictionary and start looking for linking traits in the character trees and often find many faults in the schemes.

    some of the threads I’ve started on the Chinesepod forums that talks about both good and bad simplications.

    This is a thread about simplified characters which I believe to more complicated than the traidtional ones

    http://www.chinesepod.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=855

    and this is specifict simplication of 夠 –〉够 which I believe to be pointless and in error http://www.chinesepod.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=873

    however, I should due to technical probs at Cpod, some of the characters are not showing up corectly at the moment.

    As for the writing aspect you touched upon, while simplified characters are much easier to write, they are much harder to learn, because of reduced information presented in the characters.

    and I don’t quite understand why certain strokes are officially simplified. It’s the same difference as writing and printing. What is to officially simplify the radical from 言 to 话 when everybody knows what it means. It’s a matter of cursive script vs. printed script.

    All in all, simplifications are due… but the simplications are carried by policy and manner, I strongly object.

    one more thing.. I really hate how the X is used inconsistently for simplication.

  32. Richard says:

    The simplification of the roots was idiotic and really acheive no purpose besides making the writing look uglier.

    BTW, PS, all I’ve gotta say is “huh?” The wiping out and suppression of priceless, unique architecture, art, and art forms (not to mention unique Chinese traditions and mode of thought) you can understand, but wiping out the writing system is ridiculous? Frankly, there is very little about the Cultural Revolution that I don’t find ridiculous (, wasteful, and tragic) so I don’t know why you find Mao’s megalomania so hard to accept.

  33. bocaj says:

    surely everyone’s not forgetting zhuyin a.k.a bopomofo?? that was created in 1913, well before silly questions of communism vs. republicanism entered the writing debate.

    my thoughts on simplified versus traditional characters: the futhorc is certainly a beautiful writing system, but i’m not sure i’d like to use it in everyday correspondence.

  34. Jimmy D says:

    With 2+ billion(?) mainlanders and a good 50 years of bureaucracy & practical application behind simplified, i’m sure it’s going to be around for some time. On the other hand, traditional has a good 2000 years of roots that won’t be cleared as long as books and brush are around.

    Chinese is so wonderfully 3-dimensional. Let’s keep them both!

  35. Mark says:

    Prince Roy said:

    Dude, you’re starting to sound way too much like those foreigners here who’s whole Taiwan spiel is based on what their Taiwanese gf tells them. In this case, it’s true that not all Taiwanese can read simplified, but many can. I think you’re being a bit overbroad here is all.

    Maybe you missed my last sentence:

    I think it’s a pretty easy thing for a Taiwanese person to learn to adapt to simplified characters, but very few I’ve met have.

    I had an email from one of my buddies in Beijing that had some simplified characters I couldn’t read. I showed it to three Taiwanese buddies, and not only could they not read it, none of them could read it as well as I could. Since I was surprised, I showed it to over twenty different people, none of whom could read it. In the case of my cell phone messages to my girlfriend, I also showed a few people. The only one who could read them was my local business partner, who happens to have lived in Shanghai.

    In the interests of not being “overly broad”, and making sure I’m not “one of those foreigners”, maybe I can print one of the cellphone messages up, stand outside an MRT station and ask passersby to see if they can read it. I’ll bet that less than a quarter can. If I’m wrong I’ll take two shots of that nasty 三洋維士比 drink. But if I’m right, you’ve gotta take the extra shot. Deal?

  36. Mark says:

    Richard said:

    The simplification of the roots was idiotic and really acheive no purpose besides making the writing look uglier.

    Do you like writing out the traditional version of turtle radical in every character that calls for it? I sure don’t.

    龜 vs. 龟, you decide!

  37. ps says:

    Richard, who exactly are you? What kind of background do you have in linguistics, Chinese literature, history and arts? What makes you think you are better qualified than the native Chinese linguists to pass judgement on the simplification of Chinese characters?

    The simplification of Chinese characters creates an almost 1-to-1 mapping from traditional characters to simplified characters. What this means is that the simplification is almost lossless. The grammar, the pronociation and the collocational properties of Mandarin have remained unchanged after the simplification. In other words, the simplification of characters does not hurt the language. The main goal of the simplification is to make the characters easier to remember, thus intuitively improving literacy rate. Given the high literacy rate in taiwan, one can argue that the simplification was unnecessary, however, it could also be argued that the baseline of education in taiwan was much higher than that of the mainland in the beginning, therefore, the comparison is not fair.

    I’m sorry that I brought culture revolution into this discussion. There is no doubt that it has been one of the worst things to happen since the founding of the PRC. I haven’t read anything that shows that Mao personally encouraged the destruction of ancient buildings, books and artifacts — I believe these destructions were committed by over-zealous red guards who thought they were doing Mao’s bidding — feel free to quote actual documents to prove me wrong. Mao should bear some of the blame for the destructions, but I don’t think that’s what he intended. I know you disagree me here, but this is not the place to argue about it.

    Mark, most taiwanese have never seen or studied any simplified characters in their entire lives — unlike most mainlanders who have been exposed to both character sets during their vocabulary education in primary school. It’s entirely possible that the message your GF sent you consisted mostly of simplified characters, and that’s why most taiwanese couldn’t read it.

    Furthermore, have you heard of a software called njstar (http://www.njstar.com/)? It’s a windows program that allows you to freely convert simplified chinese characters to traditional ones — and vice versa. If you really have trouble with simplified chinese characters, you should buy a copy of it and it’ll display all the chinese characters in the traditional variant irrespective their original forms.

  38. Sonagi says:

    shtickyrice wrote:

    I tend to believe that the continued use of hanzi in China, Korea, and Japan has more to do with cultural tradition than a purely utilitarian necessity to avoid homonyms.

    That is absolutely true for Korea, where Chinese characters are imbedded in Korean script in newspapers and textbooks. I think the real obstacles to abolishing characters in China and Japan are pragmatic: teenagers and adults would essentially have to learn to read all over again. Being able to sound out pinyin or another alphabet and reading pinyin text fluently are two very different things. When you read in English, your eyes instantly process whole words and phrases without sounding out their phonemes. English written phonetically would look like a foreign language to you. It is the same for Chinese reading pinyin.

    Morever, all written documents using characters would become unreadable to the generation growing up with the new writing system, and converting library collections and historical documents into pinyin would be an impossible task.

    These two pragmatic obstacles also stand in the way of any major spelling reform in English.

  39. Richard says:

    Mark: I should amend: I’m OK with simplifying the complicated characters and radicals, but they didn’t do that. As mentioned above, most of the slightly-used, complicated characters weren’t simplified. Instead, they decided to change the radicals like yan (speak), che (chariot), men (gate) which was silly if not downright idiotic (no one’s going to have an easier time learning Chinese because of those simplifications). It’s as if they decided that making the language uglier and nonsensical was a goal in itself. Oh, and gan1 (dry) is now the same as gan4 (do). Yay for simplification.

    PS: The simplifications in some cases cut out mnemonics that would make learning the language easier. Taiwan in 1949 didn’t have a higher baseline than the richer provinces along the coast (such as Zhejing or Jiangsu), and let’s not deal with conjectures; if simplification made the language easier to learn, mainland grade schoolers would be gaining greater literacy at the same grade level as grade schoolers in Taiwan. They do not. Finally, as you mentioned yourself, introducing another system of writing means that mainlanders have to learn even more characters, which defeats the purpose of introducing this new system.

    The problem is that native Chinese linguists that you think so highly of were operating under a totalitarian Communist system, which means that politics was involved. Say that the linguists truly thought that the traditional system was easier to learn than any simplified system that was proposed. Would they dare say that out loud if they knew that the Communist leadership wanted a new writing system for political purposes? So instead of scientifically testing out new writing systems to see what will allow gaining literacy to be easier, they put out systems by fiat.

  40. Ben says:

    @PS: Fair enough to ask for Richard’s qualifications (as I sure as hell will give no answer if anyone asks for my own! g), but you yourself haven’t made the greatest impression in terms of insight and qualification either. This quote explains a lot:

    I haven’t read anything that shows that Mao personally encouraged the destruction of ancient buildings, books and artifacts
    • then you simply haven’t read enough, I’m afraid. Give some non-PRC sources on Mao a read. While you’re at it, have a look at John DeFrancis’ outstanding “Chinese characters – fact and fantasy”; I just checked, the whole history of Chinese character reform and the Communists’ role is recounted there. Also you can find Mao’s letter advocating a switch to Latin letters.
  41. Ben says:

    Ach, stupid me, can’t use the comment tags… sorry

  42. ps says:

    richard, in most of the cases in which the radicals (mnemonics) are discarded, the characters themselves either have very low frequency or the simplified versions are as unambiguous as their traditional counterparts. The loss of information is absolutely minimal.

    Your arguments on the literacy makes no sense. The only sure way to prove your point or mine about the baseline of education, is to show the literacy rate of Taiwan in 1950, and the literacy rate of PRC in 1950, then take into account the economical and social progress in both sides of the strait in the last 60 years. It also makes no sense to mention that Zhejing and Jiangsu were richer than Taiwan in 1950 — even this claim is highly disputable. PRC in 1950 consisted much more than just Zhejing and Jiangsu, the central government couldn’t have just ignored all the other provinces and devised educational policies just for those two provinces.

    As far as learning a new set of characters as a result of the simplification is concerned, you are exaggerating the problem as well. If the mass majority of the population were illiterate which was the case of PRC in 1950, then teaching them the simplified characters would not have confused them.

    You are also exaggerating the influence of the totalitarian communist system in 1950. You said yourself that you didn’t want to bring conjecture into this discussion, but what you claimed was nothing but a conjecture. The idea of character simplification was proposed way before 1950. According to wikipedia, a scholar named 陆费逵 proposed the simplification of Chinese characters to use in schools in 1909. That shows that the communists weren’t the only one who wanted to simplify the characters for educational purposes.

    Ben, here is a wikipedia description of this “Chinese characters – fact and fantasy” you are talking about:

    There is no “Chinese language”. There is a group of related ways of speaking, which some may call dialects, others call topolects (DeFrancis uses the term “regionalects”), and still others would regard as separate languages. One such variant, based on the speech popular around Beijing, has been elevated to “preferred” status in the PRC, and is now known as “Putonghua”, or common language. The Chinese script has a heavy phonological basis, shown in the phonetic elements common in more than half of Chinese characters. Unfortunately they are missing from many common characters, causing many foreign scholars to miss the point that they are a necessary resource for Chinese readers. It is not a brilliant ideographic script; it is a lousy phonetic script. There can be no such thing as an “ideographic” script, where symbols stand for ideas unrelated to words. Human brains don’t work that way. Therefore, Chinese isn’t such a script either. The Chinese script is not a benefit to the Chinese society. It is a roadblock on the way to anything resembling mass literacy, and needs to be abandoned if China is to achieve the benefits of modernization.

    I disagree with all those points except some part of the phonological one. His last point is also blatantly wrong — the current literacy rate in PRC is 90 percent, and 96% in taiwan (according to wikipedia). Common sense would tell you that the literacy rate is more determined by economical factors than the characters. This book was published in 1986 — it’s 20 years old now, don’t be surprised that some of its theories and data are no longer applicable to today’s chinese speaking world. I haven’t read that book, so I won’t say more about it. But I will say this: John DeFrancis is not a native speaker of Chinese, he doesn’t have the same linguistic intuition the native speakers have, that’s why some of the things that are obvious to native speakers might have seemed strange to him.

  43. schtickyrice says:

    Sonagi,

    What you say is correct; for people who already learned how to read hanzi, replacing it completely with pinyin would be like relearning a new language. However, this hasn’t prevented the Vietnamese language from taking on a new life of its own after romanization by the French. When hangul was first introduced, it would have been just as hard for a Korean already literate in hanzi to switch to the new writing system as well. I guess the alphabetization of the above two languages was helped along by the relatively low level of literacy in hanzi of the general population to begin with. My guess is that had the Communists introduced pinyin at the very beginning of their literacy campaigns when over 70% of the population were illiterate, it might have worked. This is just theoretical speculation of course. There are obvious aesthetic and cultural value to the continued use of hanzi as the written language, in addition to its role in national unity.

  44. Mark says:

    @PS: It’s the other way around. I can read a fair amount of simplified text. My Taiwanese friends, including my gf, can’t. To be fair, though, I couldn’t read any simplified characters (except those that happened to be the same as Japanese kanji), before I visited the mainland last summer either.

  45. Richard says:

    PS, you may disagree, just as you may disagree that 1+1=2, but we’re here to discuss facts and empirical studies, not opinions. There is as much of a Chinese language as there is a Romance language. Character-based languages are harder to pick up. It takes more years of schooling for a kid in China or Taiwan, on average, to gain enough literacy to read the paper (regardless of socioeconomic status) than a kid learning a phonetic written script. You also seem to want to confuse the issue by bringing in baseline socioeconomic concerns, when you haven’t shown that they are relevant in any way. From the research I’ve read, for the same years of schooling, simplified characters are, if anything, less easy to memorize than the traditional character set. I’ve also seen no indication that socioeconomic levels matter so long as free education is provided. North Koreans learn the same language as South Koreans. North Korea is absolutely dirt poor compared to South Korea. North Korea has a higher literacy rate than South Korea.

    About introducing the simplified characters: The mass majority of the population was not introduced to simplified characters in 1950. By the time the big changes in second wave of simplied characters were introduced (in the ’70’s), the majority of the population was already literate in the traditional/first wave character set, so by introducing another simplified script, you are making it harder (besides which, even if they were illiterate to begin with, it would still be harder, as by your own admission, both character sets are taught in schools on the mainland, so someone who doesn’t know the language). You would admit that learning 2 character sets requires more effort than learning 1, I hope.

    Finally, about the radicals: We agree that there is no loss of information. We also (hopefully) agree that most of the changes to the radicals do not make make the language easier to learn. So my point: Why Change Them?

  46. I’ve always thought DeFrancis got about too carried away with his ‘abandon characters’ schtick. And what is he thinking here: [Chinese script] needs to be abandoned if China is to achieve the benefits of modernization.. That’s crazy talk.

    I disagree with whoever said that Taiwan didn’t enjoy a higher baseline than the Mainland. The Japanese made substantial improvements to Taiwan’s education system, including compulsory education from elementary school. By the end of the war, Taiwan had the second highest school attendance rate in Asia, certainly VASTLY superior to anywhere on the Mainland.

    In any event, trying to use the example of Taiwan in comparison with the PRC to argue the superiority of traditional characters (or the inefficacy of simplified characters to increase literacy) is disingenuous. And I’m someone firmly in the traditional camp.

  47. ps says:

    richard, as far as I’mconcerned, your “facts” are nothing but your own sometimes biased opinion. You talk about empirical studies, but you haven’t backed up any of your assertions with objective statistics. I don’t know much about Romance language, so I won’t comment on it. However, if you could find an european country that has used the same written language continuously in the same way as the Chinese written language has been used in China, then you might be able to make the case for a Romance language. Let me just remind you, China is not Europe, China has different traditions, histories and cultures than those from Europe, The European standard does not always apply to China.

    As far as your delusions about the difficulty of learning the character is concerned, I don’t feel it’s worth arguing about. Let me just tell you this, I learnt to read from the age of 3, and I already finished reading 西游记 in traditional characters without the help of any adults by the age of 7, and I wasn’t the only one to do so in my primrary school. I’m sure there are western kids who read Shakespear or whatever at an even younger age — but that just shows there is little correlation between language and literacy rate. You and other westerners may find it difficult to learn Chinese characters — that’s just because you are not used to it and your brains don’t work the same way as ours do in terms of character recognition.

    I don’t understand how you can possibly discount social economical factors in literacy rate. There are many many poor kids in China and many of them don’t even go to school or drop out at very early ages to help their families make their living. There is currently huge rows in a few large Chinese cities about schools for children of migrant worker’s. To brush these things aside like you did is borderlining absurdity.

    The situationin NK is vastly different from that of China. If you haven’t noticed, China is vastly bigger than NK, with far more population and a much freer economy and political system. Given the highly dictatorail nature of the NK regime and the total stagnation of economical activities in NK, it is totally feasible for the NK government to lock down their entire population and force the kids to go to school.

    If you have to argue that spelling based languages are easier to learn than character based languages, then what about India (61%), Turkey (88.3%) or any of the other 100 or so countries that rank below China in literacy rate but use spelling based languages?

    You said ” By the time the big changes in second wave of simplied characters were introduced (in the ‘70’s), the majority of the population was already literate in the traditional/first wave character set”. I’d have to ask you to produce some proof for this. How much do you mean by “majority”? The current literacy rate in China is about 90.9% (2005 number) — this is after 25 years of peaceful development since 1980. Let’s not forget the 10-year (1966-1976)cultural revolution during which very little eduation was done because most of the students rebelled against their teachers. What’s the point of bringing up the second round of simplification anyway? It was retracted in 1986.

    No, I also never said both character sets were taught in schools as part of the vocabulary curriculum. What I said was that the dictionaries we used often annotated the entries to the simplified characters with the traditional characters. I gave an example of one such dictionary in one of my previous posts. Only the simplified characters were taught in the textbooks of primrary school, though a few traditional characters may appear for disambiguation/historical purposes. You don’t have to believe me, pick up a 1988 grade 3 Chinese textbook to see for yourself.

    I don’t agree that the simplification of the radicals does’t make the characters easier to learn. After all, making the character easier to learn is the whole purpose of simplification. Tell me, which one of these two is easier to remember: 葉 or 叶?

  48. PS, I think you have raised many valid points in your posts and I agree with several. However, a 90.9% literacy rate is not one of them. There is no way China has that high of a literacy rate. It’s probably in the neighborhood of 75%.

  49. Chanly says:

    i don’t think spelling based languages are easier to learn than character based languages. for example, if you know “牛” and“肉”, you will know what “牛肉”means. but if you know “cow/ox” and “meat”, you still don’t know what “beef” means. you have to memerize the meaning and spelling of “beef”.

    i am in the 20-30 age group. we were taught the simplified chinese only. the ability to read traditional chinese comes naturally to mainlanders, while the taiwanese have to learn to read the simplifed.

  50. Mark in Dunan says:

    PS, with regards to taking the radicals off of characters, what about the fact that such characters have to then carry two completely different meanings? I think that’s more of a burden on the reader, and given that text is read much more often than it is written, I’d rather see an orthography that favors recognition of characters rather than making them easier to write.

  51. Richard says:

    PS:

    1. I was talking about common, already simple radicals like yan and men (so stop introducing strawmen). Are you serious when you say that changing those radicals aids memorization in any way? If so, then you’ve been brainwashed beyond hope.

    2. Then don’t compare rural farmers. Compare urban grade-schoolers from middle-class families. I think that you’ll still find that the simplified script doesn’t make learning easier. If so, you’ll have to show how the simplified script would somehow improve the ease of learning by rural farmers if they can not improve the ease of learning of urbanites.

    3. A language is not the written script. If Latin was written using characters, you’d probably now see France, Italy, Spain, and even Germany and the UK all writing in “Latin”, while pronouncing the same sentence wildly differently, with some of them probably introducing hiragana-type scripts.

    Finally, DeFrancis is silly. People will naturally choose the script that best fit their language given the choice. That’s why you’ve seen a gradual move away from kanji to the phonetic scripts in Japan over the centuries, big moves from hanzi to scripts once they were introduced in Japan and Vietnam, the phonetication of Coptic (from hieroglyphics) . . . . and more traditional characters popping up again in mainland China (while Taiwan & HK have not simplified downward). Everyone knows the bo-po-mo-fo in Taiwan, but no one seriously considers using that as a writing system even though it isn’t forbidden (and in the kids pages of newspapers, you’ll often see them by the Chinese characters).

  52. ps says:

    Mark, I got my numbers from wikipedia, and I’d be happy to believe you if you could show me a credible source of your 75% figure.

    Richard, every time I squash your argument, you just change your mind and say you didn’t mean what you said. You claim to have knowledge in Chinese, but I don’t see you use Chinese characters in your post. You keep denying my data, but at the same time you provide no data or sources for your claims. This is getting ridiculous. I’m not sure exactly sure what you mean by “yan” or “men”, but I will give it a go. The most probable match for “yan” is the left half of “语”, that’s in a simplified character, and the radical has 2 strokes, the traditional countrepart is “語”, the same radical now has 7 strokes, you tell me which one is simpler to remember. For “men”, I assume you mean “门” — that’s 3 strokes in simplified, but “門” in traditional, has 8 stokes, you tell me which one is simpler to remember.

    Your “brainwashed” personal attack is getting old. On the one hand, I’m a native speaker of Chinese born and educated in China, and I spent the last 9 years living and studying in a western country, my major is computational linguistics. On the other hand, you are a non-Chinese whose first language is not Chinese, and so far you’ve only demonstrated your bias against all things PRC, and very little actual knowledge in the Chinese language. Yet you feel you are qualified to call me “brainwashed” on issues regarding the Chinese language. How do you expect me to take you seriously?

    You were the one who objected against the use of conjectures, and now your points 2 and 3 are both pure conjectures. You keep saying “I think”, “If” — these are just your personal opinions. Unless you can back them up with facts or actual studies reported in peer-reviewed journals or conference papers, I won’t take them seriously,

    I don’t speak Japanese, and I don’t know how the Japanese use Kanji. What I do know is that theoratically, they don’t need Kanji anymore, but they still use Kanji beause Kanji characters tend to be less ambigious compared with other Japanese scripts. A friend of mine is doing a PhD on Japanese dictionary lookup correction using Kanji and another script — and the unambigious nature of Kanji is one of his strongest selling points.

    I’m too tired to try to puzzle out what the point you are trying to put across in your last paragraph is. However, Chinese is a very different language from Japanese, China is a very different country from Japan, so whatever applicable to Japanese may not automatically be applicable to Chinese.

  53. John says:

    ps,

    Don’t forget that simpler does not necessarily equate easier to remember. One of the reasons that the second (AKA “third”) round of simplications failed is that they went too far and too many characters were becoming too similar.

    Example: 頭 and 大: Very different, easy to distinguish. In 頭, the 豆 is phonetic and the 頁 means “head.” 头 and 大: Very similar. 头 no longer has either the phonetic or meaning components.

    Now, it’s easy to argue that no person in the PRC has problems distinguishing 头 and 大, and I know this to be true. But language acquisition is a largely unconscious process. Simply looking at the number of strokes is to view it as an entirely conscious process while ignoring the underlying issues of cognition.

    The big kicker, though, is that it’s very hard to prove that one system works better than the other on an unconscious, cognitive level, and I’m afraid no amount of debate here is in the least convincing either way. I seem to recall there being studies on this issue; when I get the time I will research it some more.

  54. Xiong Da Hai says:

    PS wrote in his/her most recent post:

    You and other westerners may find it difficult to learn Chinese characters — that’s just because you are not used to it and your brains don’t work the same way as ours do in terms of character recognition.
    I’ll ask, what about Western-born children of Chinese descent? Is it the location of birth that makes Western brains work differently, or their skin color, or the food they consumed as a child, or what? I hope that you are simply referring to cultural upbringing, and that Chinese cultural upbringing somehow molds the mind to more easily learn logographic writing systems. Let me address this in two ways.

    First, subjectively. A personal question is, how does this relate to the ease with which Chinese people learn alphabetic writing systems? If Chinese people can indeed learn alphabetic writing systems easily, then either reading characters and reading letters are disjoint processes (at least in the learning stage), or neural strucures for reading do not actually vary significantly between the two cultures. It seems highly unlikely that the first case is true, and I back this up in a moment. So I think your generalization really needs to clarified to say, “People who have not learned logographs have more trouble learning it at first, compared to those who have previous exposure.” But this is rather vacuous, as it seems true of nearly all cognitive processes that experience improves acquisition, retention, and performances in all domains. And also, a personal observation: not every Westerner has trouble. I’m American-born and I had exposure to only Romanized writing systems in the languages I learned as a child, but I seem to have a knack for symbols and I find learning 汉字 (an undertaking I only undertook a year ago) relatively easy, as do some of my friends. (I also will confirm to anyone who asks, that simplified characters are easier to memorize, as they retain vital phonetic information, usually in smaller phonetic packages since many radicals have been simplified, and often have less extraneous strokes.) As they say, different strokes for different folks.

    Let me now try to back up my disagreement with your statement that character recognition and alphabetic recognition is inherently different, and leads to the conditioning of different neural structures. “Learning to read Chinese beyond the logographic phase” in Reading Research Quarterly, 32,3:276–289 by C. Suk-Han Ho and P. Bryant is a recent (1997) paper that seems to demonstrate that even logographic writing systems rely almost exclusively on phonological information, just like alphabetic systems, and that learning in native speakers progresses from an initial logographic phase (recognition of the character) to a phonographic phase (recognition of the phoneme the character stands for). Of course, there seems to be more at work, see “Effects of first language and phonological accessibility on kanji recognition” by Y. Mori in Modern Language Journal, 82,i:69–82 published in 1998, for an interesting study that suggests that though those with alphabetic and those with logographic writing experience both rely heavily on phonetic elements in learning some other logographic system, the group of “logograph virgins” have lower recall for kanji with none or ambiguous phonetic information than those with previous logographic experience. But it is unclear to me (perhaps others know of research that can enlighten us) whether or not this effect is solely due to conditioning of some general complex symbol recall process, or the actual formation of a process for pure logographic recall.

    I feel that writing’s great dependence on phonetic recall is easily demonstrable if you look at spelling errors in both logographic and alphabetic writing, and I see myself making errors in 汉字 similar to those I make in English when I accidentally engage in “ear spelling” and substitute “your” for “you’re” or “there” for “they’re.” I’ll write a character and leave out a phonologically null element, or use a similar-sounding one. Or I’ll have memorized the word’s tone incorrectly, and i’ll find I used the phonetic from a character with that tone, which certainly shouldn’t happen if logographic writing was indeed read and written truly logographically. I don’t recall ever looking at a miswritten character and realizing that I replaced some part with a similar-meaning one. Phonology first, semantics second, as they say in linguistics nowadays. And there is a great deal of data behind this idea. (Notice how you recognize it immediately as alliteration, and not because “ph” looks anything like “f”.)

    Anyway, that was long-winded. ‘Tis all.

  55. Richard says:

    PS:

    1. Stop making things up. “You claim to have knowledge in Chinese, but I don’t see you use Chinese characters in your post.” Another strawman, since I never made a claim about what I know. Anyway, knowing the history and grammar of a language and being able to input Chinese characters easily with my keyboard have nothing to do with each other.

    2. About me not being Chinese and not having Chinese as my first language. On one level, it’s fairly racist to associate certain races with certain viewpoints, on another level, it’s . . . . . hilarious. I mean, you’re showing the type of logical reasoning ability that I expect the great educational systems in the PRC to produce, but jumping to a conclusion about my ethnicity and mother tongue just from the arguments that I posit really doesn’t help your credibility. Take another guess on my ethnicity and mother tongue. Hint: You were wrong on both the first time. BTW, your response really just strengthens my “brainwashing” argument, since you evidently can’t conceive of a Chinese person being anti-simplification and anti-Mao/anti-Communist. If that isn’t brainwashing at it’s best, I don’t know what is.

    Anyway, John’s covered my first point, so I won’t repeat it. As for my last point, here it is again: People will naturally choose the script that best fits their language given the choice.

  56. ps says:

    John, regarding 頭 and 大, why are you comparing two different characters? My argument is that the simplified characters normally have less strokes than their traditional counterparts, therefore may be easier to remember. Can you possibly substitute 頭 (头) with 大 in any situations? You are just comparing apples with oranges here.

    Regarding the similarities between 头 and 大, this is getting sujective. I don’t know if you’ve learnt how to properly write Chinese characters, but any grade 3 Chinese student could tell you that these two characters only have 2 strokes in common, the 横and the 左撇, so how similar are they really? You are better off arguing 二 and 三, or 无 and 天 being really similar, but how many mainlandres do you know to have been confused by these two sets of characters?

    To be honest, I know nothing about language aquisition, but I suspect that there is some rather significant differences between first language aquisition and second language aquisition. Therefore, I’m not sure your generalisation from your experience on the learning of Chinese characters is entirely safe.

    I agree with you that it’s probably impossible to come up with solid proofs that the simplified characters are better than the traditional ones — I’ve said this in the beginning. You get no argument from me here.

    Xiong Da Hai, in terms of language aquisition, the most important factor is obviously the language learner’s linguistic environments. My comment was merely pointing out that people who lived their mass majority of their lives in Roman language speaking communities could be expected to have trouble with learning script based languages due the huge linguisitic difference. This is not bashing anyone, it’s just a fact. it’s like saying life long vegetarians tend to have trouble with eating meat. I’ve seen a few China-born Indo-European people who speak as good Chinese as I do, and that doesn’t surprise me at all.

    For the Ho and Bryant paper, I think they sort of brushed the importance of the phonological component of Chinese characters under the carpet. This paper basically has two findings; (1) Children do rely on the phonological component more than the radical component in reading, and (2) Being able to remember/recognize phonological components greatly helps reading. These findings are rather like common sense. There are far more phonological components in Chinese than radical components — as shown by the fact that Chinese dictionaries allow you to index words by their radicals — not by their phonological components. As a result, the phonological components can shred more light on the meaning and pronociation of the characters than the radical components, and it’s only natural for any learner of Chinese to pay more attention to the phonological components. I’m also not quite sure what Ho and Byrant meant by “reading” — being able to guess the pronouciation of an unknown character is rather different from being able to guess the meaning of an unknown character.

    I don’t quite understand what you mean by “phonetic recall”. In computational linguisitics, “recall” is roughly a measure of coverage, and calculated as the number of correct answers given by the system divided by the total number of correct answers in the data. Since the phonological component of the Chinese characters tend to carry the majority of the (visual and meaning) information, it’s natural for you or any other person to put more effort into memorizing them — and this can sometimes cause you to neglect the less important radical components.

    Richard, I feel I’m wasting my time replying to your attacks. You haven’t brought any contribution to this discussion other than your biased opinions against all things PRC, and you are making less sense with each new post. Remember, this entire discussion is about certain linguisitic properties of the Chinese language, therefore, it is entirely relevant for anyone who wishes to prove their point to demonstrate the ability to read and write in the Chinese language. You are not the only one who doesn’t have a Chinese language input on your computer. I’m running linux and i don’t have any Chinese input software. I rely entirely on online dictionaries and Chinese-friendly search engines to input Chinese characters.

    Please don’t start with the facist and racist accusation. This entire discussion is about the Chinese language, therefore, a person who knows nothing about the Chinese language should not start accusing a native speaker of Chinese to be “brainwashed” on the linguisitic properties of the Chinese language. Similarly, a person (you) who hasn’t shown any trace of logic or knowledge about the Chinese language in this discussion should not accuse someone (me) who has been arguing logically from the perspective of a native speaker of Chinese.

    I’m not going to bother guessing your ethnicity or mother tongue. You have no credibility with me, and I certainly won’t believe anything you say without substantial independent evidience.

    You fit the typical profile of a China basher. Your comment “since you evidently can’t conceive of a Chinese person being anti-simplification and anti-Mao/anti-Communist” thoroughly demonstrates that you believe being anti-simplification, anti-Mao and anti-Chinese government are the right things to do.

    What’s even more laughable about you is that you keep calling me “brainwashed’, “facist” and “racist” — yet the only disagreement you’ve had with me is on the purely academic issue of Chinese character simplification.

    I don’t think I will waste my time with you anymore.

  57. John says:

    ps,

    John, regarding 頭 and 大, why are you comparing two different characters?

    Character recognition. You distinguish characters based on how they’re different and how they’re similar. In a system with a large number of characters, too much similarity hinders recognition.

    My argument is that the simplified characters normally have less strokes than their traditional counterparts, therefore may be easier to remember.

    May be. That’s the whole point. They may not be. Too much simplification could be a bad thing. Wasn’t all this covered before?

    Can you possibly substitute 頭 (头) with 大 in any situations? You are just comparing apples with oranges here.

    Um, no.

    Regarding the similarities between 头 and 大, this is getting sujective.

    Are you denying that 头 and 大 are much more similar than 頭 and 大? I don’t think that’s an overly subjective judgment.

    I don’t know if you’ve learnt how to properly write Chinese characters, but any grade 3 Chinese student could tell you that these two characters only have 2 strokes in common, the 横and the 左撇, so how similar are they really?

    By the way they look. No one recognizes characters based on the types of strokes used to write them. If that were true, how could anyone read printed type? None of it is produced with brush strokes at all. In some fonts the strokes don’t resemble brush strokes at all.

    To be honest, I know nothing about language aquisition, but I suspect that there is some rather significant differences between first language aquisition and second language aquisition.

    I think that suspicion is well founded.

    Therefore, I’m not sure your generalisation from your experience on the learning of Chinese characters is entirely safe.

    Cute, but I’m afraid your generalization based on your own childhood experiences learning Chinese characters is far less safe.

  58. Richard says:

    BTW, John, another example where symbol confusion was introduced by the Commies is guang3 (broadcast) and chang3 (factory). Maybe our friend who grew up learning simplified characters would be able to instantly know what was meant (even if the characters are handwritten and a stroke is missed), but to folks who first learned traditional characters, our reaction is “W. . .TF!?!”

    Speaking of you, PS, I love this quote: “You fit the typical profile of a China basher. Your comment “since you evidently can’t conceive of a Chinese person being anti-simplification and anti-Mao/anti-Communist” thoroughly demonstrates that you believe being anti-simplification, anti-Mao and anti-Chinese government are the right things to do.”

    Indeed, I do think they are the right things to do, as all 3 things I’m against are evil (the current Chinese government being less evil than before, but still a totalitarian entity, which is far from harmless). Of course, I would say that you fit the typical profile of someone who was educated/brainwashed under Communist education, as you evidently can’t differentiate between being anti-simplification, anti-Mao, anti-Communist, and anti-China.

    Oh, and I love how you keep harping on how you’re a native speaker. You do realize that the potency of that point loses a bit of its force when you’re addressing another native speaker, don’t you?

    Also, no, I don’t disagree with you just on simplification. Through our conversation, I’ve discovered that I disagree with you on how much harm Mao and Communism have done to China as well.

    Finally, are you going to say that I’m not Chinese because I’m anti-simplification, anti-Mao, and anti-Communism? I’d get an extra kick out of this if you do, because then, by your definition, 99.9% of the population in Taiwan wouldn’t be Chinese, so they might as well declare independence and start the Republic of Taiwan.

  59. ps says:

    John, character reognition for computer or people? For a computer you might have a case for 大 and 头 — if the hand writting is really rubbish. For people who were educated in Chinese characters, they won’t be confused by these two characters. Each stroke in Chinese character has a name, when native Chinese kids learn how to write, they don’t just memorise the shape of the characters, they actually memorise the name of each stroke and where each stroke goes, that’s why it’s not that easy to confuse 无 and 天.

    How do you measure whether the simplified characters are easier to remember than the traditional ones? One obvious way is to count the number of strokes, and intuitively, the fewer the strokes a character has, the easier it is to remember. In this regard, the simplified characters are much easier to remember than their traditional counterparts.

    I’m not saying 头 and 大 are much more similar than 頭 and 大, I’m saying this comparison is meaningless, it’s like comparing apples with oranges. If you can make the case for 頭 and 大, then I can also make the case for 書 (书), 晝 (昼) and 畫 (画), now using your similarity measures, you tell me whethre it’s a good idea to simplify these 3 characters.

    No one recognizes characters based on the types of strokes used to write them. If that were true, how could anyone read printed type? None of it is produced with brush strokes at all. In some fonts the strokes don’t resemble brush strokes at all.

    You can change the font, but you cannot change the general look of a stroke. A 横is a 横 no matter which font you use, a 捺 is not going to look like a 点 if you write it correctly. The most common printed characters are based on 楷书, which is as standard as a font gets, and the characters in this style look pretty much the same written with either a brush or a pen.

    What generalisation did I make? You could discount my childhood learn experience if I was raised in isolation … but I wasn’t. So overall, given the fact that I was educated in Chinese schools with other Chinese kids, and I had to write all assignments and examples in Chinese characters by hand, I think it’s likely for my generalisations on the issue of Chinese characters to be a bit safer than yours.

  60. ju says:

    John, ps, you both have valid points. The ease or difficulty of memorizing characters can be divided into two sections:

    1. Type, difficulty & number of strokes
    2. Whole-character recognizability

    電 电 (lightning/electricity) 龜 龟 (turtle)

    In this example, the trad. characters are easily distinguished from one another. The simp. characters, while perhaps no harder to differentiate to a trained eye, are, no less very similar.

    The point here is that it is easier to remember that 龜 means turtle, and 電 means lightning/electricity due to each having a more or less unique shape, easily differentiated from one another. The problem of course is that characters such as these can be a mother to write, especially as noted by Mark, when characters like 龜 are the radical.

    The benefit of the simplified characters, in this case, is that they are much easier to remember how to write. Therefore, being initially easier to learn. However, there also lies the difficulty in remembering exactly which character is associated with a certain meaning (the benefit of the more unique characters).

    And as ps demonstrated, the problem of recognizability is not limited to the simplified set. In fact, simplication has, in some cases, improved ease of differentiation.

    書 书 (book) 晝 昼 (daytime) 畫 画 (picture)

    As both sets include very similar characters we can conclude that the problem of memorizing characters based on recognition of form is not a problem of traditional vs. simplified. Rather, it is a problem involving separate cases of similar characters, a phenomenon that occurs in both sets.

    However, if one really must choose between one set or the other, find the set with the greater amount of similar characters, determine their frequency of use and then judge which similar character sets are more distinguishable, easier to write, etc. The set with the greater amount of favorable qualities is the easier set to remember on these grounds. Because there is a certain amount of objectivity involved, information would have to be gathered from all kinds of people; those educated in Chinese writing, within and without China, those with little or no experience, different age groups, etc. This is a lot of work, so decide for yourself.

    Considering that both traditional and simplified sets contain similar imperfections, another, more ambitious solution is to re-evaluate 汉字 altogether. Pool all the existing characters together and evaluate which simplifications are beneficial, create variant forms if needed (for distinction, etc.) and so on. Having everything simultaneously available (that is, being able to make comparisons across all characters) would provide an ideal environment for forming a fluid, cohesive set of characters favoring ease of writing, reading and memorization.

    Then again, I haven’t included any of the other problems of character reforms, like rad. and sound components. It’s a big topic, hehe.

    I’m very interested in this. I don’t know much, have little experience and so on. So if I’m out of line, have flaws in my argument or other problems, please let me know.

  61. emgrand says:

    Oh, and I love how you keep harping on how you’re a native speaker. You do realize that the potency of that point loses a bit of its force when you’re addressing another native speaker, don’t you?

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