Chinese Characters: not so magical

Mark over at Pinyin News had a great rant the other day reacting to a New York Times article which exoticized Chinese characters.

It’s funny, when you first learn anything about Chinese characters, you learn that they’re a “writing system.” Fair enough, seems simple, right? But you don’t have to study long before you’re bombarded with all kinds of ideas about how the characters are the language, or the characters are the essence of the culture, or the language could not exist without the characters.

And Mark is, of course, completely right to say that it’s all nonsense. He declares this so vehemently and at such length that the ordinary person might start getting suspicious, but it’s all true.

木

photo credit: DigitalFreak

Language is a fundamental part of the human condition. Writing is a technology. It’s an important technology, with a tremendous influence on culture and human civilization, but it’s still a technology. As Wikipedia puts it, “writing is the representation of language in a textual medium.” In human history, this representation always follows the representation we call speaking. Theoretically it shouldn’t have to; that’s just the way it works in practice. (If you don’t like it, turn to sci-fi.)

Could Chinese exist without characters? Yes. It existed for a long time before characters came along. I’m not advocating the abolition of characters; I think that will work its way out naturally in good time (accelerated by the internet). Mark feels quite strongly about this issue, though, which you can tell by reading the original article.


One of the comments in response to Mark’s post caught my attention:

Nongandwong said,
July 2, 2010 @ 8:55 pm

Wonderful post, pity lots of people will have read about magical Chinese from that NYT article.

What they should have done is get her to try and explain the etymology of the character and how it relates to the meaning. This was the character that made me give up looking for character etymologies because the explanation made less sense than just memorising the strokes!

I had to laugh out loud when I saw this comment, because I had exactly the same experience myself. For me, the process went like this:

  1. Try to learn characters by rote, as instructed by teachers. Hate it. Feel strongly that there must be a better way.

  2. Discover Heisig’s method. Enjoy that breath of fresh air. But then start to doubt a little.

  3. Try to abandon Heisig’s method in favor of learning actual character etymologies. Fail miserably, again and again and again (but starting with ).

  4. Return to Heisig, but with a healthy longing for actual etymologies (except when they’re a hopeless, ridiculous goose chase).

For those of you that are wondering, the etymology of goes something like this (courtesy of Wenlin):

你 (nǐ): From 亻(人 rén) ‘person’ and 尔 ěr ‘you’.

Etymologically 你 nǐ is a “colloquial variation” of 尔(爾) ěr; the two sounds nǐ and ěr both derive from ancient nzie (–Karlgren).

OK, so now all we need is something for “尔(爾) ěr” that makes sense, and we’re done, right?

Which came first, 尔 or 爾?

Wieger cites this explanation for 尔:

“从入丨八, 会意。八者气之分也。”

Then 爾 came from 尔 (phonetic), 巾 ( = 两 a balance) and 爻爻 weights on both sides, to give the meaning “symmetry, harmony of proportions”.

Karlgren (1923) says of the form 爾, “…original sense and hence explanation of character uncertain”, and considers 尔 an abbreviation.

The pronunciation was once something like nzie. This produced both ěr and nǐ, the latter written 你 nǐ, which is the modern word for ‘you’. Now 尔 is only used in a few adverbs and archaic expressions, and in foreign loan words.

Riiiight… This is the word for “you,” also the first character in the basic Chinese word for “hi” (你好), which is likely the first word you’ll ever learn. I guess it does make rote memorization look pretty good.

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