Sunday, January 3, 2010

Chinse: Ideographic or Phonetic?


I mentioned a couple of days ago
my attempts to figure out: Is Chinese ideographic or phonetic? The responses that I received indicate that while the vast majority of Chinese is ideographic, it is possible to use some ideographs to indicate sounds--and for foreign words that can't be translated into an equivalent Chinese ideograph (say, Oklahoma), Chinese uses those ideographs that can be used to indicate a sound to do so.

Another reader who had taken a year of Chinese at the college level told me that while there are some phonetic marks associated with the root character for various ideographs, the marks don't really match up to the sound of the spoken language very well (at least in whatever spoken form of Chinese he was learning). This is really no surprise. English has a similar problem. I have read that this was caused partly because one of the first printers of books in English, Caxton, hired a bunch of Dutch typesetters, and partly because of the Great Vowel Shift that took place during the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. (And wouldn't you know it--there's a website devoted to the Great Vowel Shift.)

Another reader who knows Chinese indicates that it is actually a combination of pictographics, ideographs, phonetics, and "other." A native speaker contacted me and also indicated that it is a mix of pure pictographs, ideographs, combinations of the two, and phonetic symbols.

In any case, it seems abundantly clear to me that written Chinese is in part an ideographic language. I fear that at least some of the vigorous insistence (contrary to near all evidence) that it is phonetic (rather than admit that it is a mixture of several different symbol types) is based on a fear that someone might regard it as "backward" because of the ideographs. That's just bizarre to me.

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