I am at something of an impasse. I have traditionally read the claim that Chinese is an ideographic language--where the characters are abstractions of pictographs, representing various concepts, as opposed to a phonetic representation of the spoken word. One of the claims associated with this is that the Chinese character for "trouble" shows two symbols for "woman" under a single roof. This web page claims that is nonsense.
This web page claims that Chinese characters are not ideographic:
Among the most egregious of the radical errors in this statement is the use of the exotic term "Ideogram" to refer to Chinese characters. Linguists and writing theorists avoid "ideogram" as a descriptive referent for hanzi (Mandarin) / kanji (Japanese) / hanja (Korean) because only an exceedingly small proportion of them actually convey ideas directly through their shapes. (For similar reasons, the same caveat holds for another frequently encountered label, pictogram.)This excerpt from John DeFrancis' The Chinese Language: Fact and Fancy (University of Hawai'i Press, 1984) explicitly rejects the ideographic claim, and says that the characters are phonetic:
Chinese characters are a phonetic, not an ideographic, system of writing, as I have attempted to show in the preceding pages. Here I would go further: There never has been, and never can be, such a thing as an ideographic system of writing. How then did this concept originate, and why has it received such currency among specialists and the public at large?Now, this would seem like a pretty easy question to answer, one that would not admit of much room for confusion: are Chinese characters phonetic representations of words, or are they ideographs? And yet a lot of people, including Chinese native speakers, seem to be saying that they are not phonetic representations at all. Here's a recent scholarly book: Yingjie Guo,
Origin of the MythThe concept of Chinese writings as a means of conveying ideas without regard to speech took hold as part of the chinoiserie fad among Western intellectuals that was stimulated by the generally highly laudatory writings of Catholic missionaries from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.
Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary China: The Search for National Identity. It is pretty clearly arguing that the struggle over romanization of Chinese is a struggle between a phonetic approach vs. an ideographic approach:
Latinization is a cul-de-sac, as it is confronted with many insoluble problems. Besides, the Chinese script is not backward. To be considered as such does not depend on whether a language is phonetic or ideographic but whether it is able to fully express the thoughts and feelings of the nation that uses it.This web site by a native speaker clearly holds that Chinese is an ideographic language.
And this page tells a story that suggests that some characters are pictographic/ideographic, but most are not:
Generally, Chinese characters fall into four categories in view of their origin.
Pictograms (Xiang4 xing2 zi4)When my wife was working on her M.A. in English, one of the students in one of her classes was from mainland China. He told the class that the Communist government had simplified the written language such that it was difficult for even well-educated Chinese to read some of the 16th century poets. If Chinese is a phonetic language, this doesn't make much sense.
Pictograms are the earliest characters to create, and they usually reflect the shape of physical objects. Examples include the sun, the moon, a woman, fire. From this picture-drawing method, the other character forming principles were subsequently developed. Over a long history, pictograms have evolved from irregular drawing into a definite form, most simplified by losing certain strokes to make ease of writing. Therefore, to see the actual picture of what it represents, you must have a lot of imagination as well as knowledge of the origin of the character and its evolution. However, only a very small portion of Chinese characters falls into this category, not more than 5 percent.
Ideograph (Zhi3 shi4 zi4)
Also called a simple indicative, Ideograph usually describes an abstract concept. It’s a combination of indicators, or adds an indicator to a pictograph. For example, a short horizontal bar on top of a circular arc represents an idea of up or on top of. Another example: placing an indicative horizontal bar at the lower part of a pictogram for wood, makes an ideograph for “root”. Like pictograms, the number of this category is also small, less than 2 percent.
Logical aggregates (Hui4 yi4 zi1)
It is a combination of pictograms to represent a meaning, rather like telling a little story. A pictograph for person on the left with a pictogram for wood on the right makes a aggregate for “rest”. This story-telling formation is relatively easier to learn, yet most of aggregates have been reformed into phonetic compounds, or just replaced by them.
Pictophonetic compounds (Xing2 sheng1 zi4)
Also called semantic-phonetic compounds, just as the name implies, it combines a semantic element with a phonetic element, taking the meaning from one and the phonetics from the other. For instance, the character for ocean with a pronunciation of yang2 is a combination of a semantic classifier which means “water” with the phonetic component yang2, referring to goat or sheep on its own. This last group of characters is the largest in modern Chinese, making up around 90% of all Chinese characters.
The superiority of phonetic-compounds over the first three categories lies in its unique phonetic components, for many an object and concept are hard to express through photographs or ideograms, and its association with the character pronunciation helps Chinese vocabulary extends much faster than logical aggregates. Therefore, most newly created characters take this more scientific formation approach.
However, over the centuries evolution, the Chinese language has undertaken such a great change, that most pictophonetic compounds don’t pronounce as its phonetic elements any longer, and the semantic components appear even not relevant to its current meaning. Only when knowing the origin and evolution of the character, you can understand its formation. For example, the phonetic-compound for cargo or goods takes the character for shell as the semantic element, and that’s because shells used to be a medium of exchange in ancient China, like the currency.
To say that I am confused doesn't even begin to describe it. Japanese, for example, uses a mixture of kanji (Chinese-origin characters) and kana (a phonetic alphabet). I would really appreciate someone who is a native speaker of Chinese telling me what the story is--and why this is a subject of such confusion.
In case you are wondering: the various phonetic alphabets of the world appear to have developed from Proto-Canaanite pictographs (which are pictures of objects) into Phoenician phonetic symbols. The pictograph of a camel becomes the sound that starts out the Phoenician word gimel, from which our letter G comes, and the Greek gamma, and Cyrillic, and to my surprise--even East Indian written languages such as Sinhalese, by way of the Brahmic scripts. Egyptian hieroglyphics, for example, look like pictographs, but were actually phonetic; the sound associated with the object pictured was just like that G sound in gimel.
If Chinese is a phonetic representation, then why does it have thousands of characters? There aren't thousands of sounds (even with all those tones). If it is a mixed language, like Japanese, with both ideographs and phonetic symbols, why is there so much argument that it is not ideographic?