Meaning of CHINESE WRITING in English

CHINESE WRITING

basically logographic writing system using symbols of pictorial origin to represent words of the Chinese language. Chinese writing and Semitic writing constitute the two great writing systems of the world. Just as the Semitic writing system was fundamental to the evolution of modern writing systems in the West, Chinese script was fundamental to the writing systems in the East. Chinese writing, at least until relatively recently, was more widely in use than alphabetic writing systems, and until the 18th century more than half of the world's books had been written in Chinese, including works of speculative thought, historical writings of a kind, and novels, along with writings on government and law. When China was united in the 3rd century BC, the first emperor, Shih huang-ti, ordered that the writing system be standardized throughout the empire. This common writing system bound the Chinese people together, forming a medium of communication that could be read by groups who spoke very different, often mutually incomprehensible dialects of the language. Chinese writing is the only form of writing that has been in continuous use from the time of the invention of writing down to the present time. Chinese script is logographic. Characters or graphs represent not units of sound as in phonographic writing systems but rather units of meaning, morphemes. Chinese, like any other language, has thousands of morphemes, and, as one character is used for each morpheme, the writing system has thousands of characters. Two morphemes that sound the same would, in English, have at least some similarity of spelling; in Chinese they are represented by completely different characters. The Chinese words for "parboil" and for "leap" are pronounced identically. Yet there is no similarity in the way they are written. The fact that the Chinese script is logographic and that its characters or graphs have a pictorial property has led some writers to conclude that it is less abstract than sound-based writing systems. However, recent scholars point out that all writing systems began with pictorial signs that lost their pictorial properties to the requirement of ease of writing; it is easier to draw an arbitrary sign than a realistic picture. And it is now recognized that a logographic script is a relatively optimal solution to the problem of representing the Chinese language. The Chinese language has clearly distinguished syllables that are easily recognized in speech and hence easily represented by a sign. These syllables correspond to morphemes; each morpheme is one syllable long. In English one morpheme is often expressed by two syllables (e.g., "balloon"), and two morphemes may be contained in one syllable (e.g., "boys"). In Chinese, with a general correspondence between morpheme and syllable, each morpheme is easily represented by a sign for the corresponding syllable. Moreover, one morpheme in Chinese is more or less equivalent to a word. Unlike English, in which morphemes combine to make new words (e.g., make + past = made), Chinese is an isolating language, in which elements of meaning are strung together as a series of isolated morphemes. Similarly, the pronunciation of a syllable is relatively uninfluenced by adjacent syllables, which, therefore, remain relatively invariant. It is these invariant units of sound and meaning that are represented by distinctive logographs. The earliest characters of the Chinese script were "motivated"; that is, they resembled the things they represented. With the adoption of the brush as the tool and of ink on paper as the medium for writing, graphs became essentially arbitrary, involving simple lines and shapes. The basic stock of characters are simple graphs, some of which represent the names for objects or parts of objects, such as river, fish, man, and woman, and others of which stand for more abstract terms, such as yield, love, quarrel, prince, and the like. There are approximately 1,000 of these simple characters or graphs. These basic characters serve two other roles. First, they may double as loan words. Thus, the character representing the word "prince" doubles for "thin-sliced," "law," "beating the breast," "avoid," and others that were difficult to depict directly. The principle for borrowing the character was that the new word be pronounced in the same or a similar way as the word represented by the character. This acrophonic principle played a similar role in the development of hieroglyphic and cuneiform writing. Indeed, it has been suggested that if this principle had been applied consistently, the Chinese would have ended up with a syllabic rather than a logographic system. However, the writing system would then have been extremely ambiguous, with one character representing a dozen or more unrelated words as a consequence of the extreme homophony of the Chinese language. The logographic principle eliminates that ambiguity by providing one character for one meaning. The second use of the basic characters was in combination with other characters to make up complex characters. Complex characters consist of one graph representing the pronunciation of the character-that is, a graph standing for a set of similar sounding words based on the acrophonic principle combined with a second graph indicating the semantic category of the word. One part represents the sound of the syllable, the other the semantic category of the morpheme; e.g., the character for "foundation" is composed of the character for "winnowing basket," a word that sounds, in Chinese, similar to the word "foundation," together with the character for "earth," a word that is semantically related to the word "foundation." The process of combining simple graphs to make complex ones is enormously prolific and had been used to generate thousands of unique characters capable of representing the morphemes of the language. With some 40,000 graphs, the system comes close to the ideal of a fully explicit writing system that represents each distinctive unit of meaning with a distinctive unit of writing. But, of course, such a large number of graphs imposes a major obstacle to learning to read and write. The problem is made more complex by the fact that neither the sound property nor the semantic property of the characters is of much help in the recognition of a character. Because of changes in pronunciation of the language, the complex signs no longer reflect the sound pattern that they originally grew out of. Similarly, the semantic relations represented by the graph are no longer so clear. Consequently, as the relations between the characters and what they represent are largely unknown to readers and writers of the language, the graphs are seen as groups of lines and angles that make up repeated visual units, just as readers of English recognize whole words without analyzing them into their constituent letters. A literate Chinese person knows perhaps 4,000 of the most important characters. David R. Olson

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