Saturday, October 1, 2011

Will Chinese Go Alphabetic?

Yesterday, an email header in my inbox caught my eye, not because of its subject but its language. So I clicked the link.  Here is the screenshot of what I saw:


Note the English word "Hold" in the middle of the otherwise all-Chinese headline that translates to: "Can Real Estate Developers Hold Any Longer?"  The article is a commentary from the independent media group (a rare presence in China) Caixin's website, caixin.cn.  

Though English words do show up here and there in Chinese blog posts nowadays, this is the first time I have seen a reputed Chinese publication mixing the two languages in an article.

Why does the author, who looks quite young from the photo, feel the need to repetedly use a particular English word in a Chinese article?  It's possible that he thinks it expresses his meaning more accurately than Chinese; it's also possible that he thinks this mixed language could be a more attractive style of writing for his readers. But, reading his headline makes my tongue feel utterly awkward.

It reminds me of a Mao quote that sticks from my childhood memory, when reciting Mao quotations was a fashion during the Cultural Revolution. "Language and writing must be reformed to go alphabetic, the common direction of languages in the world," Mao said.  And he indeed gave it a try in the 1950s.  Peter Hessler had an excellent piece in the New Yorker several years ago that tells the language reform history.  As it turns out, the reform attempt did not manage to alphabetize written Chinese, though it resulted in the official "pinyin" system that uses the Roman alphabet to assist the learning of Chinese pronunciation, as well as the simplification of some characters.

Since then, the debate on whether written Chinese should be replaced by an alphabet has never ceased.  By birth, I'm a big fan of the square Chinese characters, which hold cultural, artistic and semantic richness in strokes and structures. I am not eager to see them go. However, today's young generation of Chinese seem to be a lot less attached to their ancestral language, one of the consequences of globalization I suspect.  I had never believed our beautiful square characters would one day become obsolete; now I'm not so sure. 

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

i don't like it, either. unfortunately this word is "in" right now - it appears everywhere in the chinese cyberspace.

劳侃 said...

I have heard "Hold 不住" several times before, it's kind of a set phrase; people use it in speech too. I also hear the word "offer" a lot (as in a job offer) used in Chinese; in this case I think (correct me if I'm wrong) it is difficult to concisely express the idea in Chinese. This also reminds me of the fact that during the New Culture movement in the 1920s, many article writers and authors used English and other European language terms rather than Chinese translations or approximations, in part because it is difficult to express the idea concisely in Chinese. There has been far less of this since 1949, but it is re-emerging. I think it is quite natural for a language that is in vigorous contact with other languages through culture, work, and education to hybridize. The English language is a perfect example, in which French words like "tete a tete," "rendezvous," "deja vu," German words like "verboten," "kaput," "gezundheit," and Yiddish words like "meshugana," "knosh," and "klatch" are used so commonly that they have entered English dictionaries. The idea of a "pure English" language was never a possibility. It just looks more jarring when the writing systems are so different, but then Japanese has so many borrowed terms "gairaigo/外来语" that one would have a hard time expressing oneself in Japanese without them. Many modern Chinese terms, like 政治,社会,世界,etc., for that matter maybe even 语言, even though they are made of Chinese characters, have been shown to be borrowed from Japanese translations of Western concepts anyway. I heartily endorse the idea that one should strive for more elegance in language, and "Hold不住" does indeed look and sound inelegant, but purity should not be the criterion, as it is already too late for purity.

劳侃 said...

One other thing, the title of your post "Will Chinese Go Alphabetic" had me thinking you were talking about getting rid of characters in favor of romanized Chinese, which has been proposed repeatedly (the earliest example I can think of is Qu Qiubai around 1930), and is what Mao's quote refers to. This is quite different than the use of foreign words in Chinese. But it never garnered support because Chinese is too phonetically ambiguous to be easy to read in transliteration. The rationale for it was to expand literacy, which is why simplified characters were introduced in the 1950s. I'm curious whether when you say "I'm a big fan of the square Chinese characters," you are referring to simplified or traditional characters, since you point out that it is because of the richness of meaning in their structure, which was reduced a great deal by simplification (艺术/藝術).

Cheers,

alfaeco said...

There is a continuous export and import among languages, what calls our attention id the different writing system between chinese and english (or german, frence, spanish, etc)

I wouldn't worry to much, in the end this imported words may morph into a short of Chinese character of its own.

cephaloless said...

my first impression is the "hold住姐" phenomenon that's been popular recently. So at least for the near future until the phenomenon fades away a bit, "hold" could be mixed in with chinese words simply because of the popularity. on the other hand, I couldn't consider such usage professional in a reputable publication.

Jason Q Ng said...

laokan: "But it never garnered support because Chinese is too phonetically ambiguous to be easy to read in transliteration."

Actually, it's quite doable to read straight pinyin. See for instance a sample paragraph from a book that's wholly written phonetically with no characters: http://pinyin.info/news/2010/new-book-in-pinyin/. From context, you can resolve just about any ambiguity that might occur from homonyms.

Pinyin.info is a great resource for more about the pinyin movement. As someone who truly appreciates Chinese characters, I can see why anyone would be aghast at the encroachment of romanization and English words into hanyu. But the fact of the matter is it's simply easier to write and learn. I'm learning Mandarin now, and just recently started watching movies with pinyin subtitles, and I can't tell you how much more quickly this has helped train my ear with hearing and understanding spoken Mandarin. So for pedagogical, business, and cultural reasons, I think you might be tilting at windmills Xujun, though I can empathize with your feeling.

For a final nail in the coffin, see this chart of Mandarin vs English in Singapore, which in spite of a pro-Mandarin movement, English has overtaken it: http://pinyin.info/news/2009/dialects-wasting-important-neurons-needed-for-mandarin-english-lee-kuan-yew/

alfaeco said...

I wonder if it should be better written like this

H
o
l
d 不住

But with the hold word/syllable compressed to the same height (aprox) of the Chinese character, maybe even with some overlap between letters.

劳侃 said...

alfaeco: that's already been done, at least as an artistic project! Check this out http://www.columbia.edu/cu/wallach/exhibitions/Xu-Bing.html

劳侃 said...

Jason: I didn't mean you can't read Chinese with a limited vocabulary with straight pinyin, and that may usually be okay for marginally literate users, but think about the problems distinguishing peoples names from each other; I've seen at least 4 ways to write "Li Lei" and 2-3 ways to write "Wang Peng." And poetry would suffer a lot from all-out romanization; a great deal of the richness comes from reading the characters, which may exhibit orthographic patterns (such as frequent use of grass or heart radicals) that would not be reflected in the sound. But all arguments aside, I think the most eloquent testament to the impracticality of dispensing with the writing system is the fact that it has been proposed and discussed repeatedly for the better part of a century in mainland China, but never implemented.

Xujun Eberlein said...

劳侃, actually it is not difficult to concisely express the idea in Chinese. In both cases, of the article I cited above and of the "hold住姐" phenomenon cephaloless mentioned, "稳" is the perfect Chinese word (as in "稳不住" and "稳得住" respectively) that need not be replaced by English. There are also other choices of Chinese words that can be used in these situations. In fact, unless it's a foreign concept (like in some of your examples), my experience is that it's easy to find corresponding Chinese words for an English expression, but the reverse is not always true. In other words, I feel Chinese has a richer vocabulary than English. Of course, this could be an entirely biased view because I'm a native Chinese speaker.

To answer your question, when I started elementary school in the 1960s, the transition from traditional to simplified characters was still ongoing, and as students we had to learn both. So our generation is the transitional one that can read both. For practical purposes, the simplified characters are much easier to remember, and that's what got stuck in our heads eventually. I must add a few observations though: one, only a small portion of the entire set of Chinese characters has been simplified; two, those characters tend to be frequently used but have the most complex strokes in their traditional forms. Because of that, even before the reform many of them had already been simplified in popular usage, but the unofficial simplification tended to vary by community (though all recognizable), thus the need for unification. The official effort was only a formalization of the folk effort. The third observation I want to add is, even today, calligraphy artists in China still prefer the traditional forms over the simplified in their works, precisely for artistic reasons, but the regular folks don't have to burden themselves with the complexity. What I'm trying to say is, as far as I'm concerned, the reduction impact you mentioned has been minimal.

(By the way, purity is not my concern, elegance is.)

Xujun Eberlein said...

ephaloless, in light of your comment on the "hold住姐" phenomenon, I now realized that the Caixin writer must have used the English word for the purpose of mocking. Not good taste for a professional publication IMO, but at least it's more understandable. Thanks.

Yong Huang said...

There's an often-forgotten aspect of the resistance against Chinese romanization: unification of China. A number of scholars have expounded this idea since about one hundred years ago. The earliest I read is from Sun Yat-sen in his "Three Principles of the People". If China were to use an alphabetic writing system, people in different regions of China would soon find it impossible to communicate with each other due to great differences in pronunciation of the dialects, and China would disintegrate into many small countries as Europe. Sun's voice might appear weak against the few prominent figures in the 1920's and 1930's advocating romanization, because Sun's major concern was something bigger. In fact, that idea is largely unknown to most people, in spite of reiteration by a few scholars mostly in Taiwan. Generally, in the past 100 years, when the Chinese woke up to the fact that China is weak in power, romanization of the Chinese writing system would gain momentum, and subside in other times. I think the latest wave was in the 1980's, on a much smaller scale than its predecessors. With economic boom in recent decades, romanization is only a wishful thinking of the foreign students interested in something about China except the language itself.

To be fair, I think it's proven that children spend more time studying Chinese to a literacy level than studying an alphabetic language. But in view of the benefit of national unity, and to a lesser extent, artistic and literary beauty, let the kids (or foreign students) suffer! By the way, I'm not sure if there's proof that simplified Chinese takes less time to learn than the non-simplified, but all anecdotal evidence suggests so.

The word "hold" or "稳". I lived in Shanghai four years ago. The family one floor downstairs often held the elevator open for a long time in the morning when all kids needed to go to shool. I left a note near the elevator on the first floor. I wanted to write in Chinese but couldn't think of a word for "hold", and ended up writing in English since most can read English in this building, "Don't hold the elevator open in the morning", someting like that. I think different languages overall have about the same expressive power, but there're many cases one language can express but the other cannot. I feel frustrated with lack of the subjunctive mood in Chinese. English has no good way to ask "第几次?" Chinese and a few other languages I know don't differentiate between "secure" and "safe". English doesn't differentiate between “经验” and "经历", causing confusion among hiring managers. Many languages, but not Chinese, have ambiguity in "She hit the man with the umbrella". Just to name a few. For now, a Chinese writer uses the English word "hold" in "Can Real Estate Developers Hold Any Longer?". If "hold" is commonly used in Chinese cities, a Chinese character pronounced like "hold" will soon be substituted, as in the case of "酷" for "cool", which will be penalized by school teachers, but is acknowledged by the most read dictionary in the world.

Boyd R. Jones said...

The Taiwanese have been mixing English key words into their parlance for decades now. Such as "high".

MKL said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wuming said...

Not exactly on the topic, but a friend observed that a good Chinese reader can acquire the gist of the information on a page of a book with a quick glance. I think that is basically true. the idea is that Chinese written language allows parallel processing. My question is, can this be done in an alphabetic language? Is alphabetic language inherently linear (sequential)?

Yong Huang said...

To Wuming: Your friend is not alone. It's almost a known fact that a Chinese reader gains more understanding of a passage in Chinese with a subsecond glimse than a reader of English, or any language with a phonetic (alphabetic) writing system, does at a glimse of an English passage, given the same content printed in the same font of same size. A few years ago, I made some comments on the Korean language, which is unique in that, in my opinion, its writing system sits between phonetic and ideographic. Therefore, I look forward to a person equally proficient in reading Chinese, Korean, English (or any phonetic language), and expect him to rate his fast reading capability in the C-K-E order.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Wuming, that's a very interesting observation! I can read a Chinese book ten times faster than reading an English one, yet I wonder if this can also be true for someone whose native language isn't Chinese but has learned Chinese later. If not, how does the parallel-processing theory explain that?

wuming said...

Xujun,

Looking at a page in Chinese in a way is like looking at a classical Chinese painting. If you are familiar with the classical layout, you will get the painting quickly. If you are steeped in Chinese culture, a page of Chinese prose or poetry should convey information as a whole. This is what I mean by parallel processing. To borrow other technological terms, reading Chinese an analog experience while reading English is a digital one.

However, this is purely my speculation.

The subject is infinitely fascinating. Since we can now digitally input Chinese while the result is analog (like typing out a painting,) don's we have the best of the both worlds?

wuming said...

Another way to look at this is that many of us can't read classical Chinese very fast, because we are not trained in that tradition. Just as a non-native Chinese speaker reading contemporary Chinese, most likely he can't read that fast either.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Fascinating indeed!